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

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.

Maturity in Christ: Commitment not Consumption

Maturity in Christ: Commitment not Consumption … a Sermon on John 6:24-35 (Year B, Ordinary 18 / Proper 13)

Aim: To hear what Christ has to say to hungry people.

Introduction

Our Western society consumes 80% of the world’s resources, even though we are only 20% of its population.  We often define themselves by what they do.  We are identified, labelled – and valued – by and for our contribution to consumption: where we are in the supply chain.

Nowadays we don’t just consume material things.  We want to choose a ‘spirituality’ that suits us; we want “our rights”.  Even Jesus says come and consume me for lasting satisfaction!  So why aren’t consumers queuing up to get a piece of Jesus?

The Bread of Life

We heard a conversation between Jesus and the people.  Jesus is none too impressed with their attitude and is very rude to them (v26).  Jesus then challenges them, because v29 really means ‘you must stake everything on me’; however, the crowd dither and ask for another sign (Jesus has just fed them miraculously), justifying their demand with the story of the Manna.  Jesus replies that the significance of the Manna is not the miracle itself but that it is a sign pointing to God’s offer of eternal bread from heaven right now! (v32-3).  Then Jesus declares “it’s me!  I AM the bread of life.”

But Jesus is not offering an instant consumer product:

  • Bread comes from wheat, but we can’t eat wheat. It has to be harvested, threshed, milled, mixed into dough and baked.  By the end, the wheat has changed out of all recognition.
  • It’s the same for Jesus. We can’t eat raw Jesus, the Word who was in the beginning.  He had to be born, grow & learn; he had to teach, lead, heal, preach, provoke, be arrested, put on trial, be tortured, die and rise again.

Conclusion.

Jesus is not a popular consumer product – he requires commitment: not popular – even among believers; in Jesus’ time ‘many disciples desert[ed] Jesus’ (vv 60-70).  Jesus is not bread for a day, but for life, which is sometimes painful: we don’t always get our ‘rights’ or what we want.  But we have what we need: Christ, His Grace, His Gifts and each other.

[Let us share the peace.]

Jesus Changes His Mind

Jesus Changes His Mind … a sermon on Mark 7:24-27 (Year B, Proper 18)

Aim: To see Jesus as real – real God and a real human.

Scripture

In Chapter 6, Jesus had a tough time.  He’s been rejected at Nazareth, by those who should have known him best.  His friend and Cousin John the Baptist has been killed.  He’s sent out his disciples and performed miracles to feed the relentless crowds.  In Chapter 7 he’s argued with the Pharisees about what’s right and wrong after they found a way to criticise his disciples.  Now he’s trying to get some peace and quiet by staying incognito in a house over the border in a foreign town.  At last, he can get some time to deal with everything that has happened to him.

Somehow, a foreigner has recognised him.  Even though she’s a woman, she has the nerve to approach a Rabbi and ask for his help!  Jesus gives her a short answer, referring to non-Jews as ‘dogs’: at best this is a patronising comment, at worst it is a racist insult!  Jesus is not being very nice, but she won’t give up, uses a term of respect to this rude Jew.  Then Jesus gives in and answers her.

Analysis

Mark tells it like it was, perhaps for comedy value, even though it might embarrass Jesus.  There are two difficult issues for us here.  First, we see Jesus portrayed as human; he is not the perfect gentleman and can be harsh when irritated.  Second, he changes his mind and grants a request, even when the person who asks has no business asking him for anything.

Our Christian doctrine, our traditional theology tells us that God is perfectly knowing, all seeing and unchanging, so Jesus can’t have changed his mind!  Sometimes this is explained away as Jesus ‘testing’ people’s faith.  A well-known Christian hymn is titled ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’; here, he is not!

Conclusion

However, I feel encouraged by these verses just as they are.  The Bible does not shy away from the facts, even when it might not always look good or be interpreted the in ‘right’ way.  This gives me confidence that it is true.  I am excited that mere humans if they have faith, can change the mind of God.  In the OT, Abraham persuaded God to spare his cousins’ family.  In the NT, Jesus is persuaded by the persistent faith of a foreigner, a woman – when foreign women counted for nothing in Judea.

Sometimes we are told things about God, which we are not supposed to question.  Does faith mean that we’re not meant to reason about them?  Thank God Jesus does not conform to such dogma!  Thank God that Mark tells us the truth about Jesus and does not give us a sterile piece of propaganda!  Jesus (who is God, Holy Spirit, creator of the universe and all) has compassion, and is prepared to change our world in response to a mere human!