Monday, January 19, 2015

And Now For Something Completely Different: An Introduction to the Book of James (James 1:1).... Shedding Light on the Epistle of Straw: Finding a Faith That Works In The Book Of James (part 1)


This is the introductory Message for a Series of Messages I'll be preaching on the book of James. I try and read through the Epistle once a day at the moment and still I find my self aware that it just feels so different than the other epistles in the New Testament or even the gospels...But despite that difference and yes even viva la difference it has a strong important message for us today... But first if I may a spot of Monty Python...




 ….“ And now for something completely different’… became a catch phrase in the TV show Monty Python’s flying Circus… They’d borrowed it from a BBC children TV show and made it their own… John Cleese would appear as a well-dressed BBC presenter behind a corporate BBC presenters desk, usually in some bizarre setting like the cage in the clip we just saw.  It would then segue into some crazy Monty python sketch…like the fish slap dance…” By the time the second series came out they used it to open the whole show. They made a movie called “and now for something completely different”  by cobbling together the best of the first two series to try and crack the American market.

When I came to reading through and reading about the book of James in the New Testament … “and now for something completely different” came to mind. You see James stands out as being different. Different from the other letters we have in the New Testament…  So much so in fact that it has been a focus for much controversy…  like Martin Luther calling it an epistle of straw.

It’s so  different because it is  by a different author… it’s a one off… But someone called James...My son James was born in Rotorua when we worked at St John’s and there were a lot of James associated with that church… the minister name was Jim, short for James his oldest son was James… one of my Youth group leadership team was James… We had several James in the Youth group… one we called little Jimmy till he grew to be a good six foot two… then it was just ironic. Another James got the nick name diesel when the tractor he was driving round the streets of Rotorua to quickly do his paper run before a youth group ski trip ran out of diesel and right in the drive way of a local hotel …  But When we called James, James I had to tell all these people that really it was despite them rather than because of them that we did it… At the time I didn’t know that Kris’ dad’s middle name was James… but can I just say that was a good way to get some brownie points as a son in law…

When it comes to the name James in the New Testament we have the same difficulty, you see there are twelve James mentioned in the New Testament, as the Greek version of the Hebrew Jacob it was very popular. Two disciples were called James. James who was John’s brother the son of Zebedee and James son of Alphaeus   One we are told was martyred very early on and the other one is never really mentioned that much. Scholars pretty much agree that the James here is the James Paul calls the brother of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15. In the gospels we find that Jesus brothers did not believe that he was the messiah but Paul mentions the fact that Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection. He is the James who as we read through the book of Acts we find is the head of the church in Jerusalem. He’s the James Paul comes to talk with when he comes and visits the apostles, He is the James who in Acts 15 who makes the decision and writes the letter at the end of what is known as the council of Jerusalem, about the question how Jewish do you need to be to be a follower of Jesus?  Later in extra biblical material he is referred to as James the just, in another tradition he is affectionately called James camel knees supposedly because of the calluses on his knees because of the amount of time he spent on his knees in prayer.  It adds real power to the impassioned plea for a life of prayer that James finishes his letter with.

In the greeting at the beginning of the letter to James, he does not use any of these indications of position or status or nick names but simply identified himself as a servant, a household slave, of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not his family ties or his position and office or even his reputation that is of any importance rather his relationship with God and with Jesus Christ as his Lord and saviour. One of the differences you will notice in the book of James is that he is not long of theology, but here we see that James has a clear understanding of the divinity of Jesus mentioning him in the same breath as God. And also we have insight to what James has to say to us that at the centre of who we are and what we do is that relationship with Jesus. In fact for James that relationship needs to be reflected in all we do. It’s not the feel good phrasing of a Christian form letter or a belief it is to worked out in how we face trials and temptations, what we say, how we treat each other, our attitude to the poor and much, much more that we will see as we explore what he has to say. To call Christ Lord is to serve Christ.

Another thing that makes James seem so different is that It was possibly written for a different audience than we are used to thinking about with the other letters in the New Testament, particularly from Paul. In fact if you look at how the books of the New Testament are put together James starts the section known as the general epistles, written for wide circulation rather than to one specific church, group, person or situation.  We are used to the story of the spread of the gospel outlined in Acts, with its focus on how the gospel came from its beginnings in Jerusalem to the centre of the then world, Rome. With its focus on the gospel being preached primarily by Paul to the gentiles… and the Pauline letters seem to fit very well with that movement… It fits with us because for most of us this is the beginning of our story. Greek thought, the Roman world, Europe.  The concerns of most of Paul’s letters are the concerns in those churches full of new gentile believers wrestling to understand their new faith and how to live it out in community. Hebrews and James seem to be written to a different audience.  The letter of James is seen to follow the style of what is known as a diaspora letter, written from someone of importance to Jews who had dispersed throughout the world exhorting them to keep the faith.

