Sunday, October 19, 2014

Smyrna... faithful not fearful in the face of suffering (Revelations 2:8-11)... What the Spirit Says to the Churches (part 3)


John Stephen Akwari…Never stood on the winner’s podium at the Olympic Games, he never had a medal placed round his neck or a wreath placed on his head, he lived his whole life in poverty in the dirt floored hut of his home village… But he has inspired millions worldwide and his name is synonymous with the modern marathon.

 Mexico City 1968. The sun is setting and they are about to turn the lights off in the Olympic stadium most of the crowd has already left for the day. News comes through that there is still one more runner; one more competitor out on the marathon course. He is injured, hurt and staggering along but he is determined despite all he is suffering to finish the race. Little know Tanzanian runner John Stephen Akwari steps onto the world stage. A story told best in the great Olympic sports movie ’16 days of glory’
 
 


 
“My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race but to finish it” John Stephen Akwari’s faithfulness in the face of suffering backed in this film clip by the tune of the great resurrection hymn ‘Thine Be The Glory Risen Conquering Son’ captures the essence of the letter to the church in Smyrna. A church that has persevered in the face of tribulation, poverty and slander and that Jesus is telling will face further persecution, violent detention and even death. A church that is called to be neither faithful nor fearful as it goes through these trials.

We are working our way through the seven letters to the seven churches in the province of Asia Minor, in modern day turkey, looking at what the spirit is saying to the churches, then and there and to us here and now. ‘If the first mark of the true church is love” says John Stott, “the second Mark is surely suffering. You cannot love without suffering”. Maybe in our comfortable western society we have forgotten that cost of following Jesus. But from its start and even for many of our brothers and sisters in the world today to follow Jesus is to suffer. There have been moments when we touch that kind of issue first hand I remember when I was younger our Church held a Passover dinner and the man who lead us through it talked of his orthodox Jewish family holding a funeral for him when he became a Christian. . And Jesus call to the church in Smyrna and to us is to be faithful not fearful, and we need to listen to what the Spirit saying to the churches.

Smyrna may sound like Russian vodka but is a city that sits to the north of Ephesus. It was Ephesus’ rival for prominence in the province. It was a major sea port and the main Imperial trade road through the province went inland from it. Therefore it was a rich and prosperous city.  It was known for two things; its beauty and its loyalty or faithfulness to Rome. It was the first city to be rewarded with the right to build a temple to the worship of the emperor Tiberius. Smyrna today is still standing and is the second largest city in Asiatic Turkey and known by the name Izmir.

We do not know much of the origins of the church in this city. Apart from the letter here in revelations we do have letters written by Ignatius in the middle of the second century in Smyrna and a written account of the martyrdom of the bishop of Symrna in 156 AD. The bishop’s name was Polycarp and tradition tells us that John the elder had ordained him personally as bishop.

Polycarp was a saintly man, his church had convinced him to flee but he was betrayed to the Roman authorities. In deference to his old age they invited him to recant his faith and to offer a sacrifice to the emperor, which he refused to do… he said “eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me.” He was burned at the stake. In the end as an act of mercy a soldier ran him through with a sword because the wind kept blowing the flames away from him. It gives us a picture of the extreme that the church in Smyrna is warned of and of their faithfulness.

Like all the letters this one starts with the speaker being introduced, Jesus is the one speaking to the church. In all the letters Jesus introduces himself through aspects of the vision that John has on Patmos. The way Jesus introduces himself here is a source of encouragement for the Church. Here Jesus says he is the ‘first and the last’ that he is the eternal God. In the face of difficulties suffering and persecution it is important for us to remember that the situations and suffering we face now can be seen as having a place in the eternal plans and purposes of God. It is not simply theological sentimentality to acknowledge that God has our times and situations in his hands, but a source of hope of the ultimate victory of Justice of the ultimate victory of Christ.

 
Jesus identified himself as the one who was dead and is alive again. Jesus is not just eternal Jesus lets them and us know that he has gone before, he has walked the road of suffering… of slander, poverty, imprisonment and torture, and yes even death. The encouragement that comes from that is encapsulated best in the words of the Spiritual from African American Slaves “ nobody knows the trouble I seen nobody knows but Jesus’.

More than that is the hope and encouragement in the resurrection, that Jesus overcame, that he is alive again. The hope and comfort for God’s people is that the crown of thorns is a victor’s crown. The promise for those who overcome is that they will receive eternal life that Jesus has won.

The letter outlines the present and past suffering of the Church; which seem to be a result of the reaction of the Jews in Smyrna. One of the things that Roman Society valued was civilizations more ancient than themselves. This meant that for the Jews that they were exempt from making sacrifices to the emperor as a sign of their loyalty. The early church was seen as a sect of Judaism and was originally afforded the same protection. But as Christianity continued to grow the Jews wanted to differentiate themselves from Christians. Jesus predicted in the verses that followed on from our reading in John 15 this morning that a time would come when they would put Christians out of the synagogue and would consider they were doing God’s work in killing them.

We do need to unpack some of the strong language used about the Jews in this letter. Jews who are not really Jews refers to the fact that the early Christians saw that in Jesus they had found the messiah and they were the true continuation of the Jewish faith. In Roman law for someone to be punished, imprisoned and bought before the justice system their needed to be accusers. In Jesus trial the gospels tell us people were found who were willing to bring false accusations, and Paul in the book of acts seems to have had to deal with similar issues. The Jews in Smyrna were willing to accuse the Christians …The word Satan means accuser and in this letter John is highlighting that they in their slander are acting in that role, and also pointing out that behind this is a darker evil force. But we need to note it is specific to this context and sadly this terminology has been picked up and used as anti-Semitic propaganda.

