Saturday, April 26, 2008

A, Easter 6 - Matthew 11, Isaiah 40, Hebrews 12 "Anzac Day Sermon - Age shall not weary them"

Age shall not weary them! This is the familiar phrase written in the Ode; spoken and heard on Anzac Day. The Ode reads, They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them

Unlike those whom we remember, we gather each year growing ever wearier and wearier; becoming more and more tired in this modern age. Those who were around at the end of the Great War are at least 90 years old. They have been privileged to see many things develop since 1918, and with service personnel from more recent conflicts, together with all of us, we have seen and experienced great changes — but at the expense of weariness.

In fact, our freedom allowing us to become what we are, as country, community, and individuals has led to an increase in weariness. Ironically today our freedom to enjoy living in peace is not giving us as much peace of mind, rest, or as much freedom as we would expect. I suspect many of our fallen sons and daughters, did not give up their lives in battle, so we could go on to oppress ourselves under new masters veiled under the freedom they won for us.

Age shall not weary them, yet in our freedom we have become weary in this age of enjoyment and rights at any cost. We remember them today, but I ask the question, will we honour them with the freedom they won for us, tomorrow, if we continue sacrificing the collective Aussie spirit for individualism’s greed and need to enforce one’s own rights, at any cost?

We remember the sacrifice of Army soldiers, Naval and Air Force service personnel, and rightly so! However, I lay out the challenge to all of us in these days to remember and trust the sacrifice of someone greater than all of these fallen fighters. And that person is Jesus Christ! When we hear his word, remember his supreme sacrifice, and trust his risen presence for salvation, we not only bring glory to God, but we then truly honour those who have fallen for our freedom. It is Jesus Christ together with the Father and the Holy Spirit who truly gives us peace, rest, and hope in freedom. The Triune God who truly empowers the Aussie Spirit, giving us strength to persevere in the weariness of this age.

Written in the Gospel of Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says to you in this weary age, 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Unfortunately in this weary age, we chose to turn away from the carrying any yoke, let alone the yoke of Christ. We refuse to make any real sacrifices in the name of freedom, enjoyment and individualistic rights. And because we do, learning, humbleness of heart, and true rest for our souls are lost, and our freedom becomes a burden, and this yoke of freedom weighs us down making us weary.

However it is not all lost! God knows we struggle and always offers a way out to those who trust in him. He speaks to weary souls in Isaiah 40:28-31…

28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

As we are left to grow old, age shall not weary them. We remember them! Youths and young men grew tired and weary, they stumbled and fell, for their country, and some for God too. The same tyranny they fought against, for the sake of freedom, is the tyranny hidden in every human heart that make us weary and turns the freedom of the individual into a burden.

Some of our diggers fought knowing the greater battle and victory of Jesus Christ was won at his coronation on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. Some of these men who made the charge at the Anzac Cove, on the fields of France, and in the deserts of Africa, fell knowing Christ. They, together with those of WW2, Korea, Vietnam, those of more recent skirmishes and all who have died believing in Christ for salvation, today share in the victory of the cross as they stand with Jesus; raised witnesses of his resurrection and his power to raise up all who trust in him.

So as we remember these witnesses, in our weariness, be encouraged by God’s word from Hebrews 12:1-4

Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Hebrews 12:1-4)

Age shall not weary them. And we struggle in the weariness of this age. But Christ’s blood was shed, and he was raised in power over death to save us from the weariness of this age. Amen

Friday, April 18, 2008

A, Easter 5 - Acts 2:38-39, 41-47; 7:55-60; John 14:12-14 "The Good Old Days"

We all like to remember the “good old days”. And we usually remember these days at a time when things seem to be not as good as they once were.

There is a temptation to do the same with the events of the Early Church. When we read what happened in these days from the book of Acts, as the church was growing rapidly, at the time when there seemed to be an exciting edge to everything happening amongst the believers, perhaps we might yearn for things today to be like the “good old days” of the Early Church.

In Acts 2 we hear the most important things for believers in the days after Jesus was glorified from his seen presence into his unseen presence was to: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

After Peter said this those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

Once baptised into the community of believers they considered it of upmost importance to devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as they had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:38,39,41-47)

To some today the lifestyle of the believers in the Early Church might seem too good to be true. Perhaps we might think there’s no way things today might return to way they were in the good old days of the Early Church. Maybe some might think for us to even contemplate capturing the essence of the Christian life recorded in Acts 2, is irresponsible or unreachable because of our society and circumstances today.

These Early Church believers were full of gladness and sincerity, there was a buzz in this community — a community of rapidly growing believers. Why was this so?

