Wednesday, March 28, 2007

C, Midweek Lent 5 - Matthew 26:36-56 "Gethsemane - Under the Squeeze"

There isn’t a more appropriately named place in the bible than Gethsemane. This is the place where Jesus prays moments before he is taken and falsely accused before the Jewish and Roman authorities, and subsequently crucified on the cross outside Jerusalem.

Gethsemane is only mentioned twice by name in the New Testament; in Matthew 26:36-56, and in Mark 14:32-50. In Luke and John’s account of the Gospel (Luke 22:39-53; John 18:1-13), Gethsemane is not mentioned but rather just an olive grove, and in John, Jesus only goes there after he prays his High Priestly prayer recorded in John chapter seventeen. However, the Mount of Olives, the location of the olive grove is a very familiar place Jesus and his disciples frequently visited.

When one understands the meaning of the name, Gethsemane, it’s a logical conclusion the place is an olive grove or adjacent to an olive grove, on or near the Mount of Olives. Gethsemane is a contraction of two Hebrew words ­ — Gath, which is a trough or vat or pit for pressing grapes or olives, and comes from the word to beat or thrum; and, Shĕmĕn, is the rich delicious shiny product used in oil lamps, cosmetics, medicines, and for anointing. Shĕmĕn was the oil pressed from the olives in the troughs and pits at Gethsemane.

This sermon is not going to be a lesson on olive oil extraction and waste disposal. But the process used on the olive fruit is surprisingly similar to the events in which Jesus suffered and died — Jesus Christ being the eternally begotten first fruit of God.

We hear beginning from Matthew chapter 26:36 …Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” 40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”

42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” 43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. 45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus replied, “Friend, do what you came for.”

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

55 At that time Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. (Matthew 26:36-56)

This is the hour of darkness. Just before Jesus is betrayed into the hands of the authorities and the disciples desert him, we get a clear glimpse from the text of his humanity struggling against his divinity. Gethsemane is the place where the anointed one, the messiah, felt the crushing reality of death begin to press in on him.

Where Jesus retreats to pray is know as the Rock of Agony. One might say Jesus was caught between a rock and a hard place. He was the Son of God, eternally born, and now he was on the verge of being crushed on the cross. Just like an olive in the press, death pressed in on Jesus. The first fruit of God was under the squeeze at Gethsemane.

Ironically, Jesus is the Christ, and Christ or Messiah means anointed one. The custom was to anoint the king with oil, but here we find at Gethsemane, at the oil press, the pressure bore down on Jesus, squeezing from him all the sorrows and troubles of his heart, which burdened him to the point of death. In Luke we’re told although he had been strengthened by an angel, he was completely anguished knowing he had to drink the cup of wrath, and therefore, he prayed more earnestly and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:42-44).

Graciously the irony continues for us too. Jesus was crushed, the hour of death squeezed in on him, the anointed one anointed us with his death. Therefore, in our baptism, we are anointed with the full richness, flavoursome, glory of God, causing us to be God’s glowing oil lamps, covered with the glowing robes of Christ’s righteousness, medically healed within by his atoning blood, which anoints all who trust his will, and follow his ways.

Lastly, there is one by-product that still needs our examination. Have you ever wondered what happens to the leftovers after the rich oil has been extracted from the olives? The olive husk, or pomace, is often returned to the soil in the olive groves, it breaks down into the soil as a fertiliser. But then there is also a watery brown liquid which is quite difficult to discard. If it gets into the water table it can pollute things very badly.

So too with us who have died to sin and live in the full richness of Christ. As God’s anointed fruitful people, the harsh by-products of sin which pollutes our world must be absorbed by Jesus’ death on the cross. He was crushed to anoint us with the full richness of God, and subsequently he takes on our rotten rotting sinful natures into himself. And our mortal husk, our mortal flesh will disappear in the soil, unlike our being which will be anointed forever in eternity, with Jesus for his sake, who was pressed into death for us. Amen.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

C, Lent 5 - Philippians 3:4b-14 "God Believes in You"

With his deep American country music voice, Don Williams sings the following lines…

I don't believe in superstars, Organic food and foreign cars. I don't believe the price of gold; The certainty of growing old. That right is right and left is wrong, That north and south can't get along. That east is east and west is west. And being first is always best.

But I believe in love. I believe in babies. I believe in Mom and Dad. And I believe in you.

Don tells us what he believes and doesn’t believe. What do you believe, and what don’t you believe?

I once believed if I was a good boy Santa would come, and Easter eggs would appear! So was I good? Not often! But gifts still came, and the eggs were eaten! When I rode my bike, I believed every magpie was out to get me! I also believe they haven’t got me yet!

