Culture or a Relationship with God?

A sermon on culture versus God, from 1Corinthians 8:1-6.

Aim:  To show the limitations of ‘culture’ as a substitute for loving God.

Scripture

Paul talks about Jewish food rules getting in the way of the Christians worshipping God.  These rules, which were helpful for living in the desert a thousand years before, have no power to help anyone.

Paul names this: mere superstition.

Meaning for Today: culture

Today we call this superstition ‘Culture’.  This word used to mean making people better, educating them, but now we use it to describe all the things we do for no logical reason.

For example on Australia Day speeches all started by acknowledging Aboriginal Culture.  This is a well-meaning but empty gesture, as it does nothing to improve anyone or to correct real inequality (e.g. an indigenous woman’s life expectancy in South Australia is the lowest in Australia, whereas a western woman’s life expectancy in South Australia is the highest).

Using the culture label for other’s religious beliefs avoids difficult questions like: are they true? are they real?  By focusing on Culture we can paper over the cracks: safe but superficial; however, it’s patronising, even cowardly.

Culture: application

I was talking to a friend having a tough time, he’d had some time off work with stress.  We talked about how we have to wear a grown-up mask to show other people, versus the real person underneath, which was formed when we were children.  We have to maintain this pretence because our western culture won’t accept or value our real child-like selves (is this something we could learn from the Aboriginal peoples?)  Maintaining this false mask causes real mental health problems.

It made me think how helpful our relationship with God is. We can be ourselves – weak, childlike, silly – but even so, we are accepted and understood.  We can understand our place in a family, in society, in this false culture (Jesus calls it ‘the World’) and the universe.  It is real, not culture.  It causes people to admit their mistakes, to be true and real, to right wrongs and do amazing things to educate themselves and improve the lives of others.

Conclusion

Let us enjoy and value culture, but keep it in its place.  Let’s not accept the superstition of culture – giving it power over people, or the idolatry of culture – allowing it to be a substitute for God.  We are created in God’s image, to have a relationship with God.

Sharing the Faith, Refining our Faith

‘Sharing the Faith, Refining our Faith’ – a sermon on Psalm 22/Mark 8:31-38 (Lent 2, Year B)

Aim

To show that we need to share the Good News that Jesus is the Christ – with each other and with unbelievers

Introduction – Sharing

‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’, ‘my faith is my business’, ‘you can’t share your faith in a secular society’.

Psalm 22 tells us that God intends everyone to hear the Good News. It cuts across all divisions: rich and poor; in the church and outside; Jews and non-Jews; those living, dead and yet to be born.

The Psalmist says that everyone will turn to God and be blessed. How will they know that they should do this? How will they know how to turn to God?

Message for the Time

Peter had already confessed that Jesus is the Christ, but he totally misunderstands Jesus’ mission.  No one knows this until Peter speaks out, then Jesus corrects Peter and asks people to gather round – then Jesus explains his mission and that of his disciples.

Notice that Peter was correct given the religious assumptions of the day – but still wrong. The other disciples probably thought the same thing – but no one knew they were wrong until Peter spoke up! We all make mistakes, but if we view our faith as our possession and never discuss it then we will never discover anything new – our faith is closed, dead. We must share our faith and our experiences, thoughts and doubts with each other.

Message for Today

Notice also that Jesus then told his followers that they must deny self, take up their cross and follow Jesus (to death).  He also says that if we are ashamed of Jesus message, he will be ashamed of us on judgment day.  Clearly, Jesus expects us to share our faith with the faithless, even if this is not easy and earns us hostility.

What odd ideas do people have about: God – superstition, “a deal with God”; Jesus – “a good man”, “a wise teacher”; and the Holy Spirit – something for weirdos only?

What odd ideas do people have about our faith?  Are they hostile to Jesus because they think we think ourselves superior and are judging them? We need to tell them the truth about how we don’t deserve salvation!

We need to share our faith with each other, and with non-Christians, in order to make it real, vital and alive. We need to share the Good News, that Jesus is the Christ, that he died for us and is alive today as if our lives and their lives depended on it. Because it’s true!

A God of Love Who Judges

A God of love who Judges – Sermon on John 15:1-8 (Easter 5, Year B)

John 15:1-8

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.  You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.  Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.  If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.  John 15:1-8 [NIV]

A God of Love Who Judges

One of the other readings for today is 1John 4:7-21 on the theme ‘God is love’.  It’s a very popular reading with a nice cosy message.  The Gospel reading, quoting Jesus directly, is much more challenging.  Jesus says that we can be fruitful if we stay connected to Him, but he says that without Him we can do NOTHING, and will be fit only for burning.  Many struggle with this teaching.  How can a God of love reject, judge and punish people, they ask?

