Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Promised Holy Spirit (The Holy Spirit and Jesus through the lens of Luke's Gospel) Luke 3:21-22,Luke 4:16-21, Luke 24:44-49.

In the church calendar today is Pentecost Sunday. In the Christian faith we remember the events of the first Pentecost after the death and resurrection of Jesus, recorded in Acts chapter 2.  When God sent his promised Holy Spirit on all the believers gathered together.

You’d think that as it was Pentecost that we would be focusing on that passage in Acts 2 today.  Well we spent a week longer looking at the book of James that I thought we would, but also this year to help us understand who the Holy Spirit is we are working our way through a three week series looking at the Holy Spirit in the scriptures. I’ve called the series ‘The promised Holy Spirit… in the Old Testament… in Christ…and in the church.’ It is a quick overview, a whistle stop tour, touching down at significant places and then moving on again. It’s a bit different to what we normally do because it is pretty much straight bible teaching.  My hope and prayer is that we will gain a clearer and greater understanding of the Holy Spirit and that we may experience the Spirit’s real presence and enabling in our lives, individually and as a Church.

And to some extent all we are looking at in this series is focused on the events in Acts chapter 2. Last week we looked at the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew scriptures through the lens of the promise of the Holy Spirit made in Joel chapter 2:28-29 which Peter quoted on Pentecost. That Peter said was fulfilled at Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit. We saw that the Spirit wasn’t something new, but rather had been the means by which God had been moving behind the scenes from woe to go, all the way through the scriptures. As the Holy Spirit is God the Spirit was there at the beginning in creation, in Genesis 1:2 it says the spirit was brooding over the formless waters. We often use the metaphor of the breath of God to talk of the spirit and you get this wonderful picture of that breathe waiting for God to speak and that breath moving, bring things into being. We saw that the Spirit was poured out on specific people for specific tasks; from the artisans and engineers who made the tabernacles to leaders and prophets; people who could help Israel to be God’s people. But the new thing that Joel 2 looked forward to was a time when God would pour out his spirit on all flesh. All who believed in Jesus Christ, as we saw last week regardless of gender, age and socio economic status: On your sons and daughters, on old and young, even on your male and female servants.  God’s Spirit is for all, not just a special few; God wants to dwell in and with each of us by his Spirit. The Promise of the Holy Spirit is for all of us.

We looked at the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures but what about the Holy Spirit and Jesus? Where is the Holy Spirit in the gospels?  And What does it means for us?  I want to look at these questions by saying three things. Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit that was his experience. Jesus ministry was enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would be sent on his followers to enable them to be his witnesses and continue his ministry and mission.  The best way for us to look at those things is by looking at Luke’s gospel, Luke remember also wrote the book of Acts, it is the sequel to the gospel, both were written so that Theophilius and we might know the truth of what we have come to believe about Jesus.    

When you look at the start of Luke’s gospel it has the feel of a continuation of the Hebrew scriptures, the spirit is very busy at work behind the scenes:  John the Baptist is said to be filled by the Holy Spirit even before he is born, when his mother Elizabeth meets Mary it says that the baby leapt in her womb.  The Holy Spirit is the one we are told has caused Mary to become pregnant.  Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims Mary blessed amongst all women, and that her baby is the long awaited messiah. Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, is said to be filled with the Holy Spirit and prophecies when John is born.  When Jesus is presented in the temple in accordance with the Jewish customs, he is met by Simeon whom we are told ‘the Holy Spirit was ”.  Anna is a prophet who speaks about Jesus as well.  John the Baptist starts his ministry we are told when the word of God came to him. We see that the Spirit is preparing the way for Jesus ministry and revealing to us who Jesus is. Then at Jesus baptism the Holy Spirit’s activity seems to be and remained focused in Jesus.

In Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus, which we had read to us today , we are told that Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit. In fact the focus is on Jesus being filled with the Spirit and the voice from heaven acknowledging who Jesus is rather than his baptism. While we are used to seeing the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit this is the first and only time in scripture there is the connection. The dove in Jewish thinking was a bringer of good news, which is so relevant to Jesus who is the bringer of Good News.

Now we need to do some Christology here. Christology is the part of theology that focuses on understanding who Jesus is. In this passage we are told that Jesus is the Son of God…”you are my son in whom I am well pleased” the voice from Heaven says. We are presented with the uniqueness of who Jesus is… Jesus as we are told in John’s prologue is the word made flesh, is God incarnate. It is easy to get caught up in thinking of the divine nature of Jesus, that we can forget that Jesus is in every way totally human as well. We can think that Jesus does his miracles and proclaims the God news because he is some sort of superhuman, but that is not the case. In fact right after the baptism in Luke’s gospel to draw us to the humanness of Jesus we have the recording of Jesus Whakapapa, his genealogy, through Joseph line back o David, Abraham and right back to Adam.  Jesus while being the son of God is also totally human, Jesus like all people needs the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to achieve the mission that God has for him.

