Saturday, May 30, 2009

B, Pentecost Sunday - Romans 8:22-27 "Eager Expectation"

Text – Romans 8:22-27
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. (Romans 8:22-27)
Decay, degradation, decomposition, dilapidation, deprivation, deficiency, dispossession, disrepair and disorder – these are some of the things that cause suffering, pain, despair, despondency, depression and dejection.
There is something in everyone and everything which causes a continual breaking down. It might be the chilling cold of the winter onset affecting your bones, and your bodies; the lack of rain falling from the skies as you watch the bellies of your stock becoming more hollow with each passing day; the financial crisis taking a toll on your security for the future; or, the ever spreading threat of diseases and sicknesses, like bird flu, swine flu, or some other disaster that seems to pursue you. Everything in creation has something working against it, causing it to lament, to sigh, to cry out — causing it to groan.
But why do these things cause us to respond in such a way? Scripture tells us that it's not just us but the whole creation groans as it waits to be delivered from bondage, decay, and frustration just as one who struggles with the pains of childbirth. (Romans 8:19-22) If we take a look at our creation we see its pain too — more and more weeds, saltier soils, erosion, and deforestation to name a few of the many ecological disasters troubling our creation today.
In Romans we're told creation is waiting in eager expectation. Sometimes it's hard for us to wait with the same eager expectation when we experience the same old thing over and over again. The same weaknesses causing creation to suffer and us to suffer too! Be that as it may, what are you waiting for? What's your eager expectation?
Creation's eager expectation is for the sons of God to be revealed! Are you waiting for that too? Perhaps in your weakness there's the temptation to turn and be burdened by the seen reality of a world going crazy, a creation in chaos?
Then again, you might think life's good, it all going well. All this groaning and moaning is just negative nonsense. You might be eagerly expecting many good things in life, not concerned by anything too much. But in your daily happiness are you eagerly expecting Christ's return? Or are there a few things you'd like to do and see before God returns to reveal his children?
It is okay to have expectations and concerns in this life. However, when they become desperate or demand top billing and push our hopes of heaven aside, to second place, these earthly expectations and concerns are sin. And regardless of these earthly expectations being pleasant or bitter once they're revealed in us as sin, sin makes us groan!
Creation groans too, but it waits for our redemption. Why does it do so? Creation has been God's witness as humanity has plucked it in eager expectation from the tree of knowledge of good and evil time and time again. Creation was again God's witness when it opened its mouth to receive the blood of Abel. And today creation is God's witness every time we breathe contempt of others or eagerly spray spirited gossip into the air.
But that's not all! Creation knows it's Creator who made it from nothing except his word spoken in love. Creation also knows its Creator whose blood trickled down the wood of the cross and soaked the soil with redemption, and now creation waits for the Creator's return to finalise the faith of those who believe. And creation also bears the Spirit of God who hovers over the water and comes through the word of God revealing the hidden God of creation – God the Father, God the Son, and himself, God the Holy Spirit.
We celebrate Pentecost today! At the first Pentecost after Jesus' ascension, God sent the Spirit to walk beside us and counsel us in faith and hope. Although we so often eagerly expect everything in creation other than the Creator, God has eager expectations of you and me! He is faithful to all his baptised children willing us to come into Jesus' presence to receive and believe the redemption we have been given, as we continually have our sin forgiven.
The Holy Spirit's job is to bring us to Jesus. His work is to make the invisible visible through faith given when we hear the word (Romans 10:17). It is the Holy Spirit's task to put flesh on the Word of God, so the Son of God — the Word made flesh, is revealed in us. He also gives us hope in the day when Jesus will return and we see him as he is. Not only this! But he gives us eager expectation of what we will be, as we groan in the frustrations, bondage, decay, and weakness of our human suffering and sin.
When our weakness gets the better of us and we begin to eagerly expect creation more than the Creator himself, it's the Holy Spirit's mission to bring us back to Jesus. We like to have a picture of the Holy Spirit as one who always makes us happy but he who counsels us in God's will sometimes needs to give us a short swift kick refocusing us back on Christ.
Jesus says… When he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:8-11)
But the Holy Spirit will also comfort us in Christ too. If he didn't do this his conviction would surely drive us away from Jesus in remorse or lead us away by becoming pharisaic in justifying our sin. King David knew he needed the Holy Spirit's help when his sin was exposed.
He prayed… Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. (Psalm 51:10-12)
The Holy Spirit gives us a willing spirit, and this spirit bears the Spirit of Christ. With Jesus Christ en-fleshed in us we also bear the eager expectation of redemption and resurrection. Redemption, because Christ saved you at the cross by taking your place in death; and resurrection, because he was raised in all power over your sin and your death, so you too might eagerly await your resurrection into heaven.
Because the Holy Spirit comes from the Father and the Son he speaks only what he hears from the Father and the Son. Therefore, he bears the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the truth of God that names what needs to be named in us.
Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:34-36)
So the Holy Spirit, names you a sinner, but a sinner whose sin has had its power removed by the Son who sets you free. Right now, you are being released from bondage, weakness, and frustration, even in the midst of decay and death. God has freed you so you can allow the light of Christ to dispel the darkness of sin within. God has freed you and now continually and faithfully sends the Holy Spirit to guide you and keep you in Christ. And you can wait in hope when on the last day the Holy Spirit will raise you and give you an eternal life of peace and joy.
And as we wait for Christ's return God's promise to you is this: "I will pour out my Spirit on all people. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.' (Acts 2:17a & 21)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

B, Easter 7/Ascension - Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:10-11 "Where and What is Heaven?"

