Saturday, April 11, 2015

being verboast: talking it up when in reality it is God who has our times in his hands(James 4:13-17) : Shedding light on the epsitle of straw: finding a faith that wirks in the book of James (part 10)


In April 2012 Eike Baptista stood at the top of his wealth and power, as he started work on  his super port, Acu, the biggest in the Americas, He was an oil and minerals tycoon. This project meant he was going to have control over production, transportation and use of the oil he found.  He was the richest man in Brazil. He was said to be the eighth richest man in the world.  He hosted parties for the worlds rich and famous His super yacht The Spirit of Brazil VII’. He had mountain top estates overlooking the plush beaches of Rio. He drove the most exclusive and expensive of cars. He was the epitome of a self-made man.   He was not shy on talking himself up. He boasted that by 2015 he would be the richest man in the world. He predicted that by 2020 he would be worth over a trillion dollars.

Well it is 2015 and Bloomberg’s business news are trying to decide if he is the world record holder, not as the world’s richest man, but for being the world’s fastest destroyer of wealth, he had gone from companies with equity of over 34 billion in 2012 to debts of over a billion dollars a mere eighteen months later . He defaulted on loan payments. The police confiscated his fleet of luxury cars and cash. His super yacht was sold for scrap. He was a salesman who talked up the possibilities of his companies and yet in the eighteen months between 2012 and 2015 he was hit by the perfect storm of difficulties. His boasts came to nothing. His life acts as a cautionary tale. It is a great example of what James says in the passage we had read out to us today… that wealth and life are transitory, like vapour and mist, and we should not boast about our own plans and quest for wealth but put our trust in God because we do not know what tomorrow will bring.

We’ve taken a break from our journey through the book of James, for the past two weeks, to journey together through Easter, but today we come back to it. We come back to the first of two passages where James addresses richer elements in the church. In the one we had read to us today it is the merchants, then next week we will look at what James has to say to landowner.

It’s helpful in understanding this passage and to give ourselves a quick refresher of what James has been about to look at this passage first of all in the context of the wider book.

You may remember that in chapter 3 James introduced us tothat most dangerous of animals the Glossa. While we were able to tame all other kinds of wild animals said James no one had been able to tame the Glossa. Glossa by the way is the greek word for the tongue.

 Right before the reading we had today he had talked about a specific Glossa… the back bitingGlossa… warning the church about the destructive and unchristian way in which people in the church were talking each other down. Writing each other off and judging them.

Here in this passage James deals with an equally dangerous type of Glossa… The boasting Glossa; which tries and assert dominance over others by talking itself up.  It makes them feel small by making itself seem bigger and more important that they are. It can equally destroy community.

Merchants bought good in one place and sold them in another for profit. The merchant class in the roman world wasn’t the ultra-rich group, they were more like the  middle class of today.  We know that there were many such merchants in the Church and in leadership: Lydia who hosted the first Church in Europe was a merchant in purple cloth, and Paul heard of troubles in the Church in Corinth because Cloe’s people had meet with him in Ephesus, probably on a trade trip. In wider society merchants did not have the status of Imperial officials or the older landed gentry, maybe in the church they found a place where they could talk themselves up and find the status and importance they desired.

Which lead on to a bigger issue that James is addressing in the churches he is writing to. The church like the society round it was made up of a small group of wealthy people and a large group of poor people. A small group who were doing very well and a group struggling to eek out a living. The church was to reflect the Kingdom of God where all were considered equally important and loved by God, But James had seen the thinking of the world very much infiltrate the life of the church. The rich were shown favouritism; Christianity was being seen as simply believing a set of doctrines and saying the right things rather than being expressed in genuine compassion and love for the poor.  In that most troubling of passages in James 2 he says that faith without works is dead. People give a warm blessing at the end of their worship times but send people in need away empty.  Here the focus of the merchants was on how they were going to make more and more wealth, increase their profit margins and prosperity, they were living and planning without reference to God or God’s will for the Christian community…

Which was a symptom of a larger issue that James was addressing… at the start of his book he had talked of the double minded people, people, people he would later describe as trying to have friendship with the world, rather than God: People whose thought patterns and lives and desires reflected the world around them rather than the teachings of Christ and the values of the Kingdom of God. Here in the attitude and words and plans of the merchants this double mindedness and desire for friendship with the world is being expressed. They had a spiritual part of their lives a part where they worshipped with and lived with the community of faith, but that faith seems to have had very little to do with their business life. That faith seemed to have very little to do with the plans for their lives. That faith seemed to have little to do with what they wanted out of life and how they were going to achieve them.

All these concerns of James focus here on a very real and practical issue within the lives of the community of faith. An issue which I think actually challenges us today in our western church as much if not more than it did to James first hearers.

Firstly, can I say that James is not speaking against having wealth, nor doing well in business  nor planning for the future. These things are good. Wealth creates jobs and helps provide for other people. In 1 Timothy 5:8 Paul says that it is foolish is someone is not able to provide for their families and households. It needs to be something that we do. It is right and proper to have and plan for financial security; however James here is pointing to the fact that the merchants whole goal is to increase their wealth, there whole planning is around having more and more, without reference to God. Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool who keeps building a bigger and bigger barn. Then after he spent his whole life amassing wealth he decides to retire and relax and enjoy it, and on that very night he dies. He and the merchants here were not focusing on the important things of life. They were not focusing on the God things of life. James warns them that in reality life is like human breath on a cold day… It’s there and visible for a brief moment then it gone.