We also had read to us today the first record in Luke’s gospel of Jesus public ministry. Jesus goes to his home town Nazareth and goes to the synagogue and is handed the scriptures to read.  It’s like with suli’ete this morning He is doing the bible reading. He reads from the book of Isaiah a promise from the Old Testament about the messiah. It acts as a mission statement for Jesus ministry… It starts ‘the Spirit is upon me, the Spirit has anointed me’ Jesus is aware that God has poured out his Holy Spirit on him to achieve God’s purpose. He is there to preach Good News to the poor. Recovery of sight to the blind, release to the captives set the oppressed free, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ After he has read the scriptures Luke tells us he sits down, which is the way in Hebrew thought people would get ready to teach. Even in some church these days’ people stand up to hear the reading of the gospel. And he says ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’.

Jesus ministry of bring God’s love and mercy, reconciliation forgiveness and wholeness, recovery of sight both physically and spiritually, cancellation of debt and freedom  is able to happen because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus. When Jesus heals it is by the power of the Holy Spirit, when Jesus proclaims good news and it brings transformation and change it is by the power and moving of the Holy Spirit, we see the times when Jesus seems to know what people are thinking, that is what Paul calls words of knowledge in his list of the gifts of the Spirit.  It is God’s spirit that enables Jesus to fulfil his ministry.

With the third passage we had read to us, we skip to the end of the gospel after Jesus death and resurrection and it brings us back to focusing on Pentecost and Acts 2 because it is the passage in Luke’s gospel where the risen Jesus Christ tells his disciples to wait for the promised Holy Spirit to come upon them. It is not just an Old Testament promise it is a promise from Jesus as well.  Jesus now opens their mind to understand all that had to happen to him. That he had to come and to suffer and be raised from death on the third day. This is the means by which you and I are put right with God, the means by which you and I and all nations can know repentance and forgiveness of sin. The ultimate fulfilment of the mission Jesus had been anointed by the Holy Spirit to carry out. But also Jesus tells his disciples that this forgiveness and repentance will be preached to all nations beginning in Jerusalem. He tells his disciples that they are witnesses to these things and they are to stay in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high.

Because of Jesus own experience with the Holy Spirt he is aware that the disciples will need the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives to witness to him, to carry on Jesus ministry of seeing repentance and forgiveness preached to every nation. To live out Jesus teaching and love people with the love of Christ. Because we have been put right with God and our sins are forgiven we are able to be filled by that spirit. This promise is repeated in John’s gospel, where they is an extensive teaching by Jesus on the Holy Spirit, what Jesus calls the paraclete, the advocate, will come and do for us… Lead us into all truth… bring to mind the things that Jesus said… fill us with the peace of God which the world cannot take away because it did not give. It was a sign of being welcomed into God’s family. Almost like you’d have a quick rundown of what has gone before at the beginning of a sequel in the movies or a new TV episode, Luke starts the book of acts with this promise from Jesus as well, that when the disciples received the Holy Spirit they would be Jesus witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the World. Matthew’s gospel focuses on the way Jesus would be present with us by the Holy Spirit. In the longer ending to Mark’s gospel  the focus is not so much on the presence of the Holy Spirit but the signs that will accompany the disciples because of the Spirit’s presence.

How does this all connect with us here today? Three quick things…

Firstly it is easy to think that Jesus was able to live and minister to other people simply because of who he was, and yes Jesus is unique, but Jesus was a human being and needed the spirits presence and power to do what God had called him to do. Equally we to need the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit to do what Jesus has called us to do.; To witness to Jesus to be involved in that ministry of repentance and forgiveness to all nations. Through our word and as we’ll see next week as we look at the Pentecost church  through how we live and how we love each other and show that love to the world around us. We need the Holy Spirit, and we cannot live the Christian life without it. It's not an optional extra, It's not just for the super spiritual, the people who've just gone Over the top, we need the spirit of God to be with us, fill us and move through us.

Secondly, Jesus relationship with his father wasn’t simply based on the Presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was a person of prayer devoted to the scriptures. In the account of his baptism we see the spirit came upon him as he prayed.  As we look at the epistles we see that this being filled with the Holy Spirit in our lives is not a one off experience but rather we become more aware of the spirit’s presence and power as we walk with the spirit, as we develop our own spiritual disciplines of prayer and word.  In getting to know Jesus.

Lastly, I don’t know about you but when I meet pain and suffering and brokenness in peoples live I actually feel totally and utterly powerless. When I come to people to share my faith with them, I feel totally inadequate... Yes I will help in practical ways and I will pray, but we need to be reminded that the Holy Spirit is with us and has enabled and empowered us to witness to Jesus grace and bring Jesus grace into those situations… It is the Holy Spirit's presence with us that works in and through us... It's not by power or by might  but by my Spirit says the Lord… by Jesus presence in us by the Holy Spirit. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pentecost Prayer May 24th 2015

Gracious God

We thank you this morning for your Holy Spirit

The Wild untameable spirit that James K Baxter says

Is like "the wind that blows through a thousand paddocks

Both Inside and outside the fences."

