Tuesday, February 13, 2024

On Your Mark! Get Set! Go!: an introduction to the face paced gospel according to Mark (Mark 1:1-8)


an introduction to Mark's gospel a major sermon series at HopeWhangarei. his sermon was not recorded so there is no link to the audio. 

Today we start a new major sermon series here at Hope Whangarei. Over most of the next year, with gaps in summer and between Easter and Pentecost, we are going to be working our way through the gospel according to Mark.

AS I’ve been getting ready for this series, and using Mark in my daily devotions one of the things that has revolutionized my thinking and reflecting on this book, is the fact that it was written not primarily for people who did not know Jesus but to a church community.   People who knew Jesus teaching, one of the motifs of Mark is that Jesus is always teaching but we don’t have much of that teaching recorded, there is a presupposition that the original audience knew Jesus teaching… Also Mark was written to a community that had committed themselves to Jesus, but they had some very clear cultural expectations of what it meant that Jesus is the messiah and saviour, as I have read through the gospel, I find myself standing with the disciples, which is quite uncomfortable because even though they are closest to Jesus, they come across as really struggling to understand who Jesus is. Mark writes to remind and reorient his audience and us to realise that Jesus messiahship was radically different than those expectations. In Mark Jesus is presented as the suffering servant. Key passages focus on Jesus coming not to be served but to serve, giving up his life for the people, Jesus coronation as King is his crucifixion, and to follow Jesus is equally to walk ‘the way of the cross’: service, self-sacrifice and love even when it hurts even to the point of death.

Our vision at HopeWhangarei is to be a flourishing Christian Community  with the mission of connecting people with God and with one another. Maybe it is easy for us to have a picture of that idea of flourishing that is full of cultural expectations. Numbers, influence, full bank account…When I read through Mark, there are times when we see great crowds around Jesus, and you can think, this is Jesus being successful, flourishing. But Jesus is always focused not on the pull of the crowd but doing the will of the Father. We’ve just finished a sermon series on loving one another as Jesus loves us and I believe Mark invites us to continue on that theme, to see afresh what Jesus love for us looks like, that it means the way of the cross, his suffering and dying to reconcile us with God, but also how to live as one commentator puts it to be an army who realises our only weapons are service and self-sacrificing love. To flourish in Christ, as a Christian community,  is to walk the way of the cross.

That’s quite a heavy introduction… and I really struggled to know how to start this series…Of course… when it comes to the text we start at the beginning… and I can’t help but have a sound of music moment… A very good place to start… ABC … 1,2,3… do re me.. our reading today Mark 1:1-8. One of the features of Mark’s gospel is its fast paced nature. There is a break neck speed, it is full of immediately Jesus did this, then Jesus did that. So I thought it would be appropriate to start today like you start a race on your Mark (hey It’s Father’s day so I’m allowed a dad joke kind of pun), Get Set…Go.

On your Mark. Let me introduce Mark…

Mark is most probably the first of the gospel’s written, it’s the shortest, the other two synoptic gospels, which is a fancy way of saying similar gospels, Matthew, and Luke, contain most of the material that Mark does, and follow a similar pattern for the story of Jesus life. So it assumed that they were aware of Mark when they were written. John of course comes later and has a totally different structure.  

It is traditionally seen as being written by John Mark. There is some speculation that John Mark was the young man mentioned in Mark 14:51-53, the original Streaker, who was in the garden of gethsemane when Jesus was arrested, and who when they tried to detain him ran away leaving his lined cloth behind him. We know Mark was part of the early church in Jerusalem, His mother Mary had a house there. That is  where Peter goes to join the community as they pray for him, after he is released from prison in Acts 12.  He is also identified with the Mark who Paul and Barnabas fall out over in Acts, Paul calls him Barnabas’ cousin in Colossians and later Paul asked for him to come to him in Rome.  In Rome he is thought to have also been with been with Peter and that his writing is a recounting of Peter’s eyewitness memories. It is to the church in Rome that Mark is believed to have originally written.

Dating these writing is always difficult and the matter of much debate. Scholars tend to agree that it was most probably written during or just after the time of Nero as emperor. The original apostles are being killed and so their accounts are important to preserve, but also to a church that was going through or had just gone through persecution it was important to remind them of Jesus himself and his own suffering, and how Jesus acted in response to persecution and descent, to remind them in a world where their was a clash of empire and the abuse of power that Jesus walked the way of sacrificial service and love.

As we move through the gospel there are significant changes in emphasis, it starts with Jesus public ministry declaring the kingdom of God is at hand, and demonstrating that through various actions and miracles, then it shifts to focus on how three distinct groups react to Jesus, the crowd, the disciples, and his opponents, primarily the religious leaders of the time. And asks How do we react to Jesus? Then Jesus focuses on teaching his disciples what it means for him to be king, he tells them of his death and resurrection three times and they don’t get it. Finally we have the climax of the story as Jesus enters Jerusalem is betrayed, suffers and is crucified. There is a prologue which tells of his resurrection. On your Mark…

Get set.

The open verse of Mark, Give us the setting for the whole gospel. In fact it is seen as being the title of the book. As the NIV translation puts it ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Not all manuscripts contain Son of God. We might call it Mark’s gospel, but it is primarily from start to finish focused on Jesus and what it means that he is God’s chosen and anointed one, the Son of God. That is what we are to focus on as we read it.

The beginning really sort of stuck out to me as I read this verse. Not just because this is the start of the book, but because when you hear that it brings up the words of Genesis… in the beginning… while John uses those same words to speak of Jesus pre-existence, here that echo of genesis alerts us to the fact that in Jesus, God is doing something new. This is a new start, however as right after this opening verse we are taken back into scriptures of the Old Testament, to what we are told is a quote from Isaiah, but also contains a line from Exodus and possibly Malachi that this new thing is a continuation of what God has been doing. The story of God here is continuing.

But also the fact that we are talking of the beginning here of the good news of Jesus Christ  means that what is started here, the inbreaking of the kingdom of God into the realms of humanity, is also continuing, the good news of Jesus Christ, was continuing in the lives and times of mark’s original audience and it is continuing on to us today. We are part of the ongoing story of Jesus the Messiah. We are part of the Kingdom of God establishing itself in our world… today. He is good news for us as well.

Good News and the idea of messiah had significant meaning for people in Mark’s audience, for the Jews the word Good News was linked to the book of Isaiah and the promise of God restoring Israel. They had a picture of a messiah a saviour who would be a military and political leader who would establish them as the predominant world power. Mark’s gospel has some deep irony because while Jesus meets some of those expectations he shows that his messiahship is a different one, it overcomes power through embracing powerlessness, it focuses on freeing his people from slavery to sin and death, and overcoming, as Paul puts it in Romans, evil with good.

Likewise for the gentile audience in Rome, they would have cultural expectations when they hear good news, anointed one and even son of God, because the roman emperors would use this language to speak of themselves and their rule. Good news was used to celebrate emperor’s birthday, it was good news that this emperor reigned and even that they conquered you as it meant peace and prosperity. There is a great scene in Monty Python’s life of Brian, if I may be so bold, where the Jewish zealots are complaining about roman rule and ask the question what have the romans ever done for us! And after some thought an embarrassing long list of the positive impact of roman rule come out.  Roads, sanitation, aqueducts, wine… but still they finish with what have the romans ever done for us!

So Marks opening in the setting of Rome was quite political, it invites us to see the Good News of what the reign of king Jesus will look like. Again a rule that is not backed by military power and might, political intrigue but that is established on a roman cross, in service and love. Something that is as equally challenging and revolutionising in our world today. The good news of Jesus Christ invites us to stripe away our expectations as well to see Jesus the Messiah.

