Following Christ’s Example

A message exploring the true aim of life, no less, following Christ’s example in Philippians 2:5-11 (Palm Sunday, Years A, B or C).

Introduction

Today is Palm/Passion Sunday.  We have had five Sundays in Lent and now we turn to Christ’s final week before Easter.  Philippians 2:5-11 is not from that time/place, but it captures the essence of it.

Christ’s Example Then…

Paul is writing to a church that is doing good things, partners “in the gospel from the first day until now”.  Yet they are in enemy territory – a strongly Greek/Roman city (pagan).  Paul:

  • Urges the church to be of one mind, united in humility, working to complete their salvation as pure children of Christ “shining like stars in the universe” (v15), to ‘run the race’ if you will, so that his own efforts might not be for nothing.
  • Says “…Christ Jesus…did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing”
  • Describes how Jesus is humbled (vv6-8) then exalted (vv9-11).

… And it’s Opposite Today

The context for us today is just the same.  You are good people, better than the Philippians, even!  You’ve run the race of life, stuck with God and the gospel, you still shine like stars in the universe!

We, too, live in enemy territory, where things that are not god are worshipped:  

  • Individualism – it’s all about me and MY needs, MY feelings;
  • Consumerism – I am valued because I have $$; and
  • Materialism – ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’.

These three things work in an endless, aimless cycle, until we die.

Conclusion

We don’t have to reject the things of the world, just not worship them.

We have them AND the true, living God, who is alive in us.  Our aim is to be humble like Jesus, because we have a job to do alongside Him, and then we will be exalted with Christ.

Amen.

Stand Firm in the Lord

Encouragement to ‘stand firm’, in response to recent terrible events, based on Philippians 3:17-4:1 (Lent 2C).

Introduction

We’ve heard two awful things recently, that George Pell[1] abused children, and of the murder of 49 Muslims in NZ. How should we respond as Christians?

Scripture: Philippians 3:17-4:1

Paul has just cautioned believers: “For it is we … who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:  circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”  Phil 3:3-6 (NIV)

Instead, Paul encourages the faithful to focus on the cross, Christ and heaven, and the transformation of our weak (willed) bodies in heaven.

Application: Stand Firm … in What?

Pell and the NZ killers had all fallen into the sin of pride.  They had so much confidence in their strength, so much zeal for their beliefs.  They did not fear God; we suspect they did not really know Him.  They had way too much confidence in the flesh, i.e. their own desires and their power to apply them.

Contrast this with the disciples’ advice to us in the Bible:

  • Paul: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,” Phil 2:3 (NIV);
  • Peter: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” 1 Peter 3:15 (NIV); and
  • James: “…human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” James 1:20 (NIV).

This is the opposite of the terrible things we’ve seen.  

Conclusion

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” Phil 4:1 (NIV)

We don’t dare stand firm in anyone else, certainly not ourselves!


[1] This is not a dig at the Roman Catholic church; no church, no institution, has been immune to abuse and abusers.

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!

Part of the Solution

‘Part of the Solution’ is a sermon based on Haggai 1:15b—2:9 (Proper 27c).

Introduction

Haggai’s audience were trying to rebuild the temple after the exile, and who felt that all they had managed to build looked like a pathetic little shed compared to the glory of what had come before.

It is easy to get discouraged if we look back and compare our glory days to our present situation We could:

  • Think about the churches we used to belong to – how great they were;
  • Look back on days when Australia was a simpler country to live in, where we felt we had all the answers; or
  • Remember the days when we were strong and needed, felt better, or could simply remember stuff!

Meaning

Haggai does not criticise their efforts, or pretend that their new temple looked magnificent. It didn’t, but so what? “Take courage, all of you, says the Lord, for I am with you. My spirit is among you; do not fear.”

He says God is promising to do something new and the treasures of many nations will fill this house with splendour, for “the silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord.” Let’s take note that:

  • God is not asking us to build something better, but is promising to fill what we have built with good things. It is not what we build that matters, but what God does with it and what God fills it with.
  • We are not responsible for filling it either. Everything that will go into it already belongs to God and will be put where God wants it.
  • The final splendour of God’s home on earth consists of the treasures of all sorts of people and places. We are just one little contributor among many.

