Monday, February 8, 2016

Encountering Jesus: Set free, Restored, welcomed in and Commissioned (Luke 8:26-39)

The passage we had read to us this morning is quite a challenging one for our twenty first century western minds with its focus on Jesus dealing with a man possessed by a large number of demons. It challenges our scientific materialistic worldview... You could say in rather an insensitive way... it’s a pig of a passage (dad humor).  But diving in the deep end (sorry dad humor again) I think it helps us to understand unclean spirits and the demonic, it clearly shows us Jesus authority in the face of such powers and it gives us a wonderful and clear picture of what being set free and healed and yes what salvation through encountering Christ looks like and insight into how to share the good news of Jesus Christ in an environment hostile to that message.

The fact that this passage takes us out of our comfort zones is a result of the fact that the whole passage is Jesus stepping out of the ordinary into new territory. Jesus and the disciples have crossed the lake, as we saw last week with Jesus calming the storm it was a challenging journey, now he reaches the other side of the Lake, a region called Gerasenes, and it is totally different than Galilee. It’s predominantly a gentile area; the fact that there are pigs farmed there is a sign of that, for the Jews the swine were an unclean animal   you would not see this in a predominantly Jewish area. The man who meets them is full of unclean spirits he lives in an unclean place, amongst the tombs, for Jesus disciples that uncleanness is how they would view this place. We are not told but the man himself may also have been a gentile maybe that was part of the reason Jesus didn’t take him with his disciples. The people’s reactions to Jesus is one of fear, in most other regions the Jewish people would be aware that what Jesus did was of divine origin and even though they might not have accepted Jesus they would have given thanks to God for the deliverance of the demonised man.
When Jesus arrives on this strange and unfamiliar shore, he encounters a demonised man. When I read the gospel narrative you could almost get the picture of the spirit leading Jesus across the lake for this one encounter. It is a show of how the grace of God is able to reach out into peoples’ lives. In fact one commentator says that the way that the unclean spirits are sent into the pigs shows how much Jesus is willing to do, to see this man set free and restored; to see people saved.

AS I said before in the west we are not that aware of the demonic around us, when we do reflect on it people tend to go to one of two extremes. The first is to go over the top and to see a demon behind every bush, responsible for every problem and issue. The other is to simply say that we do not believe in the devil or unclean spirits or demons, except in film and fantasy. This passage is helpful in addressing those two extremes. Firstly its part of four miracle stories, ones that you might say is at the edge of what the gospel has presented so far. Last week we saw Jesus calm the storm on the Lake, this week it is an encounter with unclean spirits, then we see Jesus encounter with the women who is healed by simply touching Jesus, and Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter to life again. They show us Jesus authority over nature, over the supernatural, over disease and over death. Each of those things listens to Jesus and obeys him. We are presented with Jesus divine authority. But also   we see that there are a whole lot of different causes of human suffering and trouble. Natural causes, spiritual causes, physical disease and as the scriptures call it our final enemy death. You could throw into those other factors as well the harm inflicted by human beings, systemic and environmental causes. One that people wrestle with the most divine will. In John 9 Jesus encounters the man born blind and when asked if it was a result of sin that he was blind Jesus responds that it happened so that God’s glory maybe displayed in him. Scripture does not advocate that there is a demon behind everything that happens but it does assert Jesus ability to be able to intervene and rescue save cure and make whole in the face of all those things.

For those who might say they do not believe in the demonic some have suggested that the man was suffering from mental illness and this was the way that people in Jesus day actually understood that. But we see from the narrative that the demonic in him recognised Jesus and Jesus response was to cast them out and when that happened it had a physical manifestation in the herd of pigs.  But this passage gives us an understanding of what the demonic may look like in a person’s life or in its sphere of influence. It is destructive, we see the man striped of his dignity: He is naked and living among the tomb stones, with the dead.  He is driven by compulsion, not in control, outbursts of violence and rage, he is isolated from his society and family, and relationships are destroyed. The problem at hand is not able to be dealt with simply by human measures. When he is bought under control he breaks the chains and gets loose again. You could say that the influence of the demonic on a personal and systemic level is this destructive behaviour.  There is a spiritual element to addiction, abuse, sexual and physical, out of control lusts and convulsions, racism and hatred, extreme poverty and violence. That dehumanises that is destructive of people and families and communities, which is evil. We don’t know much about the man’s background and how he got into that condition of being possessed by a legion ‘many’ demons, maybe we’d see a whole raft of physical, emotional and medical and spiritual reasons but this possession was the end result. The spiritual influence so much that it was in control.
Jesus deals with the spiritual element, he casts out the unclean spirits from the man, but that’s not the whole picture and maybe for us it’s hard for us to look past the rather dramatic way that happens. But this passage gives us the most holistic picture of what being cured or saved by Jesus actually means. In his wonderful narrative Luke gives us a wonderful parallel of how Jesus transforms the man’s life from how it was before. He had many demons but now we are told that the demons have left him, and it has been demonstrated in a very vivid way. He was naked stripped of human dignity but when the people from the town come they find him clothed, that dignity restored. He was alone and in solitary places, but now he is welcomed back and accepted, he sits at Jesus feet, which is a way of saying that he has become a disciple a learner. He was violent and thrown down on the ground but now he sits quietly and calmly. He was driven and out of control and know we’re told that he is rational and in his right mind. It’s an often overused scripture passage but in this case we see the truth of 2 timothy 1:7...’God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self control or a sound mind’.   He was cut off and of no use to his community, as Jesus leaves he is sent home to his community with a vocation and a mission to tell the good things that God has done for him: To be good news instead of bad news. He has been healed and made whole, in a way that can only be called transformation and salvation. Some of it by spiritual means but also by very practical means as well, being clothed and fed and welcomed, embraced, taught, conversed with. Not just instantaneously but over a period of time. They went back to the town and decided what to do and then came back. This is the work and grace of Jesus in people’s lives.  This is being set free, restored and saved. There is a spiritual element, there is a social element and a compassion element and a giving new purpose element. We often deal with issues without addressing the spiritual element and in the past the church has also focused on addressing the spiritual element without addressing the other elements as well. But salvation and wholeness is Christ dealing with all those areas. It may involve confronting the demonic or as Christ comes in and starts to bring transformation they are dealt simply dealt with.  In this case the legion had to go before the rest could happen.

