Monday, September 18, 2017

Wilderness Renewal: from the Ends of the Earth to the ends of the earth... (Psalm 67)

I love the rugged west coast of Auckland, places like Piha, when it’s not crowded, Karekare, Muriwai and Whatipu. If I may be a little poetic…The drive out through the Waitakeres, separating you from the city streets and sights,  with the evergreen of native tree. The cliffs and bush clad hills sweeping down sharply to the iron sand beaches, that resound to the crash and boom of pounding surf.  Walking along the beach being accompanied by foam flurries and those little tumbling seed heads which bounce and skid past in the wind. There is a kind of awe that comes into my soul in those places, you feel on the very edge of the world, and I feel close to God.

It’s the same sort of thing that you can experience as you go along the desert road and after navigating the twists and turns of creeks flowing through that rather desolate landscape you come up to the plateau and there off to your right (if you’re going south) are the awe inspiring mountains Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. They take your breath away. Maybe you’ve been more off the beaten track than I have and its tramping through bush clad hills or deep southern beech forest, or you’ve been overseas and there are wilderness places that stick in your memory: Glaciers and snowy peaks, jungle greenery, desert dunes, places that feel like the ends of the earth, that inspired awe and praise. The proclaim the greatness of the creator.

In this season of creation, we are working our way through a series of four psalms that speak of God’s awesome deeds and calls all of creation to give praise to God for what he has done and is doing: for Creation, for his sovereignty in the world, for his providence and as we saw last week for his saving acts for Israel. In Psalm 65 it was cause for a praise party, agricultural and pastoral fields, alive with rejoicing. In Psalm 67 that invitation is extended to the ends of the earth, not just the land we inhabit and use but the wild and wilderness places, as well. Not just Israel or the church but  all people and all of creation to come and praise God for his awesome deeds.

The Psalm we are looking at today builds on the previous one, it extends God’s saving grace and acts to a universal level. No longer just Israel but the whole of the earth, all nations and all people groups, all tribes and tongues are to come and know God’s salvation and God’s Kingdom. It starts and finishes with a benediction a blessing, and in between there is a prayer that all peoples would know God’s righteous rule and his guiding presence.

I remember one day going out to the beach and in front of the sun was a large storm cloud. There were rays of light coming through breaks in the cloud and shining down like spotlights on the water. The patches where it hit looked like sparkling jewels on what was otherwise a grey and foreboding sea.  As I continued to walk along the beach suddenly the clouds moved further offshore and the sun came out, the sky and the sea turned blue and the whole place was filled with light. The opening benediction of this psalm is like that. It takes the words of the Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6 “the Lord Bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you, the lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace”, which was a blessing specifically for Israel, like they are in that beam of God’s light and presence and peace and takes it over the border to include all nations. It’s a radical Psalm for Israel that includes all the pagan nations around them as objects of God’s love and his blessing. 

 It looks back to the blessing of Abraham in Genesis 12, where Abraham is blessed to be a blessing to the nations. It reminds Israel that their mission is to show God’s goodness and justice to the world.  It looks forward to the coming of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross and his resurrection and the amazing truth that this new life in relationship with God, is not just for the Jews but for the gentiles as well. It’s for all people. The sun has come out and shines on all.   EM Blaiklock sums it up like this…

“God’s rich benevolence, bathing humanity and the world like the life giving and comforting sun. In order that those who are blessed may pass the blessing to others…”

The central section of Psalm 67 is a prayer that that blessing might become a reality. It starts and finishes with the petition  “may the people praise you, God; may all the peoples praise you.” And is a hope that all people may experience the joy that Israel knows because of their relationship with God. In verse 3 & 5 the psalmist had used the Hebrew word for nations but in this repeated refrain it is extended to be more universal, it is a call to all people groups and tribes. God’s love and grace is for all. God’s love is for all humanity fulfilled in Jesus Christ: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. Just like the sun shines over all the earth and gives it light and warmth so God’s love is for all people.

Rules with equity and guides the nations look forward to what we know as the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Christ. It looks forward to the reality of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit poured out on all who believe to lead us and to guide us in God’s ways. The picture is of God as the Good Shepherd caring for his flock and leading them to good pasture and plenty.

The psalm is a mission prayer, it’s a prayer that is answered in Jesus commission to his disciples, to you and I as those whom he has blessed, to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them everything I have commanded you, and I am with you even to the end of the age.  We fit into this psalm not only as those from outside Israel, from the ends of the earth,  who have come to know God’s blessing and ways in Christ, but as embodiment of its central prayer.

The final benediction is a statement of confidence in God’s blessing. Israel has experienced God’s blessing in the plentiful harvest as we saw in Psalm 65 and here God’s care and love for all peoples is seen as resulting in that same bounty in all lands.  Now we know that that is not a present reality, there is famine and drought and starvation and malnutrition. This benediction looks forward in hope to what God is going to do. Gerald H Wilson comments “ there is an apocalyptic expectation that as the fractured and corrupted earth is restored to its originally intended productivity so fractured and divided humanity will be restored to its originally intended unity and reliance on God.” It is the whole of nature groaning waiting for the sons of God to be revealed that Paul talks about in Romans.

This is not just some distant future hope, in the opening benediction God’s blessing was to cause the nations to know God’s ways. Abraham was blessed so he could be a blessing on others. In James 2 it says what good does it do to say to your brother or sister bless you and send them away empty handed. God’s provision is to be shared with those in need and through that people will see his goodness and come to acknowledge him.

It's wilderness Sunday, and it would be easy to simply talk about care and preservation of the wild and wonderful places in this world. Places that do need our protection and care. When we thing of the land producing its harvest you can think of land only in terms of its usefulness to humans. We can forget about how the various wilderness environments contribute to the whole ecosystem. How these different places are God’s provision of various habitats for God’s amazing creatures, it is God’s blessing that they produce the harvest needed to sustain that life.  On a spiritual level as the Psalms say they proclaim the wonder of God’s awesome deeds.  National Parks and world wilderness heritage sites marine reserves, and other conservation efforts are wonderful.

But I want to finish however by going off the deep end a bit and talk about the place of the wilderness in spiritual renewal and revitalizing the faith. In scripture and church history the wilderness has often been the place where people’s faith and in fact God’s people, both Israel and the Church have found renewal of faith and zeal for sharing God’s blessing with the world.

Israel’s journey to learn how to be God’s people was in the wilderness, in scripture Israel looks back to that time, as pivotal and formative.  They learned to rely on God, the lessons were not always easy, they didn’t always get it. But it was the preparation they needed to move into the promised land.