In this introduction we are also introduced to the title the Son of God, pointing to the divine nature of Jesus, his unique relationship with God. Mark’s gospel reads like a mystery novel, as while we are let in to this secret right at the beginning, right through out the gospel, it is only spiritual beings, demons and God himself who recognize Jesus as God’s son.  Jesus healing miracles, his authority to forgive sin, his mastery over nature, his feeding miracles, walking on the water, power over evil spirits point us to who Jesus is. Jesus is continually telling the spirts to be quite and for those he heals not to tell. It is not until the cross that we truly see Jesus, then the climax of the gospel (spoiler alert) is that a gentile roman soldier sees in Jesus death that surely this is the Son of God.  ON your Mark, get Set and finally

Go…or maybe you could say the Go to guy…

Unlike Luke and Matthew who start with Jesus birth and his whakapapa, and John who starts way back before the beginnings, Mark starts his gospel with John the Baptist. John, john Mark tells us, is the fulfilment of the prophesy in Isaiah of the one who will come before the Messiah, who will herald God’s coming to save his people. He acts as an Old Testament prophet. In Marks description of his attire, we are to see a similarity between John and Elijah, the one whom Israel expected as the messiahs herald. John acts as a prophet as well by calling the people to repentance. Both individually but as a nation to set themselves apart for what God was going to do. John baptized with water, but his call to repentance was because he believed that soon would come the one who baptized people with the very spirit of God. That call to repentance also seems to be a call away from the temple centered
Jewish faith, which he saw as corrupt. For the Jews it was significant that John was calling people to come out into the wilderness, as it was in the wilderness that God showed himself to the people and fashioned them into his people. We can actually find ourselves caught up in our own religious space as well and we need to hear John calling us out into the wilderness again… to freshly encounter Jesus. 

but there is a ‘Go’ here for us from our reading for our study of Mark’s gospel.  A Go to be ready and expect to meet God doing a new thing. A Go to meet the good news of Jesus the Messiah. A Go to adopt the correct posture for when we come to the gospel. Not simply settling for the way things are and have been, but being open to change, God doing a new thing. A Go to be about repenting, that is stopping from simply going our own way and to turn round and to seek the things of God. A Go of longing for and looking for God’s Kingdom as it breaks into the world. As it breaks into the world then and as it continues to break into our world today. A Go to look to examine our cultural understanding of the Good News of Jesus Christ and allow Jesus to show us what it means afresh… A Go to follow Jesus in service and self-sacrificing love to walk the way of the cross. Are you ready for that… are you ready to encounter the good news of Jesus Christ and to walk the way of the cross… well…On your Mark, get set, go…

Monday, January 29, 2024

Submit to Oneanother (Ephesians 5:18-6:9)


a sermon from our winter series on Oneanothering: the spirit filled art of Christian community... you can hear a recording of this message here on the HopeWhangarei website   https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/hope-whangarei/episodes/June-25th-Submit-to-One-Another-Ephesians-518-69-Howard-Carter-e2658gh/a-aa20s1q 

Submit yourselves to one another because of your reverence for Jesus Christ is a difficult saying. This idea of submission does not fit well with our modern western worldview. Our emphasis is on personal rights, striving for, securing and maintaining social status. Also we have a lot less hierarchical structure, how we see women, marriage and work is radically different than the first century roman world.

Part of our disease with this imperative is that sadly for much of two millennia the church has applied it exclusively to those who occupy traditionally subordinate positions in society and has failed to apply it to those who hold the traditionally dominant ones. We’ve missed the mutual part. Karl Marx’s criticism that religion is the opium of the masses, keeping them in their place, placid and pliable, reflects that historical imbalance.

We’ve seen the misuse of the wider passage in action. Affirming overbearing and even violent husbands and fathers and encouraging wives and children to stay in those abusive situations. It’s been used to affirm slavery, of course we can’t look at slavery without the North American and English experience and its connection to racism. Recently we’ve also seen and heard of fresh excess and abuses of power by Christian leaders, and ordinary church members silenced, or worse open to being abused, by being told to honour and respect their leaders in an unhealthy way.

Our winter sermon series this year is called ‘One Anothering: The Spirit filled art of Christian Community’ we are exploring Jesus new commandment to love one another as I have loved you by looking at twelve  ‘one another’ sayings in the New Testament Epistles. Seeing how Jesus inspirational and aspirational command works itself out in everyday life, it practical terms. Submit to one another takes that Christ like love and applies it to relationships where power and authority are involved. The early church was a radical place where that sense of love and unity crossed all the social barriers of the day… men and women, jew and gentile, Greek and barbarian, free and slave it was the only place they meet as equals one of the questions that would have been upper most in peoples minds was how, when we have equal access to God, when we are all saved by Christ, when we are all filled with the Holy Spirit, when we are brothers and sisters, do we live that out in our very ordered, patriarchal world. Paul’s answer is ‘submit to one another’ because of reverence for Jesus Christ. It is an ethic here Christ and his example and his self-sacrificing love for us that shows the way. And you know what that Love revolutionizes and transforms those relationships.

Let’s look at this saying.

Paul starts his letter to the Ephesians by speaking of Jesus being exalted at the right hand of the father and pouring out every spiritual blessing on his people. Saving us setting us free, giving us new and eternal life, drawing us into a new people together, then he turns and brings that down to earth to show in the light of what God has done for us, how we should live and how the church should manifest both unity and purity in all relationships. The section where we had our bible reading today starts way back in Ephesians 5:1 with Paul saying “Since you are God’s dear children you must try to be like him. Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us as a sweet smelling offering and sacrifice that pleases God.” What follows is an out working of that.

In verse 18 where our reading started Paul charges his readers to not keep charging their glasses and get drunk on wine but rather to be filled and keep on being filled with the Spirit. He contrasts being filled with the spirit with drunkenness which only leads to ruin. It may make people happy and cheerful, but it also contributes to the breakdown of social order and has negative impact on close relationships. Rather says Paul being filled with the Spirit fills us with Joy, which is expressed in speaking to one another in a way that builds up, with words of psalms, hymns and sacred songs. Joy, that comes out in singing praises from our hearts. There is something wonderful and special about congregational singing that allows us to express our thanks and praise to God, it calls us to act in unison and harmony. Paul goes on to speak of having a spirit of gratefulness, always giving thanks to God. Being filled with the spirit is far superior deeper and richer than any chemical induced buzz. Submit one to another out of reverence to Christ finishes off that list, by showing that spirit filled life shows itself in social cohesion and right relationship.

With all the talk of music and singing in this section it gives us a good metaphor to think about submitting to one another. For songs and music to happen and make sense everyone needs to play their part, to defer to others or to take lead roles, to take direction from a lead or conductor and be willing to step back and play a lesser role for the overall good. It takes discipline and deference. If that does not happen, then instead of music all we have is competing noise. Paul even says in 1 Corinthians 13 without love even all our wonderful words are just like a clanging symbol, a loud obnoxious noise.

This brings us to look at what submit to one another out of reverence to Jesus Christ itself. Submitting says Mark Roberts simply involves placing ourselves under someone else in a structured relationship.  Without that structure things cannot get done, it is how we fit together as a group. What revolutionises it is that we do this not because of social expectations or norms but rather because of Jesus Christ as our Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ as our example in servant leadership, and in obeying Jesus’ teaching. In roman society the emperor kept order on a wider level and the expectation was that in a household, the head of that household, predominantly a male would keep everyone in line as well. However, as we will see when Paul applies it to the Roman Household Code it changes it completely. The person without status and power is empowered to show their love of Christ by the way they act in that relationship and the person in the power position is reminded of things like Jesus talking to his disciples after a discussion of who would be the greatest, told them, don’t be like the gentiles who lord it over each other rather if you want to be great learn to be the servant of all.

Let me share an example a quite fresh example of what I mean with you. You may have noticed the  fashion accessory I’ve got on my leg. My moon boot. It’s there to correct a twisting of my foot caused by long term diabetes. I dreaded having to wear it, I’ve got to wear it for six weeks. I could simply not wear it, but that wouldn’t be good for me.  It gave me a chance to think about submitting to one another. Shane Jansen is the health professional at the hospital who is the expert in orthotics. He noticed what was happening to my right foot and passed it on the orthopedic surgeon and my podiatrist. I had to go up and submit myself to Shane’s care and professional expertise. Trusting that he knew what he was doing…As I got there and Shane went to work I knew he did, but I noticed him down on his hands and knees working at making sure my foot was comfortable and padded and that nothing rubbed and I wasn’t too unbalanced when I walked, I couldn’t help but think it reflected Jesus washing the disciples feet  in his leadership role Shane acting like a servant, for the good of the other person, showing love and care. When I asked Shane if I could use that illustration he said he always sees his Job as being a servant and serving his clients. He’s not here today because he's got a bad head cold, not because I’m speaking about him.

We are blessed because Paul does not simply stop with the command to submit to one another he goes on to give some very practical outworking in the basic relationships at the heart of roman society. He applies it to the Roman household code. In Roman Society the emperor kept order on a wider scale and at an almost cellular level as an outworking of that household were to be kept in order by the head of the household usually a male, who was a husband, father and if they were wealthy a salve owner. So when you read through this section you could see some people really could feel picked on. It was a very structured and hierarchical structure. Often what people have done is say that the roman household code is what the bible says a family structure should be, its God ordained. I’ve heard lots of teaching that emphasizes the structure and order rather than the mutual submission. Of course, it gets hard because you have to say that culture has changed and the last section on slaves and masters applies note to employees and employers, and the principals do. That household code has more to do with culture and can be found in writings like Aristotle more than just in scripture. I think our ideal of marriage as a partnership between two equals, a man and a woman, is more in line with scripture. This passage and when Jesus speaks of marriage they quote Genesis that a man will leave his family and cleave to his wife and the two will become one flesh, that is at the heart of God’s ideal for marriage. That form the right basis for raising a fmaily Mutual submission love and respect apply to that cultural understanding equally. We don’t have time in this sermon to dive into the intricacies of each of these relationships, but I want to highlight some things that reflect that mutual submission as love one another as I have loved you in relationships where there is power.