I believed being successful was having lots of stuff and a big bank balance. But now success doesn’t mean much to me at all.

I also believed to be a complete person, I had to find a wife to make me happy, but in these days I realise true happiness is not what I find but is a gift from God.

Mum and Dad were the greatest people in the world, they were invincible, but now I believe they struggle with the exact same things as do I.

I believed when babies came, so did the perfect family. Now I know that to be complete foolishness.

I always had to have the biggest piece, because that was the best piece. Now the biggest piece makes me feel too full.

And I believed to be a Pukallus, was to be who I was meant to be. That, to be a Pukallus, was just as close to perfection as I needed to be. If I tried hard enough, that was good enough! My life motto was: I could be successful if I was true to myself — if I could be the best I could be.

I also believed I had to keep up this facade of perfection, so I wasn’t seen for who I really was… a failure perhaps. If I could just hide the garbage, then I believed I would be ok. And I also believe this is a complete smokescreen and lie!

And what was even better for me than being a Pukallus… I am Australian, an Aussie bloke, even better… a Queenslander. Not a Pom, not a Yank, not a Kiwi, but a genuine dinky-die Aussie. Why would you want to be anything else, lest you were a whinger, obnoxious, or a freeloader? Now I believe, I can not only be the most appalling of Aussie blokes, but I have the potential to be the most horrendous of all humans. In fact I know this, when I look into myself.

And then there is the church. I believed to be Christian was to be Lutheran. The others were ok but we were better! I was baptised in infancy, Sunday schooled, and confirmed. Then I believed we were the worst, and the others were the best, especially the churches dripping with sensual young girls. I believed I had to speak in tongues, go down the front, I had to work to be better than who I was when I looked at myself. I believe I made a decision three times to do just this. I also believe I now can’t remember what I actually decided to do! So what was required of me I did it all and more. Yet, I still believed I hadn’t done enough. I now believe, every person in every Christian denomination struggles with the same sin and needs a Saviour! And I believe here is where God calls me to be!

I believed my career as cameraman, was the best work I could ever do. I believed if I didn’t give huge tithes I might lose the job too. I ran the youth group, my prayers “from the heart” were getting bigger and better, I was made an elder at the same time I became chief cameraman at work, even though I was still so young. I wore good clothes, others liked me, I was popular! It was hard to be humble in those days! I believed these things were all to my benefit, as long as I kept my “other life” hidden. Surely, God was pleased with me! Oh, and yes God, I also believe in you “too”!

So why then do I still get sick? Why will I die? Why does life seem to really suck at times? What’s this horrendous pain in me when I cry at the death of someone I love? Why then if God has blessed me, do bad things still happen to me? Why do I know this will happen again? I’m a good person, God is a god of love, so why the suffering and pain? Have I not done enough? In my quest to be all that I could be, was it still not enough?

These days, I find myself tempted in unbelief, that I a poor miserable sinner could be used to do God’s work. A minister of religion… surely not! I’m tempted to disbelieve because of my horrendous human nature… that God loves me… that, in fact, he came to me while I was a sinner, and he continues to come to me even though I sin. Still, temptation is there to believe I need to do more; that God only provides a percentage of salvation and I must supply the difference… perhaps a righteousness of my own is required.

However, in God’s word, God tells me to believe these evil, sinful thoughts are, in fact, a very big lie. In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, God says my proud profiteering and my sacrificial self-righteous beatings are not even worth what I wipe on toilet paper and flush down the toilet! The things I value most are truly my most grotesque grievances. So let’s hear Philippians three from verse four…

4b If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 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; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:4b-11)

I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ. In fact, in the NIV bible and other English bibles RUBBISH has been sanitised so it’s less offensive. But in the Greek, the word is vulgar in tone. The word is human excrement, poo, or shit! And with it is carried all the offensiveness that comes with true toilet odours, and the desire to cast it out as shameful waste. My efforts, either proud or slavish, are piles of dung that must be flung!

This dung is being flung; not by us though, but by Christ Jesus. What we need, is to be made clean and perfect in the grace of the cross, the righteous work of Christ on the cross, and the faith worked by the Holy Spirit which leads us to grace.

So continually having the dead poo wiped from our lives, by Christ who was excreted onto the cross as filth, we might be raised in his resurrection, after death has also discarded us to the sewer of the cemetery.

Regarding our cleansing and perfecting, St Paul continues… 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

We no longer have a need to carry our unwanted waste efforts, or feel guilty about how we may have dirtied ourselves in the past. Christ carries all our indiscretions on the cross. We place our faith in nothing but the cross. Just like I know I will poop again, so too, sin will strain out of me as I press forward. But like a parent, Christ wipes me clean, even though I try not to make a mess of myself.

