Strength and Authority

A message contrasting God’s pure, unblemished strength & authority with the way humans corrupt these blessings, based on Matthew 23:1-12 (Proper 26A).

Introduction

After the Pharisees had finished arguing with Jesus he was able to teach the disciples/people.

  • The key to understanding the Pharisees is that they were politicians!
  • Many people justifiably fear human power and authority, from experience; sadly, they assume that God will be like that, so they fear or reject God.

Teaching on Authority 

Jesus teaches us to obey the religious leaders, but not to live like them.  They have compromised their principles to gain and keep power.

  • Instead, we are to avoid worldly power and status, seek service and be modest.
  • Yesterday was All Saints Day, when we traditionally celebrate the heroes of the Faith.  Some were powerful leaders, some suffered terrible things.  All served.
  • How do we understand this?  What should we do? Is there a balance?

A Poem about Strength

The Prayer of an Unknown Confederate Soldier:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve.
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy.
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

Conclusion & Application 

So, human power is not the answer. This is good news for us who are powerless!  Yet we are not powerless, we: 

  • Have the power to build up or tear down with our words.
  • Can welcome or reject new people.
  • May smile or frown, encourage and sympathise or ignore.
  • Can pray, lift others to God for blessing, or fail to do so.

We are still responsible to God for our attitudes, words and actions.

The Game Changer

A message about Jesus, the game changer: Matthew 11:2-11 reminds God’s people which side of history we are on (Advent 3A).

Introduction

Matthew, the most Jewish of Gospel writers, has a lesson for impatient followers of Jesus.  John the Baptist asks about Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” [v3]

Then: is Jesus the Game Changer?

John the Baptist was so confident that he knew who Jesus was when he could see him face to face, when he baptised him.  Now he is in prison he is not so sure. 

  • Why is he there, waiting to die? 
  • Why isn’t Herod, that Roman puppet, in prison instead of me? 
  • Why aren’t his foreign masters gone? 
  • Why aren’t us Jews, God’s own people, free; why are we not well on the way to ruling the world?  

Jesus replies, reminding John that he is doing EXACTLY what was prophesied. 

Jesus reminds the crowd that John is more than a prophet: “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’ ”  [Mal 3:1]

Malachi was telling the Jews that God was fed up with their moaning, expecting to be saved, not because they were faithful, but just because they were Jews – born of women (not of God the Father).

Now: a Different Perspective

John the Baptist could not imagine that we could be followers of Jesus, could be God’s people, because we are not Jews.  We live twenty centuries after him in a country he never knew existed.  The Roman rulers of the world are a distant memory!

We do not see Jesus face to face and yet we know him, we believe and trust him.  We who are saved by his sacrifice and live with the Holy Spirit in us are born again – born from above; we may be the ‘least in the kingdom of heaven’ but we are greater than John, the prophet who baptised Jesus.

We have a different perspective!  So, in Advent, we wait.

Godless Foreigners!

A message about seeing with a fresh, Godly perspective (just like those Godless Foreigners), based on Matthew 17:1-9 (Epiphany, Year A).

Today we have a well-known passage that describes the wise men coming to see Jesus – now a toddler.  But there’s is more to it than that! This is satire, a set of jokes at the expense of the rich, powerful, religious and nationalistic.

Wise Men (Godless Foreigners) Arrive

  • The Messiah (God’s chosen one) born in poverty, not even at home;
  • Godless Foreigners (GFs) funny-looking people, who can’t even speak the lingo properly, tell God’s people that their new king is born;
  • The GFs come to worship the Jewish King!
  • Herod, a king who is not chosen by God but by the Pagan Romans (GFs);
  • Herod is so insecure, his moods are dangerous to his own people;
  • The clueless religious experts caught on the hop, answering the fake king and the GFs;
  • Sneaky Herod asks the GFs (not scripture or the religious) for information – for his own devious ends;
  • Only the GFs both see and understand the sign from heaven (a star), and only they get the joy;
  • They see a young mother and baby in a house and worship Him, giving him top presents (with dreadful meanings); and
  • Then God warns the GFs in a dream (like Joesph/prophets!) about Herod and they sneak off back home, job done!  

