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.”

Monday, November 14, 2016

You are Invited... God's Big Hearted Banquet of Grace (Luke 14:15-24). On The Cross Road: Jesus Journey To Jerusalem in Luke's Gospel (ch 10-19) and what it has to say to us as followers of Jesus.

‘You are invited’

I’m not sure I’ll ever receive an invitation to a garden party at Buckingham palace. Has anyone here received an invitation from the queen? I don’t know about you but if I did  I’d worry about what I should wear… I’d wonder if I needed a new pair of Jeans and whether my almost threadbare Op shop shirt would do just one more time… and if I could get away with wearing comfy shoes and my Homer Simpson tie? And I’m sure wiser heads would prevail, Kris would make sure we had the appropriate clothes, and Beth would make sure it had just that touch of class and flare. We’d get passports and book plane tickets and work out how to pay for it later. AS I’m sure all of you would. It’s not going to happen. I’m not that special or important in the scheme of things.

I’m sure that if it ever came I’d accept it and even though I’d be nervous as anything that at the last minute I wouldn’t come up with an excuse not to go.  You don’t snub the queen like that. I’m sorry I just bought a house… in Auckland…remember it’s a just a story… and I need to go and check it out. I’ve just got a flash new car and I want to take it for a spin… I’ve got some family commitments… there is a BBQ at uncle Bob’s, there is an ALL Black’s test match on the tele that day, so I’m sorry I just won’t be able to come.

You are invited…

Jesus tells a parable about an important host who throws a great banquet. And it’s an amazing story because the important invited guests snub the host, just as the feast is ready for them they all cry off and make excuses. So the host sends his servants to gather in all the poor and lame and crippled or as my friend Malcom Gordon puts it ‘the left overs and the left outs’. But even after that there is still room for more so he sends his servant off to the highways and hedgerows  to gather people in… strangers, foreigners folk from all over. They are invited to come and sit and have table fellowship with him.

You’ve been invited… to walk with Jesus on the Cross road

We are working through Jesus journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel , a journey that takes up the central half of Luke’s Gospel narrative, it’s a section of the gospel that focuses on Jesus teaching.  It’s a journey we will be on till Easter as it is a journey that leads Jesus and us to the cross. Today passage is a wonderful parable that Jesus tells about the big hearted love of God… that we are invited to God’s banquet of grace.

Jesus is invited…

As we saw last week Jesus had been invited to a Sabbath meal at a prominent Pharisees house. On the way he had healed a man suffering from Dropsy, which made his abdomen swell up. It was another example of Jesus care and compassion for the poor and marginalised… the Pharisee and his guests had stood by silently. Jesus noticed that when they got to the table that they played a social status game of musical chairs… seeking the best position at the table. So he told them a parable which focused on God lifting the humble and those who exalt themselves will find themselves humbled. He then spoke to the host and encouraged him not to simply invite people who would enhance his social standing and be able to repay him, but to invite the poor, the blind and the lame, Jesus finishes with a beatitude saying that we should look for God’s reward and blessing, not other peoples. 

Like much of Jesus teaching in Luke the passage we have today is sparked by an anonymous interruption… one of the dinner guests calls out his own beatitude… “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast of the Kingdom of God’. The religious people of Jesus day expected that the messiah’s reign would start with a great banquet and that all the religious leaders would definitely be there.

Jesus parable challenges that way of thinking… A very important person says Jesus hosts a banquet. We know the person is important because of the words used. It’s a great banquet with many guests. To understand the parable you have to realise the social context. Those who are invited are there because of who they are they are the important the in-crowd the religious and social elite. Being invited was a two part process. An invitation would be sent out which you would RSVP to, so the host knew how many animals to kill for food and how much wine to purchase. You may remember the possible social embarrassment for the host of the wedding in canna in John 3 when the wine ran out, that prompted Jesus to perform the miracle of turning water into wine.  Then when the meal was ready a  servant would come and summons you for the meal. It’s at this late date that people give excuse and do not come to the banquet. The excuses given are supposed to be trivial, they do have some basis in Jewish law as in the book of Deuteronomy they can be seen to be reasons for people to be excused from Military service, but that just adds to the irony here. They are definitely a snub to the host, refusing t e identified with him. AS we will see later in the story of Zacchaeus social status does not necessarily mean people will want to associate with you.