I don’t believe I “must” read the bible, confess my sin, go to church, or pray, or do extraordinary things to be a better Christian every day. That would be turning Christianity into just another rigorous religion with requirements for righteousness. But, hearing and believing God’s word, and going to church, God — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — comes to us in a very powerful way — Jesus’ way!

Because God lives in us, and believes in you, we’re led to pray and confess our sin to the one true God who died for us. Lord Jesus Christ, Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, we believe in you! Amen.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

C, Midweek Lent 4 - John 12:1-11 "Bethany: Town of Clouds"

Tonight Bethany, or in the Greek, Bethania, is the location to which we turn our attention. This little town just three kilometres from Jerusalem is the last pilgrimage station between Jericho and Jerusalem.

However, unlike Bethlehem, Egypt, and Jericho, Bethany is not mentioned in name at all in the Old Testament. And a cloud hangs over the origins of the name Bethany. In the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, a town called Ananiah is mentioned in chapter eleven verse thirty-two. This town is attributed as being Bethany.

Ananiah means covering or cloud of God. The reference to clouds means misery, gloom, and darkness; or is a reference to the Lord’s presence in places such as Mt Sinai, the temple in Jerusalem, and on the mountain of Transfiguration, and at Jesus’ ascension.

One can see the word Bethany or Bethania, as Beth plus Ananiah, which means town of clouds. So one might draw the conclusion that Bethany is the town of misery or darkness, or alternatively it might be referred to as the town of God’s presence as in his presence in the cloud. However, one can only speculate over these things. God’s word doesn’t state one way or the other if Ananiah and Bethany are the same towns.

But the town is remembered best for some of its residents, whom Jesus visited. The town’s name today, El-‘Azarîhey reflects the name of this key resident, Lazarus. According to Jerome, a church was built upon Lazarus’ grave. And in 1953 a church was built on the alleged site of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ house.

When we draw all these shreds of information together, we can see how theologians might have come to the conclusion that Bethany is the town of clouds of misery, or clouds of God’s covering presence. This coupled with the name Lazarus, which has its origin in the Hebrew name, Eleazar, meaning, God has helped, and the story of Lazarus’ death, only encourages us to see all these definitions of Bethania or Bethany as being possible.

At Lazarus’ death there was a cloud of misery over Bethany, but the mysterious cloud of God’s presence came to Bethany in Christ and raised Lazarus to life. So at Bethany, God has helped Lazarus, by raising him from the dead. Jesus helps humanity too, in his death and resurrection, because in his death the cloud of misery and death has been lifted from us, and in his resurrection, God mysteriously covers us with the clouds of his gracious presence in Christ Jesus.

But Bethany is not only known for Lazarus’ death and resurrection. We hear also of Jesus’ visit to the home of Simon the Leper, recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. This is the place where Jesus is anointed by a woman with expensive perfume. However, in John’s Gospel account this woman is also Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, and the location is not at Simon the Leper’s home, but at their home. As in Lazarus’ death, this anointing text also deals with death.

This account, John 12:1-8, incidentally, is also the Gospel text for this Sunday. Let’s hear it including verses nine to eleven… 1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. ”It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

9 Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. (John 12:1-11)

Here Jesus speaks of his burial, and we hear of the Jews also conspiring to kill Lazarus; whom Jesus had raised to life at an earlier time. So again the clouds of darkness, misery, and death, brew on the horizon, just prior to Jesus’ march into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus clearly refers to his death before he is laid in the tomb, embalmed to disguise the odour of death, as was the practice.

In Luke’s Gospel account, Luke records Jesus gathering with his disciples in the vicinity of Bethany, where he ascended into heaven. Here again clouds feature too, to hide Jesus from their sight as he enters the unseen eternal realm of heaven. This account is in inconsistent with Mathew’s account where Jesus meets the disciples on a mountain in Galilee and commissions them to baptise and teach in the name of the Triune God.

There is also another discrepancy regarding baptism too; one which also involves Bethany. At the beginning of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist baptises Jesus beyond the Jordan near Bethany. This is problematic because there is no such town of Bethany beyond the Jordan. The King James Version, therefore, states the location as Bethabara instead of Bethany. But the inconsistency is best left to stand as the Greek clearly says Bethania, which is Bethany.

However, regardless of whether the two towns are in fact the same town or not, or whether Jesus ascended at Bethany or Galilee, these disparities don’t lessen the impact of the Gospel message God intends for us.

