Saturday, January 30, 2010

C, Epiphany 4 - 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 "What is Love?"

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

At a demonstration in the streets of Byron Bay came a commotion from a rag-tag band of misfits making monotonous music. The din could be heard some distance away drawing a crowd to watch the spectacle.

Each person played their instrument. They were quite accomplished in their musical ability. However, this group of musicians, allowed to freely express their musical prowess, failed to time themselves with each other and in the process produced sound pollution that one could only say was violent and vile to the ear. They were noisy gongs and clanging cymbals!

The church in Corinth was making a similar sound. But the church was not protesting against something like the motley mob of musos in Byron Bay. No! This church was meant to be representing Christ to their community, but rather they, like the hippie band, were making much noise and disturbing the peace.

However, the peace they disturbed was cause for greater concern than that of the music mob in Byron. The Corinthian church was making a mockery of the peace of God before all who were drawn to view the spectacle.

Saint Paul doesn't go on the attack directly though. He uses a tactic that hypothetically accuses him. But in fact, Paul uses the very same individualistic language which the factions in the church would have been using to justify their Godless noise.

Uninformed, the Corinthians, were touting their gifts from God as being more superior than that of their Christian brothers and sisters. Paul, guiding them with the Word of God, appeals for them to be one under Christ and points them to "a more excellent way" of desiring and using their God-given gifts.

Using their ego language he says, "I could be the most gifted tongue speaker, the greatest prophet, have the greatest faith, or be the most socially aware and generous person, but if love is not present, I am nothing." In short, if one uses the gifts of God to bolster their ego, they are nothing! And therefore, show their gifts to be nothing more than noise; desecrating God to others and undoing the unifying work of Christ on the cross.

So Paul encourages the church to pursue love. But how does one get love? Can we produce love? In fact, what is love, anyway?

Teaching confirmation classes of fourteen year olds always gets their attention focused quickly when one teaches about love and sex.

The question "What is love?" is dealt with when the confirmees are taught about the Sixth Commandment "You shall not commit adultery".

One might think talking about sex to egocentric hormone-filled teenagers is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. But in fact, the subject commands attention, and if handled correctly is the perfect lure to entice the individual to take hold of a deeper understanding of love, together with responsibility and community.

So what is love? For teenagers, and I suspect for most in our society today, love leads the individual into an obsession of self-fulfilment. And this fulfilment comes about with the appeasement of feelings. For most, love is a feeling, born out of the need to pacify sexual desire. However, love sought in feelings, especially sexual, leaves true love lost in a noisy din of confusion, guilt, and greed. Love sought in feelings leaves one unsatisfied chasing a mirage of deception.

Pursuing love must then lead us to see that love is, in fact, a verb. To love or to be loved is something that is done. Love can be felt but not necessarily, rather it needs to be done.

It's at this point I ask the confirmation class how one loves, when one is physically debilitated, or sick, or an infant. This usually throws a spanner into their sex orientated view of love. And finally I can begin to move them away from themselves and sex to begin thinking of love as something that builds a community, and requires responsibility.

Like the Byron Band of individuals playing their own songs, our society today is belting out a monotonous loveless din that actually destroys community, and disbands responsibility. This rampant individualism demands one's rights be met at the cost of care and welfare! Servanthood is seen as slavery, as trust in God becomes rare!

Like the church in Corinth many in society are marching to the beat of their own desires. In the church today the same social phenomena threatens! Our opinions, to many outside and inside the church, seem to be just as confusing as the babble of Babel.

Our visionary powers with their understanding and knowledge become a poly-chaotic plethora of pollywaffle! Like a bunch of headless chooks, we dash around and crash in to each other, turned in on our own confusion, gratifying our self-fulfilling prophecies of disintegration and degeneration. "Woe is me the sky is caving in!"

The loyalty, devotion, and assurance of each individual trusts in no one except the self; turning people further away from responsibility and community to individualism where one has faith only in themselves and their ideas.

And if there is cause to give away what one has, even one's own life, then, at best, it's given with conditions. It's given with a motive for individual gain some time further down the track.

