Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Caught in a moment (Advent reflections); Part 3: Where is God in the midst of the terror (9/11)

Its almost a decade on from the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. An incident that changed the world. I still vividly remember what I was doing when I heard about this horrific event. Lying in bed in Dunedin when my radio alarm clock, tuned to the 'sport talk' station when Martin Devlin the Sports Breakfast host said, "It's hard to talk about sports when someone has just crashed a airplane into the World Trade Center". I thought this can't be true and we turned on the TV just in time to see a second plane crash into the towers.

The picture of terrorists crashing a plane into the twin towers is still a hard image to look at. It left a gaping wound in my soul. I found myself asking the question where is God in the midst of the terror? Let’s face it weren’t the people on the planes doing this in the name of Allah; in the name of God?

For me Christmas goes a long way to answer that question. In Jesus, Christians believe God became one of us. It was not to luxury, riches, safety and security that this Christ child came it was into an occupied country where freedom was brutally oppressed. St Matthew’s account of the Christmas narrative tells of a wholesale massacre sparked by Jesus’ coming. When King Herod, whom folk singer Bruce Cockburn calls ‘a paranoid dictator’, is told there is ‘one born king of the Jews’ he sends death squads to kill all male babies under two. Jesus early childhood resounds to the wail of many mothers grieving for their murdered children and he spends his childhood as a refugee in a foreign land.

Where is God in the midst of terror? He came and dwelt in its midst. We see that in Jesus God identifies with the lowly, the poor and those who suffer. Jesus suffers and is killed by the worst of human violence. Yet in return we do not find heavenly armies invading with overwhelming force rather his words on the cross are “Father forgive them they know not what they do’. His response is an offer for all to come to him to receive forgiveness, then sends them out again “Not to repay evil with evil,” but as St Paul said to the Romans, “ to overcome evil with good”.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

psalm 107; God's love endures forever: Life's Epic Journey Following Jesus Through The Landscapes Of The Soul

Psalm 107


Psalms 107–150

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;

his love endures forever.

2 Let the redeemed of the LORD tell their story—

those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,

3 those he gathered from the lands,

from east and west, from north and south.[a]

4 Some wandered in desert wastelands,

finding no way to a city where they could settle.

5 They were hungry and thirsty,

and their lives ebbed away.

6 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,

and he delivered them from their distress.

7 He led them by a straight way

to a city where they could settle.

8 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love

and his wonderful deeds for mankind,

9 for he satisfies the thirsty

and fills the hungry with good things.

10 Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness,

prisoners suffering in iron chains,

11 because they rebelled against God’s commands

and despised the plans of the Most High.

12 So he subjected them to bitter labor;

they stumbled, and there was no one to help.

13 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,

and he saved them from their distress.

14 He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness,

and broke away their chains.

15 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love

and his wonderful deeds for mankind,

16 for he breaks down gates of bronze

and cuts through bars of iron.

17 Some became fools through their rebellious ways

and suffered affliction because of their iniquities.

18 They loathed all food

and drew near the gates of death.

19 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,

and he saved them from their distress.

20 He sent out his word and healed them;

he rescued them from the grave.

21 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love

and his wonderful deeds for mankind.

22 Let them sacrifice thank offerings

and tell of his works with songs of joy.

23 Some went out on the sea in ships;

they were merchants on the mighty waters.

24 They saw the works of the LORD,

his wonderful deeds in the deep.

25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest

that lifted high the waves.

26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;

in their peril their courage melted away.

27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards;

they were at their wits’ end.

28 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,

and he brought them out of their distress.

29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;

the waves of the sea[b] were hushed.

30 They were glad when it grew calm,

and he guided them to their desired haven.

31 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love

and his wonderful deeds for mankind.

32 Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people

and praise him in the council of the elders.

33 He turned rivers into a desert,

flowing springs into thirsty ground,

34 and fruitful land into a salt waste,

because of the wickedness of those who lived there.

35 He turned the desert into pools of water

and the parched ground into flowing springs;

36 there he brought the hungry to live,

and they founded a city where they could settle.

37 They sowed fields and planted vineyards

that yielded a fruitful harvest;

38 he blessed them, and their numbers greatly increased,

and he did not let their herds diminish.

39 Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled

by oppression, calamity and sorrow;

40 he who pours contempt on nobles

made them wander in a trackless waste.

41 But he lifted the needy out of their affliction

and increased their families like flocks.

42 The upright see and rejoice,

but all the wicked shut their mouths.

43 Let the one who is wise heed these things

and ponder the loving deeds of the LORD

Let me tell you about one day’s epic journey on a tour round the South Island with a group of friends many years ago. We camped by the track to a lake the night before. we got up at 5am and ran, I was younger then, down the bush lined track to see the majestic Southern Alpes reflected in the early morning stillness of mirror like Lake Matherson, then we watched the sun rise and the wind stirring the water.

After breakfast we hiked up to a glacier and clambered over the ice.

After lunch we went for a tramp, I was fitter then, through sub tropical beech forest to a look out and got a view of mountains, rugged west coast beach, strewn with drift wood, to the north and south of us like sapphires in a sea of green were two lagoons. Then we went down to a beach and through a rock tunnel to see a seal colony.

As it was summer and the light lasted well into the night, we drove over the Haast pass and down into the drought stained brown hills of central Otago, with its alien, at least middle earth like limestone rocks and pillars, and arrived late in the evening at a friend’s place in a town in the shadow of yet another majestic mountain range, an epic day’s journey, through some amazing divrse landscape. Made easy by modern cars and sealed roads, but in pioneer and pre European days the same journey would have taken weeks with more dangers than simply attracting sandflies when you stopped by the side of the road for a meal.

The core of Psalm 107 is an imperatival Psalm: a summons for people to give thanks to God that draws on the epic journeys of people back from exile, as the reason to give God praise. People’s personal journeys and trials are used as metaphors for the whole of the people of Israel. Therefore they should give God thanks. All the way through God’s steadfast love endures forever. For me as I read this Psalm I also can’t help but think of the landscapes and circumstances that we journey through, that God has lead us through to return to him and continues to lead us through, individually and as a church, both physical landscapes and landscapes of the soul.

 In 532 bc Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian empire and people were either killed scattered as refugees all round the world or dragged off to captivity in Babylon.

After 70 years and the fall of Babylon to the Medes and Persians, God bought a remnant back, they rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple and worshipped God there again. For the Jews the exile and return were seen as part of God’s covenant faithfulness and love. The exile was a justified punishment for generation after generation not keeping their side of the covenant with God. The return was God’s grace and favour shown to his people once again. Shown in the way he lead them through dark times, illness, deserts, wild seas and changing environments.

Maybe it’s hard for us to hear the triumphant tone of this psalm in a week where we are mourning the loss of 29 miners at Pike River. When I saw this picture of the first of the Chilean miners being saved I couldn’t help but think of verses 13 and 14.

This week that connection feels like ashes in my mouth. And when you look at the cameos the psalmist writes you realise that people die when they get lost in the desert, people perish in the midst of ocean storms, people waste away in chains and prison darkness and disease ends lives of loved one far too soon. A faith and religion that only gives well orchestrated testimonies of success and salvation does not connect with the harsh landscapes that we all travel through. In commenting on the psalm EM Blaiklock says.

