Tuesday, March 2, 2021

New Life in Dying Words: My God My God Why Have You Forsaken Me (Matthew 27:46)

 


audio recording of this message preached on February 26th 2021 at HopeCentral, part of HopeWhangarei can be heard here... https://anchor.fm/hope-whangarei/episodes/New-Life-in-Dying-Words-4-My-God--My-God-Why-Have-You-Forsaken-Me-er6e53 

 On the 26th of January this year, the UK commemorated passing 100,000 deaths in that country from COVID. A huge number and a stark chilling reality. As part of their coverage on that day the BBC interviewed the Arch Bishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. They asked him how to grieve for such a large number of people and where he finds hope. The interviewer then asked what Welby  would say to people who asked the question “where was God in the midst of all this?”. Which is a question I’ve often hear from people in the face of suffering and tragedy. Welby, was silent for a while then said we should be wary of people who offer a snappy answer to that question. There were no easy answers. He spoke of wrestling with that himself when his daughter had died in a car crash. Feeling cut off from God, angry at heaven that such a thing could happen. Of praying with other people in similar situations who wrestled with the same question. Of the fact that the psalms are full of God’s people wrestling with that same sense of God’s absence. He offered two thoughts, the first was that while it was not easy what Got him through the grief of his daughter’s death was ironically the fact that God was with them, an abiding awareness of God’s presence and the other was that in Jesus God himself stepped into the midst of our pain and sorrow, suffering alongside us and for us. And that brings us to the passage we are looking at this morning Jesus cry from the cross in Matthew and Mark’s Gospel ‘my God, My God why have you forsaken me’. Here is Jesus who had said ‘I and the father are One’ now calling out in the most horrific of circumstances, what is that most human of prayers, what is known as the cry of desolation ‘my God, my God why have you abandoned me’. Where are you God?


Leading into Easter this year we are working our way through Jesus sayings on the cross. The series is called ‘New life in Dying words’. This is the fourth in that series. Each of these sayings has something important and significant to say about Jesus. Each of them speaks to what is at the heart of God, what is at the heart of the gospel, what is happening on the cross, and the very heart of the human condition. Before we get to that exploration I want to make a couple of introductory remarks.


The first is that there are only three times that Jesus words are recorded in the gospels in Aramaic. Aramaic was the language that Jesus would have spoken in everyday life. The gospel are written in koina greek which was the common trade language of the first century,  A bit like English in our day. The three instances are Talitha koum which means ‘little girl, I say to you get up’ when he raises a young girl from the dead in Mark 5:21-23. You can imagine that occurrence and those words being etched in the disciple’s memory. ‘ abba, father’ in Jesus prayer in the garden of gethsemane, abba is the Aramaic word like our dad, or even the dada of a small child, running towards their father with arms outstretched. It denotes even as Jesus is wrestling with his coming crucifixion an intimacy of relationship with God the father.  The third is here at the Cross when Jesus cries out ‘Eli Eli lema Sabachthani?  “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?’ that’s etched in the minds of the people at the cross because of the anguish. Because it is so out of character for Jesus, who even in the garden used the intimate Abba… Often people will question the validity of the gospel narratives seeing them being written many year later, but when you hear those words in Aramaic it opens the door to the accounts recorded in the gospel coming from eyewitnesses, people who were there. It is a clue, one of many, to the reliability of the gospels.


The second thing is that as you may have guessed from our call to worship and Old Testament reading this morning, Jesus was quoting the first line of Psalm 22. A psalm which when you read it talks of much of the suffering Jesus was going through and while it starts with that cry of desolation it finishes with a sense of hope and trust in God… HE has done it… which is echoed in Jesus saying on the cross in John’s gospel… it is finished. Jesus as a Jewish man would have grown up singing and learning the psalms by heart. When we find ourselves in times of great anguish and suffering and pain, the stuff we have remembered comes to mind. It is why even secular people want the Lord is my shepherd, the 23rd psalm at funerals and people will say the Lord’s Prayer as they face or in the wake of difficult times. You may remember the crowds in the street at Princess Diane’s funeral all joining in with the Lord ’s Prayer. Our Father who art in heaven echoing round the crowded streets of London. For a Jewish man saying the first line of a psalm was like shorthand for saying the whole thing. Jesus feels the desolation but still has that hope.

So let’s have a look at ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me.’


Here at the Cross, Jesus who had been betrayed by a close and trusted friend, suffered injustice in courts, been rejected by his people, tortured, brutally nailed to that cross, and mocked on all sides, abandoned by his disciples, feels that abandonment that deep aloneness. Feels as if God has turned away. It is unthinkable but Christ who called God Abba which means father and who had said I and the father are one now faces feeling separated from God. Jesus identifies fully with the emotional and spiritual side of human suffering. You catch some of the distance in the word Eli which is a formal address for God, rather than abba or father.

We find it hard to hear because we wonder if it means that Jesus despaired and lost all trust in God. The first thing we need to realise is that this saying is first and foremost still a prayer. The Jewish bystanders understood that, they believed that he was crying out for Elijah to come and save him… Elijah in Jewish thought was the one who would come to redeem his people…so they waited to see if he would. Its implication is that despite a lack of presence there is still that trust and faith in God. Still the trust that Jesus had shown in the garden of gethsemane when he prayed Father not my will but yours be done. It is still a prayer of trust because of the context of Psalm 22, which finishes with hope.


When we look to the cross we can focus on the violence and physical suffering of crucifixion. But here it opens the window on the depth of the spiritual and physiological suffering as well. Often people will wonder about the goodness of God who would allow his son to suffer, but in the cry of My God, My God why have you forsaken me’ we get a sense that not only does Jesus suffer, but in fact God the father suffers as well. The trinity that community of love at the heart of our understanding of God, where the only way to describe God is one endures that sense of separateness, as the whole of the Godhead works to make it possible for us to be bought back into relationship. It shows not only the depth of God’s identification with our human suffering, it shows the depth  of God’s love for us, willing to endure the pain and sense of isolation and separation to bring us back into relationship, that we too could become children of God and know God initially as our abba, our heavenly parent.

My God My God why have you forsaken me also offers us a way of looking at what is happening at the cross as well. If we are talking in terms of ways of understanding the cross, what we call theories of the atonement, we might talk about the fact that as Jesus had prayed father forgive them they know not what they do. Which we looked at in the first of our talks in this series, that God answers that Prayer by laying our wrongdoing on Jesus. Which means that Jesus also experiences the separation from God because God is holy and righteous and cannot abide with sin. By doing that and dying in our place he pays the price for what we have done wrong and in return offers his righteousness to us. 

But My God My God why have you forsaken me also speaks to the very heart of the human condition.


As we said before it is very much a human prayer. It is very much a human response to issues of trouble and suffering, on a personal and societal scale. Feeling that absence of God. Wondering where are you God. By using it here Jesus opens the possibility for us to see that having those feelings and experiencing that absence does not mean we stop trusting or having faith. Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggermann, talks of seeing three types of psalm in the book of psalms. Psalms of orientation where everything is going along as it should, what we might call the happy clappy songs. Full of joy and aware of God’s presence and goodness. Another is what Breuggermann says are psalms of disorientation, where it feels as if you’ve gone to the beach and been caught in a large set of waves, picked up and spun round and round and dumped hard and you don’t know which was is up. You know there are times like that, and the disorientation makes you feel separate from God, you only have time to gasp for air before the next wave crashes down on you. The third category of paslms Brueggermann calls psalms of reorientation, where the problem and suffering may not have gone away but despite the feelings of abandonment, the psalmist has come to a place of quite trust in God. Jesus on the cross shows us that example of faith amidst the turmoil of life. Spoiler alert we will see it come through it several other saying… It is Finsihed… into your hands do I commend my spirit.


The second thing it says to us is that in those times of darkness and difficulty we can bring our prayers to God, knowing that we bring them to someone who has experienced the depth of human pain and suffering who understands and identifies with that sense of desolation.  It may sound a bit flippant to say it, but it is profoundly helpful in the depths to realise that our God knows where we are, because Jesus has been there. As Adam Hamilton puts it in his book final words “we remember that the one to whom we pray in our darkest hour knew firsthand the feelings of hopelessness, doubt, and despair.’ We remember that his cry of why came from a psalm that points towards God’s ultimate deliverance.