Some points to note:

  • It’s like it is all a big joke, but it’s the (second?) biggest event in history and deadly serious;
  • It is chilling to think that the Jews, God’s people had become racists – judging people on their ethnicity (they had their reasons, but…);
  • How should we avoid making the same mistakes, how we can avoid our status and security as God’s people from making us smug, blind?
  • How should we treat strange visitors (GFs or not)?  What message are they carrying from God? 
  • What is going on under our noses that God is alerting us to?

Application 

As we start a new year, let’s ask God to give us an epiphany: fresh insights, an open mind, eyes to really see, ears to really hear and renewed hearts to love.  Amen

Meeting Our Needs

A message about allowing God to help us meet our needs, based on Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-42 & Romans 5:1-11 (Lent 3A)

Introduction

We are going to hear from three pieces of scripture today, but I only have time to read one – Exodus 17:1-7.

Old Testament Scripture

So God’s people are wandering in the desert and there isn’t much water.  They get annoyed with God and take it out on Moses.  At his wits’ end, Moses cries out to God, and He meets their needs – in style!  Moses doesn’t let the people forget their moaning…

We usually call this place the ‘desert of sin’, which makes it sound like it’s the people’s fault that they are there, but their rebellion and 40 years’ wandering in the desert is yet to come.  It may be that God took them that way for their own protection, to avoid conflict.

New Testament Scripture

In John 4:5-42 Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and asks for a drink.  Rabbis don’t talk to women, or Samaritans and they certainly don’t get water from them!  Jesus is breaking down barriers here, and offers the woman ‘living water’, just what God did for Moses.

Finally, in Romans 5:1-11 Paul reminds the Roman church that Jesus was willing to offer us not just water, but to spill his own blood for us.  He dies to lift us out of the desert of sin and bring us close to God.

My ‘Needs’ – a Personal Application

Maybe you’re like me; I like my comforts and when times are difficult my first instinct is to grumble, instead of taking my concerns to God.  I like to be in control and solve my own problems, but the truth is that I can’t solve the big problems in life, and I only get angry trying to.  Perhaps I need to get closer to God and allow Him to help me.

“Therefore…

…since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Romans 5:1) Amen

The Baptism of Jesus

A sermon on Jesus’s Baptism, based on Matthew 9:1-13 (Lent 1B).

Introduction

Elijah, back as John the Baptist, baptises Jesus; God and the Holy Spirit appear with Jesus; who then goes out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. John is imprisoned, Jesus begins his ministry and we hear his message: “the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”  Phew!

It’s like the overture in an opera, a summary of the 15 chapters to come, and a manifesto for an election campaign, all rolled into one. 

Jesus Baptism: why, why, why?

I was thinking about this while I was emptying the bins and putting out the stuff for recycling:

  • Why did Elijah have to come back? I’m not sure.
  • Why was Jesus baptised?  In Mark, Matthew and Luke, it is the trigger for God to endorse Jesus and the Spirit to anoint him Messiah.
  • Why did Jesus go out to be tempted? Mark does not say, but Matthew and Luke both give us three answers, but they’re not quite the same.

While I couldn’t get an answer to every question, I could think about these great spiritual things while doing something mundane. Even more amazing:

  • I could pray directly to God about it, in Jesus name (which means ‘God with us’) and
  • I can even let the Holy Spirit work in my mind and with my spirit, not to always get the answer to my questions, but to better know, love and obey our three-in-one God.

Our Time in Lent

In this short period of Lent, we are privileged to join all the players in Jesus story, most of all the get closer to God as we just spend time with him.  Many people will get to know God personally during this Lent, because they will:

  • Hear the Gospel from others who went before them and be baptised;
  • Make their public commitment to God and receive the Holy Spirit, as Jesus did; and
  • They will go into the arid world and be tempted, just as Jesus was.

Conclusion

Unlike Jesus himself, you and I and all other believers will not get all the answers we want, and we will fail to connect with God from time to time, and we will give into temptation. But God has prepared even for our sins so that we can confess and connect to Him at any time. We can spend more time with Him at special points in every week and year of our lives.

Thank God for Jesus! (1 Corinthians 15:57)

Persistence in Prayer & all Things

Persistence in Prayer and in all things, a sermon based on Luke 18:1-8 and 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 (Proper 24C)

Introduction

We are often told that we live in a culture of instant gratification.  I think that is only superficially true, or even, it was true, would it necessarily be a bad thing?  Would it be so bad if poor children could have what they need as soon as they needed it, or be able to go to university without incurring long-term debt? 

