Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Faith in the face of trouble (Psalm 123)

Psalm 123 has been called a communal lament, the Jewish blues, it’s a cry to God in the midst of pain, suffering and distress.

It’s captured in the repeated cry of have mercy, have mercy in v 3.

It’s expressed in the repetition of the word endured in verses 3 and 4… we are going through the mill. We are laughed at, mocked and look down upon, written off and treated with contempt. There seems to be no end to our troubles.

It has also been described as a communal psalm of confidence, a statement of faith and trust in the face of adversity.

Where the psalmist’s eyes are not focused on the trouble before him but look to God. Look to God and sees that despite all the evidence to the contrary, God is still enthroned in heaven, that God is still sovereign.

That looks to The Lord our God till he shows his mercy. Not that God is simply way up there and in control but also that God sees and God cares and God is way down here with us as well and able to act on behalf of his people.  Trusting that it is in God that there is a way forwards, a way through, there is future hope and hope for the future.

It’s a wonderful psalm, because in these four short verses, in this lament and in this confidence, it kind of sums up, the life of faith. Looking too and trusting and being prepared to serve God, wrestling with and facing down all sorts of troubles that would threaten to shake that confidence.

It’s a Psalm that leads us into the Easter story.  In our New Testament reading this morning we see Jesus express and epitomise that faith of an attentive servant, the psalm talks of and which we find hard to connect with in our society. “I have come to do what I see the father do and say what I hear the father say” says Jesus. I look to God and I live out what I see God doing.

Then in the second half of this psalm we hear the mocking cries of Good Friday, at the cross, he could save others why not himself, Go on if you are God’s son call out and come on down. Contempt made manifest in cruel blows, crown of thorn, public humiliation.  A dark situation where there seems to be no way forwards. But Jesus eyes are fixed on God, being prepared to  endure the shame of the cross as Hebrews 12 puts it. Trusting that God would show his mercy. A confidence shown in the words “it is finished”, into your hands do I commend my spirit. A confidence and trust that God would show his mercy, in that God raised Jesus to life again. That there is the offer of forgiveness and new life for all. As that Old African amercian preacher says “ It’s Friday ( and life can feel like Friday) but Sunday is coming”.

It’s a psalm that invites the pilgrim to Jerusalem and us to have the same faith and the same hope.

It invites us to adjust our gaze, we can stare at the issues and the problems in our life and in our world… the ebb and flow of history that is playing out before us… and we can find ourselves caught up in that and daunted by its enormity and its immanence. But the psalms starts not with the problems but with an affirmation of trust and praise. It invites us to look to God, look to Christ the author and perfector of our faith, the beginning and the end.

In the Lord’s prayer which Jesus gave us as a template for our prayer lives it starts with the acknowledgement of God, and his glory and seeing his purposes and justice and reign first. It invites us to fix our eyes on God and then we trust him for provision of daily bread forgiveness and reconciliation and protection.

It’s a psalm that invites us to turn and to trust. Abraham Lincoln summed up this psalm in his own life when he said “ I have been driven to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I have nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for the day. ”

But it is also the hope and the refuge that Jesus offers us as well… To know God is sovereign and is with us and for us and can be trusted for a way forwards.

Monday, March 27, 2017

to Seek and save the lost: the blind beggar, the short tax collector and us (luke 18:35-19:10)

Every where you go these days you have tag lines and mission statements telling you what the company or store or service or even church you are going to is all aboutand how it diferentiates itself from other organisations just like it. Some of them are good and helpful but other leave me wondering...
I came across an interesting App this week. It was a mission statement generator… you put in various keywords and it would turn them into a mission statement… Here is a couple it randomly produced.

"It is our mission to continue to authoritatively provide access to diverse services to stay relevant in tomorrow's world."  ..does that grab you… does it make things clear?

“Our challenge is to continue to seamlessly engineer quality meta-services as well as proactively synthesize best-of-breed infrastructures.” Wow that’s inspiring!

I think it’s supposed to be humorous and lampoon the way corporates and organisations articulate what their purpose is…  Columnist Minda Zetlin said the app takes verbs and nouns and adjectives and rearranges them into your typical mission statements delightfully full of meaningless corporate-speak.” They don’t say a lot but they use a lot of fancy words to say it… in that process real mission and vision can get lost. But not with Jesus…

We’ve come to the end of Luke’s narrative of Jesus journey to Jerusalem. It started way back in chapter 10 and it’s taken us most of a year to work our way through this central third of the gospel. Jesus finishes his ministry before he enters Jerusalem by giving what could be seen as his mission statement… “the son of man has come to seek and save the lost”… This does not come out of a corporate rebranding exercise, or an organisational restructuring process, or trying to differentiate oneself from the competition, but it comes straight out of two encounters with real people whose lives are transformed by meeting Jesus. It does not come out of an academic exercise or commercial reality or organisational necessity but from Jesus personifying the very heart of God in showing God’s love to a blind beggar a short tax collector and through his death and resurrection showing that same love to you and me; to us. ‘The son of man has come to seek and save the lost.’

