Saturday, December 29, 2012

C, Christmas 1 – Luke 2:51-52 Colossians 3:12-17 “Being Favoured”

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From Luke 2:51 we hear… And he (Jesus) went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man. (Luke 2:51-52 ESV)
These are the last words spoken of Jesus till John the Baptist baptises him in the Jordan, baptising him into his ministry of death and resurrection, his ministry of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
Interesting words are left with us to describe Jesus' years between the age of twelve, his puberty, and his baptism by the Holy Spirit and with fire, at the Jordan and on the cross outside Jerusalem. We hear Jesus "increased" in wisdom, stature, and favour. There is a sense with the word "increased" that one drives forward as if by beating one's way through something. "Increased" comes from the word to chop or cut down, to lament or beat the breast.
Jesus bore his position in humanity with submission. He honoured his mother and father; he was obedient to his parents. He struggled and learnt as a youth in the Scriptures and from everyday events in life. Here the Son of God allowed himself to be taught what it was to be human. In effect he was cut down to size from God to man, to a child, to a youth, to a young man who would bear the sin of the world on the cross.
But despite being the Son of God, he increased, he allowed himself to be pruned as a human, and struggled forward, advancing and growing, so in he whom wisdom and grace is personified was seen to come to grips with what everyone else experiences who is taught and tested in the tribulations of daily existence. In doing so, Jesus increased in favour with his fellow country folk. And with God, by his sacrifice and submission within the very creation he had created together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ is God's favoured one, see to it he is your favoured one too. Paul tells us, who believe, that Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11) He calls you to see his sacrifice, knowing it was for you he made it. He doesn't do this to give you an ego boost, but rather he now commands us to put on the new self, to put on Christ. To put on his holiness as the Son of God, but to also put on the same humility that Jesus put on to save us from sin.
He calls us to put on Christ because we are God's chosen ones. We are favoured by God, not because we are good, but because Jesus was — in his birth, increase, death, and resurrection. We are favoured by our Heavenly Father, elected by God, and are being resurrected by the Holy Spirit.
Therefore Paul compels you to…
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12–17 ESV)
In short he compels you to put on Jesus, doing everything in the name of our Lord Jesus, which means doing everything in the name of your favoured One, faithfully following the will of the father, not fighting or fleeing from confronting the truth, to honour yourself, but rather forgiving as God has forgiven you.
In the short time I have been here in this parish. I have witnessed your struggle to break free from sin, both as individuals and as a corporate body. I have faithfully called you to favour Christ over self, fame, fortune, and family.
As we struggle to do so, some have sadly witnessed the falling away of loved ones and as a consequence too succumb to the same, turning the back on God, and following the family out the door.
Then some have sought ways and means of growing the congregation, in a bid to bring those falling away back in, but this has not found favour in God's eyes either, nor has it in the eyes of those who have left. The cynicism felt towards today's economic and political environment is only exacerbated when we in the church seek to grow the church through the same powers as does business or government.
But the church will only ever be favoured, if at all in this world, when we allow ourselves to be "increased" or "painfully grown" in Christ, putting on his love, and abandoning all other ways favoured by humanity. We then will return to our first love and favour God once again before all other gods.
Yet in doing this, rougher weather will follow. Most of humanity will favour us less as we grow in Christ. Your own family who has turned its back on God will see your humility and weakness in Christ and their pride will cause them to dash you to pieces, you who are close to them but closer to God. Deep down they will know those who are faithful, by your unwillingness to yield even to the point of death.
And contempt towards you will be heightened by your ability to forgive, seemingly the unforgiveable. Others will not want you to forgive them, because owning the forgiveness will expose the reality of their natures. Nor will they want you to forgive others, lest these "undesirables" be seen equal with those of more favourable standing.
But that's okay. Others unbelief and scorn will be a testimony to you being the favoured ones of God. The sacrifice and martyrdom of those in the church will become familiar once again in the western church. And it will only spur the church to look all the more into the word of God, the songs of God in the Psalms, and into the rich tapestry of hymnody sewn in the sacrifice and deaths of God's saints from over the past two thousand years.