It is easy for us to simply think of life and our goals and our future in the way in which the world and society around us thinks of them. To have our plans our energies, the time and resources we have invested in a dream sculpted by media and consumerism rather than by Christ and the kingdom of God.

How the word Boasting is used in the New Testament helps us to understand what James means. To boast about something is to put one confidence in it, to trust in it. Paul in Philippians talks of his things he could boast of, his Jewish heritage, his top class education, his political position, he could even boast of all the things he had suffered and done as a Christian leader, but in the end he says they are just a pile of rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of Knowing Jesus Christ. In Corinthians he says he could boast in wisdom and understanding but rather choses to boast in the cross of Jesus Christ, not what he knows but what Christ has done for him.  To boast in what we have and what we plan to get is futile because in the end we don’t know what tomorrow will bring it cannot be trusted in. Rather we are called says James to live and plan in an attitude of trusting in the providence of God. All good things come from above says James. He exhorts his readers to speak and to plan with the attitude ‘God willing”, or “if God wills it” realising that our times are in God’s hands. That in God we live and move and have our being, wealth and prosperity maybe fleeting but the steadfast love of the lord never ceases.

When I did a lot of church based youth work, God’s will was something that often came up, what does God what me to do with my life? What job does God want me to do? Does God really have someone all lined up for me? It’s easy to simply think of God’s will and God willing in terms of fate and future possibilities and plans. But James does not let us do that. He finishes this brief section with a proverb… “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”  We call these sins of omission, that we have left undone the good God calls us to do.  

When we think of God’s will we need to realise that God has in actual fact revealed his will to us. His moral will, the ethical way in which he wants us to live. So when James says that we should say God willing it is more than trusting in the providence of God it is also acknowledging the righteousness of God. When we plan and look to the future, we need to have at our foremost God’s goodness and the things that please him. We often think of God’s will as being a personal individual thing as well and can forget that it is more God’s will for his people and we are to view our plans in those terms as well… God’s plan is to bless so we can be a blessing, to provide for all his people.

Business plans need to ask questions like these… Buying from a sweet shop in the third world may make business sense but is it right? As we will see next week what we pay workers is something James and God is concerned about. Do we pay them just enough to be legal or pay a just wage? When we plan financially is it all about wealth and comfort, or do well-being and compassion have a say? Do we need more than enough to live well or do we settle for enough so that more can… well live? How do I balance work demands family life and investing in church and mission?  Is it about God’s will or what I can leave in my will when it’s all over.

The bible is not anti-wealth, James is not anti-wealth, his concern is the concern we wrestle with all the time in the church in the west, getting caught in two minds, the mind of Christ and the mind-set of our consumer wealth obsessed western world.  The bible is not against planning, James is not against planning but rather calls us to boast and have confidence in God’s purposes and plans. Wealth, health and life itself is transitory… here today gone tomorrow… God’s plans for us are for good not for harm… he holds our times in his hands and calls us to trust and follow him.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Recognising the Risen Jesus (Luke 24:13-36) Easter Sunday 2015

NT Wright says the journey on the Emmaus road is the finest scene Luke ever sketched… On the dramatic level, he says, it has everything… "Sorrow, suspense , puzzlement, gradual dawning of light, unexpected actions, astonished recognition, a flurry of excitement and activity". I think when you throw in elements of mystery and irony and you have a memorable and amazing story. He also says in "this encounter with the risen Jesus you have a model for what being a Christian, from that day to this, is all about…"

“the slow sad dismay at the failure of human hope; the turning to someone who might or might not help; the discovery that in scripture, all unexpected, there lay keys, which might unlock the central mysteries and enable us to find the truth; the sudden recognition of Jesus himself, present with us, warming our hearts with his truth, showing us himself as bread is broken.”

That may seem a bit of an academic way of starting off, but my hope this morning is that we like the two on the road to Emmaus will come to recognise the risen Christ, through scripture and his very real presence with us. We might walk our own Emmaus road.

Luke starts this narrative with a temporal link to what has gone before… on the same day… it is later in the day after the women had been to the tomb and discovered it empty. It is the same day the angels had told them he is not here. It is the same day that Peter had gone and seen that it was true. It is on the same day and we have an empty tomb and people are wrestling with what that means.

Luke starts by putting in a geographical setting, saying that this is on the road from Jerusalem to a town called Emmaus.  Two of them, that is followers of Jesus, are leaving Jerusalem, are walking and as they walk are discussing what has gone on. We are introduced to one of the two as Cleopas, the other one we are not introduced to by name. Traditionally it was thought to be another of the male disciples, but some biblical scholars wonder if it wasn’t Cleopas’ wife. It could explain why they are not named, it also explains why this is only mentioned in Luke’s gospel, of all the gospel writers Luke is the one who because of his Greek background uses women as sources for his writing, he does not have the Jewish bias against women as witnesses.

  We are told someone else joins them and it is Jesus and they do not recognise him.

How can this be? Well we are told that their faces were down cast. Here are two people, lost in grief and confusion, unwilling to look up at another person, Unwilling to make eye contact, perhaps suffering from deep depression. Also as they answer Jesus question “what are you discussing together?’ We see that they have no expectation of meeting Jesus raised from the dead. Their understanding of Jesus is that he was a prophet, mighty in word and deed.  They talk of their hope that Jesus was the messiah being destroyed when Jesus was nailed to the cross. They talk of the fact that it was the third day after this had happened. Yes…there is some expectation because Jesus had talked about being raised to life again on the third day, but they seem confused by what the women who had gone to the tomb were saying …that the body was not there. There is reluctance for them to believe what the women had seen and been told in an angelic vision.

