Saturday, December 17, 2016

Mission Accomplished an Advent reflection on Isaiah 55:8-11

I’m not sure that rain is that welcome at Christmas time. Christmas BBQ meals, with everyone huddling under the eaves of the house and the food being run in and out from the BBQ with the cook standing under an umbrella, water squelching in their jandals.The kids didn’t need the slip and slide in the backyard this year. They just slide down the increasingly muddy back lawn, and you don’t know how you are going to get them cleaned up to come inside later… and you definitely don’t want grandma slipping on that muddy slope as she is hurried in from the car. Then there is that camping trip you’re going on tomorrow, wet road travelling, pitching a tent in the rain, not fun and then digging a trench round it keep it safe and dry… well dry-ish.

Snow… at Christmas? We are more used to sun and sand... I guess it’s what those northern hemisphere dreams are made of. For some of us it’s in our genetic memory or even our childhood memories of distant homelands. We certainly sing about it enough in those carols as we swelter in increased heat and humidity, with the drone of fans as necessary accompaniment.

This year my advent reflection has revolved around rain and snow the images that are used in the passage we had read out from Isaiah 55. A passage which for me captures the wonder and grandeur of the incarnation: that places that child born in a Bethlehem stable into perspective. AS the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return without watering the earth… so it is with my word that goes out of my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purposes for which I sent it.”

The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us as John so succinctly puts it in the prologue to his gospel. No one has seen God but in Jesus we have beheld his mercy and grace. This is the mystery of the incarnation the magic if your will of Christmas, that God would take on human form, become a defenceless baby, born amidst the upheaval and housing crisis conditions caused by the census called by the world super power of the time …Rome. It is beyond us to comprehend God becoming a child and being placed in danger, having to flee as a refugee from the death squads of a paranoid dictator, a story which fills out TV screens each night as we see the human tragedy of Syria and Aleppo.  A virgin conceives a child, who is heralded by angels and welcomed by lowly shepherds, this is the wisdom of God so far beyond our own. A child who would grow in to a man and would live and heal and teach of God’s great love, and would die a criminals death on the cross, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians to the world  this is foolishness, but to those of us being saved it is the power of God.

The passage is full of images that point us to Christ; his person, his purpose and mission.

Water. Our kids took the service last week and did a wonderful job… we had mainly music for the pre-schoolers our primary kids with Sunday funday and our youth with SPY. They talked of the Gift of Jesus at Christmas and the key passage again was from John’s gospel where to the Samaritan women at the well who Jesus had asked to draw him some water in the mid-day heat he said…’If you knew the gift of God and who it is who asks for a drink, you would ask him and he would have give you living water’…This wonderful image of Jesus as the living water, able to parch our spiritual thirst and bring forth new life in the most barren deserts of our life… If we will but ask him.

The image of the water producing seed for the sower to make bread for the eater, points us to Jesus. “I am the bread of life” He said, God sending his son his word to sustain and give us what we need for new life. In the picture of a seed in the hand of the sower becoming a harvest of wheat to make bread we have Jesus own words predicting his death ‘Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it cannot  bear fruit, but if it falls to ground and dies it produces much fruit.’ Foretelling hi death and how that would result in such a rich harvest of forgiveness and new life for us.

Finally Jesus words on the cross ‘it is finish” echo those of Isaiah ‘My word will not return to me without achieving all I have reposed for it’. Jesus mission was complete, the word made flesh achieved everything that God sent him to achieve. In Christ’s life, death and resurrection all that needs to be done for you and I to be forgiven and be bought back into relationship with God and know his presence and love has been done. Mission accomplished… from manger to cross and empty tomb all that needs to be done for us to know God’s love and grace has been done…

It’s like the present under the tree, the hours of thought, the struggling to find a car park, pushing through the crowds, or hoping you hadn’t missed the postal date from overseas for that thing you found on the Internet has been done and you are given a great gift and all you need to do is open it and receive it.

May you know new life in Jesus this Christmas!

Friday, December 16, 2016

A prayer of thanksgiving for Christmas day...

One of the things I love about Luke's narrative of Jesus birth is all the voices that we hear giving praise and helping us to understand the significance of the birth of this Child, Jesus... I've often pictured it like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical with Mary and Zechariah singing and the most amazing and upside down production number... Where the vast host of angels are like performers on a grand stage preforming not the rich who can afford tickets but to a small group of outcast shepherds... Then like a postscript Simeon and Anna in the temple sign a duet not to bring the curtain down but to invite us to enter into the rest of the gospel story.

This Christmas, in this prayer I want to join my voice to this cast... It tries to capture the words of scripture and I've also tried to say them in my own words as well.

AS with all prayers and stuff I write you are welcome to use any or all of it that you would find helpful and encouraging...

This Christmas we join our voices with Mary to give you praise.

