Sunday, May 25, 2014

Electronic Operators, the Burning Bush and Encourgaement to Pray In All Circumstances from jesus Parable of the Persistant Widow and the Unjust Judge (Exodus 3:1--12 and Luke 18:1-8)

I have been noticing recently that I'm getting older... my hair is having a race between turning grey and falling out... but at least it's competitive and lets face it I'm old enough to remember why the picture of the right is funny from the first time round. and I’m getting to that stage in life where I’m struggling to keep up with technology, at least that’s what my kids tell me. I’ve recently got a smart phone and I’m definitely not sure I like the idea of my phone being smarter than I am. And the number of times it tells me I’ve pushed the wrong button and the way it tries to predict and correct my words make me think that it thinks it is smarter than me. And it makes me seem rather dumb as people get these garbled txts for me with weird words plonked in the middle of them. But one piece of modern technology I definitely don’t like is electronic operators. You know when you ring a company or a government agency, even my doctors office, and instead of getting to talk to a real person you get to talk with a machine and have to navigate your way through countless menus before you can get to someone who will help. Anybody else find that frustrating? Or just down right annoying?...If you do then press 2.

A while back I wondered what it would be like if God Installed an electronic operator to deal with prayer in supposedly a more efficient way.

EO: Hi you’ve reached prayer central

If you are praying a prayer of Adoration Press 1

If you are praying a set/read or liturgical prayer Press 2

If you are praying a prayer of confession Press 3

If you are saying grace before a meal please Press 4 and depending on the time of day expect a delay.

If you are praying a prayer of intersession, that’s praying for others Press 5

If you are praying a prayer of thanksgiving Press 6

If this is your first time praying Press 7 and we will take you through the process in three easy to follow steps.

If you are praying “the sinner Prayer” Press 8


Person: Oh OK I’d better press 5

EO: You have chosen ‘Intercessory prayer’.

If you are praying for the World in general Press 1

If you are Praying for a specific country Press 2 And access our Continents directory.

If you are Praying for your city Press 3 And access our city directory.

If you are Praying for your church Press 4 And access our Denominational directory.

If you are Praying about a health issue Press 5 and Access our Medical directory.

If you are praying for family members then Press 6

If you are praying an emergency prayer Press 7

If you are Praying for the Lost Press 8

Press 9 if you wish to hear these options again and 0 if you wish to be returned to the operator.

Person: Oh I’ll Press 7 If it wasn’t an emergency prayer before but it’s getting that way…

EO: You’ve selected Emergency prayer Hold the line please. RINNG, RINNG, RINNG Click.

You’ve reached the voice mail for “God”. “Hi I’m Not in at the moment Please leave your name, phone number, church affiliation and a brief message after the beep and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” BEEP.

Person: Oh ah It’s Heinrich Morse, 347 0002, St Emma’s at the mall here, Umm I’m Just praying to you about my mum’s health. She’s Ah really sick, the doctors say she doesn’t have that long to live and that it’s only a miracle that can save her now. I tried to get you this morning but well I just got your answer machine again. I really would appreciate an answer”.

EO: Thank you.

Press 1 to end this call.

Press 2 if you want to hear your message played back.

Press 3 to delete your message

Press 4 if you would like to re-record your message.

Press 5 for the soothing music of the heavenly choir

Press 6 If you are going to continue praying and would like to access another department.

You know sometimes prayer can seem like that... right? Sometimes we pray and the only answer we seem to get is the mocking echo of our voices off the walls and ceiling, or deafening silence as we shout our prayers into the void. We pray and we feel we are not heard let alone that any answer comes. That somehow God is otherwise occupied, too busy with world affairs to worry about our concerns, or just away from the office. He’s gone home left the phone off the hook, put his feet up and fallen asleep in front of the tele…Now before you all go moving away from me just in case of a lightning strike in some of the psalms of lament people of faith have thrown that sort of accusation at God, as they feel abandoned in their suffering.  And it can be easy to get despondent and give up. It’s as if the gates of heaven we’re closed tightly to us and we are left pounding on the doors hoping someone will hear us.

But God Jesus says is quick to answer pray, He doesn’t fob us off. He hears our prayers and he answers. God doesn’t have an Electronic Operator, or voice mail or an answer machine. God’s open twenty four hours a day, and you don’t need a touch tone phone to get through. God’s schedule is never too full that he will tell us to go away and come back another day. God doesn’t have a guard dog secretary to keep people away. But rather ‘God will see his chosen Get Justice quickly’.