AS modern people we find it hard to comprehend how a dead person could be raised to life again. We might be surprised to find that those first disciples were in the same boat as we are. The fact that these two were leaving Jerusalem maybe a sign that they were leaving the group, walking away, that the group of followers round Jesus  were at odds as to what to make of what had happened.  We may be like them we may believe that Jesus was a great teacher, a prophet, we may believe that the tomb is empty, I mean even Matthew’s gospel tells us that the authorities couldn’t deny the tomb was empty, they had to spin a yarn to explain it… they said his disciples stole the body.  For us and the disciples to recognise the risen Jesus they had to understand and know who Jesus is. The Emmaus road acts as that link in Luke’s gospel.

I love the irony in the interchange between Cleopas and Jesus. Cleopas says ‘you must be the only one in Jerusalem who does not know what has been going on.’ Yet as the conversation goes on, it seems that Jesus is the only one who really knows what had been going on. Not only had he experienced it, it had happened to him. He is the only one who understands what his life and death means in the plans and purposes of God.  While Cleopas is amazed that Jesus didn’t know what was going on...Jesus is equally amazed that Cleopas and his complain don’t understand and believe. 

Jesus begins to open up the scriptures to the two of them. He shows them how the messiah had to come and suffer and die. That his death was not the end of the hope that Jesus would save his people, but rather the means by which he would save them.  I’d love to have a full transcript of Jesus teaching here, you wonder what scriptures and texts he would have used. We know a lot of them because as the gospel writers and Luke himself had written in their accounts how what Jesus said and did was a fulfilment of scripture. He starts will Moses, maybe because that is where Cleopas had started, Moses was called a prophet great in deed and word. That was Cleopas’ understanding of Jesus. And the expectation of the messiah was they would be a prophet like Moses. But it also means that Jesus starts by looking back at the Torah the first five books of the Old Testament and shows how right from the beginning God’s purposes and plans were to redeem his people through Christ’s suffering and death.  We could imagine him moving on to the passages that speak of the son of David, Israel’s true king. At our Good Friday service we started by reading out together the servant song in Isaiah 53, about the righteous man suffering for the sins of many, from an early time Christians have seen that fulfilled in Christ. 

It is only through the witness of scripture can we realise who Jesus is. It’s interesting when I reflected on Jesus opening the scriptures to the two on the road, I couldn’t help but think of the word become flesh that John uses to explain Jesus in his prologue. I couldn’t help but see how starting with Moses and creation wouldn’t lead to the possibility of new creation in Christ’s death and resurrection. Joel Green puts it like this ‘What has happened with Jesus can only be understood in light of the scriptures,” he goes on to say, “the scriptures themselves can be understood only in light of what has happened to Jesus.”  Here on the road to Emmaus Jesus ties the two together.

It is only when we understand who Jesus Christ is, that we can make sense of the resurrection:  That we see Christ through the scriptural lens. It moves the resurrection from the realm of the impossible to the reality of the person. It’s only when we understand Jesus is the son of God, totally human and totally divine, It is only when we understand in Christ God was not simply wanting to save Israel from roman occupation, but all of humanity from slavery to sin and death, do we understand the resurrection. It is only when we see the cross as God’s plan for our redemption are we ready to see the risen Jesus.   

They reach their destination, they still don’t recognise Jesus, I don’t know about you but maybe they are now have so much to think on and wonder at that they are focusing on that not on the one who is with them,  but they invite Jesus to come and stay with them. They sit down for a meal, and Jesus breaks bread with them. And it tells us their eyes were open and they recognised him. Maybe it was something in the familiar way Jesus broke the bread that made them recognise him. There words their eyes were open, speaks of the fact that the spirit had something to do with it. They now had a framework from scripture to comprehend and recognise the risen Jesus. There is also the fact that they were now sharing that most intimate of Middle Eastern rituals, eating together, sharing a meal. There is a sense of hospitality, and it is in that willingness to welcome Jesus and to sit down with him and have him sit down with them that they and we are able to recognise the risen Jesus.

At that stage the two on the Emmaus road were willing to be open to the reality of Jesus being present with them. Scripture had given them the frame work to understand that. Jesus had literally opened their eyes through the scriptures and now they can see who he is. But also because the risen Jesus Christ can present himself with his people: He was there with them in a way they knew his presence, he is here with us. When we celebrate communion together, it is not just a meal of remembrance, a meal to remind us of Christ’s death on the cross, it is like it was for the two on the road to Emmaus, a way we can recognise Christ’s presence with us on our journey through life. It is the way we can recognise the risen Jesus with us: That we can recognise how as we’ve been led by the spirit of Christ he has opened up the scriptures to us and shown himself to us through them.    It causes us to want to go back excited to join other believers like the two at Emmaus did and tell what we know to be true Christ is alive. He is with us.