Our souls glorify the LORD

And our spirits rejoice in God our saviour,

We thank you that you have remembered us in our humble state

That you have blessed us and done great things

You have shown mercy to those who fear you

Way back then, now and for generations to come

Your ways are so different than ours

You don’t stand with the powerful and self-righteous

You are for those who are aware of their deep seated need for you

Your heart is for the poor and the lowly

Those who have all they need, seem to have no need for you

Yet you have helped your people and shown us mercy

You are faithful to your promises

This Christmas, as your spirited people, we join our voices with Zechariah

We praise the LORD, the God of Israel

In Christ you have come to your people, and bought them back to you

You’ve kept your promise of a just and honest king from David’s house

You’ve been faithful to your word, spoken through the prophets

AS you said you would, you’ve pulled us from the clutch of death and sin

Rescued and restored us to serve you, and love one another without fear

To live out your justice and grace empowered by your Spirit’s presence

We will declare your word, God, and tell the good news of Jesus Christ

We proclaim that in this Christ we celebrate today we can know new life

That because of Jesus, his birth, life and death that we can be forgiven

The slate is wiped clean, through your tender mercy

Mercy, like a new day dawning, through this child, the light of the world

A light that shines for those living in darkness and deaths cold shadow

A light to guide our feet onto the path of peace.

This Christmas we join our voice with Simeon and Anna,

We embrace this child you have given, and give you praise,

In Him you have kept your promise to us

We can leave this place, our hearts full of peace and joy

Because in Jesus we have seen your saving grace

Good news and hope prepared for the whole world

The light of the revelation of God, for gentile and Jew alike

The one who will bring glory to You Father God in all nations

Who will cause many to stumble and others to find solid footing,

He will not be accepted by all, many will speak against him

But in whose truth, the very core of being will be made known

The one who gave his life up for us, that in him we may find life

Lord God, in the midst of the suffering and sorrow of life

 we will not stop telling of your son Jesus to all who look for hope

This Christmas we join our voices with the whole host of heaven

Glory to God in the highest

And on earth… peace to those on whom God’s favour rests

This Christmas we join our voices to say the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

prayer for the fourth Sunday in Advent... love...

This is a prayer for our Carols and readings service this Sunday. The focus for the fourth Sunday in Advent is love, and this will come after our call to worship which is 1 John 4: 8-12. a wonderful passage about love and the incarnation as an expression of God's love for us.

The prayer follows a simple progression, what we 'love' about Christmas, the love of Christmas in Jesus Christ, and living out that Christmas love by loving one another. It starts with I guess is an idealized Christmas which we would all love to experience (well I know our northern friends like there white Christmas) ad then moves on to look at the Love of God shown in the incarnation, the coming and life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. Then finishes by taking that love into the imperfect hurt and needy world in which we live. where people struggle with debt, grief aloneness and isolation at Christmas, its a Christmas time when we hear the word genocide in Allepo in Syria, where in New Zealand we find that we have been named as the most prosperous country in the world the same week as a study was released saying that one in three children in our nation live in poverty... praying that we may be people who would bring God's Christmas love into this world of ours.

If you are northern hemisphere person reading this prayer... I'm sorry but it pure Southern hemisphere Christmas in the summer time. The Pohutukawa is known as  the New Zealand Christmas tree, it Blooms with vibrant crimson flowers just before Christmas. Red and green are traditional Christmas colours and remind us of new life in Christ's blood. The image that goes with this prayer is the Pohutukawa tree in our church car park...   

Like most of my payers I've tried to write with a bit of poetic styling and structure. I'm not sure it flows I am sure I only have a small bit of poetic style. Once again I hope it is of use and helps express something of our praise and prayers for this season. Please feel free to use any or all or none of it.

Dear God

We want to thank you for what we love about Christmas

Time to gather with family and friends and just catch up

Taking time to reconnect with loved ones who live far away

The sudden chance to relax and wind down after end of year rush

A summer break after that same rush that seems to have lasted all year

For gifts given and for giving gifts as expressions of love

For banquet like meals, left overs and easy going BBQ’s

Sunny beaches lined with Pohutukawa crimson bloom

Favourite carols that spark memories and gospel story hope

Father God

We want to thank you for Christmas Love

That you heard the cry of your people in darkness caught

That you faithfully sort to change, bring back and make new

Your word stepping into our world, full of grace and truth

In Bethlehem stall, the word becoming flesh and being with us

Dwelling with us: knowing our joy and sorrow,in Jesus our Emmanuel

Good news for poor, sight for blind and captives go free

Forgiveness of sin through Christ’s death on a tree

New creation breaking forth from empty tomb, as ‘he is risen indeed’

Your ongoing presence and kingdom in the promised Holy Spirit sent

Gracious saviour

We pray for your Christmas love today

May it find those alone, weighed down and sorrow filled,

May it reach to bring lasting peace amidst bomb blast and gunfire

May it bring hope in the face of poverty, neglect,  violence and abuse

Bring wholeness and healing to pained, stained  and broken souls

Forgiveness and reconciliation to family, community and world

The light of your kingdom in the dark recesses where evil seeks to rule

May it inspire generosity and sacrificial love in the face our self-seeking

May we be like Christ and love first: love as you first loved us

Monday, December 5, 2016

The LOst Son (Luke 15:11-34)... On The Crossroad

My favourite crime drama is criminal minds… I jokingly say it’s because the insights into abnormal psychology help me understand my children more. But really I think it the excellent work and writing that has gone into making the BAU team a family. Which you can see portrayed in this poster.