This by the way would have been a radical teaching in Paul’s day. You would have of heard a lot of gasps when it was read out. Firstly in all three relationships that make up the roman household Paul addresses the people with the least power. The wife, children and slaves. They could not normally be addressed. He turns what was just a socially accepted position into a act of worship and service to Christ. These people now become their own moral agents able where they are to be examples of Christ like love. Modern leadership theory talks of leading where you are or 360 degrees leadership. Where you show leadership and excellence in what ever position you are in. here wives, children and slaves are called to show their Christian faith in how they fulfil the situation they are in.

Secondly, they are given incentives and encouraged in what they do. Wives are told of Christ’s headship over the church, which in Ephesians 4 Paul had said resulted in the church growing up into all maturity and lacking nothing. Children are told that obeying and honoring parents has a reward of a long life in the land. As an aside I know many of you are still wrestling with honoring your parents and it I a life long thing, as you are know taking up the role of caring for them in your old age. Many of you parents are having to learn a new way of submitting by allowing them to make decisions and help care for you. To salves Paul speaks of reward, slaves seldom if ever benefited from their labors and service, but not in Christ this submission and showing Christ like love in the way they worked was seen as service to Jesus would be acknowledged and rewarded when their true master returns.

Thirdly, the people in positions of authority rather than being instructed to keep order are called to show love and care. To sacrificially serve those in lower positions. Husbands love you wives, as Christ has loved the church… he gave his life for them, for us. He does not abuse, neglect, put down, the church, but builds it up and is one with the church. Remember Jesus prayer father make them one as you and I are one. Fathers were told not to exacerbate their children. To treat them in a kind considerate and caring manner, to invest time and energy into them and also to serve them by teaching them the way of the Lord. That by the way is by example as much as it is by way of education. Slave owners while not being told to emancipate their slaves, one commentator said for Paul to think of a world without slavery was like us conceiving of a world without electricity, But they were to treat them with care, not only not abusing them but making sure they have all they need. It is interesting we have in scripture the example of Philemon and Onesimus as owner and salve and how that relationship was to be worked out. Philemon is called to forgive Onesimus for running away, accept him as a brother and be willing to send him to continue serving with Paul. In Corinthians, Paul has to remind the church when they get together for meals not to simply dive in and eat everything but to wait for the slaves who could only get their once they had completed their work. What was radical was for slave owners to remember they themselves had a master in heaven who did not show favoritism. Who say everyone as equal. If you are in a position of leadership or authority says Paul you need to be a servant as Christ is a servant.  

Gerald Sittser uses a wonderful illustration in his chapter on this one another saying, I’ve used it before but I know you won’ mind. He and his wife love watching old movies, particularly musical. They loved watching the mesmerizing, magical dance routines of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. Dances that were filled with such grace. In an interview with Ginger Rodgers after Fred death she said he was so good that he never seemed to be leading and her following. There was a seamlessness, an elegance, as if two people were dancing as one.  You could see the car they had for each other and the love of the dance. When we submit to one another out of reverence for Jesus Christ even when there are leaders and followers it becomes about the grace and the love of Christ.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Bear one another's Burdens (Galatians 6:2-5)

I haven't uploaded a sermon to my blog for a period of time. but have decided that i should restart... so here is one from a winter series in 2023 called Oneanothering: the art of Christian Community . 

If you want to hear it... here is a link to the recording of the sermon from the HopeWhangarei website... of course in preaching live it varies a bit from the script.  https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/hope-whangarei/episodes/13-8-23-Howard-Carter---Bear-one-anothers-burdens-e28ri62/a-aaae171 

 One of my earliest musical memories as a child is hearing the Hollies 1969 song “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”, it was recorded and released the same year by Neil Diamond. All I remember is the haunting mouth organ introduction and that line “he ain’t heavy he’s my brother’ and as I started to prepare this message for today on ‘bear one another’s burdens’, it ended up on repeat on the playlist in my head. “ He Ain’t heavy He’s my brother”…

 The song was written by two men, Bobby Scott and Bob Russell, who only meet three times and composed the song. It was quite poignant as Bob Russell had terminal lymphoma and died six months after it was released.

 But the line ‘he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother’ has a deeper origin. father Steven Boes writes… 

 ‘Back in 1918, a boy named Howard Loomis was abandoned by his mother at Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys, which had opened just a year earlier. Howard had polio and wore heavy leg braces. Walking was difficult for him, especially when he had to go up or down steps. Soon, several of the Home’s older boys were carrying Howard up and down the stairs. One day, Father Flanagan asked Reuben Granger, one of those older boys, if carrying Howard was hard. Reuben replied, “He ain’t heavy, Father… he’s m’ brother.”’ 

 In 1947 Flanagan saw a photo of a child being carried by his brother in a magazine with that same caption under it and wrote asking to use the photo and the slogan for the basis of his growing organizations logo. …that was Boystown… ‘he ain’t heavy he’s my brother’ Let us bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will obey the law of Christ.’ 

 Our winter sermon series this year is called ‘One Anothering: The Spirit filled art of Christian Community’ and we are exploring Jesus new commandment to love one another as I have loved you by looking at twelve ‘one another’ sayings in the New Testament Epistles. Seeing how Jesus inspirational and aspirational command works itself out in everyday life, in practical terms. Bear one another burden’s and fulfilling the law of Christ for me picks up Jesus teaching in the sermon on the mount about going the extra mile… Jews could be made to carry the pack of a occupying roman soldier for a kilometer, a task that was onerous and seen as the epitome of oppression, we can push you around like a salve or a beast of burden, but said Jesus show love even to your enemies by carrying it an extra K. As the passage we had read finishes with this morning we should not get tired of doing good to others and especially to our fellow believers… part of that is bearing one another burdens. 

 Let have a look at this exhortation in its context in the book of Galatians. Then at what it means and some practical thoughts about how we live it out. 

 Paul was writing to a church struggling with a controversy over whether gentile believers needed to obey the Jewish law to be Christians. Paul writes to remind the believers that it is through the life death and resurrection of Jesus that we have been put right with God, not by the law. His teaching is summed up in Galatians 5:6 where he says ‘for when we are in union with Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor lack of it makes any difference at all; what matters is faith that works through love.” Then Paul had gone on to defend himself against allegations that without the law it would lead believers to simply fall back into appeasing the desires of their old self. Paul counters that by calling the believers not to focus on their own wants but the needs of others, to serve one another, in doing that they were fulfilling the spirit of the law, by loving their neighbour as themselves. 

 He then goes on to point the believers to walking in step with the spirit is the way to avoid falling into simply focusing on our own desires, as we walk in step with the spirit says Paul it will lead to us developing this glittering list of virtues. Things we call the fruit of the Holy Spirit… love, Joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

 Then in chapter six grounds Paul those virtues with what Richard Longnecker calls ‘a loose collection of exhortations’ concrete terms of what it means to walk in the spirit as opposed to the law, practical ways those fruit of the spirit are used in everyday relationships. Our family loves cherries, Christmas for us is not Christmas with out a box of cherries of four on the table. In Rotorua we had a cherry tree in our yard, but it was an ornamental cherry tree, beautiful red cherry berries, but as I discovered they were totally bitter and sour and inedible, real cherries are designed for the sweetness and taste to be eaten and shared. Paul shows how those fruit of the spirit are not just to look nice on the tree but to be shared and consumed in relationships in the Christian community. . One resource I looked at recently defined discipleship as spending time with Jesus, to become like Jesus and do the things Jesus did’… 

 Paul's list contain negative exhortations, ways we shouldn’t act… with the focus on who we are our own importance and in then positive exhortations restoring those who are trapped in sin, bearing burdens, even carrying our own load, and not becoming tired in sowing good seed, which of course is the purpose of fruit to reproduce, and doing good. James Dunne in his commentary says that the spirit lead life leads us to be sympathetic to others and self-critical at the same time… self-aware of our own need for forgiveness and transformation… 

 The exhortation we are focusing on today from that list is bear one another burdens. In his Book Love One Another Gerald Stittser defines burden bearing as like comforting, it is a command that helps us deal with people who want to progress on the journey of faith but for some reason find it difficult’. There is some debate as to what is meant by burden but really that burden can mean anything that is oppressive and a hinderance to the other persons progress. Stitter asserts that modern phycology has the unwanted side effect of making people perpetual victims, that they will not find healing and wholeness, but our faith is in Jesus to be able to bring his healing and wholeness. A great example of what this might look like comes from that nameless group of friends in the gospels who bring their crippled friend to Jesus. Lowering him down through the roof of an overcrowded house. They carry him, they work at getting around the obstacles between their friend and Jesus, they use their skills and talents, ingenuity and imagination, determination and even their cheekiness, and their faith to see their friend encounter Jesus and come to a place of wholeness. Mind you sometimes we will need to help carry that burden for a long time, maybe even a lifetime… 

 Carrying burdens can be messy, the passage connects this exhortation to the one that went before, restoring those entrapment in sin and its consequences, helping them untangle from that web. Those who may be led off the path of following Christ, or who are actively hurting other people in the community. Paul says the person in tune with the spirit, will focus on gently leading them back, restoring them to right relationship with God and with their fellow believers. Gentleness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and it is applied in this situation. Gentleness comes from the same word as meek, as being focused on the common good and not being distracted or put off that by any slight or injury. 