John begins Jesus’ ministry at Bethany, or Bethania. In essence Jesus is baptised into death at this problematic place called Bethany. Then the last mention of Bethany in John’s Gospel, he is anointed for death by Mary with expensive perfumes. This is the same death he was baptised into by John at the Jordan. Baptism and death are tied together by a place or places called Bethany; where God is present just before the cloud of death falls on him on Good Friday.

What strengthens this further is the fact that Jesus talks to Nicodemus in John three about baptism, and then at his death, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea, by embalming Jesus for burial. So in the Gospel of John, baptism, embalmment, and burial are reoccurring themes, which cannot be separated.

This is all quite reasonable for us. We need not rationalise God’s word, but let it stand with all its rich variations. For we know that in baptism we die, because we are baptised into Jesus’ death. God comes to us and covers us with his holy cloud of grace. But then in death, although this cloud is painful and brings much misery for those who must farewell loved ones hidden from sight by death, we know God has helped those who believe in him, by raising them to eternal life.

Just as Jesus ascended into heaven, we know those who have died in Christ are now hidden in heaven with the ever-present Triune God. And we know we too will one day cross beyond the Jordan and see and live in that hidden reality forever with God. Amen.

Friday, March 16, 2007

C, Lent 4 - Luke 15:11b-24 "A Modern Prodigal Son"

Early in the morning the young fellow packed his bags for an adventure of a life time. He knew his family was far from impressed he was leaving home at such a young age. In fact his father didn’t want him to leave at all; he could have done with the help on the farm. It was big enough to support a large family, and his family was not large by any means. After all, his father had a dozen or so hired hands to do various tasks on the property.

But the youth was packing his bags; the size of the property seemed unimportant; the security it and his family had provided for all these years; and the future prospect of it becoming his – was only a noose he couldn’t wait to cut from his neck. As he strode out the front door, he stopped to kiss his mum goodbye; the morning sun glistened in the tears rolling down her face, his father put his arm around her to comfort her and with the other arm reached out to give his son a hug. He was unable to speak. His stony face hiding the gut wrenching anguish piercing his insides as his son set out on his way to the luring lights of the city.

In the coming days the father grieved over his son. He could still see his face, his smile, and his sparkling eyes. He spent much time sitting in the boy’s room where he had spent so much time with him. He remembered the day he came home from hospital, his first words, his first steps, and his first day at school. He could see him sitting on the tractor, as proud as punch the first time he ploughed a paddock all by himself. But now all he could do was look down the dusty track, hoping one day to see his son return. These were bitter times for the farmer; day in, day out, he longed to see his son.

Meanwhile, in the city the younger boy had forgotten all about the farm and his family. He was winning friends left right and centre with the family fortune the father had handed over. Never before had times been so exciting. Every night was a party! In fact his partying grew greater and greater as the memories grew dimmer and dimmer of the life and the lessons taught by his father at home. He became addicted to excitement and fast times, and to continually stimulate this obsession, his life fell deeper and deeper into depravity.

But not only was his lifestyle falling into chaos. His bank balance plummeted towards poverty at a wildly out of control pace. Before long he had no money. Funnily enough all his new mates and girl friends fell away too. But still his thoughts looked toward fun times rather than his father. So the young boy took himself off to find some work.

But the weeks went past and his experience counted for nothing in the city. At about the same time a drought had broken out across the land and every general labourer’s job that still existed was taken by the workers retrenched from properties such as his fathers.

Things became so bleak in the city, the days clouded in around him, the tall buildings made him feel claustrophobic. He became bitterly depressed, he was hungry, and he had no money. The exciting life he had was turning sour. At a party someone offered him drugs. Was this a path to exciting times yet again? He bowed to the pressure and took some.

It gave him a high — the first time — but afterwards all it gave him was a habit which led into crime and violence. As the days went on the drug habit grew worse. At the last he sold his body into prostitution. He was so disgusted with himself for what he’d done. Another shot on the needle to hide from his pain, and he collapsed from an overdose, all by himself, lonely, and lost, in the depths of darkness.

The next morning a sharp glistening ray of sunlight shot down between the buildings, a little bird sat on some bins towering over his body, spirited by the sun the bird began to sing. As the boy lay there his body warmed too, a sensation came over his eyelids, he wanted to open them but he was blinded by the light.

He began to think about the farm, and about the warmth of his father’s embrace. Suddenly a great dollop of water splashed onto his face. Gasping, the chilling water made him sit upright with life. He remembered his mother’s deep sorrow the morning he turned his back on them. For the first time since he left home he thought about the farm and his family. He could hear his father’s supporting voice of encouragement. He remembered their love; the love he’d never experienced in the city. He immediately got up and walked.