Nevertheless, I do think that the things that really matter take time.  Today we have a scriptural antidote to the idea of instant gratification. Here are two passages urging us to be persistent.

Luke 18:1-8

Jesus reminds us to be persistent with prayer to God:

  • He is our Father and wants to do the right thing for us.
  • Jesus promises us justice, not what we want or think we need, because;
  • God is just, Holy and all-powerful, but nevertheless He does care about us.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Paul gives Timothy advice with some urgency:

  • This is his last letter before he is executed. 
  • He is worried about the church facing persecution under Emperor Nero. 
  • Paul is also missing Timothy his adopted ‘son’.

Some Modern Theory 

I’ve been reading a book called ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed; he was a world-class table tennis player.  One of the things he tries to do in his book is to debunk the idea of innate or instant talent or genius: 

  • To get really good at anything takes ~10,000 hours of purposeful practice. 
  • That’s 20 hours a week almost 10 years. 
  • Not just 10,000 hours of repetition: it’s being pushed to perform better all the time.

Another thing he looks at is the placebo effect.  Just believing in something can make people more successful, whether the thing they believe in is true or not

  • Such ideas might make us feel threatened, it sounds like an attack on faith itself? 
  • But actually, Jesus’s parable of the persistent widow says the same thing. 
  • Her persistence wins justice though there is none in the human judge – her faith that he will do the right thing makes it happen. 

Jesus doesn’t see this as a reason to doubt faith; rather that he says if faithful persistence makes the unjust do right then surely God even more so.

Nevertheless

There will be bad times when it seems that our faith is achieving nothing. 

  • Paul was faithful for a lifetime: 10,000 hours of purposeful practice becoming a Rabbi; three years in the desert after his conversion; and many years’ hardship on the road.
  • This got him chained up like a criminal in a cold dungeon far from home and loved ones waiting for death. 
  • Despite this Paul encourages Timothy (if you are feeling down then read all of 2Timothy, it’s quite short).  Be patient with yourself, with others and with God. 

So let’s stick with it friends!      

The Apostles’ First Day

Jesus briefs his apostles on their first day at work, based on Luke 6:17-26 (Epiphany 6C)

Introduction

In verses 12-16 Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain, spends all night praying and then selects 12 of them to be apostles (“sent with a special commission”).  In verse 17 they come down the mountain and run into a large crowd, seeking his teaching and healing.  He heals all who need it and then he speaks to his followers. 

Luke 6:17-26

Jesus tells his followers that following him may cost them.  They may be:

  • Poor; Hungry; Weeping;
  • Hated, excluded, insulted and rejected as evil!

But God will reward them because this is how the prophets were always treated. Conversely, the rich, well fed, laughing and admired had better watch out! These things come from humans, not God.

This was not obvious teaching at the time.  Surely people had good things because God blessed them?

Meaning for Today

People still believe this.  On social media I see Christians saying that God is going to bless his people, more and more.  Now Jesus doesn’t say that we will always suffer, or must suffer, but he does encourage us. 

  • If we suffer on Earth for our faith, we should know that this is consistent with being true disciples; 
  • Conversely, being rich and famous is not a sign that God loves us.

Conclusion

The reward for faith is salvation, a restored relationship with God, and all that flows from it: 

  • Love for enemies (vv27-36);
  • Not judging others (vv37-42);
  • Bearing good fruit; and
  • Building wisely (vv46-49).

We will be different, and our differences will equip us for heaven.  Let’s start as we mean to go on!

Investing Wisely

‘Investing Wisely’ is a sermon that aims to ask: where is our treasure and what is our perspective? It’s based on Jeremiah 32:1-15 and Luke 16:19-31 (Pentecost 18)

It’s 587BC and Jeremiah is in a tight spot

  • He’s been falsely arrested for Treason because he prophesied against the King.
  • He’s imprisoned in the Guardhouse of the Royal Palace.
  • Jerusalem is under siege, surrounded by Babylonian troops.
  • Then Hanamel his Nephew appears and asks him to buy a field – three miles behind enemy lines!  
  • Jeremiah could have pointed out the absurdity of what Hanamel was asking, but:
    • The Word of God has told Jeremiah that this would happen.
    • It is the law that he should buy the field and keep it in the family