Sadly in the past things like mental illness and depression caused by physical factors have been mistaken by people for the person needing deliverance, that’s wrong, it does not line up with what happened here. It’s interesting but the very few times that I have been involved in a deliverance situation is usually along the path of transformation not the start of it. And often it’s when people face situations they just don’t seem to be able to deal by other means, and then it is usually with people alongside me who I trust to have the spiritual gift of discernment mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12: A God given ability to know what is going on in the spiritual realm...both the presence and the absence of the demonic.

The deliverance however is not the highlight of this passage. In all Luke’s miracle narratives the focus is on people’s reaction. In this case the people of this region are afraid of Jesus healing the demonised man, they don’t want anything to do with Jesus, and it’s as if Jesus ministry in that place seems to be a failure. They tell him to go and he and his disciples get in the boat and they leave. The healed man wants to come with Jesus to be part of his group, as I said before this may have been difficult because he was a gentile, but in this case Jesus does not say come and follow me, but rather Go home and tell them how much God has done for you.’ Jesus has left a witness in that place, we are told the man listens to Jesus and obeys him and goes and tells the people how much Jesus has done for him. There is a parallel in those two sentences in Luke that identifies God’s divine activity with Jesus activity; the two are equated with each other. One commentator said ‘that for two thousand years the best Christian brains have been trying to eloquently and sufficiently explain the relationship between God and Jesus, but the best way to talk of what God is doing is to talk of what Jesus is doing. What Jesus has done for us. 

We may never be called to go to the other shore, to a strange and foreign place to share the good news; some are called to mission and ministry elsewhere. But the reality is that as we experience the transforming, freeing life giving activity of Christ in our lives we are all called to listen and obey and to go home and to tell of how much Jesus has done for us. You know it may not be the amazing story of the demonised man, but I know that as Jesus has bough change and wholeness in to my lie what I have to share with people, is simply what Jesus has done for me. You know we often think of evangelism and faith sharing as big things that demand that we have all the answers, or some amazing story but often what speaks to ordinary people around us, what God can use even in hostile situations is as we tell and show the ways in which Jesus has changed us, us ordinary people loved and made whole and freed and saved by an extraordinary God. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Setting sail following Jesus into the uncertain weather of 2016 (Psalm 107:23-32, Luke 8:22-25)

January is often the time when people do their planning and thinking about the coming year. As we finish the holiday period here and start straight back into work, school... life. The passages this morning talk of being willing to journey into the unknown trusting God and following Jesus.

The passage from psalm 107 talks of people journey back to Jerusalem  from the exile. It paints a wonderful picture of crossing the wild and unpredictable seas, and in that being lead to safe haven and our destination by God's grace and providence, despite the storm and the sense on the journey that well its so stormy we just might not make it... It finishes with God's people giving thank for his presence guidance and help on that journey.

The passage in Luke talks of Jesus disciples following to the other side of the lake. Unfamiliar territory for them and for Jesus. More gentile people live there. It's a place where Jesus wasn't well known. It was a destination that they would have been unsure of and a journey that was fraught with danger. Their fishing boats were designed more for shallow water, and the lake was known for storms quickly rising up as the wind swept down the Golan heights. But they were prepared to follow where Jesus said for them to go.