In the passage from Matthews gospel we had read today, John the Baptist was out in the wilderness calling people to repentance and to spiritual renewal. There is sometime important about stepping out of the everyday into the wild places and the edge that allows for that renewal to happen. It’s in the wilderness that Jesus comes and starts his ministry, he is baptized by John and goes out into the wilderness and is tempted for forty days, in preparation for his ministry. During his ministry Jesus would regularly go away from the crowd out in the wilderness and the lonely places and pray. There is something about it that renews the soul.

Under emperor Constantine Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and one of the big question in church history is was that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s the start of Christendom, one of the responses to that was the desert Fathers. People who went out and sort for spiritual renewal in the wilderness. Some of them went to great extremes and we have stories of crazed hermits, but for many of them there came a renewal of the Christian faith, a renewal of discipleship and passion for the gospel.

The Celtic monks followed in that line as well instead of going to the desert they held on to the craggy seashore of Ireland and were willing to travel and wander in the wilderness.  They would go to seek a place where they could focus on developing their relationship with God. What would happen is they would set up their community and they would become a place of healing and learning, on many levels and become places of plenty as there agricultural practises tended to be better. People would come and join them and there are many towns and cities in Scotland and England that grew round them. They Christianize Ireland, Scotland and helped re-Christianize much of Europe in the dark ages. Where ever they went they shared the good news along the way. It just flowed out of them. I ’ve mentioned it before but there is a great book called “the day that the Irish saved civilization’ that talks of the impact the Celtic monks had on the world.

Francis of Assisi, is another who sort spiritual renewal and revival by going out into the wilderness.

While it wasn’t exactly the wilderness, john Wesley and later movements like the   salvation army responded to the industrial revolution by going to the edge and into the urban wastelands that sprung up, and preaching and serving there.

Now I’m not saying we need to all move out to through the  Waitakere’s and go live in a cave out on the west coast, or find a craggy outcrop on the side of the mountain somewhere to spend years meditating and praying. But there is a lesson for us from those west coast beaches. In New Zealand for water safety reasons we are always told to swim between the flags, as a parent with the kids we will always try and swim between the flags. But at the same time as a body boarder my eyes would wander to the wild waves, where maybe it wasn’t so safe, but the waves were better. We’ve allowed that water safety message to apply to our faith as well. We’ll only go in between the flags, in a well defined safe environment. But our faith needs a bit of wilderness, its needs a bit of wild, not just tame and safe. God’s inviting us to meet him in the wild waves, in the wilderness places, on the edge, where it’s not safe, off the beaten path. That might be going on a retreat, or as Leonard Sweet calls them Wilderness spiritual advances, it maybe willing to step out of our comfort zones to do something we’ve never done before… But just like when we find ourselves awestruck by a ocean coast vista or mountain range or forest or desert landscape, it’s in those more wild places we will experience God’s presence, provision and glory. It is as we are prepared to step into the wild that we will renew our sense of God’s love for all the world and his call for us to go and share, and be, the good news of God’s kingdom.

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Covenant Relationship with the Land (Psalm 66)

Land and stories go together. Wonderfully illustrated in New Zealand’s and possibly the world’s longest place name, given to an unassuming hill near Poranagahau in the Hawkes Bay, "Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu”, its 85 characters long and tells a love story. in English it is "the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as 'landeater’, played his flute to his loved one." The locals just call the place Taumata hill for short.  

Land and identity are also very linked, as people groups, families and individuals… I was named ‘Howard” after the place where our family lived when I was born… “Point Howard” in Wellington, and of course I am always grateful that the family didn’t live in Christchurch in the suburb of Shirley. But having moved to Titirangi, in west Auckland when I was very young I can’t help but look at the Waitakere’s or down at the Manukau and feel a sense of belonging to that place. You could say “Mt Atkinson is my mountain and Big muddy creek is my river.”

Faith and land also go together. Our faith looks back to the Israel, to the small town of Bethlehem, a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem, an empty tomb carved into the rock, a gathering of disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem as the spirit of God descended on them.  Our denominations journey looks back to the Celtic saints and places like the island of Iona that St Columba used as a base for the Christianization of Scotland. It moves through the city of Geneva where John Knox fled religious persecution and sat under the teaching and influence of John Calvin. It moves to lands and islands where the missionary descendants of those people went to share the gospel.  In New Zealand it holds the story of people coming from all over. As a parish it talks of early growth of the town of Ellerslie, and the housing developments in Mt Wellington in the 40’s and 50’s and a coming together of two congregations that were planted to be God’s people in those places,  to this place and this building.

On a personal level there are places that I readily identify with significant events in my faith journey. Some church buildings like The little war memorial church on park road in Titirangi where I first experienced the reality of the presence of God, and the present Presbyterian Church there where that experience developed into a strong faith and I was nurtured and encouraged to take on leadership and ministry. There are many others, including this one. Beyond church buildings, places like Piha where I was baptized in a stream. The hill above the Arataki information center on the scenic drive where I went to pray when I had to decide about staying in Auckland or moving to Rotorua, and received a profound answer from God through his word. I remember God's guidance everytime I go past that hill. Even last week sitting on Maungakiekie (one tree hill) early in the morning and having God speak encouragement from my daily devotions. Probably you have those same connections to places as well. I don't think I will look at One Tree Hill anymore without remembering Paul's words "Do not Lose Heart" As you held the small pottle of dirt this morning in the service those kinds of stories, of who you are and your relationship with God may have come to mind.

The psalm we read this morning, invites all the earth to come and praise God and rejoice because of ‘His awesome deeds!’ following on from the psalm we looked at last week, this is not just an invite to the earths various people groups but the whole of creation to join in a great praise party. The previous psalm ended with images of harvest fields joining in a liturgical dance with the wind, grasses and wild flowers responding to God sending of rain, by painting the normally barren hillsides with vivid color. Animals reveling in what God has provided and the hills dressing themselves in there festive finery. As it was Forest Sunday we saw that as a reference to the forest and trees which Isaiah 55 tells us clap their hands with joy because of God’s saving deeds. If you’d seen the Church car park here on Thursday you’d think the trees were holding a dance party as the cabbage tree leaves shivered and shimmied in the wind, the Pohutukawa in the corner rock its head back and forwards and everything was in motion, as the wind blew.  