The very breath of God

Breath on us today we pray


Eternal God

We thank you for your Spirit’s presence and work in the past

Active in creation, brooding over the waters

Speaking and guiding the people of Israel

Anointing and empowering Jesus mission and ministry

Poured out on all who believe to enable us to live and witness

Move a fresh in us today


God with us

Thank you that by your spirit, Christ dwells within us

Thank you that we are one people filled by the same spirit

Thank you that you lead and guide us

That you reveal the scriptures and lead us into all truth

That you enable us to witness to the hope we have in Jesus.

Fill us today we pray

Loving God

By your spirit make us more like Christ

Fill us with your presence

Gift us for the common good

As we dwell with you ripen the spirits fruit in us

May we be made holy, wholly yours

Kindle the Spirits fire with us Lord

Head of the Church
Renew our passion for, and the compassion of, Christ
help us to love one another as you have loved us
Unsettle us and draw us out on the Spirit wind
To work and witness and love where you call
To find where your Spirit is at work and join on in
Send us out once more, O God  


Living God

Make us like the cabbage tree in our car park

At the slightest breath of wind it moves and dances

It becomes alive and animated

May we be as sensitive to your Spirit’s breath

Moving in praise and love and care for the whole of creation

Move a fresh in us O Lord

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Promise of the Holy Spirit (the Holy Spirit in the Old testament through the lens of Joel 2:28-32)... The promised Holy Spirit (Part 1)

Next week in the church calendar it’s Pentecost. Pentecost is the greek name for the Jewish festival of weeks. That is a Jewish harvest thanksgiving festival that happens 50 days after Passover, which also celebrates in Jewish thinking the giving of the law to Moses at Sinai. Passover celebrates God’s saving them from Egypt and Pentecost is a celebration of what was to make them unique as God’s people, the law.  In the Christian tradition we remember the events of the first Pentecost, after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which is recorded in Acts 2… where we are told that the Holy Spirit came upon all the believers who were gathered together.  Jesus had told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they received power when the Holy Spirit came upon them and they would be Jesus witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and even to the ends of the earth, that was fulfilled at Pentecost. At Easter we see God’s salvation in Christ and at Pentecost we remember what makes us unique as God’s people, the Holy Spirit.  It is seen as the birthday of the Church, of becoming God’s spirited people, commissioned and empowered to be and bring the Good news of Jesus Christ to the world.  

For a lot of people the Holy Spirit is something they wrestle with understanding.
 For many it was seen as a new thing...That it came to the fore with the rise of the charismatic movement and Pentecostal churches and it’s become associated with the weird and the wonderful: Associated with strange manifestations. With the emphasis on the gift of tongues that came with this many Christians were made to feel like the Sneeches on the beaches in that famous Dr Suess book, either they had it like having stars upon thars and are in or they didn’t and those that don’t are made to feel like second class citizens of the kingdom of God.

Equally, many have been taught that the Holy Spirit was Old and out dated, and the gifts that are mentioned in scripture were for then and there. The Holy Spirit was there to get things going, like jump starting a car, and once it got running, well it wasn’t needed anymore.  The Holy Spirit is often then relegated to a ‘and we believe in ‘the Holy Spirit’ tacked on to the end of a confession of faith rather than the Holy Spirit being the means by which we experience and know the reality of Christ in our lives and are empowered to live for Christ and witness to the hope we have found in Christ.

Over the next three weeks I want to take us through a series looking at the Holy Spirit. I’ve called it the Promised Holy Spirit… I want to explore ‘the promise of the Holy Spirit, looking at the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Then look at ‘The One who promised to send the Spirit’: Looking at the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ.  Then finally ‘The promise fulfilled: the Holy Spirit coming upon the Church. It’s going to be a bit of a quick overview but my hope is that we will gain a greater and clearer understanding of who the Holy Spirit is and that we may experience the Promised Spirit’s presence and power in our lives individually and as a fellowship, a church corporately.

In Acts Chapter 2 after the Spirit comes upon those first believers with signs like tongues of fire and speaking in tongues, Peter gets up and speaks to the crowd explaining to them what is happening and in that sermon he tells the people that this is the fulfilment of the passage we had read out to us today from Joel chapter 2 . A promise that God would pour out his spirit on all flesh, and that is a good place for us to start our exploration of the Promised Holy Spirit.

The passage in Joel comes after an oracle Joel had made about God’s punishment of Israel. Then we have a series of three oracles about God restoration of his people which finishes with the passage we had read to us.

The passage starts “and afterwards” instead of being a telling forth of God’s Promise of relief and reconstruction it points to a greater promise that God would ‘pour his Spirit on all people’. It is about restoring and creating a new relationship with his people, dwelling with and within them by his Spirit.

It is a promise of a new thing and to understand this we have to look at what is in actual fact the new thing that is being promised.

Firstly, is it the Holy Spirit that is the new thing? IS this a fresh new understanding of God?

The answer to that question is No. In the New Testament, Christians had come to understand God in terms of the trinity, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, that God had revealed God’s self to us as three in one. When we look at the Old Testament we see that the Holy Spirit is there and active from woe to Go.

