Friday, January 18, 2008

A, Epiphany 2 - John 1:35-42 "Rock Solid - Solid Rock"

Stone and rock; rocks and stones – are they good or are they bad? Are they useful or are they a hindrance? What comes into your mind when you hear of stones and rocks?

Today we focus on the rock, because this is the name Jesus gave to Simon. The name Cephas and Peter are the Aramaic and Greek variants of the word — rock. Hence many times in the bible we hear about the disciple Simon Peter — Simon the Rock.

It’s unusual that we should focus on Simon Peter in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany concerns itself more with the revelation of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, as Jesus the Christ, Son of the Father from eternity. However, we hear in the Gospel, while Jesus is being named the Lamb of God, Rabbi, and the Messiah (or the Christ), he names Simon — Peter — the rock.

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour. 40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). (John 1:35-42)

So why does Jesus rename Simon — Peter. Why does he call this man — rock? And what is a rock anyway? Is a rock or a stone a good or bad thing?

Some might say rocks and stones are bad things, especially if one’s brother or sister or enemy is throwing stones or rocks at them. But then again, stones and rocks might be your best friend if you need to scare a ferocious animal.

If ascending a hill on foot or in a vehicle, stones and rocks can prove to be hazardous regardless of their size. Large rocks can make the climb impossible; small stone can act like marbles making the hill a slippery slope to scale. But once at the top if one slips back down, rocks and large stones, might be the very thing that stops the deathly descent to the bottom.

So if we see Simon Peter as the rock, designated by Jesus Christ, we might see him as a hazardous hindrance, or alternatively, a heavenly help. And in the bible Peter definitely fills the bill as both a help and a hazard in the ministry of the Gospel. So too stones and rocks prove to be objects causing one to stumble or fear, but also represent stability and strength as we hear God’s Word.

The bible is full of references to stones and rocks. In Genesis, Jacob used a stone as a crude pillow when he slept and saw the ladder descending from heaven at Bethel. Then in Revelation we hear of heaven in all its perfection, full of precious stones, such as jasper, sapphire, emerald, and topaz — to name a few.

In the Gospels we also hear of many different uses of stones. And Jesus makes many references to stones and rocks too. One that must be mentioned, because it sits with the Gospel reading, is from Matthew 16:18 where Jesus says again to Simon Peter, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

So what kind of rock was Peter? The church regards him as the leading Apostle; he is the foundation stone on which Christ places the church. Yet Peter acted more like a stone that crumbles and disintegrates under pressure. Perhaps he is more akin to what Jesus said in the parable of the sower, “A farmer went out to sow his seed… Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.” (Matthew 13:3b, 5, 6)

And Jesus’ explanation follows, “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.” (Matthew 13:20-21)

Jesus’ description of rocky ground goes a long way in giving us a picture of Peter the night the roster crowed three times. Peter is the disciple who confessed to his Christ that he would never fall away, but stumbled at the moment he was asked if he was an associate of Jesus.

So on what kind of foundation was Jesus to build his church? It must have looked pretty dismal with Peter weeping bitterly having just disowned his Lord, who was on death row. It seemed that all was lost, the crucifixion being the stumbling block, the tomb in the rock and the large stone over its entrance an impassable foolish end to Simon being the rock, and the man from Nazareth being the Saviour — let alone the Son of God.

But where failure and faithlessness seem to have won out, it’s precisely here where the victory of all victories exists — hidden.

Paul tells the church at Corinth, a church failing in the weaknesses of heresy, dissention, disorder, and sexual chaos, that God will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful. (1 Corinthians 1:8-9)

Furthermore in Isaiah 49 we hear, “This is what the LORD says — the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel — to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (Isaiah 49:7)

So in Jesus Christ — in his weakness and death and in his resurrection and life — we find the true rock foundation of our faith and Peter’s faith too. Despite our weak and faithless nature, God’s faithfulness is real and victorious, through Christ at the Cross, and the Holy Spirit faithfully putting the cross and the Rock of our salvation back in front of us. And we see it by faith — trusting God’s faithfulness to us.