But knowing what love isn't, still doesn't define what love is! In fact as humans knowing just what love is will prove to be eternally deadly if we pursue an answer through our own efforts and reason.

Like classes of confirmation kids seeking to know what love is, we all need to be drawn from ourselves into seeing from the perspective of community and responsibility. Yes love can be found in sex, but not always! It depends on the situation and the motive. In fact, love can be found in a mother wiping a baby's bottom. Love can be found in a husband caring for a debilitated wife. Love can be looking out for a neighbour and helping them to improve and protect their property and means of making a living.

Even so, while we are here on earth we will never fully know or understand what love is. At best we only have a dim view of love in this life, yet while we will never fully understand it, we fully receive love and benefit from it. As Paul says, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." (1 Corinthians 13:12)

The answer to the riddle of love is Christ. When we see Christ face to face we will then fully know what love is. But for now we all must trust and believe we are fully loved by Christ. This will be revealed when our mirrors of faith and hope are taken away when we are taken into the reality of eternal love with God in heaven.

But for now it's enough for us to know love has it's being in God. Our being is human whereas God's being is love. So we are led out of ourselves to see Jesus Christ is love, personified. For now true love is hidden in his word; faith and hope move us toward the reality of seeing it face to face. But one day when the dimness of our humanity is removed we will see the full extent of love. And because God's being is love, love will never end.

We do well to remain focused on Christ, and in doing this, we know we will continue to be recipients and reflectors of love.

Because God is love, we can hear again the verses of 1 Corinthians 13 with Jesus used as a synonym for love.

Jesus is patient and kind; Jesus does not envy or boast; Jesus is not arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way; Jesus is not irritable or resentful; Jesus does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Because Jesus lives, love will never end.

When we see God face to face, we will have no need for faith and hope. But of these three, the greatest will remain—love—for ever and ever. Amen.

The love of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds in love—in our risen Lord Jesus Christ—who loves you so much he gave up his life on the cross for you. Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

C, Epiphany 3 - Nehemiah 8:8-10 "Nehemiah NOW"

Sent home, they were commanded by a pagan to rebuild the city and practise their Judaism. So they returned from exile, heads hung low, humiliated after loosing their land and becoming the servants of a foreign ruler.

Cyrus, the Persian king sent the Jews home to rebuild Jerusalem. Years before, its walls had been broken down in defeat after the Jews continually rejected God and his leadership.

The Israelites and the Jews snubbed the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The two kingdoms led by rebellious kings, habitually, time and time again, turned away from God to serve foreign gods in detestable ways.

God's house had been turned into a whorehouse. Temple prostitutes plying their trade under the altars of God, bearing their sinful naked flesh right in the face of God's earthly presence! And on the hills and under spreading trees Asherah poles stood erect, as phallic representations of fertility, which Asherah and Baal were supposedly going to bring to Israel and Judah.

God sent prophet after prophet to call these people back to him, to repent, to change their ways and destroy the gods and their idols. But they blocked God's word from their ears, and let it wash over them! They taunted and tortured the prophets sent by God, and in doing so brought about the loss of all the benefits God had given them.

The northern kingdom—Israel, Samaria—fell first to the Assyrians. These were barbaric people who also used poles on hilltops. But on their pencil pointed poles, impaled Israelites slowly died, heightening the fear of their living captives, and spreading terror amongst the nations that surrounded them. So much for Baal fertility worship! Now Israel's plight was one of futility.

Then the southern kingdom, Judah, fell captive to the Babylonians, becoming a province under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar. Jerusalem was sacked and its walls tumbled. Some of the people were executed while others were deported to Babylon.

But it was only after the Persian invasion of Babylon, that the Babylonian empire tumbled and the Israelites and Jews were allowed to return to Palestine.

The exiles returned to Jerusalem, once there they built the second temple, which was modest in comparison to the gold-laid temple built by Solomon. After the temple was built then they turned to repairing the wall around Jerusalem.

How they must have wept as they pieced the rubble back into a wall! Jerusalem's former glory and their betrayal of God evident with each rock replaced and every busted blister! For fifty two days they toiled under hard labour rebuilding the wall, their now nonexistent nation was part of the Persian Empire.