The storm did come up, there was real danger that the boat would be swamped and they would drown. While as people fof faith it should have reassured them that Jesus was in the boat with them... He was asleep and didn't seem to realize what danger they were in.  When they wake him he lets them know that as he was with them and as they were following him they should have trusted in his ability to see them through 'where is your faith!' not really the answer we look for. But often as we set sail into the unknown journey of following Jesus through  a new year we can have that same concern as we face life's storms, but be assured that Jesus is with us, he will lead and guide us. In scripture God often speaks through the storm, in Jonah it was God's way of calling Jonah back from going the wrong way. In acts it lead to Paul being shipwrecked, but even as a prisoner of Rome he was able to minister to the people of Malta in an amazing and powerful way.

as we as a church and as individuals set sail into this year with its calm seas and lurking storms let do so with trust and confidence in Jesus.

I want to simply invite you to stop and to hear two amazing prayers from  Great sailors.

the first is St Brendan an Irish monk  who in the fifth century may just have discovered the new world  one thousand years before columbus  and whose adventures told in the navigatio of st brendan encourage people in all of life's journey to keep trusting in Jesus.

it was the prayer he supposedly prayer before he boarded his small ox hide coracle with a small band of monk to seek the kingdom of God...

 Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?

Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honour? Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on? Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?

Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?

Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict? Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?

O Christ, will You help me on the wild waves?

The second is attributed to another great sailor and explorer Sir Francis Drake 

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.
This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Listen... A word from the parable of the sower in Luke's Gospel (Luke 8:4-21)

The image on the screen for this morning and the news sheet is the Brooklyn Garage Rooftop Farm. It is one of the most famous examples of urban farming in the word: Growing fresh local produce where there is a premium on land usage...  For me it envisions the reality that Jesus parable, which while it reflects the agricultural world of the hills of first century Galilee, is as meaningful and relevant for us today in our twenty first century urban setting.

Viv Coleman spoke last week about finding one word as a focus and way forward for the year. When I got back in the office this week I was excited to discover  the passage we were going to start or rather restart our journey through Luke’s gospel with was the one we had read out to us today... the parable of the Sower, or as its also known the parable of the soils. I thought yeah... that’s the one word we really need for this year as a church... Sow . Evangelism Going and scattering seeds, in the case of Jesus parable the word of God and seeing it become fruitful. It got even better when I saw that Luke connects it with another well known of Jesus  parables of the light on the lamp stand giving light to the whole house...  I thought shine might be just as good a word. The focus for the year needed to be getting out there with the word of God and SOW, SOW in our new urban environment, SOW in our little suburban patch ... and sow on...

But as I looked deeper into the passage I was surprised because another word came to mind. I guess we are more used to hearing Jesus parables from Matthew’s Gospel or reading them separately but as I read the whole passage another word really became prominent as the central point of this passage of what Jesus was saying. I believe it was the Holy Spirit speaking. You see the word that comes through from this passage is the word listen...

All the way through the focus for Jesus is listen. The context of the passage is Jesus time after time drawing a big crowd who come to hear him, but do they really listen.  When you see a large crowd in Luke’s Gospel Jesus begins to talk about what it really means to be a follower of his. He isn’t looking for the crowd numbers, the popularity and the fame rather he is looking for people who are changed by encountering the word of God made flesh. And in this passage the answer to what it means to e a follower of Jesus is that they are the ones who listen properly. He tells the parable of the sower and he finishes it by crying out in a loud voice ‘he who has ears to hear, let them hear’... listen.
 As he explains this parable we see that each of the soil types he has talked about have to do with how people hear the word of God. They hear it but it doesn’t sink in it falls onto hard ground, They hear it and receive it with joy but it does not take root. They hear it and it takes root but it is choked out as by competing concerns.  The good soil is those who hear it and retain it and nurture it and persevere till it produces a crop. Listen

 The punch line of Jesus parable of the lamp on the lamps stand... and you could put it in modern terms and say... no one puts a hundred what bulb in a closet and then closes the door and leaves the rest of the house in darkness is a warning about being careful how we listen..  Listen

Finally that strange encounter with Jesus mother and brothers, rounds off this section of Luke, with Jesus saying those who are really his kin rally his family are those who hear his word and put it into action... Listen.

I began to wonder how those soil types expressed themselves in our lives and in our times, in my life and my time.

Some falls on the road. In Jesus time and place and even in gardens today. Around the edge of fields prepared for growing crops there are well worn paths so people can get to where they need to go. They are compacted and seeds can’t easily fall into the soil to germinate.  Maybe you’ve seen it on road verges where on a street corner there is a well word dirt path across the lawn where people cut the corner and no grass will grow there.  It’s interesting that in gospel’s it is the Pharisees and the religious people who were most reluctant to hear Jesus teaching. I wonder if it isn’t the same today that for many of us who have been involved in church for so long we have well word paths that we trod and it is hard for the word of God to take root in those places if it just doesn’t fit with the path we trod.  Maybe we think we’ve heard it before, we’ve heard it all. Evangelists say the two hardest people groups to work with and share the gospel with are those who have never heard it before, as they have no frame work in which to understand it and the post Christian... or over-churched... because they have heard it so much that they are over it now... the thing about listening and following Jesus is that it takes us through the narrow gate and off the well beaten path...