Modern people find Jesus disappearance hard to comprehend. Maybe the two at the table did as well… While Luke grounds his narrative very much in time and space, we see that the risen Jesus somehow is different and transcends those things that hold us prisoner. The resurrection is not just a reanimation of a dead body, Jesus isn’t some super zombie. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul talks about the resurrection body no longer being subject to death and decay, about it being an incorruptible immortal body. This is the body of the risen Jesus, he is not a ghost; he breaks bread and walks with them. But is no longer limited as we are. AS we move on in Luke we see he suddenly appears again with the disciples, yet as in John’s gospel he Is able to be touched and felt. The gospel finishes with and Luke starts his story of what Jesus Christ does through the church with the narrative of Jesus ascent into heaven. So while he is bodily not with us, the risen Jesus is still able to presence himself with his people, to share table fellowship with us: No longer constrained by time or place, but present by his spirit with us.

We can know his presence; we can know his forgiveness and new life through his death and resurrection.  

This morning I want to finish by asking a question… Where are you on the Emmaus Road? My prayer is where ever you are you may meet and recognise the risen Jesus.
Maybe you are about to walk away... May you meet the risen Jesus.
May be you don't know about what has been going in in Jerusalem over that Easter weekend... May you know the risen Jesus drawing you to know himself.
Maybe you are wrestling to comprehend what  all means... may you know the presence of the risen Jesus opening the scriptures to you open your eyes to the truth of who he is and what he has dome for us.
Maybe you have got to the point where  you are wanting to welcome in the risen Jesus... I know he will stay with you if he is asked and you will know his presence in intimate fellowship.
Maybe you have recognised and come to know the risen Jesus and I invite you again this Easter to join with his followers in knowing recognising his presence with us and witnessing in our words and deeds that 'He is risen.'

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Voices at the Cross ( A Good Friday 2015 Reflection) ... Luke 23:26-49

Luke tells the story of the crucifixion from many different angles. As I reread his account in preparation for this morning the thing that stuck out to me was the number of different voices we hear at the cross.

On the way to the cross we hear the voices of the women wailing and mourning for Jesus. Leading up to this scene we had heard the voices of the religious and political leaders, the powerful condemning Jesus, rejecting him and inciting the crowd to cry out ‘crucify him crucify him…’ They now lead him away to be crucified… and it would be easy to think the whole of the city, the whole world had turned against Jesus. But on the way to the cross Luke tells us a crowd followed him, and in that crowd were many women who were mourning and wailing for Jesus.  Women’s voices are not often heard in biblical times in Jewish circles, particularly in legal matters and in decision making. But we hear them here, We hear them as representatives of the powerless and disenfranchised…WE hear them as they exercise their voice in a culturally appropriate way, in leading the mourning… The women may not know  fully who Jesus is and his place in God’s  redemptive narrative, But they feel the injustice of what has happened, they grieve for an innocent man, a rabbi, a teacher and bringer of hope who is a dead man walking. Maybe they had seen him coming into Jerusalem on a donkey, they had heard his teaching, they had seen the possibility of a new day dawning, they had heard how Jesus listened to talked with and valued women and now it was ending in tragedy. So they weep.

Then we hear Jesus voice for the first time … He stops and turns to them. We hear a voice of concern and compassion.  Jesus thoughts are not for his own fate, he had struggled in prayer the garden the previous night and come to a place where he could totally trust in God even in the face of suffering and death. He knows God’s presence, that God is in control, that God is working out his plans and purposes… His concern is for the people, his concern is for the women, his concern is for their children, his concern is for the powerless… He tells them that they should grieve for themselves, for the doomed city of Jerusalem. At the heart of what he had to say Jesus uses the analogy of green wood and dry wood, Green wood can be cut down, but dry wood is cut down and burned… “if this is what Rome does to the Prince of peace, the green wood ” NT Wright explains,” What will happen when the powers of this world are confronted with angry men bent on revolt and violence”. Jesus concern is for the women and children who are the ones who will suffer most in that situation.   As always, as it is still today.  AS always Jesus is for the poor, the innocent, and the powerless.

At the heart of Luke’s picture of the cross  are the voices mocking Jesus. We are told they take him away to be crucified and now they mock him as well. The religious rulers sneer at him… “he saved others, let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the chosen one” We see the roman authorities mocking him, gambling for the royal robe they had placed on him, like some cupbearer to the king they offer him cheap wine, they say “if you are the king of the Jews, Save yourself.” There is a sign above his head which says THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS… not a declaration of his royalty rather it was the charge for which he was being killed, it spoke to the people that this is what awaited anyone who would question roman rule.  Wh will dear to champion a different way.

Like a greeting line at a royal coronation we see those speaking to  Jesus go from the rulers to the military and down to the least  important, one of the criminals beside Jesus calls out mockingly “Aren’t you the messiah? Save yourself and us!” Maybe it is a last minute desperate hope at currying favour with the powers to be for a stay of execution or simply a desperate hope of last minute revolt of heavenly intervention. Jesus kingship his ability to save his people is questioned and thrown into his face.

Before these voices however, Jesus had spoken… ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing?”  In the face of the worst of injustice and inhumanity Jesus shows his ability to live out what he had taught… love your enemies; bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you… Jesus shows his desire as Paul puts it in his exhortation for us all to pray that Jesus desires all to come and know him and his forgiveness.  Jesus prays these words and in his very death on the cross makes it possible for  forgiveness and reconciliation of all of us with God as our heavenly father.  This is the hope of the cross.

Amidst the mockery we hear another voice, a different tune. We hear the voice of the other criminal, someone who has come to realise there need for God in the face of death, “Don’t you fear God” he  says to the criminal mocking Jesus, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” and then to Jesus  “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  We do not know anything about this man except that he knows he is guilty and deserves to be punished and in Jesus he sees an innocent man, and somehow sees Jesus for who is so puts his trust in Jesus. Here at the cross amidst this mockery we have a wonderful example of responding to God’s grace in Christ.