Why mention criminal minds? Well call it coincidence but this week’s episode “mirror Image”  revolved around the very passage and parable we are looking at today.  It focused on the background of relatively new character Dr Tara Lewis.  It was the story of two estranged siblings. The older who had followed the expected career path, and a younger brother who had dropped out and got caught up in any and every ‘get  rich quick scheme going and was always on to his father and family for more money that got squandered . The father wanted the two to be reconciled. Dr Lewis wasn’t that keen. I don’t want to spoil the episode for you, or go into the dark and bizarre physiological thriller element, but it ends with the younger brother being rescued and embraced and welcomed back  by his father while the older sibling, Dr Lewis, stands off somewhat distant not knowing what to do…while she had helped rescue him would she forgive him… and we have the voice over quote that the show has made its trademark… “this brother of yours was dead but is alive again, he was lost and is found’- Luke… the conflict is still unresolved and we are left to wonder how the older sibling will act.

Jesus parable of the prodigal son or more aptly the forgiving father is so much more detailed than the previous two. It paints characters that like this show does to me, draws us in and captivate us. It is a wondrous journey to the very father heart and character of God, and it finishes unresolved leaving us to decide what happens next and in that it invites us to find ourselves in the story, to find ourselves in relation to  Jesus and God’ big hearted love.

We are on a Journey with Jesus to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel. A journey that takes up the central third of the gospel narrative, and the journey narrative focuses on Jesus teaching about what it means to be his disciples. It’s a journey that will lead Jesus and us to the Cross. It’s a journey we are invited to join not just in the pages of a book, but in our lives as well as we live out Jesus teaching on discipleship following him on the cross road.

The section we are looking at in Luke chapter 15, the parable of the lost sheep and lost coin, that we looked at last week and the lost son we are looking at this week, forms a discrete unit at the centre of Jesus journey to Jerusalem and really at the centre of the gospel itself. As such it lends itself very nicely to this advent season.  Jesus we are told is surrounded by tax collectors and sinners, they have gathered to hear him, and he sits down to dine with them.  When we read that people hear Jesus they are acting as disciples, Jesus had said that his disciples are the ones who hear his words and put them into action. He sits down to dine with them and as we see in the stories Jesus tells in this section, such behaviour is a celebration of people repenting and turning back to God. The Pharisees and teachers of the law mutter and mumble, how can Jesus be a man of God and hang out with such people? Jesus tell these most memorable parables as a defence of his ministry, to show the people who think they know God the best that they do not know the love and grace of God at all. And in the way the parable of the father and his two sons is left hanging that invites them and us to join the rejoicing that the lost are being found, the dead have been made alive again.

The story revolves around a father who has two sons. It starts by focusing on the younger son. Who comes to his father and demands his inheritance now. The father is a landowner and so the property is divided up between the two brothers. AS the younger brother, his portion would have been smaller than his brothers. Such action would be shocking to Jesus hearers because in doing such a thing the son disowns his family, dishonouring his father. Not only that but by selling it off and turning it into cash he further shames his family, such things were not done in Jesus day, land like in our Maori culture here in New Zealand was very much about identity; it said who you were and where you belonged. Likewise it was unheard of for someone to move away from his family to seek his fortune in a distant land. The implication here for Jesus Jewish listeners was that he was heading off to a gentile land. Of course the resulted squandering of his money on wild living shows he has turned his back on his family his land his people and his faith. While a parable is a story with one central point, here it is almost allegorical about the impact of sin and walking away from our relationship with God.

The Father seems rather passive in this part of the story, his behaviour may have equally shocked Jesus listeners. By Law such a demand to divey it up when you were alive, should have been met with a decline and even a beating and banishment for such disrespect, shameful and rebellious behaviour. But the father lets the son go, he takes the shame and hurt and pain of this disobedience. We are often asked why does God allow people to walk away from him, to sin, surely he could demand and make it that we obeyed him. Yet part of the love and grace of God is his willingness to allow us to exercise freewill. He hope his love will keep us close but out of that love Go is willing to face the pain and sorrow and the shame of being a God who has his creation his people turn away from him.

The younger son soon finds himself poor and broke, he has misspent all that the father had given him and instead of high living and enjoyment he now finds himself destitute. This is often the case that we see freedom from the restrains of duty and family ties, of faith to be desirable, but it can so easily lead downwards to ruin and pain. We are told to make matters worse a famine hits the land. While it would have been demeaning the young son could have depended on the alms and generosity of the people and society about him, but even this was taken away, peoples kindness was curbed by their own dire needs. He ends up for a Jew with the worst of jobs; he is hired to look after pigs: Unclean animals.  He is no better than a slave, his pay is not enough to feed himself and he looks longingly at the husks and pods that the pigs are feed.