There is a deeper meaning to this. This parable acts as the closing section to a long series of Jesus conflict encounters with the Pharisees and religious leaders. From the beatitude that sparked it we know it was concerning the religious leaders belief that they would be guests when the messiah came. But Jesus here likens them to these invited guests, they are God’s people, they have been invited, the invitation to be ready for this great banquet for the coming of the messiah had been issued through Moses and the prophets and now when that messiah was in their midst, they refuse to come, they write him off or stand aloof. There excuses sound like tey are caught up the things of this world, land, wealth and family rather than genuinely looking and waiting for the Kingdom of God.

Stepping back into the story, Jesus says the host tells his servant to go and call all the left outs and the left overs, the poor, the lame the blind to come and sit at his table. It’s as if in this parable Jesus now turns to those of us were not invited to this Sabbath meal, that the kingdom of God, is for us. That God’s kingdom is for those who know their need for God’s grace and know they cannot repay him. But that is not enough the house is not full even after they have come. So the host tells his servant to go outside the town, to the highway and byways. T he travellers and strangers and aliens: Not only are the poor and outcast of Israel invited but here Jesus alludes to the fact that those outside, the gentiles, the other will be invited as well.  God’s grace and God’s invitation to come to the table to come to him for nourishment and life is not limited to the religious elite, but for all people. It is not based on the status of the guest, being the right person, but on the goodness of the host.

You are invited, In Christ’s life death and resurrection you are invited to come and to know Jesus to find sustenance for life in relationship to our gracious host Jesus. It’s abanquet of God’s big hearted grace.

The story ends on a note of judgement, a challenge to those listening to Jesus and to us. The religious leaders would not partake in the banquet, they would get to sit down for a good feed in the kingdom of God, because they did not recognise Jesus as the God’s agent, as  the who God has sent. It wasn’t that they were no longer invited but other things got in the way, other things were more important.

I want to finish by giving you three different invitations.

Firstly ‘you are invited’

God’s great banquet of grace is for you. No matter who you are or where you’ve been… it is a generous wonderful offer to come and to know and be feed and nourished by Jesus Christ. To come and to live in the kingdom of God.  Will you come?

secondly ‘You are invited’.

There is an alternative reading to this parable. Because the host in Jesus story actually lives out the social advise that Jesus had given to the host of the party he was at. Not to simply invite those who could repay him, those like him, those like us, or people that will reciprocate our hospitality, but rather to invite the poor, the lame and the blind, in fact as we mentioned before he goes beyond that to put no limits on who is invited, even  those outside the confines of our culture, our religion strangers on the road… So it’s an invitation to us to be people who will live out of a Kingdom of God vision and offer hospitality and compassion and welcome and acceptance to the left outs and the left overs. To live in a way that tips our existing social order on its head. It challenges us about having in-crowds in church; it invites us to explore a biblical understanding of caring for those who do not have, how we treat and immigrants and refugees.  We have been invited to God’s big hearted banquet of grace so we live that out in how we treat other people.

Thirdly “you are invited”

There is an invitation here as people who serve the host to go and do the inviting: To call people to this banquet of the richest of fare in Jesus Christ.  Jesus parable give a very realistic picture of what that will mean, the servant simply has to invite some and they will come, it seems as if they are waiting and wanting to come, those further away on the highways and hedgerows it says that the servant had to convince them to come. It is not always easy, for those who lived in the hosts town they would have known of his generosity and goodness those on the road wouldn’t have a clue they maybe suspicious, they maybe aware that they are outsiders, and unaware of this banquet of God’s grace… and yes there are those who will simply say no, give excuse, be caught up in  their own stuff, wealth, status and even family ties that they will use as an excuse.  But God’s big hearted grace is still inviting them to come… You are part of that grace, you are part of that invitation.

So you are invited… so Come all who are thirsty, parched and left dry and desolate, come to the living water Come even if you don’t have any money come and buy and eat without cost. Come and receive the richest of what life has to offer in God’s big hearted banquet of Grace.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Invitations, Seating Arrangements and the Kingdom of God (Luke 14:1-14, Proverbs 25:6-7)...On the Cross Road: Jesus Jounrey to Jerusalem in Luke's Gospel (Luke ch10-19) and what it has to say to us as Christ's followers.

