Sunday, January 09, 2011

A, Epiphany 1 - Matthew 3:13-17 "ALL Righteousness"

Christianity stands apart from all other religions. In fact, in the narrow sense, Christianity by its very nature opposes religion; it has nothing to do with religion, and really shouldn’t be called a religion. Nevertheless, in a wider general sense, we still refer to Christianity as one of the world’s major religions.

Religion exists because death exists. People look to religion to bridge one’s existence from this world to the “after-world”. In this sense Christianity is similar, in that one is carried through death into eternal life with God. But on examining how death is bridged within the various religions one will come to understand Christianity is very different to religion. In fact, in the narrow sense it is not a religion.

So what is religion? If you were asked this question, what would you answer? Furthermore, how would you explain the differences between Christianity and, say, Buddhism, or Hinduism and all western New Age variants of these eastern religions? Or what about Judaism, or Islam? Knowing the differences helps us isolate and uphold the single ultimate truth Christianity professes to hold.

If you believe Christianity is just one of a number of various truths amongst the world’s religions and philosophical truths, Christianity for you is just a religion. Why? Because when one believes like this they usually explain, “My faith is right for me and your faith is right for you!” But this is not the faith given by the Holy Spirit in the Word of God. Rather this is a subjective faith; a faith that comes from a person rationalising different belief systems within themselves. And when one puts on the rationalisation filter first before trusting the God of Christianity, are they really trusting God? Or are they doing a work to believe? In fact they’re doing a work of righteousness!

On the other hand, within the one holy apostolic and catholic church hidden within the denominations of Christianity, one will first trust God, from an act of faithfulness from God towards us, and then with this God-given faith rational thought centred on Christ and other types of understanding will be enacted within by the Holy Spirit. This then will produce righteous works to come from within us. And these good works God had planned in advance before any of us were created.

Christianity is not a belief system which can be chosen; rather it chooses you and me. It is prefaced and driven by God. It can’t be observed from afar, like a work choice product. Rather, Christianity permeates the whole being when the Word of God is heard.

When we do the right thing, God’s will is enacted within us by God; we participate in God’s will. Any action on the part of our human-centred will is a move away from God’s will, whose will it is to have us trust him completely. Therefore, for Christianity to be right there cannot be any religion that’s right.

And this is the chasm which separates Christianity from world religions. It’s the right actions done within the scheme of the individual religion or within Christianity which allows us to be taken from this world to the next. But the one doing the right thing is the critical difference between Christianity and religion.

So religion in the narrow sense cannot be Christianity, because one is required to seek a right relationship with someone or something by earning it. Once a sufficient amount is done the person is worthy enough to deserve a new life, or a better life, in the next life. But only if the person deserves it!

Christianity however, is under the total control of God. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, is sent and he does the right thing, for a right relationship with God. So what is the thing, he does right? It’s not so much about what he did, but that he trusted God the Father while doing it. God allowed the doing to happen to Jesus, ultimately, his death on the cross! And now risen, Jesus acts in us by sending the Holy Spirit to show us his righteousness resides hidden in us and in the church which looks to him as the only way, the only truth, and the only life.

Religion is being bound to something. It's duty done for gain. And a religious righteousness is a rigorous requirement demanding deeds to avoid the wrath of death.

John the Baptist was performing a religious baptism on those who came to the river Jordan. People were coming, confessing their sins, and being baptised. This was a deed done during the days after Israel’s former glory was gone as a result of human sin. His baptism was one of preparation and cleansing for the coming of the Messiah.

To those at the river John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11–12, ESV)

John was looking to the One who would come purifying with the Holy Spirit and fire since religion had failed. It failed because its adherents were more concerned with themselves doing the right thing than the right relationship doing the right things would allow. They sought not a relationship with the glorious God of heaven, but rather sought glory for themselves through their righteous deeds.

So when Jesus arrived at the Jordan, and requested to be baptised by John, his apprehension is understandable. After all John was proclaiming, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. And now he wanted John’s baptism of cleansing which was really his anointing as the Messiah. But why does this need to happen?

Listen for it as you hear the gospel reading Matthew chapter 3:13-17… Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13–17, ESV)

It had to be so to fulfil ALL righteousness. Jesus was not sinful as were the others who came to be baptised. So why was he baptised? To fulfil ALL righteousness. He was anointed as the Messiah, crowned with the Holy Spirit, and declared by God as his beloved pleasing Son. Why? Because he was doing the right thing, glorifying God’s will by faithfully being anointed to the task of being enthroned on the cross where he would experience God’s winnowing folk, by suffering the fires of eternal death. Although innocent of this death, Christ allowed himself to be treated like chaff that’s burnt. And through it all he was faithful because of his loving relationship with God the Father.