 Paul also warns us again that the life in tune with the spirit means we stay aware of the trap of sin that has tripped up the person we are working to restore. Perhaps remembering that experience with the ornamental cherry tree, when you are dealing with someone trapped in bitterness and resentment, it is easy to find yourself not caught up with the same feelings when you hear painful stories of wrongs that have been done and you can lose sight of grace and forgiveness. carrying others burdens can mean a sharing in that sort of pain and a walking through it to Jesus.

 Bearing one another’s burdens does not mean that we dump stuff on each other. You may have found it interesting to note that a couple of verse after Paul talks of carrying one another’s burdens that he tells the Galatians to carry their own load. While the words are similar in meaning. Burdens speaks of an over oppressive situation whereas load talks of the everyday humdrum demands and weight of life. The context of load here speaks very much of finances. So someone might need to have help as they work their ay our of crippling debt, but the expectation is that as much as they can they are to be able to look after caring for themselves. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul has to tell believers there who were expecting Jesus imminent return so had stopped working and sold everything they had, and just waited round looking at the sky, to not be a burden on the Christian community but if they don’t work they don’t eat. The emphasis on financial help and loads does carry on here as it links what Paul is saying with the next verse which kind of seems like it does not fit… to share from the good we have received with those who teach the word. It is one of the earliest pieces of evidence of a developing dedicated professional teacher in the Christian church. Paul saw that as a proper and important development, even though his own practise was to support himself in ministry. 

 We need to be aware that we can get tired in carrying one another’s burdens, and in doing Good, and Paul warns against that. How do we keep ourselves from getting tired of doing Good. To help others requires that we keep our tanks full, we do the things that keep us us, we cultivate those. We look after our wellbeing, we rest, we sabbath and take holidays. We need a balance in our lives of the things that build us up and relationships where we need to be doing the carrying and building up. Carrying burdens is also a team sport, and we often think Paul is writing to us as individuals we have what I call You sing itis… we read you in the bible with as second person singular verbs not as corporate verbs… one another means that we are all involved as much as we can in the burden carrying. 

 The last thing I want to say about carrying one another’s burdens is that one of the things that often stops burdens from being carried is that most kiwi of reactions (note to international readers here Kiwi is how we New Zealanders refer to ourselves) … ‘ Oh I don’t want to be a burden’… scripture exhorts us to help one another. The most amazing thing I’ve seen in this church is when there is a ned that is expressed there are people who come to the fore and help meet those needs are carry those burdens. Remember you aren’t heavy you’re a brother, you ain’t heavy you’re a sister in Christ. 

 I started this message by talking about the song 'he ain’t heavy he’s my brother' and I want to finish by quoting some of the lyrics… …

 If I'm laden at all I'm laden with sadness 
That everyone's heart
 Isn't filled with the gladness 
Of love for one another 

 But they don’t get the last word… Jesus does… We know the gladness of being loved, so should love one another, we know what it is to have our burden carried, as Jesus invited us to “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” So let us carry one another’s burdens and in that fulfil the law of Christ." 

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Revelation 7: God is able to save his people, All his people.


preached at HopeWhangarei Presbyterian Church  as part of our Revelation: Eternal hope in the face of present difficulties series. recoding of message is available  on this link https://anchor.fm/hope-whangarei/episodes/6-3-2022-Howard-Carter---Revelation-7-e1f9p6h/a-a7h9ia6 

We are sadly used to seeing it, in the face of war disaster and trouble. That frantic flight of people trying to get away desperately heading for safety. We've seen it again this month on our TV screens as people flee from the Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. 

We may remember the grainy black and white photo of People clambering up to the roof of the American embassy hoping for a seat on the last helicopter fleeing Saigon in 1975.

Similar scenes at the airport in Kabul last year as the Taliban swept back into power in Afghanistan.

The ongoing plight of refugees streaming across the Mediterranean to escape poverty, persecution war and conflict in inadequate boats, some making it or plucked to safety by navy vessels others perishing. We’ve seen it and it is one of the horrific faces of suffering in the world. A lottery of who will be saved?

Maybe less sever but closer to home and more relatable, we all have heard the tales of personal hardship, suffering and sorrow as people have not been able to get places in MIQ to come back to New Zealand as our border has been closed because of COVID. Maybe you and your family have been affected by that…The numbers are limited …. Who will get in.

Revelation 6, speaks of the Lamb of God opening the seals on the scroll with evil coming forth, war and pestilence, famine and poverty, natural disaster and martyrdom, and it finishes with the people asking who can be saved from these trials? Who can get airlifted, get away safe. And instead of a deafening silence or an inadequate under resourced rescue effort, Revelation 7 in two visions tells us that God is able to bring his people through times of trial, God can be trusted to save his people, all his people.

The chapter starts with those words ‘after this I saw” remember we are not looking at a timeline of events here but John describing his vision. And it does seem that this passage is almost an interlude in the flow of the book. We have six of the seven seals opened on the scroll and then all of a sudden the scene changes, the theme changes. But as I’ve alluded to what is said by these two visions is significant and important, an answer to the question who can be saved. It’s full of encouragement for John’s first reads and us. God is able to save his people… all his people.

The first vision happens on earth. It consists of a vision of five angels. John sees four angels standing at the four corners of the earth. A metaphorical way of looking at the whole earth and the winds coming from all the different directions. It’s the first and only time they are mentioned in the book and they are restraining the wind from doing damage. Which of course has not been mentioned at all so far, or will it be... However we get the picture of the calm before the storm. Things are put on hold for a specific reason. The fifth angel goes about with the seal of God and puts a seal on God’s servants. Marking them as belonging to God. We are not shown what that entails or that process. Elsewhere in the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 1:225:5Ephesians 1:13-144:30 the Holy Spirit is seen as a seal of God on those who believe, a pledge that people belong to God, that we have been redeemed. Later in Revelation we see the beast mark all those who worship him, but here God has marked his people out first. Before it all happens.

Now John hears the angel say the number of those sealed was 144,000 from every tribe of Israel and we have a list of twelve tribes with 12,000 from each. We see the tribes listed. In a list that is unique in scripture it starts with Judah, rather than Rueben, the oldest, showing the importance of Judah as the tribe Jesus came from, Both Joseph and his son Manasseh are said to be tribes, but Ephraim the other son of Joseph recorded in Old Testament lists is not mentioned. Neither is Dan, Dan may be left out because early on it was associated with idol worship in the Old testament, and in some Jewish though the anti-messiah was supposed to come from that tribe. But it’s a complete list of twelve tribes.

Now 144,000 is one of those numbers and moment in the book of revelation where there are many different ways of interpreting what it means.  If you’ve had Jehovah witnesses at your door they used to make a lot out of this number. Saying it referred to 144,000 Jehovah witness who had been taken up to heaven before 1935. Others see it as refereeing to specifically Jewish believers who will be spared during the trials that are to come, or more specifically will be or have been saved from the destruction of Jerusalem.  Others tie it in with the idea of a rapture that these saints are going to avoid the trials that are to come. They are the fortunate ones who will get a place on the plane.

Another interpretation, which I believe, in my humble opinion, fits the best, is just as four corner of the earth is a way of speaking about the earth in its entirety, 144,000 is also a symbolic number which conveys meaning rather than a literal number. It is 12 x 12 x 1000 and it conveys the idea of completeness, 12 is a number of completeness and we have a complete number from each of the twelve tribes the compete family, multiplied by 1000 which marks again the idea of completion and totality, we’ll strike it again with the idea of the 1000 year reign. Is it a literal 1000 years or does it mean that it has come to completion? God seals all his servants all his people before the times of trial, before the coming winds of change and trouble blow.

Here are some of my thoughts why. Firstly, as I’ve already said the numbers have significance as meaning total or all encompassing, secondly, that to limit it to the Jews only goes beyond the New Testament idea of the people of God are both Jew and Gentile together. Thirdly in the text those sealed are simply called the servants of God, a generic term, not Jews.  Fourthly, we now move to a second vision, this one in heaven, and we see standing before the throne, those who have endured and overcome who are a crowd too big to number, people from every, nation, tribe, people group and language. God is able to save his people all his people.