Finally, Jesus example of being willing to identify with our suffering invites us to follow him into places where we risk knowing and feeling the abandonment of God. To go with  faith that Jesus in those situations with us can lead to his resurrection presence and kingdom change. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a german pastor, theologian and writer in the 1930’s. His book the cost of discipleship was a best seller, and still is very popular today. Bonhoeffer was doing a speaking tour of America just before the Second World War, and people were receiving news that Hitler had started to crack down on protestant churches who were prepared to speak against his regime and its excesses. The Americans who had sponsored Bonhoeffers speaking tour exhorted him to stay in America. But Bonhoeffer refused, his critic of the American church was that it was not prepared to face suffering. He went back to Germany, where he was censured, eventually imprisoned and final executed just weeks before the end of the war. His letters from prison speak of the fact that even in that difficult place, as he cared for his fellow prisoners and even his guards and those who were mistreating him, allowed him to understand Jesus teaching more fully, he was aware of brining Jesus light into that dark place.

 Arch Bishop Welby’s words in that BBC interview could have come across as distance and while well-meaning rather hollow. Except in the same interview he spoke of not having privileged position during the pandemic, but rather that he chose to work as an assistant chaplain in a hospital. He spoke of sitting and holding the hand of a woman as she died of COVID. Of praying with a mother of a premature baby in the same hospital deeply anxious about her child’s safety. That may sound heroic, and maybe you think I’ve go a bit of a clergy crush on Justin welby, but he would deflect being sen as a hero… He said the hope he had in the face of the pandemic was not only, not surprisingly, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but things like the courage and compassion of the medical team the prayed with at the start of their shift. The concern and care of people for one another and a desire and determination to see the medical system become more just in the wake of COVID rising in the community. The My God My God why have you forsaken me was answered through Christs presence with ordinary people as they stepped in a served in the dark places, that could easily feel abandoned by God.

 


‘My God My God why have you forsaken me ‘ Christ identifies with the depth of our pain and suffering, our doubt and questioning, that sense of desolation.

My God My God why have you forsaken me’ God suffers that sense of abandonment so we maybe bought back into relationship

My God, My God why have you forsaken me’ We have a God who understands and has been there when we pray from our dark places.

My God my God why have you abandoned me?’ Jesus invites us to follow him into those places, with trust in the resurrection hope.

Monday, February 22, 2021

the Little Ones: Gospel Humility and Compassion (Matthew 18:1-9)

Henri Nouwen is one of the most influential Christian writers and thinkers of the twentieth century. He taught at top universities in the US for over twenty years and was a  rising star of Christian acadamia. But then his life took an interesting turn. He spent a year’s sabbatical at l’Arche community in france. A community set up to live alongside people with mental and physical disabilities. It impacted his life so much that he was willing to give up teaching and accept a call to become a pastor at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, Canada.

Henri meet Adam there and took on part of the responsibility for caring for Adam, who was severely disabled, helping him with his morning routine… Nouwen writes

“ helping Adam meant waking him up at 7:00am, taking off his pajamas and dressing him in a bathrobe, walking him to the bathroom, shaving his beard, giving him a bath, choosing his clothes for the day, dressing him, combing his hair, walking with him to the kitchen, making his breakfast, supporting his glass as he drank, brushing his teeth, putting on his coat, gloves, and cap, getting him into his wheelchair, and pushing him over the pothole-rich road to daybreak day program, where he would spend the day until 4:00pm.”

Nouwen does not romanticise the nature of his relationship with Adam. In his book ‘Adam: God’s beloved” he talks of the struggles he had… he thought at first that they had put the neediest member of the community in the hands of the most incompetent’. He talks of learning not to rush Adam along, as it resulted in him having major seizures, but to learn to go at Adam’s pace.. Nouwen came to appreciate the time spent with Adam and value the privilege of knowing and loving him. Time with Adam became Nouwen’s quite time, he comments about how Adam who could not speak was able to teach him…

‘ His wonderful presence and his incredible worth would enlighten us to comprehend that we, like him, are also precious, graced, and beloved children of God, whether we see ourelves as rich or poor, intelligent or disabled, good-looking or unattractive.”

The same kind of learning that Jesus wants to convey in the passage we are looking at today in response to his disciples question ‘who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”.

This year we are working through Jesus teaching on the kingdom of heaven In Matthew’s gospel. The series is called ‘A 2020 vision of the kingdom of God: the Manifesto, mission, meaning and means of the much awaited kingdom of Heaven’. In Chapter 18 Jesus talks about the means of the Kingdom of God… speaking of the sort of community his disciples were to form, what the church should be like. A kingdom of God community where the agenda of this world is turned on its head, where it is not about greatness and status but humble trust and service, not about having our own way but careful care for others, working together on reconciliation and forgiveness. A community not about the powerful but the powerless.

It starts with that question that the disciples ask Jesus “Who then is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?” this question comes after a period of Jesus ministry where the disciples had come to realise that Jesus was indeed the messiah, God’s Son. Peter had confessed it, it had been confirmed by Jesus feeding miracles, walking on water, and for at least three key disciples by the transfiguration. The obvious answer to the question who is the greatest in the kingdom of course is Jesus, the messiah, however Jesus had spoken of his messiahship leading to his suffering and death. And the disciples understanding of the Kingdom was still shaped by the aspirations of the Jewish people of an independent Israel as a world power. A political military messiah, that would lead to power and status. In the other gospels the question is crouched “who will sit at your right hand and you’re left when you come into your kingdom”. Who will get the top jobs, be the top dogs.

Jesus puts a child in the middle of them. An object lesson and tells them unless they change and become like this child they will not enter the kingdom. Unless they take the lowly position of a child they will not be the great in the Kingdom of heaven. We struggle with what Jesus is meaning. Does it mean having a childlike faith a sense of innocence? A naive unquestioning faith? Maybe it would be nice if it was… But that does not answer the question Jesus is asked. Maybe it represents our cultures understanding of children. But we are talking about status and position in the Jewish and first century world, a child had no status of their own. Child mortality rates were high, children’s value were as workers in the family farms or business. Bible commentator Michael Wilkins puts it like this…” The humility of a child consists of their inability to advance his or her own cause apart from the help and resources of a parent.” The kingdom of heaven is not about earning or deserving God’s favour. But rather it is about knowing that we like a child are totally dependent on our heavenly father and his love for us, his love shown in the sending of his own son Jesus Christ to live, suffer and die for us that enables us to come into the Kingdom… by god’s grace not our greatness, God’s mercy not our merit.

Then Jesus challenges the thinking of the disciples who are looking at who is the greatest, by speaking of the fact that these little ones are of utmost importance to God. The Pharisees, and well all of us, I guess, have this tendency to see powerful people in the community, rich people in the community, strong people in the community, adult people in the community as more important than others, poor, low status, children. But the community that will be the embassy of God’s Kingdom is to have a different perceptive. Children and the little ones, the powerless and the easily ignored and overlooked are important and central to the kingdom of heaven. They matter to God, so they should matter to his people. The kingdom of heaven is different, we all enter realising our spiritual poverty and putting our trust in God’s great grace, that affirms the value of all  and importance of the little ones and in particular children.

Then Jesus reinforces this point when he sounds a lot like the Godfather rather than God’s son. He says that it would be better for anyone to have a millstone put round their neck and thrown into the sea, a first century version of concrete overshoes and thrown in the east river, than causing one of these little ones to stumble or be lead astray.  He challenges the disciples to be careful about their own lives. He uses the hyperbole of mutilation, of plucking eyes out and cutting off feet and hands to warn and extol his disciples to ensure they had a very strong self-discipline in place to ensure they did not cause those little ones to stumble. It was better that they entered the kingdom without eyes and hands and feet rather than being thrown in to the fires of eternal judgment. The continuing in sin in such a way as to lead people astray is a sign that we were not genuine followers of Jesus in the first place.

That is quite a heavy way to finish really. So what does this passage have to say to us today.

