Monday, March 20, 2017

Mission Impossible: The eye of the needle and the cross (Luke 18:11-34)

In the passage, we had read out this morning, there are two symbols that speak of impossible missions, or mission impossible, to quote a 1970’s Tv show and movie series: the eye of the needle and the cross. The first is a symbol that with man it really is impossible to enter the kingdom of God and the other is that what is impossible for us it is possible for God.
Lately I understand more and more how the eye of the needle can be a symbol of mission impossible. AS I’ve got older my eye sight has got worse focusing on a needle to get the tread through it, has become mission impossible.
Jesus uses it as a saying about entering the kingdom of God ‘that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’. A saying that shocked Jesus disciples then and now. A saying that possess questions about Jesus and wealth.  A saying that begs the question who can be saved? 
The other symbol is the cross, as Jesus had talked about entering the kingdom of God being impossible for human beings, he pulls his disciples aside and tells them again of his coming suffering, death and resurrection. Our hope is not in who we are or how much we do or do not have or are willing to give up, but in who Jesus is and what he has done for us: God’s mission impossible in Christ.
We are working our way through Jesus journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel, it’s a journey that takes up the middle third of Luke’s gospel, and the narrative of that journey focuses on Jesus teaching about the kingdom of God. It’s a journey that leads us into Easter as it is journey that leads Jesus and us to the cross.