In the bible reading we had this evening from Luke 18 Jesus told a parable to encourage us to pray. I have a suspicion that many of you here today could relate to that, from a position of powerlessness and the edge of society wrestling to make someone in authority hear and respond to your need.

Jesus talked of a widow who went to an unjust judge to demand justice. In Jewish culture care for widows and orphans was an important part of the way people were to honour their covenant relationship to God. If it was in a modern setting, she would have gone to his office to see him. She’d have made an appointment and been seen but then heard nothing from the judge. Why should he deal with this issue, she is just a poor widow there is more important and lucrative things to deal with. She’d rung back almost everyday, left messages on his phone, sent emails, she’d come back to see him and he’d told his secretary to tell her he was out, then she’d taken to waiting for him in his waiting room. He’d had to tell her a few times as he went out to lunch with important people that he didn’t have time at the moment. She’d even started waiting outside his door every morning and night… he used to park his flash car outside so everyone could see it but now he simply drove into the security parking area under the building and took the lift up to his office. She’d got his home phone number and mobile and kept ringing. Now when he walked down the street or drove past a crowd he thought he saw her there on the side of the road looking at him… He’d look up when he was out to dinner or lunch and he’d catch a glimpse of her, or at least he thought he did. Perhaps he could take out a restraining order… but she’d even started to appear in his dreams. This can’t go on… It’s wearing him out…So finally, even though he’s not interested in justice, he goes into the office one day rings her up sees her and deals with the situation… and he gets the first full night’s sleep he’s had for a while.

Well how is that an encouragement for us to pray in every situation?

The hope we have Jesus is tells us is that God is not at all like the unjust judge. In fact all the way through scripture God is affirmed as being a just judge, full of mercy, for and with his people. The hope we have when we pray is in the very character of God.

In our other reading this evening from the book of Exodus we have God revealing himself to Moses in the burning bush. And I love the fact that the logo of our church is the burning bush because of what it tells us of God’s very nature. Moses encounters the Holy God in the burning bush, not a distant disinterested deity, but one who has drawn near. God tells Moses that he has heard the cries of his people, he has seen their suffering and that God cares and will deliver them and he is sending a saviour to free them from their troubles and slavery, and he will go Moses. God’s nature is revealed… God hears, God sees, God draws near, God cares, God sends and God goes with. We can come to God in prayer because the God Moses encountered at the burning bush is the same God who is the father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the same God who hears and sees and care and answers and sends and saves today.

Coming back to Luke chapter 18, we only need to see who is telling us this parable to see it is true, God sees, God hears, God cares about our suffering about our slavery to sin and to death that he has drawn near, as John tells us in the prologue to his gospel, the word became flesh, as he tells us in that most well-known of scriptures John 3:16 “for God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life. We see it in the way Jesus invites the outcasts to come to him, he owns that most beautiful of titles, which was thrown at him as an insult but is so full of hope and the compassion of God “Jesus a friend of sinners” you look at the gospels and see how he sees and hears the needs of the poor and the sick and heals them. How he challenges the authorities of his day to be about Justice and mercy, how at the cross he asks forgiveness for those who persecute him and invites a repentant thief hanging on the cross beside him to be with him today in paradise. …In the fact that he willingly gave up us life on a cross so that you and I may have our sins forgiven and know abundant life in Christ.

It is the same God who meets with by the Holy Spirit today. Who the writers of the New Testament can say ‘cast your cares on him because he cares for you’, ‘we may boldly approach the throne of grace Hebrews 4… That if we say that we are without sin we call God a liar, but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just,…there it is again, the very character of God… he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The one, Jesus told us, knows how to give his children good gifts and will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.  We have a God who hears and who sees and who cares and who draws near and who sends and in that is encouragement to pray… in that is the assurance that God will see his people get justice quickly.