Then Jesus tells us that the young son came to his senses. Here as his life bottoms out he takes stock, he starts thinking straight. In a profound picture of what repentance is we see the young son realise where his own wilful disobedience has lead him down this disastrous path. He realises he has sinned against his family and against God. But it’s just not being sorry for where he is or for what he has done, his mind starts to turn towards home, he is aware again of his father’s goodness and generosity, that his father treats his servants better than he is being treated and maybe there is hope that in going back and confessing his sin and stupidity that he will experience some of that grace and be hired as a lowly servant. He gets up and he starts the long trek home, nervous, unsure of his reception but hoping because of what he knows of his father’s love. Rehearsing in his mind what he will say, how he will have to confess all he has done wrong. 

The focus of the story now changes; the central figure comes into frame. We switch to the Father. There is the idea of a loving father looking out down the road his son had left and grieving for him. Only to see the son he thought lost to him forever, come into view in the distance. Even though he was dishevelled and in rags the Father knows his child. He sees him under the filth and dirt.  In the Jewish culture of the day the thing to have done would be for the father to wait with a stern look on his face till the son has come and explained himself, thrown himself on his father’s mercy. But this is not Jewish culture its Jesus culture the father does something shocking, he dispenses with any idea of dignity and status and runs down the street to embrace his son. Even before the son can offer his long practised heartfelt apology and plea, he is embraced and orders are given for the finest robes and the family ring and sandals to be bought the fatted calf to be killed for a great feast. He is not simply assigned to the role of a servant but is welcomed back and received fully into the family again. He was lost but he is found, dead but is alive again.

Here is Jesus insight into the heart of God the Father: A God who is willing to forgive and welcome back those who have gone astray. In this advent season the idea of laying aside dignity and status to embrace the repentant sinner takes on deeper significance as we reflect on our Heavenly father sending his son Jesus into the world. To be good news for the poor, bring sight to the blind, freedom for the captive and prisoner and proclaim the acceptable year of the lord, To seek and save the lost. The whole gospel and Jesus mission so beautifully wrapped up in a story here of family reunion and reconciliation.

While there is great feasting and happiness, because the one who was lost is now found, and the one who was dead is now alive, isn’t that a great picture of the new life we can receive through Christs death and resurrection, Jesus tells us the third character in the story comes home for the field where he has been working. It is the older brother. He asks what is going on and is told his lost brother has retuned and a great celebration is happening. But the Older brother reacts with anger, he remembers the shame of the betrayal, the shame of the younger son forsaking the family, all the past hurts and his own dutiful service and  will not come into celebrate.

We again see the love of the Father, willing to put aside the important role of being host to a great party, and humbly going to his son outside. He is meet with vitriol… as he says ‘Your brother has returned” . The older son does not seem to know his father at all. He acts like a servant, yes he has faithfully worked and done everything right and proper, and he throws it back at his father that he has never thrown such a party for him… the older son knows his duty but does not understand the love and forgiveness and grace that his father possesses.  I wonder if we cannot find ourselves in the same position when it comes to knowing God. We don’t know God at all, we may fear God or serve him out of duty, and not know that he loves us so deeply, not share the joy of his great mercy and love for all his children who would return to him.

The father again acts out of love and assures the older son that everything he has belongs to the older son and he has always been with him… there is the same offering of love and acceptance… he invites him in to celebrate the lost son is now found the dead son is now alive.’

The story ends there abruptly and unfinished. We are left to ask ourselves how it ends? Will the older son go in, or will he remain the lost son? Will the younger son actually change his ways? When people turn to Christ We can wonder if they have really changed if all they have done in the past can be forgiven and forgotten.  The people Jesus told this story to are a mix of those who might relate to the younger son or to the older son.  The tax collectors and sinners embraced again by the big hearted love of God, rejoiced over as they turn again towards God in repentance. Or the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, who had thought they were dutifully serving God and hurt and angry about how the younger brother had behaved.

It’s a story that remains unresolved in church history it would have spoken to Luke’s first hearers in a church made up of Jewish believers and gentile believers.  The one so over joyed at finding themselves welcomed in by Christ, and the others wrestling with what this now meant, both trying to resolve what it means to be in the fathers household together. It has gone on in every new push and expression of the gospel and church, new forms and styles of worship which emphasise the joy and celebration of knowing God and older more traditional forms and a sense of duty and respect.

The story remains unresolved for us today, because it is our story. We are invited to see ourselves in this story and resolve it in our own lives, in how we respond to the big hearted love of God.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Prayer Based on Psalm 29:10-11 for the second Sunday of Advent

As a call to worship this Sunday we are using Psalm 29:10-11. These verses come at the end of a nature psalm which talks of a major storm coming up from the Mediterranean sea, bring devastation to the hills of Lebanon and its majestic cedar trees, going on over the wilderness and desert and descending on Jerusalem. In the face of that the Psalm acknowledges God's sovereignty and goodness.

So I've written a prayer using the four phrases  "God enthroned above the storm, King enthroned forever, Lord who strengthens his people, & Lord who blesses with peace.' as  a starting point.

It is designed for the second Sunday of Advent with a focus on peace. It also incorporates our waiting for the consummation of Christ's kingdom and that this waiting is an active thing, calling us to be about the work of Christ. I've also made it Trinitarian in nature as well.