In the face of increasing suffering and persecution even to the point of death, the Church is encouraged to be faithful and not fearful. 

We as humans naturally react to fear in one of three ways… It’s the freeze, flight or fight reflexes. When we are faced by opposition to our faith be it from unkind words and unfair critiques of our faith by friends or work mates through to the kind of situations mentioned in this letter, it can cause us to freeze, to simply stop talking or living out our faith, or we can run away retreat, our faith becomes private or confined to Sunday mornings and the walls of a building, or we walk away or its to fight, to aggressively argue, maybe even to respond in un-Christ like ways.

But we are called not to be fearful but to be faithful… During the week I have been made aware of the stories of faithful people and to talk of what it means to be faithful in the face of suffering is best explained in their stories.

Maybe not really persecution but the Ebola Crisis is something that has makes people fearful, right, that causes great suffering. There has been some criticism in the west of the number of Christian medical workers in the area.  Stephen Rowden volunteers for Doctors without borders in Monrovia Liberia, his role is to manage the teams who collect the bodies of Ebola victims, they deal with about ten to twenty five bodies a day and risk becoming victims themselves. In a Radio interview with typical English understatement he spoke of "the sad case" of going into a house to collect the body of a four year child from its parents. Asked if he was a religious man he replied yes he was a committed Christian. The interviewer then asked if this was testing his faith to which he replied No “I Get great strength from my faith and the support of my family.” There is some criticism of the fact that there are so many missionary medical people involved in west Africa but no one is really lining up to replace them.

ISIS the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is also something that people are afraid of today… right… I’ve even had conversations with people who worry about it sparking a world war. We’ve heard stories of beheadings and the ultimatums to Christian populations as well as moderate Muslim populations of converting leaving without anything or facing death. What we don’t hear is the stories of  Middle Eastern Christians quietly at work in the refugee camps caring for the needs of the refugees.  Not too far away from the deadly frontlines they are there to care for the homeless and displaced. One Christian aid agency sends money to those on the ground to be able to buy locally sourced tents and food and gas stoves to give out. They share their stories…

An officer in the Kurdish militia fighting ISIS came to the Christian aid workers to see what was going on. He was suspicious of where the aid was coming from. But as the conversation continued he was impressed by the fact that the people doing the work were Christians, helping displaced Muslims…“You see the Arabs around you in the Gulf states, which claim to be religious Muslims, have not sent us anything but terrorists,” he told the ministry team members. “But you who follow Christ send love and peace and goodness to people every day.”  After a long conversation he too became a follower of Jesus and said it was the happiest day in his life.
In refugee camps tent churches are springing up. Centres of both aid and worship at one a muslim women was attracted to one by the singing and came to see what was going on. She asked if she was allowed in. She stayed and became a follower of Jesus. The next day she was back with her family and within a short period over sixty of her extended family had become Christians.    
When the aid agency how the Christian workers were coping the reply was that their faith is maturing and they are learning to be more and more dependent on Christ in new ways each day.
We to are called to be faithful and to show Christ's love and proclaim Christ's saving love.

The letter to Smyrna expresses the Christian hope in the face of suffering in a series of paradoxes. They are poor but in Christ they are rich. They face death but in Christ they will find life. Satan is accusing them and causing suffering and death, but the sovereign God is using that to test and to refine their faith. About 20% of the logos for the city of Smyrna that archaeologists have found show the laurels of the roman victory crown a sign that the city is being rewarded for its faithfulness to Rome but to those who remain faithful to king Jesus they will receive a greater crown, they will receive eternal life in Christ. The call to us as a church facing struggle and trials is to be faithful not fearful listen to what the spirit is saying to the church.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ephesus and First Love... Remember, Repent and Return (revelations 2:1-7) Three 'R's" that Will Revitalise and Renew the Church.


I used to be called Hollywood Howard by some of my fellows ministry students because I would always make film references in class or in sermons and there are two movie scenes that sprang to mind when I read the letter to the church at Ephesus in revelations. One was the breakfast scene from the 1941classic movie Citizen Kane… The movie tells the story of fictitious newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane, it’s told in a series of flashbacks as a news reel reporter interviews people to try and make sense of Kane’s life through his famous and paradoxical dying word “rosebud”. The scene tells the story of Kane’s first marriage in a montage of the only time they seemed to spend together… breakfast…

 

 
“They married for love” says the man being interviewed but as the scene goes on we find that they seem to simply go through the motions of married life the spark is gone. The growing distance between them is graphically shown by the position and size of the breakfast table.  Business and standing up for what Kane sees as  truth seems to have driven a wedge between them. This is a good picture of how Jesus sees the Church at Ephesus, its busy, they labour to uphold the truth but there is something lacking, they go through the motions but they had forgotten their first love.