Psalm 66 invites all the earth to give thanks to God for his awesome deeds and moves on from the previous Psalm which looked at those deeds as creation, forgiveness, God’s sovereignty and God’s provision to look specifically at God’s saving acts for Israel. The Psalm gives no indication of when it was written, but it was a time when God had once again delivered Israel from their enemies, but like most of the Psalms it ties that in historically with the exodus. Specifically, God leading the people of Israel through the red sea and through the Jorden river on dryland. Leading them to victory over the various tribes and nations that had opposed them. The whole of creation is to see that what God has done for Israel now  is as miraculous as those two occasions and only makes sense when you see that it is God who is moving, God who is on the side of his people. For you and I equally we look back at the cross and the resurrection as God’s saving act in history, one that only makes sense when it viewed from the reality of God.

The psalmist then invites the people of the earth to see that God has been with and for his people during those past events and this present event and his purpose was to refine Israel. The imagery used in verse 8-12 are those of smelting precious metals like Gold and silver going through the furnace to have all the dross removed. Israel can look at the hardships and difficulties they have been through and see God using them to bring them in closer and closer relationship with him. Despite the fierce suffering’ says Gerald H Wilson, “ God’s intention for His people were good from the beginning and a blessing in the end when he bought them to a place of abundance.”

At the end of verse 12 the psalmist tells us Israel is bought to a place of abundance. In the case of the exodus it was into the land of Milk and honey, as a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. For Israel their relationship with the land and the lands around them is very much tied to their relationship with God, and their identity as God’s people. Israel’s story cannot be separated from the land, their continued occupation was dependent on their keeping their covenant with God and God’s covenant faithfulness, in the exile there hope was for God to restore them and during the diaspora, their heart cry had always been ‘next year in Jerusalem’… Now the Psalmist equally sees the end of the time of hardship and a return to knowing all the good things of God in that light as well.

The psalm then takes a turn. It moves from the Awesome deeds of God being for Israel to the psalmist’s individual experience of God’s forgiveness. It turns from communal experience of God’s salvation to personal testimony. From ‘Us” to “I”. The psalmist offers sacrifices to God and  invites God’s people to see that God has answered his personal prayers, forgiven him and bought him through the time of testing to being right with God. It’s a personal testimony of God’s saving grace. Creation is invited to see God’s awesome deeds in creation, forgiveness, sovereignty, provision and saving his people and now that becomes personal. It opens the psalm up to all of us to join our stories, our experience of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, our journeys through times, and suffering to places of abundant life. For God’s people to hear and be encouraged by and as part of why all of creation should rejoice and celebrate God’s goodness. In Jesus parables of the lost sheep and coin, the punch line is that the whole of heaven rejoices and parties when one sinner repents.

The psalm also gives a good picture of the truly repentant heart as one that does not cherish sin in my heart. It is easy to say the religious words of forgiveness but it requires a change of heart. Seeking God’s good not our own sinful desires.

It’s land Sunday and what does this have to say to us about the land.

We can’t simply bring the idea of Israel’s covenant relationship with God and its effect on the land forward to our own situation today.  We are not Israel, some people have tried to do that and it is a false interpretation of the scriptures. Brian Tamaki for instance made the connection between moral standards in New Zealand and natural disasters. That is in my humble opinion a wrong understanding of scripture. But when we think of land in New Zealand we do have to think of a covenant relationship, between Maori as Tangata Whenua, people of the land and the crown, the treaty of Waitangi. Part of the historical reasoning behind the treaty was that because of the awakening in England after the Wesleyan revivals that amongst the social changes that occurred such as the abolition of slavery and child labor, the setting up the RSPCA to look after animals, the push for universal education, and a great missionary movement, in foregin policy it showed itself in a desire to treat other people groups with respect and honorably, in New Zealand’s case with a treaty between two equal peoples. Sadly our history is that that covenant agreement has not always been honored. We have a bad track record. While there have been some attempts to address the wrongs of the past, we still have a long way to go to honor the intent of that treaty, it impacts on how we think of land and use land and make decisions today and in to the future, and who gets to make those decision.

Israel’s covenant relationship with God did have an impact on the land. As you look through the books of the law that make us the beginning of the scripture you see that their relationship called them to treat the land with respect and care. I guess you’d call them sustainable farming practices. While I don’t think you can simply take those practice across to be a text book for modern land uses. However, they do question intensification of farming where instead of harvest being a gift of god’s abundance land we can push for ever higher and higher productivity. The impact of such things on our waterways are an example of how this is not sustainable. 

Israel’s covenant relationship also spoke to who was to benefit from the land. The land was given not just for those who had the wealth to acquire it and profit from it, in fact Israel had strong laws to stop the wealthy from taking a lion’s share of the land. The jubilee was to be a time when land was given back to its original owners. It could be why it never happened. But the poor were to be allowed to glean the crops in the fields. In the book of Ruth Boaz instructs his harvesters to leave a little extra for Ruth and Naomi, yes because he was attracted to Ruth but also because he was a honest and righteous man. In a time of increased inequality, it’s important that remember that the abundance of the land is to be for the benefit of all. In our more urban non-agrarian world, it may be more about living wages and a better welfare system, be it governmental or the non-government sector.  Part of the housing crisis is that instead of having the New Zealand dream that everyone should be able to own a home we tell ourselves the narrative that land ownership is wealth creation. Even first home buyers are said to be getting on the first rung of the property market, rather than simply getting a home for their family.

Going back to the connection between the land and God’s awesome deeds. The land as part of God’s creation is invited to join in giving praise to God for what he has done. I think it calls us who know God’s salvation and grace, who have experienced God’s lavish love and mercy should care for our fellow worshiper. Psalm 65 painted a picture of the land in its festive best as both God’s provision and as being called to celebrate his awesome deeds. The picture is of creation in its finest, not as beaten and battered, marred and scared, polluted and misused, limping in and made to stand at the back like the poor person in James chapter 2, while we all jostle for front row seats. Our story of God’s awesome saving deeds in Jesus Christ, is one of grace that calls us to new relationship with God, a love for God’s people and a universal call to all people to know God’s goodness and it calls us to identify with the land God has given and to care for it as God’s creation.  It is the story of God leading all of us to a place of his abundance.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A reslient Faith: Knocked down but never out (Psalm 129)

In the recent News Hub leaders debate Bill English was asked a question about the last time he was leader and lead the national party to its worst election defeat ever. Surely that was a fatal blow for him as a political leader? What is different now?  “well” said Bill “I got back up.”  His vision for serving New Zealand meant he wasn’t going to give up, He is going to keep going. Psalm 129 presents a faith like that a resilient faith that has often been knocked down but never out.