‘The nation caught at the moment of this psalm has been through the fire, is comforted, her warfare accomplished. Who shall grudge this shout of jubilation?... We can also look to books such as Habakkuk and Job to see ourselves in days of harder trials.

In the Psalm we have four accounts of personal salvation that are used to illustrate Israel’s salvation as a nation.

We have the image of the caravan adrift in the desert. Desperately hoping that they will reach a water source or civilization before the unrelenting sun and dehydration leave them to die and be swallowed up by shifting sand. For Israel this journey had strong echos of their wilderness wanderings. It was in essence their story. In Isaiah 42 we see that the return from exile was shown as a straight path through the wilderness, where the hills would be made low and the valleys filled up. But from the other side of the exile looking back there is the realisation that it wasn’t all plain sailing and motorway driving, but even so God was able to make a way even in the seemingly trackless desert. He provided food for the hungry and water to quench the thirst. May be that has been your journey as well, in a dry land where you could not find sustenance and a quenching of spiritual thirst, until you meet Jesus who in John’s gospel calls himself the living water. Maybe for you it is a story of looking for relationship, significance purpose and meaning in a dry twenty fist century consumer society until you met Christ. But also maybe you are in a dry desert landscape at the moment, Mother Teresa’s dairies have been published recently and they tell the story of many years in her life when she felt the very absence of God, her spiritual disciplines were dry wells, she felt like God had left her at her call to the poor and she had journeyed on alone. Maybe you need the assurance that God in Christ is with us in the desert land and able to bring us through, even if it feels like our guide is far off over the heat hazed horizon.

Then in verse 10 there is a picture of imprisonment in utter darkness and despair. With God’s intervention the people find their chains broken and are released into freedom. The metaphor picks up Israel as a whole, carried into captivity and now released agian. For us looking back from beyond the cross we to can see this metaphor as one for being redeemed from the prison and chains of death and sin, Jesus death on the cross, where God’s own son is not saved from death but willing gives his life for us, has broken sins power over us. It is a metaphor that rings in such hymns as amazing grace and Charles Wesley’s ‘and can it be’ my chains fell off my heart was free I rose when forth and followed thee’. Many of us can testify today to dark places and prison like experiences in our lives. Maybe depression, addictions, habits, abusive relationships that feel like they are chains holding us in the dark, away from God light, that we have been saved from. Maybe today you find yourself in such dark places and you need to hear the hope that God is able to save you.

In verse 17 we move to a different landscape a different predicament, People who because of their lifestyle and sin have fallen ill. Again we need to realise that this is not the common understanding of illness and disease that it is a direct result of sin. This is a personal account extrapolated to the whole of Israel. Like the desert image that will come later and the idea of captivity it has echoes of God’s earlier salvation of God’s people out of Egypt and the events of the exodus and wilderness wanderings, when the people of Israel were stricken with a deadly disease as a result of their idolatry. Here again in this situation there is God’s salvation, he brings healing. Maybe in our modern medical understanding we could say that God enables and empowers the life style changes needed for this person to become healthy. As I diabetic that is my key prayer not that god would heal me but help me to change and keep healthy habits. Some of you may identify with this section as God has healed you or you have felt his strength peace and presence as you have gone through medical crisis. Others today may be encouraged to have hope Of Gods saving ability in the face of such issues. Even giving the strength to journey on through what feels like a bleak and barren landscape, even the valley of the shadow of death. He is able to replace our suffering with songs of Joy.

Then in verse 23 we see the Psalmist turn to a metaphor of an epic sea journey. It shows the extent of the exile and dispersion of people. Israel are very much a land people and the sea for them was a picture of chaos and the horror of uncertainty. This is one of my favourite passages in scripture and as an old surfer the idea of waves and storms is an invitation to excitement, to indeed see his wondrous works in the deep. But for the Jews such travel on the stormy Mediterranean Sea was to be feared. It shows Jonah’s desperation of not wanting to give Nineveh a chance to repent and turn to God that he risks a sea voyage. In the new testament we have the story of one of Paul’s ship wrecks. While the disciples like St Andrew were fishermen the extent of their seafaring was on the equally uncertain waters of the Sea of Galilee. Here is the metaphor of God delivering his people through uncertain times; stormy times and bringing them back to safe haven. Maybe in your life you have had times when you felt all at sea or situations and circumstances seem to collide to form the perfect storm and you are in danger of being swamped and you have known God’s presence and salvation, or you are navigating such waters now, in dire straits and need to hear the hope of this testimony. The psalm invites us to give our testimonies as a way of praising God and encouraging others.

We live in a time which is a time of great change like a storm tossed sea and it is good for us God’s people to know God can bring us through. However some people as Leonard Sweet says simply want to hunker in the bunker and ride the storm out hoping that nothing will have to change and they can keep it safe and calm.

But this psalm says for the church to get where God is wanting us to go we need to unfurl our sails and head out into the deep water trusting in God and navigating by the north star, a biblical metaphor for Jesus. It’s risky but it is the way forward the way home.

Finally the Psalmist takes us to a different landscape a different thought. He talks of the change of land from green pasture to desert land. In our age of Environmental change and creeping desertification and fertile land on south sea atolls becoming unproductive with rising sea levels we can relate to this image. And we need to heed the call of this last section of the psalm to consider how we live in the land. But here you get the picture of the land of Babylon and Israel both being at various times both plush and fertile and others becoming marginal and arid. While we want the green pastures and quite waters by of Psalm 23 we often forget that that Psalm, is not the picture of God as a shepherd in a settled agrarian society, like the green field of New Zealand, but the semi-nomadic existence of a desert people. That God as shepherd leads his people from one source of sustenance to another. We often what to stay put in our comfort zones, in what we are used to and we resist the call of Christ to come follow me to new land and new places. Because that involves change and moving and even temporary discomfort and uncertainty. Here we see God changing the water sources and courses and the lands fruitfulness as a way of moving his people on. Inviting them to consider how they live and how they express their covenant relationship with God. It’s interesting to see in the book of Acts that there is an exile like move by the Holy spirit for the church in Jerusalem that was happy simply being where it was and not fulfilling the great commission to go to all nations with the good news of Jesus Christ. We see God using persecution to scatter them out of Judea to Samaria and beyond. We see as a result of that dispersion the church having a new centre in Antioch, where missionary endeavours flow. Old water sources often don’t meet the need for the present day and will not support the numbers they used to, God will often in our lives and our churches change the landscape to make us willing to follow the shepherd to new pastures.

I want to finish with two brief thoughts.

The first is that God is with us and for us and loves us and is able to save us in the midst of the various land and sea scapes of our lives. Dire straits, dire circumstances, dire water shortages, storm clouds and shifting sands. The steadfast love oif the lord endures forever. Whatever landscape you are going through at the moment, may you be encouraged and have hope. AS we remember at advent a saviour is born to us. God in Christ is able to save us and lead us safely through. Give thanks to him for his steadfast love, may it remind you of his goodness and his strength and his abiding presence. May it provide the courage you need for the journey: Life’s epic journey through the landscapes of the soul.