In the hills of Galilee it is hard to tell what us good soil and what is not. The ground is rocky and while on top it might look like good it can just be a shallow cover over hard limestone rock, where seeds are unable to take root and when the sun comes out they cannot survive. It’s like a great looking wood veneer over chipboard...When we left Luke’s gospel before Christmas we finished with the story of Jesus at the house of Simon the Pharisee and the women who cleaned Jesus feet with her tears. It seemed Simon was willing to have Jesus to his house as an honored guest, to listen and to debate with him over a meal, but when Jesus words came to close to his prejudices we are left with the impression that despite Jesus offering him a chance to listen and change that that was where the seed stopped growing. It hit a barrier to bearing fruit. In 1994 one of the worst genocides occurred in Rwanda, racial tension exploded in an orgy of bloodletting and close to a million people died.  What really shocked those who say it was that Rwanda was possible he most Christianised country in all of Africa... 95% would have said they were Christians. But it hadn’t really sunk deep into the country. Some commentators talked of a veneer of Christianity a mile wide but only millimeters deep... I wonder if that isn’t challenging for us as well... Is our faith simply a veneer over the prevailing worldviews, a veneer over our various cultural identities, over our prejudices, over western consumerism, over western materialism and the we haven’t let the word sink deep and put out roots in that.

We’ve just had a concrete right of way put down the side of our house... On either side of it the plans were to have a strip of dirt left... Neither strip is designed to be a mowing strip. I guess we are waiting for our landlord to finish the landscaping off... But it is a constant battle because I’m amazed how quickly weeds have colonized those strips of good loose soil...and it’s constant battle to get rid of them... we pull them, we spray them, we  weed-wack them and they come back. In first century Galilee the seeds that feel on good soil often had to compete for nutrients and space with weeds that grow up and choke them before they can produce a crop. In Luke Jesus likens these weeds to life’s concerns, wealth and prosperity and pleasures which stop the word growing to maturity. And we live in a time and place where those equally challenge us, we live in a time when the word of god competes with so many other messages. Where it is harder and harder to make ends meet and we are encouraged to think in terms of a higher and higher and unrealistic standard of living. Where there are whole industries designed to distract us and amuse us. We have the challenge of not letting that choke out what God wants to say... we need to listen through the noise.

Then of course there was the good soil where the seed could take root and it was nurtured and retained and allowed to grow to maturity and produce the fruit it was designed to do. Often people of this parable in terms of salvation, to look at questions like can when is someone a Christian? when they respond at an altar call or make a profession of faith? Here the answer seems to be when the word of God produces the fruit of obedience. In our reformed tradition we would say that the sign of true repentance and salvation was perseverance. In the gospel of course we are constantly surprised by the people who show themselves to be good soil for the word of God: A roman centurion, people on the edge and ostracized, tax collectors and those considered beyond God’s reach... They are the ones who seem to listen appropriately.

I did wonder how this word listen applied to me. What is the soil in my life like? How can I allow the seed of God’s word to get in remain and mature and as I looked at this passage I found some answers.

The first was sow seed, yup we are back to the sow word... the need to let the sower scatter seed into our lives...We need to read and hear the word of God.

Secondly, We need to study and understand it.  We are let into the meaning of Jesus parable when the disciples ask Jesus what it means. In fact Jesus says that he speaks in parables so that people will hear and not understand, because for that seed to germinate and grow and bear fruit we need to comprehend it. When scripture talks of the mysteries of God it’s not that what God says is esoteric and hard o understand but that we need to look to God to clarify it for us. To read and to understand...Just like with Jesus and his disciples this is a group activity, we need others on this journey, which is what Paul says that the Holy Spirit has given gifts of apostles and prophets, evangelists and teachers and pastors to enable us to grow into maturity lacking nothing. We need brothers and sisters to explore and reflect on it with us... which is why small groups are the most effective way for Christians to grow and to listen together. And of course as Christians we have the greatest asset for that in the presence of the Holy Spirit within us to lead us into all truth.

Just like the light on the lamps stand we need to let the light of that word shine in all our lives, we can’t just put it in the religion basket or the Sunday basket. Daryll Bock says we need to respond to the word of God consistently to let it light up all our lives. To understand the message and see how it speaks to our whole life to bring fruit in us that may mean we let it breaking up some hard ground, do some weeding along the way, and some winning against conflicting concerns.

Finally, we need to respond to it in a concrete way. To listen understand and hen apply it how we live. To let it bear fruit. The mark of being in Jesus family is hearing what Jesus says and putting it into practise. To listen as Jesus calls us to listen is to hear and obey.