Numbering them according to the tribes, may also be a sign that these people will not be saved from the trials that are to come but are being sealed so they can face what is to come. In numbers the tribes were counted by the number of fighting aged men, and here we may catch a glimpse of God’s servant being prepared for the conflict that is to come. As we move through revelation we’ll get into some of the different understandings of things like the rapture, millennium, tribulation and the raft of different ways of looking at it. But the key thought is ultimately God will save his people all his people.

So let’s move to the second vision, again we see it’s a different vision because John says after these things I saw in verse 9. The scene has now changed and john is back in the throne room, and there he sees a multitude beyond counting. I don’t know if you ever caught up with Donald trump saying he has more people at his inauguration that the two million who were present for president Obama’s inauguration. With the internet battle between photos taken from the same place on both occasions, but here the crowd stretches outwards and outwards, people from all nations, tribes, people groups, languages are included, this is beyond massive. The language used coveys totality  and completion. They are dressed in crowns and white robes. They hold palm branches, a sign of victory and celebration. Interesting that John’s gospel is the only one to mention palm branches in his narrative of Jesus entry into Jerusalem. It’s a hint that ties these writing together. That triumphant entry is seen as a foreshadow of the procession in heaven. The multitude cry our ‘salvation belongs to our God, who sits upon the throne and unto the Lamb” here those redeemed by God acknowledge that it God who has saved them, that it is the lamb who by his sacrifice has redeemed them. The cry is no longer Hosanna (save me) it is in the past, salvation belongs to our God.

At this john sees the rest of the heavenly court fall down and worship. The angels and the twenty four elders. They agree with the multitude Amen… they give praise and glory, wisdom and thanks, thanks is a unique feature of the list in this chapter, it may look to thanking God for those he has redeemed,  and honour and power and strength to our God for ever and ever, amen”. An affirmation that God has done it.

Then we have the vision explained by a question and answer with one of the twenty four elders. Who asks these in white robes who are they and where do they come from?’. John lets the elder tell him. Those in white are the ones who have persevered in the great tribulation. Who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.

The word translated tribulation here causes us some difficulties, as people think that it refers to some end days event, and it may focus on that, but for the readers of John in his day they were aware of the coming trials they faced, like we too are aware of the difficulties we and other Christians face round the world face.  But this vision shows that through those times through any coming time that God has and will save his people all his people.

The second thing is the idea of the blood of the lamb cleansing the robes. Now I know there is a genre of hymn that talk of a fountain of blood that cleanses us from sin. But the blood of the lamb refers to Christ’s death. The death of the lamb. It may go back to the Passover idea of the blood of the lamb on the door post. But it affirms very strongly it is in identifying with the death of Jesus that we are redeemed. There is a sense that here are all the people who have endured following Christ to the end, be it their death in persecution of old age. They are cleansed and saved by God’s power through Jesus death. It is easy to think of salvation as simply saying a [prayer as an insurance policy, but here, and I’m showing my reformed bias, the idea of those around the throne are those who persevered to the end. Saved by Christ alone, by faith alone, but who persevere in that faith. That saving act changes everything.

Then the elder goes on to speak of the benefit of being washed in the blood, redeemed by the lamb. They are before the throne of God. This amazing picture of being welcomed in and able to stand pure and forgiven before God’s throne. Serving him day and night in the temple. There are lots of pictures and scriptures that come to mind there. In 1 peter that we are living stones built into the house of God, serving God with the thanksgiving offerings. Again in peter that we are a royal priest hood. It also ties it back to the 144,000 who were referred to as the servants of God. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them forever in his presence, the idea of dwelling in the house of the Lord, from psalm 23 and John 14 in my Father’s house is a mansion for you. We will see this fulfilled in the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22. But the servants of God will know this shelter and presence as they endure and go on.

Never again will they be hungry, never again will they be thirsty, picking up Jesus words about being living water in John 4. Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be satisfied. The promise of Psalm 121 of the sun not harming them. Then we have this wonderful image of the lamb who is at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd. He will lead them to springs of living water. He will wipe away their tears. There will be an end to suffering and a time of joy.  The lamb will bring them through it all and to this place of renewal and refreshing.

Ok let’s bring it all together,

These two visions show that from beginning to end God is able to mark out his people and save them and bring them to be with him in heaven. God is able to save all his people. As the seals on the scroll are opened and we see the hardships and difficulties we can trust God that he will lead us through, he will ultimately save us, the shepherd is the lamb. Jesus has lead the way through death into new life. We may face war, pestilence, martyrdom, natural disasters poverty and famine, but God is the one who knows who we are and Jesus is with us as our shepherd and will bring us through, to be with him and the lamb, to a place of shelter, thanks, refreshment and joy. God will save his people, all his people. 

It gives us confidence and comfort to keep living out our faith as we face the trials to come. The first martyr in Acts, Stephen as he is being stoned sees the same vision John speaks of. He see Christ on the throne, and it turns that killing into witness and victory. Yes there will be hardship and sorrow pain and tribulation, as this world passes away, but be encouraged God is able to save his people all his people. We are sealed as his from the beginning and we will be with him in the end.  

Friday, February 18, 2022

Worship in Heaven, living on earth (Revelation 4)


This is the first in a series of messages looking at the book of Revelation at HopeWhangarei. it is message  preached as part of a series  using a preaching team, where three preachers give messages over a three week period at our three worship sites. So on my blog will only be  my portion of this series. however if you want to follow our whole series you can do via our website  https://hopewhangarei.nz/sermons/ 

Today we start the second part of our journey through the book of Revelation, leading into Christmas we worked our way through the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor, chapters 1 to 3. Which constituted the first vision that John had. It was important for us to focus on them because one of the things it does is ground this most difficult of New Testament writings to a definite time and place. Revelation is a letter, like most of the other new testament books, written to those seven churches in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, as they face difficult times and increased opposition and persecution from outside the faith. John calls it a prophecy and while we may think of  as being about foretelling what is to come, at the heart of the biblical understanding of prophecy is that it is God’s specific word for a specific time and place. We need to understand what it meant and said to its original audience so we can interpret it and apply to our own. What makes it more difficult is that John calls it a revelation or an apocalypse which is a literary style or genre, where the message is presented through vivid visions, with symbols and images, weird and wonderful beasts, numbers with meaning, where history is painted out on a cosmic stage and scale, not as a linear chain of events. A genre that is foreign to us, but to its first century readers may have been more common and understandable.  This book has been a playground for idle speculation, fear mongering and end of day’s countdowning… but also a great source of encouragement and comfort to the church down through the ages as they and we have faced difficult times similar to the ones faced by its first readers.

Today we look at chapter 4, which Gordon Fee says is possibly the greatest chapter in scripture to preach on, as it gives us this amazing picture of the heavenly worship, Fee says it is only bettered by chapter 5 where we meet the Lamb of God, and Lorne has the honour of preaching on that one.

It’s the start of a new vision for John. In apocalyptic writing words like I then saw, then it was shown to me are ways of moving from one thing to another. A bit like scene changes in movies. John starts here in verse 1 by saying after this refereeing us back to his previous vision. A vision that starts in chapter one of the risen Jesus standing amidst the lampstands that represent the seven churches. AS Jesus speaks to each of the churches, we have a sense of his presence and his being with them, the focus is on the immanence of God, Immanuel God with us. Jesus sees and knows their deeds, he is able to reward them for their perseverance, even Laodicea where it seems Jesus has been forgotten, he stands at the door of the city and knocks, wanting to come in and dine with his people. In the midst of all that the church is facing from within and outside, encouragement comes from the fact that the risen Jesus is with them, close and moving amongst them. It is the same for us as we deal with the issues from within and without the church, false teaching, unlove, persecution, finding ourselves being lulled to sleep, that Jesus is with us by the Holy Spirit, he sees he cares he knows, he speaks and he longs for us to repent and to persevere, and will reward us.

Then John speaks of what he now sees. There is a door before him which leads to heaven, and he is called up into the heavenly throne room. We may think that heaven is a long way away, out there off beyond the physical galaxy, but here we see that it is right close by. In Isaiah 6 the prophet Isaiah is in the temple and suddenly like the curtains being opened at a theatre he finds himself in the very throne room of God. For Jews of his day that would seem natural as the temple was the place that God dwelt with his people. Ezekiel an exile on the banks of the river kebar suddenly finds the heavens opened and he sees a vision of God’s throne moving from Jerusalem to be with the exiles in Babylon. Our celtic forbears used to talk of thin places, usually associated with worship, where the veil between the physical and the heavenly is thin. The cross is that thinnest of places. Here we see that heaven is close by, and what is even more encouraging is that such a thin place was even the island of Patmos where John was imprisoned, even the time of Isaiah as Jerusalem faced  siege and military threat, even with the exiles in Babylon, even with us here and now, in our joys and sorrows. Heaven is near. We do not serve a distant disinterested deity.