Favour God over all other gods. Our Heavenly Father favours you more than any of your other gods do! So put on Jesus, be chopped down to size, so he might resurrect you in his holiness and compassion, kindness and humility, meekness and patience, bearing with one another, bearing your cross for one another.
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17 ESV)
You are God's favoured ones, remain in his favour! Amen.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

C, Advent 4 /Christmas Day 2012 – Micah 5:2, Luke 2:4-7 “Fruitful Bread”

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And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4–7 ESV)
The name Bethlehem in Hebrew means, house of bread. Around the town were grain fields and sheep grazing country. Bethlehem is also referred to in the Old Testament as Ephrathah, which in Hebrew means, to bear fruit. Bethlehem or Ephrathah was a place associated with food and fruitfulness. It seems to focus on life being created but it hasn't always been that way.
We all know the Christmas gospel — baby Jesus born at Bethlehem. But Bethlehem appears in a number of places in bible. Let's look at them to give us a fuller picture of what happened at Bethlehem because of us and for us.
The first mention of the town is in Genesis, and it's a sad occasion. Rachel was the wife of Jacob, and the mother of Joseph. She had trouble conceiving and bearing children and as the family moved towards Bethlehem, or Ephrathah, Rachel went into labour with her second son. She gave birth to him and on her death bed named him Ben-Oni, which means, son of my sorrow. But Jacob renamed him Benjamin, which means, son of my right hand. And then he buried his much loved wife, Rachel, in a grave at Bethlehem.
So here in Genesis we have a prototype or preview of the gospel at Bethlehem. Jesus was the son of Mary's sorrow because of her birth pains and his death on the cross, and like Benjamin, Jesus is the Son who now sits at the right hand of his Father.
Then in Judges chapter seventeen, a cloud is cast over Bethlehem, as it becomes the location from where an idolatrous Levite came as priest to serve a man called Micah in Ephraim. This is not the prophet Micah who spoke out against idolatry, but rather he and the Levite became the fathers of idolatry in the tribe of Dan after the tribe overran Micah's house and carted off his idols and the Levite priest.
And from events starting in the Bethlehem, in Judges nineteen, unfaithfulness, rape, murder, bodily mutilation, war and near genocide took place between Benjamin, a tribe of Israel, and Israel's other tribes.
This all came about when a concubine left her husband and returned to her home at Bethlehem. On fetching his concubine and travelling through the Benjamin countryside, he stayed in Gibeah and when his life was threatened, he gave his concubine to the wicked men of the city and they raped her and left her for dead. Her master cut her into pieces and sent her body to the far corners of Israel. So distraught at what had happened to the concubine, Israel fought against the city and their brother tribe of Benjamin, and nearly destroyed it forever.
As we can see, Bethlehem was anything but fruitful or a house of wholesome food in these times. Rather, from the events of this town, we see very clearly the sin that permeated the Israelites; sin that commits humanity to death; sin that shows our need for a Saviour.
This fruitlessness continues at the beginning of the book of Ruth. Naomi and her husband, Elimelech, fall on hard times as they battle drought at Bethlehem, so they move to Moab with their two sons. After moving, Elimelech dies and the sons marry two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Eventually the two sons die as well, leaving the three women widowed. Orpah returns to her family in Moab, but Ruth stays with Naomi, who returns to Bethlehem just in time for the barley harvest.
On returning to Bethlehem, Naomi requests she be called Mara, which in Hebrew means, bitter. Naomi in Hebrew means, pleasant or beauty. She told them she had left for Moab full, but the Lord had brought her back empty. One could understand why she might have felt this way, with no welfare system and having lost all the men in her life, Naomi's future looked more bitter than pleasant.
