Saturday, June 20, 2015

Jesus revolution of grace... a hostile homecoming (Luke 4:14-30) Following hi Footsteps: the Ministry of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (part 3)

God has used the passage we had read out to us today to give me very specific guidance in my life. I used to work as the Youth Coordinator for Auckland presbytery, way back in the 1990’s.  I was in the job four years and  I asked the trust that I was employed through to have the job paid on the same basis as an ordained minister. It was an attempt to have youth ministry more fully recognised as a valid ministry in the church. What I didn’t foresee was that as the conditions changed that the trust would re-advertise the job. And I could apply if I wanted… which I did… At the same time Jim Wallace from St John’s in Rotorua was the speaker at the labour weekend camp out at Hunua… He just happened to be looking for a parish assistant/ youth pastor and suggested I apply, which I did, as a back-up plan.  Kris and I decided if we were offered the Youth coordinators job we’d stay put. However we got a ring from Jim down in Rotorua who said that they wanted us to go down there and they wanted a reply from us, before the group up in Auckland were due to finish their process. We actually had to make a decision. 

AS I was praying I felt to open my bible to look for guidance and God lead me to this passage in Luke 4. Specifically the part where Jesus says ‘A prophet is without honour in their own country’ and talking about Elijah and the widow of Zaraphath and the Elisha and Naaman the Syrian leper. I could have served God and ministered in either place but I sensed God was calling us away from what is my home, Auckland to go to Rotorua…We had six very fruitful and rewarding years there till we sensed God’s call to ordained ministry and moved to Dunedin for training.

On a personal level that is a way this passage has helped me follow Jesus but as we carefully study this passage there is so much more for us about following his footsteps. We are systematically working our way through Jesus ministry in Luke gospel. In the passage we had today we are told Jesus went about teaching and here we are let into what that teaching was like. At the beginning of Jesus ministry he shares from the book of Isaiah a passage that encapsulates his mission, in modern business speak you could say it’s Jesus Mission statement’. But it also challenges us about how we respond and react to Jesus, because Jesus teaching leads to his home coming being very hostile.

Last week we followed Jesus out into the wilderness and through trials and temptations. We saw that Jesus faced the same kind of temptations we do and that he overcame them with the same resources that we have from God. We saw that it was the Holy Spirit that filled Jesus at his baptism that lead Jesus out into the wilderness and now leads Jesus to galilee in power to begin his ministry. The Holy Spirit will always led us to minister to other people, and will empower us to do so.

The focus of this early passage is Jesus teaching ministry in galilee, but in what Jesus says to his hometown crowd about them expecting to see what Jesus had done in Capernaum, he was also doing miracles, healing people. Two stories of Jesus healing ministry follow right on from the passage we read today as well.  Darryl Bock summarises ‘His message of love was supported by his compassion’. Both are done in the Power of the Holy Spirit… The manifesto of the Holy Spirit is supported by the manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

The setting for what we are looking at is the synagogue in Jesus hometown, where Jews had gathered for public worship, prayer and to hear the scriptures read and expounded. People will often say do I need to go to church to be a follower of Jesus and one the ways I respond to that is that it was Jesus custom to go to worship and pray and hear the scriptures with others. It is a model for us

At the heart of this passage is the reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip Yancy in his book ‘the Jesus I never knew’ summarises Jesus teaching as a revolution of God’s grace. That is bought out here in this reading that Jesus said was being fulfilled in the hearing of the people gathered in that place.  It is the mission God has anointed Jesus to do. To bring good news to the poor proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free and proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

It is interesting that historically this has been taken in two different ways. Some will see it as Jesus ministry in spiritual terms. The poor are those who are spiritual poor. Those who are prisoners and oppressed spiritually by sin and death can be set free and forgiven and liberated. The acceptable year of the Lord is referring to the year of jubilee in the Old Testament a time in Israel that was to be about all debts being cancelled, land being restored to their original owners, the land being left fallow to heal and be reinvigorated. We can see that in terms of forgiveness and restoring what the brokenness of this world has inflicted on them.

Others see here a very real call for societal change. It is Good news for the poor that God cares for them and welcomes them to come to him. The poor in Jewish thought were not only those who were physically poor but those of low social status who were marginalised and ostracised. That God’s sides with the oppressed and dispossessed to bring justice, to see real change made debt cancelled a just use and distribution of resources.

 Recovery of sight for the blind is seen in both ways as physical healing and also those who are spiritually blind receiving sight.