Therefore, Jesus tells us, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. (Matthew 7:24-25)

Added to this we know Jesus also said of himself, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes? He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” (Matthew 21:42, 44)

Peter is the rock on which Christ built the church. Incidentally the name Simon or Simeon is derived from a Hebrew word meaning to hear or announce. We know Simon Peter was the hearing rock and was the rock that announced what he had witnessed. But it’s only because of God’s faithfulness to Peter that allowed Peter to hear, be built up in Jesus’ blood and righteousness, and to proclaim God’s faithfulness in Christ Jesus.

This is also God’s will for us too. We like Peter, flounder and fight against faithlessness and failures. And so our hope, our hearing and our witness to others, is built and stands on nothing less, than on Christ the Solid Rock. Amen.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A, The Baptism of our Lord, Epiphany 1 - Matthew 3:13-17 "Baptised into Death for Us"

John the Baptist was the last of the prophets, he was a law man. His life was one of calling the Jews to repentance but also pointing forward to the coming of the Messiah. Just as his fellow Israelites had dwelt in the wilderness, wandering with Moses for forty years, he too dwelt in the wilderness, and just as the Israelites of Moses day looked forward to a kingdom in the land of milk and honey, John and the Jews looked forward to the arrival of the Messiah and his kingdom.

Like the desert wilderness, living under the law is not pleasant. God’s word tells us that the Israelites failed in keeping the law, and therefore, couldn’t stand before the holiness of God. When God made the first covenant with the Israelites, giving them the Ten Commandments at Sinai through Moses, they failed to keep the law. He had freed them from four hundred years of oppression by cleansing them of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, but they grumbled against God, doubted him and worshiped other gods. So God left them in the wilderness for forty years.

Israel’s sin against God didn’t stop there either. Joshua led God’s people into the land of milk and honey through the Jordan River, passing from death to life, and still the Israelites turned their backs on God and the holiness he offered through the law. They chose instead to mix with the local pagan Canaanite and Philistine nations prostituting themselves with the gods of their heathen wives. God even gave them great judges like Gideon, Samson, and Samuel, kings like David, Hezekiah, and Josiah, who led them in the ways of the Lord. And he gave the Israelites prophets like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and Jeremiah all of whom called God’s people to repentance and looked forward to a messiah king – a saviour. But the people of God placed their faith in other things rather than the holiness that God was offering through obedience to the law.

So God withdrew his presence, the Israelites and Judeans were cut off from their land and they were exiled at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians. And God was quiet—deathly quiet—, for four hundred years there wasn’t a word from neither a prophet nor a messenger of God.

Once again God’s people were under oppression from other nations and they lost their land. They were in the wilderness again, but this wilderness was much worse than the Sinai wilderness in which they wandered with God for forty years. Like Egypt, this was another four hundred year wilderness without his word.

Some fourteen hundred years after Joshua had crossed the Jordan, John the Baptist baptised the children of Israel in the very same river. And as he washed them of their sins with a baptism of repentance he proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was near (Matt 3:2) and there was One coming whose sandals he was not fit to carry (Matt 3: 11).

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

Matthew tells us in the gospel for today, ‘then Jesus came’. His coming changed everything forever. He came to the Jordan, the same place through which Joshua led the people of Israel after wandering in the Sinai wilderness for forty years. Jesus came to save all people from their sins, his name, Jesus, literally means – he will save. And it’s also no accident that the names Joshua and Jesus are the same name but just the Hebrew and the Greek variants.

These men both came to the Jordan for life changing events. So we can’t let the significance of this location pass us by. The Jordan River is important; it’s the boundary over which the Israelites passed from a deadly wilderness environment into Canaan, the land of milk and honey. It’s the same waters which brought healing to Naaman, the same river through which Elijah passed before being taken into heaven, the same river carrying precious water, bringing life to the people and the land of Israel. This was the river where John the Baptist baptised the Jews for the forgiveness of their sins, the very sins God called them to turn away from through the observance of the law. And this was also the river where Jesus was baptised into his ministry of saving humanity.