The Spirit is there at creation, Genesis 1:2 says that the spirit brooded over the waters when God had made the heavens and the earth. The Spirit is present and active in creation. The word brooding is useful because the Hebrew word for Spirit is ‘Ruach’ which is feminine.  Often we are tempted to think of the Holy Spirit as an it, some sort of cosmic force… and that is because the Greek word for spirit is neuter it does not have gender.  
The Spirit is mentioned in the last book in the Hebrew cannon as well 2 Chronicles. The Jews have the same cannon as we do for the Hebrew Scriptures but they arrange them in a different way... All the way through The holy Spirit is in the back ground achieving God’s purposes all the way through the story of God’s people. This activity of the spirit is summed up well in  Zechariah 4:6  where the prophet says to Zerubbabel the civil governor of Jerusalem at the time of the rebuilding of the temple that it would not ‘be achieved by power or might, but my spirit says the Lord.’

Is it a new thing that God would pour his spirit on a person?  No. In the Hebrew Scriptures we see that God fills people with his Holy Spirit for special purposes at particular times.

The first people to be said to be filled with the spirit in the scriptures is  in Exodus 31 where Moses is told that God has filled Bezalel and Oholiab with his spirit and given them  the knowledge and the skills they needed to oversee the building of the tabernacle, the place where God would dwell with his people.  It was given to empower various people for leadership tasks. In judges we see Othniel in Judges 3:10, Gideon who was known for his timidity is empowered to blow a trumpet which routs the Middenite army in Judges 6:34, Peter in the New testament denies Jesus three times on the night of his betrayal but filled with the spirit in Acts 2 Peter stands up and addresses a crowd of well over 3000 and boldly proclaims this Jesus whom was crucified, God raised to life again. Back to Judges  Jepthah in Judges 11:29. Samson Judges 14:6. Saul Israel’s first king in 1 Samuel 10. David in 1 Samuel 16:34. We see it with the Prophets as well. The written prophets like Ezekiel, who says of his vision being given by the Spirit of God. And the prophets recorded in scripture, 2 Chronicles 20:14 tells us the spirit came upon Jahaziel and he prophesised. He is the last person in mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures as filled by the holy Spirit…This is not an exhaustive list by any means. There are also scriptures that look to the messiah being filled with God’s spirit like the passage from Isaiah quoted in Luke 4, which was our new testament reading today, where Jesus told the people gathered had been fulfilled in their presence.

Is the way God was going to reveal himself to his people the new thing? NO

All the way through the Hebrew Scriptures we see God reveal himself to people through dreams, visions and in words of prophecy. The three ways listed in Joel 2. God desire is that his people know him and one of the things that scripture says differentiates God from the idols and false God’s is that God is alive and God speak with and too and through his people.
Never taking people over, or possessing them, if you read the stories of people in the Hebrew scriptures they are people just like us who are not just obedient robots, this being filled with the spirit isn’t just a flick the switch and they are perfect, we started our service with Psalm 51 where David realizes he has sinned greatly and needs to come back to God. These people like us needed to keep their focus on God and his grace.

Is the scale of what God is going to do… YES. The amazing new thing promised in Joel 2 is that God would pour out his spirit on all flesh, on all those who call on the name of the Lord and are saved.  This is the new thing that God is Promising. It is not just for the select few for select tasks but for everyone. Joel makes that very clear by the way he is careful to use inclusive language.

 There was no gender barrier…Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, it is for both men and women.  Your old men will dream dreams and your young men see visions, age is not a barrier. By the way the Hebrews words used here are masculine, but they are used to differentiate age not gender, to hold this exclusively to men, as some do does not fit because the clauses on either side of it that are inclusive of men and women. We see then that socio economic class is no barrier either, it is to be given to free and salve, in Jewish society slaves were either foreigners, or Israelites who could were in debt and so sold themselves in to a period of servitude.  Here it is symbolic of both poor and rich.

The amazing new thing that God was doing that Peter says happened at Acts 2 is that the spirit was poured out on all God’s people, on all gathered there, on all who believed. As the gospel spread to the Samaritans and the Gentiles  and wider and wider the thing that shows the apostles this is what God is doing is the way each of these new groups is filled with the Spirit. The second part of the passage we had read out in Joel points towards a redeemer coming to Zion and Jerusalem, and all who call on him will be saved. The passage points us to Christ it links the fulfilment of this Promise as Peter does in the person of Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection. It looks to a new day and a new way of being in relationship with God. Other scriptures in the Hebrew Scriptures point to this in terms of the Holy Spirit’s coming . In Ezekiel 36:26 God promises to give his people a clean and new heart and to put a right spirit within them. Zechariah 12:10 speaks of God pouring out his spirit on the house of David and also on who inhabit Jerusalem, again a promise that God would dwell with his people.

I want to apply this to us today simply by saying one thing… The Holy Spirit is for all who believe in Jesus Christ.