The last part of this journey focuses on how we enter God’s kingdom and respond to Jesus. It started with a parable about two menwho went to the temple to pray. A Pharisee who thought he was righteous and looked down on other people and a tax collector who knew his need for God’s mercy, and Jesus said it was the tax collector who went home justified; put right with God. Then we see that lived out in a series of four encounters with Jesus, two that have a negative response, the disciples trying to stop the children coming to Jesus, and the rich ruler, who starts by calling Jesus good but then goes away sad. Then two positive examples; the blind beggar and the short tax collector Zacchaeus. Then the whole journey is finished with another parable to correct peoples thinking about the kingdom of God. (click) Right in the middle of this Jesus pulls his disciples aside to tell them of his immanent death and resurrection. In the middle is the central ingredient for entering the kingdom of God. What Jesus has done for us, God’s mission impossible in Christ.
Today we focus on Jesus encounter with a man whom Luke tells us was a ruler, most likely a leader in the synagogue, and who we later discover was very rich. In Matthew’s account his age is also mentioned as Matthew tells us  that he was a young man. That why he often referred to as the rich young ruler.
He asks Jesus, “good teacher how may I inherit eternal life?”. we need to unpack that, because we  can see it as simply asking about life after death. The word we translate eternal can also be translated age, so he is asking how can he inherit the new age. In How Jesus responds to this man we see that Jesus equates it with the kingdom of God, that he had come to inaugurate.  In Jewish thinking this was a time that they equated with the prophecies in the Old Testament about the reestablishment of Israel. As NT Wright summarises it ‘ a time when everything will be fresh and new, free from corruption, decay, evil, bitterness, pain and fear. A time of new opportunities, new joys and delights, because heaven and earth would be joined together and God and his children would live together.’ It is the present-day hope of the rule of God, which has an eternal element because it is lived in relationship with the eternal God. Christian’s have the same hope best captured in the Lord’s prayer “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  
In Jesus response, we see that he is more concerned with the man calling him ‘Good’ this is a title that can only be used of God. Only God is totally Good. There are many people who are willing to acknowledge Jesus as a good teacher, a great ethical teacher, but that does not bring the transformation and change Jesus calls for, it is only when we see Jesus as God’s son and Lord, that we are enter God’s kingdom.
Jesus then goes on to talk about keeping five of the commandments, don’t commit adultery, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, and honour your mother and father… they are not the commandment that are about relating to God but are about how we relate to the people around us in light of who God is, they put the Kingdom of God in terms of right relationship to others. Remember for Luke how much we love God is shown in how much we love other people. That is often shown in how deep that love reaches into our pockets.
The commandments are about setting the boundaries of that right relationship, they are there to limit evil and wrong and harm. Only the middle one, don’t steal, deals with wealth.  The Rich young ruler can honestly tells Jesus he has kept those commandments since he was a boy. He is talking about all his adult life since he was thirteen and had his ‘bar mitzvah’, so became responsible for his own actions.
Jesus then asks him to do one last thing. Sell all he has and give it to the poor, because there is better treasure in heaven, and that he should come and follow him. This is a gracious invitation to discipleship, Jesus always offers a sincere invite to all, he spends so much time countering the Pharisees because his hope is that they too may know God’s grace. In Mark’s Gospel it tells us Jesus loved the rich young ruler.
  Neither is Jesus asking this man to do more than his other disciples, remember when he called them they left their nets, boats and followed him. They had their livelihoods and identity and even family responsibilities and relationship tangled in those nets. Peter, as the spokesman for the twelve, responds to this encounter by asking Jesus what about them haven’t they given everything to follow Jesus. And Jesus assures him they will be rewarded in this life and the next. As we’ll see next week when Zacchaeus meets with Jesus his spontaneous response to God’s generous grace is to use his wealth to make amends for wrong doing and give the other half to the poor.
The man we are told, becomes sad because he is very wealthy. All the way through Luke’s gospel there is warning about the danger of wealth. In the parable of the sower, the worries and concerns of this life are like weeds that grow up and chock out the seed of faith.  Jesus warns that you cannot serve two masters God and money you will love one and hate the other. The rich young ruler finds himself in that dilemma.
One of the dangers of wealth is that it can become more important than the people round you. We saw that In Jesus parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In the Old Testament, there are two traditions one is that Wealth is a blessing from God. That G od allows people to become wealthy. The other is the challenge of the prophets, like Amos, that God’s people are to care for the poor and the needy. We are blessed to be a blessing to others, we are blessed for the sake of all God’s people. It’s one of the big challenges in the world today, where so much of the worlds wealth is in the hands of so few… It’s a challenge to us Christians in the relatively rich west when we are confronted by abject poverty in the developing world and that is entrenching itself in our country and city and community.
IS Jesus anti wealth? Well I looked for an exciting illustration to try and explain this passage, and I’m sorry but instead I ended up on a government immigration website. I wanted to know if the New Zealand government allowed dual citizenship, and the answer is yes it does. You can be a citizen of New Zealand and a citizen of another country at the same time. A foot in each camp. There are some countries however who will make you renounce your New Zealand passport before you become a citizen of their country. The rich young ruler wanted a dual citizenship, he had so much of his identity and security and status invested in the kingdom of this world, in his wealth, that he wasn’t prepared to give it up to become a citizen of the kingdom of God. To trust solely in God, to have the faith of a child and know he was totally dependent on God. There are a lot of things that can hold us back and turn us away sad as well. What you could call minor idols that we might want to cling on to. Our society is full of them. In an Alpha testimony that Nicki Gumble shared, a young man who was an ardent atheist came to alpha to discredit those unthinking Christians, he had confidence in his own belief system. He did the alpha and when he finished Alpha he said he was captivated by Jesus.  A few months later when he was baptised he talked of now being free, ‘he had been a slave to his society, a slave to his peers, but now he was free’. There are many things that can hold us back from Following Jesus.
For the crowd round Jesus, this rich young ruler would have been a definite candidate to be a follower of Jesus to make it into the kingdom of God. When they hear him say ‘ its easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than a rich person get into the kingdom of God’ and that the rich young ruler  goes away sad they are disturbed and shocked “who can be saved”. He kept he commandments, he was blessed with wealth, he was a ruler in the synagogue, if he can’t and wealthy people can’t then who can? It’s mission impossible.
Jesus response is that what is impossible with man is possible with God’.
As I said before the disciples are worried and they ask Jesus for reassurance as they had given up everything to follow Jesus. Jesus assures them that anyone who gives up home and family for the sake of the kingdom of God will receive many times as much in this age and in the age to come, eternal life. the mention of giving up family and receiving that back speaks to us of being a family together in Christ, that we are that family together, we are there for each other in times of joy and in times of hardship. As we’ve left our place for Jesus there is the promise that he will be with us and welcome us back to his father’s place when our journey and mission are complete.
Finally,  Jesus calls his disciples apart and talks to them of what will happen to him when they go to Jerusalem. Here is God’s mission impossible. Here is how people may be saved. Here is how people may come into the kingdom of God. Here is God’s plan for our salvation.  Here is God’s plan all along foretold in the prophets and scriptures that Jesus would go to Jerusalem he would be handed over to the gentiles, he would suffer, be spat on and insulted flogged and finally killed. But on the third day he would rise again. It is impossible for us any of us to enter the kingdom of God. But the good news is that it is possible with God.  That in Jesus death on the cross, our sins can be forgiven, he will take the guilt and punishment for them. In Jesus rising from the grave we may find new life, we will be find ourselves coming into the new age, finding eternal life in Christ. God’s mission impossible in Christ.
In the passage, we had read out this morning, there are two symbols that speak of mission impossible: the eye of the needle and the cross. The first is a symbol that with man it really is impossible to enter the kingdom of God and the other is that what is impossible for us is possible for God.
We need to respond. We can stand trying to get our stuff, whatever it is, through the eye of the needle or we can turn to Jesus and the cross, knowing our need for him and with a childlike faith be prepared to give it all up and follow him. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

a real turn around ( a prayer of thanksgiving and confession based on Psalm 30:7-12)

Lord God,

We turn aside amidst all that is going on in our world and life.

We stop and we come to praise you for the wonderful God you are.

We turn again to you and thank you for all you have done.

We acknowledge that when we were in need we cried out to you

and you did not remain silent or unmoved

Rather you heard our prayers and you responded

On that big scale, you turned to us amidst our darkness and lost-ness

You responded by sending your son Jesus, the word became flesh

Jesus who proclaimed good news and abundant life

Who shone your light in our world

Healed the sick, welcomed the wanderer, called for love of the least

Who endured the worst of our inhumanity, by being killed on a cross

But what a turn up for the books, death could not hold him captive

Three days later you raised him to life again

What an amazing turn around for us

In his unjust death we have found mercy and forgiveness

In his resurrection, we have found a newness and abundance of life

We were cut off from you God, we were distant and disinterested

But you have drawn near and are gathering us back to you

We were alone estranged from you and from one another

But you have reconciled us and drawn us together as your people

We felt helpless to change ourselves and our world

But you sent a helper, your Holy Spirit to dwell in us

To lead and guide us, remind us of Jesus words and his presence

And enable and empower not just change but transformation.   