 James addresses his letter to the “twelve tribes” scattered among the nations. Some have seen this as a letter written to Jewish believers or even as a Jewish letter simply adapted for Jewish Christians. But from an early time the church would have had both Jewish and gentile believers. There is some evidence like the mention in James 2 of people coming to your synagogue that this letter was written very early before the destruction of the temple in 70ad and before Christians were exclude from Synagogues. In acts we see that when Stephen is martyred the Christians in Jerusalem scatter it’s the start of that diaspora of the Christian faith. James is writing then to group who have been believers been from early on and who now find themselves in different and difficult situations.  Some f the things that make it seem so different come from the fact it was written for a predominantly Jewish audience.

When you read it, it seems to go all over the place and not follow a nice linear argument. WE are used to our literature and our arguments and our logic being linear. I remember a Cook Island evangelist speaking in an evening service in Rotorua. The cook island people were very moved and absorbed by what she had to say. I found it hard to follow and I was amazed at how many of my youth leaders reacted negatively… they hated it… Where was the logic... where was the flow... the linear argument the three succinct points...  (if you have a look at the image beside this section it's kind of like  being given this picture in reply to the question is the glass half full or empty) … it was a good lesson for us that different cultures speak and think in different ways. She would make a point then talk around it and come back in a very cyclic manner. James does that kind of thing to us as well. He speaks for a very different culture in a very different way... which does not negate what he says it just means we have to listen a bit harder...

One benefit is that James tends to write very much like the wisdom literature in the Old Testament and it is full of these wonderful word pictures and pithy one liners and proverbs that are easy for us to remember.   (In New Zealand we are used to this kind of thing very much like when you listen to Maori speak they will often sum things up with a proverb)
We have a good example of this wisdom emphasis in the few verses we had read out to us today where James emphasis on suffering is that it is when our faith is put to the test that it grows character in us and brings us to maturity. I remember having a conversation with another James… Dr James Ukaegbu  a past moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria and who was a missionary in the predominantly Muslim north of the country, who turned to me in a very James wisdom like manner and said “agh Yes It is suffering that matures a man.”

It is also different because for this audience his emphasis is different he is more concerned with the ethical teaching of Jesus, It actually feels very much like Jesus teaching in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7 and the sermon on the plain in Luke 6.  This emphasis is because his concerned is with a “disconnect” between what People believe and how they act. He is aware that away from Jerusalem they are also being influenced by the world views and behaviours around them. They may believe in Jesus as Lord and saviour, but don’t even the demons believe that, it needs to be lived out in how we speak and act. FAITH WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD. It’s not really faith…

These differences actually make it very relevant to us. AS a general epistle James speaks to all ages and all times and this message about faith being put into action is very relevant to our own time and our own lives. Because we too live in an age which has a disconnect between what we believe and how we live. One commentator talks about that disconnect coming because we live in the TV or in more correctly the Information age. We suffer from information overload we hear  so many good ideas and we find that we do not let it affect how we act and live.  This summer for example we’ve had the best adverts and info and well some mixed messages about speed limits but the holiday road toll went up… and speed and alcohol were major factors.  Like for James initial readers we need to ask God for wisdom…. Not information… wisdom to know how to filter and apply what we know to our lives.

It relevant to our Church lives and discipleship… I have a friend who talks about the fact that in Christian thought about church and discipleship he   over time there is a move in emphasis between what he calls the three ‘B’s and in the Christian life which order they come in… Belonging; that we are called to be together as the people of God, and what is important is that we come and we belong.  Believing: It is important what we believe the right thing, doctrine and understanding is central and important, it’s interesting that at certain times during church history what we believe has been the defining factor. When people ask me about denominations and how they started my usual answer is well the short answer is history and geography, but the other thing is a strong emphasis on different doctrines and understandings. In fact the book of James itself was a victim of that. Martin Luther wanted it removed from the New Testament cannon, because in chapter 2 it does seem to fly in the face of the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. James says ‘Faith without works is dead’ The third B is behaving: The emphasis is on how our faith actually effects what we do. The way we treat each other, not showing preference to the rich the powerful and the important, not complaining and arguing, just business practises, how we speak. That is where James focus lies… he is exhorting us to have a faith that works.

And can I say it is a very challenging emphasis… AS I have read and reread James this year… boy does it hit home. But it is an important message for us to hear. The fact that we belong, that we are a family… the twelve tribes together… is important and we are a community. What we believe is important. But  it’s very important in an age where Christians are ridiculed for the lack of difference, where the church is caricatured about being about what’s in your wallet and not about being a servant of God… sadly that has almost become Christian speak for a Christian celebrity. To focus on working out our faith in our behaviour in  practical ways.

 James longs for us to behave in a way that when people meet us  in a good way its… “and now for something completely different.”  Someone who acts a lot like Jesus…

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Timely Reminder of A Timeless Message (Luke 2:1-18) Christmas Day 2014


 
 
I really like the videos the kids from St Paul’s Symonds Street  put together for Christmas… that one was from last year 2013..and it’s great that they are willing to let people freely use their resources. And if you don't mind the pun its really a Christmas video with star power...