John is invited by Christ, the one with the voice like a trumpet in his initial vision, to come into the throne room and he will be shown what is to come. Before we get to that John gives us a vivid description of what he sees in heaven.  Maybe our eyes would be drawn to the central figure on the throne, and John struggles to describe what he sees when he looks there except that it is like precious jewels shining in the light. The three stones mentioned may have meaning or more likely they represent every precious stone. In Ezekiel 28:13 the king of tyre is said to be covered in all the precious stones and that is represented by these three stones. The key image is of God as Paul describes him in 1 timothy 6:16 God dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see”.

In front of the throne are twenty-four lesser thrones, on them sit twenty four elders, clothed in white with crowns upon their head. The description of cloths and crowns bring us back to the promises of the letters to the seven churches where those who overcome are seen as receiving a crown, a wreath, and being clothed in white. Twenty-four is seen as representing the totality of God’s people, his Old Testament people Israel represented by the twelve tribes and his new testament people by the apostles. 

John continues describing what he sees, he sees a lampstand with seven lamps which we are told represent the seven spirits of God. There is much debate over what the seven Spirits of God mean. In Isaiah 11 in a prophesy about the Branch of Jesse it talks of the Spirit being on this messianic figure in seven different ways, likewise in Romans Paul speaks of the seven different ways that the Spirit ministers to God’s people. In the vision of the seven churches we see the spirit being shown by the lampstand to be with the seven churches, and seven of course if God’s number representing perfection. What we are supposed to realize is God’s Spirit is present before the throne.

John also talks of a Crystal sea. It may be a reference to the sea or large bowl of water that was in the temple, part of the temple furniture and described in 1 Kings 7 beside the altar. Isaiah does not mention it in his vision of the heavenly throne room but it maybe for him that it was simply furnishing he would expect. Others wonder if this does not represent the sea which in Jewish thinking was a force of chaos. In Ezekiel it is out of the ocean that the terrifying beasts arrive but here in the throne room of God, even this murky chaotic force lies still and crystal clear before the throne of God almighty. As a created thing it serves the creator.

The last thing John sees before the action in heaven is described are four living creatures, with eyes and wings, with different faces one of an ox one of a lion, another of a man and the last of an eagle. Much of the symbols and things we see in Revelation are described and mentioned in the Old Testament, for John’s Jewish readers steeped in the scriptures they would have grasped their significance. Similar living creatures appear in Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly throne, they each have the four faces and a different number of wings. Celtic Christians have used these creatures as symbols for the gospels, depicted in the wonderful illuminated book of kells. Commentators see them representing all living things before the throne. The ox are the domesticated animals, the lion is king of the wild beasts, the man reminds us that we too are creatures, and that is quite humbling, and the eagle represents the birds. For the biologists amongst us we may say, hey what about fish and insects, but it is very much a reflection of the Jewish world view at the time. Here creation is before the throne of God actively involved in worship.

That leads us from a description of what is around the throne to the worship that happens around the throne. The living creatures constantly worship God. Saying Holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come”. The focus is on the transcendence of God. Holy, God is totally other, separate and pure light. Spirit to be worshipped in spirit and truth as Jesus says in John 4.   All powerful. The vision we are looking at will go on to look at the rise and fall of the kingdoms and powers of this word, the actions of spiritual beings, but it starts first and foremost with the assertion that God is almighty. The eternal nature of God is also at the centre of their praise, we are so used to this idea of God who was, who is and will ever be’ that we forget its amazing power and wonder. God has always been, but is not stuffy and old fashioned but is now, present and reigning today, and as we face the future we can do so with the assurance that God will continue to rule and to reign.

Whenever the living creatures worship, it tells us the elders fall to the ground, casting their crowns before him, and worship as well. You think we do a lot of standing and sitting in our services… they say ‘You are worthy to receive glory, honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being”. NT Wright reflects on the difference between he worship of the living beings and the representatives of the people of God is the word ‘because’, the psalms tell us we join with all creation, all creation worships its creator, but the 24 elders, the people of God are the ones who worship with knowledge and reason, they see the power of God, his worthiness, that he has created all things, that he sustains all thing by his prevenient grace.

That’s the vision, what we see and the action that is described to us… But What does it say to us.

Well,  it points us to the sovereignty of God, as we start a vision of what is to come, we are drawn into the presence of God. God on the throne. You’d think that as John contemplated what is to come that we may have started with the roman emperor on the throne, what is going to happen to God’s people in Asia Minor is going to be dictated to by Rome, however here we see that the real power, the real control, the one whose purposes and plans and kingdom will reign is our heavenly father.

The repeated name for God in this chapter is the one who lives for ever and ever. It is in the worship of the living creatures it’s repeated twice, in v 9 and 10. It is what gives us encouragement and hope, kingdoms may rise and fall, and they do and will continue to But God’s rule and reign, God’s kingdom is eternal. It invites us to look up from what we see around us to grasp a bigger picture, an eternal perspective. As the book of revelation goes on we will see that we live in this time between Christ’s coming and his return and that will be a time of difficulty and strife, But God is the one who is in control, god is the one who is able to keep us and bring about his purposes and plans. We are living in the longest reign of an English monarch, but it too will come to end, but God is still on the throne.  Psalm 2 encapsulates this by talking of the nation’s raging against God, but God is simply amused, he will establish his King and his kingdom.  We live in the time between the all ready.  In Jesus God’s Kingdom has draw near, and the not yet, awaiting its final consummation. But we live with the hope and assurance that God is on the throne and is working out his plans and purposes.

As I came back to work this year, I came back with a sense of dread almost of just another COVID year. This season we find ourselves in my scripture reading for that first week, which I shared in the pastoral letter was Psalm 62, and as the Psalmist turns to encourage his readers to have the trust and hope in God that he has even as he has faced difficult times, he says he knows these two things about God. He has heard God say that Power belongs to Him and that with God is constant love. In  the first two visions  in revelation as God’s people are to be encouraged by both those things, God is close and with us, in Christ, in what we face as individuals and a community of faith  and as we see the movement of  wider history, we know God is eternal. All powerful and sovereign.

 As we move on and look at all the weird and wonderful and frightening things in Revelation, we need to hold on to that truth. We do not fear what is to come. As we live out our lives in the midst of pain and suffering, uncertainty, change of today , we  do so without fear,  Christ is with us, god is sovereign, let us join with all creation and all heaven in worship…

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Light dawning in the dark (Isaiah 9)


link to audio of this message preached December 19th at HopeWhangarei. 

When we lived in Napier, I took up bike riding and I used to cycle from our house at Westshore, around through Ahuriri and out along the Marine parade cycle track to Clyde and back. Except for the height of summer  I would start in the dark and at some stage along the journey the dawn would break over the pacific ocean and the sun would rise out of the sea. On clear days it would be a wondrous golden glow over the blue of the ocean, on overcast and Rainey days it would turn the clouds and the dark ocean silver, either way the panorama and beauty of countryside and coastline and city around me would become visible.

The idea of light dawning in the darkness is a very evocative picture. It is one of hope and new possibilities. It can seem as if all the difficulty suffering and strife or the broken relationships and the brokenness and evil of the world and within us are like the pitch black of night. Maybe you’ve had nights where things you’ve done wrong, or decisions you have to make, or the stress and strain of life have left you tossing and turning, or even as Geoff New spoke about a couple of weeks ago you find yourself wrestling with God. The night feels endless, then the dawn comes, the possibility of hope.  Psalm 30:5 sums that up well for our experience and for the context of the passage we are looking at today when it says.

For his (God’s) anger lasts only a moment,
    but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night,
    but rejoicing comes in the morning.

The context of Isaiah 9, this passage which we so rightly associate with the coming of Christ, and use in advent, is that for Jerusalem and Judea it was a time of doom and gloom, they had sinned and rebelled against God and were facing judgment.

 Ahaz was the king, 2 kings 16 tells us he was a king who did evil in the eyes of the LORD. Even stooping to sacrifice his son in the fire, worshiping the Gods of the nations that had been driven out of Israel. Judah was in a difficult position politically, the northern kingdom Israel and Syria had formed an alliance and were getting ready to come against Judah. Ahaz had some decisions to make, he could form an alliance with either Assyria or Egypt, the super powers of his time, or he could simply trust in god to save his people. This is where Isaiah’s prophecies from chapter 7:1- to chapter 9 come. Through the birth of three children Isaiah speaks to the king and tells him that he should trust in God to deal with Israel and Syria, not to look to other gods nor to alliances with other kingdoms, but the God of Israel.

In chapter 7  Isaiah’s son Shear-Jeshub is to remind the king that a remnant shall remain. Then we have Immanuel, a child born to a virgin or a maiden, reminding Ahaz that “God is with us” that he and Judah can trust in God to save them, name and a prophecy which Matthew tells us is fulfilled in Christ,  and then finally in chapter 8  Isaiah’s other son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz which means quickly to the plunder, was a sign to Ahaz that before the boy could say mother or father, that Syria and Israel would fall, that Ahaz should trust in God.