First…

…we must remember that such questions are self-centred.  God loves all people and wishes all to be saved, yet we know that many others are suffering because of our wealth.  Surely God will be angry with those who oppress and exploit the people He loves?  We can argue that it’s not our fault, but that doesn’t change the reality.

Second…

…I’m not sure that God does reject anyone.  Abraham said “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” when God was considering destroying Sodom [Gen 18:25].  God has sent Jesus to enable all to be saved, but will all accept Jesus?

Remember the ABC of becoming a Christian, a follower of Jesus?

  • Admit your sin – many say and will say “I don’t need forgiveness, I’ve done nothing wrong”.
  • Believe in Christ – many reject Jesus as not the only way to God, not the Christ; they see Jesus as just a good man or a prophet or they don’t think him important.
    • I have little fear for the devout of other faiths; I think that someone who has sincerely sought God will have no trouble recognising the Christ.
    • I do worry that those who have ignored God all their lives will not be able to change their habits, that they won’t be able to look past themselves.
  • Commit your life to Him – many refuse to commit or surrender to Christ.  In the West, people see their own individuality as paramount and they will not give up control to anyone, will not be in debt to anyone (except those we exploit, of course!) and want to stay in control of their ‘own’ lives.

Third…

…let us be reassured of God’s mercy to us.  None of us is in God’s presence because we deserve to be, or because of our own righteousness.  We are ‘clean’ because the word from Jesus has made us so, and that word is ‘forgiveness’.

Conclusion 

We can trust in Jesus our saviour and Lord.  I have no need to say more.  I have no time to say any more as we need to thank God and lift so many in need to him.  Amen

Any Questions?

Any questions? A Sermon on Revelation 1:4b-8 (Proper 29 / Ordinary 34, Year B)

Introduction

Asked to cover the fifth Apprentice study on ‘Questioning’.

Scripture

Revelation: an odd choice?  John is expressing a revealed truth from a vision – surely no questions here?  I love its symbols and imagery, its faith, beauty and terror.  Have I blinded my intellect with emotion?  But this Book is not so crude, let’s look at this praise (doxology).

  • V4a. Personal testimony vs church tradition – safety in numbers, a moderating influence.
  • V4b. A personal Revelation from the Spirit – not to be kept to oneself, but tested.
  • V5.  The example of Jesus, whose credibility is his life, teaching, sacrifice and resurrection.
  • V6.  The experience, wisdom, witness and example of billions of people over 2,000 years.
  • V7.  Prophecy (this passage from Daniel, another apocalypse – literature).
  • V8.  God is sovereign over all time and space.  We can learn from creation and history.

Reason

  • Questioning is not looking for excuses not to commit,
  • Nor is questioning to win an argument (“are you asking me or telling me?”):
    • The emphasis on debate and winning arguments is a Western cultural obsession.
    • It comes from the Western Church – not God and our Eastern Religion!
  • It is not looking for a sign (Wood Allen quote, Desmond Tutu bio, naked men story).
  • Not to change God’s mind (or is it?), but to develop ours in His presence.
  • Not to get a perfect, rigid, unmerciful, human system of philosophy.
    • We are not looking for a neat theology that is divorced from a messy world.
    • God is perfectly holy and yet merciful, through the Trinity – our doctrine is not!

Practical/Application

Why ask Questions?

  • Rudyard Kipling (a journalist, writing a story for children) said:

“I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.”

  • If we ask questions rather than accept received (imposed?) wisdom, we ‘own’ it.
  • If asked, I can probably deal with a question that I have asked and answered … or not?
  • We question to try and make us more complete – this implies change.  Ouch!
  • Paradox: we ask questions expecting to possess less knowledge, but more wisdom & trust.

Conclusion – Any Questions?

Let’s put some perspective on this.

  • Better to ask questions than to assume  = makes an ass of you and me!
  • Questions should not worry us – the motives of those asking the questions should!
  • Equally, we should not be worried about not getting neat answers.
    • It’s still worth asking the questions, for all sorts of reasons.
    • Knowledge will pass away but faith, hope and love are eternal.
  • Jesus’ mission was to show Himself to all people, so they can say “who is this?” and answer “Jesus is Lord.”

Truth in Love

Speaking the Truth in Love – a Sermon on Mark 12:28-34 and Ruth 1:1-18 (Year B, Ordinary 31).