Things were tough on the farm. The drought was fierce, season after season the skies were blue, there was not a cloud to be seen. The dust was so thick, it tainted everything. The only moisture was the sweat pouring from the brow of the father and the few remaining farmhands he could afford to keep on. But as the father toiled he still waited for the boy to come home.

And one day the boy walked in from out of the dust. He was a mere shell of the strong healthy boy he use to be, he was rundown and weak. The drugs and diseases barely allowed him to walk, yet he staggered on in hope of being fed and loved. He knew what he’d done was wrong, but he didn’t know what else to do; all he could do was keep walking back to the life he’d once known. It was if his father’s spirit was pulling him home.

This modern day prodigal son came back to his father. The father saw the boy walking toward the house and dropped everything and ran to the son he thought was dead. Nothing was going to stop the father from loving his son — not drugs, not disease, not squandered wealth, and not even prostitution. He was dead, he looked as though he’d been to hell and back, but now he was alive!

This is how it is for us. There is not one sin that our Heavenly Father won’t forgive, when we ask through his Son, Jesus Christ.

13 “…the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:11-24)

In the parable Jesus says while the son was still far off, the father saw him and filled with compassion ran to him and threw his arms around him. We might think our Father would make us, his prodigal sons and daughters, grovel at his feet just a little. But this doesn’t happen and it never happens. Even after all we’ve done, just like the prodigal son, our Father still wants us back, desperately!

God loves us all as brothers and sisters, because of Jesus Christ. When he runs to us he doesn’t see the sin, but rather repentant people walking towards him, trusting in Christ who went to hell and back, for us, for peace and for our salvation.

We are called to pray for other prodigal children too, feeding them, and being there for them, so through us the Father might be able to re-enter their lives and nourish them with the same grace which nourishes us every time we hear his word of forgiveness and receive his sacraments.

God never cuts us off from his banquet table. He loves us and waits for us too, just as the father waited for the prodigal son to come home and eat in joy and celebration. Amen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

C, Midweek Lent 3 - Luke 19:1-9 "Jericho - City of Palms"

On a fertile plain, stood a city whose walls were towers of strength. Around these walls and inside were palms, heavily laden with fruit, with dates. The Israelites gathered in the wilderness near this city, just on the other side of the Jordan River. Jericho, the City of Palms, promised to be the oasis through which they would enter the land of milk and honey.

The first mention of Jericho in God’s word is in the book of Numbers twenty-two, where after forty years in the Sinai wilderness the Israelites encamp with Joshua on the banks of the Jordan, just across from the fertile plains and palms of Jericho — the proud city whose walls seemed impassable. It’s also at this time when Balak, king of Moab, summons Balaam to call down curses upon the Israelites. But on the way to Balak, Balaam’s donkey three times refuses Balaam’s direction. Balaam beats the donkey and then God speaks through the donkey to Balaam. Balaam’s eyes are opened and then he sees God is speaking to him. He goes on to bless the Israelites, much to Balak’s and Moab’s horror.

Then in the book of Joshua, Joshua sends two spies to look over the land of Canaan and Jericho. The king of Jericho found out these men were held up with the prostitute, Rahab, and he sent word to her to hand them over to him. But she hid the men, because she feared and believed God and what he would do to Canaan through the Israelites. These men vowed to protect her, before returning to Joshua and reporting all that had happened.

As Joshua prepared for battle and neared the walls of Jericho. Strangely he is encountered by a man holding a sword, whom Joshua asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” 14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” 15 The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:13-15)

Joshua’s encounter with the commander of the army of the Lord is very similar to that of Moses on Sinai, at the burning bush. Where these men met was holy ground. Our Commander is the Lord Jesus Christ, and here, he was present before Joshua in his pre-incarnate glory, as God the Son from eternity.

It is he who tells Joshua, Jericho will be delivered into his hands when he does what he is commanded to do. For six days, seven priests carried the Ark of the Covenant around Jericho blowing their trumpets, but on the seventh day they carried the Ark around Jericho seven times before Joshua commanded all the people to shout, saying …the Lord has given you the city! (Joshua 6:16) And at their shout and trumpet blasts God levelled the city walls so the Israelites could pass into the city and destroy every living creature, except for the prostitute Rahab and her family. (Joshua 6:15-27)

At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the Lord is the man who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: “At the cost of his firstborn son will he lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest will he set up its gates.” (Joshua 6:26)

After this Jericho was a comparative city for all other places the Israelites destroyed; each subsequent city was destroyed in the same way as Jericho. Jericho is also used in the Old Testament to define locations of borders and directions in Israel’s early days of habitation in Canaan. But this City of Palms didn’t have its population and prosperity protected, because of Joshua’s curse on whoever might try to rebuild it.