First and foremost that we are a community that is founded on Grace. It is humbling to think that we like that little child have no ability to advance our own cause with God, that we are dependent on the action and love of a parent, our heavenly Father. The great thing is that God does loves us, and God calls us into relationship with him, invites us into his kingdom through his son Jesus Christ. We are God’s beloved, his adopted Children. It goes against a world where we think of ourselves as independent, able to make it on our own effort and ability, a world where questions about who is the greatest, status, position, power and prominence matter. The kingdom of heaven flips that on its head and speaks of being greatly and sacrificially loved, graciously welcomed in, based on the power and promise of God, God’s greatness not ours.

Secondly that we are a community that is to be characterised by that grace. That reflects the love of God in how we see and treat other people particularly the little ones. When we humbly realise how much we are dependent on God’s grace it allows us to see the value of people around us. That the little ones, those that the world does not see or does not see as having power or position of being important, who may be able to be sidelined and thrown away, are precious and equally God’s beloved. Humble gratitude leads to humble service, receiving grace leads to gracious care and concern for others. In fact as Henri Nouwen found out when you see the belovedness of the little ones you start to realise the magnitude for God’s love for you.

That grace is put into action by seeing that we do not cause those little ones to stumble, that we look at self-discipline to make sure that does not happen. In the epistles we see this aqpplied in different situations. To the Church at Corinth Paul has to write to tell the church not to simply gather and let the rich people eat all the food, because the slaves who were Christian brothers and sisters, couldn’t come till they had finished their work for the day and often all the food would be gone, the ones who needed it most went away empty. James, writes to his church and tells them not to simply give the important and rich people the best seats and to say to the poor go stand down the back, sending the hungry away with a simple God bless you. Have a nice day… we need to look at how we act in the same way towards these types of little ones.

When we think specifically of children it would be easy to talk of the horror of paedophile priests and other forms of abuse , as they seem to fit into Jesus description of actions that speak of lives where people have allowed sin to destroy them and traumatise little ones. In a very practical way the Churches response to put in place child protection policies is a self-disciplining of ourselves to guard against as much as we can the possibility of such abuse.  It also sets a basis of the churches grieving over and opposition to abortion and euthanasia.  But when we think of the question who is the greatest it challenges us on more relatable level as well. In what ways does meeting our own needs and our own preferences and our own comfort cause the little ones to stumble.

I worked as the youth coordinator for the old Auckland presbytery for four years, and one of the things I found very sad was watching churches hold on to their traditions and ways of doing things at the expense of their children and young people. Sadly the Church in the western world is split along the lines of the cultural gap caused in the 1960’s by the massive influence and change in culture by the mass media. We could equally talk of churches where older people feel sidelined and unwanted.  Our vision as a church is that we want to be a flourishing Christian community that is intergenerational, that values all generations, and that will mean we all have to be prepared to put aside wanting it the way we like it for the sake of caring about others of welcoming in the little ones.

I wanted to finish the sermon today with a killer illustration an example that would tie this all together. All I could think of was the obvious answer to the question who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven… Jesus Christ, who showed his greatness through giving his life for world. Whose love for all us little ones lead him to the cross. Paul writing the church at Philippi puts Jesus word in a positive but even more challenging way…

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Much Awaited kingdom: The Parable of The Sheep & The Goats (Matthew 25:31-46)

 


In the ethos section of the proposal to come together and become One, on which HopeWhangarei was constituted it says “We aspire to truly understand, embody and proclaim Jesus’ good news about the Kingdom of God.” And to help us with that aspiration this year we’ve been working our way through a sermon series  called ‘A 2020 vision of the kingdom of God: the Manifesto, Mission, Meaning and Means of the Much awaited Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew’s gospel. Looking at the five blocks of Jesus teaching on the kingdom of Heaven in Matthew: the Sermon on the Mount, the manifesto in Matthew 5-7, Jesus instructions to his disciples as he sends them out on a short term mission in Matthew 10, the mission the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13, the meaning, Jesus teaching about being a community in response to the disciples question who is the greatest in the kingdom, the Means how we are to live humbly as a community  in Matthew 17-19 and the Olivet Discourse, his other sermon on the Mount… of olives, where Jesus speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem, the end of the age and his coming as king and how his disciples are to be ready and on watch, the Much awaited,  that’s in Matthew 24-25. 

Today we finish that whole series by looking at the surprising fourth of four parables with which Jesus ends his Olivet Discourse. The sheep and the goats. The fourth of four parables which in Matthew’s gospel is Jesus last teaching before his betrayal, crucifixion, death and resurrection. It ends the teaching ministry, a ministry that had started with the revolution of grace in blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven ending in it being shared and shown in practical care and concern for the least of Jesus brethren. It ends the four parables with which Jesus had told his disciples what it meant to wait for his kingdom to come in its fullness. To be on watch and alert, to preserver in doing good, in the parable of the unfaithful servant, to be Prepared, in the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, to be productive in the parable of the talents and now in the parable of the sheep and the goats. That we are accountable to God for how our faith in him is worked out.

Let’s look at the parable.

Well in actual fact it is more a picture of the coming of the Son of man as King and how he will judge the nations. Unlike his first coming his advent, almost incognito, there will come a time when Jesus will come in his full glory, as if the veil is taken off and we know who he is indeed. Jesus uses the imagery that his disciples here would expect of the messiah as the conquering King with his armies, angelic armies,  with his sitting on his exalted throne, assembling the nations before him. This is right before Jesus crucifion, and we need to be reminded that Jesus death is portrayed in all the gospels as a coronation, the inauguration of his Kingdom.

Jesus then switches and uses an image from the countryside around him, one infused with much meaning from Israel’s past. The king on the throne is like a shepherd who separates the people into two groups, like separating sheep and goats. In Palestine it was not uncommon to allow the sheep and the goats to graze together during the day, they ate the same food, but goats needed more protection and care in the cold nights, so it was common to see shepherds splitting the flocks as sunset. Now we have a very western European idea of sheep and goats which make it hard to realise what is being said here. Our cold weather sheep, grown for their wool, look totally different from our goat population. But in the Middle East there was not much of a difference in appearance between sheep and goats. One commentator said that the only difference was that sheep had tails that went down and goats had tails that went up. In this we find echoes of parables like the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13, where Jesus says it is only in the harvest that you can truly separate those two different plants which had been sowed, one by the farmer the other by an enemy, in the same field. Again like we will see in this parable the difference is in the crop or fruit which is produced. So really there is no easily discernible difference between the sheep and the goats, by sight.

The sheep are placed on the right side of the king, which in royal circles signifies a place of honour and favour. The goats are placed on his left which is seen as a place of displeasure.

The sheep are welcomed into the blessing of the Father, the kingdom that was prepared for them since the creation of the world.  The surprising thing about that however is the reason why. Most of us would think it is because they had accepted Jesus as their lord and saviour, and that’s part of it. But rather it is because they had fed and given water and clothed and visited and welcomed, cared for Jesus when he was hungry thirsty, naked, a sign of abject poverty in Jesus day, a stranger, and a prisoner or when he was sick. 

The second surprise is that the sheep are at a loss. They say when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you water? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you in, or needing clothes and cloth you? When did we see you in prison and go and visit you? They are genuinely perplexed at what Jesus is meaning. It is interesting that by the end of the week the disciples would see Jesus in all those situations at his passion. His radical and redeeming identification with the worst of humanity and our pain and suffering, stripped naked abandoned, beaten, thirsting on the cross, in agony, and dying.

 But Jesus answer is again surprising. AS you have done this for the least of my breather, my brother’s and sister’s, you have done it for me… Now there is some discussion over who Jesus is talking about here. Brothers and sister could mean his followers and disciples, and the nations are being judged for how they/ we are treated. It could mean fellow believers, like in the parable of the unfaithful servant the first of Jesus parables in the Olivet discourse. It can mean the poor and the least in society and the world, who are equally made in God’s image, objects of his love and compassion, the focus of the coming of his kingdom. All those things challenge us to think of others in light of the gospel and the kingdom of God.