But the Lord had not left Naomi and Ruth bare and bitter in Bethlehem. Her husband — whose name Elimelech, incidentally means, my God is king — had relatives at Bethlehem. And the Jewish custom was for the family of the dead husband to support the widow and children with a kinsman-redeemer. Boaz was the redeemer and eventually married Ruth and looked after Naomi. Therefore, Ruth remained faithful to her mother-in-law and found favour with Boaz, a relative of her father-in-law, and continued the line of Elimelech. It is no accident that Boaz and Ruth are the great-grandparents of King David.
As we all know, David was a shepherd who came from Bethlehem. God laid his hands on David through Samuel and also made him shepherd and king of Israel. There were numerous times in David's kingship that he looked to God as his "Elimelech" — his God as King. We can see, despite the horrors and bitterness surrounding Bethlehem, God was making the town, Ephrathah, fruitful!
Therefore, it is no accident Jesus Christ, humanity's Kinsman Redeemer, was born in Bethlehem. Just as the human spirit of Elimelech lived on through Boaz and Ruth in King David; our God — the King of Creation — was conceived in Mary, lived on earth, and was raised to life through the Holy Spirit, in the person of Jesus Christ, beginning at Bethlehem. It comes as no surprise to us that God fulfilled his promises made through the prophets, such as the prophet Micah…
"But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days." (Micah 5:2 ESV)
When Jesus was born and laid in the manger; he was born to lie in the darkness of death for you and me. Bethlehem has much to do with us. We are weak; our lives without a Redeemer, God, and King, would be bitter; much more bitter than Naomi and Ruth's life without a kinsman-redeemer.
In fact you are this Bethlehem; you are God's fruitful house of bread! You may see your life as less than ordinary, not extraordinary in the least. But God does. He has laid his Son in you, in the manger of your heart. Right in the place where out of the human heart come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. (Mark 7:21–22 ESV)
Bethlehem dished up some horrendous daily bread for those who lived there. And at other times it would have seemed just an ordinary boring town amongst the flocks of sheep and fields of wheat. So too you may feel nothing special, or in times of strife in your life, your daily bread may make it seem that God is nowhere to be found.
But surely if our Father in heaven would lay his son in such a place to suffer and die, and then raise him to his right hand! Then wouldn't he also bear his eternal fruit in us having laid his Son is us? You are Ephrathah Bethlehem, smallest of the small, but within lives he who is not only ruler of Israel, but Lord of creation! The single most fruitful bread and our only daily bread that will sustain you forever! Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

C, Advent 3 – Philippians 4:4-7 “Rejoice Always?” Confirmation Sermon

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Here's a little song I wrote might like to sing it note for note, "Don't worry be happy!" Well perhaps I didn't write it but you may know this song or have heard it some time.
The words don't worry be happy might be a catchy lyric to sing, especially when feeling in a good mood, but what about when the chips are down, in the midst of worry, doubt, and danger? Being told to be happy sounds more like a command that condemns rather than encouragement when one is far from being happy! Who wants to sing any little light-hearted song when there's no reason for happiness?
In this day and age, one only has to listen to some angry metal music, or blues music to know it's impossible to be happy all the time. In fact, those who radiate happiness all the time seem false and once away from others, one wonders what they're really like behind the jolly veneer. Shiny happy people cannot be shiny happy people all the time. In fact, happiness often covers the reality of hopelessness and loneliness in our lives.
So when Paul says, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice." (Philippians 4:4 ESV) Is Paul deluded? Is he calling us to live in delusion? How on earth can I rejoice always, are we meant to pretend? It's hard to rejoice when the family is fighting, friendships are fracturing, farming is futile in the fickle weather we're having these days, and so on!
Today is Confirmation day; this day has its line share of focus on you young folk. In fact you may feel the day is about you, and that's okay, but you need to know these feelings are fleeting. The high of today will lead into the valleys of tomorrow; and continue right through the ups and downs of everyday life.