We thank you for responding to us

For all the ways that you have turned it all around

from trapped and chained in sin and wrongdoing

To forgiveness and freedom, the slate being wiped clean

From always searching for meaning and purpose

To finding life’s fullness in serving and caring for others

From feeling hopeless and despondent in the face of life hardness

To being hope filled, with expectant joy because you are with us

From being battered and bruised and dinged up in our very souls

To have our wounds bound up and in the process of being made whole

From thinking it was all our by right, or life wasn’t fair

To being thankful for all your provision and care

What a turn around, our awesome lord

And we turn, to look at where we are now

It’s not all just history and high ideal theology

But its real right here and now

So we confess our sins, the things we’ve done wrong

We confess our sin, the good we have left undone

And we ask you to forgive us and make us clean

We pray you’d fill us again with your spirit

That you would continue to turn us around

You would make us more like Jesus

That we would love as he loves

That we may be agents of your kingdom, Witnesses to our Lord

That in all we do and, we may live to bring you glory

Our loving God, father son and Holy Spirit

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Who are you trying to kid...and kids around Jesus (luke 18:9-17)

 “Let’s Pick teams”

I don’t know about you but those words kind of fill me with dread. They bring back feelings of nervousness and inadequacy. They bring back bad childhood memories.

Remembering back to primary school and as the ‘big uncoordinated slow’ kid I’d notice myself being part of a smaller and smaller group of class mates as teams were picked. the left to last, the left overs… that group they were forced to pick…only because no one could be left out.

“let’s pick teams”

There is that kind of ‘who would you have on your team’ thing happening in the bible passage that we read this morning from Luke’s gospel. Jesus tells a parable to those who thought they were righteous, who though ‘who are you kidding of course I’m on God’s team’ and looked down on other people and the disciples who didn’t think that little children were important enough to take up Jesus time, that the kids around Jesus couldn’t be on Jesus team. In these two events in Luke’s gospel we see the revolutionary upside down grace filled nature of God’s Kingdom.

We’ve been working our way through Luke’s account of Jesus journey to Jerusalem. Today’s passage starts the last section of that journey. A section that starts and finishes with Parables told to correct peoples thinking about the kingdom of God: (click) the one we had read today of the two men who went up to the temple to pray and then the parable of the ten minas, Luke’s version of what we know from other gospels as the parable of the talents. (click) Between those two parables are four encounters which focus on people’s reactions to Jesus and the kingdom of God. The first two are negative, the disciples wanting to keep the children away from Jesus, and the rich young ruler, who when Jesus challenges him about his wealth walks away sad, and two positive encounters, the blind man at Jericho, and the story of Zacchaeus, the short tax collector, both who respond with faith to Jesus. (click) In between these two sets of encounters Jesus again speaks of his death, right in the middle of these things we are reminded of God’s great grace in Christ.

That’s kind of the big picture of where we are going. Let’s look at the passage we had read to us today, which covers that opening parable and Jesus encounter with the children.  

Firstly the parable…As we’ve worked our way through Jesus teaching we see that it’s kind of been like a ping pong match, Jesus addresses the crowd, then he will speak specifically to a group like the Pharisees and teachers of the law and then turn and speak to his disciples. It would be easy to think that he is saying this parable simply to the Pharisees. They fit the bill of seeing themselves as righteous because they keep the law, and separating themselves from those who don’t keep their exacting standards, the ones they label sinners. Let’s face it one of the characters in the parable is a Pharisee. And it’s convenient for us because well they’ve been the ones who Jesus has been in conflict with throughout the gospel narrative, they are the ones who criticised Jesus for eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors, and we can say ‘yup we are with you Jesus, we are on your team here mate’ You tell them Jesus.

But Luke’s always been good at identifying the specific group Jesus has been talking to, but now it’s a lot more open ended, unspecified as a certain grouping, and its more about a certain attitude, which could include me…and you. He speaks to those who were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else. It could mean people amongst his own disciples. As we saw a couple of weeks ago they like the Pharisees had expected that Jesus kingdom would be about victory for their way of thinking. It’s the disciples who Jesus has to rebuke because they didn’t think the children were important enough to warrant Jesus attention, they would be amongst those standing near Jesus who are shocked that the rich young ruler who they thought would be definitely a good pick for team Jesus walked away sad. It invites us to hear Jesus parable speaking to our own lives and attitudes. I always get annoyed when people use that ‘holier than thou’ criticism of the church, I think it’s an uncritical caricature, but maybe we need to stop and look at ourselves.

Jesus talks of two people who go up to the temple to pray. A Pharisee, a person who identified with a strict party within the Jewish religious world who focused on living according to the law, and the other a tax collector, people in Jewish thought who were dishonest, traitors and collaborators because they worked for the Romans, ritually unclean because this work forced them to have constant contact with gentiles.   The Pharisee stands by himself to pray and his prayer focuses on thanking God that he is not like those other people, and he has a good list of categories of people he would see as sinners, and we may agree with his list, and we could probably add a few more to it. He finishes by saying and thank you that I’m not like this tax collector. Like he was presenting his CV for why he is on God’s team, he says he fasts twice a week, and that he tithes everything he should.   He feels he is on God’s team because of who he is and what he does and does not do. It is like he has earned his place in God’s favour. I hear that attitude in the prosperity gospel, when it is peached God will bless you if you tithe, usually them means give the money to us. I hear it in people who say well I don’t drink much or smoke, I’ve never killed anyone or robbed anyone, not like those guys…so I expect to go to heaven. I’ll be on God’s team. Right!