Now those sound very much like the three steps of what is called inductive bible study... a way f listening appropriately to God’s word... to exegete  or understand... to interpret... what is the whole for the word saying to the whole of me... and application... How do I know live in light of the word of God. That is how we should listen to God’s word’s listen ... I feel is the one word for us this year... listen... listen to what the word is saying to the church... listen to the word God has for you... 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

every step along the way his love endures forever ( a new year reflection) Psalm 136

The New Year stands as a time to stop reflect and celebrate. It is a crossroads of time… we look back and review the year that has gone before and also turn and look forwards to the new year: to new possibilities and new challenges and fresh hope.

Harry Morgan, a man I really love and respect, is taking the service next week and I know that he is going to invite us to look to this coming Year with the question “what direction is your life taking- this year”

… So this morning I want to invite you to reflect on the year that has been… 2015. To acknowledge the joys and the highlights, reflect on the changes and the challenges and in this safe place maybe also to be willing to revisit again the hardships and the sorrows.

On Christmas Eve I invited people to view the year on a wider scale in images that have stuck in our minds in 2015.(humble apologies if this feels like a repeat).

On a positive note, Ritchie McCaw holding up the Webb Ellis trophy again at the Rugby World Cup. One of the highlights of the year for me was being at Eden Park for the Bledisloe cup test with my two sons and being part of the crowd that spontaneously gave a standing ovation for Ritchie as he was subbed off, in his last test match in New Zealand. We are not very good at honouring our greats and heroes but there was something about that moment.

But also starker and darker images that we wish were not stuck in our minds that capture the reality of suffering in the world today.

The body of a young boy dead and floating face down in the Mediterranean Sea. It encapsulated the human tragedy and suffering of refugees fleeing civil war, ISIS and violence in Syria and the constant flow of peoples seeking safety and prosperity in the face of conflict and poverty.

Fields of flowers and banks of candles come to mind. Not where you’d expect them. Not in idyllic country visas, and ancient cathedrals, but as expressions of shock and grief in city streets: Outpourings of sorrow in front of the scenes of terror attacks, massacres and mass shootings.

A flash of flame and a trail of smoke in the sky, as a Russian fighter jet is shot down by Turkish air defence. It’s an image that made the world hold its breath: An image that sums up world super powers trying to impose a military solution, their solution, on the Middle East.

On a personal level, the image that I used for the service this morning is one of stepping stones over a river… It summed up for me that journey we make of one step at a time through life. Sometimes having to make giant leaps and strides, other times standing still as the rock beneath us seems to about to unbalance and toss us into the river. Or we are simply making small steps unsure of footing unsure of the way ahead.

Maybe instead of a river it has been like stones in a glassy lake about us,… peaceful and tranquil

Maybe for others it has been like jumping from rock to rock, clambering for footing around the cliffs of our wild western beaches… as waves have crashed and tried to strip us off and carry us away or batter us against the sharp mussel and pacific oyster covered rocks about us. Perhaps it’s been a mixture of all of it.

Our reading this morning was psalm 136, one of my favourite psalms and so fitting for the New Year. It is a recounting of the history of God’s activity. It starts back in the dim distances of time and space with creation; it looks back to God moving to liberate his people from slavery and to bring them out of Egypt across the desert through conflict and strife into the land God has promised their ancestors, it speaks of God’s ongoing provision and care.

 For us today the psalm could have gone on and recounted so much more of God’s saving acts, we could remember as we did during the week, God sending his son into the world, his life his teaching, his death on the cross for our sins, new life through his being raised to life again, the sending of the Holy Spirit on all who would believe, the faithful witness in word and deed, life and sacrifice of his people down through two thousand years of the gospel.

 It is a psalm that fits the story and life experiences of the congregation reading or singing it into that story, it fits us into that story… when in verse 23 it says and he remembered us in our lowly estate, he freed us from our enemies. We step into this, our times and our lives come into view.

The amazing truth of this psalm is not just a retelling and remembering of history and connecting us with it, but the fact that in the repetition again, again of that phrase ‘His love endures forever’ that we are reminded of the presence and the leading and guiding and love of God. Every step along the way ‘his love endures for ever. Every step along Israel’s journey ‘his love endures forever’, in Christ and his love for us, ‘his love endures for ever’ every step we have taken in our lives amidst the times of joy and sorrow, calm lake and raging storm ‘his love endures forever’, every step this last year… ‘His love endures forever’ as we turn to face the coming year shrouded in mist we can do so because ‘his love endures forever’.  We finish this service with communion and we remember God’s love in Christ, we acknowledge his abiding presence with us, and we look forward to the fact that God will bring it all to completion in Christ. Every step along that way we can have faith and trust  ‘his love endures forever.’

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

God is here wth us... Christmas day 2015

Its 9:30am on Christmas Morning and maybe after a late night of wrapping presence and wrestling with those deceptive words ‘some assembly required’ you’ve been up early you’ve been awake  for hours. How can you sleep with the kid’s excitement: the joy of children wanting to open gifts and there has been lots of running round and exuberance. Then to get here you’ve had to gather that energy and joy up, brush hair and teeth   bundle them into the car.  But you’ve come to acknowledge Jesus birth the fact that God is here with us.