And like many of Jesus parables this one finishes with a challenge, “but when the son of man comes… referring to Jesus second coming… will he find faith on the earth?” Will he find people who have put their faith and trust in Jesus as their saviour and who are willing to trust him in all circumstances, to continually and persistently come to God  and trust in the sure knowledge that God is with them and for them, that he hears and sees and cares and draws near and responds. The parable we are looking at is most often known as the parable of the persistent widow, and she is the model for us of the life of faith. Coming to God and never giving in or losing hope. Even when the answer is wait or no she is willing to keep putting her trust in the fact that she will receive justice. Jesus words from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:7 sum up that faith… Ask and it will be given to you, Seek and you will find, and Knock and the door will be opened … they also are backed up by the very character of God, God knows how to give good gifts to those who ask him.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Out of Our Comfort Zones... The Holy Spirit leads the Church into Mission (Acts 10)... Fire and Wind: encountering the Holy Spirit inn the Book of Acts and in Our Lives Today (part 5)

It may be easy to read the bible passage in Acts 10 that we did today and not realise that we are reading an account of one of the most seminal moments in history; A moment of revolution, a moment of transformation, a moment that changed the world forever.  Think, Rosa Park refused to move down the back of the bus to let a white man sit down, that was like lighting the fuse of the civil rights movement. Or respected Maori elder Dame Whina Cooper, deciding to start walking from her home on the Hokianga to Wellington to protest for Maori land rights, galvanised a nation to face there past and this injustice, a journey we are still on. Like those things On one level it seems to be a very small event, it involves two men coming together across a geographic distance, an offer of hospitality and the sharing of a new Idea,. At another level it is totally a profound God moment, two people coming together across one of the deepest cultural and religious divides of history, sharing great good news of God’s love and grace: it’s the moment where God shows the fledging church that the good news of salvation and inclusion into God’s people is not just for a chosen few but for all peoples, for Gentile as well as Jew.

We are working our way through the book of Acts to encounter the Holy Spirit in the lives of those first believers and to understand and hopefully experience the movement of the same Holy Spirit in our lives today, individually and as a church. It maybe hard to relate to such a  quantum leap as we read about today but there is so much from this narrative that I believe speaks to us today.

If you’ve been coming along regularly while we’ve been going through this series you’ll notice that we’ve done a big jump this week. Last week we looked at Acts chapter 4 and the way in which those first believers responded to opposition to their message and mission. Between the two passages we have the story of the early church wrestling with trouble within itself and growing persecution from the religious authorities in Jerusalem, culminating in the death of Stephen. Amidst that we see that God continues to answer the believer’s prayer that we looked at last week and gives them the courage to boldly speak God’s word and continues to perform signs and wonders through their ministry. The spirit continues to lead the church and enable people to witness to the risen Jesus Christ. We see the sovereignty of God, Philip being taken to the Kings way to meet a eunuch from Ethiopia who becomes a believer and of course Saul a passionate persecutor of the followers of Jesus, encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus. Both these events lead us to what we read this morning. The Ethiopian eunuch becomes a believer, Paul not only becomes a believer in Jesus but receives a call proclaim Jesus name to the gentiles. All the way through we see the Holy Spirit at work in the church doing the things that Jesus had said the Spirit would do, leading them into all truth, giving them peace, enabling and empowering them to be witnesses.

Then we come to what Darrell Bock calls the most important unit in Acts, where the gospel goes out directly to a gentile and his household for the first time. The drama unfolds like a play told in eight scenes in four parts.  We have the open part where almost in parallel we have God speaking through an angel to Cornelius, a roman officer, and then to Peter, setting the scene for what will happen. Cornelius is called a god fearer that is a non-Jew who is attracted to the Jewish faith, Cornelius showed his devotion in his prayer life, like we saw in Acts 3 he was keeping the hours of prayer and through the way he willing gave money to the poor. He is told that God has heard his prayers. Peter who is simply praying sees a vision of a mix of clean and unclean food and is invited by God to go eat, he is invited to look beyond his cultural and religious worldview to see what God is doing in Christ.

Then in the second part we have the journey and welcome, the barriers start to come down, Peter invites the men who had come from Joppa into the house he is staying in, which would have been a no-no in Jewish culture, risking ritual uncleanliness and then as peter goes to Cornelius’ house he goes and breaks the barrier even more by accepting hospitality in the gentiles house.

The third part consist of the speeches, Cornelius recounts what had happened and how he had been visited by an angel and Peter who had been confused by the vision he had now understands what God had been saying and tells Cornelius and his household about Jesus life and death and resurrection.

Then we have the fourth part, we have an account of the acceptance of the gentiles into God’s kingdom and people as the Holy Spirit comes on them just like it did on those first believers, it convinces Peter that God indeed has called all peoples into a new relationship with him as their people in Jesus Christ, so he baptises them, which is that sign of acceptance and inclusion. Beyond what we read today in Acts 10 the story concludes with in Acts 11:1-18 with the news being bought back to the believers in Jerusalem and an acceptance by the church that  the good news of Jesus Christ is for the gentiles as well.