Psalm 129 is a song of confidence: resplendent with images from agriculture and rural life. That confidence says Bible commentator Leslie Allen.  “is not a trite statement of easy faith or shallow optimism.”  it comes from suffering and lament tearfully bought before God. It is a confidence that is “painfully aware of past ordeals and of present threats”, that has “learned that the light of salvation lies at the end of a dark tunnel of suffering.” It is a confidence in the righteousness of God.

The Psalm is introduced by a personal statement of suffering “they have greatly oppressed me from my Youth”. It is probably written in the post exilic period, when the psalmist recalls his own experience of captivity, displacement and persecution. At least it as written in a time when scars and wounds of that time still very raw and real.  He then identifies his personal suffering with that of His fellow Jews. Let Israel say “they have greatly oppressed me from my youth”. This is a psalm of ascent and the pilgrims coming to worship in the temple in Jerusalem are invited to see their own stories of struggle and sorrow, pain and persecution, as part of a wider and bigger story of the people of God. In that identifying with all of God’s people is both comfort and hope.

It invites the pilgrim to look back at Israel’s history, and that of Jerusalem and see that from the exodus onwards there have been times when the people and the city has been threatened, laid siege to, overrun and finally conquered by the Babylonians, but here it is now flourishing again. It has been oppressed but they have not gained victory over it. It has been knocked down but never out. The Psalmist uses the language of the field to talk of the suffering involved. Ploughing and making long furrows the metaphor he uses for the bite of whip and scourge on a back.

The first half od the psalm however finishes with an affirmation of God’s righteous intervention on behalf of his people. God has cut free the cords of the wicked. Not only did the people of Israel feel the  oppressors whip but the image here is of being tied to the plough made to bear the yoke of oppression, but God has come to their aid and set them free. This is the hope that gives the psalmist confidence that in the past God has intervened, God has moved and bought freedom. Here even after seventy years in Babylonian captivity when the temple was destroyed and the city walls knocked down is Jerusalem once again a city, once again the centre of worship. The psalmist and the pilgrim both are back in the land, back in the city and back to the temple.

For the psalmist and for the pilgrim and for us. As we connect our suffering and sorrow with God’s people, down through the ages we can have the same confidence in God’s righteousness. That God can set us free from the things that would bind us and oppress us. We may not see the way forward now but we can have confidence in God’s righteousness. From beyond the cross and the empty tomb we see how that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Not just the foes of Israel as a nation but the very oppressive forces of sin and death, are overcome, and await their final ultimate defeat in Christ return. WE look back at the saints and martyrs who have followed Jesus Christ and suffered the scourge and captivity, pain and sorrow, hardship and suffering and see the perseverance of their faith and the perseverance of the gospel. Their trust in the ultimate victory of God’s righteousness. Mahatma Ghandi puts it on the world scale like this “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.”.

In this psalm, I also couldn’t help but hear the words of Jesus in juxtaposition with the oppressor’s plough. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Not a demand but an invitation, not placing unbearable hardship on a person, but rather an invite to carry the load together.

That’s a good way to turn to look at the second strope in the Psalm, which deals with the present threats that Israel and the pilgrim face. If you read through Nehemiah and Ezra, we see that there were forces that did not want to see Jerusalem rebuilt or prospering, that planned to see it turned back to shame. With the assurance of God’s past intervention, the psalmist now knows that their schemes and plans will come to very little.

I was waiting down on princes wharf for my wife to finish showing her family through the maritime museum and I looked down and out of the wooden beams that made the original wharf I saw these plants growing. Several different types. They were flowering and looked quite nice and healthy against the blue of the harbour, they may have even been stowaways from boats that had docked there from overseas, but despite their best efforts there future was bleak, they were not going to flourish or develop here, there was nowhere for them to grow and I’m sure they would soon be spotted by the city council and disposed of.  This is the picture that the psalmist uses for those who plot against Israel.

In the ancient near east houses had flat roofs and people would spend time on these outside roof spaces in the hot weather. The Psalmist uses the metaphor of grass that grows in the dirt that would be blown or swept to the corners and sides of that roof to talk of people opposed to Jerusalem. Weeds that try and spring up between the pavers on our patios or tiles on the balcony The current threats that he and the pilgrims who would use this psalm faced. The Psalm is a prayer that such things would produce a harvest that could even be held in the hand of the harvester.  With the memory of God’s saving acts in the past he can have such a confidence.

In the Old Testament at harvest time, the greeting to the harvester from those walking pasts would be “the blessing of the Lord be on you” you can see it in the book of Ruth as Boaz greets the workers in his field in Ruth 2:4. But here the image is that they will not be greeted in such a way as their fields and endeavours and plans have been thwarted. Rather the Psalm finishes with a priestly benediction on those whom God has showing his salvation to “We bless you in the name of the LORD” the psalm finishes with an affirmation of God’s blessing despite current threats. What started with memories of Oppression and suffering now finish with the assurance of God’s blessing and presence.
My prayer for you today is that you may know God’s blessing. In our New testament reading today from John16, the night on which Jesus was betrayed and right before his death on the cross Jesus summed up the faith and the confidence of Psalm 129 for his disciples and for us who follow in their footsteps just as the pilgrims did the psalmist. After he had finished talking of his crucifixion and a time when because of it we can ask thing in Jesus Name he finished “I have told you these things that you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But Take heart! I have overcome the world.”  We have the confidence in weather we face personal battles and hardships or we join with our persecuted brothers and sisters round the world of God’s goodness and his justice and its final victory in Jesus Christ. May prayer is that you may have that confidence and trust in our good God.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Psalm 65:God's awesome deeds shown in forgiveness, stabilizing presence and provision (Forest Sunday)

The view out our kitchen window never fails to amaze me. We can see out over the neighbours rooftops down to the port at Onehunga, over the Mangere basin to Mangere bridge. Mt Mangere kind of hides behind a kauri tree in the vacant lot next door. Then if you look left you can see the Manukau stretching down to the distant Awhitu peninsula. It is particularly wonderful at dawn and dusk. That magic hour as the sun rises and sets. As our outlook is to the south we can see the impact of first and last light on this vista.