Israel did evil in the eyes of the Lord and the City of Palms then fell into Moab’s hands for eighteen years under King Eglon. God raised up Ehud who had made a double edged sword, a foot and a half long (about forty-five centimetres). Ehud, Judge of Israel, went and plunged the sword into Eglon, king of Moab, and then led Israel against Moab, in one of these battles ten-thousand men from Moab were struck down.

Then King David uses Jericho as a type of halfway-house after he sent a delegation of men to the Ammonites to pass on Israel’s condolences after their king had died. The Ammonites saw the men coming and humiliated them by cutting off their beards and their tunics from the waist down, so they returned home with bald heads and backsides. Kings David commanded the men stay at Jericho until their beards grew back. (2 Samuel 10:1-19, 1 Chronicles 19:1-19)

Many years later when Israel had become two kingdoms — and Ahab became King of Israel, and Elijah spoke out against him and his wife Jezebel — Hiel of Bethel decided to rebuild Jericho’s foundations and gates. Because of Joshua’s oath and curse, Hiel lost his first born son and his youngest son. (1 Kings 16:34)

This forsaken City of Palms was also the place where King Zedekiah was captured before his family was murdered, and he had his eyes plucked out, at the order of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. (Jeremiah 52:4-11)

In the New Testament the City of Palms featured in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. As the players move along the road, the characters travel from Jerusalem down to Jericho. But it was only the Samaritan who picked up the stricken man. Ironically, as Jesus told this parable, he is on his “way” up to Jerusalem to be stricken on the cross. (Luke 10:25-37)

In addition to this, Jesus finds himself in Jericho, healing people and spending time with Israel’s “low-lives” just prior to his entry into Jerusalem. The City of Palms which Joshua had entered so many years beforehand, which had become nothing more than a curse, or, at best, a halfway house for Israel, was now entered by Jesus Christ, our Holy Commander and Saviour. As he came and went he healed blind men on the road into and out of Jericho (Matthew 20:29; Mark 10:46; Luke 18:35).

Then we hear in Luke chapter nineteen: Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’”

8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.

So Jesus ate with the sinner Zacchaeus, whose faith and repentance lead Jesus to declare salvation to him and refer to him as a “son of Abraham”. (Luke 19:1-9)

But, even greater, is the healing he brings to Israel and all humanity when he leaves the humiliated and cursed City of Palms and rides over palms into the City of David, where he is humiliated on the cursed cross for our salvation.

Now the risen Lord has approached us with his double-edged sword, and he, “the Commander of the Lord’s army”, is overthrowing the enemy within us and in all places for all eternity. He calls us to believe he is our friend and not our foe; he is the valiant one who fights for us and has won the battle for us. Jesus, like Joshua who led Israel into Jericho, will lead us, his kingdom, into the eternal City of Palms and Peace. Amen.

Friday, March 09, 2007

C, Lent 3 - Luke 13:1-5 & 1 Cor 10:1-13 "The Compass of God"

In a recent television drama, a man named Grissom, made a very precise observation on society in Las Vegas. A group of regular teenagers who had become bored with their lives of sex, drugs, gambling, and little to no parental supervision, turned to beating tourists to death to get a thrill and have some fun. After the kids were caught by the crime scene investigators, the investigators discuss what the kids did, and what might have been the cause, and the kids’ culpability and guilt. Their boss Grissom enters the room and says…

The truth is: A moral compass can only point you in the right direction — it can’t make you go there! Our culture preaches that you shouldn’t be ashamed of anything you do anymore. And unfortunately this city is built on the principle that there’s no such thing as guilt, “Do whatever you want — we won’t tell!” So without a conscience there’s nothing to stop you from killing someone. And evidently, you don’t even have to feel bad about it! (A clip from CSI, aired in Australia on the Nine Network, Sunday 4th of March)

A moral compass can only point you in the right direction — it can’t make you go there! This is a very powerful observation, but it’s not the whole truth — it’s only a half truth! So what direction do our moral compasses point us? If it is our morals pulling within us, to where will our consciences ultimately be pulled?

Grissom’s observations about guilt, conscience, and killing — very much hit the crucifix nails on their heads! Humanity’s compass has magnetic distortions acting upon it, and ultimately with our morals decaying and distorting this compass our morals will kill us.

The investigation staff, not old themselves, struggle with the disregard these kids have for the sanctity of life. However, this Las Vegas youth mindset is not an isolated incident. What this television show observed and characterised is a principle or rule in the mainstream of our society today.