Mark 12:28-34

  • Although the man is wise – Jesus thinks so – I find him smug.
  • He says Jesus is right, but really he’s saying “we’re both right – aren’t we clever?”
  • Jesus says he is “not far from the Kingdom of God”:
    • Might expect Jesus to say The Teacher of the Law had ‘arrived’.
    • Maybe speaking the truth wasn’t enough – not spoken in love.
  • Contrast this with the words of my wife:
    • I had made some flippant comment about something on the TV;
    • She said “You can be a bit of an oaf sometimes” – how can you say that, just because it’s true?
    • What I hope she really meant was “don’t be an oaf, because I love you, and I know that you can be better than that.  You are worthy of my love and I am worthy of having a husband who is not an oaf.”

Ruth 1:1-18

  • Naomi has taught her daughters-in-law about God.
    • The women spend more time together – work/social convention.  [Muslim story]
    • She has no special knowledge of God but uses personal contact and example.
  • They have been together for a long time – a lot more ‘face time’ in those days.
  • Notice the contrast between the physical and the spiritual harvest.
    • They (and we) are used to good and bad times being defined by the harvest (work).
    • Naomi planted the spiritual seed in the good times and now harvests in the bad.
    • Orpah does not remain true when tested, but Ruth does.  Doesn’t God do the same?
  • Ruth ‘walked the walk’ AND ‘talked the talk.’

Meaning for Today

  • Today we face a difficult spiritual harvest.
  • Times are good in this country and people don’t seem to feel the need of God:
    • Some think that they can appease God by the superstition of religious ritual.
    • Some think that they can ignore God; he is distant, impersonal.
    • Some think that they can put God in a box, based on their theology.
  • However, the Bible tells us the truth about God:
    • Is personal, he is alive and wants to know us – all of us.
    • Wants us to know Him, this knowing not academic/theological, but personal.
    • God loves us, but He is Holy and those who reject Him are doomed.
  • We will not get through to non-Christians by just proclaiming the truth.
    • The teacher of the law did that – did you warm to him?  I didn’t!
    • People need to get to know God through us outside of a church.
    • We need non-Christian friends and we need to invest in them and believe in them for their sake, and because we value them for themselves.
    • Person of Jesus attractive; devotion to Him more attractive and reliable than knowledge.
  • Our challenge is to be disciples, to ‘speak the truth in love’, and ‘walk the talk’.  Integrity, consistency.

Wholehearted

Wholehearted – a sermon on Mark 6 and 2 Samuel 6  (Year B, Proper 10 / Ordinary 15).

Scripture

In Mark 6 and 2 Samuel 6, we have images of people joyfully worshipping God.

  • In 2 Samuel 6, King David has the Ark, the earthly symbol of God, brought to Jerusalem.
    • David has no problem letting God take centre stage in his capital.
    • He dances and celebrates with gusto – abandoning his dignity!
    • Michal despises David, perhaps seeing her loss rather than her people’s gain.
  • In Mark 6 (the almost King) Herod does not want Jesus, the earthly symbol of God, brought to Jerusalem – it was bad enough having him in the country!
    • Herod is a puppet King, put there by the Romans, not God.  He is insecure.
    • He is also a guilty man.  Despite himself, he liked listening to John.
    • Herod put his own comfort and dignity before justice, before God.

Meaning at the Time

Of course, there are two ‘times’ here – OT and NT.

  • When Samuel was written probably already referring to a bygone age:
    • A united powerful kingdom, ‘the good old days’.
    • Yet not a whitewash of History – David’s evil deeds show through too!
    • Lessons from the past, guidance for today and hope for tomorrow.
  • Mark’s Gospel was written down much closer to the actual events.
    • The early church was still working out what it was, where it was.
    • It was growing strongly – not in decline/destroyed like Israel (OT & NT).
    • People are shown that Jesus repeats the OT pattern, perfect/completing it.

Meaning for Today

What do these stories tell us about ourselves, our Nation, today?

  • What is the context – personal, corporate, national?
    • Our church in the UK is in decline, like the UK itself, affecting how we see scripture.
    • Worship/Witness/Work: I’m not good at being wholehearted in worship/witness – I like to be in control; work is OK, I can drive myself to do that.
    • Tony Blair (former UK Prime Minister) criticised by Anne Widdecombe (former UK politician) for not accepting the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching; he replied ‘I am a modern man’: i.e. ‘my reason alone will decide what I believe’.
    • Is our rich western society, that has so much to lose if it were to give up control, afraid of surrendering to God?
  • Our church reminds me of working in the declining Ministry of Defence (declining public sector in general?).
    • We seemed to have no confidence in ourselves, our judgement.  Bewildered!
    • Decisions made for jobs, money, etc, not what really needed for defence.
    • Our leaders had no belief in us!  They were open to outside influence.
    • Can you blame them?  We were not making decisions on what was needed for our mission, but for temporary, narrow, factional advantage.
    • We lost sight of what we should do rather what was expedient to do.