Luke 24:50-51 When Jesus had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.
Acts 1:10-11 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."
Where is heaven? One would assume heaven is up there! But is it up there? We might picture heaven as a place where angels strum harps lying in white puffy clouds. But every time I've been in a jet flying through the clouds, I've never seen an angel! In fact to my recollection I've never heard of any tragedy where an angel, with its fairy wings, has been sucked through the jet engines of a jumbo doing seven-hundred kilometres per hour.
But the language of the bible speaks of heaven as a place to which a person has to travel upward to enter. Jesus was taken up; so was Elijah. In the creed we say, Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God. Where did Jesus go? Where did the chariot drop off Elijah? When they ascended at what place did they stop?
In the New Testament the word used for heaven is the root Greek word meaning mountain. To go to the top of a mountain you have to go up; and entry into heaven is seen in the same sense – up is the way to heaven.
Mountains are important places in the ancient and biblical worlds. Think of the times when heavenly experiences happened on mountains. Moses on Mt Sinai in the cloud with God; pagan shrines built to gods on mountains, and the Israelites copying them when they worshipped Baal against the will of God. People even tried to build a mountain at Babel. Jesus, too, utilised mountains. He prayed up mountains, taught from mountains; he spent a significant period of his time on mountains during his earthly ministry. In ancient times mountains were where earth met heaven. Mountains were seen as the pillars which held up the sky and stopped it from crashing to the ground.
We can climb to the top of a mountain and have a mountain top experience—a heavenly experience—but is heaven there? We can fly in aircraft in the clouds but is heaven seen their either? In our technological age we send astronauts higher than the clouds and still no heavenly realm is to be seen there either; even further out into space unmanned ships are sent in search of signs of life, have they found the Son of God at the right hand of the Father? Maybe they haven't travelled out far enough! But even at the ends of infinite space would they find heaven? The answer is no!
It's easy to come to the conclusion that heaven doesn't exist because we can't find or see it. And so if it doesn't exist because we can't see it, then some conclude Jesus Christ the Son of God never really rose from the dead nor did he ascend into heaven.
In our age this hopeless notion is common. So if God or heaven doesn't seem to exist, in hopelessness we seek heaven as a concept of perception; heaven becomes a state of mind. The 'where is heaven?' question now is replaced by, 'what is heaven?'
One only has to turn on the radio or television to see how heaven is portrayed in music and the media. What is heaven? Heaven is a divine type of ice-cream, maybe a McCain Pizza, or maybe 'heaven is in your eyes, or in your heart' as music artists sing. In fact modern music hopes in a heaven, but sadly this heaven has more to do with the gratification of one's sexual desires. Heaven for many is an individualistic concept understood and bound in the realm of sensory experiences.
So what is heaven and where is it? In the church we struggle with these questions too. The way heaven is understood and perceived goes along way in explaining the differences between denominations within Christendom.
Many other churches go to great lengths to make their teachings logical and rational, defining heaven as a spatial location. So they claim Jesus is in that spatial heavenly place, and therefore, he cannot be in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, making the sacrament only a remembrance feast. That sounds logical. For them heaven is a precise location where Jesus is with the Father. Jesus and the Father are there and not here with us.
However, their logic is thrown into confusion with texts such as Matthew 1: 23 and 28:20 where Jesus is named Immanuel meaning "God with us", and where he says "I will be with you to the very end of the age". At this point one has to make a decision between 'logic and rationality' or 'the Word of God'. If Jesus is at the right hand of God in heaven then what does Jesus mean when he says, 'this is my body and this is my blood, given and shed for you'. As you can see there is a problem. Is Jesus with us or is he up there with the Father in heaven?
Jesus is with us, we know this is true because he said so. If he is with us and he is in heaven, then heaven must be with us. Perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is nearer than most realise? So what is heaven? Is it just a concept; are we already living in heaven? After all God is everywhere!
The problems with these questions are the questions themselves. The 'what is' and 'where is' questions are questions of rational and logical minds. Heaven as a place or a location lasting for an eternity is a concept that opens up a Pandora's Box of questions. In fact heaven as a location in space is something that will never be proved by science or any other rational logical faculty.
However, when the questions are asked from the point of view of faith, then they take on a whole different perspective. You and I believe in heaven, not a heavenly meal or a heavenly interlude with the opposite member of sex. No! The heaven in which we believe is not born of the fruits of the flesh. Our belief in heaven is given to us in faith by the one who rules there. Heaven is where God is, it's a realm outside logic; it can't be found with the naked eye or reason. For the time being heaven and the King of Heaven are seen only through faith.
In the Nicene Creed we confess heaven and earth as places made by God; we also confess that he made all things visible and invisible. Heaven is invisible to our eye. It is not a place in the spatial sense. Nor is it revealed to us through our own efforts, understanding or senses. Jesus has ascended into heaven and he is hidden from our sight. Heaven too is hidden from our sight but only for now.
Jesus has ascended from our sight into the glorious reality around us, which our sinful eyes will not ever see. But right now we are called to see — through the eyes given by the Holy Spirit, the eyes of faith — ourselves made holy by the blood of Jesus, dressed in glorious royal white robes in the eternal presence of God.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