Secondly, In his article Dorothy on leadership, http://www.brianmclaren.net/archives/imported/dorothy-on-leadership.html), Brian McLaren uses the epic journey of Dorothy in the film the Wizard of Oz as a metaphor for Christian leadership and for the church. Dorothy you will remember is lost and in a strange land and heads off on a journey a quest to seek the answer. She invites a rag tag group of equally lost and broken people to join her on this journey down the yellow brick road. They form a community and as they journey find wholeness and healing together. This is a great picture of what it is to be church. We haven’t arrived, we are not settled in the Promised Land yet, but are called together with our brokenness and our imperfections, questions and doubts, to quest together following Jesus, where he will lead. It is a epic journey, one fraught with danger and difficulty toils and snares as we sang in our opening hymn. But one we trust Jesus to lead us together through. It is an epic journey through the landscapes of the soul following Jesus.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Praise the LORD because God is Good, a prayer based on Psalm 107

I love Psalm 107 with its series of testimonies to Gods saving acts, images of epic journeys through Epic landscapes, dire straits and out of desperate circumstances. The Psalmist looks back at the way God has gathered people back to Jerusalem from the exile and applies these personal journeys to the whole of Israel. He summons people then to Give thanks to God for God's constant covenant love. I find myself relating to the images of landscape and spiritual journey. Here is a prayer I'll be using this Sunday based on the images of Psalm 107 (the last part of the psalm is different and invites Israel to contemplate how they live in  the land, I have included that in the fact that this is a prayer of thanksgiving and confession.)

Praise the Lord

Because God is Good

His love is eternal and his mercy endures forever

Lord God we do praise you

We acknowledge that you are the one who has made us and saved us

That just like your people of old you have drawn us back to you from east and west, north and south,

AS psalm 107 says you have redeemed us from trouble

We were in a dry desert, our souls parched

You reach out for us and your living water flowed

It was dark and there was no light to guide us

You shone your light and we see our way home

We were sick to our very core in sin

You came with your healing hand forgave us and made us whole

We were floundering at sea, going down into the depths

You pulled us out and set us on solid ground

You have made a way for us

In Jesus Christ, his life and teaching his death and resurrection

You have made a way for us to have our sins forgiven

You have made a way for us to have a clean slate, a fresh start

You have made a way for us a narrow way that leads to life

You have made a way for us to follow you as saviour, Lord and friend

You are with us on that way

By Your Holy Spirit, that you pour on all who believe

You are with us on the way to lead us into all truth

You are with us on the way to convict and confront

You are with us on the way to empower and enable

You are with us on the way to comfort and to guide

Praise the Lord

Because God is Good

His love is eternal and his mercy endures forever

We confess our sins to you O Lord

You have made a way for us but we have been wayward

You have called us to love but we have chosen not to love

You have forgiven and we have withheld forgiveness

You call us to walk humbly but we are filled with pride

You call us to put your kingdom first and we want that first place for ourselves

You call us to care for the poor and weak but we prefer to strive to be rich and strong

Forgive us Lord

Praise the Lord

Because God is Good

His love is eternal and his mercy endures forever

Praise the Lord

As we have confessed our sin God is faithful and just and forgives us our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

Fill us afresh with your spirit O God

That we may walk in the truth with Jesus

That we may be empowered to love

That we may be enabled to share the good news of your son

That we may bring you glory as you go on our way

Praise the Lord

Because God is Good

His love is eternal and his mercy endures forever

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanks U2

I have been a U2 fan for many years. In fact if they were to put a sound track of my life out U2 would feature prominently. On a holiday round the east coast two years ago, the family decided as we were going on a four to five hour car trip that we should play the U2 collection in order. Needless to say we sang most of our way round the beautiful East Cape landscape and on into Tauranga. When they had come to New Zealand before I had either been at the wrong end of the country, the wrong end of the balance of my bank account or... I was already booked for other things. So It was great this time round to be in the right city... have money to make going with my wife and oldest two kids a fathers day present.

Getting into Mt Smart stadium was an adventure in its self. Having decided (with half of everyone else) to take the free trains offered by the city council. Thanks by the way for the free transport... it did however show how limited Auckland public transport system was getting there. I was amazed however how well they managed getting everyone out again.

But the concert was great... Loved every minute of it. I couldn’t help but feel in a very surreal situation though. Here we were at a live show and I found myself drawn into the amazing 360 screen and watching a live show on screen! Go figure.

Tim Keel, whose course on Missional Church Leadership I audited this year, and who I count as a friend, and saw at the concert, had remarked that U2 had an amazing ability to connect with a vaste crowd and make you feel included. WE had been reading an executive summary of C. Otto Scharmer’s ‘Theory U; Leading from the future as it Emerges’, and it had mentioned violinist Miha Pogacnik talking about learning to play the macro violin. He had played a concert in the cathedral at Chartres and had to relearn how he played to suit the amazing acoustic environment he found himself in... He had to elarn to play the cathedral. U2 have learned to play the stadium. They have designed and engineered to do it (yeah the claw) they have worked at their stage craft and are able to create a sense of intimacy with 60,000 people.

So thanks U2 it was great to see you and hear you. My ears are still ringing this morning with a rather pleasant after buzz (if such a thing exists) but also thank you very much for the way in which you were wiling to catch and respond to the mood of the nation (New Zealand) in theb wake of this weeks Pike River Mining disaster, where 29 people lost their lives. It was appreciated. I had been working all that day on putting a memorial together for the Maclaurin Chapel on Friday, which included a PowerPoint of all the names of the miners. U2 didn’t try (like Jay-Z the opening act) to invite the audience for a moments silence Bono said that, “Each culture has a different way to mourn, for the Irish they sing” Then they sang ‘One tree Hill’. New Zealand is the only country where that song is obligatory for U2 to perform (we are the only country where it was released as a single and went to number 1). It is a song written in response to the death of Greg Carroll, Bono’s personal assistant and close friend and a Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand). So it was great to have a song connected with grief and loss and this land in which to express the collective sense of loss we have all felt. AS the names of the 29 miners came up on the screen I thought... thanks U2 ...you get it...It was healing.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Caught in a moment (Advent reflections); Part 2 The Girl in the Photo

'Caught in a Moment' (as well as being the name of a U2 song) is a series of advent reflections. I'm using images from the media as a way of exploring how the message of the one who came at Christmas impacts the reality of our world today .

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

Kim Phuc’s life is radically changed by this moment. She goes through years of pain and suffering. The communist government use her as a propaganda tool.

In 1996 Kim Phuc, then living in Canada, was invited to speak at the Vietnam War Memorial.

“ Dear friends” she says

… as you know, I am the little girl who was running to escape from the napalm fire. I do not want to talk about the war because I cannot change history. I only want you to remember the tragedy of war in order to do things to stop fighting and killing around the world. I have suffered a lot from both physical and emotional pain. Sometimes I thought I could not live, but God saved me and gave me faith and hope. Even if I could talk face to face with the pilot who dropped the bombs I would tell him we cannot change history but we should try to do good things for the present and for the future to promote peace…’

(Denise Chong: The Girl In The Picture, 1999. pp362)

In the Crowd was John Plummer who was involved in planning the raid on Trang Bang. They meet that day. He explained who he was and he cried, “I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…” Kim Phuc embraced him and said, “I forgive, I forgive”.
She now works for UNESCO as an ambassador for forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. Her life gives us hope of the change that the Christmas message can bring even in the face of our worst inhumanity. This is the other famous Photo of Kim Phuc taken by the same photographer. It is almost Madonna and child like and speak volumes as to the healing of Kim's life.

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

Caught In A Moment (Advent reflections): Part 1 - Introduction

Let’s face it for most people today the nativity scene has become just a hallmark moment, the nice drawing  on the front of a Christmas card from a distant relative we only hear from at this time of year. At best the nativity scene (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) is synonymous with a picture in a children’s storybook.