In Jesus words to him we again hear mercy; we again hear forgiveness and a declaration that beyond the pain and suffering the mockery something else is happening… “Truly I tell you…today… you will be with me in Paradise.” Here is the meaning of the cross, not the end of ‘a would be’ messiah, a deluded wannabe. But Rather here is the means by which all people can be saved, forgiven restored can find life, in this world and beyond into eternity. The powers mocked Jesus that he couldn’t even save himself, but in these words we see that he is able to offer a deeper saving deeper than simply avoiding physical death. They had mockingly taunted Jesus about being the king of the Jews but here in that one word… today, Jesus is affirming that in his life and death… today… the kingdom of God has come. This is a coronation. This is the means by which God is establishing his rule and his kingdom… Today… Not by power,… today… not by might, but by the spirit of God.

Luke tells us the sky turns black for three hours. Maybe this is creations voice, mourning as its creator dies.   Maybe this is evil coming to gloat, as it thinks the light is being extinguished. There is a line in a Christian song… The father turns his face away… But this is not the case. The curtain in the temple which separated the holy of holies from the rest of the temple is ripped in two. The barrier between the presence of God and the people of God is torn down.  Symbolically speaking of a new reality a new way of knowing God’s presence with his people… Not in a place and through offering sacrifice… but in a person and in one ultimate sacrifice.

In this darkness Jesus speaks again, “ Father, In to your hand’s do I commend my spirit”… these are  words of trust… despite the darkness God has not abandoned Jesus,  God is present, God is in control, whatever happens from this point on God can be trusted to work out his purposes. Maybe we’d expect God to speak, we don’t hear God’s voice at this very moment, but as John tells us in the prologue to his gospel, Jesus is the word of God, the word that took on flesh, the word that revealed God’s truth and grace, the word that will achieve all that God has purposed for it. The word of God speaks in Christ’s actions.

Jesus dies and still Luke invites us to view this event through the voices of those who are present. We hear the voices of witnesses who have seen and contemplate what has gone on here.

 The centurion offers the final commentary.  He is a gentile, a seasoned roman officer, yet he is willing to offer praise to God for what has gone on here, he declares Jesus a Righteous man. Luke does not go as far as putting the words ‘this is the son of God’ on the centurion’s lips… rather it foreshadows that Jesus death on the cross was not only for the Jews but for all people. That a righteous one would give up his life for others. We started our service this morning with the words of Isaiah 53 about the suffering servant and here in these words that is applied to Jesus.

The crowd go away, beating their breasts disturbed by what they have seen. Maybe we hear whispers of concern and sighs and tears of sorrow. There is disquiet about what has happened here… Disquiet that will lead to ears being willing to hear the Gospel proclaimed at Pentecost, as Luke tells of the continuing work of Jesus Christ by the spirit in the lives of his followers and the church

Luke finishes with a group who are silent. All those who knew him, including the women who followed him from Galilee… They stand at a distance and they see what is going on. They are eyewitnesses to these events, they are the ear witnesses who have heard the different voices speak and had passed it on later to Luke. We will hear their voices later… bravely asking for Jesus body for a decent burial. And they will be the voices raised in concern and confusion when after the Sabbath they come to finish preparing his body.. Wehre have they taken him…  They will be the voices that we hear proclaiming the great new… He is risen… It is their voices that will pass on to others That Christ has died and Christ is alive… sin and death are defeated… the kingdom of God has come… there is forgiveness and new life… reconciliation and wholeness in what God has done through Jesus Christ…

Today where does your voice fit at the cross?

Is it with those who weep for Jesus, at the injustice and sorrow of the cross…

it may fit with the mockery, who is this Jesus… …

Maybe today we find disquiet and are disturbed by what we hear and see at the cross and the spirit of God is at work for us to hear the Good news of Christ, what he has done for us on the cross and the new life it speaks into our lives…

Maybe you are aware of your need for God and his forgiveness and you find youself say Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.

  But you are invited to come and respond to Christ to Know Christ dead and raised to life and join your voice with that last group. You are invited to join in giving praise to God and to be voices of compassion, forgiveness and witness acknowledging that Jesus Christ is indeed Lord and saviour.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"Dis is not good... If you dis a person, you dis the law and you dis the law giver" (james 4:11-12)... Shedding Light On The Epistle of Straw; Finding a faith that works in the book of James (Part 9)

You know sometimes finding illustrations to start a sermon; illustrations that help us connect and get into the passage we are looking at are the hardest thing to find.

Then sometimes illustrations just fall into your lap. Like this week…  when the media headlines and public interest was captured by two x-factor New Zealand judges gave a perfect example of what James was warning the church against in the passage we had read to us today. ( just in case you haven't seen it here is a link... I'd normally embed it in my blog... but felt I didn't want to dignify it by doing that)

Willie Moon and Natalia Kills ripped into unlikely x factor contestant Joe Irvine. Not offering constructive criticism of his singing or performance but making very personal attacks: Attacks that the human rights commissioner labelled bullying.  Attacks that went beyond the confines of being an x factor judge and mentor to unfairly judging and being a tormentor. Attacks that have seen the two judges fired from the show; They were deemed not fit to be judges.. Attacks that, by the way Moon and Kills have been abused and mocked in the media show how prevalent this way of ripping down each other is part of the human condition.  The kind of attacks that James who had been talking about quarrels and fights in church said were sadly prevalent amongst God’s people.  The kind of attacks that I know have left many of you here battered and bruised and hurt. The kind of attacks that James says goes against the royal law of loving your neighbour. That goes contrary to the character of the one true law giver and judge, Jesus Christ.