Both sides are correct in understanding this passage. It is about salvation and it is about social justice. It is about the holistic grace of God: The spiritual poor and the physical poor receiving good news of acceptance and blessing and care from God; The politically and the spirit prisoners receiving grace and mercy and justice; The oppressed finding real freedom in Christ; the redistribution of wealth; The they didn’t hold on what they had but gave it to those in need of the Acts 2 church. It is the faith and works that we saw in James, that our faith calls us to care and love the poor both by sharing our faith with them and our resources.  In the prologue to his gospel Luke tells us that he is giving an orderly account and the last encounter with Jesus before his entrance into Jerusalem is with the tax collector Zacchaeus. You know the short guy up the tree that we remember from children’s stories. Zacchaeus is presented as the prime example of what it means to respond to Christ. He is the example of what Jesus ministry and this revolution of grace is all about. He is ostracised considered cut off from God, caught up in the oppressive roman tax collection system. He meets Jesus and his life is transformed, he offers to make restitution for all the money he has stolen, and he gives half his money to the poor. Meeting Jesus having Jesus minister the love and grace of God into our lives brings transformation and calls us to be about God’s justice and mercy. At the end of this encounter Jesus restates his mission statement he’s had three years to think and reflect on it and he boils it down to ‘the son of man has come to seek and save the lost’ Zacchaeus shows us the extent of that mission just before Jesus passion and the scope of that mission in terms of societal change and justice as well. 

The challenging thing about this passage however is how Jesus audience responded to what he is saying. They are amazed but somehow they become hostile and determined to do away with Jesus.

At first they are amazed at what they are hearing. In the gospel Jesus is acknowledged as speaking with great authority, great insight. They wonder if this could be the same Jesus that had grown up amongst them. I’ve gone back to the church I grew up in a few times to preach and part of the response I get is this warm acceptance, here is one of our own made good. They are probably surprised that the long haired, barefooted, scruffy monosyllabic grunting teenager has changed and is a passable preacher. I wonder if some of us don’t have an image of who Jesus is, in this case it was “isn’t he the son of joseph”, and we are offended and upset  when Jesus steps out of that image and understanding. Jesus does not fit comfortably with the religious ideas and constructs that we place on him. He is about the purposes and mission of God, a revolution of grace that does tend to call us out to our comfort zones. Philip Yancy mentions the three different Jesus he had met in his life, I’m paraphrasing here … as he was growing up the Sunday school Jesus, meek and mild, the university radical Jesus, untamed and wild, the suburban Jesus, tamed and styled and that as he looked again at Jesus he found someone more wonderful & more challenging than that.

Secondly, in Jesus use of the proverb ‘physician heal yourself’ Jesus sees that the people were looking for Jesus to do the same things that he had done in Capernaum… They wanted to see the spectacular, and the healings. They wanted the manifestations of the Holy Spirit but they didn’t want the manifesto, the revolution of grace and justice to those outside their understanding of who was acceptable to God. They were happy to see Jesus as a home town hero, but not see Jesus for who he was God’s special anointed one, the messiah. We can be like that as well. We can turn the gospel into being about Jesus meeting our needs, and yes Jesus dos care, Jesus is able to provide, Jesus does hear our prayer, Jesus does heal and provide.  We can think it revolves around the Just us of God and not the justice of God… The me-ssion of Jesus and not the mission of God.

Lastly, the people in the synagogue were hostile to the fact that Jesus revolution of grace went beyond the boundaries of their understanding of God’s blessing. The Jews were looking for their messiah who would free them politically from roman rule, would establish them as the rich and powerful and punish and defeat all their enemies. But Jesus wasn’t that kind of messiah, the revolution of grace goes beyond that. The passage from the book of Isaiah is part of a series of God’s call to Israel to be about caring for the poor, being a light to the nations to the nations of what God’s rule and nature is like by the way they care for those who are disadvantaged. Jesus identifies with the prophets of old who called Israel to that and were rejected and killed and he points them to the example of God’s grace shown in Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 kings. It would have angered His audience because this was a time of great apostasy of Israel, it is the reign of Ahab and Jezebel who led Israel astray. But also it was an example of the kind of grace Jesus is talking about. There was great need in Israel during the time of famine, and here were many lepers in Israel, but God showed his mercy to the widow at Zarephath, outside of whom the religious people thought was ‘in’ as it were, a woman and a widow and a gentile. Cared for and miraculously provided for. Naamun was a Syrian leper, unclean and untouchable, a gentile and what’s worse an enemy of Israel. What riled Jesus audience wasn’t the grace of God so much as the fact that God was showing grace to the wrong people in their eyes. Isn’t that as challenging for us today?

It calls us out to show love and care to those outside to be about the mission and grace of Jesus…to offer the hope of Christ… The narrative finishes with the crowds taking Jesus to a cliff to throw him off. Ironically it is the very situation he had found himself in during his temptations. In this case God does save him and protect him. The temptation as to put Jesus to the test, but here we see God able to protect those who are about his purposes. Jesus time had not yet come… We often want to know God’s presence and protection and provision, but it is as we move out into God’s mission and purposes that we will see them.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Baptised and tempted: Following Jesus through Times of Trial and Temptation (luke 3:21-22, Luke 4:1-14).... Following His Footsteps: The ministry of Jesus in Luke's Gospel (part 2).