We are working our way through the letters to the seven churches in the province of Asia, which is in modern day Turkey, to see what Jesus has to say to his people. Just recently in our country who is reading our electronic mail has been a big issue, we want things to remain private,  but here John is very open in letting all the churches know what has been written to each one of them.  Each letter is very personal and close to the heart of where each community is at. But it is open to all of us. One comment on the website I sourced the clip from citizen Kane said “this is the story of many marriages” and as one commentator has said on these 'open' letters “if the shoe fits we need to wear it.” We need to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Ephesus is the logical place for John to start his correspondence; it is the closest sea port to the Island of Patmos where he is exiled. And it is the principle city and port in the Province. It was famous for its temple dedicated to the worship of the goddess Artemis and also later as the centre of Emperor Worship, It also had a large Jewish population.  Paul goes there on his third missionary trip recorded in Acts 19. He stayed for two and a half years, giving public lectures encouraging the church and preforming many healing miracles. There was a great impact on the whole province. Paul had to flee when a riot broke out because the silver smiths were concerned that the gospel might ruin their idol trade. Paul left Timothy to build up the believers. At the end of his third missionary trip he visited and spoke to the leadership at Ephesus warning them of false teachers, wolves in sheep’s clothing.  He wrote to the church while he was in prison in Rome and also wrote to encourage Timothy. We know that sometime towards the end of the first century John replaced Timothy as the leades of the church there. Now John is in exile and writes to the next generation of believers in that place.


AS with each of the letters, Jesus is seen as the one speaking to the church and identified by one of the images used in John’s vision that we looked at last week in revelations 1:12-16. In this case Jesus is the one who walks amongst the lampstands and holds the churches stars in his hand. The letter is written by Jesus who is the head of the church and also present with them to see and to know everything that  is going on.

To start with Jesus acknowledges their strengths. They had managed to blossom in a hard place. They are hardworking, if you went to the church at Ephesus you would see that they are doing all the things that you’d expect in a church. It functions well, probably had effective programmes for the kids, good worship, even care and outreach programmes into the community. It had endured hardship; a quick look at the history of the church in Acts and we see that it was best by opposition from the pagan environment it was in. They were very good at holding on to the truth of the gospel. They tested people who came and taught to make sure they were orthodox, even those who claimed to be apostles.  Not only by looking at their teaching but the people’s lives as well:  They didn’t want anything to do with evil men.  You could imagine their liturgy and their prayers and their sermons being theologically deep and rich and true. Even Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is not written to correct any false teaching or problem but to convey a deeper understanding of the gospel.  John mentions one group in particular the Nicolaitans that we don’t know much about, except that the Ephesians were not taken in by them either.

But Jesus goes on to look at the one thing they lack, that despite all they had done and did they had lost their first love. Now scholars are pretty split over whether John is meaning their love for one another; they had become so strict about orthodoxy and who was in or out, they had become cold when it came to how they viewed each other. Or their love for Jesus;  that in seeking to be correct about belief and practise they had forgotten that at the centre of it all the Christian faith is about a love relationship with God.  I actually think it was both, in the passage from the epistle from John we used as our call to worship this morning, we see that for John the two are invariably linked, how can we love God whom we have not seen says John if we do not love one another.  Jesus had tied to two great commandments together as well. John Stott says “ Love is the true and first mark of the Church indeed, it is not a living church if it is not a loving Church”… he goes on to apply that to the Church in Ephesus “toil becomes drudgery if it is not a labour of love”  The endurance of suffering and hardship can be hard and bitter if it is not softened and sweetened by love” Orthodoxy, and truth is important as ever in our day of relativism,  can become cold, dead and grim legalism without the warmth and life and beauty with which love invests it.” We are to be about the truth but to speak the truth in love.

Perhaps the best analogy of what this means for a church comes from the city of Ephesus itself. This letter warns the church that unless they do something about returning to their first love Jesus will remove the lampstand from its place. Ephesus today is a set of ruins many miles in land. It was a harbour city at the mouth of the Cayster river, which over time slowly silted up and so the city no longer served any good purpose and was abandoned. Love like that river is the life source of the church and if it is allowed to silt up the church too will become just a set of interesting ruins.

But there is hope and John’s letter gives the Church three imperatives, three commands that will reignite and revitalise the flame of that love. It’s a bit like the three “R’s” that we talk of when we talk of going back to the basics in education… (and I've never really understood how thesee are seen as three 'r's in education circles)it’s reading, writing and Arithmetic… or more likely these days when it comes to the environment the three "r's" are … reuse, recycle reduce…”… But for Jesus it is the three 'r's' of  Remember, repent, and return or redo.

Remember says John, from where you have fallen… Remember you r first love. On the alpha marriage course one of the first exercises we invite couples to do is to write down the things that first attracted them to each other, to remember. Kris’ smiley eyes always come to mind and a beautiful young woman who loved to splash barefoot in puddles after the rain. They are not being asked to simply remember an emotion here… the feeling that you feel when you feel the feeling you’ve never felt before’ but to remember the love God has for them for us. AS John tells us in his first epistle this is love, not that we first loved God but that he first loved us and sent his son to be a atoning sacrifice. In the Old Testament, each generation is invited to remember and identify with God’s saving acts by bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt, to remember God’s love and thus to live afresh as God’s people. For the church at Ephesus and for us today it is to remember what Christ has done for us. The grace of God shown in the incarnation; becoming one of us; the grace and love of God shown in the cross; for God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son… The love of God shown in the resurrection: an invitation to new life in Christ.  The love of God shown in sending the Holy Spirit: companionship with us in all life’s joys and trials. Remember that first love… God first loved us.