Ahaz of course ignores Isaiah, and make an alliance with the Assyrians, giving them all the gold and silver in the temple and setting up an altar in Damascus to honour the  Assyrian king. Judah finds itself condemned and under God’s judgment, in the gloom and dark of the situation and their own rebellion against God, Isaiah now turns to give them hope. Hope which again is wrapped up in the birth of a child.

Lets look at the passage.

Verse one tells us that the land that is humbled will again be lifted up and honoured. God’s judgment is not his final word. The areas mentioned here, the land of Zebulun and Naphtali and galilee of the nations, the area where Israel usually first met the rest of the world, a place of mixed settlement, and the way of the sea beyond the Jordon would be honoured. These areas has been the first to fall to Assyrian domination and they would be the first to see the light of God’s salvation. Maybe jumping the gun here but Matthew quotes this verse at the beginning of Jesus preaching ministry in this very area. Here is the light dawning amidst the gloom in the very places Isaiah had prophesied.

This is the message that Isaiah now brings in verse 2. A light dawning in the darkness. Light of course in scripture is used to describe God. God would bring light where there was only darkness. Inv3 instead of the shrinking and defeat, sorrow and pain of the Assyrian oppression, there would be  a prospering of the nation and an increase of Joy. The metaphors that are used to describe this joy are that of the joy of harvest. Maybe the gardeners amongst you can relate to that. After all the tilling of the soil, the weeding, watering, cold snaps, wild winds and pests, there is the harvest. The second metaphor is the picture of soldiers dividing up the plunder. War is over the battle has been won. Maybe after unsurmountable odds, many of what Winston Churchill called ‘our darkest hours’ through pain and sorrow, final it is over victory has been won. Maybe those famous photos of crowds in London and New York’s time square in 1945 on VE and VJ day give us a glimpse of that joy.

Verse 4 gives us a historical example of how God would bring this reversal, this light in the dark. Isaiah points to the time of Midian where God used, Gideon and three hundred men, with trumpets and torches, light in the dark, to wrought an army of 10,000 Midians. This light this salvation would be as unexpected and so obviously God’s doing as that. The yoke of oppression would be lifted. Assyrian kings often gloated about the heavy yoke they placed on their conquered kingdoms. Again looking through the lens of Jesus we see that the new ruler would also have a yoke but his was easy and light.

Verse 5 then gives us an image of an end to war. This light would not use the conventional tools of this world to bring about salvation, and restoration rather the image here of war itself ceasing.

Then we see that just like Immanuel was a sign of God’s abiding presence God’s light and salvation being through the birth of a child, a son. A new ruler in the line of David. The words and titles that are given to this son, show us that this is not simply another king in the dynasty but there is something special and important about this son, this child to be born.

He is called the wonderful councilor, as opposed to the bad council of the Kings who had gone before and lead Judah down a disastrous path into the judgment of God … Mighty God, while the kings of the nations around Judea were starting to be considered god like, for jews there was one God and the passage points very much to this son being the embodiment of Immanuel God with us. Everlasting father, again while kings were considered as being fathers to their people this goes beyong hyperbally to focus again on the messianic hope of the people.  Prince of peace: The hope of shalom, not just the end to conflict and strife but the restoration of relationships, with God and with one another. A kingdom of peace and prosperity based on God’s righteousness and justice. This son and his kingdom would be an everlasting one.

The passage finishes with an affirmation that this salvation this light this new kingdom, would not be achieved by earthly powers or means, but rather it would the Lord’s doing the zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. We may think of God as detached and dispassionate, but here we get  the picture of a God who is jealous and zealous for his people, wanting to bring them back to himself, full of passion and compassion, that while they had rebelled against him and sinned, and were going to be rightly judged, God was not finished with them, his purposes and plans his salvation would be achieved.

On one level this passage can be seen to be fulfilled in Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, which 2 kings 18 tells us was a good king, there was no king in Judea like him, he returned Judea to following the Lord.  Isaiah’s prophecy was a birth announcement for this new king, full of hyperbole and hope. While Hezekiah’s faithfulness and trust in God is an example of the way the Davidic kings should act he does not fit the bill, despite seeing God’s miraculous intervention, Judea and Jerusalem face turmoil and strife throughout his reign. After a meeting with envoys from Babylon Isaiah tells him of the impending fall of Jerusalem to Babylon to which Hezekiah replies with what are his last recorded words “Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?” we must look beyond Hezekiah.

The book of Isaiah as a whole covers the period of the reign of king ahaz right through to the destruction of Jerusalem and finishes after chapter 40 with words that look forward to the return from exile and the reestablishment of Jerusalem. The passage in Isaiah 9 was seen as part of the hope of what God would do in that restoration time. The hope for Jerusalem being the capital of a restored and purified Israel. Yet we know from history that the hopes and aspirations for that restoration were different and difficult. So this passage became part of the messianic hope of Israel, that God would indeed send a son of David to establish the kingdom of God. 

Matthew quotes this passage as Jesus starts his ministry, in the area which Isaiah had said salvation would first dawn. Pointing us to the fact that the ultimate fulfilment of this passage is in Jesus. Jesus is the long awaited son given for our salvation, the light that has come into the world. One of the principles of biblical interpretation is that a passage in the Old Testament can’t mean something different to what it meant in its context when it is quoted in the new. This passage does exactly that as it is fulfilled in Jesus. We like Judea like Ahaz are lost and in the dark because of our sin and rebellion from God. Like Judea because we have not listened to God and gone our own way we stand in a place of judgment. But underserved, unlooked for, not by human means, God has shone the light of his salvation into our darkness. As john says in the prelude to his gospel… his introduction of Jesus on the vast canvas of eternity…the light of the world has come. It came not by military might or by powerful persuasion but in a child, in Jesus a son sacrificially  given. A son who is the wonderful councilor. . In our staff meetings at the moment we are reading through john’s gospel and this week we heard John 5:19 where Jesus says he only does what he sees the father do, and then later in John 12 it says “ I only say what the father  has commanded me to say.” What wonderful faithful council. God almighty, the embodiment of God with us Immanuel. The everlasting father, God himself in human form, dwelling amongst us, the prince of peace, the one who by his life, death and resurrection has reconciled us to himself, to God as our father and to one another in him. One who is raised to life again and is now seated at the right hand, whose kingdom is eternal. It was not done by human hands but by the grace and love of God, the zeal and passion, of God for all his people, all of us. Passion of course is the word we use to describe that last Easter week in Jerusalem… The great light has dawned in the darkness of our sin and inhumanity, both individually and as a society and world, it is the source of the greatest joy, of the harvest, and of the battle won.

But like with the extended time of Isaiah we live in the tension between the already and not yet. Yes, the light has come in shines and brings life to all who will recognize their need for god’s forgiveness, turn to Jesus and are saved, we experience the peace and prosperity and righteousness and justice of the reign of God. God has done it, as Jesus said on the cross it is finished. But not yet we still live in a world that loves the darkness, a broken, sinful, and hurting and hurtful world that needs to know the light that has been sent in Jesus. So Christ sends us out as light bearers, as lamps to show people the true light that has come into the world, to be ambassadors of this son’s kingdom and government. Who is Immanuel present and reign in us by the Holy Spirit. Who is passion filled for the people of this world.  In Jesus Christ the light of the world has dawned, and in our present darkness we are called to all that light to shine through us on the coastlines and country and people around us.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Wrestling with Women and silence in the church


Here is a link to an audio recording of this sermon. 

When my daughter Bethany heard what passage I was preaching on she sent me a link to an article on satirical Christian website Babylon bee. It was satirizing the phenomenon of publishing houses producing study bibles for specific targeted audiences, men, women, couples, outdoor types etc. The article was supposedly reporting the launch of a new study bible by a well know publishing house. A new study bible for women, with well over 30,000  well researched notes that would help women understand what they read and live out God’s will for their lives if they simply followed the little numbers after any verse- printed in pink of course. The punch line and why this was relevant to us today was that all the notes said the same thing “Go and ask your husband to explain this[ referencing  verse 35 in today’s reading.  Its satire but it does challenge us about how the passage we had read today is to be understood and applied.

Our Winter sermon series this year is called Her story, Her Voice; Women in the Bible. My contribution to this series, is called Women in Leadership in the New Testament: the Silent Witnesses and Silencing Passages. What we are doing is looking at the issue of Women in Leadership in the church by going back to the New Testament and seeing the evidence, like the names of women in romans 16 and elsewhere, of the involvement and acceptance of women in leadership by Paul. Then seriously looking at the Pauline passages in scripture like 1 Timothy 2:5-11 and the one we had read to us today, that seem to be anti-women in leadership.