The tax collector stood at a distance, he couldn’t lift his head to heaven, he comes to God aware of his own failings and faults… but also deeply aware of God’s true character. He asks God to forgive him and have mercy. He is aware of his need for God he does not think that God needs him. He is the one who is open and honest before God and so open to God’s grace.  

Jesus conclusion by saying that the person who went home justified that day, which is a legal term that means deemed innocent is the tax collector. It’s the shock of the parable. The parable is a profound illustration of salvation by faith and grace. That we cannot earn our way to God, we can’t be so good that God just must have us on his team. Rather it is by grace alone, God’s mercy that we are put right with God. It is as we humble ourselves and realise our need for God forgiveness and mercy that we enter the kingdom of God… It’s not our status or our belonging to a certain group or our religious disciplines and traditions, or our good deeds it is God’s grace. God’s love shown for us in Jesus dying on the cross taking on himself all that we have done wrong and paying the price, so that we can be declared ‘not guilty’ and be reconciled with God.   We come to God humbly aware of our need for him, our dependence on his mercy and grace. And God picks us up and blesses us and makes us whole.

Then Luke draws us to a real-life application of this parable. It’s almost as if the disciples had had to listen to Jesus parable over the top of babies crying and toddlers babbling away, because we move right on to parents bringing their children up to Jesus to bless them. In Jesus day children, did not have any status or standing in society. The disciples reflect that by seeing them as not important enough for Jesus.

But Jesus rebukes them he turns that kind of thinking on its head. In fact Jesus turns the tables by tells his disciples and us that unless we have faith like a little child we cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

Theologically, People have reflected on what it means to have a child like faith. It does not mean that we have an uncritical unquestioning faith, that we simply have a Sunday school faith that does not grow to address the intellectual rigor and complexity of life as we grow older. It’s not a naive faith that is easy brushed aside by reason. In fact as we wrestle with life and big questions it can deepen and strengthen that faith. One of things that I loved and struggled with when my children were smaller was that continual asking “why?”. “Why?” and when you have an answer the reply was “why?” and after that it was “why? Again till I like most parents got to the point of having to resort to “just because”. I value that they still ask why, in more articulate ways, but I hope that is a journey into faith not away from it.

The children in mind here are babies in arms and infants. Probably bought to Jesus to bless because of the high infant mortality rate. In psalm 131 David expresses his faith in God like being a weaned child sitting at peace on his mother’s lap and that is a helpful image for us to understand what Jesus is saying. A baby and infant are dependent on their parents for life. The Hebrew word El Shaddai which we translate into English as God almighty from its root God of the mountains, can also mean God who has breasts and be a feminine image of God and means God all sufficient. To have a child like faith is to have the knowledge that we are dependent on God for our lives and our salvation and relationship with him.

Practically, this passage invites us to take the same attitude that Jesus had towards children. To see children as precious and important in God’s sight. NT wright says Jesus rebuke still rings true today so many children are still mistreated as subhuman and as disposable commodities’. They are abused, neglected, and suffer the most from poverty and deprivation. It is a blight on our country that we have such bad child abuse statistics and that child poverty has become a constant companion in a place of plenty. It is one of the worst blights on the church that there has been so much child abuse in all wings of the church and it has been hushed up and brushed aside and victims have had a difficult time getting apologies and seeing the perpetrators of it face justice.

Next week we have a group called flame coming to share how as a group of ordinary kiwi Christians they are working out Jesus teaching with the slum children of Cambodia, inspiring and supporting them through school and university so they can become community and change leaders. Helping protect them from the sex trade, slavery and trafficking and the despondency and despair of abject poverty.

This passage also invites us to be a church that welcomes and values children. It’s why we have sort to get a ‘kids friendly’ standard. We welcome children here, we care for them, we are comfortable with babies and toddlers in our midst. I love the way Children are greeted in our greeting times as well as adults, we are good at remembering their names. I’m never put off by any noise they make in our services, because they are a sign of hope for the future and a reminder of the fact that like them we are dependent on God’s great love. We include them in our worship services, and give them leadership roles in our worship, they draw us together every service and remind us of the centrality of the word of God in our worship and lives as they carry the bible in, they remind us of Christ’s presence with us by lighting a candle, we have them do bible readings, take up the collection, help lead us in sung worship. I’ve asked the children to help us with communion today. We are all on the team together. The Spy group are going to serve communion along with the elders. We have worked at having a good Christian education programme here, we are blessed to have teachers and leaders who invest so much into our children. Much of social outreach revolves round caring for the social needs of mothers and pre-schoolers, and as we’ve done that God has used it to bring new people to our church. Our kids feel loved and appreciated here. I know it’s not always easy, its meant change and some discomfort, I know as a parent that it’s hard getting kids to church. But if children are a blessing from God then we are blessed. Our statistics were recently analysed by a professional and while our overall attendance means we struggle to be sustainable, our ratio of children to adults is an indicator of good health and hope. We are not an old church. 