Once again I simply offer it in the hope some will find it useful and helpful. feel free to use any of it or all of it, or none of it.  

God enthroned above the floods,

We know that this does not mean you are distant or disinterested

You see and know the pains and suffering of this world and hear our cries

The devastation of natural disaster

Poverty and hungers cruel grip

The bloody destruction of war

The dehumanization of violence and abuse

Rather that in the face of these things you are sovereign

Your plans and purposes for peace and justice will triumph

We await the coming of your salvation

All glory and Praise to God the Father

King enthroned forever,

WE know that eternity does not mean you are inactive

When the time was right, you sent us hopes pure light

In Jesus the word became flesh

We beheld your grace and truth

In his death, death and sin were defeated

In his resurrection we have new creation life

You stepped into our world, bringing reconciliation and grace

The poor receive Good News, the blind sight and the captive liberty

We await the consummation of your kingdom come in Christ.

 All glory and Praise to God the Son

Lord who strengthens his people,

We know it is not for conquest, domination or earthly power

You enable and equip us to serve and love with your own big hearted love

Like Jesus to seek and save the lost

To care for those without, to do for the least of them

To love one another generously

To love even those who would try and be our enemies

These things are not simply left up to our weak and faulting frames

Rather you dwell with us and in us by the Holy Spirit

We wait on you, that you might fill us afresh today

All glory and Praise to God, the Holy Spirit

Lord who blesses with peace,

We know this is not just an absence of conflict or concern

But you lead us into righteousness and the just treatment of each other

Forgive our sins and restore us to peace with you O God

In the face of inner turmoil allow us the peace of your presence

In the face of war and injustice help us to be peace makers

Indeed make us channels through which your peace may flow

We don’t just say ‘peace on earth’ as a seasonal greeting

It is our earnest prayer our deepest hope a statement of faith in you

We wait for you, O Prince of Peace

All glory and Praise to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit  

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke 15:1-10)... On The CrossRoad

Just to give a bit of context for this sermon. It was preached on the first Sunday in Advent... So has an advent bent. During the service I also had a children's participation thing where we looked for Scruffy the Sheep and a lost coin... both hidden in the church and then we had a bit of a celebration afterwards letting off Party poppers. There are references to this in the sermon.

I used to work at St John’s Presbyterian Church in Rotorua. One day I was walking down the main street and this teenager was walking towards me. He had his swagger on his hoodie up and was trying to look tough and mean, and cool. AS he got close we accidentally made eye contact and his face changed, he smiled and his eyes lit up he literally beamed at me. He flicked me a big Tuhoe wave (that’s a raising of the eyebrows by the way), I didn’t recognize him from our youth group or intermediate school ministry, but he said, ‘hey you’re that Church guy!’.  Yup he had me pegged, I was the church Guy, so I replied “yup! I’m the church Guy’. He started telling me that I’d spoken at his intermediate school a couple of years ago (he was in the fourth form now) and he began retelling me the story I’d used that day. Even after two years he still remembered it in vivid detail. I was amazed. I asked him if he could remember the point I was making with it. “nah” he just remembered the story, but that was hopeful.

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 Jesus wonderful series of stories about celebrating lost things that were found are like that. They are memorable stories, favourite stories, and wonderful stories. Stories we pass on to our children, that have influenced  our religious iconography and imagery and imagination.  So much so that we can forget the very profound and challenging points Jesus was making. The amazing truth of God’s big hearted grace and how far God has gone to find the lost,  and the invitation to us all to join in the search and the  celebration with all the hosts of heaven.

We are working our way through Luke’s account of Jesus journey to Jerusalem. It’s a narrative which takes up the central third of the gospel, and focuses on Jesus teaching about what it means to be a disciple. It’s  a journey that leads Jesus and us to the cross. It’s a journey following Jesus that we are invited to make not just through the pages of a book, but in our very lives. Today we start a two part advent series looking at Jesus most beloved parables in Luke 15: The lost sheep, the lost coin and next week the lost son. It is fitting we do it at advent because they are stories which show the extreme  to which God is willing to go to see the lost become found in him again.

 Luke 15 forms a discrete section in the gospel narrative. It is separate from what has gone before by place and who is with Jesus. It is a scene that is familiar however throughout the gospel. Jesus Luke tells us is surrounded by tax collectors and ‘sinners’. When they see this the Pharisees and the religious leaders are not happy. They mumble that Jesus is eating with the wrong kind of people. Tax collectors worked for the Romans, and were seen as quislings and traitors, often accused of extortion and dishonesty, and even seen as ritually unclean because of their regular contact with gentiles. ‘sinners’ was a term that covered a whole lot of different  well sins  or rather categories, they were people who in the eyes of the Pharisees did not understand or keep the law to the same standard as the Pharisees and religious leaders thought they should.  To eat with them was to risk contamination. 