Conclusion

The message from 1,000 years of scripture: let God in! let God rule!

  • We, as individuals and an organisation, can surrender to God with complete confidence.  Let society turn away if it wants to.
  • What difficult things do we need to do to succeed in worship, witness and work?
  • Let us wholeheartedly celebrate putting God first, and thus instructed, guided and inspired, wholeheartedly focus on our mission.

Nothing but Jesus Christ and Him Crucified

Nothing but Jesus Christ and Him Crucified – a Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 (Year B, Proper 19).

Introduction

Tonight is my last preaching engagement at Zion, in the Bristol Circuit and in the UK.  As you may know, we emigrate to Australia at the end of October [I originally preached this in 2012].  (When we prayed about emigrating in church the scripture reading turned out to be Genesis 12:1 “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you”!)  However, I am pleased to end on this passage of scripture.

Scripture – Mark 8:27-38

‘Who do people say I am?’; they say a precursor of the Christ. ‘Who do you say I am?’; Peter says ‘You are the Christ’.  Peter argues with Jesus about his passion – his public suffering and humiliation.  Jesus rebukes Peter, harshly, saying Satan has led him to say that.  He warns his disciples that they must accept suffering, and to finishes with a stern warning – if we are ashamed of Jesus he will be ashamed of us in his glory and judgement.

Meaning at the Time

When Jesus fasted in the desert, the Devil tempted him and failed.

“When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.”  (Luke 4:13, NIV.)  Now the Devil returns to tempt Jesus with a way out of his suffering.

Peter means well, he wants his friend the Messiah (my friend the Messiah!) to be spared suffering and humiliation, but behind these human feelings, pulling the strings, as it were, is Satan trying to keep his hold over humanity.  We shouldn’t really blame him, he’s doing his job as accuser, trying to ensure that we get what we deserve.  But he enjoyed his job, his status, a little bit too much.  Perhaps he got carried away in his proud rebellion against God and wanted us to do the same, to think that it was all about what we wanted, that we could choose the kind of God we wanted.  Perhaps he wanted some company, some like-minded subjects to rule over.

Meaning for Today

Today we are offered all sorts of alternatives, options, wisdom, advice and choices.  We live in a pluralistic marketplace, where we are constantly offered more for less, or so it seems.  In this context, isn’t it unreasonable of us to say that there is only one God? That Jesus had to be crucified to save us sinners?  That Jesus is the only way to God?  Aren’t we asking for trouble by saying these things in public?  Shouldn’t we shut up, or at least water down this unpopular message?  Shouldn’t we avoid displaying the cross, that most provocative religious symbol?  Perhaps we should keep quiet for our own good: for our convenience.

Without the cross, Jesus would be just another superior offering wisdom.  With the cross, Jesus is the one who made the sacrifice, who did not grasp for equality with God, as the Devil did.  Instead, he made the sacrifice that gives him the authority to call on humans to do the same.  We do not choose him, like breakfast cereal from the shelf of a supermarket, but he calls on us to choose discipleship and a costly discipleship at that.  He calls us to accept the cross he has chosen for us and pick it up.  It’s the only option he offers.

Conclusion

When I became a local preacher I, very modestly, misquoted St Paul.  ‘For I resolved to know [preach] nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ (1Cor 2:2, NIV.)  Throughout history, this was never a popular message and it’s never going to be, but we haven’t chosen to be popular, we have chosen Jesus, the Messiah, the cross and surrender to God.  God bless us all.  Amen.

The Maker of the Jar

Introduction

I heard a story (again) yesterday.  A teacher takes out a jar, which is a life, and puts things in it:

 

  • 1st, Golf balls – your health, family & friends (is it full?);
  • 2nd, Marbles – your job, house, car, etc (is it full?);
  • 3rd, Sand – all the other stuff of life (is it full?).

 

They all fit if you put them in that order.  However, if you put the sand in first, then there is not enough room for everything.  The moral is to prioritise loving relationships first in life, otherwise, they suffer.

Now this story is fine on the surface, but it has always annoyed me, and yesterday I asked God ‘why is that?’  He answered straight away, showing me that this story is useless to people who lack:

 

  • Good health or a loving family;
  • A job or possessions; and
  • Everything else – if just staying alive is a struggle.

 

So this story only speaks to a privileged few.  It is only for those who are rich, in every sense of the word, those who have choice, who have to choose, because they have so much.