Graciously though, the administrator of Judea for King Artaxerxes (pron: Arta-zerk-sees), was Nehemiah. Nehemiah had been the faithful cup bearer of Artaxerxes. He was also a Jew. And once sent back to Jerusalem, he was found to be even more faithful to God. Together with the priest Ezra, they set God's will before the people reading the Law, revealing the nation's sin and causing their great sadness.

They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, "Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." (Nehemiah 8:8-10)

Earlier, when Nehemiah was still the King's cupbearer, he was grieved in hearing of Jerusalem's devastation which caused him also to weep as he prayed…

"O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father's house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. (Nehemiah 1:5-7)

So now their eyes and ears were wide open to God's Word. The promises and prohibitions given to Moses had come to fruition in Israel's disobedience. The Jews stood helpless in the face of God, embarrassed for their nation's sin and stupidity. They had made their choices and now they bore the consequences of their choices. Choice is always free, but consequences never are!

Yet, God had preserved this remnant despite their disobedience. Now in the presence of God and his Word, with Israel's national glory gone, they must have wondered why God had spared them. Their history now bore the marks of catastrophic failure, they were weak, they were without a king, and they had lost possession of Canaan — the "land of milk and honey".

Many today weep, worry, and let their faith weaken over what their congregations once were. The post World War Two boom now in decline and with it numbers in the church. But despite this God still preserves his church and continues to grow it.

There are similarities between Nehemiah's time and what we can expect in God's church now and in the generations to come. Many today are imposing, on themselves, exile from the church — refusing to hear what God has to say. Our society is making its choice, what are the consequences to come?

Nehemiah is a "Christ figure". Just like Nehemiah, our Lord Jesus Christ, is building Jerusalem. However, he's not rebuilding the Jerusalem of the Middle East! It will never be what it once was! Instead Christ is building his heavenly kingdom, the city of Zion.

When Christ returns, all will be revealed and laid bare. Just like Jerusalem after the exile, we will have no defence for our sinfulness against God. The consequences of our choices will testify to our weakness and failures. Your lives, your choices, your priorities, your idols, your sexuality will be open for all to see. All people will stand defenceless before Christ nakedly bearing how they've prostituted themselves with other gods.

Yet there will be a heavenly remnant, made holy, despite their sin. Perhaps the mourning of the Jews when Ezra read the Law in the time of Nehemiah will be the same as our tears, as we realise our weakness in the presence of Christ at his second coming. Then we will see all things as they are, just as Nehemiah and the Jews had seen in the face of the Law and in what had happened to Israel. Just like them we will be part of what the Apostle John saw and recorded in Revelation chapter twenty-one…

I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." And he who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." (Revelation 21:2-5)

At this time, God will wipe away all the tears of those who trust in him, despite their sinful nature. These are they who look to Christ for forgiveness with repentant hearts!

God will wipe away the tears of those who trust him, despite what declining church numbers might suggest, despite what songs are sung, and the gimmicks used to get backsides on seats. He will wipe away the tears of those who faithfully hear and uphold his word, and live by Holy Spirited faith rather than human spirited sight.

Jesus Christ will wipe away the tear of those who trust in him, who hear his word with faith and hope, and believe the kingdom, the power, and the glory, belong to him together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Just as Nehemiah and Ezra told the people to weep no more, God will wipe our tears away. Even now God gathers us in his arms and dries our eyes when we submit to his love and forgiveness. Our strength, our forgiveness, and our eternal hope, is the joy of the Lord perfected in Jesus' victory on the cross. Amen.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

C, Epiphany 2 - 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 "The Greatest Spiritual Gift"

They worshipped in troubled times. The congregation was the battleground for those who sought to bring glory to themselves and enforce their rights.

Some in this congregation viewed Christian fellowship as nothing more than a party. “Eat, drink and be merry, massage the ego! It doesn’t matter what we do, now that we’re Christians! If it feels good do it!” These were their chaotic choruses.