The goats, on the other hand, and that is a proper use of that phrase really isn’t it…on the other hand… are told to depart from Jesus presence to the place that was set aside for the devil and all his angels, a place of rejection by God. Jesus words to the goats are the mirror opposite of what he had said to the sheep. They did not feed him, give him drink, cloth him, welcome him in, visit him care for him. The goats also answer in a surprised manner, that they had never seen Jesus in any of those states. Again Jesus surprising answer is as they hadn’t done it for the lest of these, and his hand may well have swept across the people on his right, then you have not done it for me.

The punch line is that they are sent away to eternal punishment and the righteous to eternal life. Really when we think of eternal punishment, our minds and imaginations are more developed around Dante’s inferno than the scripture. Here it is enough to say that that punishment is the polar opposite of eternal life, in God’s kingdom. Separation from God, darkness with no light, it does challenge us to be aware that we do not want people to be in that position.

How does this speak to us.

Firstly  it may not surprise you that this passage has been wrestled with because of the surprising way in which the sheep are separated from the goats. When we look at it with eyes that are definitely looking through a post reformation lens we are concerned that it speaks of salvation by works, not by grace alone. Maybe that speaks to our own nagging doubt that just somehow we need to earn God’s approval and love. But that is not the case, the sheep seem genuinely surprised that they have done anything to please God. Rather it is that just like with the kingdom of God being planted in the good soil producing  a harvest of 3o 50 100 fold, here the kingdoms presence in a person’s life naturally will work its self out in care for those in need. Salvation is an always has been by grace and faith in Christ, but it is a faith that actually produces change. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had said that the difference between building your life on a solid foundation or a foundation that would not stand was that we heard the words of Jesus and obeyed them.

Here we see that put into action in the way in which we treat the least of our brethren, and the least around us. James puts it very succinctly when he says faith without works is dead. That does not mean the upfront public ministry kind of things that count but the genuine love and care shown to those in need. A REFELCTION OF Jesus humble service that bought our salvation. The one who came for the lost and the sinner, the tax collector and the outcast invokes in us a similar care as Michael Wilson puts it “We serve because we a have been served, we love because we have been loved, we lift up because we have been lifted up”, you can go on ‘receiving grace leads to extending grace”, tasting mercy leads to offering mercy’.  Love shown to the least is the sign of genuine change and transformation… it is the hall mark of the kingdom.

Another surprising thing is how the kingdom of God seems to be shown in such small events that have such big consequences. Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics where people observe that extremely small variations in a large data set or system can have far reaching effects. It was first described by MIT mathematician Edward Lorenz in 1961. Fortunately he had the sense to give this phenomenon a more poetic phrase, the butterfly effect, which came from his famous paper ‘Does the flap of a butterfly wing in brazil set off a tornado in Texas?. I don’t know it can be argued that such small things can impact the weather conditions, however in Jesus parable we see the Kingdom of God reaching down into our world in small almost inconsequential ways that have eternal impact. A glass of water given to a thirsty person, a meal given to the hungry, clothes given to the person who has none, a visit, interest shown to a prisoner, caring for the sick. Even the words we say, how we treat our neighbour. Stopping to help even when it is inconvenient. Seeds of the kingdom that grow and have a harvest in us and the world around us.

Lastly while in all the parables in the Olivet discourse, we see that the Jesus figure has gone away and is coming back, here we are told that Jesus is present in the world with us. Theologically we know that Christ “Immanuel” God with us, is present with us as he promised, and lo I am with you till the end of the age. We equate that with Jesus being present with his people by the Holy Spirit with us and within us. We see Christ presence in the lords table in communion, Christ meets us in that meal… in the elements which represent for us the body and blood of Jesus. But here we see Jesus is also present in the lives of the least, the people in need around us. In this world… When we care for them we are caring for Jesus. Mother Theresa used to call her order of nuns a contemplative order. Which surprised many people, she said they would spend time contemplating the face of Jesus in prayer and the scriptures then they would go out and see the face of Jesus in the poorest of the poor.” AS Christians we have a great incentive to care for people for not only are they people who are made in God’s image they are people who embody Christ. That if we have experienced Jesus love we will humbly serve as if they are Jesus our Lord and saviour. 

Surprisingly sheep and goats are hard to tell apart, but this summer we are going to be looking at the first letter to john and John has a simply way of doing it. Because God first loved us and sent his son to die as a sacrifice for our sins, let us love one another. Those who do not love have not seen God… The kingdom of God seems to boil right down to that we are invited in our brokenness and poverty to come to Jesus who welcomes us and fills us up, and we are to fill up and welcome in those who are broken and poor so they too may encounter and come to know the kingdom of God.

Monday, February 15, 2021

The Much Awaited kingdom of God... Be ready the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30)


In our house for the past month or so we have been living through exam season. Our youngest Isaac was getting ready for and sitting his level 3 NCEA exams. It’s been a hard year, with the disruptions of COVID to class room learning and study routine, and for Isaac it came on the heels of major disruptions last year: We moved him half way through the year to a new city, a new home, well a temporary home then into a permanent one, and to a new school. Possibly I was more worried than Isaac was about these exams, but he buckled down and studied so he could show the examiner that he knew all the stuff they had been teaching him during the year. He worked to try and get a good mark, hopefully an excellence, or a merit, even just an achieved and definitely avoiding not passing. These exam results could have a direct bearing on his future directions and prospects. Now we settle into that waiting period, waiting for the results…

Maybe you remember going through that exam season and its tensions yourself, when you were at school or university, or it may be fresher in your minds as you went through it with your own children or going through it at a distance with your grandchildren. The need to pass and do well in exams…

NT Wright says that many of us come to the parable of Jesus we had read out today, the parable of the talents as it is known, with that same mentality that same exam season tension. Hoping we have done enough work to hear the master say ‘well done good and faithful servant… it can feel like it revolves all around how much we achieve and it collapses Christianity into a cosmic level examination system. And maybe just maybe when we take it in isolation we can lose sight of the grace of God shown in Jesus Christ. Our true hope of salvation in Christ alone.

 This is the third of four parables that Jesus tells at the end of his Olivet discourse. His sermon on the mount… of Olives, in that week before his crucifixion. A private talk with his disciples in answer to their questions about the destruction of the temple, the end of the age and his coming as king. The third of four parables with which Jesus speaks to his disciples about what it means to wait for his return. The third of four parables with which we are finishing our yearlong journey through the five blocks of Jesus teaching on the Kingdom in Matthew’s gospel. A series we’ve called A 2020 vision of the Kingdom of God: The manifesto, mission, meaning and means of the much awaited Kingdom of Heaven.

 Like all the parables in the Olivet discourse it deals with the central figure going away and being away a long time. This time it is the master who goes away on a business trip. Like many such people in Jesus day he entrusts his wealth into the hands of his servants.  In the good news bible it uses the word gold coins, and in the NIV it speaks of bags of gold, but the measure for the wealth he gives them is the talent, five two and one. And measure is the right word it was a weight of money, either in gold coins or in gold bars. A talent was quite a lot of money a denarii was equitant to a day’s wages and a talent was equivalent to 10,000 denarii. So it was equivalent to about 15 years wages. Of course when we hear the word talent we think of skills and abilities that people have either naturally or God given, and that is because the English word talent actually comes from this biblical word and from this parable in fact.

 It would be easy to think that the master was being stingy to the third servant only giving him one talent, but remember how much a talent was worth. We also forget that the master gives to each of his servants according to their ability. He knows the servants and their capabilities so well. So entrusts them with what he knows they can handle.

The first two servants go right away and put the money that the master has entrusted to them to good use.  Maybe they started a business or risked investing it to get a good return, by the time the master comes back they have doubled what they were given.

 When the master returns he calls his servants to account and the first two servants are able to present the increase to him. The response is they are acknowledged as  good and faithful servants, who have been faithful with little things and so can be intrusted with bigger things. They enter into their master’s happiness, which echoes the wedding feast in the previous parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

 However the emphasis of the parable and the punch line comes with the third servant. Who had been afraid of his master and had gone and buried the talent he had been given. He saw the master as a hard man who was wanting to make money off the efforts of others. So he buried it because he feared losing what he had. The master is angry with him. He sees the servant putting the blame back on the master and his character, and really if he had thought the master such a hard man wouldn’t it have been easy to simply put the talent into a bank, with the money changers even, and get a return in that way. So the third servant is not faithful and is cast outside into the darkness. Again a punishment that echoes the dismissal of the foolish brides maids last week who were left outside with the stinging words “I never knew you’. It seems the third servant really did not know his master.