How does this scene and the message of the one who came at Christmas really impact on the world we live in? In response many images from the media come to my mind:
The picture of a street in Omagh where a car bomb goes off on August 15th 1997 and 29 men, women and children are killed in sectarian violence. Supposedly Ireland is a Christian country. With that image comes a U2 song. Bono, who’d been so involved in the Irish peace process, was devastated by this vicious attack. He wrote a song questioning the words he hears each Christmas. The song, called Peace On Earth, is not about loosing faith in God, rather it's a lament where by Bono is waiting for the reality of those words in a world of pain, sorrow, violence and insanity.  It  both disturbs and challenges me to examine how the Christmas message can connect.

‘ Jesus this song you wrote

The words are sticking in my throat

Peace on earth

Hear it every Christmas time

But hope and history won’t rhyme

So what’s it worth this peace on earth’

Other images, other times and places ‘caught in a moment’ (to quote another U2 song) come to mind raising questions and going some way to answer the question of how the Christmas message is relevant in the cold light of today’s reality. Over the next few weeks of Advent I want to explore this.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Psalm 117: It maybe small but it's anything but trivial (sermon text)

Psalm 117

1 Praise the LORD, all you nations;

extol him, all you peoples.

2 For great is his love toward us,

and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.

Praise the LORD.

Psalm 117 maybe small but it’s anything but trivial as the great preacher Charles Spurgeon says

”This psalm, which is short in its word, is exceedingly large in its spirit; for, bursting beyond all bounds of race or nationality, it calls upon all humanity to praise the name of the Lord.”

Having said that Psalm 117 is anything but trivial it is good to remember for bible trivia quizzes or trivial pursuit evenings, It is the answer to questions like; what is the shortest of the psalms? and what is the shortest chapter in the bible? In fact it is so short that scholars have wondered if it isn’t simply a miss placed end to Psalm 116. But it stands as an integral unit in its own right. In it’s one short sentence is the basis of what is called a imperatival Psalm. A summons to Praise God linked to a reason to do so.

Not only that, it is good to remember because it is the answer to the question what is the middle chapter in the bible? There are 589 chapters before it and 589 after it. Most importantly it’s good to remember this psalm, because of its message, because of its invitation to us.. Psalm 117 is not only the central chapter of the bible it is one that captures in a nutshell what is at the heart of the scripture: Because of God’s great love and faithfulness shown to all, we are called from every nation and people group to praise the LORD. Hallelujah!

Psalm 117 is seen as being a multi-purpose call to worship, good for any situation. It is part of the five psalms, 113-118, called the Hallel Psalms, that are sung during Jewish Passover meals. Scholars don’t know when it was written or for what purpose however its language and theme have lead scholars to say that it comes from the post-exilic time.

In 532 BC the Babylonians had come and destroyed Jerusalem, killing many and taking others off to Babylon in captivity. After 70 years the Babylonian empire had fallen to the Medes and Persians, and a remnant came back to Jerusalem and rebuilt the city, re-established the temple and worshipped God there. For the Jews the whole exile and restoration were part of God’s covenant faithfulness and strong love for them. They were God’s people, at Sinai God has made a covenant with them. After generations of failing to kept their side of the covenant, and being warned by God through the prophets, God had sent them into exile.

Then God had graciously bought them back to Jerusalem. The Hebrew word which the Good News Bible translates ‘Strong’ as an adjective for God’s love means ‘to overcome ones enemies’ able to win a war or conflict and you get the picture here that amidst the fall and rise of empires and sweeping changes on the political landscape and great swings in the military balance of power that God’s purposes and God’s plans and his covenant love for his people has won out in the end.

In light of this the Psalm invites the nations and peoples to come and give praise to God for what he has done for Israel. You kind of get the idea that they are being called to have a supporting role in this, they are invited to be the backup singers to Israel, or a supporting act. If you were thinking in legal terms maybe they are invited along to give supporting evidence to the facts of what God has done. To acknowledge God’s love and covenant faithfulness to his people. Some have even gone as far as seeing Psalm 117 as a call to worship for those who had converted to Judaism. But the exceedingly large spirit of this little psalm grows and become even grander in light of Jesus Christ. Its scope is greater, the breadth of the summons and the depth of the invite to come and worship is deeper. The strength of the love is vastly fiercer, the faithfulness of God broader across the whole of time and space.

Paul uses Psalm 117 in  Romans 15:11. It is a significant part of his concluding argument; that in Christ, God’s salvation, inclusion into the kingdom and people of God, was for the gentiles as well as for the Jews. And that this had been God’s plan all along.  ‘Unwittingly’ says commentator Leslie Allen ‘this psalm let loose an invitation that later facilitated gentiles sharing God’s covenant grace.’ This summons to know and to praise God was not just for the nations outside Israel to have a supporting role rather to have full partnership in Christ. Not just to praise for God’s faithful love for Israel, but give praise because of God’s faithful love for all of us.

It encompasses the whole of God’s saving activity throughout history. Let me give you an over view of what I mean. God starts by creating everything, creating humanity for relationship; ‘to know and enjoy God always’ as the shorter Westminster cataclysm puts it. By our sinning we break that relationship and God works to restore that relationship and creation. In genesis twelve he starts by choosing a people for himself, he will bless them and make them a blessing for the nations. In Exodus he saves them out of slavery in Egypt, and gives them his law.  We see them in the land that God had promised them trying to live in a way that reflects God’s nature. With the exile God chooses to start with a remnant. Then like the cross roads of history God’s saving activity zeroes in to one person. He sends his Son Jesus Christ into the world. Through Jesus life and death and resurrection, his love overcomes not the military power of Rome restoring Israel as a nation, but the power of sin and death, liberating all who will believe to be a new people of God.

Then as we read the New Testament story we see this new creation this new people grow. From a group of twelve disciples, through a church empowered by the spirit in Acts chapter 2 and  as we work through Luke’s history of the missionary growth of the church across the social boundaries of Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian, across continental boundaries from Asia Minor to Europe, we know from other history that it spread to Africa and Asia. Across socio-economic boundaries, slave and free, even the gender imbalance of first century, male and female. On through History. To today where we see people from every nation and people group coming to Christ and coming together to praise God. I recently hear someone say that the church is the first really global business. It has offices and agencies, agents and outposts in every nation, nearly every city, and even in way off the map villages and rural areas. It’s Manuel is a best seller translated into so many different languages and dialects, and its message brings hope to all people everywhere.

 Then we go on into the future, we know from reading the back of the book in revelation there is a time when all people and all creation will be restored and made new in Christ. This is the big picture; this is the grandeur of God’s great love and God’s faithfulness. We should indeed praise God. Hallelujah

That’s the big picture but I think this psalm has some real practical hands on things to say.

The first is that we need each other. What a great and wonderful task we have been called to perform to praise God for God’s great love and covenant faithfulness. It is a task that cannot be accomplished by one group, one language, one culture, one set of traditions. it’s going to take all of us, with all we have to give God the Glory great things he has done. As a royal priesthood to declare the praises of him who has called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Chase Jarvis is a well known photographer and innovator, recently he has been talking about the new frontier of creativity being in what he calls social art. Bringing a diverse group of people together from different disciplines and backgrounds round a common theme or purpose and allowing their unique gifting and perspectives to intermingle and flow, and out of that comes beauty and art and creativity. When I watched his keynote address on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3BgULdU_uM) from the Photo Plus Expo I couldn’t help but think of the metaphor Paul uses for the church as the body of Christ working together to embody God’s love. We need each other.