It’s really quite simple. Firstly they were believers. They followed Christ at a time when believing would cost a whole lot more than just coming to church for one hour each week on a Sunday morning. These folk risked everything to believe. After all, the one in whom they believed was not visibly present amongst them. First up, they literally risked their reputations following someone who didn’t even appear to be living since his crucifixion. There were also others out in the community who were willingly pursuing these believers of Christ and arresting them or having them killed. And because of this, many of the Jewish believers had to give up their heritage and inheritance for the sake of what they believed.

Yeah, these were the good old day!

In the Early Church the believers, devoted themselves, or tied themselves, to the Apostles’ teaching having been baptised and receiving the Holy Spirit. They consequently came together in the fellowship; this is the gathering work of the Holy Spirit. And once together they shared not just their physical possessions, but also the faith they had received.

We’re told they were filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous things were done by the disciples. This awe was not just a bubbling feeling of wellbeing, but in fact it was deeply reverent fear.

This fear can be seen in Stephen as he became both the victim and the victor of his faith. Stephen had cause to fear the situation in which he found himself, yet he didn’t fear what he saw could hurt him. Rather Stephen feared God who was unseen, but seen through the Apostles’ teaching, seen in the fellowship of the believers, seen in the breaking of bread, and consequently who was prayed to, out of reverent fear — because he and the other believers trusted the Risen Lord to be present. Stephen feared God more than the short-lived earthly pain that he was to suffer.

How could Stephen do this? Is this something that just happened in the “good old days” of the Early Church?

When Stephen was set upon by the angry mob of Jews, we hear he looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at his right hand. How did he see this extraordinary vision? We are told he was full of the Holy Spirit. And throughout his stoning it appears that he was less aware of the stones, the throwers, and the pain, but increasingly more aware of salvation’s joyful heavenly fellowship with our Lord into which he was being stoned.

As we hear about the good old days of the Early Church, Stephen and other fellows of great faith, we might be tempted to think those days were then and not now. But these good old days are here with us today, right now.

Surprisingly, we find ourselves in a social climate very similar to the Christians of the Early Church. Things really are not that different between the persecution then and now, especially amongst those who persecute the church. We may not be arrested and murdered for our faith at the moment, but social dissatisfaction with the church and our claim that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life, that allows a person to come to God the Father, is certainly irritating those who do not believe — inside and outside the church.

We also find there is nothing different between us and the Early Church in relation to believing in Christ. That same reverent fear of the first Christians, is ours too who see God in the apostolic teaching of God’s Word; who see the hidden Christ in the breaking of the bread; who realise we are gathered before Christ in the one true fellowship with him, by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Today is the best day of your life, and tomorrow will only be better, because we will be one day closer to our eternal home, where we will stand gathered around Christ at the right hand of God. Today is one of the good old days because we have the God of old, risen and walking with us. The power of the resurrection is ours for the believing, the life of Christ is ours for the living, and the peace of God is ours for the resting. This is what Stephen saw as he was beaten to death with rocks.

Our living Lord makes a promise to us today and we heard that promise in John 14. Our Risen Lord Jesus Christ says to all of us in these good days, I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:12-14)

Jesus’ promise to us is that we won’t just do wonders and miraculous things as the disciples did. We won’t just do what Jesus himself did. But that we will do even greater things. Why? Because we do things in these good old days, by the power of Jesus’ resurrection and hidden presence, caused to be seen by the Holy Spirit, so that we join in with Christ doing greater things in prayer as his faithful children.

Just as the Early Church reverently feared God above all perishing things, we too can celebrate these same good old days, by also trusting that Jesus is present with us.

Yeah we live in the good old days too, Amen.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A, Easter 4 - John 10:1-10, 1 Peter 2:25 "Sheep Gate"

Arguably the most unintelligent domesticated animal ever to walk the face of the earth would have to be the sheep. And the younger the animal is, the greater its foolishness.

Lambs are the epitome of weakness and dimwittedness. And anyone who has ever worked with sheep will know this to be the honest to goodness truth.

Sheep have a number of habits that confound any reasonable sense of logic. Why is it that when chasing a sheep separated from the flock in the paddock, they decide to just give up, sit down and sulk and die?

Why is it that when herding lambs into the yards, they baulk and refuse to go through the gate? It makes no difference how hard one yells, they just mill round and round in the dust, while everyone gets hoarse from yelling, and the dogs just give up and go sit in the trough to recover from their frustration.

And why is it when the sheep finally start going through the gate, after much cursing and repentance, one jumps over nothing, so they all follow and jump over nothing? Then when in the pen, they try to leave by running full pelt straight into the fence! It makes you wonder why God created an animal so dull in the first place!