Today doesn't mark the end of Confirmation, nor does it really mark the beginning of something although you will be receiving Holy Communion for the first time. Today rather, is a continuation of what has already begun, and looks forward in hope to what is to come! Today in Confirmation you will affirm what God is doing, has done, and continues to do in your lives. This all began when God made you his child in baptism.
When you were baptised it was not only into Jesus' death, but also his resurrection! When Pauls says to you, Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!" He's saying rejoice in Lord's death always furthermore rejoice in his resurrection. Or, rejoice in your death always furthermore rejoice in your resurrection!
But rejoicing in one's death seems rather harsh. Especially when you are young and entering what many would say is the prime of your lives. Things are changing, schools are changing, where you live will change, your bodies are changing from children to young adults, both physically and mentally. So rejoicing in death goes against the grain of our thinking.
To be specific we need to realise being happy and rejoicing are two completely different things. You and I can be happy all by ourselves within one's self, but joy always happens in community looking out of one's self to something greater. True joy looks to things eternal, and leads one to view things from an eternal perspective.
Therefore, happiness never hangs around for long, because one looks into themselves for happiness. Even events around us, or from a gift we receive, all this soon fades and eventually fails because the happiness is centred on me, my emotions and feelings. Putting faith in things which cause happiness in the end will lead to hopelessness.
But joy and rejoicing are much different, in joy or with rejoicing one sees things for what they really are rather than falsely looking for happiness in things that can be equally as bad as what might seem good. We hear what Jesus did for joy...
...let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12:1–3 ESV)
Now Jesus was not happy when he went to the cross, scripture tells us of his suffering and death. Yet he went there for "the joy" set before him and was raised to the right hand of the throne of God. In himself he suffered a horrendous death but he suffered it for joy. Jesus struggled against sin to the point of death and did so in joy because now even if you are called to the ultimate sacrifice in this life, it is not an eternal death but just an earthly one.
In just a moment you will affirm your baptismal faith. This is the faith that trusts God into eternity, and in joy the Holy Spirit had given it to you. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17 ESV)
So rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice. So let the joy of Christ live in you in good times, furthermore let the joy of Christ live in you in bad times. I am not saying to put on a happy face, far from it, but carry the promise of Jesus' death and resurrection in you, letting your patience, moderation, and endurance be known to everyone. This is the steadfastness and love of God himself that allows you to stand firm, even when you are weak, worried, and cannot be happy.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4–7 ESV)
When you are tempted to worry or have doubts, rejoice because Jesus is at hand. When you feel anxious in yourself, leave trusting yourself and ask God to help, look to him, even beg him, he wants to be your God in every situation and trial of life. In your lives believe that…
"Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation." With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: "Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted. (Isaiah 12:2–4 ESV)
Here's another little song I didn't write,
"Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice,
Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice!
Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice,
Rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice!"
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, always. Amen.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

C, Advent 2 – Malachi 3:1-4 “My Messenger”

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The notice in the local paper read, "Jesus Christ appearing this Sunday morning at such and such a place and at such and such a time."
Would you be surprised God might use such a message to announce the coming of his Son to a spot near you? The advertisement is nothing grand; its text does not stand out from the other ads in the classifieds. What if God chose to send a messenger or a message in this way, how might you react on hearing or reading of his coming?
For the purpose of this exercise let's say the message is not false, but entirely true and Jesus Christ is coming to a venue near you. The words of the ad are the preparation for his coming and the way he comes is to your church this Sunday.
Excited? Scared? Perplexed? Thrilled? Perhaps you're just a bit apprehensive that he's coming, "Why's he coming to my church?" you ask yourself. "Where's he comin' from and how's he gettin' here anyway?"
Malachi receives an oracle from the Lord. He is a prophet and this oracle is a word from God; a word of burden on Malachi's heart if he doesn't pass it onto the people. It's a word or an utterance which has overcome his heart and mind. Put there by God himself to glorify God and raise the attention of those called to hear it. This word was given to lift up, stir up, sit up, shape up but also to ease, to exalt, to forgive, and help.