The video is great because it puts the Christmas story in a context we are used to seeing in our living rooms every day, we flick on the Tele and watch the news.

I’m not sure about the baby glowing… But the video invoke realistic  images we are used to seeing, events that impact on our lives in the world today …cramming content in between breaks… reporters wearing bullet proof vests… the reflect to duck at a loud sound or unexplained light… armed soldiers in the street… there to maintain law and order in middle eastern towns…there at the command of the powerful to impose their ideology and their rule on the people… crowds of displaced peoples… over flowing into the streets flooding the roads and having to find shelter where they can. Unrest and violence … if you are wondering where that unrest is in the biblical narrative well biblical scholars have always  found it hard to pin point the census that Luke is talking about… they do know that when they had a certain census under Quirinius that it did cause riots and unrest… People knew it was all about taxes.

I don’t know about you but those very real connections with the way things are today made me think… it was a timely reminder of a timeless message. That the good news of Jesus Christ is a message of hope for our world today as much as it was the dawn of a new hope way back then.

Amidst the ebb and flow of empires the kingdom of God was established… the rule of God came to the realms of humanity… NT wright puts it like this “Augusts way off in Rome was at the height of his power. He was seen as the saviour of the world> he was its king and it’s Lord. He was the self-styled son of god. .. But the birth of the baby is the starting point of a confrontation between the kingdom of God in all its apparent weakness, insignificance and vulnerability and the kingdom of this world.”

It’s important for us to know that because of Jesus Christ, his birth, life and death and resurrection the kingdom of God has come into the world… there is a light for all humanity. God has made a way for us to have our sins forgiven and to know God as our heavenly father, to be empowered to live in a new way. In the daunting news from round the world that floods into our living rooms and which can sometimes overwhelm us it is good to know that an alternative narrative is also at work. Maybe not in the grandiose and big ways, but like with a birth of a baby in ways that may go unnoticed.  I read an article last week about someone who was wondering how Jesus born in a manger might feel about religious rituals, soring cathedrals and multimedia palaces that have been erected in his name… Then the writer stopped and said that the things that focused him on Jesus again were the small things, being done by ordinary people, sacrificial love being shown by those who claim to know and follow Jesus… he noted with respect and awe that the Time Person of the year this year is not one person of power or significance but a group of people a majority of them Christians working with the victims of Ebola in West Africa.

The kingdom and hope born with that baby in Bethlehem is established in this world by people who know him and follow him who are willing to love others, often un heralded and unseen… people who  because they are forgiven forgive others, who because they have received so much from God are willing to give people who know the freedom and life that Jesus brings are willing like the shepherds to simply tell other what they have witnesses to be true.

I
t is also a timely reminder of a timeless message in New Zealand today… because today marks the 200th anniversary of the proclamation of the gospel in Aotearoa New Zealand. Before your Christmas lunch today at 11am you might want to flick on the TV and see the live telecast of the Christmas day service from the Marsden cross at Rangihoua Bay in northland.  Ruatara the nephew of ngapuhi chief Hongi Heke had spent time with Samuel Marsden in Parramatta new south wales, he appreciated the kindness and respect he was shown so he invited MArsden to come to New Zealand and establish a Mission. Marsden preached the first service on Christmas day 1814.  Maori and Pakeha first lived together in that place the first school was established on that site.  It is good to have a timely reminder this Christmas about the impact and the possibility of the gospel here in our land.

In an increasingly multicultural city and nation it is important to remember that the gospel invites us to see one another as ‘One in Christ’… whanau because we are Brothers and sisters… as John tells us  the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us and  to all who received him he gave the right to be called the sons and daughters of the most high.”

  In a country beset with inequality and a nation and world wrestling with how to deal with poverty, it good to be reminded that the good news of Jesus birth was shared first with lowly shepherds that the one who came to establish his kingdom and said blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God.

In the face of sin and death it is good to again reminded of the power of the gospel to bring forgiveness and new life.

In the face of feeling hopeless in the face of so many things it is good to remember the hope of the kingdom of God, established in Christ carried by Christ in the lives of those who know him and awaiting consummation in Christ’s return.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Make Haste (Luke 2 1-18) Christmas eve 2014

Right after Christmas I went on Holiday and Didn't post my Christmas eve or Christmas day messages... better late than never... happy new year and welcome back to work... Sigh...
As I sat down and read Luke’s account of Jesus Birth four words stood out to me “so they hurried off” … I couldn’t get past them because, taken out of context, they summed up a lot of how people talk about Christmas time and the  emotions and reality that goes with this time of year.

Life seems to speed up…we hurry off… there is the hurry of exams and end of school things, the end of work dos… then we hurry to finish off the shopping, and the planning and the wrapping and the decorating and the baking and getting ready for the supposedly leisurely, relaxed Christmas family gatherings and end of year celebrations…  

We hurry to finish everything off so we can go away on our summer holidays and relax. We hurry to complete all those jobs that need doing, the end of year accounts, the things that just won’t wait till we get back, and telling those who will just have to wait till we get back that they will just have to wait till we get back.