A few weeks ago when we looked at James teaching about the tongue in chapter three and how it could be used for great good or great harm, I introduced you to that most dangerous of animals the Glossa. Here James warns the church about one particularly dangerous and deadly variety of Glossa. Glossa is Greek for the tongue.  The scientific name of this Glossa is  Glossa kataleleo . the Greek word katalaleleo literally means to’ talk down’ or to talk ill of someone. It’s translated slander in the NIV bible. It has to do with spreading false accusations or untruths about a person. You could say that the common name for the Glossa kataleleo is the Back Biting Glossa. To your face it is all smiles and friendly but when your back is turned it strikes and often the victim does not know they have been attacked until they start to experience feelings of rejection, isolation and a change of temperature in their upper torso, they receive the cold shoulder.

Maybe we have to deal with James warning here with humour because what he is saying is very heavy, very serious. James articulates that by using legal terms: Speaking against a person, bearing false witness, judging another person, slander. To Judge someone is a very exacting and challenging occupation for a human being. We expect high standards from the people we call to be judges in our legal system. RVG Tasker contrasts that process with what James is talking about here

 “In a court the judge is bound to pass judgment, but only in the light of specific charges and after all the facts have been discovered as far as humanly possible to discover them.

The back bitter on the other hand is in effect passing judgment without either the opportunity of knowing or it may be, without the desire to know the truth. “

James takes it a step further to say if we do judge a person or speak against them falsely then we are speaking against the law itself and sitting in judgment of it, we are saying that we know better. In Leviticus 19 there is a list of various laws to do with how we are to treat one another that line up with what James has been talking about through the body of his letter. Not showing favouritism, not disrespecting the poor, not using slander or bearing false witness against a neighbour, not to seek revenge, or bear a grudge, which are often the kind of motives that are behind speaking people down and in the end of that list Moses gives the law in a positive way he says we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is the law that Jesus had picked up, along with love the lord your God with all your heart and all your mind, all your strength and your soul as being central to his own ethical teaching,. Mother Theresa sums it up succinctly like this’ if you judge people, then we are too busy too love them”

 In going against that law, ‘to love our neighbour as ourselves,’ we find ourselves at risk of taking on the divine prerogative of judging. James finishes this brief section of his book by reminding us that God is the only one who can be truly trusted to judge rightly. He finishes with a proverb and applies it with a rhetorical question.  “There is only one lawgiver and judge, who is able to save and destroy. But you-who are you to judge your neighbour?” In the end we need to realise that God is the only one who can truly and rightly judge another person, who can be trusted in all situations to decide and act justly. 

But in inviting us to look to God as the only one who Judges and gives the law, James is inviting us to see the character of the one who is able to judge as well. The one who is the judge is the one who desires our greatest good. The one who is the judge is the one who, in Jesus Christ, came and lived amongst us and gave his life for us. The one who will judge was willing to pay the price for the things we had done wrong. Is willing to forgive and bring back into relationship. Id the one who in John’s gospel it says came not to condemn the world but to save the world. As Paul says in 1 Timothy, as an incentive to pray and partition this judge in all situations, he is the one who desires all to come and know him as Lord and Saviour. If we focus on this judge and both his righteousness and his mercy James says well who are we then to judge our neighbour. Mercy triumphs over judgement.

What does this have to say to us today?

Three things… The first is that James warns us against and challenges us about back biting and judging one another. Let face it we all do it… you know the meetings and gatherings we have after the meetings and gatherings we have; The ones that take place in quite voices in hall ways and carparks where we critique other people’s performances and say what we really think. The snide comments whispered behind hands, behind backs.

James had laid the ground work for this challenge in a way that I think helps us to understand why we so easily fall into talking others down. He had contrasted the wisdom of the world with the wisdom that comes fromabove. The wisdom of this world was about personal success and power and how to get ahead, as opposed to humility and the common good. He had called for repentance of coming to community to fulfil our own selfish desires and pleasures, and often at the root of talking others down is the need and the desire to talk ourselves up. We want to be acknowledged, we want to be right, we want to be affirmed and often the only way that will happen is by putting others down. One of the ways it manifests itself in New Zealand culture is what we call tall poppy syndrome, someone sticks their head up and does something good or great and right away we feel the need to cut them down to size. I know for many of us its because we’ve been bruised and battered by the same treatment. In the case of x factor, Natalia Kills thought that Joe Irvine was copying her husband’s style… She thought It all revolved around them.  These insecurities and desires within us are what make it hard for us to be righteous Judges.

Secondly, James words here do not say we should not make judgment calls. There is a difference between discernment, seeing something is wrong and needing it addressed and judging someone, writing them off. James is dealing with issues that need to be addressed in the church in his letter. In fact he finishes his book with a proverb which says “whoever turns a sinner from the way of error will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” But we need to realise that there is a right way of dealing with that. Back biting, talking down are not the way. In Matthew 18: 15-20 Jesus outlines a process for dealing with when someone has sinned against you.  You don’t talk behind the back you go to them face to face, you do not talk down you talk to, you go and seek reconciliation. You don’t talk at but talk with, it a process of talking and listening… and if they won’t listen then you get someone to go with you, you continue the process,  out of a commitment to one another. Finally it says if it is unable to be sorted at that level then it is right to take it to the eldership, it should become a matter for formal church discipline, mediation, and even judicial consideration.  The motivation is not to get revenge or be proved right but reconciliation and the building up of the body of Christ. Just as James does with his original readers we need to acknowledge that we are brothers and sisters first and foremost.