Our culture preaches that you can have all the privileges now without the responsibilities. We can gratify the pleasures of our nature and leave the consequences to someone else.

This happens because we become desensitised when we’re encouraged to take our conscience and put it aside. Therefore, guilt and shame no longer affect, or, get in the way of, one’s desire for fun and frivolity. And when irresponsibility and a lack of trust occur, our beliefs are distorted. We in the church are brainwashed with the rest of society, to put off our trust in God, and our fear of God — in favour of a “happiness now” way of thinking.

Once the “happiness now” deception, takes a hold, it quickly allies itself with pride. And we all know when pride rules the roost in our hearts, all sorts of stubbornness and sins are born, leading us further along the slippery slope towards uncertainty, confusion, and the complete unconsciousness of the conscience. Behind this all, stands the master of distortion and deception — the devil. And his will for us is death and destruction, as we’re deceived into happily rolling along the highways to hell.

Every one of us makes mistakes! We all sin! But the thing I most regret in my mistakes is the pride which first led me there, which also seeks to keep me there, and threatens to daily woo me into a state of having no guilt, no shame, and less and less trust in God.

It’s not the sin which separates us anymore. However, when I begin to justify my sin as not being sin, or I seek to grade another’s sin into levels from the despicable through to my achievements as being the greatest, my sinful nature tempts me to wrongly name God, a liar. Our sinful natures, full of pride, treat God with complete contempt.

God deals with this in me in the same way as he does with all believers caught up in their pride, and as he does with the Pharisees, the disciples, and the crowd in the gospel…

1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5 NIV)

Notice how Jesus’ stern words prickle your conscience? I hope and pray that God’s word does, for your sake and for Jesus’ sake too!

Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to convict and counsel us, and he does this with and through God’s Word. The Holy Spirit wants us to have “holiness now”, much more than the shallow happiness we so often seek. He is called the “Holy” Spirit; so therefore, he comes to make us “holy”! He is sent to bring us to Jesus through the word with trusting faith, having produced in us contrition and removing our pride from God’s compass within us!

In this holy state of mind and being, worked only by the Holy Spirit, our trust is restored in God and we repent. The truly amazing thing is this: Although we’re brought to repentance, we’ve “already” been forgiven at the cross and in our baptism. But if we justify our sin, thinking there’s no cause for our repentance, we “remain” in our sin, separated from God.

This is why the battle God wages in you and me is a daily struggle. The waring of our sin and pride always threatens to overpower us, but God is much more powerful! He wills us to remain firm in him and stand in trust and confidence. Although the battle for our conscience and life is fierce, he has already won the battle at the cross. The Holy Spirit opens your hearts to faith, so you take hold of holiness, as he continues to put you under the cross with Jesus.

How does this happen? How does God give us his holiness, his grace, deliverance from death and the devil, forgiveness of sins, the benefits of Jesus’ bitter suffering and death on the cross? He gives them to us when he provides us with spiritual food and drink!

God says to you through Saint Paul …I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sister, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.

6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to humanity. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)

We stand up in Christ! We stand up with him in baptism, where we received the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and the forgiveness of sins. We stand up with he who withstood the devil’s temptation, and delivers us from death and the devil! We stand up with him in prayer before him who is our hallowed Father in heaven! We stand up with him when in repentance we allow our sins to be forgiven and nailed to the cross!

We stand up with him when we allow the Spirit access to us through the preaching of the word! He physically stands up in us when we eat and drink the spiritual food of the altar, when we eat and drink his body and blood!

God is faithful to us; we are his children, brothers and sister through baptism into our brother, Jesus Christ. So God cannot be unfaithful to his own, he provides us with a way out. Jesus Christ is the way! He is our compass!

Our magnetism is the holiness and faith of the Holy Spirit which draws us to God, our pointer is Christ and his saving grace won for us on the cross. And together with him and the magnetism of the Spirit, we are the compass which points to God in all his glory, now and forever, Amen.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

C, Midweek Lent 2 - John 1:45-49 "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?"

What makes Nazareth such an important place; this sleepy little place was small, even for the locals of Galilee. If one was to compare it to a town today, we might think of places which are nothing more than a set of crossroads with a dusty truck-stop and a few locals. So what makes Nazareth such an important place?

In John 1:45-49, we hear… 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” 48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

Nathanael asked a fair question. He opened his mouth and said what he thought; and probably what everyone else was thinking too. He was completely honest before the man from Nazareth — unknowingly in the presence of the Son of God.

In support of Nathanael’s claim that Nazareth was a “nowhere town” full of “nobodies”, we go in search of other reports of it in the bible. What we find is intriguing indeed!