In my daily devotion this week, as often happens, I came across a Nicky Gumble quote that captures Jesus teaching in the whole passage we read today, he says “the great emphasis of the New testament is that we relate to God by faith. We cannot earn the right to a relationship with God, it is a gift to be received by faith.’ A gift offered to all regardless of social standing or lack of it, to both the very young through the whole range of ages, regardless of who we are and where we come from. A gift to be accepted with a childlike faith.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

God, you rock and God you rock! A prayer (of thanksgiving and confession) of two halves.

As I came to write a prayer for Sunday several things came together in my thoughts (like a perfect storm you could say, whether that was a good thing or a bad thing I'll let you be the judge). A trip on my day off out to Piha on the West Coast of Auckland, with its iconic Lion Rock (see image above). Both Lion and Rock are imagery from the psalms that are used to speak of God. Reading Psalm 28: 1-9 for my daily devotion  and the fact that its children's day here in New Zealand on Sunday, and i was contemplating what a prayer in kid speak might be like... . and a video from a band called Zealand worship of their song "you love is wild"

and I couldn't get past a play on the word Rock...

...rock as the psalmist uses it to mean a solid place to stand a fortress and a refuge....

... and rock as a way of saying someone is really good but with real zing and vitality.

So once again I offer a simple prayer of thanksgiving and confession. I hope it inspires and connects who you are with who God is... feel free to use it or part of it or none of it.  Blessings

God, you Rock

Like the psalmist says you are a rock,

A solid place to stand, a tower and a refuge.

Over the constant numbing drone of everydayness

Over that myriad the voices competing for attention

even amidst the howling storms of our lives

and the Huge issues that shake us like loud crashing waves

You hear our voice

You hear our cry for help

Over the grumbling and the back stabbing

The put downs and the brush asides

the false promises of hope and help

fake news and alternative truth

you are not silent

you speak your word

we thank you and we sing your praise

you are faithful and constant in your love

you are trustworthy and dependable

we don’t make it because we are tough enough

but because you are our strength and shield

you shepherd and carry us…you are our rock!

God you Rock!

There is something wild, untameable and wonderful about your love.

It makes our hearts leap and our feet dance for joy.

In Jesus, it threw off eternity, like a coat, and stepped into our world

proclaimed good news, Healed the sick, welcomed home the outcast

showed us an alternative way to live, full of your peace and justice

It gave its life on the cross carrying the burden of all we’ve done wrong

It rolled the stone away, and rose giving us new abundant life

It is the dynamic power of your presence that lives in us by the Holy Spirit

It breaks down every barrier, that would divide and hold us down

The chains of sin, guilt and shame are shattered by its mercy

Our wounded souls and dinged up lives find wholeness in it care

The call to share the love we have in Christ gives life its greatest purpose

We come together from all over, as we are made one, in its embrace

Young and old, men and women, from all lands and tribes, as your family.

We thank you today for that wild untameable love

We ask that you surround us, immerse us in that love

We confess our sins and pray that you would forgive and make clean

Pour out your Holy Spirit, to lead and guide and empower us to love

Open our eyes to see where you are calling us to risk loving as you love

Glory to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit… you Rock!  

Oh and here is the video for 'your love is wild'...

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sacred space and the person of Jesus Christ (Psalm 122 and Luke 19:37-44)

I wonder if there are places in your lives that you especially equate with the presence of God. They come readily to mind as you sit here…

 The Celtic Christians called them thin places, they were places where the heavenly realm seemed so much closer to the physical world we live in.  You could call them sacred space... It could be the wild grandeur of a west coast beach. I would often spend evenings out at Piha (seee image above) or Karekare both enjoying the water and waves but also in prayer and reflection... Or it may  simply that sunny spot where you sit each day for bible study and quite prayer.

It could be a church building. I worked as a youth pastor and parish assistant at St John’s in Rotorua for six years. You probably saw it on the news a couple of weeks ago when it was tragically burned to the ground. It felt like the loss of a friend. Through facebook a lot of my ex youth groupies, shared what that place had meant for them. They talked of it being the place where they had encountered God, where they had found faith, or they had owned their parent’s faith. Many are not Christians but they talked of the fact that in those formative years, who they are as people, was greatly shaped by being community together in that space. 

For the Jews the people of Israel that sacred space was Jerusalem. It was the centre of their worship at the Temple, they were expected to go there for one of the great three festivals each year. It was the seat of Judah’s political power and the Davidic king. 

Psalm 122 which we had read out to us today is a psalm of ascent, that series of psalms that form the dogeared song book of pilgrims coming to those festivals in Jerusalem. They are psalms that accompany us on a journey of faith through life as well.  That started in Psalm 120 that pilgrimage and spiritual growth start with a holy dissatisfaction with living amongst the tents of those who find their security in what they have and their ability to hold onto that rather than seeking peace ‘wholeness’. We saw in psalm 121 that it meant a willingness to move, to journey often through difficult terrain trusting that God would lead and guide us. Psalm 122 talks of coming to the place where we know God’s presence.