Right at the start of his ministry recorded in Luke 4 Jesus stood and read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue of his home town… ‘the spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has Sent me to proclaim good news to the poor, recovery of sight for the blind, release for the prisoner and freedom for the captives and proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Jesus concluded by saying this scripture was being fulfilled in their hearing. This was the mission that God had sent Jesus to do.  Now as he draws near to that missions ending we see all that incorporated in ‘the son of man has come to seek and save the lost’.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at this last section of Luke’s Jesus journey that focuses on how do you enter the kingdom of God and how do you respond to Jesus. It starts and ends with a parable Jesus tells to correct peoples thinking about the kingdom of God.  The parable of the two men who went up to thetemple to pray the Pharisee who thought he was righteous and looked down on others and a tax collector who knew who his need for God and asked for mercy, Jesus said the tax collector had gone home justified that day; put right with God. Then the parable about investing in the kingdom of God that we will finish this series with next week.  Then we had two encounters that showed a negative response to Jesus. The disciples tryingto keep the children away from Jesus because they didn’t think they were important, and the rich young ruler, who wanted to hold on to what he had and wouldn’t trust totally in Jesus, so went away sad. Today we are looking at two positive encounters that show how people respond to Jesus and are welcomed into the kingdom of God. Sandwiched in the centre of these two sets of encounters Jesus again talked of his death and resurrection. In the middle of these encounters is the central way in which Jesus would seek and save the lost.

We are used to looking at the blind beggar and the short tax collector separately, but today we are going to look at them together.

Firstly, both find themselves on the outside, and outcast. The Blind beggar is separated from his community, because of his disability, we see him sitting on the side of the road, he is outside Jericho. He is an example of the poor and marginalised, without family to help him, with no hope except for the alms of those passing by on their way to Jerusalem. There was also a religious stigma attached to his disability, that somehow this maybe God’s punishment for wrongdoing and sin. It is unspoken in this passage but in other places in the gospel it rears its head again and again. The man born blind in John 9… is a good example, the Pharisees write him off as being steeped in sin at birth. But Jesus never sees people like that. Zacchaeus, our short tax collector, is ostracised by his community, as a chief tax collector he not only was a quisling a traitor working for the Romans, but also would have been seen as undoubtable dishonest; making his money from unfair taxes, and getting richer and richer by extracting commission from those who worked under him. The fact that Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus in Jericho was not because of his stature but his disliked status. The crowd should have parted for this prominent man but they didn’t and wouldn’t.

We don’t like the term lost these days it implies that people are on the wrong path, have wilfully wandered off and gone astray, have no sense of direction or purpose for life.  for some that is an apt description. Many of us have found ourselves in dark places in our lives with no sense of how to get out. But in the gospels lost has more a sense of being missed, of missing. The parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and the lost son, focus not on the lostness of the coin, the sheep and the son but on the missing of the shepherd, widow and father. It says they are of value and loved by God who then set out to go and find and bring back, who looked longingly for the first glimpse of return to run and embrace. When we used to go shopping as a family one of the kids would keep and eye out for me. Because I could wander off on my own errand or be distracted by something, and they wanted to make sure I didn’t get lost and they could guide me back to the rest of the family. Elder care they called it. But a good example of how lost is used here, as missed.

While the blind beggar and Zacchaeus are missing they are not missed by Jesus. In both instances the crowd wants to keep them away from Jesus. The beggars cry for help is meet with hushing and be quiting and Jesus is too busy and too important for you. Zacchaeus is literally stone walled from seeing Jesus and then he is written off with muttering and being labelled as unworthy and a sinner. But they are not missed by Jesus. He hears the beggar’s call over the crowd and he sees the tax collectors enthusiasm over the crowd, literally over the crowd because he is up a tree… Jesus responds to their desire to meet him and their need for his grace.

It shows us that Jesus way of looking at people is so different than our own. In the eyes of the crowd  both these men were not worthy of Jesus, but in Jesus eyes he sees them in their poverty and in their humanity and brokenness and in their desire for God’s touch and help and reaches out to them. In our eyes we may not think we are worthy of Jesus, but he looks with different eyes and see who we really are and can be in relationship with him. We may look at those around us and make judgment calls on them, but we need to see them with the eyes of Jesus as precious and missed by God if they were not there. I went and listened to one of my heroes of the faith Shane Claiborne on Monday, and you guys missed such an uplifting encouraging challenging evening, one of the things Shane talked about was his sorrow that in a recent survey in all fifty states of the Us. America Christians were known primarily for their opposition to gay’s, for being self-righteous and stand offish and a whole lot more negative things. He lamented that they were not known as Jesus wanted us to be by our love. Do we see people through the eyes of Jesus. He also said that in New Zealand that we are such a post Christian culture that people don’t really have that preconception of Christians and we can forge a new consciousness of what we are like to the community around us.

Jesus responds to both the blind beggar and the short tax collector at their point of need. He asks the blind beggar what he wants and the blind beggar responds in faith. I want to see. He is an example for us of faith. It would have been easy to be pressurised by the crowd to ask for something simpler, food or money, but from what he has hear of Jesus he knows that he can ask for his sight. He calls Jesus the son of David, that is a messianic understanding of Jesus. The blind beggar is the one who sees Jesus for who he is and responds in faith. With Zacchaeus Jesus does not ask him what he wants rather he invites himself back to Zacchaeus’ place for a meal.  While it is Jesus who is receiving hospitality, it is Jesus who is being hospitable to Zacchaeus, welcoming of him as a son of Abraham. Zacchaeus we know also is ware of Jesus special place in God’s plans, when we finally have Zacchaeus speak he addresses Jesus as Lord.