On clear days that kauri tree next door, glows with reds and golds, it’s leaves take on a vivid almost iridescent green. The water reflects the same hues and can be gold or red, just a breath taking moment.  As a prelude or curtain call to when  sun and horizon meet, the harbour and the distant hills everything can become the subtlest of mauves. Even the concrete silo’s down at the wharf catch the light and reflect the amazing colour changes. These rather ugly industrial structures join in the light show, which proclaims the grandeur of God’s creation. A bit flowery I know but that’s what came to mind when I reflected on verse 8 of Psalm 65

“The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders

Where morning dawns, where evening fades

You call forth joy”

This Psalm of David invites the entire world to give praise to God for his awesome deeds. Verse 8 is just not about those awe inspiring sunrises and sunsets but is a universal call for all people from the east where the sun rises and to the west where it sets to come and worship God. 

In three stanzas. It gives three reasons to praise God.

The first is that God answers Prayer and forgives sins. This starts with the faithful who fulfil their vows before God. But it expands beyond just the faithful, just Israel, to all people. God is the one who hears all prayer and answers, who is able to meet that most basic of human need of forgiveness and fresh start. The psalmist finishes that with a wonderful picture of people coming from all over the world to the temple, coming as God’s invited guests to be filled with the good things that God has for us.  

It points us to a God who loves and care for all of humanity, it points us to the person of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross and his resurrection, which are means by which God has answered our prayers for forgiveness and fresh start. It looks forward to the invitation Jesus offers to all who will come to him to be the Children of the most high and dwell in the presence of God and experience the abundant and eternal life Christ offers. Not just in a building, like the temple but by the Spirit of God dwelling within them, within us.

The second stanza calls us to give thanks because of God’s awesome deeds in the provision of security and stability in the midst of turmoil. Again it starts with God’s people as they call God their saviour but broadens out to encompass the ends of the earth and the farthest sea. For the Hebrews the seas were unknown and uncertain symbols of conflict and chaos. The power of God is shown in the fact that he has established the mountains, he has set a limit to the sea and is able to calm the sea and the equally chaotic turmoil of human history as well.

It is easy for us to think that the world is out of control, that there is no hope. But the psalm invites us to see that God is still sovereign and moving. The psalm answers the disciples question about Jesus after he has calmed the storm that threatened to swamp their boat out in the middle of the lake. In amazement, they wondered “who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him”. The Psalmist knows. It gives us hope as we face issues in our lives and crisis in our world that God is present and at work. I wonder if the recent uprise in people’s concern about climate change and the churches rediscovery of creation care as part of our mission isn’t part of God’s sovereign move in history in the face of our rampant growth in technology and consumerism with little regard for its effects on the world.

The stanza finished with a declaration that all of creation shows God’s awesome deeds. EM Blaiklock comments “ All creation speaks to a reverent mind of the might of the intelligence behind Creation.”

The final stanza talks of God’s great acts in providence. It may have been a psalm originally written for harvest time, and it celebrates a good harvest. It starts again with God’s blessing of Israel but soon moves to include all people, they are to see how God has blessed Israel and so come to worship him as well. More than that because of God’s provision of water and sun, the whole of creation is pictured as joining in a joyful party to praise God. the corn sprouts and ripens and waves its head in a liturgal dance with the wind. The grass and wildflowers blossom and bloom and paint the desert with joyful and vibrant colour, stock revel in abundance, and the hills dress themselves in their party clothes, which maybe a reference here to the remnants of forests in Israel.  

It’s forest Sunday and it would easy to ask the question where are the trees and the forests in this psalm. Didn’t they get an invite to this party. Israel you have to remember was a desert and agrarian people. Their harvest was dependant on rain at the right time, in marginal lands. When it did come the barren rocky ground on the hills round Jerusalem would have been covered with grass and flowers, for the sheep and cattle to graze on. So there wasn’t much forest in Israel at that time. But they did see trees as a form of blessing from God. In Psalm 1 a tree with a permanent and reliable water source is used to illustrate someone who puts their trust in God. The cedars of Lebanon are one of God’s wonders. In Isaiah 40 as Isaiah talks of God bringing his people home from exile, the picture he uses is a straight tree lined road. God’s restoration of his people is echoed in trees growing in the desert. In Isaiah 55, which we had  as a call to worship this morning, trees rejoice and clap their hands because we come to know him, we respond to the word of God which comes down to the earth and achieves everything God had for it to do, creation rejoices because of what Jesus Christ has done for us. In the vision that Ezekiel has in chapter 47, a river flows from the temple refreshing the land.  Along its banks fruit trees grow, that provide healing and that are always in season. It’s an image of God pouring out his spirit and you and I bearing fruit that bring healing as we allow the spirit to water our lives, But also a picture that that should have an impact on a dry and barren land. I’m also sure if David knew the science of how the trees and forests act to provide the air we breathe he would have placed forests equally in a psalm that spoke of Gods providence and provision.

Maybe it’s easy for us to be like this Psalm and forget the forest and the role it plays in God’s good creation.  When I drive around New Zealand I am always struck by the beauty of the green pasture on the rolling Hills. Then I am reminded that this is a relatively recent development in our country. Off on the distant hills there is the darker green of native bush, and you realise how much has been cleared. A process of deforestation that is going on all round the world, contributing to the erosion of our top soil, taking away the filter for what gets into our water ways.  Destroying valuable habitat for the animals that live there, Habitats that Psalm 104 says are equally God’s provision, God’s purpose for all flesh, human and animal.

It’s good to see on a local level people doing something about it. Land in native forest being set aside. I have a friend Tom who works for the Queen Elizabeth II trust in the South Island to encourage and help land owners put blocks of native forest into that trust so they are preserved for future generation. Marginal land is being reforested, another friend of mine is a well known New Zealand conservationist. Who I used to drive round the country because he didn’t have a car and he would tell me stop and get out and disappear into the bush and come back with karaka berries, or the seeds of a rear golden rata tree that he knew was in the bush by the side of the road, or at Cape reanga I had to watch as he disappeared out tha car and over the cliffs to get seeds for dwarf manuka and kanuka trees that grew only there. But he has been involved in buying land and replanting native forest in northland to link the kauri forests. He invented the special roading that goes through the waipoua forest, to protect the tree roots from the damage of ashphalt and cars.  Way back in 1987 he sat up trees in the Pureora forest to save it from logging and pushed to have it made a conservation reserve. That is part of his Christian faith. For us it maybe as simple as being willing to plant more trees.