B, Easter 6 - John 15:9-11, 16: 16:22-24 "Joy-filled"

Gilbert Keith Chesterton an English author, journalist and defender of the Christian faith, born 1874, and died 1936, in his work Orthodoxy said this: I was once an avowed atheist, who fought Christianity with all my might. There was a mystique about Jesus that no one understood and that was hidden from all people. It was something that was too great for God to show us when he walked this earth. Then as I studied and restudied the life of Jesus, I discovered the greatest secret he kept hidden from everyone was his great joy. Christianity without joy is a betrayal of the One we follow. We are a forgiven, redeemed people, who belong to the faithful flock on the way to heaven. We are people with great joy.
Chesterton's comments on Christ, the Christian community, and joy give us a springboard from which to ponder joy. What is joy? When one rejoices, what is one doing? To be joyful is to be in a certain state of being. What is being joyful?
Jesus tells us in John 15: "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete." (Jn 15:9-11)
We are a people of great joy, as Chesterton rightly believes, because we bear the joy of Christ. And his joy completes us, it fills us, his joy does something to us. In fact, Jesus is joy, Jesus is our joy!
To find out what our joy is and what it does in us, we first need to hear what Jesus' joy did and does in him. And so we hear from Hebrews 12…
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter 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. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.
Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Heb 12:2-4, 7-8, 10-11)
It can come as a bit of a surprise that we hear joy and endure the cross in the one verse. When we ponder the cross with all its horror, humiliation, and harrowing suffering it's difficult for us to hear of joy. But Jesus endured the cross for the sake of holiness, community, and the making and gathering of us as his holy community. And Jesus' joy produces a community where righteousness and peace is plentiful and complete.
At this point we must clarify that joy is very different to being happy. One can be happy in his or her self, but to be joyful or to rejoice one requires something from outside them to influence them. Therefore, joy always demands a community whereas being happy is an individualistic thing.
Our joy comes as a result of God and his actions, giving us the ability to stand or remain or be in community with him. Happiness vanishes into thin air when suffering arrives, but joy can and does endure suffering because joy comes from God and God remains connected to us despite our pain.
So we return to the word of God in John 15. Jesus' joy comes from his community with the Father. The Father loves Jesus, and although Jesus was born alienated from his heavenly community into the suffering of humanity he remained under his Heavenly Father's care. We know this because he constantly spoke about his Father and spent a great deal of his ministry seeking isolation to pray to him. Even when he was being alienated from his creation and the Father at the cross he still humbled himself before the Father as he was dying. We know this because he cried out: My God, my God, why are you forsaking me!
Not only was Jesus' ministry one in which he was in community with the Father, it was one in which he was in fellowship with the Holy Spirit too. When Jesus was baptised into his ministry where God the Father proclaimed, "This is my Son with whom I am well pleased", we know the Holy Spirit descended and settled on him. While Jesus was on earth he was constantly in a community of joy, and this community was the Holy Trinity.
Jesus' joy was mostly hidden here during his ministry. It was hidden as he dealt with us, individual sinful people. As he addressed our sin, calling it to account, and bore its ferocity, joy seemed as though it was fleeting. But Jesus was winning it back through his righteousness. This is why he endured the cross to make his joy complete and to make our joy complete too.
What Jesus did at the cross was the greatest act of love ever completed. When he said, "It is finished", he was saying love is fulfilled, this was his communal sacrifice both for his Father and for us, and because of this we now are joined in fellowship with the Father. Jesus' Father is now our Father. We are in community with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. And also with Jesus Christ, risen from the death, who completes our joy having sentenced our eternal death to death through his death.
We are called to remain in this love: To uphold and preserve God and his word, just as Jesus did while he was on earth. We don't do this by ourselves as Jesus did, but we have his joy in us, because he lives in us, giving us peace with God the Father. And further more the Holy Spirit comes from God the Father and the Son to continually gather us into this community of joy and love.
So even while we're going though the deepest and darkest of days — we can do it with joy. Our joy is complete in Christ who has overpowered death by his death. We can look forward with hope and joy. We can face every day rejoicing in the peace of God as we remain in his word, despite the turmoil of sin in our lives.
We are called to remain rooted in Jesus our life-giving vine who says to us…
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. (Jn 15:16)
And again he says in John 16, Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (Jn 16:22-24)