Jesus still meets people at their point of need and brings transformation.  For the blind man it was sight and belonging again to God’s people who he had been estranged, for Zacchaeus it was also welcome back and a chance to be reconciled. They are both saved in the situations they find themselves. Jesus still meets us where we will come to him with faith, at our points and places of need. Jesus love calls us also to meet people at points of need in their lives with Gods love, be it their need for healing, or friendship or inclusion and welcome. People caught in their poverty and pain, both physical and spiritual, caught in life styles which separate them from their community and God.

Finally, both men find their lives transformed by encountering Jesus. There faith takes them from where they are and moves them on. We are told that the blind beggar follows Jesus, as I was proof reading my sermon I discovered It originally typed the blond beggar, he leaves where he is and joins those with Jesus. His life changes because he know focuses on telling people what Jesus has done for him and praising God. We see that people rejoice and praise God when they hear and see what has happened. But he goes from being a beggar to being a disciple.

Zacchaeus does not leave and follow Jesus, however his response to Jesus is to spontaneously do what the rich young ruler had not been prepared to do. Zacchaeus, gives half of his money to the poor, and uses the other half to pay back four times what he owed to anyone whom he had stolen from, which is the severest penalty for reimbursement in the Jewish law. He has received the generous gift of grace from God in Jesus and know he responds with generosity to others. It’s not the way he earns his salvation but rather how he demonstrates that salvation. Zacchaeus stays where he is, that is a difficult place for him, he has pressure from the romans to be a tax collector and he has suspicion from his neighbours, but he stays where he is to live out his transformed life, maybe he’ll have to down size his house, but he stays to witness to God’s goodness in that place.

Jesus comes to seek and save the lost means that he comes to bring transformation into our lives. That we no longer live under the bondage of our brokenness, lostness and blindness but rather we live out the transformed life he offers in knowing him. Be it in being prepared to follow him to new places or where we are and where it is hard, but we are called there to live out the kingdom of God. Telling of who Jesus is and what he has done for us and living that out in seeing what we have as being given by God to be used for his kingdom.

The Son of Man has come to seek and save the lost. To find who is missing and bring them and us back to God to know God’s goodness and grace and to live out of that. To seek and save the lost the blind beggar the short tax collector and you and me.  Is not just a mission statement, an easily remembered tagline but the very heart of God, the very motivation that led Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem and to the cross and which is so wonderfully made full of abundant and eternal life in the resurrection. It’s the Journey and mission that Jesus invites us on as well. The bind beggar, the short tax collector and you and me; to seek and save the lost.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Mission Impossible: The eye of the needle and the cross (Luke 18:11-34)

In the passage, we had read out this morning, there are two symbols that speak of impossible missions, or mission impossible, to quote a 1970’s Tv show and movie series: the eye of the needle and the cross. The first is a symbol that with man it really is impossible to enter the kingdom of God and the other is that what is impossible for us it is possible for God.
Lately I understand more and more how the eye of the needle can be a symbol of mission impossible. AS I’ve got older my eye sight has got worse focusing on a needle to get the tread through it, has become mission impossible.
Jesus uses it as a saying about entering the kingdom of God ‘that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’. A saying that shocked Jesus disciples then and now. A saying that possess questions about Jesus and wealth.  A saying that begs the question who can be saved? 
The other symbol is the cross, as Jesus had talked about entering the kingdom of God being impossible for human beings, he pulls his disciples aside and tells them again of his coming suffering, death and resurrection. Our hope is not in who we are or how much we do or do not have or are willing to give up, but in who Jesus is and what he has done for us: God’s mission impossible in Christ.
We are working our way through Jesus journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel, it’s a journey that takes up the middle third of Luke’s gospel, and the narrative of that journey focuses on Jesus teaching about the kingdom of God. It’s a journey that leads us into Easter as it is journey that leads Jesus and us to the cross.