Secondly, For us to come and praise God together there is a need for us to love one another, To be in harmony not discord. In October German chancellor Merkle was quoted as saying that the multi-cultural experiment was dead. Those in Germany’s different cultural groups were not mixing. For the church being multi-cultural is not an experiment that can fail, it is an expression of God’s love and faithfulness that will not fail. It’s something we can offer a world that is fracturing, but it does mean we do need to love one another. It why in the story of the first expansion of the church so much has to be said from its early leaders like Paul on that very topic. How can we be a new people in Christ?

 “"The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love"- Henri Nouwen

Sadly the church down through the ages hasn’t been good at this. We’ve been and are still guilty of cultural imperialism, wanting the way we do things being the chief way we as a diverse group do things. Unity is not a call for uniformity. Henri Nouwen says that people often resort to the use and even the abuse or misuse of power because they lack the skills for intimacy. That power is often used as a poor substitute for love.

Church growth experts also talk about churches growing because they are homogeneous groups. They are groups of similar people, we see that in ethnic congregations as well as congregations based round various worship styles, traditional or contemporary or alternative. We stay separate I sense that the summons in this Psalm calls us to yes keep our culture and traditions but somehow come together in love and share what we have. That while homogeneous units may work as a principle and model we are called to model a different kingdom principle to the world, loving one another across the barriers of this world, because He has broken down the diving wall and made us one people. Hey we better get used to it because that’s what heaven will be like. Right.

It calls us to show love to people round the world as well. If they are to give praise to God then in time of difficulty and want they need to know God love through us.

Finally, this psalm is not only in the middle of the scriptures but its right there at the core of God’s call on us as a church. It’s right there as an invite from the heart of God. Its about Mission. Psalm 117 issues a summons to all nations and all people groups, and Jesus gives us a commission, to take that summons that invitation out with us. We are to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the father son and holy spirit and teaching them to obey all the commands I have given you.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Simple words to give thanks to God for his great love and Faithfulness

I love the ocean and as a way of remembering God's presence and Love when I catch a glimpse of the sea or like a couple of weekends ago get the chance to visit the beach I say "thank you you God for your great love that surrounds us Like the sea surrounds our Island home. My Friend Marvin Hanson took the image and this is  a prayer where I in simple terms want say thanks for the amazing ways we are surrounded by God's   love. As it is a prayer for a public worship service it is a prayer of thanksgiving and confession. 

Lord God

Full of mercy and grace

We are surrounded by your great love

Your faithfulness throughout our times and indeed all time

We praise you

We give thanks

Thank you for Creation

The play of light on rolling hills

Sparkling sea, Lakes and river

Precious rain and warm sunshine

The dawn alive with melodic bird song

The white cap on mountain range

The might of the strong wind and storm

Star fields that speak of the eternal

Thank you for your provision

For Food

A house and home

Family and loved ones


Our parents and all who have gone before

Our children and grandchildren

Your presence in the good times and the bad

Thank you for your saving acts

For Jesus

His life death and resurrection

We were lost and you found us

Drifting and you gave us purpose

Burdened down and you gave us A clear slate and a fresh start

Broken and you gave us Healing and wholeness

And you walk with us as we walk with you

Lord God

Full of mercy and grace

We are surrounded by your great love

Your faithfulness throughout our times and indeed all time

We admit we have sinned against you

We pray you would forgive us

Forgive us lord for our sin

Seeking our own way not yours

Not loving as you do

Turning a blind eye to poverty and injustice

Unkind thoughts and deeds

Doing what we should not and leaving undone the good we should

Forgive us lord

Thank you

That as we have confessed our sins you are faithful and just and forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Fill us anew with you spirit

That we may know you more

Serve you with our lives

Witness to Jesus Christ

And share your love

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

RED; a review and reflection

My wife and I went and saw the film RED earlier this week. Perhaps as a lifelong action film watcher it seemed appropriate to watch a movie with hope for the future. The action heroes were not contemporaries and thank goodness were not a generation behind me but rather were from an older generation.

the The film directed by Robert Schwentke was a well written and brilliantly cast action comedy, just what was needed to celebrate the end of my wife’s University exams. The one liners and dialogue while being a bit predictable were above average but the delivery from a stellar cast actually made it well worth enduring the poor customer service from our local events cinema (a very long quote waiting for tickets being served by three cashiers, who while they worked efficiently and pleasantly has been let down by their management).

Bruce Willis was... well classic Bruce Willis... which after all is what you want to see in a movie staring ... Bruce Willis. He seems to play the same part over and over again under different guises. Willis plays Frank Moses a retired CIA black-op’s agent bored with retirement and wrestling with living a quite life in suburbia, but not bored enough to relish having death squads out to Kill him. John Malkovich plays part of his old team, who is rather a burn out, was the subject of mind altering experiments and has a very developed sense of paranoia (and why shouldn’t he his instincts that people are out to get him are proven correct), he steal all the scenes he is in and as one reviewer said, if Johhny Depp could get an Oscar for his portrayal of Jack Sparrow in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ then Malkovich should at least get a nomination for this role. Morgan Freeman also puts in a typically great performance. Helen Mirren is both positively charming as a aging hit women and also totally believable when the stone cold killer side of her character comes to the fore. Even Mary-Louise Parker manages to hold her own in such exalted company. Earnest Borgnine does a cameo as the Henry the records keeper in CIA headquarters. It seems appropriate that he is kept in a vault as a treasure, and in his scene with Willis you get an almost palpable sense of he deep respect and genuine warms Willis and through him the rest of the cast and crew have for this legend of the scene.

It’s interesting to see movies like this and that other almost last hurray for action heroes, and as one critic said perfect example of a 1980’s action movie, “The Expendables’ (2010), and of course, the homage to its own franchise ‘Die Hard 4.0, because they reflect a whole generation of actors having to come to terms with growing older and either looking for new roles and reinventing themselves or encouraging writers to write older parts. As the movie was about people who struggled to retire from the excitement of their work and settle into a world that didn’t seem to want or value their experience or desire their input and jet who had so much to give it got me thinking about life, community and of course church.
In his book ‘SoulSalsa’ Leonard Sweet devotes a chapter to the idea of preparing to be Methuselah, that in the west anyway there is a whole generation of people who are living to an older age and being able to be more active to an older age. He illustrates this with an amazing list of people who have become known in their fields of art and endeavour right into their 80’s and 90’s. In a country where the welfare system is under pressure from an aging population there is a real move for people to stay at work for longer. I guess the civil unrest in France recently at the increase of the age which people will receive a state pension is an example of this. In the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand the average of age of attending has continued to go up and up and for someone who has maintained that my mission in life is to see emerging generations of New Zealanders become lifelong followers of Jesus Christ for the good of the world God loves’ I found it a real challenge from God to realise that the fastest emerging generation in our country is the older-old.