In a Psalm in 2 parts the first five verse act as an expression of Joy at being at Jerusalem. They voice the pilgrims hope for the city.  They view it as a fortress a secure and safe place, it is the place where the people gather to praise the Lord, and it is the seat of both God’s reign through the Davidic kings and a seat for his justice, that in the Old testament scriptures was to be an example for all the other nations.

Then in verse 6 the Pilgrim turns to his fellow travellers and commands them to pray for the peace of the city. The pilgrim declares that for the sake of the house of the Lord that he will seek the prosperity of the city.  He has an idealised vision of the city, but he is also wanting to pray and work to seeing that be a reality. Peace for the Jews meant wholeness, right relationships, not just the absence of conflict. Relationship with God, with God’s people, with those beyond that, with the spiritual realm, with creation, and with our possessions and wealth. Prosperity did not mean a high living standard for some at the expense of others but that there would be abundance for all to share in. You catch a glimpse of that in the early church in Jerusalem where it was said that no one had a need because they would sold what they had and give the money to those in need.

Now some have focused on this psalm as a commandment for us all to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. That it holds a special place in the heart and purposes of God, and I have no problem with that except that it often means an uncritical acceptance of modern Israel’s political agenda. We don’t catch the idealised image of psalms like this one and we miss the call for justice and right relationships in that prayer for peace.

But it invites us also to think of what is sacred space for us and how we are to enter it and treat it. 

In our new testament reading as Jesus enters the city, his greeting is so different, he mourns for the city. He knows that its people are missing the very peace that they are praying for, because they do not recognise who Jesus, the prince of peace is. Tragically that symbol of God’s presence the temple will be destroyed and taken apart stone from stone, which is what happened in 70 Ad when the Romans lay siege to the city. But God’s presence with us is not so much about a specific place but in the presence of a specific person, Jesus Christ.

Sacred space can be a prison cell, a city street, the bedside in a hospital room, an office cubicle, a sports field, a cafĂ©, anywhere because by God’s Holy Spirit Christ is present with us.

The Celts talked of thin places and in Jesus Christ we have the thinnest of all places, where God stepped into our world and pitched his tent at our place. He died on the cross and was raised to life again All space is now sacred because of Christ’s abiding presence.

It calls us to be a people that would pray for the peace of God to be in those sacred places, to manifest itself. During the exile the people Jews in Babylon were told to pray for the peace of the place where they lived and to seek the prosperity of that city. We to are celled to seek the prosperity of the places where we dwell…

You know I think being a spiritual pilgrim is not necessarily about going to special places or spaces, although they can be helpful for us. It is becoming aware that where we are is sacred space, because Jesus Christ is here with us and then living in a way which seeks both the peace and prospering of where we are with Christ.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Just Prayer Results in Perseverance of Faith (Exodus 3:7-14,,Luke 18:1-10)

It’s just prayer right! When we think of prayer…

We May think of candles, incense and psalms and set liturgy mumbled or chanted in unison.

We may think of our daily prayer time each morning, maybe sometimes rushed or missed as we grab what we need for the day and scramble out the door.

We may think of a small group of people huddled together in the corner of a church or church hall, heads bowed, eyes closed and long silences followed by softly spoken words, usually the same people praying the same things in the same order.

We may think of that turning to God when we are faced with tragedy and crisis hoping that he hears.  We may think of many people gathered together with a band and lights, all the people speaking together, shouting, declaring this truth and proclaiming that promise, hands raised and faces upturned expectantly.

It’s all just prayer Right! How does it connect with what is going on in the world around us?

If we just pray it’s going to be Ok… and if it gets harder we are going to pray harder.

You are going to just pray… come on we need to get off our knees and do something, take action!

If we would just pray… we have all these ideas and strategies to make change but in the end they don’t seem to make a difference. Where is God we are just prayer-less we need to be prayer-more. 

It’s just Prayer. Right! What difference does it make…

It had started off as a small group praying on Monday nights in a church in a city in a communist country. Praying for peace… then after a few years they had been bold enough to put a sign outside inviting people to join them. People came, the church was one of the places where people felt free to speak their minds and hearts. Over the next three years, it grew the place filled with thousands of people gathered together praying and hoping for peace and change. Amazing as this was a country that had been under a n atheist regime for more than a  generation. The authorities threatened its leadership, planned to close the church. A protest was organised and the troops were called in. doctors warned the leaders of the prayer meeting that rooms at the local hospital had been set aside to treat people with gunshot wounds. Despite that they prayed other churches had to open to take the over flow, people joined them around the country. Those at the prayer meeting joined those on the street and marched past the secret police headquarters chanting ‘we are the people’ and  ‘no violence’   and at the last moment the soldiers stood aside. The next week 120,000 joined in the prayer meeting, two days after that Erich Honecker the head of the communist party in East Germany resigned. 300,000 people joined in the Monday prayer the next week and a month to the day after they had feared the police would violently quell their prayer meetings the berlin wall came down the cold war ended. The East German authorities said ‘we were ready for anything, violence terror uprising but we were not ready for candles and prayer. In an article called “did a Prayer meeting really bring down the berlin wall and stop the cold war’ BBC journalist Peter Crutchly said that while there were other important contributing factors you couldn’t dispute the significant role of prayer in the fall of communist east Germany and German reunification. The pastor of the church in Leipzig St Nickolas went back to his everyday routine they still meet in a small group to pray for peace every Monday. When questioned about his motives for doing the whole thing, he replied It wasn’t to attract numbers to the church… ‘we did it because the church has to do it’

It's just prayer right!