The last part of this journey focuses on how we enter God’s kingdom and respond to Jesus. It started with a parable about two menwho went to the temple to pray. A Pharisee who thought he was righteous and looked down on other people and a tax collector who knew his need for God’s mercy, and Jesus said it was the tax collector who went home justified; put right with God. Then we see that lived out in a series of four encounters with Jesus, two that have a negative response, the disciples trying to stop the children coming to Jesus, and the rich ruler, who starts by calling Jesus good but then goes away sad. Then two positive examples; the blind beggar and the short tax collector Zacchaeus. Then the whole journey is finished with another parable to correct peoples thinking about the kingdom of God. (click) Right in the middle of this Jesus pulls his disciples aside to tell them of his immanent death and resurrection. In the middle is the central ingredient for entering the kingdom of God. What Jesus has done for us, God’s mission impossible in Christ.
Today we focus on Jesus encounter with a man whom Luke tells us was a ruler, most likely a leader in the synagogue, and who we later discover was very rich. In Matthew’s account his age is also mentioned as Matthew tells us  that he was a young man. That why he often referred to as the rich young ruler.
He asks Jesus, “good teacher how may I inherit eternal life?”. we need to unpack that, because we  can see it as simply asking about life after death. The word we translate eternal can also be translated age, so he is asking how can he inherit the new age. In How Jesus responds to this man we see that Jesus equates it with the kingdom of God, that he had come to inaugurate.  In Jewish thinking this was a time that they equated with the prophecies in the Old Testament about the reestablishment of Israel. As NT Wright summarises it ‘ a time when everything will be fresh and new, free from corruption, decay, evil, bitterness, pain and fear. A time of new opportunities, new joys and delights, because heaven and earth would be joined together and God and his children would live together.’ It is the present-day hope of the rule of God, which has an eternal element because it is lived in relationship with the eternal God. Christian’s have the same hope best captured in the Lord’s prayer “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  
In Jesus response, we see that he is more concerned with the man calling him ‘Good’ this is a title that can only be used of God. Only God is totally Good. There are many people who are willing to acknowledge Jesus as a good teacher, a great ethical teacher, but that does not bring the transformation and change Jesus calls for, it is only when we see Jesus as God’s son and Lord, that we are enter God’s kingdom.
Jesus then goes on to talk about keeping five of the commandments, don’t commit adultery, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, and honour your mother and father… they are not the commandment that are about relating to God but are about how we relate to the people around us in light of who God is, they put the Kingdom of God in terms of right relationship to others. Remember for Luke how much we love God is shown in how much we love other people. That is often shown in how deep that love reaches into our pockets.
The commandments are about setting the boundaries of that right relationship, they are there to limit evil and wrong and harm. Only the middle one, don’t steal, deals with wealth.  The Rich young ruler can honestly tells Jesus he has kept those commandments since he was a boy. He is talking about all his adult life since he was thirteen and had his ‘bar mitzvah’, so became responsible for his own actions.
Jesus then asks him to do one last thing. Sell all he has and give it to the poor, because there is better treasure in heaven, and that he should come and follow him. This is a gracious invitation to discipleship, Jesus always offers a sincere invite to all, he spends so much time countering the Pharisees because his hope is that they too may know God’s grace. In Mark’s Gospel it tells us Jesus loved the rich young ruler.
  Neither is Jesus asking this man to do more than his other disciples, remember when he called them they left their nets, boats and followed him. They had their livelihoods and identity and even family responsibilities and relationship tangled in those nets. Peter, as the spokesman for the twelve, responds to this encounter by asking Jesus what about them haven’t they given everything to follow Jesus. And Jesus assures him they will be rewarded in this life and the next. As we’ll see next week when Zacchaeus meets with Jesus his spontaneous response to God’s generous grace is to use his wealth to make amends for wrong doing and give the other half to the poor.
The man we are told, becomes sad because he is very wealthy. All the way through Luke’s gospel there is warning about the danger of wealth. In the parable of the sower, the worries and concerns of this life are like weeds that grow up and chock out the seed of faith.  Jesus warns that you cannot serve two masters God and money you will love one and hate the other. The rich young ruler finds himself in that dilemma.
One of the dangers of wealth is that it can become more important than the people round you. We saw that In Jesus parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In the Old Testament, there are two traditions one is that Wealth is a blessing from God. That G od allows people to become wealthy. The other is the challenge of the prophets, like Amos, that God’s people are to care for the poor and the needy. We are blessed to be a blessing to others, we are blessed for the sake of all God’s people. It’s one of the big challenges in the world today, where so much of the worlds wealth is in the hands of so few… It’s a challenge to us Christians in the relatively rich west when we are confronted by abject poverty in the developing world and that is entrenching itself in our country and city and community.
IS Jesus anti wealth? Well I looked for an exciting illustration to try and explain this passage, and I’m sorry but instead I ended up on a government immigration website. I wanted to know if the New Zealand government allowed dual citizenship, and the answer is yes it does. You can be a citizen of New Zealand and a citizen of another country at the same time. A foot in each camp. There are some countries however who will make you renounce your New Zealand passport before you become a citizen of their country. The rich young ruler wanted a dual citizenship, he had so much of his identity and security and status invested in the kingdom of this world, in his wealth, that he wasn’t prepared to give it up to become a citizen of the kingdom of God. To trust solely in God, to have the faith of a child and know he was totally dependent on God. There are a lot of things that can hold us back and turn us away sad as well. What you could call minor idols that we might want to cling on to. Our society is full of them. In an Alpha testimony that Nicki Gumble shared, a young man who was an ardent atheist came to alpha to discredit those unthinking Christians, he had confidence in his own belief system. He did the alpha and when he finished Alpha he said he was captivated by Jesus.  A few months later when he was baptised he talked of now being free, ‘he had been a slave to his society, a slave to his peers, but now he was free’. There are many things that can hold us back from Following Jesus.
For the crowd round Jesus, this rich young ruler would have been a definite candidate to be a follower of Jesus to make it into the kingdom of God. When they hear him say ‘ its easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than a rich person get into the kingdom of God’ and that the rich young ruler  goes away sad they are disturbed and shocked “who can be saved”. He kept he commandments, he was blessed with wealth, he was a ruler in the synagogue, if he can’t and wealthy people can’t then who can? It’s mission impossible.
Jesus response is that what is impossible with man is possible with God’.
As I said before the disciples are worried and they ask Jesus for reassurance as they had given up everything to follow Jesus. Jesus assures them that anyone who gives up home and family for the sake of the kingdom of God will receive many times as much in this age and in the age to come, eternal life. the mention of giving up family and receiving that back speaks to us of being a family together in Christ, that we are that family together, we are there for each other in times of joy and in times of hardship. As we’ve left our place for Jesus there is the promise that he will be with us and welcome us back to his father’s place when our journey and mission are complete.
Finally,  Jesus calls his disciples apart and talks to them of what will happen to him when they go to Jerusalem. Here is God’s mission impossible. Here is how people may be saved. Here is how people may come into the kingdom of God. Here is God’s plan for our salvation.  Here is God’s plan all along foretold in the prophets and scriptures that Jesus would go to Jerusalem he would be handed over to the gentiles, he would suffer, be spat on and insulted flogged and finally killed. But on the third day he would rise again. It is impossible for us any of us to enter the kingdom of God. But the good news is that it is possible with God.  That in Jesus death on the cross, our sins can be forgiven, he will take the guilt and punishment for them. In Jesus rising from the grave we may find new life, we will be find ourselves coming into the new age, finding eternal life in Christ. God’s mission impossible in Christ.
In the passage, we had read out this morning, there are two symbols that speak of mission impossible: the eye of the needle and the cross. The first is a symbol that with man it really is impossible to enter the kingdom of God and the other is that what is impossible for us is possible for God.
We need to respond. We can stand trying to get our stuff, whatever it is, through the eye of the needle or we can turn to Jesus and the cross, knowing our need for him and with a childlike faith be prepared to give it all up and follow him. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

