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)

Right Thinking and Actions

A sermon on Right Thinking (orthodoxy) and Right Actions (orthopraxy), based on 1 John 3: 1-7 (Easter 3B).

Introduction

John, Jesus cousin, the disciple Jesus loved as a brother, urges us to think about the extraordinary gift of love the Father has given us in allowing us to be known as God’s own children.  The world around us has never recognised God, and so it doesn’t recognise us as being God’s children either [v1].

Right Thinking, or Beliefs

So, he reassures us, his friends [v2-3]:

  • We are God’s beloved children already;
  • What we are destined to become goes beyond even that, but the details have not yet been made known to us.
  • We know Christ will return to centre stage in clear view of everyone;
  • Then those who recognise who he really is will be just like him; so
  • Everyone waiting will work at making themselves pure, like Him.

You see, false teachers were trying to separate the spiritual from the mundane, to separate God from humans, saying religion was a matter of secret knowledge (magic?), not living ordinary life the right way.

Right Actions

Everyone who does what is wrong is rightly charged with opposing what God wants. ‘Doing wrong’ and ‘opposing what God wants’ are one and the same thing.  We know that [v4-6]:

  • Christ was brought onto the scene to wipe out our wrongdoing. There is nothing corrupt in him at all.
  • Those who live their lives in him do not do what is wrong; and anyone who does do what is wrong has obviously not recognised him and does not understand him.
  • We are God’s little children, so do not let anyone pull the wool over your eyes about these things.

How? By Knowing HIM

How do we know? We practice!  We read the Bible, we pray, we live together in community and tradition, we use our minds to reason about all these things.  Thus, we feel the Holy Spirit at work in us and we get to know Him.

‘Everyone who is doing the right thing is on the right track in just the same way as Christ himself is on the right track’ [v7].

Jesus is Eternal, not just for Christmas

A sermon on choosing Real Love in the Eternal Jesus at Christmas, based on Philippians 1:3-11 (Advent 2C).

Introduction 

We see lots of adverts and announcements in the run-up to Christmas.  Each one says “choose me!”  Choose this product, this activity, this charity (this image of happiness).  Often we are enticed with an image of love – a couple, a family, a community.  It’s all a bit idealised and not always very real; if people don’t already have love and happiness, then why should it be different on December 25th

Scripture 

Paul writes to his sisters and brothers in Philippi with real affection.  He is in prison, unable to go out or to do the things he would like to do, unable to apply the wisdom that he has learnt – rather like us in our mortal bodies, stuck where we are in time and space.  Being in prison means that Paul is waiting for execution, yet he has joy, hope and encouragement from the Philippians, because:

  • He can see what God has started in them – and that God will finish the job, making them perfect and ready for Christ’s return;
  • They have been totally committed to Paul – through thick and thin – (even waiting for death), he knows God’s love through them;
  • This is real love, not some mushy Christmas advert love;
  • Paul says that we can tell this love is real, because (five off):
    • Makes them alert, ready and determined to do God’s will;
    • Helps them to discern right from wrong;
    • It will ensure that sin can’t stick to them for long;
    • It enables them to work constantly with God for good; and
    • It shows the (true) glory to God to other people[1].   
  • This real love will prepare them for Christ’s return.

Application 

In this season of Advent we look forward to Christmas, to celebrating the birth of Jesus.  We also look forward to Jesus returning in power and triumph, when our freedom of choice will disappear forever.  Human beings will no longer be free to choose ignorance and selfishness, loneliness, war and cruelty. 

You who chose Jesus Christ will get your eternal reward, free from all the ills of the world, free from the limits of your mortal bodies, free from the limits of time and space – free of charge.  Amen, come Emanuel, come Lord Jesus!


[1] Whether they take any notice or not!

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.  

Back to Preaching Resources.

Only Grace, Not Circumcision

Message: only grace is needed, not circumcision or any other symbols, based on Galatians 6:1-18.

Introduction 

Thinking about circumcision made me think of the symbols we all carry around:

  • Signet ring – bears my initials, given to me by my parents.
  • Wedding ring – bears both our initials and wedding date (c.f. ‘lady in the lake’ murder story – google it).
  • Help for Heroes band – anyone can wear (for only £2!), but I used to be in the RAF.
  • My Watch – not really symbolic, but indicates responsibilities.
  • My cross – I wear it because I belong to Jesus Christ (not as a good-luck charm).