AS a church we have been kept going by people who have grown older and still have the energy and desire to contribute and lead. One of the most significant moves in Missions recently has been retired people investing time in short term and even long term mission and aid and development activity.
On reflecting on the film RED (retired extremely dangerous) there are a few things that I hope as I get older I will enact. The first is that in the film there was a real sense of that the way things were done when Willis and Co were in the agency was the best way. Maybe the time lapse between their involvement and now isn’t that huge but the new guard were portrayed as not quite up to scratch. Malkovich’s character quips to Mirren, ‘I remember the secret service being tougher than this’. I hope that I do not 9and I have to even check myself at the moment) look back to an idealised past and evaluate everything from that perspective. I hope my attitude is always one of encouragement and a willingness to encourage and support the new, and when asked to objectively mentor those who have taken the baton over. Sadly I have seen some churches where a certain age group often those with the longest involvement have continued to want control rather than wanting to contribute. I hope I know the difference.
In the end I hope that I will hear and head the words of a sermon I preached at the church my in laws attend a long time ago. That in God’s kingdom retirement is going home to glory, God does not retire people he retreads them and look to be productive and contribute to the kingdom of God and seeing emerging generations become lifelong followers of Christ, I may never be RED but I hope I was always be ready. ready at any and every age to encourage, contribute even step up, be part of the team and even to  innovate.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Forging An Authentic Christian Community

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”[a]: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Those who have been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. -Ephesians 4:17-5:1

I don’t know how many of you will be familiar with the artwork of Elmyr De Hory.

He was a major figure in the art world in the 20th century. It has been said that there probably isn’t a major collection of artworks in the world that does not contain at least one of his works. His life has captured the imagination of filmmakers like Orson Wells and several biographers.

Mind you I’m not surprised that many of you haven’t heard of him because a lot of people who have his paintings haven’t heard of him either. In fact a lot of people who have his paintings think they’ve got something else. They think they’ve got Picassos, Latrec’s, Mattise, Monet or Van Goth’s but actually they’ve got De Hory. Because Elmyr De Hory is one of the worlds most famous art forgers.

Orsen Wells’ film was aptly titled “F for Fake’. De Hory claimed to have painted over one thousand of the modern art classics and only about 70-80 of his fakes have been uncovered. In later life De Hory, in an effort to avoid the law, would sign the fronts of the paintings with the signature of the master and on the back put his own signature. People knew they were getting a fake but as one owner told a dealer who had sold them the painting when he came to a dinner party at their place don’t tell people it’s a De Hory they thing we’ve got a Picasso.

Rather ironically De Hory has got so famous that people have forged his signature on the back of their own copies of the masters. At a recent exhibition of his work there was genuine concern that amongst the works on show were some fakes De Hory forgeries .

Why did I start by looking at De Hory.

Well central to this passage in Ephesians is Paul’s imperative that we should be imitators of God. The word for imitator here can mean an artist’s ability to reproduce accurately the reality around them. Paul insists that Imitating Christ is what we must do to forge a genuine Christian community. De Hory was an artist of great range and ability who was able to look at the style and techniques of the masters and reproduce their brush strokes and vision in his own works.

While it may not sit that well having a forger put up as an example for Christian virtue copying as forgery is only a recent crime. Prior to the 19th century, the copying of work by other artists was considered an acceptable form of homage to the Masters, and considered an important part of an artist’s training. It was only when art became a commercial enterprise, and the demand for fine art far exceeded the supply, that copying became the crime forgery."

Coping the strokes of another then is the basis of Paul’s ethical teaching in this passage and else where in his writings he implores his readers to imitate God and more specifically to imitate Christ that Hebrews tells us is the exact visible image of the unseen God. It is an imperative that Jesus himself uses in the sermon on the mount where he sums up his talk of loving both enemy and friend by saying we are to be perfect as our father in heaven is perfect, showing no partiality.

Loving relationship not dry imperatives and commands forms the basis of Christian ethics. We are to imitate Christ because Christ loves us. Paul encourages us to do this as beloved children. In Greek and Roman culture adoption of an heir was a regular occurrence in rich houses. It was the privilege of being received as the heir of that house and enjoying all the benefits but along with that went a responsibility to reflect in your behaviour the traits and ethos of the family you were being adopted into.

Paul begins his letter by sketching out the framework for the picture that Christian community. He works through the gospel and its implications. He tells the Ephesians that because of Christ’s death and resurrection and their response to it that they have become the new people of God: One people that has been forged together across the great social divide of their time: The dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. Then at the beginning of chapter 4 he moves on to beg his readers to live up to the calling that they have received in Christ of being Gods people. The passage we are looking at today is part of this very practical teaching of how they and we who are members of a Christian community, drawn from across the divides of our own society and time can be forged into a loving Christ like community.

Then Paul spells out the detail work of the picture with a series of ethical imperatives in verses 25-30. Each of these has a prohibition; something that we ought not to do, an affirmation of how we should live and a reason for it. They deal at a very practical level with how we use our bodies as well as the attitudes we have. It’s like learning the muscle movements of God’s brush strokes with which we can paint our community.

"Putting away all falsehood let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another."

The body image gives Paul’s rational for encouraging Christians to be truthful to one another. It conjures up some rather interesting mental images. You could imagine that your body wouldn’t function that well if your eyes kept deceiving your feet And it would make using a knife really interesting and wildly dangerous if the eyes weren’t giving true information to your hands.

Adrain Plass has written a very funny and pointed poem, in which he describes the arguments and hassles that go on most common garden variety families, particularly when your trying to get everyone into the car and off to church on time. However when the family gets to church all the issues to do with there everydayness and their need for God’s grace and healing seem to vanish behind a mask: The church face and attitude” why yes everything is OK”. It’s written from a child’s point of view and finishes with the child saying they are sure that God and the people at church would care and help if they could see the real people their parents are. The word hypocrite that Jesus used of the Pharisees means putting on a mask, becoming an actor. For genuine community to occur we need to allow each other to be truth speakers and go beyond the false fronts we so easily put up.

Yet this is a reflection of who God has revealed God self to be. In 1 John 1:5 the apostle makes the wonderful assertion about God. That “God is light and in him there is no turning of darkness.” Jesus said “I am the way the truth and the light”. The Holy Spirit is the one who leads us into all truth. Being truthful full of truth is the very nature of God and we are to imitate that in our lives. We often put masks on to keep ourselves away from each other but the word imitate that Paul uses here has another meaning that of putting on the mask of a god in a religious rite. Which mask will we wear?

“ Be angry but do not sin, do not let the sun go down on your anger, do not make room for the devil.”

Anger is an emotional response to situations actions and events as such it’s often hard to control the feeling but as Paul says here we shouldn’t let it lead us into sin. We can control our physical actions our actual responses. Angry responses and outbursts can have devastating effects on a Christian community. They can cause rifts. Anger that is allowed to continue can become bitterness and leave gaping wounds that do not enable the body to be knit back together. I guess that’s why it important that we do not let the son go down on our anger. These rifts are just the finger hold that the devil needs to be able to break down the church that Christ wants to build up. At the end of today text Paul talks of imitating Christ and his death by forgiving one another. Forgiveness is the right action in the Christian community not lingering anger.

It is the nature of the God who loves us, a God who is slow to anger and quick to bless, who while we were yet sinner sent his son to pay the price for us. Who said from the cross father forgive them they know not what they do.

v. 28 “Thieves must give up stealing, (prohibition) rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands (affirmation), so that they will have something to share with the needy (reason).”