Malachi spoke in a time after some of the exiles returned to rebuild the temple in the days of Nehemiah and Ezra. However, the messianic age did not occur with the reconstruction of the temple. What they built was a building which stood in the shadows of the former temple of King David's and King Solomon's time.
This temple lacked the physical appearance of the former temple, and also noted was a spiritual vacancy. It seemed God no longer spoke as he had in previous times prior to their exile into the custody of the Babylonians. The Israelite's looked back to the days when God spoke through the Judges, the Priests like Samuel and Nathan, the prophets like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. God had spoken, and no one listen, and now God had stopped speaking.
Malachi was the last prophet to speak some 430 years before Christ was born. He was the last to speak on God's behalf against the perversions of popular practice. He was a lone voice echoing from the silence of God before God went completely silent for some 400 years.
Malachi's name literally means "my messenger", he was a messenger and we hear him herald the coming of two messengers, the last prophet, and then a great messenger, who himself would be the message.
"Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:1–4 ESV)
Malachi's message is harsh and sharp. They have not been treating the Lord as their God; their righteousness was not acceptable as righteousness before the Lord. They were not following God in the way he had willed them; in righteousness "to" the Lord. Their worship of the Lord was a show which God was going to test as a blacksmith would refine metals, and as a fuller would cleanse and whiten fibre for fabric.
To be clear what the washing agent was for a fuller in their day, was human urine. Not the fresh stuff, but that which was left to sit for a while so the ammonia content was stronger and better for cleaning and bleaching the fabric.
So the show was going to be refined by fire, and stood on like fibre worked in ankle deep urine. But this is only a picture of who is to come. To whom is the refiner's and the fuller's image referring?
The one to come came some 400 years after the fact. John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the refiner, the fuller.
…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:2–3 ESV)
But whom was he preparing and of whom did he proclaim? He was calling the Jews and the Israelites to repentance for their sins against the Lord. A preparation for the cleansing which was to come! This was preparation to make the people ready for the refiner, for the fuller.
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 fire. (Luke 3:16 ESV)
So Malachi left his fellow Jews with a picture of one coming to wash in the widdle of one's own waste fluid and made pure with fire to remove the impurities.
And this one is the One and Only Son of God, Jesus Christ. He has come once and he is coming again. Yet he has already put the refinement and washing process into place. And he is coming again to finish what he has started. He is coming to gather the gold and the fabric gleaming in God's glory.
Now depending on how one might look at this we might see the ammonia of urine and the fire of refinement as something to be feared. We might regret the trials and tribulations into which we're subjected and in which we suffer. But if we fall into this temptation we are like those who love wearing dross rather than silver or gold; who seek to swim in the proverbial piddle and poop that comes our way in this life rather than those who wear the white garments to come out of the process.
On the other hand, Christ encourages his children, those who trust him, those who look forward in faith, enduring and persevering under the refiners and fullers of this life as a preparation of that which is to come. An eternity of silver and gold, wearing robes of righteousness as white and as bright as our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!
For we are told… when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (Titus 3:4–8 ESV)
Therefore the refiner's fire and the fuller's soap, no matter how crude they may seem are only agents of cleansing and hope for those focused on Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus has been submerged into the fuller's fluid and fired with the refiner's fires in the place of all those who trust in him.
The message may not be written in the paper, that Jesus is coming to such and such a place at such and such at time. But it is written on paper, in the Word of God. He has been coming and has come amongst us when we gather in the Triune name, and in his word to hear this teaching and promise of salvation and refinement. Therefore, those who take their garments soiled in sin can make them as white as snow by washing them in the blood of Jesus.
You see Jesus has been baptised by the Holy Spirit into his ministry of the cross and with fires of hell itself on Good Friday, so that the trials and temptations in your life might test us so we trust all the more the putrid and pungent plight of Christ being washed and refined for you, cleansing you this Sunday and every time the Holy Spirit calls and gathers us into Jesus' presence.
Jesus is my messenger and he is the message, I pray he is yours too. Amen.