Exegesis: Galatians 6 

This is the final chapter of the letter that is all about GRACE:

  • Bear each other’s burdens to obey the law (vv1-2).
  • Judge yourself – beware prideful comparisons (vv3-5).
  • Support Christian teachers (missionaries & minsters) – in the UK! (v6).
  • God can’t be fooled, you reap what you sow (vv7-8).
  • Do good to all, all your life, for God’s reward! (v9).
  • Especially do this for you Brothers & Sisters in the faith (v10).
  • This is personal!  Personal faith is a recurrent theme for Paul (c.f. his Jewishness). (V11).
  • The circumcisers focus on outward things so they can fit in; even they don’t obey the law they say they are promoting! (vv12-13). 
  • Paul’s focus is the cross of Christ that killed the old person of sin and enables the inner transformation to the new person (vv14-15).
  • Paul is circumcised and he also has other scars to prove his loyalty to Christ! (v17).
  • In the end it’s all about Grace – that’s the best Paul can wish them (v18).

Application

I think that there are two key verses here.

  • “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”  (NIV, v7).
    • This is a warning to those in Christ who might abuse God’s grace.
    • We can’t ignore God’s instructions or neglect his Word and expect to profit.
    • In God’s universe there are consequences for every action.
  • “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.” (NIV, v15).
    • I don’t think that Paul is deriding his circumcision (although it’s just one of many scars on his body).
    • But it only an outer symbol of an inner conviction – a new relationship with God that produces a new lifestyle in response.
    • Similarly, there is nothing wrong with wedding rings, but imagine that I was a lousy, abusive or unfaithful husband; then the ring would just be a reminder of my failure.
    • Worse, for those who know the truth – and God knows everything – the ring is then a mockery of everything it is supposed to be. 
    • Grace is the key to this change – we call it ‘salvation’ – that unlocks the new person.
    • Even now that we are saved, we need Grace to keep us going without backsliding or going stale, or becoming smug and satisfied with outer respectability.

Conclusion

Therefore I hope that we will never point to mere symbols to justify ourselves.  Instead I wish us all the very best, God’s Grace, to help us in our ongoing inner transformation and matching outer life style: our new life in Christ.

Grace

A sermon on grace, based on Galatians 1:1-12 and 1:11-24.

Galatians 1:1-9: Grace is Key

Paul’s greets his audience, prays for them and gets straight to business.

  • Vv 1-2.  Paul: an ambassador sent directly by God and Christ – raised from the dead.
  • Vv 3-5.  A (short) prayer for the Galatians (northern Turkey), emphasising Jesus’ sacrifice to save them from their sins and from living a world ruled by ungodly powers.
  • Vv 6-7.  Paul tackles the issue head-on:
    • The Galatians have strayed from the pure Gospel of grace from Christ.
    • They have been distracted by the Jewish tradition that demands the observance of practices such as circumcision, in order to be accepted by God.
    • This is no Gospel – where is the Good News of forgiveness at no cost to us?
    • This is an insult to the sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross!
  • Vv 8-9.  Paul issues a ‘double anathema’.  He denounces anyone who would pervert the Gospel, even if they were an angel; perhaps he is reminding his Jewish critics that Satan (the ‘accuser’) was an angel, who seeks to punish us for our sins. 

Galatians 1:10-12: A First-rate Gospel 

Paul makes a plain statement to rebut his critics.

  • He is not a populist seeking favour with an ‘easy’ or second-rate Gospel to please people.
  • The Gospel that Paul preaches comes direct from God himself.

Galatians 1:13-24: Grace is Central

Grace is absolutely central to Paul for very personal reasons.

  • Vv 13-14.  Paul persecuted the church fiercely (inc. murder) driven by his zeal for Judaism.
  • Vv 15-16.  Yet God revealed Jesus to Paul and called him to preach.
  • Vv 17-19.  Paul did not seek by men (even the apostles), but followed God’s instructions.  (He refers to Peter and James – other good Jews who betrayed Jesus, but who were forgiven.)
  • Vv 20-24.  In his previous missionary work Paul did not rely on endorsement by church leaders; rather his totally transformed life and witness spoke for themselves.  

Conclusion

Paul is very passionate about God.  It was always in his nature to be so, but God has personally forgiven Paul’s very personal persecution of God:

‘“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”  (Acts 9:4b-5).

Paul has been forgiven much and therefore loves much (see Luke 7:42b-43 and v47b). 

Today there is a danger that, in a faddy effort to be ‘inclusive’ and encourage ‘diversity’, the church may abuse grace and offer forgiveness to the unrepentant.  However, this appeasement of sin, this twisting of the Gospel, this heresy, should not put us off.

Paul stakes his life on grace: all sinners are accepted by God, because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  Paul knew that he had sinned much and been forgiven much, and he loved God greatly as a result and lived accordingly.  So should we.