Repent says John. We often thing of the word repent as being to feel sorry for what we have done wrong… But just like remember is not about an emotion. John is not  telling the church they should feel sorry or guilty, rather it is a call to turn back to God. To stop going the way they are going and to come back.. John does not articulate what this means for the church at Ephesus but maybe it is summed up in the sentiment of the last line of Isaac Watts great Hymn “when I survey the wondrous cross”… thinking of what Jesus had done for us it concludes “ love so amazing so divine demands my life my soul my all.” They and we need to recapture that.

Well actually John does tell the church what it means to repent, that is that they return to what they did at first. IN the first night of the Alpha marriage course the thing that is presented as of paramount importance in making a good marriage great is that couples actually make time for each other, they set aside time for a date, time for romance doing things they enjoying doing together, because it is easy for the business and sameness and harshness of everyday life to rob them of love and the time they need to invest in their relationship. John calls the church to do what they did at first, I’m sure it didn’t mean that they stopped the things they were already doing, or that they simply had to add more things, rather it was the invitation to invest more time into that relationship with Jesus and that would flow out into community life and social justice and outreach. It’s interesting that in times of renewal and revival down through history people find that worship becomes more important in their lives; there is a passion for prayer and for spending time reading and studying the word of God. That one of the hopes we have had as a church leadership in encouraging a season of prayer and inviting people to take on the E100 bible reading challenge.  Out of those things comes a genuine desire for unity, compassion for the poor and a passion for evangelism and justice. They rekindle and re stock our love for Jesus because he first loved us and for others, because they are God beloved.

The promise that Jesus gives at the end of this letter for those who overcome draws us back to the garden, to the idea of fresh and new creation, a promise of eating from the tree of life.  In the garden Adam and Eve shared complete fellowship with God and with each other and the promise is that for those who overcome that we will have that again, that we will know that life and love for eternity in Christ.

I mentioned at the beginning that two movie scenes came to mind when I thought of this letter. Well let me finish with the second one. It is again a wonderful montage that in a four minute sequence tells the story of a lifelong romance, a great marriage. It comes from the Disney Pixar movie “Up” which tells the story of an old man Carl  who find life again after his wife Elle dies, he finds it at Paradise falls. But it starts with a wonderful montage telling the story of his one true love, a lifelong marriage to his childhood sweetheart. They go through some great times and some hard times, dealing with childlessness, financial problems, hard work and everydayness, and finally illness and death but all the way through there is a sense of deep abiding love for one another. One setting in particular plays through the montage plays through the years, the couple going up a hill to have a picnic together… To spend time, to invest in one another… Yes it is Disney but one of the great things is that for a whole generation of people who see it their most romantic film moment is about a good life long marriage.  This is a great picture of both marriage and the church that remembers and holds onto its first love. I’ll play it as we leave our service this morning… not now because I want to us to simply stop and hear what the spirit has to say to the church… an invitation to remember that first love, that God so loved us… Repent… turn again towards God…Return to doing what we first did… not out of duty but  living out of God’s great love for us.
 
 

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Clear Vision of Where Jesus Stands When It Comes To The Church (Revelations 1;9-20)... What The Spirit is Saying to the Churches! Words for Today from the letters to the Seven Chruches in the Book Of Revelations.. (part 1)


We’ve just had a long and hard election campaign here in New Zealand, and if you are a member of a particular political party that didn’t do so well in the polls you are just about to start an equally long and laborious leadership primary. …Amidst all the weird stuff that seemed to be the defining feature of this year’s election people, me included, really wanted to know where the various leaders and parties stood on the pressing  issues.  

 Where do you stand on the housing crisis in Auckland?

Where do you stand on climate change issues?

Where do you stand on education?

Where do you stand when it comes to child poverty in New Zealand and doing something about it?

Where do you stand when it comes to foreign ownership of New Zealand land?

Where do you stand on the living wage issue?

We needed to know where they stood so we could decide into whose hands we should trust the future of the country.

 

The book of revelation was written as encouragement to a church facing persecution, suffering and tribulation. Both pressure and opposition from outside and difficulties and divisions from within and in the face of that it starts with a clear vision of where its leader stands. Both one of its earthly leaders, John the elder and more importantly its founder and true head… Jesus. Amidst all the weird and wonderful images and visions which are the defining feature of the style or genre John chooses to write in, first century apocalyptic language… a bit like sci-fi or science fantasy…there is a clear vision of Jesus and where Jesus stands when it comes to the church in its trials and troubles. .

 

We are starting a series today on the seven letters to the seven churches at the beginning of the book of revelation.  Looking at what the Spirit has to say to the churches, both those facing persecution and trouble in the province of Asia at the end of the first century and also for us today, equally facing struggles and hard times as a Church at the beginning of the third millennium. What does the spirit have to say to the churches? then and now…And just like then we need to start by having a clear vision of Jesus and where Jesus stands when it comes to the church.

 

John’s vision of Jesus is like the opening act of a play or what are known as establishment shots at the beginning of a movie …it sets the scene for what is to come and we are introduced to the main characters.

 

Firstly, John introduces himself, to a certain extent he had already done that at as revelations starts in a formal letter writing style, he tells us who is and who he was addressing, and has an opening prayer of praise, and we used part of that as our call to worship this morning. Maybe that is like the film credits we know who the actor is but know he tells us where he is in terms of the action and the story…now he introduces himself relationally and situation-ally.  

 

 He tells his readers that he is their companion and brother in suffering the kingdom and the patient endurance that is ours in Jesus.  John identifies himself as being with his readers, as one commentator puts it ‘he is not cheering them on from the side-line he is involved in the same struggles.’