Lastly, I think it is important for us hear the wisdom of James proverb, that there is “one lawgiver and judge- who can save and destroy”.  It frames how we choose to relate to one another. Not out of fear that the one who is judge will somehow disapprove of us and write us off. But because we know that the one who is judge is fair, is just and shows us great love and mercy and we who have known that justice and righteousness, mercy and love, in Jesus Christ seek to live it out in our lives. But also remembering that in the one who is lawgiver and judge we can find healing from the back biting wounds that scar our soul, that leave our inner voice speaking us down…  in that lawgiver and judge we can find the wholeness that will enable us not to want to talk ourselves up by talking others down.  This is the healing verdict the judge has to say of us, you are my beloved, I made you, I love you, I have provided for you, in Christ I came to give you life, you are forgiven, in me you are freed from sin and death, you are being made whole, the same power that was at work in Christ is at work in you.  Amen…

In the end it is a matter of changing a ‘d’ to an ‘h’ in a little three letter word.
The word to ‘dis’ is slang, it means to disrespect, disparage, denigrate, put down, talk down and backbite. I wonder if James was writing to a young urban audience today he might not say…’Dis is not good, you dis a person, you dis the law and you dis the lawgiver and judge…dis has got to stop’ But maybe it would be as incongruous coming from James mouth as it does from an old fella like me. And if you don’t like using slang, well in the classic Dante’s Inferno, Dis was the name of a city in hell reserved for non-believers, and when we act like judge and write people off it’s like we consign them to dis.

But if we remember that there is one lawgiver one judge who can save and destroy it changes and we live out of seeing things as “His”. We are his: His beloved, his redeemed people, the world and the other people in it are his to be treated with that same love we have been shown.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

This is the Humility factor not the X factor: learning to fight like Christians (James 4:1-10)... Shedding light on the epistle of straw: finding a faith that works in the book of James (part 9)

I don’t know if you are big X-factor New Zealand watchers… A couple of weeks ago they had what they call a six chair challenge. Contestants sing for the judges and if they do well they were invited to take a seat in the judges top six. If the judge likes a contestant and the chairs are full then they have to swap someone out… It adds to the drama. In the boys category that very situation happened. English Judge Mel Blatt to build the tension asked those who were seated if they were willing to give up their seat for the person who had just sung. She probably didn’t understand New Zealand culture that well, or it was well orchestrated. But two of the contestants stood up, then the other four got to their feet as well.  Mel’s response was to go  ballistic at them she told them  that none of them were going to go very far in the competition or the business because they obviously didn’t want it enough.

Stan Walker understands New Zealand culture and in particular Pacifica culture  a bit better   and responded to the guys by saying it’s the  ‘x-factor not the humility factor.’ And yes they were going to have to fight for their place in the competition.  Maybe that is the prevailing wisdom of this world but it is not the wisdom that comes from above.

In the passage we had read out to us today, James flips that wisdom on its head,. He says in the church it is not all about the x-factor it is about the humility factor.  It’s not about fighting one another to get the top spot, it’s not about ‘I really, really want this’ but rather it is about living together humbly in response to the grace of God. If any  x factor is involved it should be the cross of Christ.

James starts by expressing the problem the church is facing in two rhetorical questions. It is a church that is beset by quarrels and factions. This says James is because people are more focused on their own pleasures their own agendas and desires rather than the gospel. It is the issue that James has been dealing with all the way through his letter. It is what he calls being double minded, they believe in Christ, they have been saved but somehow their understanding of how community is to work and what is success and important is shaped by the society around them rather than Jesus Christ. It had manifested itself in who got a seat in showing favoritism to rich and powerful people at the expense of the poor. It was about their faith being a good show not a heart change resulting in compassion: they were quick to bless people with words butdid not follow that up with actions. They wanted the same things that the world wanted rather than to live a life focused on Christ. James says even their prayer life is ineffectual because they are simply praying that God would bless them so they can focus on their own desires, their own pleasures.

It may be a bold move for an x-factor contestant to take on that Frank Sinatra standard ‘My Way’, you know… “ I did it my way”… but sadly said James  it has become a standard in the church as well.  It may win the approval of the judges  to tackle Freddy mercury’s  souring high notes in Queen’s “I want it all”… I want it all… and I want it now…  but that hedonistic song has no place in the community of faith.

James uses some strong wording to talk of the effect of these conflicts and desires… murder, war , and fighting. But that is what they can do to a church and a community. Factions that want things their way can kill off a church, can stop it growing and moving out in mission. The epitaph of many churches is but we’ve always done it this way… our way… my way.  I know many people who have been left battered and bruised and even whose faith is on the critical list because of the way that the church fights amongst itself, and the way we fight amongst ourselves… There are conflicts that need to be resolved but we need to have Christ honoring ways of addressing them.