 It is easy for us to come to this parable with that exam tension that I talked about before right… There is something about us that we find ourselves wondering if we are in the position of the third servant. We ask have we done enough to pass. And as I said before I think in doing that we forget the rest of the gospel that has gone before and what is about to happen in Christ’s death and resurrection. This wonderful gift of being reconciled with God and the kingdom of God coming to reign in our lives by God’s grace.

 In scripture in particular the Old Testament stories told about masters and servants usually talked of God and his relationship with Israel. The parables of Jesus about the Kingdom do likewise… And remember here that Jesus is talking about the time when Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed. He is also speaking after a stinging criticism of the self-appointed religious leaders of his day, the scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew 23. The destruction of the temple is a judgment on that religious system. Israel had been given the law and the temple and been called by God to show the goodness of God to the nations. To draw all people to worship the one true God, because of the way they lived. However they had turned that region into one where it was held onto and guarded and became insular and inward serving. They had buried what had been given. It came from a misunderstanding of the very character of their God. So God was going to take away what they had and cast them out… What they had done was the very opposite of Jesus parable of the kingdom of God where he likened it to a buried treasure in a field, where once it was discovered a person went and gave up all they had to possess it. Here they buried it and hid it away, piling rules and regulations which made it hard for people to find and have a relationship with God.

 The two faithful servants are the ones who know and have received the kingdom of God. The Disciples and all of us who follow on. The words the third servant uses to describe God, again go in the face of what Jesus had taught about the kingdom of heaven. The third servant had said that the master was a man who reaped a harvest that he did not sow. But Jesus in that central parable about the kingdom in Matthew 13 had talked of the kingdom being like a farmer who went out to sow seeds and where it took root in good soil it grew and produced a harvest, 30, 40 or a hundred fold. And we see that in the way the two faithful servant right away go and risk using what they have been given for the sake of the master. It produces a harvest while not one hundred fold, it is 100%.

The parable is also very much based on the generosity of God. Like with the parable of the day workers in Matthew 21 where all who work no matter for how long receive the master’s gracious reward, here we see the master, God giving his great treasure generously and graciously to his servant. It is by God’s great mercy and grace we are welcomed into the kingdom of God. He has given us all his Son Jesus and through Jesus death and resurrection we are given eternal life and the presence of God’s spirit in our lives. We are welcomed into his kingdom. All that is entrusted to us. He blesses us through providence and through his presence the gifts and abilities we call talents, and the talents that we call our wealth and resources. This parable speaks of all those things being entrusted to us because of God’s providence and his grace. They are God’s and so as we come to know the one who gave it to us we invest and risk using all those things for the kingdom of heaven.

Keeping that in mind how do we apply this parable to our lives.

Firstly, When we are aware of what Christ has done for us, the great generosity of God and the fact that he has given us so much to be Stewarts of it causes us to be able to be like the first two servants and gladly use what we have for the kingdom, for the sake of the one who entrusted it to us. It does not become a matter of exam tension, but a natural outworking, a joyful celebration of what Christ has done for us. To wait for the kingdom of God is to be productive is to allow the fruit of the spirit to grow in our lives, and take on legs and hands and heart and impact on the world around us. To take risks to see the kingdom prosper. Risk investing time and resources into those who are in need. To risk sharing the good news of the Kingdom come in Christ, to love lavishly. To take care of the gifts of creation we have been given, and to be good stewards of our resources, willing to risk investing in what God is doing in the world around us. 

 Secondly, we need to be aware that what we think of God will affect how we lives. When we focus on the grace and generosity of God, it allows us to want to live out of that. Where as if we have this idea of God as a cosmic policeman or slave driver we find ourselves ruled by fear and I fear we do not know Jesus as we should.

 Thirdly, as we use what we have been given faithfully, I believe that God actually entrusts us with more… now, as a foretaste of what is to come.

Lastly, to have a hope in the return of Christ, to be ready now and on watch for his coming which was the line that started and finished the first two parables in the Olivet discourse, in the future actually calls us to be invested in the here and now. Matt Woodly puts it like this “As we await the coming of the generous Lamb of God how will we spend our allotted jackpot? Of god’s grace and providence… then summing up the first three parables all together he says… “Our yearning for the consummation of all things causes us to live better today- serving, celebrating and risking…”.   

 

 

  

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Be Ready: the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13)


Here is the link to listen to the sermon as it was preached at HopeWhanagrei on December 6th 2020.

https://anchor.fm/hope-whangarei/episodes/6-12-2020---Howard-Carter-endla2/a-a41racn 

Commenting on the context of the parable that we had read today NT Wright says ‘every culture has its own way of celebrating a wedding and its own risks of getting things wrong.’  I’ve had a few interesting weddings where things have gone a bit wrong… but nothing too major…  nothing that would make a bloopers reel or be as social disastrous for me as the foolish bridesmaids not being ready for the bridegrooms arrival in Jesus parable.  Nothing so disastrous that the door would be slammed in my face and I’d be disavowed. Which is the shocking conclusion of this parable…

One wedding I took the bride was always known to us as Nikki, but for her wedding she wanted to have her full name used. I asked her if it was Nicola, but no it was Nicole, I wrote it down, and said time after time in my mind Nicole not Nicola or Nikki… Nicole…but it was my first wedding and I was really nervous … It’s Nicole not Nicola or Nikki… Nicole…the first time I went to say her name… you guested it Nikki… the second time… Nicola… I just couldn’t get it right… well they wanted me to take the wedding but I wasn’t a marriage celebrant at the4 time so fortunately someone else did the official “I Do’ stuff  and they got the name right… so at least the right people got married. And they have talked to me since. Although I always feel embarrassed.. And she’s back to just being Nikki…

For one wedding I was asked if it was Ok if a couple had a dog as a best man… Which I agreed to just as long as someone else, not the dog, signed the marriage certificate as a witness… while that was fraught with possibilities for disaster it wasn’t where the trouble came… the same couple asked me to sing at their wedding as well as take it… there was a church song ‘the power of your love’ that they wanted but thought no one would know… so could I sing it as a solo… which reluctantly I agreed to… I used it as  a waiata at the end of my sermon… and I sang it OK… right through to the last line when the  organist played the wrong note and  I finished the whole thing on this long  bum note crescendo… it really fell flat. Fortunately everyone just laughed… except the dog, but I don’t think he really minded that much.

Things going wrong at a wedding forms the context for the parable Jesus told that we are looking at today. The second of four parables with which Jesus finishes his Olivet discourse, his teaching on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the end of the age and the consummation of his kingdom. The second of four parables he tells to teach his disciples what it means to be ready and waiting for his return. The second of four parables with which we will be finishing our year long journey through Jesus teaching on the Kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s gospel. A parable that Jesus finishes with the punchline keep watch and be ready because you don’t know the day or the hour.’’ Which are the same words with which he started his first parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants that we looked at last week.  The two parables are used to together to convey the same challenge be ready now because you don’t know the day or the hour…

What makes this parable hard for us to comprehend is that the wedding rituals it speaks of are so different than our own western ones. The focus in the parable is waiting for the bridegroom, where as in our modern western culture the emphasis is more on waiting for the bride.  The brides arrival her grand entrance. And the bridesmaids attend the bride not the groom.

In first century Jewish society the wedding,  rituals were long and complex, and full of festivities, and focused on the groom… after being betrothed and a time of preparing the groom would proceed to his brides village and house to get his bride. They would have a feast with that family,  a farewell feast,  then a procession back to his family’s home with the bride and another bigger feast, a welcoming into the new family. It was a joyous occasion that the whole family and village would be involved in. kind of like when I was growing up I remember going with my mother if there was a wedding at our local church of someone we vaguely knew and gathering with other neighbours outside the church gates just to welcome the bride, even though we were not close enough to be invited to the wedding. It was a community thing. The unmarried girls in the family and village would be part of that joyous celebration and be given the role of welcoming the bride and groom back to the grooms village and house. To not be ready to celebrate with the groom was seen as a huge social insult.