In the first two midweek services we studied Bethlehem and Egypt. Both of these places are renowned for many reasons other than just one. But Nazareth stands apart from these places. In fact the name, Nazareth or Nazarene, is only mentioned in the four Gospels and Acts.

In the Old Testament it doesn’t appear at all, even though we hear in Matthew 2:22-23, 22b Having been warned in a dream, Joseph withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:22b-23)

Scholars argue to what this verse refers. Some point to Isaiah 11:1, A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. (Isaiah 11:1) The little word “branch” in Hebrew sounds like Nazareth. Although Jesus is the shoot or branch from the stump of Jesse, it’s a bit of a stretch to link the name Nazareth with the Hebrew word which means branch!

Some highlight the plural of the word prophets, pointing to a theme perhaps shared or written down by the prophets to which we have lost access today. Also some seek to connect Nazareth and Nazarene with the order of the Nazirites, of which Samson was dedicated to at birth, after God enabled his barren mother to conceive and fall pregnant. However, these too are long bows to draw!

But the greatest detractor from these attempts to link Nazareth with the Old Testament is the fact that after the book of Acts, Nazareth or Nazarene, fail to appear again. So the name and place is only mentioned in the four Gospels and Acts. Here lies the clue. No wonder Nathanael asked, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?

What we do know is Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth. In Luke chapter one archangel Gabriel visits Nazareth and announces the word of God to Mary that she was to give birth to the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the Gospel of Luke, after Jesus was born and presented at the temple and everything concerning the Jewish law had been done, they returned to Nazareth in Galilee. Matthew’s account of the Gospel doesn’t mention Nazareth until after Mary and Joseph return from Egypt, due to Joseph being warned in a dream not to return to Judea because Herod’s son, Archelaus, was in power.

Mary and Joseph travel to and from Judea and Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve, after presenting him at the temple and losing him for a time, when Jesus was amazing all with his questions and understanding. As you could understand, his parents and family were beside themselves, after Jesus had been missing for three days.

When Jesus is about thirty, he leaves Nazareth and goes to the Jordan to be baptised by John, he is then taken out into the wilderness to be tempted before returning to Nazareth. After he was baptised into his public ministry he presented himself at the local synagogue and read from the scroll of Isaiah…

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21 and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

The local Nazarenes took exception to Jesus, the carpenter’s son, speaking like this and he finds himself being hauled to the top of a hill outside town, so they might throw him over the cliff, but Jesus walks through the crowd untouched and goes to live in Capernaum. Nazareth had rejected Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As Nathanael said, Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?

After Jesus calls his disciples, including Nathanael, who enquires into the merit of the man from Nazareth, the gospels report Jesus’ return to his hometown a couple more times. At one time his mother and brothers, come to him as he speaks in the synagogue. But because the place was packed, they send a message to him and this is what Jesus said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

Then at another time Jesus is overwhelmed by the Nazarenes’ lack of faith and has to leave after they took offence saying, “Where did this man get these things? What’s this wisdom that has been given him, which he even does miracles! 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him. 4 Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.” (Mark 6:2b-4)

However, in the Gospels and Acts many refer to Jesus Christ as Jesus of Nazareth. In fact in John’s Gospel, Pilate places a sign of identity above Jesus on cross at his crucifixion. This is abbreviated to INRI and in Latin reads Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum — Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.

The name continues to be used in the book of Acts but disappears in the latter New Testament. The reason being is the latter New Testament are letters written to the already established church, which knows and believes who Jesus is, both God and Man, conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, and crucified and raised as Jesus of Nazareth.

But in the days immediately after Jesus’ resurrection, he has to be proclaimed as Jesus of Nazareth, the same Jesus crucified outside Jerusalem on the cross and raised to life by God Almighty. Peter’s testimony throughout Acts, especially while under the influence of the Holy Spirit, pointed to the crucified but risen man from Nazareth, as the Son of God, and led many to glorify and praise God. Paul also reports he was confronted by God the Son, who proclaims himself to be Jesus of Nazareth, on the road to Damascus. (Acts 22:8)

What makes Nazareth so great? Well nothing makes the town great at all! There is no cause to give any glory to the people from there, all except one! The man from Nazareth is God the Son, crucified, risen, ascended, and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

After his resurrection his family believed, and perhaps some others from Nazareth did too! But Jesus didn’t just die for his family, the Nazarenes, the Galileans, or the Jews.

Nazareth! Can anything good come from there? Yes! Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph and Mary, the Son of God, the King of heaven and earth. And like Nathanael, he saw and knew all of us before we even recognised where Nazareth was. Or knew he died for all people on a tree, for you and for me. Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?

Our Lord and Saviour does! Amen.

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