While this is a separate unit from what has gone before there are connections with what has gone before. Jesus teaching at the Sabbath meal in chapter 14 had talked of God’s big hearted invitation for all to come and dine with him. Jesus had talked of welcoming and inviting those who could not pay him back and here he is living that out. He finished his teaching onthe cost of discipleship, that we looked at last week, with the words “for those who have ears let them hear” and know we are told that the tax collectors and sinners were all gathered round to hear Jesus.  It’s implicit that these are the people who are showing the sign of being disciples and listening to Jesus teaching. In the first two of Jesus parables there is the repetition in the punchline that all of heaven rejoices at one sinner who repents, we get the idea that Jesus is sitting down to table fellowship to celebrate this turning to God. In Luke chapter 5, Jesus calls Levi, the tax collector to be his disciple and as an expression of Jesus words in Luke 14 about giving up everything to follow Jesus, we are told that Levi, leaves his toll booth and follows Jesus, he leave his life behind for the sake of knowing and being known by Jesus. We see that as a result of that Levi throws a big party and invites all his friends, which just happen to be other tax collectors and other outcasts. All celebrate Levi’s new life and fresh start.

IN both instances the religious folk stand back and question whether Jesus can be a man of God, a prophet or the messiah he claims to be and eat and have fellowship with such people., and Jesus stories are directed at them.

They are stories that look at the very heart of God. In the first one we have a shepherd, who when he counts his sheep finds one is missing, and instantly he leaves the 99 to search for the lost sheep.  A bit like we interrupted the service this morning to get the kids to search for scruffy the sheep, who managed to get himself lost, stuck under the fold back speaker.  In New Zealand we are used to herds of thousands of sheep, but in Jesus day this shepherd had an average size flock, one sheep was a significant loss. The image of a shepherd for the Jews was  steeped in Old Testament images. It was a picture of God, David’s famous psalm, the Lord is my shepherd, the passage we had read out from Ezekiel 334, where Israel’s leaders were described as shepherds who did not look after their sheep and God promises to become Israel’s shepherd; A passage full of messianic expectation and hope. It is the heart of God to go and to seek the lost.

Then we find an even more challenging picture of God, an impoverished widow, who loses a silver coin, it’s a drachma, which as a person’s daily wages. In many of Luke’s telling of Jesus parables there is this pairing together of two stories that tell the same truth from a perspective that would relate to the world of men and to women in Jesus day. It shows the radical nature of Jesus teaching and how he saw people. Anyway  It’s a lot of money to her, it may have been part of her dowry and have sentimental as well as financial meaning. But she too mounts and extensive  
search to find it.

In both instances the search is successful and as a result there is a great celebration, all the neighbours are called together to celebrate with the shepherd and the widow. We are supposed to have the feeling of great joy and jubilation. Party poppers going off,  as well see next week with the lost son, the best food prepared. This Jesus says is what heaven is like when one sinner repents. When the lost is found.

In what is the most wonderful stories we see the whole of the incarnation spread before us.  Our hope is in the very character of God: That God cares for and love us. That he would send his son to come and look for us in our darkness and lostness. John puts it like this that God so loved the world he sent his only begotten son, not to condemn the world but that whosoever believed in him would not perish but have everlasting life. I don’t want to spoil the story but Luke’s narrative of Jesus journey to Jerusalem finishes with  the story of Zacchaeus another repentant tax collector, and Jesus sums up his ministry by saying ‘the son of man has come to seek and save the lost’.  Christ comes into the world to reconcile us to a God who loves us and rejoices over us when we turn to him.

It is a wonderful story of  the wonder of God’s grace  and the hope we have because of have hope because God is like this shepherd and this widow. But the challenge is that  Jesus is speaking to those who refuse to acknowledge who he is and who look down and write off the very people he had come to bring back. There is kind of a bite in the tail when he says there is more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than ninety nine righteous people who did not need to repent. I don’t think Jesus is saying that there are people who simply have earned God favour by their good behaviour; the Pharisees actually believed that God would save Israel if they kept the law just that bit better. We are used to Jesus meek and mild particularly as we come to Christmas time, we may not hear the irony in Jesus words, in fact Jesus was reflecting back what the Pharisees were thinking, and mumbling. They knew the letter of the law but they missed the heart and love of God. That is challenging for us… isn’t it.

Jesus stories are an invitation to join in the celebration, to get our party clothes and our party hats and our party faces on and rejoice, because the lost are found those that have gone astray have been returned. The sinner has repented.

It’s an invitation to celebrate and rejoice because of what Christ has done for us. That once we were lost, far away from God, but now we are found and have been bought near.  I can identify with this passage because the night I became a Christian, one of the Youth leaders Geoff Sim, threw a party for me. It was strange party. We were at a family camp up at Snell's beach. Te guy who was speaking was very boring and I think I dosed off through most of what he had to say. But when he said at the end that God was calling someone to come forward and accept Christ it was as if the heavens rolled back like a curtain and I heard God say “Howard I want you to follow me”. My knees began to shake, I got all emotional, and I couldn’t stand up. The man up the front said..” You’ll probably find you knees are shaking so much that you can’t stand up, but you’ve got to come”. So I did. It was a strange party afterward as well, you see we were all teenagers and   at a church family camp. But we swigged back heaps of coke and lollies and water melon. Because I remember it ended up with us all laughing and throwing water melon skin at each other.