I want to draw some points out of this narrative for us today. The most important ones come out of the fact that in this narrative we see that this God at work.

All the way through from beginning to end we are shown that this is the work of the God. God hears Cornelius’ prayer he sees Cornelius’ devotion and concern for the poor and God answers, God sends an angel to meet with Cornelius, God speaks to Peter in a vision, Challenging Peter’s perceptions of who is and isn’t clean. Note that Cornelius needs an intermediary and that God choses to speak directly to Peter. In the timing of the coming of the envoys to see Peter we sense the hand of God, divine timing. In the speeches that both Cornelius and Peter give we see a re affirming of God’s roll, and Peter rightly focuses on the fact that at the core here is the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that this is now for everyone. Then it is the spirit that confirms this, in coming upon the people gathered even before Peter had stopped speaking. There is no apostolic intermediary here, it’s a God thing. The whole of the trinity is involved its god from start to finish.

Firstly, for us today one of the ways that people talk about mission is that it is seeing where the Spirit is already at work in the world and going and joining our efforts with what the spirit is already doing. Like with Peter it is often a matter of having our eyes opened our preconceived ideas challenged so we can see and act with the compassion and good news of Jesus Christ.

Fortunately this is not like some cosmic where’s Wally hunt we know the heart of God that has been revealed to us in the gospels and scriptures and it points the way for us. Very often that mission comes knocking on our doors.   One of the things about living in Auckland is that it is like the whole world has come to us... we are one of the most multi cultural cities in the world. At our garage sale yesterday I was talking to someone about the marriage course we are running and a man over heard us and was very excited that we were encouraging people to work on their marriages. he told me that he knew people who worked and studies for many years to be an engineer or a doctor but were not willing to put the same effort into becoming a better husband or father. he was a Muslim and was very open to speaking out our different faith and I've invited him to drop by anytime he wants and continue the conversation. Mission knocks at our door, even when you are simply trying to sell people  second hand books.

In the Genesis creation narrative the Spirit of God is hovering over the Water’s, it’s a picture of the ocean being stirred up by the wind of the spirit and that is what the Spirit continues to do with us today stir us up. Still water can easily become stagnant and anything but fresh and life giving, we need God to stir us up to what he is calling us to do on a constant basis. To be carried on the current of the spirit working in history. I have friends who are leaving their safe jobs here in Auckland to head to Kolkata, to work with a group that sets up businesses to help women who have been trafficked in the sex trade. It is part of the spirit stirring people up to help with the invisible people who are caught up in the resurgence of slavery. But of course one of the ways the spirit has been stirring up the church in the west is to realise that our mission field is not always way over there but its right here around us. You just have to walk through the main street in Panmure to see what one of the only growth industries is there. We can see that this stirring up and joining what the Spirit is already doing is already happening in our midst… It’s interesting in the first few weeks I was here at St Peter’s I read an article in the herald about the isolation felt by new mothers in the suburbs and saw that in mainly music and the community that grows round the playgroup here that God has stirred us up to help meet that need. God is wanting to reach out to the suburban families in our city.

t our parish council meetings recently we’ve been trying to get away from simply doing devotions to studying the scriptures a bit more closely and allowing them to speak into our situation here and give direction.  Our last meeting was just after Easter and on Easter Sunday I had preached on Mary, Thomas and Peter encountering the risen Jesus and we’d skipped the account of Jesus meeting his disciples on the shore of the sea of galilee. As we read it one of the things that stuck out to the group was Jesus call to the disciples as they were out fishing and hadn’t caught anything all night, to put the net over the other side. Jewish fishermen would traditionally only use the one side of their boat for that, and as they were prepared to look at a new way of doing something they were all very good at, they caught a massive amount of fish. There was a sense of being invited to think of fresh expressions of new ways to be the church. The way we structure ourselves and think of ourselves is very much the model we have inherited of the small community church in Scotland or England and maybe that will not serve us that well in twenty first urban Auckland.

ust another couple of quick things to finish with… The first is that God actually lead Peter in several small steps to a very challenging and revolutionary thing. Did you notice it? Before he went God led him to open his own home in hospitality. The Spirit guides us step by step and its often as we open ourselves up to new things and new possibilities that it leads us further into what God has for us. The important thing is that we are willing to take those first steps. Peter didn’t even fully understand what was going on and it was only when he arrived at Cornelius’ door and the maybe only when he saw the spirit come on those gathered just like it had at Pentecost that he fully understood… That’s the element of faith and trust.