Invitations and seating arrangements!  If you are organizing a wedding or another formal social gathering these things are probably on your ‘to do list’ and just maybe they have been on your ‘what to do!’ List or ‘your much a do’ list. Who do you invite and who gets left out? Planning where people sit may be a matter of navigating the minefield of family squabbles and feuds, friends of yours that don’t get along with each other, and what to do with old eccentric Uncle Bob and grumpy Auntie May. Of course you need to give certain people sufficient recognition not just squeeze them in down the back between the emergency exit and the door to the toilets.  And maybe in that situation Jesus teaching in the passage we had read out to us might not be that helpful and practical. It’s as probably as welcome as it was to his first hearers. But when we see its more than just some sound and profound social advise, that it is a parable it opens it up to be liberating and encouraging and hope filled and yet still challenging as it turns social convention on its head. Jesus uses ‘Invitations and seating arrangements’ to a dinner party to teach about the kingdom of God.

And we are walking with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel…A journey that takes up the central third of the gospel narrative… it’s a journey narrative that focuses on Jesus teaching. We’ve had a break for the past two months as we’ve focused on Genesis 1 the season of creation and nuts n bolts of prayer in aseason of prayer, and we’ll have another one over Christmas and New Year, but we will stay on this journey with Jesus until Easter next year because this journey and this narrative lead Jesus and us to the cross.

We had left the narrative with Jesus being warned that he should go somewhere else as Herod was trying to kill him, and Jesus reaffirming that it was God’s plan that he go to Jerusalem, and yes he would die there. We re-enter the narrative on a Sabbath with Jesus being invited to the house of a prominent Pharisee for a meal. It’s good for us to remind ourselves about Jesus Sabbath observance. It was his custom even on this journey to go to public worship at a synagogue. IN Luke 13:10 we are told it was his habit also to teach at these occasions which may explain why he receives an invitation to this rather exclusive meal with the Pharisees and the experts of the law.  It’s good for us to be reminded that public worship and hospitality were important to Jesus because it’s easy for them to become lost or relegated in our priority lists in the face on growing demands on and options for our time. Opening homes for hospitality was a hallmark of the early church sadly it struggles amidst our tight and full calendars and our suburban lifestyle with its focus on individuality and privacy. 

One of the reoccurring themes is Luke’s gospel is the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. Here we see that Jesus wasn’t so much welcomed with open arms but the Pharisees and experts of the law may have been forced by social edict to invite this visiting preacher, but they were using the situation to keep an eye on Jesus just in case he did something that allowed them to dismiss or condemn him.

Of course Jesus gives them something right away that challenges their worldview. In the midst of being on the way to a meal with the right people in the Pharisees eyes Jesus encounters the wrong kind of people.  We are not told how it happens but there in front of him was a man who was suffering from Dropsy, a disease which meant he was retaining fluid. It was viewed by the religious people as being a sign of God’s judgment, needless to say this man was not on the guest list, but he was on the God list. Jesus sees his need, asks the Pharisees if it is legal to heal him on the Sabbath and when they don’t reply, he heals him and sends him on his way. Here is the grace and love and power of God shown in Jesus. A grace that goes beyond what NT wright calls our narrow mindedness of who is worthy or not worthy of such love.

Jesus asks the Pharisees if anyone had a child or even an animal that had fallen into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?’ there may well be a connection between drowning in a well and the impact on the body of fluid retention. If this question and whole scenario sounds familiar to you it is. Because in Luke’s gospel we have a repetition of these minor miracles on the Sabbath where Jesus again and again uses this Old Testament illustration of exceptions to the no work on the Sabbath rule to talk of God’s compassion and the spirit and true intent of God’s law rather than the rigid and cold letter of the law approach the Pharisees had. It shows us that Jesus was giving the religious leaders every opportunity to see what God was doing through Him. God’s grace not only to the sick and poor but giving them opportunity after opportunity. Sadly this time it is only meet with silence. Sometimes the more religious we are the more we have been enculturated in to the Christian faith the harder it is for Jesus to show us the breadth and depth of his love and grace. We can be deaf and blind to what Christ is doing or wanting to do in the world around us. But Jesus Keeps speaking, God’s grace keeps showing itself to us. How will we respond?