Sadly the news has told us of the hurry of the Salvation Army and the City Mission to pack food parcels and get ready to feed lots of people and try to keep pace with the amount of need they are being asked to meet this year

… and on the other side of the coin on the news we were told that retailers were waiting for that Christmas rush to kick in, hoping that we all would hurry off to their store and buy, buy, buy. 

Last Saturday it seemed to have kicked in because it was bumper to bumper down the motorway as people seemed to be hurrying somewhere to do something, but no one was getting anywhere in a hurry.

And a lot of them must of hurried off on holiday because on Monday morning I was waiting at the pedestrian crossing on Great South Road and normally it’s the ironically slow crawling congestion of rush hour…but it seemed like the city was deserted… our part of Auckland was like a sleepy country town… in fact the only vehicle waiting at the lights was an old Massey-Ferguson tractor.  

In the midst of our ‘and they hurried off’ we can miss the context of those words we can miss the wonder of the coming of Jesus Christ. In a devotion I read recently the author talked of trying to de-clutter and de stress his December… To make room for the important things… His family and celebrating his faith… But sadly he wasn’t managing to do it, he was defeated in his efforts. This story comes from the northern hemisphere and one of things that really concerned him was that he would miss his young son’s preschool midwinter production as it clashed with a business meeting.  When he had mentioned this to his son’s teacher she had said that parents who couldn’t make it to the production were able to come to the dress rehearsal on the morning of the show.

Relieved he went along and watched as his son and the other children preformed classic secular Christmas songs like Rudolf the red nosed reindeer and jingle bells… But he was also aware that he had to keep an eye on the time… he’d have to hurry off afterwards. The kids last song was called  Christmas Love and they stood along the stage holding cards with letters they had decorated  to spell that out… but the shy young girl holding the “M” had held her card up upside down so it formed a “w”… the man said in that God reached through his lso they hurried off’  to focus him again on  what was of paramount importance You see it spelled out “ Christ was Love”

And you know when you come to a midnight Christmas Eve service the last thing you want to be reminded of is the ‘so they hurried off” of life. I’m sorry for doing that but there is something in those words, when we view them in context that are important for us…

We are so used to the Christmas story that we forget that Christ’s birth almost went without notice that first Christmas. It wasn’t even a blip on the busy world stage of its day. Luke starts his account quit rightly with who the world would have said was the most important person the roman emperor Caesar Augustus. He had come to power after a bloody civil war between his father Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony and quite rightly could be seen in roman eyes as the saviour of the world, the roman world, and the prince of peace, pax roma, won and maintained by over whelming military power.  He definitely wanted the title ‘lord” and as he set up the worship of his father as a god he could even clay claim the title ‘son of god’. He asserted his authority by declaring a census… He wanted everyone to register so they could be taxed, he had an empire and an army to maintain. 

So everyone had to hurry off to their town of birth to register, Even Joseph and Mary, even though Mary was pregnant, and it was such an upheaval that all the guest house rooms were booked solid. And in all the hurry it would be easy to miss another four words that as a father of Four I can tell you demand our attention… “The time came for …” the time came for Mary’s son was born.   In the humblest of circumstance a new King was being born, in the humblest of circumstance the true king was being born, in the humblest of circumstances a saviour was born not to save a political or social system in this world but rather as Mary was told to save God’s people from their sins.  Not to do quash conflict and resistance but to bring about peace with God and through that a chance to be reconciled with each other. The true Lord, because as John tells us in this child Gods word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.

It could have gone unnoticed except for angels appearing to a group of shepherds, people on the margin of their society,  who were going about their everyday or every night work, watching their sheep, caring for their flock. They are told the good news a descendant of David, a king is being born, who is the saviour and the Lord, and that they will find him lying in a manger in an animal’s feeding trough. 

When the angel left it tells us ‘so they hurried off’ they hurried off to see what they had been told was true, and when they found the baby they knew it was true. And their hurrying off is an example for us of how to respond to the Good News of Christ birth and who he is and what he has come to do for us… They hurried to see if it was true… It is an example for us in our lives to come look and see… to come and to see and to know and to put our trust in the one who is God's chosen king and saviour… Jesus Christ. For them it was a one off event but for us it is a continuing journey… to come and see Christ the Child...yes... but to come and to see Christ the man who spoke of grace and God’s truth, a new way to live … to come and see the one who gave his life on the cross… that all we had done wrong could be forgiven…  to see Jesus raised from death and alive again… to come and see Jesus who invites us to follow him.