And lastly, that God is able to confirm things for us because it is God who calls us into new fields and into mission even across the social barriers of our day and time, as an outworking of God’s compassion and love for all peoples. But you know it’s often only as we are willing to step out in our lives that we see that, maybe that first step is even to simply invite someone to church or to tell people we’ll pray for them in a dark situation, or say hi to someone outside our normal sphere of friends. Mission is God’s work from first to last, he is with us and for us.

Our vision as a church is that “we are called to be an authentic, vibrant, sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus, and inspiring others to join us on the Journey” and you know I sense that that authenticity and vibrancy and sustainability will grow only as we are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit as a loving community beyond our walls and where we are here. That growing as followers of Jesus is a call to do just that to follow Jesus where he leads us by the Spirit, even if it is out of our carefully constructed comfort zones into the unknown, trusting that he can confirm his leading. Inspiring others to join us on the journey is to be on the journey: The adventure of proclaiming Jesus to all peoples.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Call to Worship in Word and Image (Psalm 103:8,10-12, Romans 1:16-18)

A Call to Worship is a way of gathering a congregation together and inviting them to draw near to God. The following is a series of PowerPoint slides I used in a service recently as a call to worship. It is joining together  words from Psalm 103 and Romans 1. The message fro the day was looking at Acts 4 looking at the first believers response to opposition. So I wanted something that both picked up the message that Peter and john had preached before the Sanhedrin (Psalm 103) and a bold affirmation of the being wiling to own and proclaim the gospel.

It was designed to be read antiphonally (thus words in white and yellow aligned to the left and right of each slide) I always hope that the combination of both word and image will help people to focus on what is being said. Fell free to use it is you think that there is any merit in how I've used it...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Shaking Off The Opposition... Praying for the Holy Spirit's Power in the Face of Set Backs (Acts 4)... Fire and Wind: Encountering the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts and Our Lives Today (Part 4)

“People” says Ajith Fernando “ often talk about getting back to the church like it was in Acts. They tend to focus on a romantic understanding.” They look through rose tinted glasses “they think of a church that saw many miracles, much conversion, amazing unity and spirit filled leadership. They forget that Acts also describes the troubles the Church faced from within itself and without.” We can forget that right after the chapter we had read out to us today is the very disturbing incident an Ananias and Sapphira, and the allegations of prejudice against the widows in the Hellenistic Jewish Community when it came to distributing to those who were in need.  And of course Fernando rightly points out After Acts chapter three there are only three chapters” in the book “that do not mention persecution” and “That Chapter four marks the beginning of the resistance to evangelism in the life of the church, a feature that has been true of her life during the twenty centuries that followed.”

We are working our way through the book of Acts looking at the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the early church as a way of encountering the Spirit at work in our own life and times.  Today we are going to look at how God’s people reacted to the beginning of opposition and how the Spirit empowered them to continue to fulfil their and our mission of witnessing to the risen Jesus Christ in the face of these setbacks. I hope it will provide us with encouragement as we face setbacks in our own life but also to give us direction as a church in facing resistance to evangelism.

Last week we saw Peter and John had prayed for a man who had been born lame and he had been healed. They Had gone into the temple and the man had drawn people’s attention and Peter and john had taken the opportunity of preaching about Jesus Christ risen from the dead and the need for people to believe in Jesus. That’s where we stepped into the narrative in our reading this morning. It tells us that there were two reactions to this miracle and their message. The ordinary people responded positively to the gospel and the religious leadership saw it as a threat.

After they had finished speaking that they were arrested by the temple guards and the Sadducees. Sadducees were a party within the Jewish religious hierarchy similar to the Pharisees. They differed in their theology and outlook from the Pharisees, and while the Pharisees were the main opposition to Jesus during his ministry they seem to be quite accepting of the church, the Sadducees become the chief opponents in Acts, one of the reasons for that is they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the apostles were claiming that they were witnesses to Jesus risen from the dead. Peter and John are given a night in prison and then bought before the Jewish authorities in the morning.

The second reaction was that many came to believe and joined the fledgling church. That the number of believers grew to over five thousand. Some people think that we can focus too much on numbers, that they the sign of success, they are an important sign  not of success but as a representative of beloved individuals who have come to know Jesus as Lord and saviour.