Then James moves on to address these issues on a theological level. He says that you can’t be friends both with this world and with God.  The wisdom from above is totally at odds with the wisdom of this world..  For the x-factor you might get somewhere singing Mary McGregor’s 1976 chart topper ‘torn between two lovers’ But James says that this kind of double mindedness is adultery. In the Old Testament, the prophets likened Israel’s worship of other god’s alongside YHWH as adultery. Jesus had said it very succinctly when he said you can’t serve two masters, you can’t serve God and mammon (or wealth and riches) you will end up loving one and hating the other.

James move towards the solution for us. He says that God is jealous, He has given us his Holy Spirit and does not want it to simply be one thing amongst other things in our life.  The bit we keep in the god box, right next to the other box which is all the things we want and desire, because simply putting it in the god box can lead to it being considered the dog box, where we put things that are inconvenient or unwanted. The solution however is that God’s grace is greater than his jealousy.  As we saw a few week ago 'mercy triumphs over judgment'... God loves us and welcomes us back, if we will humbly come to him. To put our desires on the same level as God is arrogant and as proverbs 3 34 says God opposes the proud … But if we humble ourselves and turn to him God will be gracious to us.

That then is what James says is the remedy for us. He expresses it in ten imperatives or commands. Submit yourselves then to God… As we said last week when we looked at the word submissive, this is not just giving in it is a willingness to recognize the truth and let it be what guides us.

Resist the devil and he will flee from you. We are not often that comfortable talking about the devil or Satan, but James sees the devil as being the one behind our selfish desires wanting to  stir them up and use them to destroy community and our relationship with God.  In his introduction to his book the screwtape letters CS Lewis says that we can fall into two traps when it comes to the devil. One is we can give him too much power and see a demon behind every bush, that we are simply powerless against him. This is not the case, James recognizes our personal responsibility for our own desires and actions, but also that satan will flee if we resist.   The other trap is to assign him to the realm of fanatsy, and we can be blindsided and unaware of the presence of real evil. In my ministry there have been a few times I have encountered the demonic in people’s lives and can testify to the truth of James word that the demonic is bent on our destruction  but also in Jesus we have the power to resist and overcome.

Come near to God and he will come near to you. The other side of the coin is that to resist the devil is to repent which is to turn away from going our own way and to turn to God. In the end these two imperatives go hand in hand in saying where we invest our energy and our time and our focus will result in whose presence and power we experience  in our lives.

Wash your hands, you sinners and purify your hearts, you double minded. Here James uses the language of temple worship to talk of how we are to resist Satan and turn to God.  We are to stop doing the things we know displease God, like we’d wash off filthy muck off our hands after we’ve been working in the sewer and  make our focus in life going God’s way.

Grieve mourn and wail, change your laughter into mourning and your joy to gloom’, Is a call to know our need for God’s forgiveness. It is not to say that the Christian faith is not full of joy but we need to be aware of the seriousness of sin and its consequences on our lives and not take it lightly. David Nystrom says “ it is to come and recognize that the paths we thought would led to true laughter and joy are dead ends and need to be abandoned”.  We find our joy in the peace and the presence of God who lifts up the humble, we find joy in recognizing that every good thing comes from above, we find our joy in knowing forgiveness and reconciliation in Jesus Christ.

James finishes this section with a proverb. That the one who humbles himself before God will be lifted up. St Augustine uses a tree to illustrate this he says ‘ As a tree must strike deep roots downwards, that it may grow upwards so everyone who has not his soul fixed deep in humility, exalt himself to his own ruin.’  Growth is dependent on our acknowledgment of our need for God.

How does this apply to us today.

The first is that it is very much about how we deal with conflicts and difficulties in the Church. James’s focus is on division and faction. We often come to conflicts knowing what we want and what we think is right. But James invites us to come with humility, knowing our need for God’s forgiveness and grace, aware of our own short comings and failings. It is a call to fight like Christians. Humility calls us to listen and hear and to understand what the other person is saying and respect their opinion before we move on. Last week we saw that James held up being considerate as  a virtue of the wisdom from above… humility calls us to be considerate. I may be wrong about this but it also calls us to be prepared to be wrong about things, and when we are to be willing to repent, rather than to simply become entrenched for prides sake. One of the biggest problems facing the church historically and today has been how to be a true expression of God’s new people from every nation, tribe and tongue. One commentator has said that the only way to become a multi-cultural church is to be willing to live with a certain level of discomfort for the sake of unity: To be open to different ways of doing things different languages and food even though it not our way of doing it. We have cultural pride that the way we do things is the right way right! We need to be willing to humble ourselves. Going back to our x-factor illustration instead of “ I’m not going to give my seat up for anyone” It is I am going to offer you a seat at the table.

Secondly, James invites us in our own lives to come to the chair challenge. Bill Bright the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, uses the illustration of a chair to talk about how we grow to maturity, how we are sanctified in the Christian life. He uses three simple circle illustrations to explain the Christian life. In the center of each circle is a chair that represents the throne of our lives, the central place. He uses dots to represent different aspects of our life, our desires for financial security, relational security, meaning and purpose in life, our hobby’s studies family life and social life.  He uses the letter ‘S’ to represent the self.

Before we are a Christian Christ is on the outside and the Self is on the throne and these different aspects of our life and our selfish desires battle for supremacy. To be in the judges top six.

Then we become followers of Christ, we invite Christ to come into equation. Christ can become just another of those things that are trying out for the top spot.  James calls this being double minded.

But as James says as we humble ourselves we are willing to stand up off the chair and acknowledge someone greater than ourselves is present and should take that place and we order all our life round that.