The shepherds didn’t stop hurrying once they have seen it is true… they hurry off to tell anyone who would listen about what they had seen and heard and about what they knew… They are witnesses to who Jesus is.  They return to their everyday life, their every night work giving thanks and praising God. To come and to see the truth of who Jesus, born in a manger is, is to be changed and transformed to become conveyers and witnesses to that Good News. To give thanks and praise to God for who Jesus is and what he done for us…  May you take the time this Christmas to stop and be still… and then to hurry off… and see and know Christ…

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Laodicea: A Church Where Jesus was on the outer!!! (Revelations 3:14-22)


 
The letter to the church at Laodicea is both the easiest and the hardest of the seven letters to the seven churches in revelations to preach on.

The easiest because it’s the “ most concrete in local colour” we have such a great depth of information about the city that opens up and brings alive what Christ has to say to the church… right down to knowing about Laodicea’s plumbing problems…

 
But it is also the hardest because it really packs a punch… it hits home… Not only does it speak specifically to a church in a city in Asia Minor at the end of the first century … it sadly resonates with the Christian church in the west at the beginning of the twenty first century… Have we like them become complacent and think we are self-sufficient in our affluent society? Have we like them, then and there, become Luke warm and half-hearted in our faith? We seem to have everything we need and just maybe we’ve left Christ on the outer!!!What is the spirit saying to the churches? What is the spirit saying to us?

 
Laodicea is the last stop on our journey through the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. A Journey that has not only followed the mailman along the main road through the province but has weaved it way through Jesus speaking to a whole kaleidoscope of churches wrestling with different issues… As John Stott summaries it...The Ephesians were urged to return to their first fresh love for Christ. The Christians at Smyrna are encouraged to remain true even in the face of suffering. Pergamum is told to champion truth in the face of error. Thyatira is to follow righteousness in the face of evil. In Sardis there is a call for inward reality behind an outward show. The church without much strength at Philadelphia is offered open doors for evangelism and service and called to boldly step through. In the letter to Laodicea complacency is challenged with a powerful appeal for wholeheartedness.  A call I need to hear, a call we all need to hear…

Laodicea was the chief of three cities in the Lycos river valley. The other two cites were Hierapolis  and Colossae. It was famous for three things. Firstly it was famous for its wealth: it was the Switzerland of the ancient near east, it was the banking capital. It was also the centre of a very lucrative garment trade; famous for cloth made from the very soft black wool. It was a centre for healing, known for a very effective eye ointment made from minerals found in the area. It was so wealthy that several members of a prominent family were considered royalty in roman society, they earned the title king. It was so wealthy that when the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 AD they turned down Imperial aid to rebuild the city, they could do it themselves.  It would be like Christchurch turning down government aid to rebuild. The city and the church took pride in the resources they had at their disposal.

 
The other thing the city was famous for was it water. Rather its water problem. Eleven Km’s  in one direction were hot springs at Hierapolis, a  tall water fall of boiling water, very much like the lost  pink and white terraces in Rotorua is there,  Water that was known for its healing and recuperative properties. Seven km in the other direction was Colossae known for its cold mountain spring water, beautiful clear and refreshing. But Laodicea had no natural water source so it bought water in by an elaborate aqueduct and pipe system.  By the time water got to the city it had either become too cool to provide good bathing or had heated up too much to be good drinking water.

 We know from archaeological evidence as well that the pipes often solidified because of the amount of lime and other minerals in the water. The people in Laodicea were always complaining about their water. It was like a public drinking fountain on a hot summer day you take one sip and you want to spit it out as it was tepid and undrinkable. Jesus uses this image to tell the church how he felt about the condition they had allowed themselves to get into. Like the drinking water they were neither hot nor cold and because they were tepid, lukewarm,  Christ would spit them out, they were vomit inducing.

 
Now people have often seen neither hot nor cold to mean that Christ would prefer they were either whole hearted or passionate or totally against him. But the people at Laodicea would have known that if the water was cold it would be refreshing and wonderful to drink, there is nothing like an ice cold drink after you have been toiling in the sun for a period of time. Or hot and full of healing properties. Like a soak in a hot bath at the end of an arduous day. But the church was neither of these.

 
Jesus introduces himself to this church as the Amen, the true and faithful witness, because he sees thing as they really are and speaks the truth about them. In the gospels Jesus would start many of his saying with the phrase truly, truly signifying that what he is about to say is both important and true. He is speaking to a church that  is deluded about their true condition. Very much like the “you’ve heard it said”… “but I say”… formula in the ‘sermon on the mount’ Jesus contrasts the Churches understanding of their condition with his own… They say they are rich and wealthy and do not need anything, just like their city had said to the emperor,  but Jesus sees their true condition they are wretched, pitiful and poor , blind and naked.  They may think they are wealthy, there is money in the bank, but when it came to storing up treasures in heaven the vault was empty. All the women might look good in their fashionable little black dresses and the men all take pride in the black jersey, but in spiritual terms they don’t have a stitch to wear, nakedness speaks of shame; their true condition is plain for Christ to see. They may be able to heal certain eye problems with ointment, but just as in John’s gospel where Jesus compares the Pharisees to the man born blind, they need their spiritual eyes open.