It’s 9:30am on Christmas morning. You’d worked hard and long to make sure everything was done for the holiday and for the end of the year. So you could get away for the sun and the sand and the surf, to catch up with the family and friends. You just want to stop and catch up with yourself. You could really have done with a sleep in till you had to go round to the family for Christmas lunch. But you’ve come to worship Christ the new born king… to celebrate the fact that God is here with us.

It’s 9:30am on Christmas morning and there’s still so much to do.  Hope he doesn’t talk to long. But there’s the turkey to be cooked and the cream to be whipped, salad to be made. You’re going away first thing in the morning and you’ve still got to pack and you hope the weather holds. But it’s good to stop for a moment and reflect on the Christmas narrative… God is here with us

Its 9:30am on Christmas morning and so many other things could be going on. Christmas is the time when you remember they have gone and it is the loneliest time. Your thoughts are on juggling families broken and blended. It’s just another work day as the person who served me lunch yesterday said. It really does not help with the finances. There are some big things looming in the New Year.  But even in the midst of that Christmas reminds us of the amazing truth that God is here with us.

Luke’s gospel had the ring of everyday life carrying on and into those steps the saviour that God’s people had been looking for, waiting for so long. Into that is born a child who we are told is Christ the Lord. The light has come in to the world.

The reading we had this morning starts by talking of who’s in power, Augustus Cesar, and who the local administrator is. That in order to gather taxes there is a census. This means that everyone is on the move going back to the town where they are from, to be registered. It politics as usual it’s the powers of this world going about their business. Last night we looked at Matthews’s nativity narrative, we saw how similar it was then as it is now… Matthew focuses on Herod the local dictator so desperate to hold on to power that he sends death squads to kill his own citizens. All baby boys under two. That Mary and Joseph and Jesus become refugees fleeing from that tyranny and violence. And amidst the swirl and whirl of human history we are told that God steps in to our world. The Kingdom of God is established in the realms of humanity. Not in a big bold flashy way, but in a way that there is no room for to be born because of the upheaval and disruption. The son of God s born in a stable and laid in a animal’s feeding trough. God is here with us and his coming identifies with the poor and the lowly.

The first to hear the good news of Jesus birth are shepherds…Shepherds on the night shift. Doing what they always do… washing their socks… I mean watching their flocks. They are told the good news of the saviour’s birth and see what must be the greatest production number of all time as the heavenly armies gather to sing God’s praise. Maybe for us shepherds in fields is an exotic and romantic picture… In our world maybe it would best to see it being like… when we came home late one night on the train and we saw lights on in tall offices buildings along the tracks. They were on because the cleaners, that often unseen group of people, were working, minimum wage jobs, trying to make ends meet. Maybe in our urban twenty first century world they would have been the ones to hear the news, be visited by angels. Luke tells us Jesus coming was indeed good news for the poor.  The shepherds go and see that what they had been told was true and then had to head back to their work, now filled with joy and giving praise to God.

Christmas says God is here with us, came in the person of Jesus Christ, born into everyday life. But this baby Jesus would change everything. Because of his life, teaching, death and yes his resurrection. God’s kingdom, God’s love, forgiveness and peace would break into this world. We can be forgiven reconciled to God and to one another. Broken can be made new and whole again.

God is here with us. This child’s birth means God can step into the everyday live that we have and make them something new and sacred by his presence. God is here with us and if we allow this Christ to be born in our lives that love, that forgiveness, that wholeness, God’s justice and righteousness can come into our lives, our brokenness can be made whole, our lives given purpose and meaning, we can be enabled and equipped to love extravagantly and sacrificially.

God is here with us and if we allow his Son Jesus to be born into our lives today, god’s presence and love can come into the everyday world around us through our kindness, our forgiveness our sacrificial love.

In Jesus God is here with us…
My friend Malcolm Gordon and his son Sam wrote a song and with cameraman Jason Williamson have put together the gift of a wonderful Christmas song and video that sums it up the Christmas story up beautifully and also the wonderful truth that God is wanting to be here in this world through us...

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Emmanuel: God wth us... hope and grace then and now

I wonder what are the images that have stuck in your mind this year?

On a positive note, Ritchie McCaw holding up the Webb Ellis trophy again at the Rugby World Cup that certainly sticks in the mind of our sport and rugby crazed nation. One of the highlights of the year for me was being at Eden Park for the Bledisloe cup test with my two sons and being part of the crowd that spontaneously gave a standing ovation for Ritchie as he was subbed off, in his last test match in New Zealand. We are not very good at honouring our greats and heroes but there was something about that moment.

But there are others that are starker darker images that we wish were not stuck in our minds that capture the reality of suffering in the world today.

The body of a young boy dead and floating face down in the Mediterranean Sea. The people smugglers’ boat he was on had sunk so close to shore, they almost made it. It encapsulated the human tragedy and suffering of refugees fleeing civil war, ISIS and violence in Syria and the constant flow of peoples seeking safety and prosperity in the face of conflict and poverty.