a real turn around ( a prayer of thanksgiving and confession based on Psalm 30:7-12)

Lord God,

We turn aside amidst all that is going on in our world and life.

We stop and we come to praise you for the wonderful God you are.

We turn again to you and thank you for all you have done.

We acknowledge that when we were in need we cried out to you

and you did not remain silent or unmoved

Rather you heard our prayers and you responded

On that big scale, you turned to us amidst our darkness and lost-ness

You responded by sending your son Jesus, the word became flesh

Jesus who proclaimed good news and abundant life

Who shone your light in our world

Healed the sick, welcomed the wanderer, called for love of the least

Who endured the worst of our inhumanity, by being killed on a cross

But what a turn up for the books, death could not hold him captive

Three days later you raised him to life again

What an amazing turn around for us

In his unjust death we have found mercy and forgiveness

In his resurrection, we have found a newness and abundance of life

We were cut off from you God, we were distant and disinterested

But you have drawn near and are gathering us back to you

We were alone estranged from you and from one another

But you have reconciled us and drawn us together as your people

We felt helpless to change ourselves and our world

But you sent a helper, your Holy Spirit to dwell in us

To lead and guide us, remind us of Jesus words and his presence

And enable and empower not just change but transformation.   

We thank you for responding to us

For all the ways that you have turned it all around

from trapped and chained in sin and wrongdoing

To forgiveness and freedom, the slate being wiped clean

From always searching for meaning and purpose

To finding life’s fullness in serving and caring for others

From feeling hopeless and despondent in the face of life hardness

To being hope filled, with expectant joy because you are with us

From being battered and bruised and dinged up in our very souls

To have our wounds bound up and in the process of being made whole

From thinking it was all our by right, or life wasn’t fair

To being thankful for all your provision and care

What a turn around, our awesome lord

And we turn, to look at where we are now

It’s not all just history and high ideal theology

But its real right here and now

So we confess our sins, the things we’ve done wrong

We confess our sin, the good we have left undone

And we ask you to forgive us and make us clean

We pray you’d fill us again with your spirit

That you would continue to turn us around

You would make us more like Jesus

That we would love as he loves

That we may be agents of your kingdom, Witnesses to our Lord

That in all we do and, we may live to bring you glory

Our loving God, father son and Holy Spirit

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Who are you trying to kid...and kids around Jesus (luke 18:9-17)

 “Let’s Pick teams”

I don’t know about you but those words kind of fill me with dread. They bring back feelings of nervousness and inadequacy. They bring back bad childhood memories.

Remembering back to primary school and as the ‘big uncoordinated slow’ kid I’d notice myself being part of a smaller and smaller group of class mates as teams were picked. the left to last, the left overs… that group they were forced to pick…only because no one could be left out.

“let’s pick teams”

There is that kind of ‘who would you have on your team’ thing happening in the bible passage that we read this morning from Luke’s gospel. Jesus tells a parable to those who thought they were righteous, who though ‘who are you kidding of course I’m on God’s team’ and looked down on other people and the disciples who didn’t think that little children were important enough to take up Jesus time, that the kids around Jesus couldn’t be on Jesus team. In these two events in Luke’s gospel we see the revolutionary upside down grace filled nature of God’s Kingdom.

We’ve been working our way through Luke’s account of Jesus journey to Jerusalem. Today’s passage starts the last section of that journey. A section that starts and finishes with Parables told to correct peoples thinking about the kingdom of God: (click) the one we had read today of the two men who went up to the temple to pray and then the parable of the ten minas, Luke’s version of what we know from other gospels as the parable of the talents. (click) Between those two parables are four encounters which focus on people’s reactions to Jesus and the kingdom of God. The first two are negative, the disciples wanting to keep the children away from Jesus, and the rich young ruler, who when Jesus challenges him about his wealth walks away sad, and two positive encounters, the blind man at Jericho, and the story of Zacchaeus, the short tax collector, both who respond with faith to Jesus. (click) In between these two sets of encounters Jesus again speaks of his death, right in the middle of these things we are reminded of God’s great grace in Christ.