When it comes to the Holy Spirit we can still have that Old Testament thinking. That the Holy Spirit is like some optional extra, like leather upholstery and a body kit on a car. We can still think that it is just for those special few. We often express our thinking in the way we speak, that person is really gifted, or they are a charismatic leader, which acknowledges yes a gift from God but in a way that set that aside from the rest of us. The reality is that this promise as Peter says to his listeners at Pentecost that this gift is for you and your children and your children’s children, and those far off. It is for all who come to believe in Jesus Christ. It is the power that we need to experience Jesus presence with us, to be enabled to follow Christ and to witness in our lives and words to the hope we have. To serve and to love… Through the Hebrew Scriptures the Spirit fills people to enable them to serve and this does not change, as one commentator  describes Christian Spirituality “ we are being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others”  God dwells in each of us, is with each of us leading and guiding, teaching and revealing God’s self to us, enabling and empowering. It is what he promised to do and God keeps his promises. We can ask God to fill us afresh with his spirit and he will do it.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sermon's On James: An Index for the Series 'Shedding Light on the Epistle of Straw. (Jan -May 2015)

For the first half of this year I have been preaching a series through the book of James called 'Shedding Light on the Epistle of Straw: Finding a Faith that works in the book of James' at St Peter's Church Ellerslie Mt Wellington here in Auckland New Zealand.

This post is simply an index to help people wanting to work their way through a series on the book of James or fellow preachers looking for inspiration and reflection find their way around this blog.

As always please feel free to use any illustrations or reflections that you find helpful.

James 1:1    " And now for Something Completely Different: An Introduction to the Book of James"

James 1:2-12  " Finding real Joy, in Real Trials, In the Person, Presence and Purposes of a Real God."

James 1:13-18   "Tempted? Don't be deceived, God Is Good."

James 1:19-27  "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall...Looking Intently Into The Perfect Law That Brings

James 2: 1-13   " For those in the Cheap Seats: Equality In The Church."

James 2:15-24    "Pleasant Pious Platitudes Do Not Provide For Those In Poverty: Faith Without Works is Dead."

James 3:1-12    "Public Health Warning: Guard Against Deadly Glossa Attacks."

James 3:13-18   " I'm Not A Smart Man But... Wrestling With Two Kinds of Wisdom."

James 4:1-10    "This Is The Humility Factor Not The X-Factor: Learning to Fight Like Christians."

James 4:11-12    "Dis is Not Good... If You Dis a Person, You Dis The Law and You Dis The Law Giver."

James 4:13-17    "Being VerBOAST: Talking it up at the expense of Others."

James 5:1-6      "Wealth But At Whose Expense?"

James 5: 7-11    "Patience In The Face Of Suffering."

James 5:13-19   "A Life Of Faith and Trust... In All Situations Pray."

James 5: 19-20   "Wanderer Come Home... You're Not too Far: The Grace Filled End to James."

Wanderer Come Home... You're Not Too Far: The Grace Filled End to James (James 5:19-20).... Shedding Light on the Epistle of Straw: Finding Faith That Works in the Book of James (Part 14)

Perhaps we are more used to people finishing off their correspondence with pleasantries and adherence to social conventions than the way James chooses to finish his letter… We are more used to…‘Thank you for your assistance in this matter. Yours sincerely’…‘or Send my love to the rest of the family. And Happy Mother’s day your Loving son or daughter…’ or  sadly emails that finish...' If you want your share of this $24 000 000 bequest please send your banking details to some Nigerian law firms email address.'

Even in the New Testament we are more used to and comfortable with the way Paul concludes his letters. The epistle to the Romans finishes with a whole chapter of Paul bringing greeting to people he knows. Others finish with Paul giving some information about what he is going to do or his hopes for the Church and a blessing. 

But James finishes in an abrupt manner, with a finale single sentence exhortation. An exhortation that fits the pattern of his writing throughout: starting off by addressing his Brothers and sisters and finishing with a proverb. Maybe because it is an open letter to churches in the diaspora, Christians scattered because of persecution, it lacks the personal touch that Paul uses when writing to a single group or person he has had close contact with.

Maybe it’s hard to finish a letter where you’ve had to challenge people with such pleasantries. But it does finish in a way that shows us James’ love and concern for those he is writing to. It reveals his pastoral heart. He had written warning them of the dangers of wandering away from the gospel and he finishes off as Dan McCartney puts it with “the mercy of God in providing for renewal of faith”…He finishes with what I think feels like a good old altar call an exhortation that I found was summed up beautifully in a line from the David Crowder song ‘come as you are’ that we introduced this morning… ‘Wanderer come home… You're not too far.’  (I've put Crowder's video at the end of this post)

At the heart of what James has been writing all the way through has been a call to his listeners to come back to following Jesus Christ, to come back to the truth. The churches he was writing to had been facing persecution and hardship and while such things James tells us, if we trust and look to God, can lead to perseverance and maturity,  they also can be a danger to faith. External pressures, be it persecution and exclusion, or assimilation and persuasion, can lead us to compromise. Becoming what James calls double mindedness, looking both ways at once, looking to Jesus Christ but finding our behaviour our desires and hopes our identity and status framed by the society around us, and that can have devastating effects on the community of faith we are part of.  James’ concern is always for the community of faith, always for his brothers and sisters. He had seen this double mindedness resulting in favouritism for the rich, while the poor were sent away with religious words that were empty as their hands and stomachs because they did not result in loving actions. The focus had become fulfilling their own pleasures rather than love thy neighbour.  He saw it resulting in talking one another down, writing each other off and talking ourselves up at the expense of others. It meant sadly the church simply reflected the social order around it, with its enthronement of inequality and oppression rather than enthroning Christ and being a beckon of a new way to live, following Jesus ethical teaching, a foretaste of the kingdom of God. 