It’s an invitation to come and join in the rejoicing as people turn and come to know Jesus Christ. I find my eyes water up and myself become overwhelmed when I hear peoples testimonies of what God has done for them. How they became his followers. My heart is moved, by the great big hearted grace of God. God’s love, God’s care, the way in which God comes and seeks and finds people and bring change and transformation. It’s the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin worked out in real life. It’s the good stories I hope and pray for us as a church.  

Lastly, just like in our service this morning the children were invited to look for the lost sheep and coin  these stories are an invitation to join the quest, join the search… to follow Jesus as he goes to seek and save the lost. We can stand off and look on from a distance or we can join Jesus in his mission and his joy.

People the wonder of the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin is that it is our story: The story of advent and Christmas and on to Easter.  It’s our story as Christ has sort us to call us back to himself. It’s our story because the incarnation finishes with a command from Jesus to his disciples to go and make disciples in every nation. It’s our story because people of faith have done that throughout the ages and throughout our lives. It’s the wonderful story of God’s grace… I didn’t want to make it into a series of points today, but let’s finish with some poetry we’ve already sung today, those of John Newton,

Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me

I once was lost but know am found was blind but now I see. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Cost of Discipleship (Luke 14:25-35)... On the Cross Road

When I was a teenager we used to go up into the Waitakere rangers at night. There were lots of good places to sit and watch the city lights… one place was a house up the top of west coast road. It was in a paddock and from the living room you could look down the valley and across the city. Well I assume it was the living room because the house was never finished. It was simply a concrete shell sitting on this prime spot. The walls rather than being plastered and decorated with fine art was plastered with graffiti, instead of looking out at the view from behind floor to ceiling glass windows, when you walked to look out from the edge there was the crunch of broken glass bottles with each step. The builder had found himself in difficulty with the council and didn’t have the money to fight it out with them in court. He started his radical design but hadn’t had the resources to finish the house. Last time I looked for it I discovered that even the skeleton of that wonderful house had been demolished… Jesus uses an illustration like this to talk to those who would be his followers about counting the cost of what discipleship meant. Three times he tells the large crowd that was following him on his journey to Jerusalem ‘If you don’t… you cannot be my disciples.’

And we are on that journey to Jerusalem with Jesus as we work our way through Luke’s gospel. It’s a journey that takes up the central third of the gospel narrative. It a narrative that focuses on Jesus teaching and it is a journey that leads Jesus and us to the cross. And it’s not just a journey through a book of the bible,  it is the journey that we are invited by Christ to walk with him through our lives, following him, being his disciples, so Jesus words in the passage we are looking at today are equally challenging to us… ‘if you don’t… you cannot be my disciples.’

The scene has changed from what has gone before in this passage. Jesus is again on the road after a Sabbath rest and a Sabbath meal. He is again on the journey. And like with the change of scene the gospels focus changes here as well, it moves from Jesus conflict with the religious leadership, to Jesus beginning to prepare his disciples for life without him. Like elsewhere in the gospel when Luke mentions that there is a big crowd following Jesus it leads to Jesus talking about what genuine discipleship means. Last week we focused on Jesus big hearted invitation to God’s grace. That it was an open invitation to come and to dine and find sustenance for life in knowing and being known by Christ, now Jesus moves to look at the fact that while it is a free invitation to take it up calls us to a costly life style. It’s not that the invitation has been withdrawn or somehow narrowed down, but it is an invitation to a journey that is rigorous and demanding. In the wake of the earthquakes this week, we’ve seen a road opened up to Kaikoura for relief, but it is a dangerous and arduous journey and the  Authorities have said that to travel that road you need to be in a military grade 4 wheel drive. Here Jesus the leader of those who would follow him in the Kingdom of God tells people that to partake in that journey is going to arduous there are things that will have to be left behind if you are to make it.

Jesus starts with words that shock us as much as they did his first listeners. ‘if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters-yes even his own life-such a person cannot be my disciples.  The word hate seems so harsh and hard. It’s not the way Hate is used by a petulant teenager wrestling with not getting their own way. It’s not the hate of a group opposed to any ethnic group apart from their own. It is that being a follower of Jesus changes your priorities. It is a matter of putting Jesus first, loving Jesus more, Jesus above even the prior demands of family and kin. For some following Jesus has literally meant that they are ostracised and cut off from their families. A messianic Jewish acquaintance told us that when he became a follower of Jesus his family held a funeral, it was now as if he was dead, if he rings home they will simply hang up as if he does not exist anymore. A Muslim convert to Christ talked of the look of pain and grief in his parents eyes now every time he goes home. The choice to follow Jesus impacted their family ties.

But for many of us this is not the case, yet even as Minister I have had to make decisions about following the sense of call, that impact on my family. It has mean being willing to move and make a new start in different towns and cities. It has meant that while my kids were young I spent a lot of time with other people’s teenagers and yet when we have done ministry we’ve gone to churches that did not have youth ministry. I value the fact that my kids know that being part of a church is very much about a willingness to serve, not how it caters to their needs. But Kris and I have had to make those kinds of decisions about family and faith.