The Sanhedrin ask Peter and John about whose authority they healed the man, as there is no way of denying the fact that he had been healed. Peter and John tell the council that it was in the name of Jesus Christ who they had crucified but who God glorified and raised to life again.  It tells us that Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and this is a fulfilment of the promise Jesus had made in Luke 12;11, that they would be dragged in front of such courts and they were not to worry because the Spirit would give them the words to say. The council’s response of course was that they were amazed at the courage of these ordinary folk, and couldn’t fault them. They warned them to not speak about Jesus again and set them free. Peter and John refuse to do this, the session had started with a question on whose authority and it finishes with Peter and John saying they will obey God rather than the authority of a human institution.

How did the early church respond to this opposition and what does that have to say to us.

Firstly it tells us that they were in unity. They gathered together around Peter and John, they listened to what had happened. One of things that setbacks or opposition or persecution can do is to isolate us from support or fellowship, we can let those things cut us off or we can find that we feel alone in the face of them. But one of the gifts that God has given to us for these times is the extended family of God. We are not alone, we belong together in Christ. And on e of the greatest gifts we can give to one another is to listen. Before we pray for the spirit to give us the words to say we should pray for the spirit to give us the ears to hear. We are doing the Alpha a Marriage Course at the moment and on Thursday Night we talked about the importance of communication in  marriage and the centrality of being a good listener in that process.  One of the key things for the persecuted church  round the world is that they need to know that their voice is heard, that they do not stand alone. Christian life and in particular Christian witness is a team sport.

The second thing they did was Pray. They took the situation to God in prayer. We have the invitation from Jesus recorded in Luke 18 to pray in all situations, the wonderful assertion in Hebrews 4 that we are able to boldly approach the throne of grace.  The image I am using for this series of messages on Acts reflects the logo of our PCANZ, the burning bush and for me it is a reminder of the nature of God as revealed to Moses, a God who hears and sees the plight of his people, who care and who responds, and sends. 

The substance of their prayer helps us as well.

They focused on the sovereignty of God. It is very easy to think that when things seem to go against us that everything is out of control, but our faith is in the fact that God is in control… God is sovereign… God made the heavens and the earth. The early believers quote Psalm 2 which talks of the nation’s conspiring against God, the psalm finishes with God establishing his Holy One. They saw this in the way that the authorities had treated Jesus, but that God had raised him to life again, God was in control, and God has the big picture in mind. We can often think of the sovereign God as the God way out their disinterested, distant and detached. But in tying that down to Jesus coming and suffering and dying we see that sovereign God is a God who is with us, a king who wears a crown of thorns.

In the wider flow of the book of Acts we see how God is able to use this growing persecution. The early church seemed to have been quite willing to follow Jesus command and stay in Jerusalem; it’s almost as if the they hadn’t heard the bit about Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth and it’s as if the Holy Spirit uses the persecution which starts here to encourage the believers to go. The Sanhedrin thought it was stamping out these people, but it was kind of like stepping in a puddle to stamp out water... in reality it simply splashes it out over a larger area. There is comfort and hope in the reality of the sovereignty of God, as we face setbacks and opposition that God is in control. But it’s not an excuse to sit back and do nothing.

Those first believers being aware of God’s sovereignty ask that God would give them the courage to speak the gospel with boldness. Something he had already started to do with Peter and John.  They ask for the courage to do what the sovereign God has called them and us to do, witness to Jesus Christ risen from the dead.  It would be easy for the church to simply play it cool, to keep the favour of the people and be quite, or even to lose confidence in the gospel. But they don’t. We too need to pray that we might have the courage to speak God’s word boldly, it may be in a different way than we were used to, without the mana of being in a position of power that we were in Christendom, but with the assurance that people still need to hear of the love and grace of God and the uniqueness of Christ, the only name by which people can be saved.  That of course does put us at odds with the prevailing worldview of tolerance and inclusiveness. It is often the hardest thing to do in the face of setbacks in our life and as a church in decline to speak of our faith in Jesus Christ but it is often when that message has the most impact it is in the face of adversity that people can see the truth of what we confess.

They also asked God to continue doing what he was doing, to keep on performing ‘signs and wonders’ through the name of Jesus’. Again they did not want to stop what God was wanting to do in the lives of the people round them. Sometimes I think people pray for renewal and revival and for God to move because they see it as an easy way out of doing the hard yards, if only God would turn up. But that is not the case here, firstly they realise that this will bring them into conflict again with the religious powers to be. Can I say it’s sad the way that its often those whom we would expect to most supportive of what God is doing who can be the focus for opposition. Secondly, because to be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be filled with the love and compassion of Jesus so we pray that God out of compassion for the people round us would continue his works of mercy and salvation and transformation in their lives.