 
I wonder in the west if it is not the same, we have such a high standard of living, and we can easily think we are OK. We have a comfortable life… Even in this country when we talk of child poverty it is not something we need Christ’s help with we think it can be solved by political will or economic policy. We have the resources within ourselves. One of the ways people talk about God is that God is there for the cracks, the gaps and with science and understanding and human knowledge the gaps seem to be getting smaller, we’ve covered over the cracks perhaps and so well we don’t actually need God in our intellectual framework. We feel we can heal the human condition both physically and on a deep psychological level through our medicine and understanding, even there we seem to have stepped aside from needing the great physician… we have great traditions and rituals and artefacts that help keep us sustained and maybe we can forget the spiritual reality behind those things. Our zeal and our passion can fall away, we can become lukewarm.

 
In response to that Christ’s call is for the church to come to him… to remind them that in their world of choice and plenty that only Christ is the source of eternal life. That only Christ is the source of things that satisfy spiritually and last eternally.  He calls them to come to him and buy gold refined in the fire, white clothes that will cover their shame, and salve for their eyes that will make them able to see properly.

 It is a bit hard to think of us buying Gold from Christ, what do we have that we can give him, but Jesus tells the parable that the kingdom of God is like  the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price that the person was willing to give up all they had to possess it. All they had… to be all in not half hearted.  At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount the way to receive the kingdom of God the first step to being all in was to know that you were spiritual poor.  But the cost is to be all in for Christ.

 
Christ offers us white garments, that we can be clothed in his righteousness, that he is faithful and just and forgives us our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.  Likewise our eyes can be closed to the spiritual reality around us and we need to turn to Christ again to open our eyes and allow us to see. It is only in knowing and following and fixing our eyes on Christ that we can run the race, that we will find fullness of life, not a comfortable life but a full eternal life.

 
We often think of such hard words as the ones that are said to the church at Laodicea as being about an angry wrathful God, but Jesus continues his invitation to the church at Laodicea by letting them know that those whom he loves he rebukes and disciples. The writer of Hebrews quotes proverbs to encourage us in times of difficulty by affirming that God as a father disciplines his children because he loves us. Christ’s invitation to come to him comes out of his great love for the church his great love for us, his great sacrificial love for you. The hand that disciplines is a nail pieced hand…

 
The way to change their heart condition was to turn and to earnestly seek Christ again, to know their spiritual condition and acknowledge their need for him. Cities in the ancient near east were seen as being places of safety. They were walled with large gates and at sunset the gates to the city would be closed. The Ephesus gate at Laodicea is only just visible above ground(see image to left). But  If you were still on the road, running late, and you arrived late you would have to bang on the city gate hoping that someone would hear you and come and open the gate and let you in. This is the picture that Jesus uses to couch his invitation to the church at Laodicea.  Behold I stand at the door and knock if anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with them and they with me. 

 
We are used to seeing this passage through the art work of Holman Hunts painting ‘the light of the world’ and equating it with people coming to salvation, but the offer here is made to people in the church, yes to individuals, but within the church to again be open to Christ. The picture of sitting down to a meal is one of sharing table fellowship with a person, the most intimate of ways of sharing life together. Repentance and the way to wholeheartedness is again to hear Jesus voice to focus on him, to know the reality that we celebrate in communion, that he is with us and feeds us and sustains us. To know how much he loves us. To be people who don’t simply have Jesus as an add on to an already busy life but the one who at its centre and source.

 Jesus promise to those who are victorious who come back to him and follow wholeheartedly is that they will reign with him, they will share his throne. In Laodicea the height of their wealth was that some important people in the community were considered to be kings they had earned the title in the roman society. But Jesus is offering so much more to his people, why settle for what this world has to offer when Christ offers so much more when he comes fully into his kingdom.  We are used to the beatitudes in Matthews Gospel, and we forget that they also appear in Luke’s Gospel in what is called the sermon on the plain in Luke chapter 6. I think we prefer Matthew because Luke is a little more blunt than Matthew and also because he includes a list of woes as well. He says blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God, and we need to be aware that we are impoverished and we need Christ, but Luke adds a corresponding woe, woe to those who are rich, for they have had their fill in this world. Wealth in its self is not wrong but…  If we fill our lives with and trust and rely on the things of this world we’ve had our fill, and is there room for Christ.

,  “The restoration of the church” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer “ will surely come from a new kind of community, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ(will be full hearted for Christ). I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.”