In the passage we are looking at today Jesus links just praying with the perseverance of our faith until the end. He encourages his disciples to always pray and never lose heart by telling them a parable and it finishes with the question… Will the son of man find faith on the earth when he returns. Jesus parable is the conclusion to what he has been speaking about previously, correcting the ideas of the Pharisees and his own disciples about the kingdom of God. They were looking for a political and military victory, that with the coming of the messiah, that Israel would defeat the Romans and become a world power, “be made great again’ if you will… Jesus tells them that God’s Kingdom wasn’t going to be that tangible, it wasn’t going to be identified with a place or a time, this nation or that system, In actual fact it would be inaugurated by Jesus death and his followers would face time of trouble and distress. He tells them the parable we read today to encourage them to always pray and not to lose heart.

It a parable whose power comes from its two characters. A widow who will not stop pestering a judge till he gives her justice, and a Judge who does not fear God nor regard humans, who sees she gets justice or she will wear him out. But it’s also a parable which can leave us scratching our heads and wondering how is this encouragement.

I’ve preached on this passage many times and I’ve always seen that encouragement coming from the judge. In our legal system we may look for a judge who didn’t fear God or regard human beings, we would look for one who did not have a religious or social bias, who could judge impartially. But often the legal system and justice are not the same thing, the powerful and rich can get the best lawyers, and work the system. In the Jewish court system, judges were supposed to fear the Lord, they were asked to ensure that the powerless and marginalised received justice and were cared for. It was one of the things that was to set Israel aside as God’s people. But the judge in Jesus story is portrayed as indifferent or even dismissive of the widow and only seek justice because she might ware him out. He was sick of her continual plea.

The encouragement does not come from the judge rather Jesus affirmation that God is not like the judge he will make sure his people receive justice quickly. It does come from prayer itself but the one we pray to…  God is a judge who will see his people get justice, we know what his character is like and that he can be trusted to be about justice and righteousness. God hears our pleas. God answers. In our bible reading from exodus we heard God speaking to Moses from the burning bush, saying he had heard his peoples cries he had seen their misery, their mistreatment and oppression and was about to act to free them and bring them to the place he had promised and they would be his people. God hears, God sees, God cares and is not inactive but rather is working in history to see his purposes and plans come to fruition.

But this time I found myself being very encouraged by the widow in the story. She is portrayed as an amazing person. AS a widow she would have been marginalised and considered amongst the poor. Widows were dependant either on their children or nearest male relatives to look after them, without that they were dependant on the good will of the community. Look at the book of Ruth in the Old Testament, or Ana in the temple as part of Luke’s nativity narrative. . The legal system also belonged to men, without a male relative to speak for her she would have found it very hard even to be heard, as a woman her testimony was not able to be accepted in court. Yet here she is so convinced of the rightness of her cause, and we don’t know what it is she is seeking, that she is prepared to knock on the judge’s door, sit in his office anti room, leave message after message on his answer phone, when he no longer takes her calls. She will not give up on seeking justice. This is an encouragement for us to be like this widow. Unrelenting about seeking justice.

How does this connect with us today, how does consistent prayer lead to faithful perseverance?

Firstly, there is the encouragement that God hears and God cares and will answer our prayer. As a church we are reminded of that by our logo the burning bush from Exodus 2. We can have that assurance as we face inevitable opposition and injustice. Both in our lives and in the society around us. We have become a society that seek instantaneous gratification. Instant coffee, fast food, plug and play, the buy now pay later trap of credit card debt. We do know that God does hear our prayer and answer instantaneously; as we confess our sin he will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.   But at the same time people are discovering that good things take time, craft beer, real coffee, slow cook BBQ, bespoke this and that. Faithfulness is trusting God when the answer is wait, even if it is that it will only be finally sorted when Christ returns, trusting that because of the character of God we know he is just and will see his people get justice.

 Of course as we saw in Exodus, the God who cares and who hears and see is also the God who calls his people to Go with his message of liberty and freedom to speak to the powers of this world and lead his people to a better God breathed alternative.

Secondly, there is a link between prayer and the pursuit of Justice and the kingdom of God: faithful Christian living. Prayer is the starting point, It connects us to the one whose kingdom it is, who is just and righteous in all he does, It is the place of compelling vision, the sustaining companion, fresh start in the face of failings, the  opening of hands for reconciliation and coming together, it is the shield in times of temptation and opposition. That’s best seen in the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and that we say together each week… the Lord’s prayer.

It starts with ‘our Father’ a recognition of relationship, that we together are children of the God most High, co heirs with Jesus Christ who has made that relationship with God possible. It is our hope the relationship that defines who we are and how we are to relate to the world around us.   AS Jesus was about his father’s business so are we to be about our father’s business.
‘Hallowed be thy name’ sets the agenda of seeing the holiness and glory of God be recognised in our lives and our world.