That’s kind of the big picture of where we are going. Let’s look at the passage we had read to us today, which covers that opening parable and Jesus encounter with the children.  

Firstly the parable…As we’ve worked our way through Jesus teaching we see that it’s kind of been like a ping pong match, Jesus addresses the crowd, then he will speak specifically to a group like the Pharisees and teachers of the law and then turn and speak to his disciples. It would be easy to think that he is saying this parable simply to the Pharisees. They fit the bill of seeing themselves as righteous because they keep the law, and separating themselves from those who don’t keep their exacting standards, the ones they label sinners. Let’s face it one of the characters in the parable is a Pharisee. And it’s convenient for us because well they’ve been the ones who Jesus has been in conflict with throughout the gospel narrative, they are the ones who criticised Jesus for eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors, and we can say ‘yup we are with you Jesus, we are on your team here mate’ You tell them Jesus.

But Luke’s always been good at identifying the specific group Jesus has been talking to, but now it’s a lot more open ended, unspecified as a certain grouping, and its more about a certain attitude, which could include me…and you. He speaks to those who were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else. It could mean people amongst his own disciples. As we saw a couple of weeks ago they like the Pharisees had expected that Jesus kingdom would be about victory for their way of thinking. It’s the disciples who Jesus has to rebuke because they didn’t think the children were important enough to warrant Jesus attention, they would be amongst those standing near Jesus who are shocked that the rich young ruler who they thought would be definitely a good pick for team Jesus walked away sad. It invites us to hear Jesus parable speaking to our own lives and attitudes. I always get annoyed when people use that ‘holier than thou’ criticism of the church, I think it’s an uncritical caricature, but maybe we need to stop and look at ourselves.

Jesus talks of two people who go up to the temple to pray. A Pharisee, a person who identified with a strict party within the Jewish religious world who focused on living according to the law, and the other a tax collector, people in Jewish thought who were dishonest, traitors and collaborators because they worked for the Romans, ritually unclean because this work forced them to have constant contact with gentiles.   The Pharisee stands by himself to pray and his prayer focuses on thanking God that he is not like those other people, and he has a good list of categories of people he would see as sinners, and we may agree with his list, and we could probably add a few more to it. He finishes by saying and thank you that I’m not like this tax collector. Like he was presenting his CV for why he is on God’s team, he says he fasts twice a week, and that he tithes everything he should.   He feels he is on God’s team because of who he is and what he does and does not do. It is like he has earned his place in God’s favour. I hear that attitude in the prosperity gospel, when it is peached God will bless you if you tithe, usually them means give the money to us. I hear it in people who say well I don’t drink much or smoke, I’ve never killed anyone or robbed anyone, not like those guys…so I expect to go to heaven. I’ll be on God’s team. Right!

The tax collector stood at a distance, he couldn’t lift his head to heaven, he comes to God aware of his own failings and faults… but also deeply aware of God’s true character. He asks God to forgive him and have mercy. He is aware of his need for God he does not think that God needs him. He is the one who is open and honest before God and so open to God’s grace.  

Jesus conclusion by saying that the person who went home justified that day, which is a legal term that means deemed innocent is the tax collector. It’s the shock of the parable. The parable is a profound illustration of salvation by faith and grace. That we cannot earn our way to God, we can’t be so good that God just must have us on his team. Rather it is by grace alone, God’s mercy that we are put right with God. It is as we humble ourselves and realise our need for God forgiveness and mercy that we enter the kingdom of God… It’s not our status or our belonging to a certain group or our religious disciplines and traditions, or our good deeds it is God’s grace. God’s love shown for us in Jesus dying on the cross taking on himself all that we have done wrong and paying the price, so that we can be declared ‘not guilty’ and be reconciled with God.   We come to God humbly aware of our need for him, our dependence on his mercy and grace. And God picks us up and blesses us and makes us whole.

Then Luke draws us to a real-life application of this parable. It’s almost as if the disciples had had to listen to Jesus parable over the top of babies crying and toddlers babbling away, because we move right on to parents bringing their children up to Jesus to bless them. In Jesus day children, did not have any status or standing in society. The disciples reflect that by seeing them as not important enough for Jesus.

But Jesus rebukes them he turns that kind of thinking on its head. In fact Jesus turns the tables by tells his disciples and us that unless we have faith like a little child we cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

Theologically, People have reflected on what it means to have a child like faith. It does not mean that we have an uncritical unquestioning faith, that we simply have a Sunday school faith that does not grow to address the intellectual rigor and complexity of life as we grow older. It’s not a naive faith that is easy brushed aside by reason. In fact as we wrestle with life and big questions it can deepen and strengthen that faith. One of things that I loved and struggled with when my children were smaller was that continual asking “why?”. “Why?” and when you have an answer the reply was “why?” and after that it was “why? Again till I like most parents got to the point of having to resort to “just because”. I value that they still ask why, in more articulate ways, but I hope that is a journey into faith not away from it.