Haggai the prophet was speaking to the high priest, the governor and the people.  We might feel weak and insignificant, but we are ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation’ (1Pet2:9) and ‘For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building’ (1Cor3:9).

We CAN be Part of the Solution

We’re not the whole story, but if we play your part and make our contribution, then we will be a meaningful and fruitful part of the kingdom of God through which all the world will be blessed.

Amen.

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.”

At the Potter’s House

‘At the Potter’s House’ is a sermon on Jeremiah 18:1-11 (Proper 18C)

Introduction

God prompts Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house promising that he will see something interesting.  Jeremiah immediately discerns God’s message in what he sees. 

Message at the Time 

God’s message in 600BC is to a people who notionally belong to him, but worship him in name only.  Instead of relying on God and being obedient to Him, they have politics, money, international trade and alliances with foreign powers.  Jeremiah warns God’s people again and again, but they ignore him.  They ignore all the warnings and their nation is destroyed.

Message for Today

I wonder if we would do any better today?  The message is that God shapes nations and peoples as He sees fit to get the best results He can. So the first question is the best result for whom?

  • Given that we worship a god of love I suppose it’s obvious we would conclude that the results would be the best for us.
  • But being reshaped by the potter sounds painful doesn’t it?
  • Perhaps it’s the best result for everyone for the whole nation, for the whole community.

The other question Is that how white people react to the shaping?

  • Some deny that there is a god who is interested in us at all.
  • Many more imagine an angry God they want to hide from – they work hard to hide from Him.
  • Others will say it’s my life no one else can tell me what to do, or tell me how I should live my life.
    • This is understandable, but again it denies a loving God.
    • It also says more about them: “I know what’s best for me – nobody else knows me better than I do.”
    • It’s an arrogant and self-centred approach; also it’s doomed to fail: do we know better than any/everyone else? Better than God?
  • We’re all tempted to avoid a broader perspective, because taking the broad view might mean making personal, painful sacrifices.

Conclusion

Of course, we should avoid all those mistakes!  We know God personally and know that he has plans to prosper His people and not to harm us.  We know that we make mistakes and that we need correction.  Sometimes Nations get it wrong, and ordinary people suffer the consequences – war, famine, disaster.  Whatever befalls, we know a loving God who helps us to understand why these things happen.  Perhaps we will even change – and be better!

Whole Worship

A sermon on a whole life as whole worship, based on Isaiah 1:1-10 (Proper 14C).

Aim:  To see that a whole life offered to God is worship.

In Isaiah 1:1-10 we have part of his first message to his people from God.  It doesn’t start well.  God begins by comparing His people to the rulers and people of Sodom and Gomorrah, towns so immoral that God destroyed them!

Surprisingly, God then goes on to say He is fed up with their sacrifices, festivals and prayers, which is odd since God started these things through Moses!  Surely God wants us to keep praying to Him?

Meaning at the Time

This message is typical of the Old Testament prophets. Not just Isaiah, but many others say the same thing.  It’s as though God’s people are using incense as a smoke screen to cover up their wrong doings, they are using the many sacrifices and festivals to try and distract his attention from their day-to-day lives.  And we can see from Isaiah message, their ‘ordinary’ lives were not pleasing God.  He wants v16-17 instead.  God is just sick and tired of all the Temple worship, because it is fake.

Meaning & Application for Today

So, what is our response?

  • Worship.  We ask forgiveness, we give him thanks, we praise Him and we pray for others.
  • Work.  We follow the example of the prophets, Jesus and other disciples, bringing healing, justice, friendship and care in the world.  (‘But we’re retired!’)
  • Witness.  We share the Good News – this is not something we hoard for ourselves, but rather we want everyone to enjoy what we have!

I note that the world loves to accuse us of being fakes, but they don’t want the whole package either, and they never did.  Jesus and the prophets were killed because they offered that. We should not expect the godless to behave with grace.

Isaiah finishes on a hopeful note.  If the people stop doing wrong and come to God for forgiveness, they can be clean again.  If they’re willing and obedient they will have the best the land has to offer, but the disobedient will be destroyed.

Conclusion

We worship a whole God – father, son and holy spirit – and we don’t bring half a life of worship.  We commit our whole selves and a whole life in worship, because through the grace of Jesus Christ, we can.

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.