Fields of flowers and banks of candles come to mind. Not where you’d expect them to be. Not in idyllic country visas, and ancient cathedrals, but as expressions of shock and grief in city streets: Outpourings of sorrow in front of the scenes of terrorist attacks, massacres and mass shootings.

A flash of flame and a trail of smoke in the sky, as a Russian fighter jet is shot down by Turkish air defence. It’s an image that made the world hold its breath: An image that sums up world super powers trying to impose a military solution, their solution, on the Middle East.

I find myself suffering a disconnection between those Images and Christmas or at least the way we portray the nativity, the Christmas story, the coming of Christ into this world. On Christmas cards and billboards it’s presented as an idyllic peaceful event. Almost unworldly, almost as if its pure fairy tale and fiction that has no possible impact or anything of value to say to the world in which we live.

But this year more than any other I can’t help but see the links and parallels between the now and what the gospel tells us of the then. We’ve had the nativity narrative read tonight from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus birth happens it tells us in the reign of king Herod. A king so determined to hold on to power that when he can’t trick foreign visitors to do his bidding resorts to sending death squads to kill all the children in Bethlehem under two, he unleashes that on his own people. Matthew’s Christmas story has gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that we are familiar with but does not finish with angel’s songs and Christmas carols but the lament and grief of mothers crying for their dead children unable to be consoled. And haven’t we seen images of that this year…

Matthew’s gospel finishes with the story of a refugee family fleeing political tyranny to save their lives and the life of their child from violence. And are those not the images that will remain in our minds from 2015.

We didn’t have Luke’s account read to us tonight. I’m saving it for tomorrow, for Christmas day. It too does not simply present an unreal picture of the nativity. While Matthew has a feel for the local politics, Luke is a Greek and his account starts with the acknowledgment of Caesar Augustus as emperor. The romans the European superpower of the day had imposed their peace on the near east by military means, they’d used ‘boots on the ground’, and the flow and disruption of people that lead to Joseph and Mary  coming to an overcrowded Bethlehem is because he had decreed a census be taken up for tax purposes. There was no room at the inns because all those who had family ties to this town had had to come home.

It’s not just that there are parallels between our twenty first century home and the first century home of this narrative. But there are parallels of this first century narrative that give us twenty first century hope.

God chose to presence himself with us, to become one of us, not in the midst of some winter wonderland or joy filled holiday, but in the midst of the messiness and terror of life. God chose to respond to evil and suffering not through the courts of the kings or the corridors of power, but by being born to ordinary people. Not in the lap of luxury but at the vulnerable edge of society. Even amidst the possibility of social disgrace, Matthew tells us that Joseph had was a righteous and compassionate man and was going to quietly divorce Mary as she was with child, until he was told in  dream that  Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

It shows us God’s response to the sorrow and grief and suffering in the world. It is not the assertion of power, political power or military power, although sadly down through the ages since his coming wars have been fought armies have marched in his names, and empires have used his name as a way of holding on to power. But God chose to respond with a spiritual solution. That through this child, his life, his death, and his resurrection people who sought him like those astronomers from the east would know forgiveness, would experience the healing love of God, have their brokenness be made whole again, and be enabled to love extravagantly and sacrificially in a way that with the help of the Holy Spirit would bring transformation in the world.

Two thousand years later the hope is the same. The same God offers the same grace and love and forgiveness and wholeness through his son Jesus Christ and calls all those who would come and seek and find him to be willing to allow that to be born a new in their lives.

Be it the simple reaching out and loving a neighbour. At St Peter’s here in a small way we find that God is using us to shine his love into the lives of families around us often when they experience the pain and suffering of loss and relationship break up, in the hope that God’s grace and God’s love and God’s healing may bring new life. On a wider scale one of the images that has stuck in my mind this year was middle eastern Christians setting up tents and bringing food and aid to refugee camps to help their Muslim neighbours fleeing from the same horror that had persecuted their fellow Christians. At a time when they are wondering f this is the end of Christians in the middle east, they have their boots on the ground, boot of love. Of course they don’t corner the market on sacrificial love and there was a story circulating recently of Muslims refusing to give up their Christian neighbours on a bus attacked by jihadists.

 I love the candle light of a midnight Christmas Eve service, because for me it speaks of the coming of the light of God’s love into the world in Jesus Christ. Like the small flickering flame of a candle. We are so used to the bright flashing lights of our neon signs and the glare of quarts halogen that we mistake for the light of a new day. But God’s love starts with this one child Jesus, and his love and life and teaching his sacrificial death on the cross, and being raised again, it’s almost too fragile, it seems just a puff of wind could blow it out. But as people have encountered this Jesus and known this love that light has lit up their lives and the world is able to have more of God’s light and love. There are times when t seems to be extinguished and if you know the gospel there are times when people have tried to hide it, but it is the light that is hope for each of us and for the world around us and I hope this Christmas even amidst all that is going on n this world you might not disconnect but might meet and connect with this Jesus whom we celebrate tonight.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Greatest Present ever wasn't wrapped in paper... It was wrapped in people ( a reflection on Luke's narrative of Jesus birth)...