WE are working our way through a series looking at the ministry of Jesus in the gospel of Luke. It is called ‘following his footsteps’. Last week we looked at how we need to be prepared to encounterJesus, we come to the gospel wanting to know the truth of what we believe and we come with repentance, a heart moving from going our own way to being set on the purposes of God.  This week we see how Jesus prepares for his ministry. It may seem strange but we are going to start our Following of Jesus Footsteps by following him out into the wilderness: into and through trials and temptations.

Sometimes it’s easy for Christians to get there JC mixed up with their DC… DC comics that is not DC power: the unidirectional flow of electrical charge. We can get Jesus mixed up with superman. Someone who may look human on the outside but has all these amazing powers, whose bullet proof… It’s not helpful for us to have that kind of image of Jesus. Luke presents us with a very human understanding of Jesus. At his baptism we see that Jesus isfilled with the Holy Spirit, just like us Jesus needs the empowering presence of the Spirit in his life to achieve the purposes and mission God has for him. Yes Jesus is affirmed as the son of God, but Luke right away affirms Jesus humanity, In between the two readings we had today Luke tells us Jesus whakapapa, his genealogy through Joseph, back to David, to Abraham and back to Adam… and NT Wright says “if there is any doubt about his being really human, Luke underlines his sharing our flesh and blood in this vivid scene of temptation” which is our focus today.  I find it really helpful to know that Jesus faced the same trials and temptations that I face, that we face. I find it really hopeful that Jesus dealt with and overcame those temptations using the same resources that God has given us.  This is what we are going to focus on today…

First we need to spend a little while looking at Jesus baptism.  One of the big questions that goes along with Jesus baptism is…Why if John’s baptism was for repentance did Jesus submit to being baptised? Repentance basically means to turn around and to use a car turning analogy… We often use our rear vision mirror to look at the word repentance we think that the focus is turning away from sin and going our own way, that is because that is what we have to do. But Jesus did not sin so did he need to do that? John's call to repentance was about coming out of our everydayness and focusing on the Purposes of God... It’s dangerous to spend to much time looking in the rear vision mirror to get where we are going we need to look through the windscreen at what is ahead… the other side of repentance is turning to God… being about the purposes of God. This is what John was calling people too and Here is Jesus affirming in this sign of humility that he is about the purposes of God. That is his focus.

Luke’s account majors not on that factor but rather on God’s response. In filling Jesus with the Holy Spirit and affirming his unique relationship with God, you are ‘My son in whom I am pleased’. It is this relationship with Jesus and the ministry and mission that goes with it that are now put to the test. What does it mean for Jesus to be God’s son? What does it mean for Jesus to the Messiah who John the Baptist had said would come after him? What does it mean for Jesus and for us to about the purposes of God? The wilderness in the Old Testament was a time when Israel was moulded together to be God peoples, In the Old Testament it is Israel who are called God’s son and sadly in the wilderness they also failed the trials that they faced. But here Jesus shows himself to be a faithful son.

Luke tells us that Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and that it is the Holy Spirit that leads him out into the wilderness. It is important for us to realise that the Holy Spirit was leading Jesus.  If you remember from our time working through the book of James, that he starts his letter by telling his readers to count it all joy when they face all kinds of trial and hardships because God is able to use those times to instils in us patience and perseverance that lead to maturity in us lacking nothing. But it is not God who temps Jesus or us. Again James tells us that we cannot say when we are tempted that God is the one who tempts us. are times when God is able to grow us in our Christian faith, draw us closer to him, invite us to rely on him and trust him. In the journey of following Christ when we make significant steps they are often followed by times of re-evaluation. Working through what this new step this new encounter means  and its right that we do that but in those wilderness times the devil  can also try and  tempt us to turn away from God. Hardship and wilderness times in our lives can come from many different sources, they can be because God is wanting to refine our faith, they can be simply because we have made bad decisions or they can be spiritual attack. In all those circumstances it is good to be reminded of the sovereignty of God, the holy Spirit leads us into the wilderness through the wilderness and as we finished our readings this morning with the beginning of Jesus ministry in Luke 4:14, and saw Jesus begin to minister in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can come through them in the Power of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s look at how the devil, the enemy of our soul, tempted Jesus.  There are three temptations recorded.