 John tells them his situation that he is exiled on the island of Patmos. When we think of the Greek isles these days we might conger up idyllic holiday destinations, but Patmos was just a barren mountain top  where political prisoners were sent, some forced to do hard labour in the mines, but others like John who was old , were simply sentenced there to keep them out of the way till they died. The picture of Robbins Island off the coast of South Africa where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned springs to mind.

 

And Just like with Mandela John’s body was in prison but he tells us that his spirit was not. John tells us that on the Lord ’s Day, and this is the first mention in the New testament of this term, John is not only is he with the churches  in their suffering but their worship as well. On the Lord ’s Day he is caught up in the Spirit. He may be cut off from being with God’s people, with the churches on the mainland, but he is not cut off from the presence of God. The barren landscape of Patmos maybe there to discourage him, but he is encouraged as he is transported beyond that to the very presence of the risen Jesus. 

 
John’s introduction is helpful because before we can see where Jesus stands in relationship to the church we need to know where we stand as a church. John does that by telling us he is right there with us.  We are first and foremost called to be people of the kingdom, who because we know Jesus as our king live that out in our lives… as Jeremy Teat helpful explains it like it “the self-giving love of God displayed in the cross creates a people who lovingly give of themselves for the wellbeing of others. The kingdom of God is marked by justice, and those who have been justified before God have more reason than any to seek justice for the weak, the poor, and the oppressed.’” To live that way puts us in conflict with the powers of this world, to live that way in the face of opposition it takes  patient endurance, fortitude to keep on. We live in the tension of between being on Patmos and in the spirit, knowing suffering and knowing God presence with us.  The reality of Jesus words (let’s say them together)  “in this world there will be trouble, but take heart I have overcome the world”

 

Now we are introduced to the main character of the book of revelation John hears a voice like a trumpet that tells him to write down what he is to see and send to the seven churches, in the province of Asia; Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea .

 

 He turns round to see the voice speaking and we get a picture that John paints for us by uses Old Testament Images, like a code for those in the know he tells us it’s a vision of the risen Jesus without saying it out loud.

 

He sees seven lampstands, in the Old Testament the lampstand in visions represented Israel as God’s people, amongst them he sees one like the son of man. This was a term that Jesus used of himself in the scriptures and comes from Daniels vision of heaven that we had read out to us as well this morning.  He goes on to describe Son of Man in way that tells us the divinity of this figure,  that is dressed as a high priest

 

This description is backed up by John’s response and Jesus words. In scripture the response to an encounter with God is to fall down as if dead, that is what John does… Often you’ll see people who are prayed for actually fall over and this is because they have meet the real presence of God at their point of need in such a way as they are overcome. Just like John had introduced himself now the one like the son of man introduces himself. John had finished his prayer of praise by having God proclaiming that he is the alpha and omega the beginning and the end and here is the son of man doing the same. The son of Man calls himself the living one, a title from the Old Testament for God, but here pointing to Jesus, who once was dead but is alive for ever and ever. Who holds the keys of death and hades, the roman expression of the underworld in his hands. Which is a very powerful image for John and a church whose very life and death seem to be in the hands of the political system of the roman empire… but are actually in the hands of Jesus.

 

Then the third section of the vision, introduces us to the last characters to the churches. Jesus tells us the mystery of the lampstands and the stars that they represent the seven churches and the stars represent the angels of the seven churches. Now scholars down through the years have wrestled with the idea of the seven angles of the seven churches, does it mean the messengers to those churches that are carrying John’s message, or the seven bishops and leaders of the church or is it that each church has a guardian angel or is it a way of speaking of the spiritual condition of each of those churches. In the end we don’t know but between the lampstand and the star we see that we have those churches represented.

 

And in this vision of Jesus we see where he stands when it comes to the church. He stands amongst them and with them.  He stands in the centre of them and holds them in his hand. Here is the great encouragement for the church for you and I this morning… God stands with his people. In recent weeks we’ve been using some very tactile, touchable things in our sermons and of course today there is no better way to acknowledge Christ being with us than in the symbols of bread and wine in  communion.

 

Maybe we might be tempted to think that somehow Jesus is stand offish. As we wrestle with being the church warts and all and when we face opposition and trouble individually like John, or as a church community,  it’s easy to think that Jesus is absence or far off. One of the cries that seemed to haunt and taunt David in the Psalms was when people would mockingly say well where is your God? God’s gone missing… But here in this vision of spiritual realities we see that is not the case, Jesus meets John on Patmos, Jesus stands amongst the seven lamps stands he holds their stars in his hand.

 

Maybe we might be tempted to think That Jesus uses stand over tactics when it come to the church. There is that mind-set that if only we work harder, if we were better, more holy, more prayerful, more spiritual.. thinks would be better,  I find myself relating to the character ‘Boxer the draft horse in George Orwell’s great  story Animal Farm… AS the animals work out their freedom, Boxers response to every situation is “I must work harder”. But this vision of Jesus for a church facing hardships and hard times is not that he stands over them  to crack the whip but that Jesus stand with them. It is the glorified Jesus, he is the one who has already done the work has already won the victory.