Then there were others in the congregation who fought against this “it’s all good” attitude. They were staunch and stoic in nature and detested the “pleasure-seeking” Christians as totally irresponsible. But they too were consumed with themselves and sought to impose their rights, through their works and their seemingly higher moral standing. “Life is tough — get over it! The harder one works, the more successful one becomes” was there war cry! They thought they were better than everyone else because of the many things they could do! And so staunchly they expected others to submit to their cold, passionless, habitual ways!

Now these two groups of people were very gifted. The first were generous and hospitable, they were passionate evangelists, and they wanted others to worship with them. The second were diligent workers, gifted in the trades and knowledge; they had sound commonsense and methodically got things done.

However, the pleasure-seeking group wanted to bring outsiders in at any cost. They wanted to relax and trivialise everything that showed the newcomers who they were in relation to God, so they wouldn’t feel so guilty. If they could hide the truth with pleasure they believed they could convince themselves and others they were super-humans and super-Christians.

Alternatively, the stoic group didn’t want to bring in anyone — not unless they fit their social and moral criteria. Only those who had control of their destiny and passions were acceptable — a higher class of people! Perhaps more godlike! They thought, through what they did, they were super-humans and super-Christians.

The whole congregation saw themselves as mature, yet they were infants! From their battle for rights spewed all the immaturities of infancy. They demanded their own way, and on getting it, blamed everyone else for it not working. In fact, so juvenile was this congregation, they really didn’t know what they wanted, let alone needed.

This church was walking in troubled times. Their actions were so close to cursing Christ, and the Holy Spirit was sought only to justify their lording of self-seeking passions or self-interested morals. This congregation left to its own devices was on a self-centred spiral into self destruction.

This was the church in Corinth. Sin was rife in this congregation. There was no accountability before God, as people sought to use God and his word as a tool to justify their ways! Christian servanthood had long gone out the window and in its place a putrid service to one’s emotions, understanding, and morals was observed. So Saint Paul says to these people…

Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)

One could imagine their pride and arrogance in the spirituality they thought they possessed. But when accountability and liability before God was put on the table, along with servanthood, their consciences were stirred as they sought every means possible to sidestep confronting their own sin, receiving forgiveness, and forgiving one another.

So in this context Paul addresses the church in Corinth regarding spiritual gifts, or spiritual things. From 1 Corinthians 12 we hear…

1 Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. 2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.

7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. (1 Corinthians 12:1-11)

Paul calls this congregation to repentance. Their squabble for power has returned them to idolatry similar to that of their pagan neighbours who worshipped mute idols. In fact, they themselves had quickly become mute idols too, and the further they drifted away from God, the more sluggish they became in their self-centred sin, till eventually death muted their pleasures and their works — their self-glorification. Unrepentant and unforgiven the wages of their sin would have been eternal death.

Earlier in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul informs the Corinth congregation that… I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge— 6 because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful. (1 Corinthians 1:4-9)

So Paul called the congregation back to God the Son. Jesus Christ is the greatest spiritual gift and he had already been given to them. In fact, all spiritual gifts come about because of Christ to bring glory to him alone. To that end, the Holy Spirit’s job is to bring glory to the Father, and the Son, as he reveals Jesus Christ, exposes our sin, calls us to a holy life of repentance in Christ, so we can be forgiven by God and others, and so we can forgive one another. Through this, glory goes to him who was crucified and raised for you and me!

Therefore, no one is a better or worse Christian — all are sinners — and all have been given Christ. In addition to this, all have been given the Holy Spirit through the word of God and have the God-given right to confess, “Jesus as Lord”. All are called to stop cursing Christ through their opposition to each other. All are continually called to put off the “sinful-self” and turn to Christ and the means through which he gives the grace-filled gift of himself, and the faith-working gift of the Holy Spirit.

Paul then goes through some of the spiritual things, or gifts, which were caught in controversy at Corinth. These things were not all their gifts, by any means, and nor should these things be seen as a prerequisite for being a Christian or as more important gifts. These God-given gifts were taken out of context and the Corinthians were using them as weapons against each other and as a means of promoting their self-righteousness over against letting their gifts bring glory to Christ.