In the end psalm 65 invites us to see the creation around us as a gift from God, part of his blessing and provision for the whole of humanity. Beyond that focus on what it does for us it declares that the whole earth is God’s and speaks of the awe of his wonderful deeds. These form a solid foundation for Christians to see how we use and care for what God has given as an important part of our witness and practise. The universality of these gifts from God call and challenge us to engage on a global scale as well. What we have learned is that the ends of the earth and the farthest seas are a lot closer than the Psalmist imagined What we do here has an impact all over. Finally this Psalms praise of God as the one who provides forgiveness gives us hope, beyond simply being about coming to faith in Jesus Christ, can I say that’s important and central to our mission as a church but it speaks to the fact that change is possible, that we can make a fresh start and do things differently.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Secret to contentment: I can do all things through Christ (Philippians 4:10-23)

I don’t buy newspapers, like an ever growing number of people these days I get my news via the internet and its various news feeds and websites. One of things I’ve noticed recently is the way adverts are more and more interwoven and packaged as articles on these news feeds or placed as links to similar stories at the bottom of news articles. They are usually headlines that say something like “this celebrity or that well known person shares their secrets to beauty” , “This person shares his secrets of how men can have a firm, muscular and sexy body after 40” obviously targeted at my demographic or “this is a secret that the rich don’t want you to know of how they are able to accumulate wealth and so can you.”  Adverts that offer secrets of how we can get or maintain the western dream of being wealthy, healthy and attractive.

In the reading we had today Paul, in prison and facing an uncertain future,  also offers us a secret he has discovered for life. Not a secret hidden as a link to another web address, or added on as a teaser at the end but freely and openly shared in the body of his letter.   A Secret which has been hijacked in some quarters to reflect and fit in with our western worldview, but which goes totally against the grain. As he thanks the church at Philippi for their generous gift to him he tells them the secret he has that enables him to face, keep faithful and have joy in the face of times of plenty or in want, when he is well feed or hungry. It is the secret to being content in all situations.

Over the winter months we have been working our way through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. A letter written to thank that church for its support for Paul while he is in prison. A letter written to encourage the Church at Philippi to stand firm in the gospel, in the face of persecution from outside and trouble within.  A letter written to exhort the church to Live worthy of the gospel, being unified, having the mind of Christ where they put each other’s needs above their own, where they guard against teaching that would try and add human endeavour to the cross of Jesus Christ for salvation. A letter where Paul assures them that the God of peace will guard their hearts and minds if they keep focused on him.  A letter in which Paul encourages the church to know joy, a joy that transcends situations, that is not tied to emotion or circumstance, but is founded in being known by and knowing Jesus Christ.  A letter that speaks that same profound truth to the church here and now as it did to the church then and there.

Today we are going to finish this series by looking at Paul’s final words of thanks to the church(v10-19), a doxology or giving glory of God, his final greetings (21-22) and his benediction or blessing (23). They all have something to say to us of significance. It does seem that the letter formally finishes with the doxology in verse 20, and it may be that Paul had dictated the letter to someone and then he writes the last greetings and blessing in his own hand writing.  Like with Paul’s letter we will focus most of our time on what he has to say as he gives thanks to the Church for their gracious gift and deal with the other two in passing.
Part of Paul's secret to contentment is his attitude towards money. 

Paul thanks the church at Philippi for their concern for him and the gracious gift which was sent by the church with Epaphroditus. It was a gift of support which we assume was money. So he thankful for the gift but is also concerned that there is no misunderstanding about the gift as well.

Firstly, no misunderstanding about nature of Paul’s ministry. In the first century, there were travelling philosophers and teachers who would make their living from their teaching. They would establish a group of followers and there was the expectation that that group would then support them and their work. A second century satirist Lucian speaks of them going house to house to receive a payment, or as they call it ‘sharing the sheep’ and people would give money out of respect for these travelling teachers or out of fear of their harsh words if they didn’t.

In Paul’s mission journey, he had supplemented his travel and preaching in long stays like in Athens by plying his trade as a tentmaker. A term that is used in by missions today for people who go to countries for the sake of the gospel but work in those countries, usually they are countries that do not allow people to come as missionaries. But as they are there to work in their particular field they can witness to people around them and encourage the local church. Paul had been very careful when collecting for the poor in Jerusalem as well, making sure that representatives from the donating churches went with him and the appeal money to Jerusalem. Sadly today money is one of the things that can damage or lead Christian ministries of the rails. Paul wants to distance himself from that.

Secondly. Paul wants the church to know that while he is filled with joy at the Churches show of concern for him that their gift is not the source of his joy and peace in his present suffering and uncertain future. He tells them it’s not because of the money in his account that makes him happy but rather it is on account of what it says about the church at Philippi. There generosity is a sign that they are growing and mature in their Christian love and desire to see the gospel shared and spread. That is full payment says Paul, that is credit to your account, then turning from economic language to the language of the old testament he likens it to a sacrifice given to God, which is pleasing, fragrant and acceptable.

In scripture wealth is not seen in the same way as it is often seen in our society, or even the church. It is seen as a blessing but also coming with a danger, that wealth itself can assume divine status in a person’s life. Its pursuit can consume us, push out other important parts of life: to keep the standard of living we desperately seek in the west today actually demands a couple to work furiously, and to be exhausted at the end of ever longer and pressured work weeks with little time left for family and less for worship and witness and mission. The status and lifestyle that it provides can push aside Christian discipleship, and it can lead us to not depending on God. Proverbs 30:8 and 9 is not often quoted as a promise from scripture, but it forms the basis of a prayer we say each week here in church a prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, and it sums up the situation very well “Give me neither poverty or wealth but give me rather my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say ‘who is the LORD?’ But it also acknowledges the depravations and temptations of poverty as well “Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.”

Paul is pleased for the gift but what pleases him more is that the church at Philippi have not fallen into the trap of worshipping wealth. Jacques Ellul, a noted Christian anarchist, refelects ““There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving.” So Paul can rejoice in that.

Paul is not a conman or consumed by money he is content. So what is Pauls secret of being content in all situations, in plenty or with naught, a full stomach or amidst the growling pangs of hunger. It is says Paul… Christ. The word content come from stoic philosophy and it means self-sufficiency , not dependant on the things of the world around you for pleasure or joy and Paul borrows it here to say that he is able to face all these different situations through Christ who strengthens him.
Paul' secret to contentment comes from what he builds his life around. 