With these images of sheep in mind, I suspect it brings us no joy that we’re likened to sheep in Bible.

Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday and images of sheep and their shepherd fill our ears and imaginations. But having been taken way over the edge of frustration many times by brainless sheep, it comes as a complete mystery how the Good Shepherd remains good, when the flock is so thick. And what’s more, you and I are numbered with these ludicrous lambs capable of causing so much lament.

In 1 Peter 2:25 we hear …For you were like sheep going astray, but now you are returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

This theme is repeated over and over again in the bible — Lost sheep in need of rescuing, returned to the Shepherd. Some English translations of this verse weaken the Greek passive emphasis by suggesting our return is through our own doing. However, like a sheep or a lamb, we have little to no knowledge of how to return. And even on being brought back to the fold, we usually struggle against the Good Shepherd who patently seeks to yard us through his gate of grace.

If we are sheep that so easily stray and resist our Good Shepherd, and the Bible does nothing to say otherwise, it comes as an even greater surprise when we hear this Good Shepherd is also a lamb — the Lamb of God.

Last week in 1 Peter 1 we heard …for you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Peter 1:18-19) And in Isaiah 53: 6 we’re also told …we all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.

From the day humanity was scattered from the paradise pen for acting like goats in the Garden and eating what was forbidden, we have wandered like vulnerable lost lambs to all corners of the earth. Yet God in his gracious wisdom sent his Son into this world to suffer for our dim-witted waywardness, and he did it by sending his all-powerful Son as the Lamb.

Although we recognise a lamb in all its weakness to be the epicentre of dimwittedness; it’s in the nature of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, which we also find the only personification of true faithfulness. After all, Jesus gave up all his heavenly power, and was born into the faithless flock of humanity, yet he looked to the Father and faithfully followed his will, even unto death. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; remarkably though the Lord has laid on the faithful Lamb of God the iniquity of us all. That is the failings of his entire scattered faithless flock.

Saint Peter speaks clearly about the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, saying …you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you are returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:21-25)

Jesus suffered for you. He allowed himself to be the weak lamb with no power. He did not fight back, and in his wounds and weakness we are healed. In fact, in his weakness and defeat, he won. In his suffering and slaughter he sealed the fate of sin and death forever. In his faithfulness he took the fall, and because of his faithfulness we have victory over the fall.

The flip side of Jesus’ humility, sinlessness, and faithfulness unto death is our increased exposure as silly sheep and lost lambs. And if this were the end, Jesus’ slaughter as the Lamb of God would mean nothing, and our fate, and the fate of the whole flock, would be total destruction by death and the devil.

It’s here the fate of the Lamb of God together with our fate, takes another amazing turn. This Lamb of God was slaughtered but now he is raised and rules as the Good Shepherd.

Who would ever have thought a lamb could be the Shepherd of the sheep, considering that lambs can’t even look after themselves? How powerful is he who became one of the flock, and powerfully overcame the faithlessness of the flock, and is now the Shepherd of the sheep?

No wonder the image of the Good Shepherd warms our hearts despite our lost lamb waywardness being revealed. The 23rd Psalm and John 10 are two of the most comforting pieces of scripture we can hear in God’s word.

Therefore our Lord and Good Shepherd herds us into his fold with these words …“I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them.

Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:1-10)

Not only is the Lamb of God, our Risen Good Shepherd, he is the gate too. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Therefore, we can enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. (Psalm 100:3-4)

We can turn from our woolly ways and be led by him. We don’t need to jump or do anything to enhance our coming in and going out, nor do we need to run into fences to get out. In fact our weakness as lambs, and our total need to trust the Shepherd, glorifies him not only as the Good Shepherd, but as the one and only Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.

So the Lamb of God, is the Good Shepherd, but Jesus also says he is the gate too. This might seem strange, but in reality it’s not when we understand what a shepherd does, especially back in times when there were no fences and boundaries. In this context the shepherd is the boundary, and he allows the sheep to go one way but not another. In fact, he acts as though he is the gate.

God herds us with his gate of grace today, and we his sheep are faithfully herded when we hear and trust his word. After all Jesus is the Word of God incarnate — the Word, or gate, in flesh — and we have this written word of Law and Gospel pushing us towards his pastures of paradise. The word of his Law is in fact the Shepherd’s rod, and his word of the Gospel is his staff. His sheep receive and remain in his word and it comforts us as we faithfully listen to his voice.

On the other hand the Good Shepherd would fail to be good, or even a shepherd, if he didn’t use these gates of grace to herd us towards heaven. Amen.

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)