Jesus underwent the religious rigours of Judaism for ALL righteousness. He allowed John the Baptist to administer the rite which began his beaconing to the fury of the cross; a rite through which we today allow his work on the cross to baptise and burn us; to clean and refine us.

In our baptism ALL righteousness is fulfilled making us all right with God. Jesus underwent a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire first, so we might be live under the fire of the Spirit, who gives us the faith to focus on Jesus as we undergo all sorts of fiery trials on this earth.

But this righteousness doesn’t just end at our baptism as if now we must work to keep the righteousness. We not only look to Jesus as our example of righteousness, but we know his righteousness resides with us. ALL has been done, ALL is being done, and ALL will be done in us and through us as we allow the faith placed in us by the Holy Spirit at our baptism into Christ Jesus to do what God intends it to do in us. This ALL happens by the ALL righteousness of Christ.

After his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, but nevertheless, he set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem and the cross. In your baptism, the Spirit seeks to lead you through this wilderness. Yet he reveals the hidden Jesus Christ in you in this worldly wilderness, and calls you to allow his faithfulness to engender trust as you walk towards your cross of earthly death.

When you allow God to be God, when you allow Jesus to be you Christ, and when you allow the Holy Spirit to be the one who breathes the breath of faith in you, you will be all right with God. Through faith Jesus walks with us from the font to the funeral; the Holy Spirit seeks to resolutely set your face towards the cross.

So how do we do the right thing? By trusting God! By allowing your sin to be exposed and allowing the power of God to cleanse you through a washing of daily repentance.

Jesus fulfils ALL righteousness. Letting him do it, letting God do what God needs to do within, is true Christianity. For us who believe it is not duty but rather beauty. Livin’ is being forgiven and trusting that Christ’s righteousness is working in us and through us, to the glory of Father, by the work of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

A, Christmas 2 - Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:10-14 "How does one Believe?"

How do you believe in God? What is believing in God?

Many believe Christmas is over! Why? Because Christmas Day for 2010 is gone! In fact, so is 2010! Into the annuals of history last year and Christmas Day 2010 have gone!

In many of the shops the tinsel and trinkets of Christmas have just disappeared! Gone! New Years day party goods, they’ve come and gone too! Now we’ll soon see Australia Day merchandise on the shelves and Christmas Day was only eight days ago!

Many believe Christmas is over because of what they see and experience. But Christmas is not over at all! We’re still in the season of Christmas; it finishes this Wednesday, the day before the Epiphany of our Lord, on Thursday, January the 6th. So why do many fall for the marketing propaganda and believe Christmas is over?

For many people belief is built on tangible things, subjective experiences, and ideas and concepts which can be rationalised in the mind.

But what if the mind can’t rationalise a concept or an idea? At either end of life, babies and those with dementia don’t always have the ability to know or understand. So then does the concept or idea not exist because they don’t know it? Christmas still comes to them with all the other things they don’t understand!

How about our subjective experiences? If you or I have never tasted the flavour of a certain fruit, does that mean the fruit is any less real in God’s creation? Of course not! There are many things in this life our senses will never experience, yet we still know they’re real and what they’re like through reports from what others have had opportunity to experience!

Then there is the belief built on tangible things, or things that are physical! These are thing which are material, touchable, hold-able, doable, and the like. But we also know there’s more to life and believing than being able to hold or handle something. If this were not so things like love, fear, and hatred wouldn’t exist.

So then how do we believe? There has to be something greater than the understanding mind, the personal experience, or working with the tangible, which allows us to believe, which enables us to trust, and by which one has faith in God.

One can and does believe in many things, but to believe in God is to trust him. And what is trusting in God? Perhaps we might do well to ask another question first, “What does believing do in us?”

Saint Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians… Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. (Ephesians 1:3–4 ESV)

The first thing believing God does is blesses us in Jesus Christ. In other words we have become a pleasant word to God. God is pleased with us because we have become immersed into Christ, the Word of Life, the Word made flesh!

We’re also told we’re given every spiritual blessing. Not just a blessing but every spiritual blessing in the heavenly place. Believing allows God to see and treat us as if we were Jesus Christ himself; you were chosen by the will of God before this earth was formed.

And the third thing believing does is it deems us holy and blameless in the presence of God the Father, who can have nothing short of total perfection come before him. This means you and I are made right with God as a result of believing, trusting, or having faith.

What does believing do? In short, it justifies you, the believer, by faith — by believing — before God.