I know it’s hard going, we need to acknowledge that there is a split theologically over this issue. There are complementarians who believe that men and women were created in the image of God, saved by Christ, filled with the Spirt and given gifts but have different roles and women’s roles in church leadership are limited. That has been the traditional view. There are egalitarians who believe men and women were created in the image of God, saved by Christ, filled with the Spirt and given gifts and are free to exercise those gifts in any situation and position God calls them to. Both sides want to be faithful to scripture.

With that in mind let’s look at the passage in 1 Corinthians 14, with particular focus on verses 34-35, which call for women to be silent in church.


Paul is writing to the Church at Corinth, one with a particular set of issues and challenges. This passage is the conclusion to a section that starts in chapter 11:1-15 concerning public worship. It started with Paul affirming that both men and women can pray and prophesy in church, this was part of the tradition Paul passed down to the church in Corinth. The issue was keeping the socially understood appearance and relationship for men and women ( we looked at that last time). He then goes on to talk about the issue of poor and rich, free and slave and communion. Making sure when they met that the slaves were waited for and catered for. The last three chapters 12, 13,14 are about spiritual gifts. That all gifts are given by God for the whole body to use for the common good. The way in which they are to be used is in love, and finally in the present chapter that they were to be used in an orderly way which reflected the nature of God- as the God of peace. Prophesy-proclaiming Gods word was the more useful gift as it was good for instruction, correction and revelation. It seems that at Corinth worship was a chaotic affair with people all speaking in tongues and speaking over each other.. It finishes with Paul talking about the fact that his teaching was accepted by all the churches. That sets the context.


Verse 34 and 35 say that Women should be silent in Church, they are not allowed to speak.  Then it goes on to expand on this by saying if they want to enquire about something, affirming once again the theological education of women, let them ask their husbands when they get home. Now in Greco roman society and Jewish society women married early and it was the norm for women to be married. There are reasons for Women’s silence given, the first is they must be in submission according to the law, the second is that it is shameful for women to speak in public.

Blanket ban internal problems

Some have seen this passage as a ruling for then and all time that women should not speak in an official capacity in public worship. However there are some difficulties with that view.  Internally, Paul normally refers to the Old Testament when he uses the word Law, however we know of no such law in the Old Testament. Coupled with the idea of being shameful it may be talking about the conventions of the time, where women speaking in public was not the norm, usually a women would speak in their home or if it was in public usually through their husbands. How are we to understand that with the norms of our own culture and time.

It is difficult to have that interpretation within the context of the passage. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 that women can speak, they can pray and prophesy. It’s tied into the traditions he, Paul has passed on to the church at Corinth. Also it goes contra to the teaching Paul has just given on the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are for the whole body, he’d even said I wish all of you would prophesy, you’d all proclaim the word of God. Now almost as an afterthought we have this ban on women speaking.

 It does not make sense in the wider context of the scriptures where we have women speak and proclaim. We have the women at the resurrection told to go tell. We have the woman at the well go and tell the people of Samaria that she thinks she has found the messiah, she is named Photini in the eastern orthodox tradition and acknowledged as an Apostle. We have Deborah, Miriam and Huldah women prophets in the Old Testament. The list in Romans 16, Paul actually meets Aquila and Pricilla at Corinth… it’s the only time aquilla is mentioned first, because he is a tent maker like Paul, that is how they form a relationship. Everywhere else Pricilla is mentioned first meaning she would have been seen as the more significant of these coworkers of Paul’s.

A TEXTUAL Interpolation

Some see these verses as a gloss or an interpolation, a later addition to the text. That is rare in scripture but this could be a possibility. We don’t have copies of the book that do not contain these verses. However in some texts they are found after v40. Removing them from the chapter does not impact the flow of Paul’s argument. In the New Revised Standard Version they are put in brackets to acknowledge there maybe this issue and in the NIV there is a foot note which acknowledges that in some texts they appear after v40. On a technical level analysis of the wording and structure has lead some to question whether Paul wrote it.  But as Gordon fee who supports this view says, until that is proven we actually need to take them as serious.

The other view of these verses is that Paul is dealing with a specific issue at Corinth, it is not a blanket ban. The focus of Paul’s argument is order in worship.  The worship at Corinth seems to have been quite chaotic people speaking at the same time. The women are not the only ones told to be silent and in submission in this passage. Tongues speakers are told to be silent unless there is an interpreter in v 28. People are encouraged to keep themselves under control. One person was to speak at a time. Likewise, prophets are told to be silent if another is speaking, they are told a prophets spirit is subject to the control of the prophet. So whatever the disruptive thing that was happening amongst the women Paul gives the same imperatives. Keep quiet, be under control, and be in submission, not to men or to husbands but to yourself. To have self-control which is spoken of in the law…There is an appropriate way of going about things, like for example if you want to know something ask your husband at home.

There are many theories of what the specific issue was.

One thought is because women married early and did not have much formal education they were excited with the new freedom they had in the church and wanted to learn so would ask their husbands questions while others were speaking. Which was a no no in greek public speaking. Added to that they could have been seated separately men and women, like in synagogue worship, so they would have shouted out to their husbands across the room. I went to a Samoan Church one time and was amazed to see women and children seated on one side of the church and men on the other. What maybe more relevant was that a woman sat in the middle of the kids with a stick and when ever the kids whispered to each other or acted distracted she’d tap them with the stick and motion them to come and sit next to her. Keeping this social orderliness. The owmen may also have been disengaged from the worship and simply been chattering and talking. Remember it was a new thing for them to be included as equals in worship. On a practical level People often wonder where were the women in the feeding of the five thousand as it only records five thousand men. Men would sit in ordered rows to listen the women’s section would have all the kids and be a sea of movement and all abuzz.

Another view is that this is talking about the congregation carefully weighing the prophesy that was given. Women could prophesy but could not be involved in the more authoritative process of discerning and teaching. It wouldn’t be right for a women to be involved or to publically question the validity of a message given by their husband.  Again the issue at Corinth was a lack of structure so to impose such a structure is arguing from silence. It also puts discernment on a level above the gift of prophecy which goes contra to Paul’s teaching.

One scholar suggests that because the chapter focuses on prophecy there would have been women new to the Christian faith who would have thought that Christian prophet were like pagan oracles. Where the oracle would only speak in response to questions asked by those present. Often it was on personal matter, to do with life and decisions that needed to be made. Paul is telling them not to do this as Christian prophets speak at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, as one commentator puts it no human needs to prime the pump. The personal things they asked about were better discussed with their husbands at home.

In the end the biblical data is too limited to give a definitive answer. Eugene Peterson in his message paraphrase tried to encapsulate this understanding of dealing with a local issue of disruptive behavior when he translates the passage Wives must not disrupt worship, talking when they should be listening, asking questions that could more appropriately be asked of their husbands at home. God’s Book of the law guides our manners and customs here. Wives have no license to use the time of worship for unwarranted speaking.”

All these ideas have merit and difficulties. It is hard to be dogmatic on eitherside of the argument simply from this passage.

Ok how do we wrap that all up and bring it bear today.

Well I love the positive emphasis about theological education for women and by implication for men as well. Education that goes beyond go and ask your husband... That wouldn’t work in our household which I think reflects todays society well. We both have formal theological training and University education. We both have wisdom and understanding to contribute. I’ll ask kris about stuff and she’ll ask me…In our reformed tradition wanting people to know the scriptures understand them and apply them it is why we focus so much on exposition of scripture, opening it up and explaining it, so we can encounter the living word of God, Christ, in the written word, the scripture theough the spoken word, preaching, prophesy. It’s why in our missional plan we encourage Connect groups they are a great place for men and women to learn together… We are blessed with very good resources online and in print, more than ever before… mind you we need to be careful because we are challenged with a whole plethora of different interpretations and theological understandings as well in our information age, we need wisdom to navigate them. All the heresies and controversies there have ever been are alive and well and living on the internet.  Including the whole spectrum of understanding on the issue of women in leadership.

The second thing is that we need to order in worship. Doing things in a way which focuses on love and allowing people to use their gifts. That’s why I really like seeing people come forward and use their gifts in service and in our services. Affirming the spirit of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, of allowing men and women to pray and speak and encouraging them not to be disruptive. If there is that disruptive element then like with the passage we read today we need to have church discipline, note its for both men and women… maybe the pendulum has swung too far to the ordered, one commentator said that he thought Paul might think we’d ordered our self to sleep, we do need to have open times for people to use the more spontaneous gifting’s. 

Lastly, while I believe the fight for equality is important and significant, I can’t help but feel the Christian understanding of ministry is mutuality. Working together, using the gifts we’ve been given, being the people, men and women that God has created and recreated us to be.   I’m excited when I see teams working together men and women, intergenerational, multi-cultural like our Alpha team for the furthering of the gospel. In the end the flow of scripture is not about who can or cannot speak but about being coworkers in Christ, to the glory of God.