I love Luke's narrative of the events around the birth of Jesus.

When you read through it... if I'm not being to flippant here... It reads like a great musical... everybody seems to break into song... or at least wax forth poetically. When Mary has the Angels message to her confirmed by Elizabeth and her baby, she gives thanks to God. And her song has the feel of years of expectant faith, waiting for God to keep his promise and send a saviour, but also of the miles and hours she has travelled to see her aunt hoping that what she has heard is true. It resounds with joy, hope and the possibility for God's peace and Love to be born into the world.

Elizabeth's husband Zechariah, who had been struck dumb for nine months as he had himself questioned an angels message to him, breaks forth into praise and prophecy... Again helping us to tie what is happening here with the longing of God's people and telling us the part that his son John the baptist will play in God's salvation story.

On the night that Jesus is born, we are given a break down of possibly the greatest and strangest production number, as the armies of heaven gather together to sing God's praise at the birth of this special child. Unlike the grand productions we may think of today... this is the biggest number of performers, seen by the smallest crowd, usually such things are reserved for the great and the rich, who have leisure time to enjoy them but here it is for the poor and insignificant while they are doing the night shift.

As Mary and Joseph bring Jesus o the temple to be dedicated we have Simeon and Anna, who declare the significance of this child to all who would hear and finish Luke's account with a tinge of reality but also praise to God for his goodness and for the fact that he has kept his promise.

While Luke does not mention it Matthew also tells us that this story of Jesus birth also finishes with the wailing and lament of mothers crying for their children. The paranoid dictator Herod had sent his death squads to kill children under two and Mary and Joseph become like the many faces we have seen this year refugees looking for safety so they can raise their families.

This year however I was also aware that Luke' story of the coming of God in flesh, the birth of Immanuel 'God with us' is not wrapped in paper but in the stories of people.

Luke tells his story with a balance between men and women. An angel appears to Zechariah and then to Mary. Mary is greeted by both Elizabeth and the son in her womb, who both recognise the presence of their lord and saviour. Mary responds in worship and song and prophesy. Zechariah responds to the birth and naming of his son with a similar song/ poem/prayer.

The significance of the child is told by the two people the family meet at the temple. Two people who have devoted their lives to prayer and waiting for God to respond. Simeon and Anna give us deep insight in to who this child is and what will happen and what it will mean for us.

It also is a story told by the young and the old. John the Baptist is the one who first recognises the presence of Jesus. As a child in the womb, he leaps with joy, an unseen dance in this musical perhaps... while Simeon and Anna are close to the end of long lives. Simeon has been told he would not die before he would see God' salvation and Anna had been a widow for close to eighty years. The exuberance of a child and the wisdom and deep reflection of age.

While you'd expect that this is such an amazing event in the world history that the great of the day would be present. You just have to look at any event today and the great are either there invited to comment or give us their reactions via twitter, but they simply play bit parts in this story... We place this event in time by reference to Cesar Augustus and Herod. But this story is full of he people that this event will impact the most... this is good news to the poor... over time it will impact on the great as this is God's kingdom entering the realm of humanity, but it starts with the poor and the least. A couple who would have been treated with pity and maybe ostracised as they have been childless.  A young wmen whose story of an angel telling her she would concieve a child by the Holy Spirit did not go down in her society. As Matthew tells us it is only the compasion and righteousness of her husband Joseph inspired by a dream that means she is not shamed. Shepards are the ones who are told of this event. in the temple a women who has suffered the sorrow of being a widow for eighty years, finds her solice in the childs comming.

What does this have to tell us today?

Firstly, it tells us the wonderful scope of the good news of this child' birth. It is Good news for everybody, for men and women, young and old, poor and rich, small and great. of course add in Matthew's narrative and you find that it also goes beyond the confines of God's people Israel to be good news to all people. Wise men from the east come to acknowledge, be it without total understanding of the whole story show us that this is good news for Jew and Gentile...

Secondly it tells us that all people are needed to tell and show this story to the world arouns us who still wait to know the reality of this Good News. Men and women together to proclaim and demonstrate it. Young and old, to both tel it with exhuberance and with considered wisdom. Not just the great and the talented and those set aside for the task, but as the shepards show us even those in their everyday occupations, even if it the night shift. People full of Joy and those able to witness to God's grace and goodness even in the face of life long suffering and sorrow. With their abilities and talents, with theri integrity and faith, with huble service and devotion and prayer.

So this christmas I pray that you may get wrapped up in the greatest gift ver Given... Jesus Christ... and you may wrapp uop that good news story in your lives as a community to give this gift to the world around you.