The other thing that we are told is that the believers continued to live as a community of love. The passage finishes with one of Luke’s summaries of the life of the church. They continued to live the gospel out in their lives, to devote themselves to prayer and teaching, and fellowship, sharing what they have with one another. They are filled with the spirit and so demonstrate the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s presence and leading. In the face of setbacks and opposition we don’t stop being God’s people we continue to live out Christ’s love in our love for one another.

We see that God responded to their prayer by shaking the building, a sign of theophany, letting them know that he was with them and filling them with the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure that God always shakes buildings; the quaker’s got their name because they shock when the Spirit came upon them; but we do know that God is able to reassure his people of his presence in many different ways. I’ve mentioned it before but often when I pray for people in difficult situations it is by that sense of quite peace, like with Elijah on Mt Horeb, it was not in the earthquake or the storm or the fire but in the stillness that he experienced God’s presence. God is with us and encourages us to shake off the opposition and continue to serve him and be a gospel people in the power of the Holy Spirit. He will continue to fill us with his Spirit when we ask.

In the face of setbacks and opposition, we like those early Christians need each other’s love and support, we need to bring those situations to God, trusting in his sovereignty, and ask for the courage to live in a way that will witness to Jesus Christ and that God would continue to do his work in and through us and continue living our faith in the assured knowledge that God is with us.

Our vision as a church is that “we are called to be an authentic vibrant sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus and inspiring others to join us on that journey”… we can only see that vision continue to grow and blossom by the continued presence and power of the Holy Spirit. AS a church we need to pray that God may give us the courage to witness to the risen Jesus in word and deed and that he might continue to do his works of compassion, his signs and wonder, in and through us.  I wonder if such a prayer might have us quaking in our boots, well, You know it just maybe that the sovereign God might have to shake us up, might have to shake us awake, but in the end it is the sovereign God who is calling us, who is enabling us and who is for us and with us to the end of the age.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Numbers matter because each represents a beloved individual and some comments on Acts 4

On my widow sill I have placed a couple of pieces of rock, or rather pieces of old concrete from the water front at Ahuriri in Napier. They may not seem to be the most wonderful decorations however they are there for a reason. They were given to me by Alf Taylor who spoke at my Ordination. Alf is a very perceptive person and I have put them up where I can see them daily to reflect on the fact that the church is precious (well Ok in the case they are very ordinary) stones gathered together into the dwelling place of God... That individuals matter.

I'm enjoying using Ajith Fernando's commentary on the book of Acts in the 'NIV Application Commentary Series. His mission and third world background actually helps open up some areas of Acts that other western commentators do not. It is a good balance of good scholarship and good reflection on practical Church life and church mission. It complements the other two commentaries I am using by Darrell Bock and I Howard Marshall.

this week I am looking at Acts 4 and while it is not a main focus for the series I'm preaching I found Fernando's comments on the fact that Luke mentions the growth of the number of those who responded positively to Christ in verse 4 "But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand."  Fernando comments that this shows that numbers were important for the early church just as they are today. His comments however provide a good balanced way of  thinking about them.

He says that if we simply consider numbers as a sign of success then we are in trouble. "God's interest in numbers is not a measure of success, but because they represent people who have been rescued from damnation and granted salvation. The individuals who made up the five thousand are beloved persons for whom Christ died."

Numbers for numbers sake he goes on to say can led church leaders to unethical and manipulative ways of recruiting and evangelism, that do not actually respect the person as a beloved Individual rather sees them as a notch on the belt or a means to an end. They can water down the gospel, or the requirements of the faith to achieve their goals.

However he is also quick to point out that often people who say its about remaining faithful rather than all about numbers are easily fall into the trap of 'mistaking being true to their tradition rather that to Christ's commission.'  He says that often we do not acknowledge people who work in difficult and pioneering situations, quoting a missionary who worked in one particular area for many years without seeing one conversion. After he died the person who replaced him saw many come to Christ... when he asked them why they hadn't responded before they said that the first missionary had told them that Christians were not afraid to die so they had to wait and see how he died before they could see if his words were true."