On one level it is that Paul sees and focuses in his life on a higher good, that allows him to put what is going on around him in to perspective. Our focus can be on what we do or do not have but Paul has learned to find his joy and his peace and his wellbeing in knowing and serving Christ.  There are times when God provides in the midst of his life, the gift from Philippi is one of those times. Just as God was able to provide for Paul as he plied his trade as a tentmaker. But he’s also aware that to follow Christ is the road of the cross, that pain and suffering are not signs of the absence of God’s presence, or blessing but the reality of Christ like love and sacrifice.

On another level it is that Paul knows God has provided for far more than simply his physical needs. The greater need of humanity salvation, forgiveness of sin and relationship with God are met in Jesus Christ. meaning and purpose in life in following Jesus Christ.

Being content does not mean you can’t work to change your circumstances, when people come to Christ there is often what is called a redemptive lift. That as peoples priorities change and their lives become more straightened out their finances benefit from that. 
Paul's secret to contentment is able to be passed on to us. 

Pauls secret is then able to handed on to the church at Philippi and to us. That just as Paul can do all things in Christ who strengthens him so he says ‘God is able to meet all our needs according to his riches in glory.’  We too can find contentment in knowing our God is for us and able to meet our needs, our spiritual needs and grant us our daily bread as well. So Paul finishes his exhortation to the church at Philippi the way he started it by assuring them that God is able to bring to completion the work that he had begun in them by assuring them that God is able to meet all their needs. The same assurance that we have regardless of our situation or circumstance.

Paul then moves to bring greeting to the church at Philippi. He had started his letter by greeting the saints at Philippi and now he expands that to be all God’s people. The unity they have the joy they have the assurance that God has is not just for them but for all God’s people.  That includes us as well as God’s timeless word speaks into our world as much as it did to the church at Philippi. Paul reinforces the idea of the universal family of God. In the video we started our service with we caught a glimpse of some of the places that takes us to island villages and even the urban homes of reggae loving Christians. From all tribes and all tongues we are one people in Christ.

It's interesting that while the church at Philippi was suffering for the gospel in a roman colony that Paul should also take the opportunity to encourage them by sharing greetings from believers within Caesar’s household. The gospel was having an impact at the very heart of the powers that were opposing them. It speaks to us of the world wide family of God being a source of comfort and help and support for those struggling under persecution and pressure. That in the west where we find ourselves feeling like the world is becoming more and more post Christian and resilient to the gospel that we can be encouraged by hearing and seeing that the Spirit of God is at work all over the world. I found myself in tears this week as I watched a video of the 25th anniversary of the Harvest evangelism crusade by Greg Laurie (whom I’d never heard of before) in Southern California. I was amazed at the cost and the technology and effort that went into this event, but the thing that got to me was the testimonies of so many people who had had their lives transformed by meeting Jesus Christ, from alcoholism, dysfunctional families, drug addiction, abusive situations, despair and depression, atheism and nomalism to a saving new life in Jesus Christ, we don’t always see it in our little corner but the gospel is unchained and Christ is alive and moving in people’s lives by the holy spirit.  Recently I’ve found myself in tears as I hear the stories of aid workers in refugee camps who at the risk of their lives share their faith and see lives changed. Even in the face of tragedy the willingness to forgive of a small Coptic village in Egypt whose fourteen men were beheaded by IsIs fighters. The power of the gospel in the face of hatred and persecution.

Finally, Paul’s blessing on his readers is that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ might be with your Spirit. Here is the thing that is the centre of Paul’s Joy, here is the foundation of Paul’s hope, the strength of his assurance that he who has started a good work in you will bring it to completion in Christ Jesus. Here is the secret of his contentment, that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Here is the reason for Christian unity and the means to preserve it, that we have the mind of Christ. Here is the greatest Blessing. That we might know the grace of Jesus Christ in our lives. In the end it’s no secret, it is the person, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, present in our lives by the Holy Spirit.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Guarding our Hearts and Minds (Philippians 4:4-9)

"they are changing Guards at Buckingham Palace, and Christopher Robin went dow with Alice..." You might remember this line from an AA MIlne poem from your childhood. In our world of increased security worries the Guards at Buckingham Palace are still a postive icon image of Military guards. 
Paul, who wrote the letter to the church at Philippi, had a lot to do with Military Guards in his life. You can see this in the last few chapters of the book of Acts. In Jerusalem, the Roman Guard turn out as Paul’s appearance at the temple sparks off riots and violence. They arrest Paul as a trouble maker but also save him from a vicious beating and possibly worse. He is guarded against plots to have him killed culminating in being escorted by a detachment of seventy horse men and two hundred spearmen in a journey from Jerusalem to Caesarea. As he was a Roman citizen he had appealed to the emperor and he is escorted to Rome by guards under the command of a Centurion who is named Julius, from the Imperial regiment. Once in Rome we know Paul is under house arrest for two years waiting for his appeal to be heard and in that time he is guarded day and night by soldiers. 

For the people of Philippi like most other ancient cities they would have been aware of the importance of the guards who manned the city walls and city gates. But beyond that Philippi was a strategic point along the east west trade routes. Its founding and its history of changing hands in the rise and fall of empire had been because of that strategic value. It was important to have a garrison of soldiers there to guard the region, its resources and the trade that flowed through it.  

And at the end of his letter, Paul gives a quickfire series of exhortations to his readers, designed to help them stand firm in the face of persecution. We shouldn’t be surprised that he uses the metaphor of a guard to give them encouragement. But it’s not the presence of Soldiers that gives them a sense of security and safety, rather it is the presence of the God of peace who will give them that. He finishes each of the two paragraphs we had read to us today with that assertion. The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (v4). And the God of peace will be with you (v9).

 Over the winter months we’ve been working our way through Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi. A letter he’d written to thank the church for their support for him while he was in prison. A letter in which he takes the opportunity to encourage the Church to stand firm in the gospel in the face of persecution from without and troubles within. He had emphasized the importance of unity for the church to live a life worthy of the gospel, and deals with some situations, attitudes and false teaching that can affect that unity and rob the church of the fullness of joy that they have in Jesus Christ. Now, as his letter ends, he gives them a series of almost unrelated exhortations to help them as they face persecution. Exhortations which are as helpful to us on our journey following Jesus as they were to his original readers.

This morning we are going to explore those exhortations. Look at the five things Paul tells the Church to do, rejoice in the Lord, react with gentleness, in every situation pray, see the goodness in God’s world and put into practise Christian ethics.  We could slow down and look at each of these things in a separate sermon, but this is in keeping with Paul’s rapid-fire bullet point manner. For the church at Philippi and for us this is not fresh new stuff. Paul is pointing out places where the God of peace can be encountered as he stands guard over our minds and hearts.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!