The first is that Jesus had been fasting for forty days. Probably surviving on water. He was hungry, maybe even by that time even hallucinating a bit. Maybe the rocks around him were reminding him of bread. Fasting and prayer go together in the scriptures, fasting is a way of focusing all our attention on God. Forty is a biblically significant number. Forty days and nights in the ark, forty years in the wilderness, it signifies coming to the end of human resources and energy.   The devil tempts Jesus by first saying “if you are the son of God turn these stones into bread”. You’ll note the first thing that the devil does is invite Jesus to think what his relationship as the son of God actually means. Is it something to be exploited and used for his personal gain or even his personal needs? It is a small thing but is Jesus going to be obedient and dependant on God or be about wanting God to meet his needs.  The people of Israel in the wilderness had grumbled about the lack of food, they had grumbled about God’s ability to feed them and provided and were even contemplating going back to Egypt. The prophets pointed to the fact that Israel’s shepherds were more interested in feeding themselves than God’s flock, was Jesus going to be like that? So Jesus response is to quote from the book o Deuteronomy. “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. At the Samaritan well in John 4 we see this worked out in his life and ministry when asked by disciples where he had gotten his sustenance, Jesus response was that his food is to do the will of the Father.

We are tempted in the same way. It is easy to think that following Jesus is all about God meeting our needs, and it is a very small step from that to thinking God is there to meet my wants as well. It becomes more about what God can do for me rather than being about the purposes of God. God can be trusted to provide our needs. He knows what we need. When we were ministry students in Dunedin, we struggled to get by, there were times when the cupboards were empty and a grocery parcel would turn up on the door step. Farmers offered the students meat at a very low price. WE wrote our car off in an accident, and people from the church we were ministering at over summer, gave us money for a replacement. Even with all that can I say there were times when I actually got grumpy with God.  One day I was being very grumpy about something, bills and stuff probably, and walking down to Knox college and I looked up and saw a kereru a wood pigeon, with its head under its wing asleep in the sun. Now I had taken to stopping and thanking God for the presence of his Holy Spirit every time I saw a woodpigeon… it’s kind of like our native dove, only plumper and a pigeon. They started turning up like this one in providential moments.   And this small voice at the back of my mind that I equate with God said “Howard is that how you see me asleep on the job...” I replied Point taken and went on down the hill to learn what I needed to serve God in the way that I do.  We can be tempted to turn our living God into a plastic God, settle for a gold plated cosmic credit card. I wonder if this temptation and Jesus response wasn’t in Jesus mind when he said  ‘Don’t worry about what you will eat or wear, your heavenly father knows what  you need even before you ask, but rather put first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”

The second temptation sort of went from one extreme to the next from a loaf of bread to the whole world. The devil offers Jesus all the nations of the world if he will bow down and worship him. Luke’s narrative of John the Baptist’s ministry places John and Jesus in a historical context by naming all the political and religious rulers of the day as the powers that are arrayed against God and here we see that the Devil is actually behind that. The devil is offering Jesus power and also a way of circumventing God’s purposes and plans. In Psalm 2 we see all the nations of the world raging against God but God’s response is to establish his Son to rule, to establish the Kingdom of God. The Jews were looking for a political messiah who would kick the romans out and establish an empire but God’s kingdom is going to be established through service and suffering by the way of the cross. Not by power not by might but by my spirit says the Lord? We can get tempted as well by earthy success and by power, we can want spiritual short cuts that don’t mean service and suffering and the way of the cross. We have just been through a long period of history where the church has been at the centre of power in western civilisation and we have forgotten that we are called to be about serving and caring and sacrificing for the least and the lost and we are having to be reminded of that. We can actually worship those things… success influence, power. Jesus response is timely for us as well as for his own situation “ It is written “ You should worship the Lord your God only”. We are not called to be successful but to be faithful.  Jesus would say later ‘the son of God came not to be served but to serve.”

The setting for the third temptation is Jerusalem, whether in a vision or for real we are not told. Jesus is lead to the heights of the temple and invited to throw himself off. Again if he is God’s son will not god save him? The devil even quotes a scripture to back that up… Jesus is tempted in two ways here. The first is to provide a spectacular miracle that will show everyone who he is. The second here is to be concerned and consumed with his own safety. Being in Jerusalem we see Jesus passion foreshadowed here… is he going to trust God even though it leads to the cross.  We often are tempted to be more concerned with our own safety and comfort that God’s purposes and we can look for God’s spectacular intervention. When God does not intervene the way we want we can be tempted to write God off or doubt his goodness and love. I know many people who tell me they prayed for something and God didn’t answer them and so they have written God off.  On a church level it can affect us as well … I believe we need revival in New Zealand a reawakening of the   presence and power of the Holy Spirit, but I am concerned that for a lot of people they look to that as a way out, a spectacular God turning up and circumventing the road that God calls us to walk the way of the cross, sacrificial and costly love. Jesus response is to again quote scripture that we are not to put God to the test. God can be trusted to care and be with us and keep his promises even if it means the cross. Even in the face of death.