Quantity and quality are not mutually exclusive they are in fact the key call of a church, it is reflected in chapter 4 of Acts by the fact that at it ends with one of Luke's wonderful snap shots of the early church at various  times in its life, and we see that the larger church was still reflecting the love of Christ in the way it fellowshipped and were willing to meet peoples needs by selling what they had to meet that need.

The challenge and encouragement is to be faithful to sharing the gospel in word and deed. I finished my message last week with a quote from Darrell Bock
. “To say God loves you without showing it leaves the words empty. To Minister but never point to God leaves the one ministered to without a clue to what has motivated that love.”
 I also appreciate Fernando's candour when he comments about looking back with rose tinted glasses at that early church... "people often talk about getting back to the church like it was in Acts. They tend to focus on a romantic understanding. They think of the church that saw many miracles, conversions amazing unity and spirit filled leadership. They forget that Acts also describes the troubles the church faced from within itself and without." ... after chapter 3 there are only 3 chapters in Acts that do not mention persecution and after the glowing report at the end of Acts 4 we find ourselves confronted with the perplexing story of Ananias and Sapphira and the issue of perceived impartiality between care for widows from the Hellenistic section of the church and city.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Machine (2013) a review... If I May Be So Bold.

I watched Caradog W. James' movie 'The Machine (2013)after reading a review which said that it was like the prequel to that most revered of sci-fi movies blade runner.   How could anything I thought to myself live up the brilliance of that masterpiece, particularly a low budget movie made in wales... But I was wrong.

The Machine was a wonderful and enthralling movie. Caity Lotz showed that she had come of age as an actor and her portrayal of a scientist and an Artificial Intelligence was anything but robotic. her dance background was obvious in the way that she managed to animate the machine Ava with a fluidity while still giving the impression of being mechanical. Toby Stephens gave a stellar performance as scientist Vincent, dealing with both the death of his daughter and working as the mentor for an AI. Dennis Lawson whose Sci-fi credentials include appearances in the original Star Wars Trilogy managed to encapsulate the Arch typical British secret service bad guy, exuding a cold calculating ruthlessness.

Unlike Blade runner which is known for creating what we know expect a over populated urban earth environment to look like, the Machine provides us with a very limited landscape focusing more on the confines of a military establishment, (It was filled at the infamous Greenham Common airbase) and an equally bleak and monotone hospital setting. The only wide shots are at the end which are there to signify freedom and a connection with the created world. Like a breath of fresh air after the oppressive surrounds of the military base.  Even so James' manages to transport us to a world that while vaguely familiar has the feel of being a dark future reality.

There were many scenes in the movie that mirrored and paid homage to Blade Runner it could in actual fact be a prequel. Testing to see if its a machine or a human is very similar, like blade runner the movie opens with such a test going wrong and ending in violence and does move to it being harder and harder to distinguish what is machine and what is human.  I particularly like one shot which showed the outside of the bunker they were working in looking very much like the building which housed the Tyrell Corporation, is this James trying to show us that this is the genesis of what we see in the Blade Runner future scape?

AS I watched the movie I found myself wrestling with issues of what does it mean to be human. if humanity is simply consciousness or is their something more. Is humanity about mercy and justice and compassion and caring or simply biology verse the mechanical. With Lawson's character being shown to be focused simply on a task at hand rather than considering the people and the wonder of what was going on round him. The Guards in the facility with their black uniforms act and react almost robotically where as the soldiers who are held prisoner-like and augmented with machine parts and computers behave more human like, they even develop their own language and aspirations to escape the half life they find themselves in. It does invite us to look at ourselves and to see what actual makes us human. Perhaps one can sum it up best by quoting that other sci-fi  classic Terminator 2... "if a machine can learn to love their is hope for us."

The film was well paced and didn't drag at any point. The special effects in this movie are great, understated and never detracting from what makes this a great movie the characters and the interaction. Although if I had one criticism the machine lighting up red was a little kitsch. I look forward to seeing what Caradog W James does next he I a director and writer to look out for... I'll be checking out his comedy "little white lie" (2006)  The movie is also, I think, a great advert for the welsh film industry. It will be interesting seeing the other plethora of movies being released at the moment  which deal with this issue... I saw Robocop (the remake) yesterday and despite the smaller budget and smaller palate on which to paint 'the machine' dealt with the topic much better although possibly not with the political sting of Robocop and its reflection on Us use of Drones. Transcendence is on the list to see as well. And after reading William Gibson and Robert J Sawyers the terminal experiment and the Wake trilogy I think it will have a lot to live up to.