 

We might be tempted to think that Jesus is outstanding. That somehow Jesus stands apart from the church and it’s Ok for us to walk away from this institution we call the Church, and go it alone, that it is more about our individual relationship with Jesus, individual spirituality. But in this vision we are reminds us that Jesus stands amongst the candle sticks, Jesus stands amongst the Church. We are called to community,  John who was  physically isolated still identified himself with the church as brother and companion. While it we have our faults and foibles, the solution is not to walk away,  as we will see in this series it is to the church that Jesus speaks and Jesus calls.

 

We should be encouraged to know that Jesus understands when it comes to the church. In Christ we have someone who has experienced the depth of spiritual suffering, who knows about rejection and persecution, who has blazing eyes that see and comprehend, but we might be tempted to think this means Jesus stands under the church, and supports us in anything we do… But as we will see as we look at the letters to the seven Churches Jesus understands each of their situations and circumstances and speaks into them as the head of the Church, he sums up their spiritual condition and calls them to change, calls them to come back so that while he is standing amongst the churches that they and we should come back and stand with Jesus.  When it come to the church we know where Jesus stands and he can be trusted as he has our future in his hand.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Season of creation...A prayer of thanks giving and confession for river sunday

In the Church calendar September is the Season of Creation, an opportunity to give thanks to God for the wonders of the earth and natural world. I have been trying to write a prayer for the services that reflect the unique landscape and place that New Zealand is. This week is River Sunday and I've used some of the Seasons of Creation liturgy that is used by the Uniting Church of Australia and other Churches around the world (the parts I have used from their prayers are in italics) .

For my overseas friends in New Zealand one of the ways the Maori talk of their identity is by their whakapapa, their genealogy, and also by identifying with which mountain and river they belong to.

Many of our provinces nd regions take their names from the rivers that flow through them.

Once again I offer this prayer for people if they want to use it, or parts of it and also if people have suggestions that would make it better then that would be great as well.



In our land people identify themselves by mountain and river

Our land is shaped and defined by river and stream

The constant flow of water from mountain to sea

We gather in this place in this land to give God praise

We gather as the people of the river that makes glad the city of god,

We gather as the people of Mt Zion

We are your people and we come together to praise you, O God

 

We come to give you praise for the wonders of your creation

In particular this morning the rivers and fresh water

We remember the rivers God created

In Eden and across our planet

Rivers that are the lifeblood of Earth

Rivers that are vital for all that lives

Every good gift flows from your hand O Lord

 

We give you praise for the many rivers of our land

The mighty Waikato and Clutha

The rivers that give name and shape to province and region

The braided rivers that weave across our of southern lands

The roar and rush of fast flowing mountain stream

The gurgle refreshing coolness of bush creek

For all these water ways we give you praise O Lord

 

We remember the streams and creeks of our past

How our lives have been touched by river current

The pools and ponds where we played

Water falls that have drawn us to stand in awe

Adventurous trips amidst rapid and rock

Still moments as we watch the water and time go by

We have been blessed by your gifts to us

 

We stop and see that all is not well

We ask for forgiveness for the way we have mistreated your gift of water

We have polluted our rivers with chemical and un thinking  land use

We have turned our streams into waste dumps

We have wasted precious water in luxury living

We do not value what we were given

Forgive us O Lord and help us to treasure your rivers

 

We thank you for your presence in the rivers of our life

That in Christ we have found life giving water that quenches our thirst

That in him is a flow your grace that forgives and makes clean

Those in our journey through this land your Spirit leads and guides

In rapid and torrent and still waters by

Even by the rivers of Babylon where we wept you are still there  

Fill us afresh that we may love and serve the whole of creation

 

To the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit Amen

Monday, September 15, 2014

Seasons of Creation: A Prayer for wilderness Sunday....a Jounrey from our city home to the wilds and back with Christ.


September in many churches is a time to celebrate the season of creation (It's spring down here in the southern hemisphere). This week it's wilderness Sunday... And as I've looked through a lot of the liturgy for that I've discovered that  it does not reflect the uniqueness of New Zealand.  We don't really use the word wilderness to talk about the wild places in this country, we might use words like remote, isolated, rugged and unspoilt but not wilderness. We might refer to the bush and mountains, high country and forest, but wilderness does tend in mine mind at least to have some very north American connotations. Much of the stuff for this Sunday from the Uniting Church of Australia is unique to Australia as they call this Sunday Outback Sunday and I guess that is the defining feature of that vast country.

We do live in a country that is full of wild places, even living in its largest city its only an hours drive away from bush clad hills of the Waitakere's and the amazing rugged west coast beaches. You can jump on a boat and sail out into the Hauraki gulf. Then further afield we have such amazingly diverse wild country: Milford sound and the rest of Fiordland, and the Southern Alpes, and its rivers and lakes, beech forest that goes right down to the coast. in the South Island.

One day on a trip round the south Island we camped by a track down to one of the mirror lakes and ran down to get a perfect reflection of the southern Alps just before the sun rose, we climbed up to a glacier in the morning, tramped up through rain forest to a trig station where we could see beaches and lagoons where the white heron nests in New Zealand, and those southern mountains, then in the early evening went down to a seal colony on the shore line, as it was high summer (I seem to remember) and not dark till late we decided to drive on over the Alps  via the Haast pass and into the brown hills of Central Otago.

Then there is the north Island, with its rolling farm country, tracts of preserved native forest and bush, the volcanic plateau, east cape and countless miles of coast line. My words could never do it justice.

Anyway here is my prayer for wilderness sunday... A journey from our city home to the wilds of New Zealand and back again....I know sounds a bit ' a journey there and back again' middle earthy... As always please feel free to use it or any part you find helpful. Please feel to make comment or suggestion as to how it could be made better and hopefully you can use to it express your praise to God for creation and for his presence with us.