One of the complaints about James writing is that it is short on theology and long on ethics. Martin Luther wanted to remove it from the canon of scriptures because he thought it preached salvation by works rather than by faith alone. But in this final sentence we see that James has a very Jewish understanding of the gospel that incorporates both. He speaks of the truth and repentance as a journey following a path for life… we might miss that metaphor  when James says " wander from the truth, turns a sinner from the error of his ways". It a holistic way of looking at what faith is that reflects an Old Testament understanding. Way back when we started this series I showed you this simple diagram. That faith has these three elements belonging, believing and behaving. In Luther’s situation the focus for truth and error was around belonging and believing… How do you become a follower of Jesus? For James the focus is on behaving. How do we live out that belong to each other in Christ and believing in Christ as our lord and saviour?  They are all linked. They all come from knowing Jesus and being connected in again with God through faith and the grace of God shown in Jesus Christ. Luther was concerned with what Christ had done for us and James focuses on the ethical teaching of Jesus. In the end they would both agree that saving faith in Christ should be true, active, obedient and genuine.

James is also very aware that it is only in Jesus Christ and his death on the cross that we can be put right with God. The proverb that James finishes his book with points us to the cross and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their ways will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”  In our modern world we are used to the idea of covering sins being cover ups, or papering over, or a cover being to put a different spin on something, but for James it comes from the Old Testament where on the day of atonement a goat , a scapegoat, was selected and the sin offerings of the people were placed on it as a way of covering their sins. It points to them being covered by the blood of the lamb. 

There is a great illustration of what that means in my favourite scene from all of literature. It comes from John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrims progress… It is the moment when Pilgrim encounters the cross. Weighed down with a great burden of sin on his back Pilgrim starts on the narrow way that evangelist had directed him to follow … and comes to a place Bunyan says  was ‘somewhat ascending’.. Let me read you the scene…

“And upon that place stood a cross, and a little below in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, until it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.

It was covered up in the death of Jesus Christ… not only is it forgiven, it, not Christ, is death and buried. The story continues with Christian being met by three shining ones (angels) who pronounce his sins are forgiven, exchange his filthy rags for new clean cloths, a biblical metaphor of being made new in Christ… and give him a scroll with a seal on it that he is to use at the gates of the celestial city, a way of speaking of new and eternal life… and he continues on his journey along the path of truth. There are a times when he finds himself waylaid and misdirected and wanders off the path, he faces both joys and hardships and trials, but always he is sent someone to call him back and in the end he reaches the celestial city. James finishes his letter like one of those calls for Christian to get back to the path of truth and a call to us to be like the people who call him back.

Maybe James had the same problem that I have been wrestling with this week… How to finish the book of James. We’ve been on a journey through James’ letter for the past few months; in fact this is the fourteenth instalment in this series. How do we draw it all this together?

Firstly, there is an old African proverb that says ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ meaning that it takes the whole community to bring people to maturity. James’ final exhortation is a call for us to be actively involved as a community in that process with each other. James calls his brothers and sisters to help guide, lead and correct each other. We need each other to keep us on the way. When we wander we need someone alongside us to call us back. The writer to the Hebrews puts it in a more positive manner when they say in chapter 10 verse 24…’let us spur one another on to love and every good deed.’ I couldn’t help but think of this photo I took of the wonderfully resorted gates of the Queen’s wharf. There is a figure walking along them her way lit by the lights on top of each post. James invites us to be like those lights for each other showing the way.

How are we to go about that?...This sentence can be seen as a conclusion for James’ teaching on prayer that we looked at last week and speaks to us of the importance in praying for each other, praying for each other to keep in the way: Praying for each other to constantly be coming back to the gospel and to Christ. Of course for James it is very practical as well: In chapter three we see him speaking of the power of the tongue for both good and evil, we need to speak encouragement to each other, but also in the way we treat each other, that we love our neighbour. I am constantly encouraged by meeting people who say… Howard I am praying for you… this week I met with a fellow minister and talked of the ups and downs of ministry and came away encouraged by his confidence in me. Equally I have been encouraged lately by hearing people sharing the same struggles in life that I have and of their dependence on God.

We looked to James to show us a faith that works and I think one of the very big challenges of James is that for a faith to work we actually need to be part of a community where we are working together to grow as followers of Jesus Christ. One of the reasons I think faith in the west has struggled and waned is that we have become used to seeing it as being the work of a certain few rather than as brothers and sisters who not only care for each other but share their faith and encourage each other or even are willing to speak up and say wanderer come home… You’re not too far, let’s go together. David Nystrom puts it like this Christian community is about teaching and encouraging each other in discipleship.