Despite the fact that money seems to be one of the unholy trinity, money sex and power that cause the downfall of many Christian leaders stealing may not be a big ethical issue in the church today. However in New Zealand if you identify yourself as a Christian you are probably going to be asked what you think about the life style of a certain Christian leader and the idea of the prosperity gospel and how Christians use money. This imperative from Paul challenges our way of thinking about finances and work. The Christian ethic is not to be a community that takes for itself. That works hard simply to have a good standard of living but to have an economy based on providing for the needy. The focus moves from what can I get honestly or crookedly for myself to how can I care for those who are in need.

Jaun Carlos Ortiz a South American Pentecostal confronted with great poverty and wealth in his country sums up Jesus teaching by saying that if he has two coats and his neighbour doesn’t have one to keep out the cold. Then he should give them one of his. If his family has three meals a day and his neighbour has one then they should only have two each.

It also challenges our compliance with our consumer society as well. Lets face it sometimes the Christian faith can feel like a commodity In trying to keep up with the standard of living that the western world enjoys we are grabbing more than our fair share. This passage challenges us to adopt a simpler lifestyle so that the poor in the world may have a life.

In this God is our example. Our God is a gracious giver. It is God who provides all our needs who invites us to come and eat the richest of fare even if we have no money. Who did not even spare his own son but gave him up as a sacrifice to pay the price for all we have done wrong. It is Christ who gave himself up to death for our salvation; it is the spirit who gives gifts to the church that it might be built up. Freely we have received freely we should give.

"Let not evil language come out of your mouths, but rather only what is useful for building up, as there is need so that your words may give grace to your hearers.”

The motivation for using language only to build up comes from the fact that we will give grace to those who hear us. God’s word Jesus Christ was the embodiment of God’s grace spoken for us. Community relies totally on the way we communicate with each other. Perhaps here our Christ likeness needs to come out most.

Paul then finishes this section with a broader stroke that again reveal the big picture. He says that we are not to grieve the Holy Spirit. Bitterness, anger and wrath, wrangling, slander and malice are to be replaced with being kind to one another, tender hearted and forgiving one another as Christ has forgiven us, to imitate God as loving children.

This is Andrei Rublev’s icon called the trinity. While we often think of the trinity as a hierarchy. It shows the trinity as a community, sitting down together having table fellowship. It is a picture Letty Russell has taken for her book “the church in the round” to express the ideal for Christian community. A community living as equals gathered together in love around the table and the meal that reminds us Christ’s death and resurrection.

AS we look at the three imperatives at the end of the passage do not grieve the Holy Spirit, Imitate God and to love as Christ loved us, we can see that there is a Trinitarian formula. Ultimately to forge a Christian community we are to look at the model of the Godhead itself. It is a community where there are three distinct persons yet they are so intimate in their love towards each other they are can only be said to be one. This is our role model for living out the Christina faith. In the other Lord’s Prayer in John17 Jesus prays for his disciples that we may be one together as Christ was one with his father and that we may also enjoy the loving community of the trinity in Christ as well. A high ideal that seems almost unobtainable

Yet It’s quite liberating to realise that Paul has had to write about the things he does to this church. WE might view these early churches as perfect examples of the Christian communities but they are like all of us. They are people who struggle to show genuine love to one another. With hands and lips, with words and with actions and reactions we don’t always imitate Christ. It’s why “forgive one another as Christ has forgiven you” is so important. We all blow it and we need God’s grace and each other’s grace. Maybe its in that forgiving and being forgiven we reflect most clearly the great grace God has shown us in Christ.

Icons are pictures whose time has come again. They inhabit our computer strewn 21st century world. People know that if they click on an icon on a windows desk top that they will find themselves in a programme that is so much more that just the picture of it, a virtual reality.

Just like with religious icons. People look at them (click on them) and contemplate and are drawn into the reality behind and beyond them. Our care for one another and our Christian community are like an Icon. If people in our nation and our community are to know God’s love for them they need to see that picture in the community that we in the church forge together in love as we imitate Christ. If they are to know Christs forgiveness and be reconciled to God and to one another they need to see it in us. In all we do and say in how we act and react to one another we are called to reflect and imitate God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God who is with us and at work in us not to produce a de Hory like fake but rather an authentic picture of Christ painted by the master’s hand.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Lord of the Starfields

A quick prayer giving thanks top our Triune God. Have tried to capture a sense of ancient Celtic prayers. the title line comes from a song by Bruce Cockburn.

Lord of the star fields, Ancient of Days,

You spoke and it came into being,

You breathed and we had life,

You weave your plans through all our days

Hallelujah, praise the Lord

We will praise the lord as long as we live

Lord of the harvest field, lover of souls

You came near with good news of God’s love

Your death made us alive to you again

You knit wholeness into our brokenness

Hallelujah, praise the Lord

We will praise the lord as long as we live

Wind of God, consuming fire

You shine your light and show us truth

You infuse us with divine life, joy and peace

You nurture good fruit to ripen within us

Hallelujah, Praise the Lord

We will praise the lord as long as we live

Friday, November 12, 2010

They left their nets and followed Jesus (Mark 1:14-20) (sermon text)

Mark 1:14-20 (New International Version)

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.

19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him

In the obscure 1999 sci-fi film ‘The Thirteenth Floor’ the main character Douglas Hall is part of a team of three that create a virtual computer world. He can download his brain waves into a computer-generated character in that world and live there for a period. The created world is Los Angeles in the 1920’s, a movie exploring the frontier of digital technology and virtual reality goes back to a time and place where film the first virtual reality was being pioneered. The characters in this virtual world have no comprehension of anything beyond themselves, they don’t realise they are created they don’t recognise their creator as he steps in amongst them. One of the computer generated characters in the virtual world finds out that he is in a computer programme living in a computer simulation and tests this crazy idea by trying to drive out of the city. He finds as he drives past the city limits and out into what he thinks will be the Californian desert that the whole landscape begins to disappear that at its edges the computer does not have enough power to generate a full programme anymore that his reality becomes made up of a series of intersecting green lines: the net that computers use as the basis for their graphics and his reality. His world made up of these nets is challenged when the creator steps into it and as a result he is changed. He is aware of a bigger reality beyond the everyday.

The fisherman on the shores of the Sea of Galilee also live in a world and reality made of up nets and into that world of nets Jesus walks and because of this close encounter of the Jesus kind it totally changes. “Jesus words come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men’ not only calls them to leave the physical nets that feature in their lives, but also like in the film ‘the thirteenth floor’ it calls them to leave the very nets that are the basic structure and fabric of their existence and follow Jesus. It’s what close encounters of the Jesus kind do.

Let’s put the passage in context., Mark had introduced us to Jesus through the ministry of John the Baptist and in Jesus baptism and temptation we see the identity of Jesus revealed to us. In his baptism, the other two persons of the trinity have testified to Jesus as the anointed one and the Son of God. In his temptation we see that Jesus is here to lead the struggle against evil in the world. Once John has been arrested Jesus starts his own ministry. He comes to the province of Galilee where the prophecy in Isaiah 9 said the good news of God’s salvation would first be preached.

His central message is that the time has come. The long awaited time of the coming of God’s kingdom had arrived. It had arrived because God’s anointed one was here. God’s king was here. We tend to think of Kingdoms in terms of territory and borders but in the ancient near east kingdoms were rather fluid, empires grew and shrunk. A kingdom was where people swore loyalty to a particular king and obeyed them. For example in Israel someone became king when the tribes came and swore loyalty to them. Now with Jesus coming God’s reign had broken into the realm of man and Jesus call was for a new people to repent and believe this Good news; to swear loyalty to God’s anointed one. To set up a new people who lived in way that reflected God’s reign.