I just want to finish today by bringing some of that home… Are you facing wilderness times… be assured that the Holy Spirit is with you, and is leading you in and through those times and will be able to lead you back to galilee in power. Are you facing temptation today know that Jesus faced temptations and know that Jesus like us was able to overcome those temptations. We have the same resources available to us… the word of God and the Spirit of God.  God can bring his word to you when you need it… and regularly reading it and praying it and wrestling with it is important. The more it is part of our lives the more it is able to transform us and guide us back to God.

Finally following Jesus will lead  us into wilderness experiences and times of temptation where we wrestle with what it means to be about God's purposes. WE will be tempted to focus on God meeting our needs, our success and glory and being protected from the bad things in life... But to worship God and follow Jesus ultimately leads to the way of the cross... sacrificial and selfless Love.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Preparing to Follow Jesus In Luke's Gospel (Luke 1:1-4, 3:1-18)... Following His Footsteps: The Ministry of Jesus in Luke's Gospel (part 1: Intro)

“Give up your good Christian life and Follow Christ”

Is one of my favourite quotes… I haven’t read Garrison Keillor’s books I came across it as a pull quote in the book ‘Soul Tsunami’ by Leonard Sweet. It is a quote that I have a love hate relationship with. I love it because it cuts right through my religiousness and calls me back to the centrality of following Jesus in our faith. I need that reminder quite often…I hate it because well it cut right through all my religiousness and calls me back to the centrality of following Jesus in our faith…sadly I need that reminder quite often.  

Today we are going to start a journey following Jesus through Luke’s gospel, looking again at the ministry and the person of Jesus. I’ve called the series following his footsteps.  Now that may sound like an advertising blurb for a tour of the Holy Land. Yes folks “ For only $3000 you can join me pastor Harvey to visit all the wonderful places where Jesus trod in the gospels.”, And a journey like that would be wonderful right?  But my hope is that this journey through the gospel  will help us to follow Jesus footsteps in our lives today, not simply map it out on the far off dusty roads, villages and cities of first century Palestine, but live it out on our pavements, suburbs and city in 21st century Aotearoa New Zealand. 

AS we are not starting with the nativity, as I’m saving that for Christmas,  I really wondered where to start our journey though the gospel ? When I was young and single I loved just being able to throw a few things in the back, jump in my car and head off on a road trip and find a place to sleep when you got there. . But I’ve learned that you can’t simply do that when you’ve got a family. You have to prepare.   Even the amount of stuff you’ve got to put in the back grows to the point where packing the car becomes a major planning exercise. Also having moved around the country a fair bit I’ve learned that you definitely can’t move a whole household and whole house lot of gear, without preparing for the journey.  

 So we are going to start our journey following his footsteps with two passages that prepare the way for the ministry of Jesus in Luke’s gospel.   The two passages we had read out to us today. (click) Firstly, what NT Wright calls a grand door into the gospel … Luke’s  very formal  prologue right at the beginning and then by looking at the ministry of John the Baptist, whom Luke tells us is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah about a voice crying in the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord.

In the world of documentary film making there has been an evolution through different ways of telling truth on film. Documentaries used to present their truth with images and the voice of God, voice over, the expert telling us what it is we are seeing, usually in the best educated BBC English. Then for a while the cinema veritie or fly on the wall style was popular, where you just have raw footage and authentic dialogue telling the story. The film maker becomes invisible, all though what you see is just as much a construct of the film maker through editing and positioning of camera and sequencing of scenes as any scripted film. Then you have the variety of documentary which is based round interviews, it allows the people involved to tell their story. Finally you have what is called self-reflective documentaries where the documentary maker steps in front of the camera and tells you why they are making the documentary, how they went about it. Mike Moore with movies like roger and me, bowling for columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 is the best known example of this last style. Now each style has its difficulties and its strengths.  Luke’s prologue puts the gospel close to this last style.

Luke in one of only two instances of the use of classical Greek in the New Testament, the other being his introduction to the sequel to his gospel, Acts… steps into the picture and tells us who his audience is, a roman official called Theophilius, and probably through him to a wider audience. He tells us how he has gone about writing his book. He has accounts of the ministry of Jesus that others have written down: We know that Mark was written before Luke, and scholars talk to different sources that Matthew and Luke seem to have in common. But also he has taken the time to go and investigate things for himself. He has spoken to eyewitnesses and people who have passed on the gospel narratives. For example, in his nativity narrative he says and Mary treasured these things in her heart, it has the feel of things that Mary has told him. He tells us that it was important that he write an orderly account. Now in our minds we are used to thinking that means simply set out in a chronological order, but that is very much a modern way of thinking, writers in antiquity were told to order their work to bring out the truth they were conveying. Just like with the different forms of documentary making it does not stop it being any less true. When we go through Luke’s gospel we need to be aware of the order and what that tells us. Luke gives us the reason he has written that orderly account as well, so we may know the certainty of the thing we have been taught: the things Luke tells us have been fulfilled amongst us. 