So how do we come to believe, to have this faith, to trust God to the point where we are able to let God be God for us, in us?

After all there is nothing in our human understanding, our subjective experience, or our fallen physicality which can make sense of what believing does. How can I fully believe in God when ever part of my intellect, my experience, and my existence can’t even begin to fathom his awesome gift of grace in Jesus Christ?

Every person has the ability to believe in, or know, themselves. This in turn only shows us, all the more, that in ourselves there is far more disbelief within. Unbelief: About ourselves; in those around us; but especially, in a holy supreme and eternal being whom somehow we have come to know as God — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Having belief only in me would, if true, lead me to be brutally honest about myself. Ultimately, I’m going to know exactly what I am. And trusting in me would be incomplete, fraught with danger, and ultimately completely ridiculous and irrational.

True belief in one’s self doesn’t bury what one can’t believe, but rather acknowledges the fragility and limitations of one’s actions, understandings, and emotions. Belief in one’s self will be a belief which knows you can’t believe enough by yourself. You and I really can’t trust ourselves. In fact, not only do we have issues being faithful to ourselves, but we have grave issues in our relationships with people and with God.

When people act, feel, and think they do so from a sinful nature. This belief we can reckon on without fear of disappointment. If you’re honest, a belief any greater in yourself is just a deception from within your human being. What true belief does in us is reveals we need a Saviour because of exposed unbelief, our unwillingness to trust, and our faithlessness.

Paul continues on to the Ephesians… In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 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 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ (Ephesians 1:5–9 ESV)

Out of love God has marked us for adoption as his sons. When God sees us he sees Jesus because of Jesus’ gracious work on the cross. Belief or faith comes to us and shows us we need a Redeemer, that we need redemption, we need forgiveness, because we truly know in ourselves, by ourselves, we are far from being right before God. And for all the boundaries we cross making us trespassers before God we are forgiven by the faithfulness of his Son having had his blood spilt on the cross.

Also notice the actions of God because we’re in him. He redeems, he forgives, he lavishes his rich grace upon us, he makes know to us his will through his wisdom and insight, it is his purpose and he set it all forth in Jesus Christ.

John also speaks of God’s actions in those of his Son, Jesus Christ, saying… He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:11–12 ESV)

So believing makes us right with God; righteous children of God. Believing acknowledges our weakness and need of forgiveness. Believing reveals us as sinfully short of holiness to stand before God, yet paradoxically reveals us as holy and blameless in God’s sight because of Jesus. Believing delivers us into the arms of our Saviour, and gives us an inheritance despite who we are.

So at the end of the day belief is greater than an acknowledgement of Jesus’ existence on earth. Many were more privileged than us and knew him, saw him, even spoke face to face with him, yet they did not trust him to save them.

You and I on the other hand, believe and trust God, despite the unbelief with which we’re all born. This faith is one which continually brings us into the forgiveness of Jesus, because you and I trust we need it. Why? Because of whom we are! That is: One who does wrong before God, and one who does worse before him by thinking, feeling, and working in a state of unbelief by our goodness in which we try to stand righteous before God without the atoning adopting sacrificial blood of Jesus.

Believing gives us God’s forgiveness. It gives us holiness and blamelessness through Jesus’ faithfulness in us, for us, out of love for us and our Father in heaven. This faithfulness towards us grants us forgiveness for all our sins; it enables us to be forgiven and to forgive others.

Having received this forgiveness, we’re placed in a cycle where we can live lives of repentance, trusting the forgiveness which came to us while we were sinners and needed a Saviour, and continues to come now we have begun to see more and more just how at every moment we need constant salvation from ourselves. And as we grow in knowing this we trust more and more the faithfulness of him who died for us and sustains us in believing.

Therefore, believing has to come from God. And it does! So faithful to you is Jesus Christ he has this covered. He has sent the Holy Spirit to you to place belief in you. The Spirit’s job is to place the faithfulness of Christ in you, to constantly pour the grace of God, the atoning blood of Christ over you, immersing you in his love.

We believe in his name by the power of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit comes through the preaching of Christ crucified, and Christ risen in victory over death.

We hear Saint Paul again… 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 1:13–14 ESV)

So this year do not hold onto what you might understand, do, or feel, but rather let the Holy Spirit give you belief that will give you understanding, move you in tangible ways in this tangible tangled world, and give experiences and feelings in you which will well up to eternal life.

Just as Christmas straddles the change from one year to the next, let the Holy Spirit give you faith in his forgiveness, repentant lips of trust, and the believing heart of Christ himself to straddle you from now unto eternity. Amen.