We gather today to give you praise

Not as your people of old from desert path and farmers field

But from asphalt suburban street

From the sprawl of our hustling bustling city home

We come and raise our voices to give you thanks O Lord

 

In the rush we stop and set aside this time

We lay aside the incessant beep of electronic devise

We rest from the tightly packed demand of everyday

We still ourselves, take breath and focus afresh on you

Meet with us today and revive us we pray

 

We give you praise for our open spaces

Park lands and playing fields

Walkways and garden retreats

Beaches, estuary and sheltered harbour

Thank you God for space to play and to be

 

We give you thanks for the wild places close by

Where city gives way to Bush topped rangers

 For coastline where black sand meets pounding surf

Where Sparkling Hauraki Gulf holds off shore Island reserves

For this rugged beauty that surrounds us we give you praise

 

We give you thanks for the unique wilds of our island home

Down from high mountain top through beech forest to ice carved fiord

The Bare rock and tussock grass of high country and volcanic plateau

Inland lake and Forest stillness and the vast stretches of coastal grandeur

So amazing are you works, O Lord
 

We thank you for the way this beauty is preserved

For unique landscape and habitat protected in national park

For native forest blocks voluntarily set aside in trust

Wonders hidden and safe because of remoteness and distance

Help us to ensure that it is treasured and passed on with care

 

Help us to balance land use and need with conservation and preservation

To still our harmful demand for more and more

To share with those in need and cut back on what we waste

 Help leaders entrusted with our future in their decision making

We pray you would aid us with care for one another and creation

 

 Help us to follow you more closely

That we might follow Jesus to solitary places to meet with you

That we might follow our saviour to love and to serve

That we may follow the wind of you spirit where ever it blows  

Breathe new life in us by your word today

 

May we know your presence with us Lord,

Your grace and forgiveness as we seek you more,

New life and growth even in harsh times and places,

Your guidance in wilderness wanderings and as we walk our City Streets

May we live to bring glory to you O God:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Saturday, September 13, 2014

elemental narraphors- Earth... the parable of the field (Luke 8:4-15)


You may be good gardeners… you may have a passion for it… I’m not a good gardener and I don’t like gardening.  My dad was a great gardener. When I was growing up He spent most of his weekends out the back in his vege patch. We lived off the veges he grew… summer lunch was the freshest sweet corn dripping with butter, breakfasts came from our grapefruit tree … Desserts were often topped by bottled peaches, apples  and fejoa from our backyard… salads at dinner were made from the lettuce, cabbage and tomatoes from the garden and there always seemed to be beans

Years after my father had died Kris and I moved back to Auckland from Tauranga and lived just down the road from where my family home had been. We tried to start a garden and it was back breaking work in good old Waitakere clay. I came to appreciate what my father had achieved. He had spent a lot of time and energy in caring for the soil… he would leave a quarter of the garden fallow each year, planting lupines there to fix the nitrogen in the soil.  When spring came the compost bin would be dug out, sieved and spread out and dug in. Crops were rotated so you only had the same thing grown in the same place every four years.  

Jesus used the image of soil and trying to grow food to talk about how people would respond to his teaching, to teach us how to listen to the word of God… so it could do its work in us of producing good things.

It’s a very helpful parable because the gospels also record Jesus explaining it for his disciples. The sower is Jesus preaching, he was preaching to large crowds but the number who responded and followed seemed small. The seed is the word of God and those who listened are the various soil types.

He talked of seed falling on the road. The seeds would be unable to penetrate and be trampled or picked off by birds. He likened that to Satan being able to come along and take it away. We are not that comfortable about talking of Satan these days as the enemy of our soul, and there are others who simply talk too much about that and give him too much power. Jesus only mentions him once in this parable amongst so many other adverse conditions to good crop production.

The seeds take root in the other soil types. But one is rocky. In Judah much of the land is simply top soil over a hard limestone base and even though the seed germinates and starts to grow it cannot put its roots down far enough to get the nutrients it needs so when the hot weather of persecution or opposition comes it withers away.  Other areas are full of weeds, which grow up and compete with the plant for sunlight and water and stop it maturing. Jesus talks of life’s worries and the pursuit of wealth and pleasure as things that will do that in the lives of the listener. Finally he talks of the good soil, the soil that has been prepared to receive the seed and is able to sustain it till it produces a bountiful crop. Jesus says these are the people who hear the word retain it and patiently persevere with it.

What crop is produced I hear you say? Well this is one of a series of parables in Luke of the kingdom of God. The crop of the seeds of the word will look a lot like Jesus. Paul paints a picture of what that might look like in our lives when in Galatians 5:22 he talks about the fruit that walking in step with the spirit of God produces in our lives… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control: Character traits that reflect Jesus.

One of the great thing about parables is they are open ended invitations to continue reflecting and journeying.  We are using Leonard Sweets word narraphors to express this...They are metaphors to think with and narratives; stories that can shape our own life story. Here are a few of my reflections on how this parable connects with our lives today….