When we come to the gospel we need to be aware that Luke and Theophilius are not coming with the same mind-set that we often do. The question for them was not did it happen? But what happened and what does it mean? Fulfilled amongst us, points us to the unseen character in the gospel, that what is happening is God at work. We can come to the gospel as many have with our own set of suppositions, ideas and concerns and maybe go away unsatisfied. Many critics come to the gospel  with our modernist materialistic understanding of the world and are not willing to accept anything that sits outside that understanding, like miracles… they write a lot of the gospel off as myth or allegory, that needs to be stripped away to find a hidden historical Jesus. When I read the gospel I find it hard as a product of my age and time to believe some of the stories. We can come to the scripture without having confidence in Luke’s integrity as a writer, and it would be great if we have peer reviews of his work and all the things that we rely on in our time to guarantee authenticity and accuracy, but we don’t have that.  But I would encourage you to come on our journey through Luke’s gospel with an open mind, with an awareness of the reality of God and that in the story of Jesus we see God working out his purposes. That is the way we should always come to scripture.

That is a good place to come to our second reading today about the ministry of John the Baptist, because Luke tells us John was preparing the way for the coming of God’s messiah. Preparing people for the ministry of Jesus, it helps us as well to prepare to receive the ministry of Jesus.

Luke starts by placing John in his historical context. We start with a list of the various political and religious rulers of the time. More than just setting the ministry of John the Baptist in around 28-29 C.E Joel green says Luke paints for us the socio-political landscape of the time. It is a dark time for the Jewish people. Tiberius is the emperor who expelled the Jews from Rome and towards the end of reign started to demand to be worshipped as a God. Herod who is the son of Herod the great mentioned in the nativity is also not well liked by the Jews.  His brother Phillip is a proponent of Hellenization championing Greek thought and Greek culture.  Annas had been high priest in about 6-15 C.E. but he was followed into the role by his five sons and son in law Caiaphas and so you have an almost dynastic hold on the religious rule. You have a continuation of a policy of appeasement with the roman authorities.  Into this comes John calling people out of their ordinary lives to align themselves with the purposes of God.

Again the unseen actor in this story is God, whose word comes to John. We are starting to see God’s response to the situation.  John calls them to repentance, to stop going the way of the world and to once again focus on going God’s way. As a sign of that change they are baptised. Being in the wilderness brings up images of Israel’s past and where Israel was forged as a nation, the Jordon River is symbolic of coming into the Promised Land. John tells those who come to him that this repentance should bring change. We see the powers of the world being oppressive and uncaring, but to be about God’s purposes calls his people to be about justice and caring for others.  It wasn’t about being God’s people because of birth but in how one lived. He tells the people to share what they have with others, giving half your money to the poor was considered the height of being a righteous person.  In Luke’s gospel Zacchaeus is the last person Jesus interacts with before Jerusalem and his passion, his response to Jesus is to willingly give half his money to the poor. Even the people who were caught up in the oppressive regime as tax collectors and soldiers are told that there is an ethical element to their new found desire for God’s ways. Tax collectors were often appointed and told how much the roman authorities wanted and as we’ve seen with FIFA this week with such power comes the possibility of corruption and greed, Herod’s soldiers were underpaid and John isn’t telling them not to form a union and strike for more pay, he is telling them not to strike out and use their position and power to grab what they can get from the poor and powerless.

He tells people that there is one coming who will not baptise with water but with fire, looking forward to the coming of Jesus who as we saw over the Pentecost season sent the Holy Spirit to be poured out on the believers. 

John’s ministry invites us to prepare ourselves for the ministry of Jesus, through repentance, coming out of our ordinary lives and committing ourselves to the purposes of God.  We need to come to encounter Jesus with that desire in our hearts and a willingness to let Jesus bring transformation. Again this is the posture we should come to scripture with wanting to encounter Jesus and being open to the transformation that brings.

Our Parish Vision is that “we are called to be a vibrant, authentic, sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus, and inspiring others to join us on that journey.” At the heart of our vision is Jesus Christ and growing as a follower of his… being a vibrant, authentic, sustainable community grows out of Jesus call for us to love one another as he has loved us and his teaching on how we should do that… Inspiring others to join us on the journey of following Jesus comes out of caring for and loving and ministering to people as Jesus did. As we journey through Luke’s gospel my prayer is we may grow closer to Jesus and learn more of how to live and to love as Jesus Calls us to and because of that grow in the depth of our love for each other and our ability to minister to the world around us that Jesus loves, and came to redeem.

Our Journey ‘Following his footsteps’ starts with a desire to know the truth about Jesus and the reality of Jesus in our lives and a heart turned towards God open to meeting with Jesus and allowing for Jesus to change us…  So prepare the way of Lord…

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Promise Fulfilled (Acts 2:1-13,42-47) ...The Promised Holy Spirit... In the Old Testament... In Christ and In the Church (part 3)

AS part of celebrating Pentecost this year we’ve been working our way through a three week series on the Holy Spirit in scripture.  The series is called ‘The Promised Holy Spirit… In the Old Testament in Christ…and in the church. ‘My hope and prayer has been that through this we will grain 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.  