Secondly, the conclusion of the book of James is an exhortation to repentance and reconciliation. One commentator says James finishes with a high point of love that is wonderfully current. An invitation to come home to Christ… To renew our faith in Christ, to make up our minds to be wholehearted for Jesus…It a process and a journey as we’ve seen as we’ve worked through the book of James it impacts on our desires and identity, our use of the tongue and our use of wealth and resources. It is a call to a new way of living. But it starts with one step. To turn again to Christ… It is a step that James finishes by telling us leads from death to life, that we can make, knowing and trusting that God forgives and our sins are covered they roll into that tomb and are seen no more…

The only way to finish the book of James, to find a faith that works is to hear James call ‘Wanderer come home’ maybe for the first time to respond to Christ or to turn again from wandering off course… James final exhortation is for you and I …wanderer come home…

The scene I read in Pilgrim’s Progress records Christians response to having the burden of sin lifted from him and I want to finish with that…
"Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, he has given me rest for my sorrow, and life by his death. Then he stood still a while to look and to wonder; for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should ease his burden. He looked therefore, and looked again, even till the springs in his head sent water down his cheeks."

 Let’s be still and I would invite you look and look again at the cross at the love of Christ that calls to us...wanderer come home.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Life of Faith and Trust... In all Situations Pray (James 5:13-19)... Shedding Light On The Epsitle Of Straw: Finding a Faith That Works In the Book Of James (Part 13)

I’ve been much encouraged recently reading an article by church historian Keith Edward Beede. It’s called ‘Touched by fire: Presbyterians and Revival.’ That’s right Presbyterians and revival… Beede explores the roots of the Presbyterian Church not just in terms of the history of the reformation and the social and political dimensions of the day, that is part of the story, but in terms of it growing out of a spiritual revival in the hearts of our Scottish ancestors starting in the late 1500’s and an ongoing desire within the hearts of our forebears to know and experience God’s presence and reality bringing transformation in their lives and society.

He speaks of the influence of people such as John Welsh, who was John Knox’s son-in-law, known for his prayer and his evangelistic fervour. I find his example quite challenging, Welsh would spend up to eight hours a day in prayer for the spiritual life of the people of Scotland. He had a habit of rising in the middle of the night to fervently pray. He spent much of his ministry in the hard places in Scotland, parishes that were torn by division and even violent splits, bringing the word of God to warm the hearts of the hardest opponents. In his latter life he suffered greatly from knee problems, the skin on them was said to be hard like a sort of horn, his reply to those who would council him to cut back on what had become a painful practise was “he spent his life of God (talking of Christ death on the cross) and therefore it would be spent for him” (speaking of his own life).

Another key man was Robert Bruce, and you can’t get more Scottish than that name right, who followed on from John Knox in the church in Edinburgh and who was known as a great wrestler with God, who had more than ordinary familiarity with his Master’. Bruce was said to possess great power when he preached and many attributed it to his practise he had to wrestle out loud with God before he attempted to preach to the people. A passerby to his place of prayer said that you were aware of the presence of an unseen person in the room with Bruce, as he was heard to entreat ‘he could not go- he would not go – unless he (Christ) came with him”.

AS we draw near to the end of the book of James, we are called to devote ourselves to prayer by a man whose nickname was old camel knees because of the callouses on his own knees a result of his own fervent prayer life. A call that in all situations we should pray, as individuals in times of trial, and praise in times of joy, corporately for the healing of the sick, in unity as we confess our sins to one another and seek reconciliation and expectant that the prayer of the righteous person is effective.  

James uses a series of three rhetorical questions to call us to pray.

If any of you are in trouble? They should pray. I am always reminded of the story of the city dweller that goes out into the country and decides to go for a walk through a farmer’s field, only to discover as he is in the middle of a particularly large field that this is the bull paddock, and the bull is not happy he is there. The bull charges him…So he runs for the fence but the bull closes in on him, and in a last point of desperation he decides he will pray for help… but he only knows one prayer, one he had learned as a child… so he prays “ for what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful.” We often throw out those help me God prayers, hoping for a quick fix and a way out, which is not over the fence on the horns of an angry bull. It’s Ok to cry out to God for his help, and God does and has intervened. But we need to remember that God is able to use those times of trial and trouble to build our character. That is why at the beginning of James book he had told people facing trials to ask God for wisdom, to understand to be aware of what God wants to do, even in the face of misfortune. Secondly, in praying in those situations we become aware of the presence of God with us and it allows us the patience and trust to keep going and to work our way through those times.  But also we can pray for God’s help in those situations, trusting that God does answer prayer.

Is anyone happy? They should sing praise to God. Whether this passage is refereeing to finding joy and happiness even in the face of suffering or in life’s good times, James calls us to respond with gratitude not complacency. Every good gift comes from God, our joy is not totally dependent on our circumstances but on the promises and the goodness of God. God is able, God’s desire is for our good not for harm, God… they often seem like religious one liners, platitudes and pleasantries, but in giving praise and thanks to God we become more and more aware of God’s goodness and presence, providence and his work in and through us. There is that wonderful old hymn that talks of counting your blessings one by one, a way of seeing how good and loving God is and proclaiming the reality of God amidst the ebbs and flows of life.