  The letter to the church at Laodicea says that starts with Individuals coming alive again and wholehearted for Christ… the ‘anyone’ who hears my voice… Do you hear Jesus knocking and calling this morning?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Philadelphia: The Encouragement of An Open Door For a Church On Shaky Ground (Revelations 3:7-13)


Just before the service we were having a discussion over weather the code in the image the left was in binary or hexadecimal code... I used it because when it comes to the letters to the seven churches they can seem to be written in code... maybe not machine code but code none the less and  the letter to the church at Philadelphia seems full of intrigue and mystery with its talk of a key and an open door and a pillar.  We need to decipher the code that John uses to speak to the heart of this church facing difficulties and suffering. It’s a code worth deciphering so we can hear the message that this letter has for us. That we can hear the message Grant Osbourne says “every small church in a difficult area of ministry will find encouraging.”  That we can hear the message that “every Christian uncertain of his or her gifts and place in the church as a whole will be comforted by” That we can hear the message that “God is more interested in our faithfulness that success.” That we can hear what the spirit is saying to the churches, and in particular what the spirit is saying to us. 

We’ve just been doing a church survey and thank you to everyone who filled out the survey, its part of the on-going process of honestly evaluating where we are now so we can plan and look to the future. The seven letters to the seven churches at the beginning of Revelations are like that review process, like Jesus filled out the survey, looking at where the church was at, assessing its strengths and weaknesses. Some of the things that are said may seem rather hard and harsh, but they are not intended to write off the churches, to judge or condemn them, but rather to right the church, putting them back on track. The letter to the church at Philadelphia does not receive any criticism only encouragement  about possibilities even in the face suffering and opposition.

 Revelations is a book designed to comfort and prepare the church to face what is to come… and it starts by evaluating where the church is at, an honest assessment from the one who walks amongst the seven lampstands, Christ who sees and knows their deeds. That is why we are looking at these letters and seeking to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches… Christ loves us, Christ knows us and Christ is with us and speaks to prepare us for what is to come or more importantly for the one who is to come.

Philadelphia is about 44 km’s to the south east of Sardis, and it is the next logical stop for the postman delivering these letters. It is the youngest of the cities in the region. It was founded by Pergamum in 198bc and given its name because of the love the king of Pergamum had for his brother.   If we were going to do comparisons with New Zealand cities, you could say it was the Christchurch of the province. 

Firstly it was designed to be a little bit of Greek culture transplanted to the province of Asia, I guess a little bit like Christchurch was designed to be a taste of ol’England down under, or Dunedin was to be the Edinburgh of the south. It was strategically placed at the cross roads of the provinces in the interior of Asia, and was designed to showcase and spread Greco-Roman culture throughout those regions.

Secondly, this is how the Greek historian and geographer Strabo described the city

“Philadelphia has not even its walls secure, but they are daily shaken and split in some degree. The people continually pay attention to earth tremors and plan their buildings with this factor in mind… It is a city full of earthquakes.”

As we’ve worked our way through the seven letters the 17ad earthquake has often featured and while other cities had been damaged by the earthquake Philadelphia was at its epicentre. People moved out of the city into the country side around it in fear of earthquakes. AS a major winegrowing area it was also hit hard when the roman emperor Domitian decreed that wine production in the empire should be cut in half to encourage corn to be grown to feed his army.

We don’t know much about the church in Philadelphia except from what we have in this letter. It was a church that had little strength…it was possibly small and did not have much status in Roman society. It had faced persecution and suffering. We see the synagogue of Satan mentioned again, the church was originally seen as a Jewish sect, which meant that it was afforded some protection in roman society who valued civilizations that were older than their own. But it seems that here the door to the synagogue had been closed, the Christians are cut off, thrown out, Jewish believers were disowned by family members and neighbours. They were said to no longer be part of God’s people. Even in the face of this and the hardships of living in a quake filled city their faith was not shaken, they had held on and not denied Jesus name.

It’s with this back ground that we look at what the spirit is saying to this church.

We are introduced to the one who is speaking as the one, who is holy and true, or more precisely to the Holy one and the true one, Old Testament titles for God, the synagogue may have written the believers off but Israel’s God the Holy one and the True one had not.  He is further seen as the one who holds the keys of David in his hand. In Isaiah 22:22 there is a prophecy against the Stewart in King Hezekiah’s court that the keys of David will be taken away from him and given to another, to Eliakim son of Hilkiah. The person who had the keys was the person who controlled entry to the palace and also access to the king’s presence as well. Here Jesus is saying that he is the one who holds the keys now to the kingdom of David’s descendant. While the Synagogue of Satan may have said the Christians were cut off from God but the truth is that Christ who has the keys has opened the door, and no one but him can close it.  It is encouragement to the church that despite what they have suffered and been through that Jesus is the door that leads to life, and by his death and resurrection he has opened it, they are not shut out.