So as John the Baptist stood by the Jordan he knew who it was coming toward him. He also knew Jesus was far more powerful than he. He was aware that for him to baptise the One who could truly bring all people into the kingdom of heaven, the eternal land of milk and honey, just didn’t seem right. So he said, “Jesus I need to be baptised by you, and you come to me. John baptised simply for repentance, Jesus didn’t need to repent, rather the one who needed to repent in Jesus’ presence was John. He needed the Holy Son of God to baptise him into the kingdom of heaven, to cleanse him from sin so he could stand holy before God the Father Almighty.

John knew who he had baptised and everyone else present soon found out too. God had been silent for four hundred years, the doors of heaven were closed it might have seemed. But at that moment heaven was opened and God spoke to all saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” After four hundred years God the Father spoke, and sent the Holy Spirit down on Jesus. The Triune God has been speaking ever since. He does so through his written word by the power of the Holy Spirit as a result of his Apostles, who witnessed Jesus’ death, and resurrection from death, and whom he commanded to proclaim what they saw.

Jesus came from the perfection of paradise, was born into his creation, was circumcised as a Jew under the old covenant, and was baptised in the Jordan into the wilderness of humanity’s sin, your sin and my sin, the sins of Israel and the sins of all people revealed by the law. In a very public way John consented to baptise Jesus so that righteousness for every person might be made complete in him. We live under righteousness because of he who was baptised into his public ministry, tempted by the devil, and tested by all around him. He did this and never placed a foot wrong. Then he took all our wrongdoings to the cross and buried them in hell, from which he rose victorious over death. He came from heaven and gives us heaven; he came into our wilderness and is taking us from our troubled wilderness wanderings. He gives us his holiness and has taken our sinful lives on himself in the waters of baptism.

Nevertheless, we still live in chaotic times. Waves of sin continue to ripple through our lives wreaking havoc and seeking to separate us from our Heavenly Father and his Kingdom. However, the chaotic world in which we live constantly shows us why we need assurance and hope in Christ through the tranquil waters of holy baptism and his life giving word. So God the Father continues to give us his Holy Spirit. And in his written word, the Spirit always guides us to the gift of God’s Son whom he sent to take our hand and lead us through the wilderness of this life and into the paradise of eternity. Amen

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A, Epiphany of our Lord - Matthew 2:1-12 "Mystery not Magic"

One can only imagine what must have been a sight to be seen, as the caravan of camels departed from downtown Persia or Arabia with the star shining ever so brightly in the night time sky.

We’re not really sure how many Magi saddled their camels for the cavalcade which was to follow the star wherever it went. In fact, we don’t really know anything about these men at all. Tradition has it there were three of them and they were wise — three because of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh — and wise because Magi were mediums or fortune-tellers using astrology or divination, or some other secret art. The word ‘Magi’ is the plural of the Greek word magos, from where we get the English word magic.

But what we do know from God’s word is a number of these envoys from the East travelling from another place followed the star, which they believed, announced the birth of the King of the Jews. And their divination proved right, finding this King and his parents in Bethlehem, within two years of his birth.

What comes as a complete surprise is the shocked reaction of Herod and all Jerusalem with him. The scribes and the priest had the word of God and yet the birth of the Christ was a complete mystery to them until these Gentiles came with the news revealed to them through magic. Surly Herod must have been completely beside himself to hear a real Jew had been born King of the Jews.

It also comes as a shock to many today that God still seeks to reveal the Messianic King to us in this life — spiritually and physically. Some believe we now only live in the realm of the Holy Spirit, since Jesus has ascended into heaven at the right hand of the Father. And adding to this, some wrongly believe we too must ascend into the heavenly realm, to have an audience with God, through some secretive magical means.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. Just as Jesus was revealed in the word of God to the Magi and the Jews, as the infant King born at Bethlehem, we too are told in his word that Jesus still continues to make his epiphany amongst us. He sends the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to him, his grace, and the administration of his ways, or means, so we might dwell in God the Father’s presence in peace, here on earth and in eternity too.