‘Thy Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is heaven’, gives us a compelling vision, of God’s purposes and plans. Its one of seeing people come to know Jesus as Lord and saviour, in 1 Timothy 2 Paul tells Timothy that all people should pray all kinds of prayer, because it is God’s desire that all come to know Jesus as Lord and saviour. The Kingdom starts as people come to know its king. But it Also invites us to have a vision of good news for the poor, widows and orphans cared for, the prisoner and the oppressed set free, the broken hearted’s wounds bound up, the blind receive sight, the stranger welcomed, debt cancelled, land and wealth shared so all may prosper. As we pray and allow God to be part of that conversation through the word of God, which is why its important that regular bible reading go hand in hand with a vibrant prayer life, its in that that we capture a compelling vision, God’s vision for his church and this world, His Kingdom.

‘Give us today our daily bread’ is not just a prayer for sustenance to survive rather it a call to God to help us with what we need each day to work towards that compelling vision of the Kingdom of God. It’s not just a prayer for us individually but one for the world. We can forget the feeding of the five thousand, where when confronted by people in need of food Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them ‘well you feed them” then takes what they have blesses it and feeds everyone with more left over. I am always reminded of an open letter to the pope in the form of a video called viva Christo rei, from the border of America and Mexico where a group of catholic people sat down to a Christmas dinner in El Paso and as they said grace, gave thanks for the food, they sensed God’s call to go and share it with people who lived on the rubbish dump in  Ciudid Juarez across in Mexico. They put their meal on the back of pick up  and went across and started carving and feeding and after three hundred had been feed there was nothing left, and it started a great move of compassion and cooperation to help the poor, it started a revival.

‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…’ The starting point of reconciliation. Of recognising on a personal level and on a societal level where we have wronged people or we have been wronged and starting to make things right.

‘Lead us not in to temptation, but deliver us from evil’ God’s continued guidance and protection, not into ease or freedom from problems and difficulties, but through them to righteousness, God’s just society and to overcome evil with Good.

It’s just prayer right!
I'm not advocating just the repitition of this prayer without throught like amantra rather that it leads us in our prayer life, nurtures us in our faith as we make it our own and allow Jesus patern for prayer to lead us. MArtin Luther put it like this in a letter outlining how he uses the Lord's prayer in his daily prayer life...“ I do not bind myself to words and phrases but say my prayer in one fashion today and in another tomorrow, depending on my mood and feelings.”  TheLord's prayer guides his prayers for himself and his world each day, in a new way.
It's just prayer right!

The Moravians were a group of refuges looking for shelter from persecution for their faith in their home land. They were welcomed in by count Zinzendorf a German nobleman. In their community, they started a continuous prayer meeting for the world round them. An around the clock prayer vigil that lasted for 100 hundred years, during that time they sent out well over 300 hundred missionaries to preach the kingdom of God. Some were willing to go as slaves to America and the west indies sharing their faith with salve communities in those countries. On a journey to America John Wesley was so taken by the spirituality of the Moravians he felt the need to find what they had which lead to his own experience of God’s Holy Spirit. It was instrumental to the great revival in England which lead to the enlightenment, social reform, abolition of slavery, the end of child labour, moves towards universal education, even the RSPCA. 

Its not just prayer… but just prayer leads to faithful perseverance.  So let’s pray and not lose heart. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

What a wonderful God we have... A prayer of thanksgiving and confession.

What a wonderful God we have

Yes, eternal, all mighty, creator of all there is

All those amazing things beyond our comprehension

But also the God who hears the cries of his people

The God who sees our joys and our sorrow and suffering

The God who cares deeply and loves passionately

The God who responds, answers and moves

What a wonderful God we have

Yes, enthroned above, sovereign and all powerful

Vast and beyond our ability to understand or contain

But also the God who in Jesus became one of us, pitched his tent at our place

Who allowed himself to be a man of sorrow acquainted with our grief

Taught a better way and died to open that way for us

Who invites us to come to him and find rest

What a wonderful God we have

Holy, Righteous and just, perfect in all he does

Who measures the seas in his palm, the universe in the span of his arms

Yet, does not remain aloof but dwells within us by the Holy Spirit

Speaking to us and guiding us by his word

Comforting the sorrow filled, strengthening the weak giving courage to the fearful.

Enabling us to witness to the hope we have, by word and deed

what a wonderful God we have

we do not have the words to describe all that you are and all you do

we need all out theology and all our word craft and it is not enough

But we also know you accept our simple 3thaanks for everyday blessing

For family and friends, support and companionship, love and care

For providing what we need, food, clothing  and shelter

For who you’ve made us with our skills and abilities to make ends meet

Giving us plenty so we may share will those for whom you care

What a wonderful God we have

Who does not want us to pretend that we’ve got it all together

But invites us to be honest and transparent

Not to hide our sin and wrongdoing but to confess it

Knowing that as we do God forgives and wipes the slate clean

Not imagining we’ve got it all together

But bringing our brokenness, that he will bind up and make whole

What a wonderful God we have

Who is not just from way back when or coming again

Not just a distant memory or a vague future hope

But is here with us today in our worship and the ebb and flow of life

Accept our worship O God

We admit we have done wrong, forgive our sin and make us whole

Fill us afresh with Your spirt to do your will, to bring glory to you, father son and Holy Spirit.