In many of Jesus teaching about discipleship we see people torn between following Jesus and their possessions, status, comfort and prestige, the image Jesus uses to finish with is a man walking with a cross. To follow Jesus will demand our life our soul our all.

Jesus goes on to give two examples from the life of the first century to tell people that they need to count the cost. He uses the idea of a landowner building a tower, either a watch tower in a vineyard or a defensive tower on a city wall. To build such a thing has a definite cost and the person would be stupid indeed to start such a project without having his finances sorted. Likewise Jesus uses the image of a king planning to go to war, and having to decide if his limited resources were enough to win the battle, if it wasn’t he would be best to go and negotiate peace with his opponent. Jesus concludes this by saying that unless you are willing to give up everything you have you cannot be my disciples. I was speaking to a fellow minister this week who said he had chosen the song “ I surrender all” last week for church and after the service he had a parishioner come up and criticise his choice of song, when he ask why she honestly replied “I’m not prepared to give up everything, something’s yes but not all’.

NT Wright points out that talking about building projects and military campaigns would have been very poignant for Jesus listeners. Two significant movements in Jesus day were the rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, it has been started by Herod and continued by his descendants, in Marks’ account of Palm Sunday has Jesus disciples commenting on the wonderful decorations on the temple, and Jesus tells them that it will be destroyed and rebuilt in three days. But it was a project that took lots of finances and resources from the community and reflected the nations hope in temple worship. The other movement was the hope of revolt and military action liberating Judea from Roman occupation. Jesus comments here are very relevant as they speak to the challenge of having to deal with the roman army. It is easy for us to have our hopes for change and reform in institutions and movements other that following Jesus, Political reform, certain candidates on the left or the right, or even religious institutions and again Jesus tells his disciples that even these things need to be put in the right priority when it comes to following him.

Finally Jesus uses the illustration of salt to tell people about what is required of a disciple. Salt is good says Jesus, in his day it was used for preserving food, flavouring and also as fertilizer, ‘but says Jesus if it loses its saltiness it is no longer any use and can only be thrown out and trampled underfoot. People have always wondered about what Jesus means about salt losing its saltiness. IN Palestine there were two types of salt, one was the top grade salt and the other more common salt was a crystallised salt, which was made up of both salt and other substances and over time the salt would leech away leaving only the other substances which were no good for anything and would be thrown out.  It easy for Disciples of Jesus to start off with all sorts of enthusiasm and new resolve to live with different values ones that reflect Jesus but it is also easy over time for those to be leeched out of us and replaced again by the values and actions of our culture.

Ok how does this apply to us?

The first thing is that it might be easy to think that this passage seems to go contrary to what we looked at last week, an invitation to God’s big hearted banquet of God’s grace: An invitation to come and find sustenance for life in Jesus. Is Jesus now saying that somehow we have to earn our salvation? That the invitation is not free?  The short answer is no. Jesus teaching on what it means to be a disciple is sandwiched in between both the parable of the great banquet and the parables of the lost sheep and coin and the prodigal son, all of which focus on God’s grace. Even in this passage is the sense of invitation: Jesus call is to ‘whosoever’ anyone who will hear and respond. But here Jesus is not taking of earning God’s favour or invite, but rather what it means for us to respond to it. As we saw last week people used excuses of land, wealth and he prior demand of family to reject the invite and here Jesus is telling us that to accept that invitation is the opposite of that, to love Jesus more than those. It is how we live out our lives in response. To show the grace we have received to other people, invite the poor the lame and the blind, in our decision making and actions to have our actions and reactions reflect Christ, not our own agenda or comfort.

The second thing is discipleship is an on-going process, it is a journey and Jesus saying here are as challenging and demanding every step along that journey. It impacts on every area of our lives, how we deal with our finances, remember in Luke’s gospel the extent of how deeply we have allowed Jesus into our lives is displayed in how deep it impacts on our wallet, it impacts on our business ethics, how we deal with the people we deal with. It impacts on the openness of our door to hospitality. How we use our assets, our time. Making a stand when it isn’t popular. Offering forgiveness and love to those who mistreat us. It calls us to re-evaluate where we are at and where we are heading in each new life stage. To priorities Christ in these situations calls us to be people who will allow Jesus to speak into our lives, open up the scriptures and open ourselves to what they have to say.

Discipleship says Jesus is an ongoing matter of reflection and contemplation that leads to action.

This passage finishes with Jesus letting us know how serious his sayings are ‘for those who have ears, let them listen’. All the way through the gospel Jesus understanding of what is discipleship is the one who hears Jesus words and puts them into practise in their lives. That is the solid foundation to build a house on; to build our lives on.  It is the way in which we know the soil is good and can grow a crop that will yield tenfold or one hundred fold, it is that choosing to go by the narrow way. You and I are invited to put Jesus first, pick up our cross and follow Jesus… to say with Paul “it is no longer I that liveth, but Christ that liveth in me.”