"there changing Guards at Buckingham palace and Christopher Robin went down with Alice"... Perhaps these guards outside buckingham palace are the most iconic images we have in our modern world of a Military guard. They are the feel good positive face on providing security for people... 
In his letter Paul had used the word Joy fourteen times. In the face of persecution Paul wants his readers to know that standing firm is not just a teeth grinding, white knuckle hanging on for dear life, but rather to know in their lives and to share the fullness of joy that comes from Jesus Christ.  It is a joy that Transcends circumstance, that is not dependant of situation or emotion or feeling. To rejoice in the Lord is to find our joy in who God is and what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  he has made the world and all that is in it, he is the God who is sovereign in history, who has shown his faithful love for his people, who send Jesus Christ to be one of us, Jesus Christ who showed us God’s great love, who died on the cross that we may be forgiven and reconciled with God, whom God raised to life again, who promised to be with us until the end of the age, who poured our his promised Holy Spirit on all of us. Who leads and guides, who is working all things for good not for harm, who will come again to put all things right. That’s just not our theology, that is our hope its our source of joy. When its going wonderfully well, we need to remember it is because of God’s goodness, when its going bad, we need to remember it is still true.

Paul himself had given the Church at Philippi an example of this. While in Philippi he had been arrested beaten and thrown into jail. Instead of grumbling and sulking, he and Silas had sung psalms and given praise to God. The Church would have been aware that as they were doing that an earthquake had happened and their chains had been broken and the cells sprung open. Even if they hadn’t I think Paul and Silas would have kept on praise God and rejoicing.

I read the testimony of Czech national Petr Jasek in the August edition of the voice of the martyrs magazine. Petr had visited the Sudan to encourage the local church and on the way out of the country was detained and jailed for espionage. He was kept in appalling conditions packed in with a group of Muslim extremists in what was meant to be a single person cell. He said his attitude to his imprisonment changed when he called to mind the prayer of the angelic hosts in the book of revelations “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God almighty”, and began using that as his public prayer of praise. It didn’t improve his circumstances his cell mates objected to it and became abusive towards him. But just as Paul says to the Philippians he found that the peace of Christ was with him. Later in another cell he shared his faith with a group of people and saw a couple of them come to know Christ. he said this for him was the reason God had allowed all this happen. After four months in prison the Czech government arranged his release.

When we rejoice in the Lord it changes our focus from situation to God, from problem to god’s goodness, from despair to hope. It guards our hearts and minds.

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is Near.

It is easy and maybe natural when we find ourselves in confrontation situations or situations where we are facing opposition to want to retaliate, to give as good as we get.  But here Paul exhorts the church to react in a Christlike way. To extend having the mind of Christ, he talked of in Philippians two not only towards others in the Christian community but to those outside.  In Romans Paul speaks of not returning evil for evil but overcoming evil with good. I was reminded of the example of one women in the aftermath of the bloodshed and genocide of Rwanda, who even though up to fifty members of her extended family had been killed, looked after the father of a neighbour who was in prison for leading one of the very mobs that could have killed some of her family members.

Pictures from the Charlottesville riots this week have emerged of local clergy arm in arm across racial and denominational barriers standing silently and peaceably protesting in response to the various white supremacy and racist groups. 

In showing gentleness of meekness Christ becomes the pattern for our behaviour and response and it guards our hearts and minds.

“Don’t be anxious about anything but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

I don’t know about you but I find myself needing to hear this sentence from Paul. It is so easy to simply worry and b concerned about an issue, to let it sap you of your joy and peace, here Paul says the first port of call is not anxiety but rather in all situations to pray, with thanksgiving. 

 In his testimony that I mentioned earlier Petr Jasek said that as he began rejoicing and focus on Jesus Christ he found himself able to pray. He found that instead of worrying about his family and friends he began to pray for them, he found that his prayers for persecuted Christians round the world became more insightful and deep.  I was reminded of a Sunday school lesson way back when that Joy was in fact a matter of having your priorities right  Jesus first Others second and yourself last. Prayer facilitates us in having those priorities.

It is as we turn to the Lord and bring him our cares and worries that we become aware of the presence of the God of peace and his presence can guard our hearts and minds.

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is praise worthy-think about such things.

One of the possible outcomes of facing persecution and opposition from outside the church is that is easy to fall into trap of seeing the world around us as a bad place. We can focus on the negative. I had a conversation with a Christian man last week which started by him saying the world was getting worse and worse. I found myself thinking well no it’s not in fact there are some amazing people and amazing things happening in the world. So I replied well it’s kind of like that Charles Dickens quote “it was the worst of times it was the best of times.”  What we call news in the media these days also tends to focus on the negative stories, violence death and crime because these stories. They don’t present a genuine picture of the world rather negative stories sell the news. Its almost like the macabre fascination with the freak show in Victorian times, we feed of people’s misfortune. Paul invites us here to rather look at the world as God’s world, yes it is fallen but it is still God’s world and there are good, honourable, praiseworthy true and lovely things in it, in our culture our science our art. We can get tunnel vision and not allow these things to inspire and encourage us.

Frank Theilman says that Christians today should meet with the best minds to listen to what they have to teach us about excellence and justice and truth and then to be able to use those things to make us the best followers of Christ that we can be. To do that we also come with minds that are stepped in scripture as well.

Seeing the goodness in God’s world Guards our hearts and minds from turning inward, becoming negative and failing to see the presence of God in his world.

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me-put into practise.

While we are to acknowledge and appreciate God’s world and not retreat from it , Paul’s exhortation is that how we respond and act in that world is to come from a mind steeped and marinated by the teaching of Christ. We appreciate all the goodness in God’s world and we respond to it with God’s goodness in Christ. God guards our hearts and minds by guiding our footsteps, our reactions and our actions in our lives.

That’s been a whirlwind tour of Paul's quickfire short pithy exhortations at the end of the book at Philippians. A tour of guard posts where God can be found guarding our hearts and minds. In some respect they don’t seem related but they are as in each instance we build our lives around Jesus Christ. we rejoice in the Lord! We respond in a Christlike manner to persecution and opposition, with thanks giving we bring all things to God in prayer, we seek for the goodness in God’s world, we respond to it in a Christlike manner. We will have our minds and hearts guarded by the peace of God because in all those things we become more aware more focused on the God of peace guiding and guards our hearts and minds.