The Early Church’s gifts of healing, tongues, and prophecy — although legitimately given by God — are a rarity today. God might choose to use them from time to time, but as a whole he doesn’t these days, because they no longer serve the purpose of bringing glory to God. In fact many who claim to have the gifts of healing, tongues, and prophecy today, do so contrary to Christ and his word, claiming some super-Christian, super-apostolic status, and therefore only seek glory for themselves.

With regards to extraordinary events, we only have to recall how many times water has been turned into wine in recent years, to realise that these things formerly happened to serve one purpose, and that was to reveal Jesus Christ as God the Son and bring due glory to him alone. And the same can be said for all Jesus’ miracles and healings, together with all the extraordinary events of the Spirit in the Early Church — they happened to some to point all people to Christ.

The Early Church and the congregation in Corinth were no different to the church and congregations that you and I are called into today. So in today’s church when we arrogantly seek to separate ourselves and think we’re above the troubles and sins of a bygone Christian church, we’re right there with the church in Corinth — we’re no better than any sinner since.

When we’re led to believe we can put the word of God aside, do you think we would still be able to confess “Jesus as Lord”? Hypothetically if we could, by what spirit might we confess, and who might be this Jesus we lord? Would it really be Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to whom “all” glory and honour is due?

Finally, to understand who we are, as a church, and, as people who make up the church, we do best to see ourselves as leaves on a tree. Like a leaf, each of us is unique; there is not one leaf exactly like another! But stand back and all can see the leaves make up the tree and receive energy from it too. Likewise, we’re connected to Christ, the root and branches, and receive from him the Holy Spirit, our sap, our energy, our faith. Stand back and this tree is the Christ-centred church. But if we separate ourselves from the root, the source of life, we die and bring no glory to ourselves or the tree. We become as useless as deaf and dumb idols!

However, the leaf that remains on the tree is used by the root, the branches, and the sap for the growth of the whole tree, and as the tree sways back and forth in the gentle breeze, it moves as one and brings peace to all who rest in its shade. Amen

Saturday, January 09, 2010

C, Epilphany 1 - Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 "Good Enough for Jesus, Good Enough for Me!"