Luke 16:19-31.  Now we have a very different picture

  • Jesus tells a parable, perhaps reusing a familiar folk story.  Note that:
    • It isn’t orthodox in the Christian sense – it doesn’t say salvation is by faith!
    • Jesus uses current belief – the focus is on right living rather than right belief.
    • Lazarus is the only named character in a parable of Jesus.
  • The rich man shows no interest in Lazarus, although he lives under his nose.
    • He has food to spare and Lazarus would gladly eat it – but no luck.
    • He doesn’t even think of others until he is in Hell (and then it’s his brothers).
  • In v31 Jesus ironically refers to Lazarus, raised from the dead, and perhaps himself.

Message for Today

  • The obvious message from the parable in Luke is a warning to us in the rich West.
    • Here we are indulging ourselves to death, while others die for lack of clean water.
    • The faithless might use such (tabloid) stories to say “there ain’t no justice” (or God).
    • I am fearful of what God will allow to happen to our society. (How angry is God?)
    • That’s perhaps what you would expect me to say – and it’s true!
  • However, when put next to the Jeremiah passage another view emerges.
    • Jeremiah could have needed that silver to keep him alive (bribes for the guard).
    • His far-sighted actions would enable his heirs to claim their land after the exile.
  • The message for today is what are we investing in?  Where is our treasure and our hearts?

Conclusion: investing

  • Jeremiah was in prison in a city under siege; he knew the enemy would win.
  • We are imprisoned in physical bodies, in a materialistic society in a physical universe.
  • We are not going to win this fight (a thought typical of Jeremiah)!
    • We will not live forever.
    • The church will not win over society and save society from itself.
    • Occasional miracles aside, God will not intervene to save our planet from us.
  • People without faith expect God to act in a timescale to suit them – they’re dead wrong!
    • God will act when and where and how He deems best for His purposes.
    • We are called to invest our hearts and treasure in God’s purposes and his timescale.
  • Our privileged relationship with God allows us to see things from His perspective.
  • “Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven, Amen.”

Why Reach Out to the Lost Sheep?

A sermon on ‘the lost sheep’, based on Luke 15:1-10 (Year C, Proper 19).

Aim: To explain why the sheep is really lost, why we need to reach out and how.

If you’ve spent your whole life in the church then the story about the lost sheep is really well known isn’t it?  Perhaps we think we know it so well that there is nothing more to learn.  But let’s imagine that we are not religious insiders and that we are listening carefully, expectantly, to the story.

Luke 1:1-10

In verse 2 the Pharisees complain that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  These sinners were Jews who collaborated with the Roman occupying forces – a foreign, Pagan invader.  (Although the Romans were relatively liberal occupiers, the Jews had recent memories of those who were not. The previous invaders had tried to destroy Jewish culture and worship.)  So these people were beyond the pale, yet Jesus ate with them!  This was too much – for the Jews eating with someone was to accept them totally, to recognize them and know them as one of  God’s people. To this day, when we take communion we cement our relationship with God and with our fellow Christians.

Meaning at the Time  

It’s easy for us to criticize the Pharisees, but we should remember that their zealous devotion to God was much greater than ours is today.  They were popular with the people just as the Taliban were in Afghanistan because the alternative was corrupt and collaborated with foreigners.  But the Pharisees were a political party and, perhaps, were focussed on the Jews as a Nation, and the power that gave them, rather then the fate of individuals.  Perhaps the Pharisees have pride – they have confidence in themselves and their earthly power, rather than in God; this is how evil men are described in Psalm 14 and Jeremiah 4.  They were rightly critical of sin, but so much so that they could not recognize repentance or rejoice about it.    So Jesus told them a story.

In Jesus’ time, those hearing the story would have known that a lost sheep would be in real danger.  Not only would the stupid animal have wandered away from the flock, it’s natural protection, the Shepherd and the best grazing, but it would be easy prey for wild animals and bandits. 

Meaning for Today

Today, those who don’t know Jesus don’t see themselves as lost, because whatever doubts they might have about their lives are masked by material wealth.  They don’t need God, because they have confidence in their wealth and strength – until they run out.  I’ve heard those who don’t know God say two things: “I’ve got nothing to say sorry to God for” and “why is this happening to me?”