Today we are looking at the Holy Spirit and the church. Specifically to look at the coming of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost after Jesus death and resurrection as it is recorded in Acts 2 and how that was lived out by that earliest of churches.

Acts chapter 2 is split into three parts. We had two read out to us today, the first and the last.  It starts with a record of what happened on the day.  Then as the crowd gathers and some write it off as just too much wine, it gives Peter a chance to stand up and to explain what has happened… To witness to the coming of the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ and that what was happening as a result of that was God pouring out his spirit on all his people as he had promised. .   In the third part we have people’s response, the crowd responds and it tells us over three thousand people become believers in Jesus Christ that day and Luke finishes with a picture of the life of the new faith community filled with the Spirit.

Luke starts by telling us that all the believers were gathered together, it is not just the twelve disciples but the wider group of about one hundred and twenty people we are told remained of Jesus followers in Jerusalem, who had met daily to pray and reflect on what had happened and to wait to receive what Jesus had promised. They gather and wait because it is what Jesus told them to do. We often think of the church as a very human institution and as they waited they went about the process of structuring themselves as a group, they replaced Judas Iscariot as a member of the twelve.

 Then Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon them. It happens in a very visual and audible manner… It’s a kind of special effects Moment. Wind and fire are symbols of the Holy Spirit, it is an event that is full of the symbolism from the Hebrew Scriptures of what we call a Theophany, God showing up in a real, tanagable and sovereign way. It’s like the burning bush or the pillar of fire and cloud as Israel is lead through the wilderness, the fire on Mt Sinai as Moses goes up to receive the law, Elijah on Mt Sinai, encountering God. The wind blowing through the valley of dry bones in Elijah’s vision, rising up the people of God again. While those events in scripture focus on God’s presence with his people, here we see that the tongues of fire move on to each person gathered, God is not only with his people the Holy Spirit dwells within and fills all his people: In Acts 1:14 the list includes men and women, probably young and old and rich and poor as was promised in the prophecy in Joel 2.

It tells us that they all began speaking in different languages as God enabled them. Pentecost was one of those festivals where Jews living in different countries would come to Jerusalem for. So there were people from all over, and they heard the disciples speaking in their own language. This was a prophetic sign about what was happening. God was empowering his people to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all peoples, and as a sign of that they were given the ability to speak in those languages, to give praise and thanks to God. It’s interesting that it was in the vernacular of those different places as well, the everyday heart languages, not simply in the common language of Greek and Aramaic. The kingdom of God is not a colonising force or an empire that comes to dominate or conquer but a message of an alternative way of being human, in relationship with God through Jesus Christ, that comes not by might or by power but by my spirit says the Lord.

Some people think this means that to be filled with the Holy Spirit you must speak in tongues, that’s false. When we look through the different instances recoded in Acts of God pouring his Holy Spirit out on people, sometimes it is with tongues… in Acts 10 where the gentiles gathered in Cornelius’ house and the Spirit comes upon them, it tells us that they spoke in tongues, and it’s appropriate because the point God is making to the Jewish believers is that the gospel is for gentiles as well as Jews, they see God filling them with the spirit just as they were at Pentecost. Other times it is not mentioned, and Paul teaching in 1 Corinthians while affirming the gift of tongues says that God gives a whole lot of different gifts to his people for the common good. Now I believe in the gift of tongues, when I was prayed for to be filled with the Holy Spirit I received this gift, or at least I opened my mouth and another language came out, and can I tell you there are times when I think I’m mad and making it up. But I have had experiences of praying for people in tongues, usually because I just don’t know what to pray for them and have had people tell me I had spoken in their mother tongue. A Maori man called Dallas said I had prayed for him in fluent Maori. A cook Island man told me he didn’t speak his language fluently but had heard enough to hear God say… I know you by name which was exactly what he needed to hear.

Luke finishes his description of the coming of the Holy Spirit by recording the reactions of the people gathered, some are amazed and you get this wonderful line how could those backward Galileans, those hicks from the sticks be speaking and praising God in all these languages: It a very God thing to start this significant new thing this world wide mission with people who were written off by others as not very important or smart or powerful. Others simply write it off as too much wine. We are often faced with that’s same response today… it fits outside our understanding of things so there has to be a logical reason for it. We are not willing to equate such exuberant joy with God’s presence.  Peter then has an opening to say, no we are not drunk its only 9 in the morning, and to begin to do what the Spirit had empowered them to do witness to Jesus Christ. While they may have spoken in tongues when it comes to addressing the crowd Peter uses a common language… There is a place for tongues but it does not take the place of sharing the gospel and using our god given and Holy Spirit inspired intellect to share with others.  The man who had denied Christ three times even when challenged by a servant girl now stands up and preaches what is the first apostolic message in front of thousands of people. He points to Jesus, and we are told that after wards three thousand become followers of Jesus.