Download WORD doc here

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, "I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 ESV)
If it's good enough for Jesus then surely it's good enough for me. If it's good enough for Jesus then it's good enough for you! And if it's good enough for Jesus then it's good enough for the church gathered in the name of the living God.
What's this about? None other than Jesus' baptism, and baptism which saves sinners from eternal death!
But the question must be asked, "Why did Jesus have to be baptised?" After all, he is the holy Son of the God. John was baptising in the Jordan; a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus was holy, he wasn't a sinner and yet he was baptised. Why? We'll come back to this in a moment!
During Jesus' ministry the word of God reports Jesus baptised how many people? None! (John 4:2) Yet he points us towards baptism many times during his ministry. In fact, his ministry was immersed in the very essence of baptism. He was being baptised with the Holy Spirit and with fire, from the Jordan to Jerusalem.
As we walk with Jesus through the Epiphany season we continue having Jesus revealed to us as we did during the Christmas season. Epiphany literally means to be made known, to be shown, exposed, or to be made manifest. During Christmas he was shown to us as the son of Mary, a human baby, born to a Jewess at Bethlehem in time, and laid in a manger.
In Epiphany what is hidden is also revealed. Jesus is exposed as God; made manifest as God the Son from eternity, hidden in human flesh. He was hidden until the day of his baptism, when heaven opened and God spoke publicly and openly for the first time in hundreds of years.
Jesus' ministry begins with his baptism and the announcement by God the Father that Jesus is his Son, and the crowd witness the embodiment of the Holy Spirit coming down as a dove and resting on Jesus.
Notice how much power Jesus had in beginning his ministry! None! He had no power to enter the world by himself! But he entered the world by the power of God's Word through the Holy Spirit spoken by Gabriel. Likewise, he was pushed into the world through the birth canal of a virgin. Similarly, he was baptised by John and did not baptise himself.
John was baptising the people with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. When Jesus approaches John, Matthews Gospel reports that John hesitates in baptising Jesus. Yet, Jesus needed baptism to "fulfil all righteousness" and so John baptises him. (Matthew 3:15)
Jesus needed to be the passive recipient of baptism, just as he was passively placed in Mary and born into the world. Just as he was passively arrested, crucified, raised, and seen by witnesses after his resurrection. So he receives his baptism in the same passive way, not for the forgiveness of his active sin, but he was passively baptised into death to fulfil all righteousness.
Unlike the people of John the Baptist's day who came as sinners to the Jordan and left forgiven, Jesus entered the Jordan clean and holy but left carrying the burden of people's sin to the cross. This is Jesus' ministry. And on leaving the Jordan the devil immediately sets to work on him, tempting his human nature to sin, but without success.
John's baptism of the people was also an extraordinary event amongst the people. His baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins was a baptism of preparation for the unveiling of Jesus as the Christ. Through John's baptism the Jews were prepared for their Saviour, by having their sins revealed. And as John baptised the people they wondered if it was he who was to be the Christ, the Messiah, or literally the Anointed One!
But it wasn't John; it was Jesus who was revealed as the Christ - the Anointed One. Not only was he the Son of God, he was sent by God to be the Messiah. John had to baptise him; his baptism was his anointing and it fulfilled all righteous requirements. Jesus was anointed into his ministry of the cross to save God's people.
But the people of Israel were looking for a messiah like David who was anointed by Samuel. The days of David were remembered as the glory days of Israel when this anointed shepherd boy became king of Israel and was raised to be the most powerful leader in the history of Israel.
Jesus was anointed too! But to fulfil all righteousness he was baptised into a ministry that would see him seemingly walk in weakness, to the cross. He walked the way of death to fulfil all righteousness. Jesus was revealed and anointed as the King of creation so sinners might be freed. Anointed as the Christ in baptism, God the Son gave up all his power as our Heavenly Father's one and only Son.
Jesus' ministry continued but John's baptising came to a sudden end, with his arrest and beheading. Now that Jesus was revealed as the Christ; now that the Anointed One had come to save us; Christ Jesus revealed as both God and man, his ministry of baptism continued. It continued during his earthly life without him baptising anyone!
His baptism was not just a marker of the beginning of his ministry. Rather his baptism brought a complete baptismal ministry in his baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. His ministry was immersed into servant-hood washing me, you, and all who have accept they fall short and need the forgiveness of sins.
Although Jesus did not baptise anyone during his ministry he spoke to Nicodemus about baptism (John 3) and he also said to his disciples, James and John, "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" And they said to him, "We are able." And Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized (Mark 10:38-39 ESV)
And again Jesus says of the ministry into which he has been baptised, "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!" (Luke 12:49-50 NIV)
This fire is ultimately the baptism of fire which John speaks about at Jesus' baptism. This baptism of fire is the burning of sin, the destruction of death on the cross. The fire is the baptism of death Jesus bore on the cross for us. And the fire of life we receive when the Holy Spirit descends on us in baptism as it did on those at Pentecost ten days after Jesus' ascension.
So if baptism is good enough for Jesus' ministry, where his death kindles your life, then surely your baptism is good enough to trust for your salvation. Baptism is the complete essence of Jesus' ministry, and so too, it's the perfect and complete essence of your salvation. Baptism fulfils all righteousness!
You had no control over the birth of your being. That privilege belonged to your parents and ultimately to God! In the same way you had no control over your rebirth into the being of Christ, this is solely to the glory of God! But why do so many of us doubt this being we've inherited and still try to earn our salvation through what we do?
Just as we automatically exist each day without consciously thinking to breathe or pump blood through our system; our sanctified being also exists by remaining in the things that give us our Christ-like being.
When we doubt God and try to do his will by our own effort, it's like trying to live without breathing, or like trying to live after we have pulled our own hearts from our bodies. This sounds silly but that's what we as Christians fall temptation to when we take our eyes off Jesus and focus on what we think we "must do".
Our "doing" is a matter of passively being and believing in our baptism, just as Jesus was passive in his ministry and now has been raised to actively work in us who remain passively focused on him, trusting his power to work in our weakness. Are we not told in Ephesians two, "For we are God's workmanship (not our own), created (baptised) in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:10; emphasis mine)
Just as Jesus' ministry was one immersed in the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, so too is ours! Jesus not only came to give us an example of his passive trusting life under the Father's authority, he now walks with you who have been baptised into his death and resurrection.
You have received the Holy Spirit in baptism. Just as Jesus told the disciples, James and John, they too would be baptised with the baptism he was to receive, we also drink the cup Jesus drank, and receive the baptism Jesus received. This is the baptism of death!
Therefore, like Christ we will be raised again to life. Jesus has won victory over death through his innocent suffering and death on the cross. Now that he is raised we too know that we will be raised. You are living with Christ; he is walking with you from your baptism to your death. And beyond into the glorious realm of heaven!
Hear again what Isaiah prophesied concerning Israel's deliverance and your deliverance through the Anointed Saviour, Christ Jesus…
"Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour" (Isaiah 43:1b-3a NIV)
You have passed through the waters; the fiery trials you face will not consume you! They are only sent to purify you to the glory of God!
Know that in Jesus' baptism into death, his baptism is our baptism into life. You are a child of God, whom he loves! He loves you, he calls you by name, you are his, and he is your Saviour!
So if baptism is 100% effective for Jesus' ministry, his commission to baptise (and be baptised) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, is 100% effective for your salvation too!
Your baptism into the living risen Son of God fulfils all righteousness! You better believe it! Amen.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