Scripture

Contrast that story with this image from Revelation Chap 21.  God speaks to the faithful, who have lost their jobs, possessions and loved ones, who have been tortured and even killed because of their loyalty to Him.  He promises a new universe, with a new Jerusalem, where God and His people will live together like never before.  There will be no more death, grief, crying or pain.  God declares that life, the universe & everything is completed, as he is the beginning and the end of history, the reason for it all.

Conclusion

God’s Revelation is greater than man’s wisdom.  He will satisfy those who have everything and nothing, the loved and unloved, the comfortable and the suffering.  He made all the golf balls, all the marbles and all the sand – every good thing comes from him.  He made the jar itself.  He is the creator and ultimate fulfilment of the universe and of everything in it.  He is love and life itself.  Amen.

Waiting … Patience

A Sermon on 2Peter 3:8-15a (Year B, Advent 2)

Aim:  To see our history and future with God’s perspective.

Waiting for Christ’s Return

The early church had a problem:

  • Many believers expected Jesus to return in their lifetime, but he had not.
  • Many had died waiting, even some leaders had been executed for their faith!

Where was Jesus?  Why hadn’t he come back to save them from their earthly trials?

Peter must have felt this personally.  He had known Jesus as a man, as well as anyone could – better than many of Jesus’ own human family.

Peter’s answer is to put things in perspective – in previous verses he give’s the perspective of Creation – earth, water and fire.  In these verses he points out that God’s timing is not ours:

  • God is patient and wants to give people time to turn to Christ and be saved.
  • Peter could not know how many people, because the world is bigger than he knew!
  • Southern Africa, the Americas, East Asia, the Pacific and Australia were unknown to them.

He assures the early church – and us – that the Day of the Lord will come.

  • He uses Jesus own words to describe the suddenness and ferocity of the destruction, which will be total.
  • Everything that we are used to and take for granted will be gone.
  • So, how should we then live?  Patience means salvation!

Waiting for Christmas

We have to wait decades to be united with God, and Creation must wait much longer.  Today we think of both Christ’s First and Second comings:

  • The Jews had to wait hundreds of years for the Messiah; and
  • We’ve had to wait for 2,000 years already for Christ’s return;
  • We could be stuck on this planet, this history, this universe for a long time.

Maybe the annual cycle that we go through is training:

  • Maybe, while the days and years pass we should use this cycle, ride it like a wave;
  • Make the most of every moment (“if you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run” Kipling).
  • Focus on the eternal, unchanging, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Christianity is for life, not just for Christmas!

Conclusion

We need that refreshment, that renewal, we need to celebrate Jesus’ Birth, a baby, something fresh and innocent and new and wonderful (although babies are demanding too and they take years to mature!)  We need God’s perspective – personal, unexpected, unusual, and refreshing.

Not Power, but Faith

We’re not looking for power, but faith … a Sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:5b-10 (Year B, Proper 9 / Ordinary 14)

Introduction

Sometimes I hear Christians say “if only we really believed and really loved like Jesus we would transform the world,” but Jesus said that most would reject God, and war/poverty would be with us until the end times.  What they really mean is if we had more numbers we would have power!

Scripture – 2 Corinthians 12:5b-10

Paul, a man of great faith, is not healed  (miracles are not a reward for faith).  He explains that he must have this thorn in his flesh, to make him rely on God’s grace.

The Corinthians are wealthy, powerful, clever, successful & strong.  Paul’s two big letters to them (16 & 13 Chaps) are one long rebuke!  He has to justify his authority to say these things and does so – by boasting about his sufferings (Chap 11)!  Paul uses his weakness to shame the strong (as in 1Cor Chaps 1-2).

Application

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men” said a wise historian about the idea that religious leaders and kings could not make mistakes.

I mentioned the Islamic State earlier.  The Five Pillars of Islam are: declaring the faith; prayer; giving; fasting; and pilgrimage.  But look what happens when you give people guns – these gentle ideas are quickly thrown out!

We need weakness to remind us to rely on God.  Many of you know my wife but may not know that she has been ill for all her adult life.  Our struggle against this illness has been good for us – it has brought us closer together, stopped us from being able to take each other for granted.  Our relationship with God is like that.

Conclusion

We won’t transform the world for the better by being strong or clever or powerful.  There are lots of strong, clever and powerful people in the world and they’re making it worse as often as better!  We will transform ourselves, not the world, by doing three things:

  1. We will be fallible, average and powerless (what we are now);
  2. but we will rely on God’s Omni-power, -presence, -knowledge and -seeing: faith in God; and
  3. we will be doing the best that we can.