We are also used to having weddings during the day, but in the desert like conditions of the Middle East these festivities happened more regularly in the cool of the evening. So lamps would be an essential part of the festive procession… The lamps were like our garden torches that need a reservoir of oil to keep them alight for as long as was needed. You didn’t know when the groom was coming so you needed to be prepared for the long haul.

Also it was common for grooms and their brides to be delayed. Now I usually tell the bride to be about five minutes late for a wedding… she was worth waiting for… so she is worth waiting for… and it builds up the suspense. The worst delays I’ve had were at one country church where a car crash closed the road outside the church for an hour, and the bride could get through and another hour long delay, at another wedding, because the bride decided to use the couples old camper van as a wedding car, and it keep overheating on the way and they had to keep stopping to allow it to cool down. But In Jesus day it wasn’t traffic or broken down cars but, on the way back to their home as there would be stops along the way and formal things that tradition dictated be done. Things that just took as long as they took to do them right. But for the wedding in Jesus day everyone needed to be ready even though they did not know what time the bridegroom would come. ready to celebrate.

In Jesus parable the action revolves around the bridegroom being so delayed that all the bridesmaids dozed off, Jesus tells us five of them were wise and had ensured that they had enough oil to fuel their lamps even if there was a delay. The other five Jesus calls foolish, they did not have enough oil, so when the procession appeared in the distance there lamps would be spluttering and be going out. We are told they asked the other bridesmaid for oil, but are told that there isn’t enough for them as well as the others, so they will need to go and buy some oil. Of course we are told it’s after midnight and this is well before 24 hour petrol stations, or convenience stores round the corner that sold lamp oil. So it would have been an arduous journey to go and wake the oil merchant and bargain for what they needed. By the time they got back the procession had come and the feast had started and the door was locked. When they knock they are told ‘ I did not know you’. Social disgrace and rejection.

How does this parable relate to us?

Well, it starts with Jesus saying at that time the kingdom of heaven will be like… So Jesus is inviting us to see that this parable is talking about the day of his return, has been talking about in the previous chapter… when the Kingdom he was about to inaugurate in his death and resurrection would be consummated, and Christ would return to set all things right.  Jesus is the bridegroom in the parable, in the Old Testament God is called Israel’s husband, in the New Testament in Galatians he is called the bridegroom and the church is seen as his bride, and the bridegroom is delayed. One of the big questions for Matthew’s first readers would have expected Jesus return  in their day… with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the romans in 70AD. However Christ did not return, and we are still waiting for this two thousand years later. We too are to await his return with joyful anticipation. Just like with the bridesmaids in this parable it is easy to lose that joyful anticipation and allow ourselves to doze off. Become wary, maybe even to wonder if the groom will ever here. 

Then we have to ask ourselves where do we stand in this parable? Did you notice there is no mention of the bride. Now the emphasis is supposed to be on the bride groom in the parable, but we are used to thinking of the church, us as followers of Jesus as part of the church the bride of Christ. That is where we are used to seeing ourselves in this kind of metaphor. In fact in some later latin translations of Matthews gospel and the bride is added in at the end of verse 1. It is the part of the wedding ritual where the groom brings his bride back to his house. That’s full of biblical imagery for us. But we are supposed to see ourselves amidst the bridesmaids. Peoples whose role and task is to await and to joyously celebrate the arrival of the groom. To be ready and looking forward in anticipation of his return.

Then we need to ask ourselves what it means to be either one of the wise or the foolish? Now when the bible uses the word wise and foolish it’s not talking about the relative IQ of the women involved… It’s not putting young women down it’s not the idea of a dumb blonde or giggly school girl. In fact proverbs in the Old Testament wisdom is portrayed as a women. Rather wise and foolish in scripture are used to talk about how people live their lives in relationship with God, and the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. To be wise is to live your life in a right relationship with God. That is to be the place from which your life and behaviour and priorities come from. On the contrary to be fool is to live your life without reference to God. Psalm 14:1 says only a fool says in his heart there is no God. They live their life accordingly. In this case it is manifest in not being ready for the coming of the bridegroom not preparing now for Christ’s return.

Now many people have looked at this parable being about keeping good spiritual practices as Christians so our oil reserves will be good for the long haul… and that’s Good advice... and I can’t help but think of that old 1960’s youth and children’s song… give me oil in my lamp keep me burning and its cheesy derivatives… give my gas for my ford keep me trucking… or give me wax for my board keep me surfing… But that fact that the oil is not able to be shared with others gives it a deeper meaning and focus on salvation. That’s backed up by the shut door and being disavowed by the bridegroom and the welcome and sitting down to feast of the wise bridesmaids in the parable. It begs the question have we given our lives over to Christ in a way that even if we get wary and sleep waiting for him that we will have enough oil in our lamp to joyfully welcome him. I do believe that the oil does represent the Holy Spirit, then that is given to us as we come to put our faith in Christ.

The real challenge of this passage is be ready and be on watch now. If you wait till the last hour… if you wait for Christ’s return well… no one knows the hour or the day. As this is a parable about the kingdom, Jesus could be likening the foolish bridesmaids to the religious leaders of his day who while having a faith in God had rejected Jesus and the wise as those who had come to follow. But weather it’s that or speaking to each of us individually. The challenge, the call and invite of this passage is to be ready and waiting now. To be wise and to see Jesus Christ for who he is and to give our lives over to him and live prepared and with joyful anticipation of his return… yes sometimes we grow weary and tired what is happening round us can just wear us down and out… but it is that faith in Christ, the soon and coming king, that gives us the joyful hope we need.

Well where do you stand? … Do you need again to examine where you are at with Jesus… are you ready today… and also if you are here and you haven’t really thought about where Jesus fits into your life and what you will do about eternity… the time to think seriously about it is well now… be ready and be on watch… 

Friday, February 12, 2021

the Certainties of the Timing of Christ's return (Matthew 24:36-44)

 


I wonder how you would respond if you came home and heard this message on our answer machine.

Beep

“Hi it’s Rob Heist from Northland Break Ins and Theft:  your local friendly neighbourhood burglars and I’m ringing to advise you we have booked to do your house over at 2am on December 12th.

To save any unnecessary unpleasantness it would be good if you were not home at that time. It would also make things a bit easier if you would leave a ground story window or door open and any valuables out in the open where we can see them.

We also recommend you check that your content insurance is up to date. We personally recommend the insurance broker firm of fraud, Larcen and associates.

If you have any enquires please contact me at 027478633… that’s 02748633 or if it’s easier to remember that’s 02RIPUOFF…

Have a nice day.”

Click beep.

What would you do?

I think you’d be ready. Right… You’d install security lights deadbolt everything including the cat flap, you’d have the neighbours rabid Pitbull tethered in your front yard. Your shot gun filled with rock salt. You’d have rung your cousins from Dargaville to come over, you know the shady ones who run the kick boxing gym.  Well maybe not… but you’d definitely ring the police and be ready for when Rob Heist came to call.  In the passage we are looking at today Jesus uses that kind of metaphor of a thief in the night to speak of being ready for his unexpected return. No one knows the day or the hour so don’t wait be Ready now. Live Ready every day, be on watch.

We are working our way through the last of the five blocks of Jesus teaching in Matthew’s gospel, we are on the home straight of our year long journey to have a 2020 vision of the Kingdom of God: the manifesto, mission, meaning and means of the much awaited kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s gospel. A journey that not even COVID has been able to disrupt. We are looking at the Olivet discourse in Matthew 24 and 25. Where Jesus deals with the much awaited part.

Jesus had left the temple and talked of its destruction and his disciples had privately come to him while they were on the Mount of Olives and asked him for the signs of the coming of the destruction of the temple, Jesus Parousia, being fully revealed as king and the end of the age. We tend to see those things as uniquely different events but for Jesus disciples they were the one and the same.  In the passage we looked at last week Jesus answered the signs part of that. All of which would happen before that generation passed away. All of which could be seen to be fulfilled with the destruction of the temple in 70ad.  But also from our perspective can be seen as what the church has dealt with down through history as it awaits the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness. In the midst of that Jesus words to his disciples and to us are Don’t be deceived, don’t be alarmed and afraid, stand firm to the end, be aware that we live in this time between the already and the not yet of God’s kingdom. Looking forward in the midst of trouble and difficulty with our hope in Christ.  