C, Christmas 2 - John 1:1-2, 14, 16-17; Ephesians 1:7-8, 11-14 "Grace upon Grace"

Today is the Second Sunday after Christmas, and it's also the tenth day of Christmastide. Christmastide is the twelve day church season from Christmas Day to the eve of the Epiphany on January 6th. And it's from where we get the seemingly trite carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas.

For the sake of time we'll hear just the last verse which summarises all that's given in increasing number over the 12 days.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me Twelve drummers drumming, Eleven pipers piping, Ten lords a-leaping, Nine ladies dancing, Eight maids a-milking, Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying, Five golden rings, Four calling birds, Three French hens, Two turtle doves, And a partridge in a pear tree!

But the carol has deeper meaning than what we first might hear. The carol contains a code that reveals God as a gracious giver, who lavishes us with gifts, one blessing after another - a giver of grace upon grace.

From John's Gospel we hear, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father full of grace and truth. And from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." (John 1:1-2, 14, 16-17)

However, for many today Christmas has become not so much about God and the gifts he lavishes upon us in all his grace and glory. But rather Christmas has become a melting pot of pressure and things we have to do in a terrible hurry.

A parody of the Twelve Days of Christmas is the Twelve Pains of Christmas and perhaps you might sigh as you see yourself with, at least, just some of the trials this song portrays.

The twelfth thing at Christmas that's such a pain to me: Singing Christmas carols, Stale TV specials, Batteries not included, Finding parking spaces, Children wanting stuff, Charities, Facing my in-laws, Five months of bills, Sending Christmas cards, Hangovers, Rigging up the lights, And finding a Christmas tree!

This "me-centred" consumer Christmas is not a very nice picture! But with all parodies their humour comes about because there's a sense of truth hidden in the humour. Perhaps this parody is more realistic than we would like to admit. Such is what Christmas has become in a world where Jesus Christ is taken from Christmas.

So if Christ is removed from being the centre of Christmas and its glory and the season becomes "me-centred", perhaps we should call the season "christ-is-me" instead of Christmas. And if that's the case then Christmas is an anti-Christmas. Because when we're placing ourselves at the centre at Christmas, we come against Christ, becoming antichrists! We end up doing all sorts of things to glorify human egos rather than glorifying God.

However, returning to the regular Twelve days of Christmas carol, we hear twelve times in twelve day "my true love" is giving. Who is this true love? Of course we know our true love to be God. God is love, his being is the perfection of love. Our being is human and flawed with our desire to love on conditions, and it's fleeting at best. But God's love is pure, powerful, self-giving, all-encompassing, and his love is eternal.