Luke finishes off his record of that day by looking at the Christian community in Jerusalem. It is a great summary of what it means for a group to be filled with the Holy Spirit. It tells us that they devoted themselves to four things, the teaching of the apostles, fellowship and breaking bread and to the prayers. There was a hunger to know more of Jesus and to know Jesus more in their lives. It wasn’t just a structured thing a weekly meeting for church but a daily thing, it wasn’t just a big gathering thing, but a at home small group thing. They are a community focusing on worship and giving thanks to God. We see that they were a community that loved each other, a community dedicated to caring for the poor, they were prepared to sell what they had to meet needs in their group. God was moving in amazing ways they saw miracles and healings. It was a group that actually had an impact on their society, it tells us that that they were held in high regard by everyone, there love their compassion had an impact. They saw God add to their numbers those who were being saved; they had a heart for other people and shared Jesus with people.

Now when you read through the rest of the New Testament and look at church history you see that it wasn’t always like that. Yes we see healings and evangelism and mission and transformation but also we see people struggling with pressure from within and without, wrestling to love one another, wrestling with false teaching and how to respond and keep the faith in face of persecution and assimilation into the culture around them. The Holy Spirit fire seems to almost fizzle out. We see the Spirit at work through apostles like Paul and James doing what Jesus said the spirit would do, calling to mind Jesus teaching and revealing truth. We see the spirit leading and guiding God’s people, sometimes through moving in history, like the persecution that pushed the church out of Jerusalem, and dream’s and prophecy like in Paul’s life. There are times when it seems to be on the wane and the way out, as one writer puts it a gerontological curiosity, and there are times when the Spirit reignites the flame and passion. There are times when the church has seemed content to enjoy and use the power of this world rather than be moved by the Spirit, (we've just been through a period in history like that which we call Christendom) and again times when the good news and kingdom of God have been stirred up again.

How does that impact us here today?

 It is easy for us just to think of Church like that pre Pentecost group of believers as a human institution and yes it can be like any other organisation, it needs administration and management and people doing various tasks to make it function, regular meeting times but being church means being God’ spirited people enabled by God to witness to the Jesus Christ. I don’t know about you but sometimes doing church feels like the valley of dry bones in the reading from Ezekiel we had read out to us today.  It can feel like it takes all our energy and strength just to keep the institution going. We need the Holy Spirit to blow new life into us again.

Often people seek revival and Holy Spirit experiences because it fills them with joy and praise for God. Can I be a little cynical here and say it's like there are people addicted to a sort of hyped up understanding of revival and the Holy Spirit, like the Holy Spirit was a drug or to get a hit of divine endorphins. But when you look at the church in Acts you see the effects of revival. A renewed hunger for God’s word, a passion for prayer, compassion for the poor, seeking justice and love and unity… they were more about the manifesto of the Holy Spirit rather than Manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

A representative from alpha came and saw me this week and gave me this little gimmicky think they use to help people think about sharing their faith. It’s a light bulb, and they invite people to think ‘whose life are you going to be a light to?’ And the thing that powers this light bulb is the Holy Spirit’s presence and filling in us.
This week the Holy Spirit has been encouraging me through people’s testimonies how the Holy Spirit can use us to be Christ’s light to people around us. The testimonies were of powerful encounters with Jesus but in each there was the story of someone who simply came and shared Jesus. A teacher telling a student about her faith, a little old Salvation Army lady spending an hour with a disturbed teenager in a prison cell.  A women who spent 35 years praying each day for her husband to become a Christian.

Here is one of them… I was looking for a video for the start of the service this morning and I came across a video that someone had posted on youtube. The women called herself nikki and she shared not only the video but why it meant so much to her. She had grown up a victim of sexual abuse and rape since she was 4 years old. She talked of feeling dirty and damaged and ugly and unloved. When she had wanted to tell her parents her abusers had chocked her and threatened her. She decided to kill herself; she got everything she needed to hang herself. Then decided to give one last thing a go… a teacher had told her about Jesus so she prayed out of desperation and she said that she saw Jesus standing there opening a door for her, she cried out to him and he came and knelt with her. She said from that moment she felt loved, Jesus her enabled her to love and see the beauty in the ugliness she saw when she looked in the mirror. She was able to forgive the unforgiveable and find new life and liberty.

We need to be filled afresh with the Holy Spirit.  We could do with a fresh encounter and filling of the Holy Spirit. We need revival. The promise of Pentecost and the promise of Ezekiel is that God’s spirit is moving that if we ask, God will fill all of us afresh by his Holy Spirit.