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.