When they finally get to the party Jesus observes a social game kind of like musical chairs happening. At a dinner party like this the table would be set up in a horse shoe shape and the more status a person had would mean that they would be closer to the centre where the host sat. It seems that like today, key guests like to turn up fashionably late and this could cause the host to have to rearrange the seating and ask guests to take a lesser place at the table. This in the Ancient near east and like in other honour/ shame cultures would mean a great loss of face, a social embarrassment. When I read this passage I couldn’t help but think of a time when I was the youth coordinator for the old Auckland Presbytery way back in the 1990’s. I was invited along to a youth service at a PIC church (that a pacific Island Church), after the service there was the normal cuppa tea, it was a banquet really. The youth leaders from each of the different Island groups were being honoured and given a seat at the top table along with the Minister. Kris and I felt happy just being with everyone else.  We were rather hard to miss as we were the only Palangi folk at this gathering, but the Minister recognized me as being the youth coordinator, so he came and got me and took me up to the top table. Now I understood that it was a way of acknowledging the presbytery’s support for the youth work and youth service in that Church. But it was rather hard when the Niuen Youth leader was asked to give up his spot for me. He had put in all the work during the year and had put the effort into the youth service and was now being asked to step aside.

Jesus uses that kind of looking to get the best seats and to show their status as a chance to teach. It may seem that he just gave them a good bit of social advice and wisdom, like our reading from proverbs, but Luke tells us it was a parable, that on the outside it was a simple story but we should expect that it has a hidden meaning. He challenges them about their pride and calls them to rather embrace humility.  It becomes more than a social seating thing as Jesus connects it into our relationship with God. It is we are prepared to humble ourselves that God will exalt us, and lift us up. We often use a verse from 1 john 1:10 in our prayers of confession and thanksgiving to acknowledge that God forgives sin. It says if we confess our sins God is faithful and just and forgives us our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Before that John has said if we say we are without sin we have called God a liar and the truth is not in us. Humility is knowing ourselves and our need for God. The man with Dropsy had humbly come to Jesus for help…here the religious leaders are more concerned with their own status.  Paul will later point to Jesus as the primary example of this Humility when he says that in our relationships with one another we should have the mind of Christ… as it says in the message version...

“He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honour of God the Father.”

So in the kingdom of God there we see the least are valued the poor are considered blessed, service is rewarded not show and status.

Then Jesus turns to the Host and equally challenges him about his guest list. In the ancient near east social order was all about reciprocity, that I would invite you to something or do something for you and there would be the social expectation that you would repay that. It was a way of getting and developing patronage and acquiring social status. It might be like having A-listers attend your event or your party, and the kudos you get when it makes the social pages.  The recognition a brand gets when that special person wears your gear… so much so that certain people are paid outrageous amounts to wear certain clothes. But Jesus flips that on the head and challenges his host to invite the poor and the blind and the lame. Those who cannot repay. Again here is an image of the kingdom of God where all are welcome and invited and also for us to show the generosity and grace that God has shown us in the way we give hospitality.

We are going to share communion in a minute and it is a good example of the things that Jesus is talking about. The offer is for all to come to the table, it’s an invitation Given not by the church or he preceding minister but by Jesus to come and to experience his costly grace and love and forgiveness and presence and peace freely given. We are all invited none come because of who we are we all come because of what Christ has done for his, his servant nature, his death and resurrection and as a meal it invites us to be willing to share what we have received with each other and with everyone because of the generous nature of God’s grace.

In our tradition we are seated to receive this meal. It shows that we are guests and we share this table fellowship with Christ. In our tradition the elders and minister come to the front, not because it is a top table, a lace of honour but because we are here to serve you. Leadership in the Christian faith is servanthood a reflection of Christ himself, who came not to be served but to serve. We are here so we can serve you and it is appropriate that servants eat last. 

But it’s more that just how we do communion as NT wright concludes his commentary by saying…” The small mindedness which pushes itself forward and leaves others behind is confronted with the large hearted love of God. All Christians are called to the same healthy dependence on God’s love and the same generosity in sharing it with all those in need.”