In the passage we are looking at today Jesus turns to the when, the timing of his Parousia, and if you are sitting there with your dairies open waiting to write down when you can expect Jesus and pencilling his return into your busy schedule, Then I’m sorry because Jesus leaves it pretty vague. Events like a pandemic and historically things like the reestablishment of Israel as a nation and the second millennium after Christ, and the time of the most rapid changes in history have caused people to have a heightened awareness of these end time things. But again Jesus is vague about the timing. One of the big challenges for Matthew’s first readers would have been that the end of the temple did not mean Christ returned. We don’t know when Matthew’s gospel was written but there is a good possibility it was after the events of 70AD.  It explains why in all the four parables in the Olivet discourse the Christ figure has gone away and his return is delayed.  While Jesus is vague about the timing there are certainties in what he says.

Firstly he says that, no one apart from God the Father knows when that time will be. Not the angels, not even Jesus as God’s son.  Which of course has caused some debate as to the nature of the trinity. But for our purposes it says that the certainty is that time is held in the sovereignty of God. This is the God who created the world and all that is in it including time. This is God our father who ‘when the time was right’ as Paul says in Galatians 4: 4-7,’sent his son born of a women, subject to the law.” God’s plans and purposed are being worked out beginning to end in human history.

It is that certainty that gives us hope, not that we have a when but we know the who. The olivet discourse occurs in that week between Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his death and resurrection, for Jesus here to say God the father knows is a statement of absolute trust in the character and the righteousness and sovereignty of God. On the cross Jesus will say “into your hands I commit my spirit’ an ultimate expression of faith and trust as Jesus, fully human, faces death. It’s a quote from my favourite psalm, psalm 31:5 in the midst of lament over rejection, enmity, pain and suffering the psalmist expresses his utmost trust in God. A psalm that goes on to say “But I trust in you, My times are in your hands”. To say that the father knows when the age will end, when the Parousia of Jesus as king will come is to trust that God is in control, and can be trusted that it will be the right time, the appropriate time. When God’s purposes and plans come to fruition. We are to live with the same trust and faith that Jesus has in his father. Even amidst the whirl and swirl, the churn and blurr, the tragedy and triumphs of history. The certainty of Jesus Parousia is that it is in the hands of God the Father.

The second certainty is that just like with the time of Noah, life will go on as normal. People will live their lives with no real understanding of the coming future, of God’s judgment and salvation. They will eat, and be married with no thought to the future. One of the challenges of the ecological issues we face as a planet today is the difficulty of asking people to modify their behaviour now for future generations. We are not good at delayed gratification, which lead to such tragedies as instant coffee, the rise of pornography rather than finding fulfilment through commitment to loving long term relationships. The convenience of things that look good but we use once and throw away and didn’t think of the consequences. Here Jesus says people will simply get on with life and not really consider what is to come. Just like in the time of Noah, until there was that resounding boom and God, in his sovereignty, at the right time, closed the door and the rains came. As we’ll see later Jesus tells us we are not to be like that, rather we are to be on watch. Living with our eyes fixed on the kingdom come, with it’s soon and coming king.

The third certainty is that it will come suddenly. Like two people in a field  and one disappears and one is left standing still, two women grinding flour, one is gone the other remains.

Now many people have seen this as Jesus speaking literally and from this passage some theologians have seen it as pointing to something they call the rapture. Where God will take his people out of the earth to be with him. The best-selling ‘left behind’ fiction series is based on that, what is called dispensationalist theology. Other books like the late great planet earth by Hal Lyndsey, and films like ‘like a thief in the night’ that when I was a teenager was used to scare people into the kingdom… are an expression of that. For decades in the united states churches were divided between whether they believed that the rapture would happen before what was called the tribulation, when it got really bad, or after it. What it boiled down to was that while Jesus used the thief in the night as a metaphor, then goes on to use four parables to speak of what we should do as we await the coming kingdom, here with this one going one staying verse he was talking about a literal factual event. Also there is no implication that it is God’s people who are taken away and the unrighteous who are left behind… to assert these things, I think, is doing some very difficult and dubious biblical interpretive gymnastics…

When I read this passage I can’t help but read it through the lens of something that happened to a school acquaintance of mine. I hadn’t seen him for years and my mum told me that he had died in a car accident. He had been the passenger in a car with his friend and they had been driving in the country, when a rock came away from a bank rolled down and smashed into the car they were driving. Crushing and Killing my friend, the driver escaped without a scratch. Christ’ return will be sudden.

The fourth certainty is that the time to be ready is now, and we should live filled with the hope of Christs return and being on watch. Because while if you knew when a thief was coming, if you got a phone call from Rob Heist, your friendly considerate neighbourhood burglar you’d be ready…  But we don’t know, be ready live ready and on watch now.

Be ready because you know the kingdom of God is always breaking into the realms of humanity, in how we live and ‘what we say and through what the spirit is doing in the world. Our lives should be focused on putting first the kingdom of God and his righteousness first.  As followers of Jesus who pray ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ we should be watching for it as it breaks into that everydayness that we live in. we should be living it now until it becomes a reality.

To be on watch is to be prepared to live our lives like a watch man on a wall. Jesus had been in Jerusalem all day and I wonder as they were making their way back over the Mount of Olives in the late afternoon, that they could see the watchmen being posted as the evening came along the walls of Jerusalem. A watch man looks off to the horizon and then lets people know what he sees there so they can be safe. They dedicate themselves to that. Be ready living with our eyes fixed not on the last things and the last days but as the author of Hebrews says our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. The one who in his life death and resurrection inaugurated his kingdom and will come again to consummate it and make all things right.

I could finish by drilling down and talk about telling people who are oblivious to Jesus and his all ready but not yet kingdom that they need to get ready and even give an altar call to say are you ready. I could do that. I’m not because over the next four weeks we are going to look in depth at what Jesus says to watch and be ready and to wait means. How we should live in light of what Jesus says about the ‘what and when’ of his coming. Those four Sundays are traditional known as advent when we ready ourselves for Christ’s coming, celebrated at Christmas and looked for all year.

So I just simply want to finish with a question…   

I wonder how we would respond if you came home and you heard this message on our answer machine…

Beep

Keep watch because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him”.

Click Beeep   that is the message from the scripture today… amen

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Birth pangs of the Kingdom Matthew 24:1-36


When Kris became pregnant with our oldest child Naomi, we, well I, didn’t know what to expect when we were expecting or the great amount of pain and upheaval that occurs round a baby being born. It was a nine month process of getting ready, getting all this stuff we needed, pre-natal classes horrible videos of labour and birthing, and learning stuff that we needed to know so the baby could live and prosper. So we would be ready for Naomi.

But I don’t think as a bloke you are ever ready… for example I found out about Braxton hicks or false labour pains, when Kris had stopped work at eight months pregnant and on my day off we went out to Piha about 40 minutes outside of Auckland over a winding road through the Waitakere rangers. I went out for a surf, and left Kris to lie on the sand reading a book. Kris’ mother was with us so I hadn’t left her all alone. After about an hour I looked landwards and there was Kris’ mum standing at the end of the ditch, a series of rocks at the end of the south Piha frantically waving and signalling me in. Kris was having labour pains. Were we going to drive the long trip into Auckland hospital or were we going to have a baby along the scenic drive, or did we need to get the rescue helicopter to come? Fortunately it was a false alarm and the contractions stopped. I didn’t go back out into the water however and it was the last trip out to the Wild West coast before the baby was born…

About four weeks later and a couple of weeks after the due date, it happened for real and we went through a harrowing forty hour process of labour. I wasn’t ready for that. A long drive to the hospital stopping every five minutes for a contraction. We went through a sleepless night and day with all this pain and nothing much happening. An assessment by the leading gynaecologist who decided that it would have to be a caesarean section. Rushing to the operating theatre at 11pm and I went through the trauma of seeing Kris be opened up. Then Naomi appeared. They held her up for Kris to see and said, “see what you’ve got” and of course she couldn’t because they’d taken her glasses away. I had to tell her it’s a girl. I got to hold Naomi for the first half hour of her life outside the womb as they sowed Kris up. Looking at Naomi my world changed forever for the good.