In his love, God gives! He gives of himself out of love for us. But this love God gives to us is not a love bound in feelings, but rather is a love which comes to us in a real way that benefits more than just our emotions. His love is a love that's practical, physical, spiritual, and as we've already heard, it's eternal - it never stops! But the greatest thing about God's love is — it's for you, for us, and for all people!

The twelve days of Christmas is a festival of God's love lavished on us. His love for you is unfaltering kindness and generosity. It's a gift and it's the most useful gift one will ever get. It's a practical gift! It's a spiritual gift! It's a physical gift! And this gift is Good News! This gift is God's one and only Son, Jesus Christ, and through him we are lavished with even more gifts. From the one gift we receive a Pandora's box of gifts. One might say, "Gifts upon gifts!"

In fact, these gifts upon gifts come from the fullness of God's grace and truth. Each day of this twelve day season your true love, your true Lord, gives upon giving. Favour upon favour, blessing upon blessing, gift upon gift, grace upon grace!

In the song The Twelve days of Christmas what is given on the first day is also given on the second day with the second day's gift. And these gifts continue to flood each day onwards so that on the twelfth day we have received gift upon gift.

Do you realise that this is an eternal progression? What you received in baptism on the first day to the glory of God, you have received every day since! You have received blessing upon blessing, forgiveness upon forgiveness, salvation upon salvation, and unfaltering kindness upon kindness. And it will continue despite your sinful nature, because of the fullness of God's love towards you. And this fullness is found in Jesus' death on the cross.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:7-8, 11-14)

For us in these twelve days of Christmas and beyond, our job is to continue to allow the Holy Spirit access into us to continue pouring the blessings on God's love upon us. We do this by remaining focused on Christ and the forgiveness he brings us. If we forbid the Spirit and the faith he brings then we walk precariously towards the cutting ourselves off from God's grace and the guarantee of our inheritance.

So let's see the multiplying effect of the twelve days of Christmas as our grace upon grace eternal gift from God as we unlock the song.

A Partridge in a Pear Tree is Jesus born a baby on the first day. Two turtle doves are the two Testaments of God's Word. The third day our true love gives us three French hens, which are faith, hope, and love. (1 Corinthians 13:13) The greatest of these being love, because it's God's being and unlike faith and hope will continue in eternity.

Then four calling birds given on the forth day are the Gospel proclamations of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John! And on the fifth day of Christmas, the five golden rings are the five books of the Law, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The six geese-a-laying represent the six days in which God laid the foundation of creation. Seven Swans A-swimming are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1) prophecy, 2) ministry, 3) teaching, 4) exhortation, 5) giving, 6) leading, and 7) compassion (Romans 12:6-8; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11).

Eight Maids A-milking are the eight Beatitudes: 1) Blessed are the poor in spirit, 2) those who mourn, 3) the meek, 4) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 5) the merciful, 6) the pure in heart, 7) the peacemakers, 8) those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. (Matthew 5:3-10)

Nine Ladies Dancing are the nine Fruit of the Holy Spirit: 1) love, 2) joy, 3) peace, 4) patience, 5) kindness, 6) generosity, 7) faithfulness, 8) gentleness, and 9) self-control. (Galatians 5:22)

Today is the tenth day, the day of Ten Lords-a-leaping, and they represent the Ten Commandments. Eleven Pipers Piping are the eleven faithful Apostles. And on the twelfth day our true love, our True Lord, gives us Twelve Drummers Drumming the twelve part confession of the Apostles Creed.

So surging and snowballing from the fullness of Christ is grace upon grace. Let the Holy Spirit carry you in the eternal crescendo that centres on Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection for you. As you think of the Twelve days of Christmas remember the eternal reality hidden in the song; the grace upon grace God gives to you!

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true Lord gives to me… The Apostle's Creed confession; Eleven disciples preaching; Ten Commandments guiding; Nine fruits of Spirit; Eight beatitude blessings; Seven holy gifts; Six day creation; Five books of Law; Four Gospel records; Faith, hope, & love; The New & Old Word; and our Lord Jesus born a baby.