The children in mind here are babies in arms and infants. Probably bought to Jesus to bless because of the high infant mortality rate. In psalm 131 David expresses his faith in God like being a weaned child sitting at peace on his mother’s lap and that is a helpful image for us to understand what Jesus is saying. A baby and infant are dependent on their parents for life. The Hebrew word El Shaddai which we translate into English as God almighty from its root God of the mountains, can also mean God who has breasts and be a feminine image of God and means God all sufficient. To have a child like faith is to have the knowledge that we are dependent on God for our lives and our salvation and relationship with him.

Practically, this passage invites us to take the same attitude that Jesus had towards children. To see children as precious and important in God’s sight. NT wright says Jesus rebuke still rings true today so many children are still mistreated as subhuman and as disposable commodities’. They are abused, neglected, and suffer the most from poverty and deprivation. It is a blight on our country that we have such bad child abuse statistics and that child poverty has become a constant companion in a place of plenty. It is one of the worst blights on the church that there has been so much child abuse in all wings of the church and it has been hushed up and brushed aside and victims have had a difficult time getting apologies and seeing the perpetrators of it face justice.

Next week we have a group called flame coming to share how as a group of ordinary kiwi Christians they are working out Jesus teaching with the slum children of Cambodia, inspiring and supporting them through school and university so they can become community and change leaders. Helping protect them from the sex trade, slavery and trafficking and the despondency and despair of abject poverty.

This passage also invites us to be a church that welcomes and values children. It’s why we have sort to get a ‘kids friendly’ standard. We welcome children here, we care for them, we are comfortable with babies and toddlers in our midst. I love the way Children are greeted in our greeting times as well as adults, we are good at remembering their names. I’m never put off by any noise they make in our services, because they are a sign of hope for the future and a reminder of the fact that like them we are dependent on God’s great love. We include them in our worship services, and give them leadership roles in our worship, they draw us together every service and remind us of the centrality of the word of God in our worship and lives as they carry the bible in, they remind us of Christ’s presence with us by lighting a candle, we have them do bible readings, take up the collection, help lead us in sung worship. I’ve asked the children to help us with communion today. We are all on the team together. The Spy group are going to serve communion along with the elders. We have worked at having a good Christian education programme here, we are blessed to have teachers and leaders who invest so much into our children. Much of social outreach revolves round caring for the social needs of mothers and pre-schoolers, and as we’ve done that God has used it to bring new people to our church. Our kids feel loved and appreciated here. I know it’s not always easy, its meant change and some discomfort, I know as a parent that it’s hard getting kids to church. But if children are a blessing from God then we are blessed. Our statistics were recently analysed by a professional and while our overall attendance means we struggle to be sustainable, our ratio of children to adults is an indicator of good health and hope. We are not an old church. 

In my daily devotion this week, as often happens, I came across a Nicky Gumble quote that captures Jesus teaching in the whole passage we read today, he says “the great emphasis of the New testament is that we relate to God by faith. We cannot earn the right to a relationship with God, it is a gift to be received by faith.’ A gift offered to all regardless of social standing or lack of it, to both the very young through the whole range of ages, regardless of who we are and where we come from. A gift to be accepted with a childlike faith.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

God, you rock and God you rock! A prayer (of thanksgiving and confession) of two halves.

As I came to write a prayer for Sunday several things came together in my thoughts (like a perfect storm you could say, whether that was a good thing or a bad thing I'll let you be the judge). A trip on my day off out to Piha on the West Coast of Auckland, with its iconic Lion Rock (see image above). Both Lion and Rock are imagery from the psalms that are used to speak of God. Reading Psalm 28: 1-9 for my daily devotion  and the fact that its children's day here in New Zealand on Sunday, and i was contemplating what a prayer in kid speak might be like... . and a video from a band called Zealand worship of their song "you love is wild"

and I couldn't get past a play on the word Rock...

...rock as the psalmist uses it to mean a solid place to stand a fortress and a refuge....

... and rock as a way of saying someone is really good but with real zing and vitality.

So once again I offer a simple prayer of thanksgiving and confession. I hope it inspires and connects who you are with who God is... feel free to use it or part of it or none of it.  Blessings

God, you Rock

Like the psalmist says you are a rock,

A solid place to stand, a tower and a refuge.

Over the constant numbing drone of everydayness

Over that myriad the voices competing for attention

even amidst the howling storms of our lives

and the Huge issues that shake us like loud crashing waves

You hear our voice

You hear our cry for help

Over the grumbling and the back stabbing

The put downs and the brush asides

the false promises of hope and help

fake news and alternative truth

you are not silent

you speak your word

we thank you and we sing your praise

you are faithful and constant in your love

you are trustworthy and dependable

we don’t make it because we are tough enough

but because you are our strength and shield

you shepherd and carry us…you are our rock!

God you Rock!

There is something wild, untameable and wonderful about your love.

It makes our hearts leap and our feet dance for joy.