Firstly, This parable shows that Jesus was aware that different people would react to his message in different ways. That just because Jesus is God’s chosen agent did not mean people would respond to him automatically. It’s helpful when you work and minister with people to be reminded of this. During the week I had a conversation with a minister who had settled here from South Africa who said sharing the gospel with Kiwi’s was hard… it was like seed on hard ground. He had found many of the recent migrant groups to New Zealand more open to the Christian message. One of the reasons I don’t like gardening is that we’ve moved so much it invariably involves lots of breaking up hard ground, that’s hard work. We as a church are actually working in a field that is hard ground. It’s not easy work… we tend to have to do the hard years to see fruit.

Secondly, I don’t know about you but I’ve always thought that the different soil types actually referred to different people, and they do and I don’t really relate to any particular one of them . I’m sort of a mix, they all relate to me in some way. When I was at Bible College a visiting lecture invited us to reflect on this parable in a different way. He called it the parable of the field. We focus on the sower or the soil and maybe we can’t see the big picture that a sower would be working in a field that was a mix of these soil types. There would be the paths round the outside, some areas which had heaps of weeds and weed seeds, others that were rocky and thankfully others that were good, and in one way we could look at our lives like that field. To be productive we needed to work on the soil types in our field, our life just like my father worked on the good old Waitakere clay to make it productive.

How is our life like a road… The word road isn’t that helpful in our four lane asphalt world. In Jesus day it would have been well-worn walking tracks so the various farmers who lived in the villages and towns could get to their allotted fields. In my mind I couldn’t help but think about well used paths in our own life. The places we are very set in our ways… and it is difficult for the word of God to take root and bring fruit there. Some of those most resistant to Jesus message were the religious leaders of Jesus time. They were very set in their ways, they kept to certain paths and were very certain that was the right way. So when Jesus came along even though he was the fulfilment of all they were hoping for and believed they missed it. Maybe to allow the word of God to take root in those areas of our life, we need to do some spade work. This year as a parish council we’ve wanted to give people some encouragement to grow their devotional life, to try something different… not because we don’t think people develop their devotional life, but hopefully in doing a things differently like the E100 Jesus challenge and coming to church for an hour during the week to pray and even being part of a small group will help in that process. They are small invitations to take even a small step off the beaten track .

I wonder what rocks sit right under the surface of our lives as well. How deep have we let the word of God take root.  Rwanda was known as the most Christianised country in Africa, yet in  1994 it was the scene of one of the worst genocides. The gospel was very widly spread but very thin, it was a veneer over seething racial hatred. I have a friend who has been involved with church leaders in Rwanda since then  helping them working through reconciliation and seeing the gospel go deep to help people understanding a Christian way of seeing others; that we are all made in God’s image and we are called to love our enemies. That may seem a bit extreme but we like them are blind to our own cultural conditioning. At the moment I am reading a book which is wrestling with the fact that much of what is taught as Church leadership today has more to do with our western understanding of success and achievement rather than emulating the life of Christ. It kicks up some rocky ground for all of us…How much of the way we see what we want out of life is shaped in the same way. Is it a Jesus shaped vision or a culturally shaped one? Often breaking up that ground takes time.  The nurture of the soul and the pursuit of Long range spiritual development and ministry gets second place.

When I mention weeds If you are like me then you’ve probably got a list as long as mine of things that are keeping you up at night, that compete with our faith for space and light and energy. I have to admit I’ve found myself focusing on the weeds in my life recently. Not to pull them out but the way they are getting on top of me, many have to do with the future of the church here. On Friday in the e100 essential Jesus we had the reading from John about Jesus raising Lazarus back to life… It was like a seed germinated… I was focusing on the doom and gloom of the tomb, not on the resurrection power of Jesus Christ… I had to pray the words of Martha “Jesus, I believe that you are the messiah, sent from God” and reaffirm my faith in Jesus. It has actually loosened up those weeds hold. It’s a step in the process of weeding them out.

What does good soil look like? Thursday started out a good day this week, U2 released a new studio album after five years… and what made it even better was that it was free. If you are a U2 fan you’ve got two weeks to download it from iTunes for free. AS usual its full of good tunes and profound lyrics… One of the songs spoke to me as I was thinking about what good soil looked like… It said ‘the only heart that is open is a heart that is broken’. Now I don’t think that means we should walk around with all the wounds and hurts we’ve suffered in the past not healed, I actually believe Jesus wants us to find wholeness and health in relationship with him… But in those words I couldn’t help but hear the invitation in the beatitudes that those who will be blessed are those who are aware they are poor, who are aware of their need for God, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who seek peace with a single mindedness. 

I’m not a good gardener but my heavenly father is a great gardener… the encouragement to us as we work through all this is that we have a God who has dirt under his finger nails. Who is willing to get his hands dirty in our lives to see the seed of his word take root and grow and produce fruit. In genesis we see God forming humans out of earth and breathing life into that form. In Isaiah we see Israel as God’s vineyard, which he goes about tending, lavishing his care on… that is picked up by Jesus in the New Testament as he encourages us to abide in him, I am the vine he says in John 15 and my father is the gardener. In Jeremiah 18 there is the vision of God as the potter shaping his people into a beautiful earthen vessel.  We have god who has dirt under his finger nails… Our heavenly Father is a great gardener. We need to let him tend the field that is our life… to make it more fruitful.

I want to invite you to take a moment or two just to focus on the soil we’ve given you and maybe as you do use it as a way of looking at various soil types in your life. Then as I close that off in prayer I want to invite you to plant a seed… it’s a seed of a plant we can plant out later in our garden out the back. It’s a sunflower seed and as we started the service by sayng sunflowers area great parable as they follow the sun through life.