Birth pains that process of a child being born is the metaphor that Jesus uses to answer his disciples question about the destruction of the temple, the Parousia or revealing of Jesus as king and the end of the age. Three things which we often think of as separate but to Jesus disciples would have seen as the same thing, the same event. Jesus talks of all the trouble and sorrow that was to come would be like the process of giving birth painful and traumatic, but it would all be worth it when the kingdom came in its fullness.

The passage we are looking at is the beginning of what is known as the Olivet discourse where Jesus talks about the future with his disciples and tells them in a series of four parables what it means to follow him and wait for his kingdom to come in its fullness. Many people have focused on this first section of the discourse that we are looking at this week and next and have, focused on the events or the last things that are to happen. Along with other sections of scripture like Revelations it has become a playground for idle speculation and elaborate timetables and systems of what will happen before Christ returns and when.  The focus however and what we are going to focus on between know and Christmas, advent… is Jesus instructions to his disciples on how to wait. Not a passive sitting and waiting for a train out of here our eyes fixed on the timetable kind of thing, but a living out that much awaited kingdom now, in and through our lives.

Last week we saw Jesus finishing his time with the scribes and Pharisees with a scathing series of woes, challenging them about the blindness and hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. Then he leaves the temple. On the way out the disciples point out the wonder of the place. The temple had just been refurbished and restored under king Herod. And Jesus tells his disciples that the temple will be destroyed and not one stone will be left standing. They are shocked as Jewish people they would equate that with God’s judgment, like back when Jerusalem had been destroyed by king Nebuchadnezzar in 532 BC and God had taken the people into exile in Babylon. Maybe we get a little of their confusion, if we think what it may have been like touring New York city before September 11 2001 and seeing the grandeur of the world trade towers and being told these tributes to human engineering  and commerce would end up being just a pile of rubble in matter of a few hours.

So as Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives on their trip back to where they were staying. They ask him about what he means. What will be the signs of this event happening and when. They would see it as the start of Jesus reign as king, the word Parousia used here was used in common language to talk of a king coming to a city, a royal visit. They saw this even being the end of the age. The end of Jewish life as they had known it, for over a millennia focused and built round the temple.

Jesus warns them that many false messiahs will come, people with answers and solutions, saying they come from God. It is something he repeats in three different sections of this passage. That there will be earthquakes and famine, rumours of war and unrest as nations rise up against each other. He says that the disciples will find themselves being persecuted and put to death. That many will turn away because of false prophets. That the kingdom will be preached to the whole world before the end comes.  He then speaks of the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ from the book of Daniel. That pagan symbols and objects of worship would be put in the temple. That there will be a time of great dismay and uproar that he encourages his people to flee from.  Then we have what seem to be things happening on a cosmic scale, with signs in the sky, the sun being darkened the stars falling to earth and the heavenly bodies being shaken, a prophecy from the book of Isaiah, which can be taken literally or seen as a metaphor for disruption of the world order on a large scale.

Jesus speaks of the coming of the kingdom being an event that will not be hidden as was now, but that the whole world would know who Jesus is. It would be revealed like lightning flashes. He finishes by telling them that they are to look for the signs. Just like when the fig tree starts to sprout leaves and blossoms people know that summer is near. We have a fig tree in our garden and it is quite amazing one week it seems to be dead and have no leaves, and then boom it is sprouting leaves and starting to look alive. Of course many people see the fig tree as a metaphor and symbol for Israel, so with the reestablishment of Israel in 1948 there was a great expectation that we were about to see Christ’s return. It sparked a whole industry around that.  The section then finishes with Jesus saying that all this will happen before the generation alive then dies.

The way we understand this passage can really be split into two main streams of thought. AS a photographer I really appreciate Matt Woodly sums it up as being through a close up lens and a wide angle lens.

The close up lens says that all these things are fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the romans in 70ad. We know about earthquakes and famine in those times, part of Paul’s later missionary trip was to gather funds to help the church in Jerusalem and Judea as they struggled with a famine. There were wars and rumours of war. The apostles suffered persecution and death. Revolts in Judea itself which lead the romans to act, ruthlessly putting down that revolt and bringing their legion standards dedicated to various roman deities into the temple. Taking the temple down stone by stone, as they had burned it and the gold of the temple had flowed down between the stones and they had to be pushed over to extract it. Even the gospel being preached to all the world could be seen to be true. At Pentecost all the languages of the roman world were present. The Roman Empire was seen as the extent of the world, and we have the gospels spread even to the heart of the Roman Empire recorded in Acts. All this would happen before that generation of apostles passed away.  Before 70 ad

The other way of looking at it is through the wide angle lens. That down through history the church have faced times of devastation and change and upheaval. Earthquakes, famine and wars and rumours of war, a pagan adoption of our Christian values. Faced false messiahs and teachers. It maybe too soon but you just have to look at all the religious activity around President Trump to see people in times of great change and uncertainty looking for a messiah. Maybe today we are tempted not to look to the wilderness but to the wired-ness of the internet, the screen in our inner room as the place where we find the people in the know that have secret insight or all the answers. Just look at the resurgence of conspiracy theories and the way many Christians seem to be susceptible to them.

Both lenses have their value and are true. Both look forward to a greater coming or awareness of the kingship of Jesus. However we can get caught up in the details of the last times and last things and forget what the last one, the alpha and omega, Jesus is the important one, and not listen to what he is saying to his disciples and to us.

Let’s listen…

‘beware don’t get deceived… there are many temptations as we face uncertain times to look for this answer and this solution, this guru, this prophet, this supposed successful person with the answer.  We’ve seen the obvious dangers of such messiahs, things like Jones town and Waco Texas, but I wonder if we also need to be weary of people who point to the latest business theory or practice as the way forward for the church. The latest celebrity pastor, the new mega church mogul. Even this political leader or that political party, haven’t we seen that in our world and even our country recently, political messiahs, some good some bad… Rather we are to look to and focus on Jesus Christ: It is his kingdom come, a kingdom come though his service of others, his faithful obedience to God, his costly love, his sacrifice, his resurrection from the dead.  It is Christ and his word…

Do not be alarmed, stand firm. It is easy when we see the things that are going on around the world to become alarmed and afraid, to want to lock down and isolate, to think it is all out of control, as like with the temple the landmarks and symbols of stability and our way of life seem to be swirling out of control. Particularly at a time like this which is a period in world history in which change is happening at such a rapid, comprehensive and unprecedented way. I’m not just talking about COVID… I remember a time before TV. I still remember the manual telephone exchange. Punch card computing, and computer screens before windows…for my kids I’m a dinosaur… and in the way society and culture thinks it’s equally as rapidly changing. Leonard Sweet talks about it being a waterworld all is fluid. Sexuality, social institutions, language itself. He says there are two ways we can go we can hunker in the bunker, or unfurl our sails and set sail on the wind of the spirit. Either way we face all these times as Jesus encouraged his disciples, by standing firm and not being alarmed; fixing our hope and our reassurance and our ability to live openly for Christ in the fact that God is sovereign, and is working his plans out in what is going on. The passage we had read to us today finishes with that wonderful affirmation of the sovereignty of God, heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will never pass away.

Finally that we should know the times… It’s easy to see that as being aware of the impending end, catching an idea that it is all finishing now. That by the way was how the people Matthew were writing to would have seen it. The end of the temple meant the end of all thing. For many the big faith dilemma was that Jesus seemed to be taking a long time… But as we will see next week Jesus says that no one knows the hour or the day. Rather it is important for us to realise we live in an in-between time, the already…when the kingdom has been inaugurated in Christ’s life death, resurrection and ascension. It is becoming known in this world by humble people living it out and sharing it by the power of the spirit. And the not yet… there is still evil and trouble and darkness in the world around us as we await the final revelation of Jesus Christ and his kingdom at some future time. That we are going through the long birth pains of God’s kingdom. To know we live in those already but not yet times we are called to live with hope of thy kingdom come, and live out that hope thy kingdom come, now in our lives and how we relate to all that is going on around us. That just like with a baby we have time to get ready for its arrival.    Are you ready???