Perhaps they also don’t know about God, because nobody has told them.  I wonder if we still have an appetite to go out and save the lost?  Or do we just stay within our church, our comfort zone, our little club?  In our network of activities – no doubt good in themselves – have we so thoroughly occupied ourselves with business that we have forgotten our Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt 29:19 NIV)    

In Conclusion

Do we even think of ourselves as a church that does that kind of thing?  What would we have to do reach outside to the lost?  What would we have to give up in order to have the time, money and people to do that?  our regular activities?  Our habitual style of worship?  Imagine if we did go out and draw in dozens of new believers, people who don’t know how to behave in church – what changes, what sacrifices would we have to make to accommodate them and disciple them?  Are we willing to do that?  The key, as always, is Jesus.  If we recognize and accept him as the Son of God then we will accept his authority and power to forgive sin, as the outcasts did, and that would drive  everything else.

Good News for the POOR

This sermon, focussed on Jesus’s mission to the poor, is based on Luke 4:14-21. I delivered it on 27th January 2019 (Year C, Epiphany 3).

Introduction

In First-Century civilization, three classes made up society:

  • The aristocracy – the ruling class, an international elite who worked together to stay on top, no matter what their apparent differences;
  • The middle class – traders, artisans, priests, tax collectors, officials and so on; and 
  • The poor – who had to work as hard as they could just to stay alive.

This was brilliantly illustrated in a sketch on the Frost Report.

Views then and Now

If you took a conventional view of religion back then, you would assume that God blesses the rich, and everyone would agree with you. 

  • The aristocracy would agree that their rightful position was on top, (self) satisfied that their success showed them to be blessed by God and confirmed in looking down on the social-climbing middle classes. 
  • Those middle classes would be happy to agree that wanted to climb the greasy pole and join the aristocracy. They wanted to be ‘top people’ and – more than anything else – to avoid becoming poor. 
  • And those poor people would agree that being poor sucked, so they must be cursed by God; they wanted to join the middle class and get away from the daily struggle for survival, which left no time for anything else. 

In our Twenty-First-Century civilization it’s just the same.  Oxfam says that the world’s richest 26 people have the same wealth as the poorest 50% of the world’s population. 

Absolutely nothing has changed.

Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 4

Yet, when Jesus starts his public ministry, he begins in Galilee, an isolated backwater, cut off from the rest of Israel, which itself is on the very edge of the Roman Empire.  He goes home, to an insignificant village.  He accepts a scroll written by a prophet who was, it was said, murdered by a king some 700 years before (N.B. this is not Biblical).  Of all the thousands of verses in the 66 chapters of Isaiah, he picks out these verses.  God has chosen Him:

  • To deliver good news to the poor;
  • To preach a message that:
    • means freedom for the locked-away;
    • will open the eyes of those who can’t see; and
  • To set free the used and abused.

To deliver this message, Jesus is supported by the middle class: disciples who are boat-owning fishermen, even a tax collector; a doctor – Luke, who wrote this Gospel; and his ministry is funded by women who have some money to spare.

Jesus Loves the Poor: but does he Hate the Rich?

Not necessarily, but…Jesus was opposed by the monarchy, the aristocracy, the two political parties, the religious authorities, those senior officials who collaborated with the Roman Empire.  They tried to kill him many times.  Eventually, they get him, find him guilty in an illegal trial (held at night, only no witnesses) and trick the Roman authorities into murdering Him. 

It seems that our reaction to Jesus is largely determined by our wealth. 

Now, there are exceptions to any rule: those poor who accepted payment to become a mob and shout “crucify him!”; the tax-collector who repents and becomes a disciple; even Nicodemus, former Jewish ambassador to Rome, who listens to Jesus and changes allegiance from the aristocracy, his class, to the Messiah.

What should we Conclude from all this?

  • First, if you’re poor – locked out of society, deceived, duped, used and abused by the rich – then Jesus has good news for you. You will be set free and able to see what’s really going on; 
  • Second, the middle classes had better think about what their priorities are: climbing that greasy pole; or using their good fortune for good, telling people about Jesus? 
  • Third, the rich must repent, and radically change direction, or they will be shut out of heaven for eternity.  Jesus said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25) [NIV].

But those richest 26 people in the world?  I wouldn’t bet on their chances of going to heaven; that’s not “gambling responsibly”, is it?  But you, brothers and sisters in Christ?  You’ll be just fine.  See you in heaven.  

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