The door to the kingdom is open and in Christ we are all invited to come on in. It’s Christ’s invitation. But also for a church that has faced such hardship and suffering it also encourages them that even though they don’t seem that strong and big and important, that the door is open for mission and evangelism and service. They had done a good job in the difficult times holding on to their faith, but the one who knows their deeds is inviting them to see that he has opened doors for them as well. It is easy when you lack strength and are tired to simply find yourself with tunnel vision, focusing on the difficulties and the problems and you can miss the opportunities that God has placed before us. It is easy perhaps to have our eyes full of the doors that have been slammed in our faces so we do not see the open doors. AS I mentioned before Philadelphia was built as a missionary town, to pass on Greco-Roman culture it was at the intersection of roads to the provinces around it that may not have been as fully churched as the province of Asia and that was a possibility it had before it.  Verse nine talks of some from the synagogue of Satan coming and bowing down to them and acknowledging that they are indeed God’s beloved, it speaks not only of a future time like in Old Testament prophecies when the gentile nations will come and acknowledge Israel’s God, but speaks of the fact that even those who oppress the church who seem closed to the gospel may well respond and come to Christ. They may have closed the door but Christ is the one who has the keys and the door to the kingdom of God is open.

The message to this church struggling and without much strength is that Christ has opened door for them and they are to keep faithfully witnessing to Jesus Christ. One of the good definitions for mission is the reality that God is at work in the world by his Spirit and our call is to go and find where the spirit is at work in the world and join in what the spirit is doing, in terms of people being open to the gospel, in terms of showing love on a personal level, in service in the community and in the wider world. We can keep on banging our heads on doors that have been closed, on ways things used to be, or we think they should be and actually miss the open doors that are before us. When I worked at the university I spent time with Harry Morgan at St Andrews Symonds Street and the church there had been wrestling with the change of demographics in the area around them, it was so different than the traditional congregation of anglo-scots. Harry’s response was that it was a door of opportunity not a closed door… so they changed the service title to an international service in English, which was very welcoming and inviting to a very cosmopolitan and international community in the city centre. They started conversational English class and bible study. They asked the international folk who had started coming to the church to make suggestions on how they could be more inviting and welcoming…  It’s still a church that struggles but it has had an impact on people all round the world from seeing that simple opportunity…

In the end Jesus command to the church at Philadelphia was patient endurance, to keep on being faithful witnesses to the gospel, to the door that Christ had opened for all to come to him and to keep on looking for the doors of service and witness that Christ had opened for them to step through. I tell you what it’s easy to try and look for a silver bullet that will solve everything, but we are not offered that rather open doors opportunities for patient endurance.

Then in verse 10 there is the assurance that the Holy one the true one will keep them through the trials that the whole world is to go through. This has been interpreted in different ways. Some see it as Christ’s assurance that while they go through trials and suffering now he will spare them the final judgement. Others have seen it as a reference to what some call the rapture, a belief that God will come back and take his church away before the final tribulation comes… But in keeping with Christ’s call that they endure patiently it is more likely a promise that Christ is able to keep them through what is to come. They and we although we may not have much strength can rely on Christ to be with us and bring us through. It’s not even an assurance that bad things will not happen to us, it is the experience of God’s people down through history that there is death and martyrdom, the seven churches mentioned in this book and even the cities have not stood the test of time. Rather it is the assurance that Christ will be with us and see us through, just as God was with Christ and saw him through the cross and raised him from the dead. The call is to trust and to continue doing what we are called to do… to witness to love and to serve. The success of that is not in our hands but in Christ’s.

The letter finishes with a promise to those who overcome; they will be accepted into God’s temple and his presence. Not only that but they will be made into a pillar in the temple and never again will they be made to leave it. What great encouragement and promise to a church that had suffered being shut out, for a church without much strength being given pride of place and seen as a pillar. What comfort for a people from a city where they have had to move out to be safe from earthquakes, that they are welcomed in to a place of security. We live in a time of celebrity pastors and mega churches and people look at them as being places of great success and many of them are the result of lots of prayer and hard work, but in God’s kingdom I wonder if we will not see those who have faithfully worked and witnessed in the hard places and difficult and sometime unrewarding places take pride of place. I’m not saying we shun actually growing and succeeding in the world today, I just think we are to realise that Christ’s call is to faithfulness…

Those who overcome are also promised that they will receive a name. In biblical times it was a common practise to write inscriptions on pillars… In 2 chronicles 3 Solomon planted two pillars in the temple and inscribed a name on each Jachin which means ‘he establishes’ and Boaz which means ‘in him is strength’ and for the people in the church at Philadelphia to be reminded of those inscriptions would have been encouraging as it is for us to be reminded of that… maybe we should inscribe that on our front pillars here… But also to the church that had been ostracised for the sake of Christ they are promised that he will write his name, and the name of the city that is to come God’s city on them, that they belong to him. We belong to him.

I want us to stop… and be still… to take stock and hear what the spirit is saying to you individually and to us as a church…

Christ offers an open door into his kingdom and in to his presence… this morning is the spirit telling you, “you need to step through that door”, you need to come to Christ  accept him as your lord and saviour.

As you look around you at your life and around the community what are the open doors that Christ is calling you to step through for service and witness.

Finally we may feel weak and have little strength but do you hear what the spirit is saying to the church… Christ has the keys… Christ has opened the door… Christ will bring us through… Christ will welcome us home and establish us.