In Jesus, it threw off eternity, like a coat, and stepped into our world

proclaimed good news, Healed the sick, welcomed home the outcast

showed us an alternative way to live, full of your peace and justice

It gave its life on the cross carrying the burden of all we’ve done wrong

It rolled the stone away, and rose giving us new abundant life

It is the dynamic power of your presence that lives in us by the Holy Spirit

It breaks down every barrier, that would divide and hold us down

The chains of sin, guilt and shame are shattered by its mercy

Our wounded souls and dinged up lives find wholeness in it care

The call to share the love we have in Christ gives life its greatest purpose

We come together from all over, as we are made one, in its embrace

Young and old, men and women, from all lands and tribes, as your family.

We thank you today for that wild untameable love

We ask that you surround us, immerse us in that love

We confess our sins and pray that you would forgive and make clean

Pour out your Holy Spirit, to lead and guide and empower us to love

Open our eyes to see where you are calling us to risk loving as you love

Glory to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit… you Rock!  

Oh and here is the video for 'your love is wild'...

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Sacred space and the person of Jesus Christ (Psalm 122 and Luke 19:37-44)

I wonder if there are places in your lives that you especially equate with the presence of God. They come readily to mind as you sit here…

 The Celtic Christians called them thin places, they were places where the heavenly realm seemed so much closer to the physical world we live in.  You could call them sacred space... It could be the wild grandeur of a west coast beach. I would often spend evenings out at Piha (seee image above) or Karekare both enjoying the water and waves but also in prayer and reflection... Or it may  simply that sunny spot where you sit each day for bible study and quite prayer.

It could be a church building. I worked as a youth pastor and parish assistant at St John’s in Rotorua for six years. You probably saw it on the news a couple of weeks ago when it was tragically burned to the ground. It felt like the loss of a friend. Through facebook a lot of my ex youth groupies, shared what that place had meant for them. They talked of it being the place where they had encountered God, where they had found faith, or they had owned their parent’s faith. Many are not Christians but they talked of the fact that in those formative years, who they are as people, was greatly shaped by being community together in that space. 

For the Jews the people of Israel that sacred space was Jerusalem. It was the centre of their worship at the Temple, they were expected to go there for one of the great three festivals each year. It was the seat of Judah’s political power and the Davidic king. 

Psalm 122 which we had read out to us today is a psalm of ascent, that series of psalms that form the dogeared song book of pilgrims coming to those festivals in Jerusalem. They are psalms that accompany us on a journey of faith through life as well.  That started in Psalm 120 that pilgrimage and spiritual growth start with a holy dissatisfaction with living amongst the tents of those who find their security in what they have and their ability to hold onto that rather than seeking peace ‘wholeness’. We saw in psalm 121 that it meant a willingness to move, to journey often through difficult terrain trusting that God would lead and guide us. Psalm 122 talks of coming to the place where we know God’s presence.

In a Psalm in 2 parts the first five verse act as an expression of Joy at being at Jerusalem. They voice the pilgrims hope for the city.  They view it as a fortress a secure and safe place, it is the place where the people gather to praise the Lord, and it is the seat of both God’s reign through the Davidic kings and a seat for his justice, that in the Old testament scriptures was to be an example for all the other nations.

Then in verse 6 the Pilgrim turns to his fellow travellers and commands them to pray for the peace of the city. The pilgrim declares that for the sake of the house of the Lord that he will seek the prosperity of the city.  He has an idealised vision of the city, but he is also wanting to pray and work to seeing that be a reality. Peace for the Jews meant wholeness, right relationships, not just the absence of conflict. Relationship with God, with God’s people, with those beyond that, with the spiritual realm, with creation, and with our possessions and wealth. Prosperity did not mean a high living standard for some at the expense of others but that there would be abundance for all to share in. You catch a glimpse of that in the early church in Jerusalem where it was said that no one had a need because they would sold what they had and give the money to those in need.

Now some have focused on this psalm as a commandment for us all to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. That it holds a special place in the heart and purposes of God, and I have no problem with that except that it often means an uncritical acceptance of modern Israel’s political agenda. We don’t catch the idealised image of psalms like this one and we miss the call for justice and right relationships in that prayer for peace.

But it invites us also to think of what is sacred space for us and how we are to enter it and treat it. 

In our new testament reading as Jesus enters the city, his greeting is so different, he mourns for the city. He knows that its people are missing the very peace that they are praying for, because they do not recognise who Jesus, the prince of peace is. Tragically that symbol of God’s presence the temple will be destroyed and taken apart stone from stone, which is what happened in 70 Ad when the Romans lay siege to the city. But God’s presence with us is not so much about a specific place but in the presence of a specific person, Jesus Christ.

Sacred space can be a prison cell, a city street, the bedside in a hospital room, an office cubicle, a sports field, a cafĂ©, anywhere because by God’s Holy Spirit Christ is present with us.

The Celts talked of thin places and in Jesus Christ we have the thinnest of all places, where God stepped into our world and pitched his tent at our place. He died on the cross and was raised to life again All space is now sacred because of Christ’s abiding presence.

It calls us to be a people that would pray for the peace of God to be in those sacred places, to manifest itself. During the exile the people Jews in Babylon were told to pray for the peace of the place where they lived and to seek the prosperity of that city. We to are celled to seek the prosperity of the places where we dwell…

You know I think being a spiritual pilgrim is not necessarily about going to special places or spaces, although they can be helpful for us. It is becoming aware that where we are is sacred space, because Jesus Christ is here with us and then living in a way which seeks both the peace and prospering of where we are with Christ.