Then Mark uses a series of encounters between Jesus and various people to show his authority as the anointed one. He calls people to follow him, heals the sick, forgives sins, frees people from demonic possession and demonstrates that he is lord of the Sabbath.

In Jesus calling his first disciples we see what it means to repent and believe. As these are paralleled in the two sets of brothers leaving their livelihoods, their identities, family and support structures to follow Jesus. We often think that repent and believe means to give up some horrific sin in our lives and turn to God and some of us don’t readily relate to this.

But they also mean to leave what may be good and acceptable and seek something better :to follow Jesus. For many of us it may be like what humorist Garrison Keillor says “give up your good Christian life and follow Christ”.

Tim Keel who lecturers in “Missional church leadership” at Laidlaw college out in West Auckland says an alternative translation for the word repent would be ‘wake up’. People are invited to wake up from their sleep and see a greater reality beyond the nets of their lives. If you want references from science fiction movies you could say it’s a matrix moment where the main character Neo is called to wake up and see a greater reality beyond the one that has kept him captive. To repent is to wake up to the reality of Jesus.

In typical Mark fashion we are short on details. Luke and Matthew show us that there was more to these encounters. They had heard Jesus preaching. He demonstrated who he was in sending them out into the deeper water to let down their nets after they had been fishing all night and not caught anything. But again Mark tells us everything he wants us to know.

Simon and Andrew are out fishing. It’s how they make their living. They are casting their net into the Sea. Jesus comes past and calls out to them ‘come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men’. They leave their net and they go and follow. Jesus comes to another set of brothers James and John mending nets with their father and hired hands and Jesus says come and follow me and they get up and follow. You know this is quite a big move for them and us.

Firstly, It affected their net worth. These are not just some poor fishermen eking out an existence, we know that the Sea of Galilee was known throughout the roman world for its abundant fish stocks and there was a thriving export market in salted fish. In Mark 10 Peter’s words ‘Lord we have given up everything to follow you’ is not an idle boast they had given up a lot. James and John were in the prosperous family business, they hired other fishermen to work for them. To follow Jesus meant to leave this behind. It meant that their priority was no longer going to be hauling in the fish and the money but following Jesus and hauling people into God’s kingdom. Now the way that there was always a boat around when Jesus needed to cross the lake shows that they didn’t totally abandon what they had and we have the example of Paul who was able to support his missionary endeavours by being a tent maker. But to follow Jesus means leaving the priorities we have in our materialistic world and put Jesus and his kingdom first. In Luke’s gospel the measure of the depth of our discipleship is reflected in the depth it reaches into our wallets.

Our worth and value in life is no longer to be measured by what we have and our status, or our possessions but in Jesus Christ. “that’s my king do you know him. The parable that Jesus tells to illustrate that the kingdom of God is like a pearl of great price that a merchant finds in a field and is willing to give up all he owns to possess it. It becomes his networth

Secondly, It affected their networks. For James and John to answer Jesus call they left their father in the boat with the hired help and followed Jesus. Networks are the way we talk about the relationships we have that give us meaning and purpose in life. To follow Jesus means changing those networks of relationships. In some parts of the western church the Christian faith and family values have become synonymous, but when you look at the gospel its not the central tenant of the faith. We are called to even leave these commitments behind to follow Jesus. Now before you get too upset you’ll see that this wasn’t totally the case, Simon’s following Jesus led to the healing of his mother-in-law, we know that Simon later known as Peter took his wife on his missionary travels with him. But to follow Jesus means to put our relationship with Jesus first.

Leonard Sweet, uses the idea of a network of right relationships to express what it means to follow Jesus. He actually uses the more “in” word Matrix. Being a follower of Jesus is about having a matrix of right relationships: a right relationship with God, God’s word, fellow believers, others outside our faith, with God’s creation, with material things and the spirit world and at the heart of those things is having a right relationship with Jesus.

At the heart of this new network is being caught up in Jesus. To be a fisher of men first you’ve got to be caught. Follow me is an invitation to a relationship with Jesus, its knowing and being known by him. It’s an invitation to intimacy and being loved, but also to a being a follower and a learner (a disciple) letting someone else lead. Letting Jesus be at the heart of your universe.

The picture behind Sweets matrix of right relationships is a great illustration of this its a Hubble telescope picture of the cross that appears at the dead centre of the vast whirlpool galaxy. This vast amazing galaxy of billions of stars M51 has at its heart and very centre and revolves round the cross. ( I must thank Louie Gigglio for this illustration).

Thirdly, Net worth and networks are like the strands that weave together to make our safety net in life. They are the things that make us feel safe and we can fall back on. You see in that after Jesus death Peter says to his fellow disciples “hey lets go fishing”. We see it in that phenomenon of our time ‘the boomerang generation’ adult children returning home to mum and dad when things don’t work out as they planned. But following Jesus calls us out from our safety nets, to follow with only the ever-loving arms beneath us around us.

Fourthly, Come and follow me meant that there network was changed. Their network of catching fish was their core business but following Jesus would change that. Not just their relationship network but what they did as well. They put aside their nets and Jesus said that they would become fishers of men. Jesus used their identity as fishermen to invite them into this new endeavour. They wouldn’t cast their net for fish but to follow Jesus means to do what Jesus does. To follow Jesus is to do network where people are gathered into the kingdom of God.

NT Wright says that following Jesus is making Jesus story our story and when we do that. ‘It will become your vocation’ he says

‘Everybody has their own role in God’s plan. For some it will be active, obvious, working in the public eye, perhaps preaching the gospel or taking the love of God to meet the practical needs of the world. For others, it will be quite, away from the public view praying faithfully for God to act in fulfilment of his promises. For many, it will be a mixture of the two, sometimes one, sometimes the other.”

Fishing for men and women starts with networking as well. The way that the good news spreads best is through friendship networks. If we were looking at John’s account of the calling of the first disciples you would see that it was people telling their friends and relatives about Jesus that meant that the disciples came to follow him. Andrew told his brother and then we have Philip telling Nathaniel. It’s the same process today.

We have come to think of evangelism and doing what Jesus did as something special. Jim Henderson says that we tend to think of sharing our faith as being personality or programme based. If you’ve got the right personality like Billy Graham or Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ you can do it, or if you’ve got the right programme like Alpha or Rob Harley’s Journeys you can do it. But in actual fact it is the ordinary work of ordinary people like us. It is a natural outcome to Jesus call to follow him. It comes in the simple acts of kindness, prayer and ‘gossiping the gospel’ simply telling people about this person Jesus and what he has done for us. “thats my king do you know him.

In the movie poster for the thirteenth floor is the image of a man before a door a way into the light. It’s a way into a new reality beyond the nets that make up his life. Today I really sense to leave you with the familiar words of Jesus. An invitation that does reach down to the very fabric of our reality, A door that Jesus invites us to go through.

Jesus said ‘come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men’. And they left their nets and followed him. What nets do you need to leave? What nets tangle you up that in the words of Hebrew 12;2 do you need to cast aside. What fresh challenge do these words have for you? What door are they open?

Jesus said ‘come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men’ and we need to leave our net and follow him.