This is not some magical act or revelation, but as the Magi witnessed, it’s the mystery of God, born in flesh at Bethlehem for you and me. Perhaps the Magi were surprised, even shocked, that the baby Jesus was living with his parents in such humble surrounds. We might be surprised too, that God reveals himself to us, Gentile sinners, through humble but mysterious means.

St Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of the Gentiles, encourages the church in Ephesus not to be discouraged by his humble suffering, but rather hang onto Christ, given in the administration of the mystery, which is God’s grace given to you — to us — by way of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This encouragement is for you and me in today’s Gentile church too! Therefore Paul proclaims to us, This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:6)

However, since the ascension of Christ, we, the church, have grappled with questions like, “How do we receive the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection from a time long past, right here, right now, today? How do we dwell with our hidden Triune God?”

In seeking answers to these questions, some seek to rationalise the mystery, so they might believe by understanding the wisdom of God which can only be believed by God-given faith. Or instead, yearning for spirituality, turn from the life-giving mystery of God, to — pseudo-New Age, Eastern, magical, secretive — emotion-driven hocus pocus! Through their deeds they proclaim a faith that one must be some sort of super-Christian endowed with an individualistic personal higher knowledge of God, above and against what Jesus Christ has given us in his word.

So when the Word of God, over and over again, reveals it is the Triune God who comes down to us and still does even today, it comes as a shock to some — perhaps even disturbing to others too. In fact, we live in the presence of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, right here, right now. If this is not the case, then every prayer prayed “Dear Heavenly Father…” is prayed to nothing and a complete deception!

But the mystery of the gospel is anything but deception or disturbing for those who, knowing their sinful nature, trust in the administration of the mystery of a present but hidden God. So their sins are forgiven and they live in peace with God, in times that are anything but peaceful. Paul again in Ephesians 3 says, concerning Jesus Christ and the reception of the mystery, In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. (Ephesians 3:12)

The mystery of Christ, and the administration of this mystery, the way God administers himself, Christ, and the Holy Spirit to us — the means of grace — is revealed through his word and nowhere else. It was revealed to the holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit of God, and they wrote it down, and now through these same written words the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us.

Jesus Christ makes his epiphany to us through his word. He is made plain to us, made manifest; through his word the Holy Spirit en-fleshes Christ, in us and with us, spiritually and physically. This is not magic, but done through physical, practical, and spiritual means as men administer God’s way with water, bread, and wine, together with the proclamation of God’s word, both Law and Gospel, and the forgiveness of sins for eternal life. It is hidden in complete mystery and seen only by those who hear and believe his word.

So hot on the heels of Christmas, we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord on January the 6th, where Christ the Messiah, the King of the Jews, is revealed to be born at Bethlehem through the words of Micah 5:2, to all Jerusalem and the Magi, and to us in the gospel as well. In fact, the Sundays after Epiphany continue to reveal Jesus as not just the human Messiah but also the Son of God, first in his baptism and concluding at Transfiguration, where for only a moment God reveals the full extent of his glory veiled in flesh.

Likewise, we have received the mystery through the water, the word, and the Holy Spirit at baptism. We continue to receive the mystery in the preaching of the word, and in Holy Communion too, where together with the angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven we adore and magnify his glorious name, and eat and drink his precious body and blood so that he is veiled in the flesh of those who believe. This is the administration of God’s grace, this is the way we receive the mystery of Christ, his death and resurrection. This is his word and sacraments, the means of his grace. This is the way God chooses to love you and me!

So we, as a church, do well to administer this mystery according to God’s purpose in Christ Jesus; for the sake of our personal welfare, for the sake of the church, and for the sake of our relationship with God and each other in the church community. For this is God’s way, the only way, worked and revealed by God himself. Even greater than this, in Ephesians 3:10 Paul also reveals God’s intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 3:10)

In the mystery of the gospel, and through the mystery of its administration, God promises to come to you in a very real, practical, physical, and spiritual way, and give eternal life through Jesus’ death and resurrection to those who hear him and trust him in his word.

As you believe, let it be done for you! Amen.