If anyone is ill? Here James changes from our individual prayer life to corporate prayer. If we are sick, he says, we should call the elders to come and to pray over us, and anoint us with oil. It is not that elders have any special spiritual power, however as the leadership of the church they represent calling together the whole church to pray for you. They also are hopefully people who have spiritual wisdom to know what and how to pray. In some of Paul’s letters he talks of a specific gift of praying for healing and James is not countering that here, but as one commentator says why do we have to go off to some faith healer or false faith healer, when the spirit of God is with us and the prayers of the people of the community of faith we are part of are equally effectual, and who knows maybe more fervent as they know us so well. I am part of the presbyteries Prayer and healing team and we do run special services, but our goal is to encourage prayer for each other and in particular for healing to be a part of every congregations life.

Anointing with oil, is an interesting thing here, Catholics have used this verse to justify their sacrament of extreme unction, anointing people in preparation for death. Others see it as something that should accompany prayer for healing in all circumstances. Sort of like James is giving his readers some step by step instruction. In scripture anointing with oil in connection with healing is only mentioned twice. Once in Jesus parable of the good Samaritan where it says the Samaritan pours oil and wine on the man beset by the robbers wounds, and the other time it talks of Jesus disciples praying for people to be healed and anointing them with oil.   It maybe that olive oil at least was seen as having healing properties in Jesus and James day. One of the problems with talking about healing prayer is that people think they can simply use it as an alternative to modern medicine, but in this verse I wonder of James isn’t seeing the two go hand in hand. The other thing that the oil represents is that it is acts as a very physical, tactile reminder of what God is doing: The presence of God’s spirit, being set apart to God. I’m always happy to anoint people with oil when we pray James is very quick to point out that it is the prayer of faith that is effective, that it is prayers prayed in the Name of the Lord so ultimately it is God who heals.

There is some debate as to whether these verses are talking of God’s ultimate salvation of the sick person or actual healing the words can mean both. It can mean spiritual healing and physical healing, and I actually think that when you look at the scriptures and in particular the gospel that Jesus’ healings were always holistic, they dealt with the whole person. The trust when we pray is that God does answer our prayer in the short term with healing and forgiveness and definitely in the long term, in eternity. The danger says Roger Olsen is that we can adopt the attitude that prayer does not change things, it simply changes the prayer and our prayers can be simply for comfort or please don’t let them suffer too much rather than believing in a God that can bring healing and wholeness. While we do need to acknowledge the very real suffering that not everyone who we pray for is healed I love John Wimbers insight into praying for healing… He said he has seen more people healed, now that he believes in it and prays for them, than we he didn’t believe and so didn’t pray.’

Some have wondered if James is saying there is a connection between sin and sickness in this passage, which was a prevalent thought in the first century, but the connection here is rather that unity is an important part of the prayer life of the church. It is hard to pray together when we have done things that affect that unity and oneness of purpose. As we turn to God together to pray we also turn toward each other. You can imagine as the church James had been writing to begins to pray together they are aware of the things James has been speaking of and how it had damaged each other and start to be reconciled.

James finishes his exhortation to pray by giving an Old Testament example for us to follow. In the previous passage we looked at last week we were told to look at the patience of the Old Testament prophets and the farmers who waited for the rain. Here James brings those two together in inviting us to look at Elijah. The event he refers to is in 1 Kings 17-18, when God had withheld the rain from Israel because of Ahab and Jezebel leading the people to worship the fertility God Baal. It comes after the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel and we had it read to us this morning. The first thing that James tells us is that Elijah is just like us, Elijah I guess had become personified as one of the heroes of the faith for the Jews, almost as superhero type, his stories are full of the miraculous, but James says he is just like us. In fact right after all the events that happen in this story it tells us that Elijah was threatened by Jezebel and so fleed and hid, depressed and worried for his life. The second thing James tells us was that he trusted God and prayed and the rains both stopped and then came again. When we look at the story it tells us that he prayed fervently, consistently, seven times in fact and expectantly, sending his servant to go and check and see if the rain clouds were coming, and he prayed obediently he prayed just as God had asked him to. These are examples for us as well.

I wonder if as the church in the western world and as a church here and now, we need to be aware that James is speaking to us and challenging us about being double minded as he did his original readers. He has started by saying they should expect their prayers to be answered if they were double minded, looking both ways at once, looking to God but also looking to the comforts and conventions, desires and pleasures of this world. Have we become so conditioned by the science and materialism of our modern world that instead of seeking the reality of God we have become as one theologian put it ‘embarrassed by the presence of God’. Are our hearts seeking to know God, for God’s wisdom and renewing and transforming power. Do we long to know and experience the presence and power of God moving in and through us to the hurting and lost world around us, or are we simply quite comfortable as we are thank you very much… I have a confession to make I need to hear James call to prayer, hear James call to change, hear James call to a life focused on Jesus and his kingdom, I need your prayers to help me in that.

Lastly and hopefully encouragingly like James first readers we need to be reminded of the importance and power of prayer in our lives. RVG Tasker sums up the assurance of this passage like this
“We know that our heavenly Father extends to us a standing invitation to draw close to Himself, which no experience of joy or sorrow and no conditions of prosperity or adversary has any power to cancel. The shed blood of Jesus has opened the way of direct access into the divine presence and that way is never barred." Take it to the Lord in prayer. Take it to the Lord in Prayer. Let’s pray.