Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Crosses and Losses

Readings

Matthew 16:21-28
Isaiah 53:1-6

Introduction

Have you ever come to a settled conclusion about something and then discovered that things were not as you expected them to be?  I had young friends who rightly believed that life would be wonderful when they were married but then found out that there was a whole lot of change and readjustment to experience.  For instance, she grew up in a home where dirty washing was placed in a linen basket, he grew up in a home where dirty washing was put in the washing machine – big problem!  And then there's the toilet seat issue – should you leave it up or down?  I try to be even handed about this by leaving the seat and the lid down!

For another example, my wife and I had a rescue dog for a number of years.  He'd been quite well trained but had issues that presented us with problems at times, but we loved him and enjoyed him to the end of his life.  A few years later, we decided we would really enjoy having another dog, but this time we would get a puppy so we could avoid issues, having done the training ourselves.  Boy, did we get that wrong!  Dogs have minds of their own!  Eventually, we're seeing the benefits of our efforts, so our decision may yet be a good one for us, but it's a long way short of our pre-conceived expectations—and there a different issues this time around!

Our New Testament reading today is about setting expectations right.  Matthew was a Jew writing for a Jewish Christian community, showing that Jesus is Messiah in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies, and correcting Jewish expectations, helping them to understand.  I want to use this passage to help us understand something of

  • Messiah's Unexpected Sacrifice
  • Messiah's Expectation of his Disciples
  • Messiah's Expected Kingdom to Come

Messiah's Unexpected Sacrifice

In the passage just before our reading, Peter has had a spark of revelation.  He's had a growing understanding of who Jesus is, and suddenly the light has come on.  He's said right out loud, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus cheered him on: Well done Peter! God can really do something with people like you (I'm paraphrasing loosely, here).

Then Jesus begins to unpack something of what being Messiah actually means for him.  He's going to Jerusalem and he's going to die at the hands of the authorities then rise again on the third day.

Well, that didn't sit too comfortably with Peter's understanding of who Messiah was.  He takes Jesus aside and starts remonstrating with him:  “Never, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!”  What's going on here?  Why would Peter do that?

The Jews of the day, including Peter it seems, had certain expectations of who Messiah was and what Messiah would do.  In Daniel 7:13-14 we read, “'In my vision at night, I looked and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.  He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.  He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.'”  (NIV, 2011)

This was the Jewish, and probably Peter's, understanding of Messiah, and he would use his power to boot out the Romans and establish his never-ending kingdom.  No wonder Peter takes Jesus aside.  'You've got this wrong,' he says.  'You're the Messiah—you've just agreed so yourself.  Messiah doesn't die, he establishes a powerful kingdom!'

Then Peter finds himself on the end of a swingeing rebuke: "Get behind me Satan!"  What a put-down!  Peter's words must have hit a raw nerve for Jesus. 

Jesus lived his life on earth as a man.  He knew that what awaited him in Jerusalem was pain beyond anything we can understand, a horrendous death, separation from his Father for the first time in all eternity.  It wasn't something he relished.  Later, in the garden of Gethsemane we see Jesus wrestling with the prospect of his ordeal, dare I say hoping for an alternative solution to the problem he came to solve.

The name Satan means adversary and Jesus saw Peter's challenge as an obstacle to his mission—it appealed to his human instinct for self-preservation.  Was Jesus addressing Peter or Satan?  If Peter, then he was saying, 'You haven't grasped what God is doing, you're just looking at things from human point of view.'  If Satan, 'You've tried to get me to avoid the cross before but what God is doing cannot be achieved in any human way.'

In the next part of our reading, Jesus poses a rhetorical question: "What can anyone give in exchange for their soul?"  The implication is that there's nothing we have that we can give.  We cannot save ourselves – but we all need to be saved.

Jesus knew that he had to go to Jerusalem and die; only he could be given in exchange for our souls.  As we read in Isaiah 53, "… he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."

This is why Messiah had to go to Jerusalem, be killed and rise again.  If he had not, there would be no salvation for us.  We all need to be saved, and, because of what Jesus did, all of us can be saved.

Messiah's Expectation of his Disciples

We all have expectations of what to experience as a Christian.  Some people think of God as the Great Fixer in the Sky—someone who will solve all our problems for us.  But I've found that God hasn't removed all the obstacles from my life.  Now there may have been obstacles removed before I became aware of them, but the ones I've encountered have been real and challenging.  What God has done is use my difficulties to shape me, and to teach me trust and reliance. 

Last Sunday on the news there was a report about the floods in Texas; it included people who had been caught up in the floods and who said they prayed to God a lot and were rescued and were thankful to God.  Nothing wrong with that, and who of us wouldn't pray and be thankful in those circumstances?  But we have to remember there are Christians in Syria who are as much victims of the conflict there as anyone else; Coptic Christians in Cairo were killed when their church was bombed; in China, Russia and other Communist lands, and in Muslim lands, Christians have been persecuted and have died for their faith.

In our land, we're fortunate not to have faced these extremes.  So far, at least; although the way public opinion is moving further and further away from godly standards, there's no guarantee of our avoiding persecution in coming days.  But, even now for us, there's a cost to everyday discipleship.
Jesus told his followers then, and Matthew's readers, and us today, that to be his disciple we must
  • deny ourselves,
  • take up our cross, and
  • follow him.
Jesus was somewhat radical in his teaching, and these are really challenging words!  We can't ignore them, so how can we understand them?

Denying ourselves is not about becoming ascetics, it's not about going without, or giving up chocolate for Lent.  It's about putting God's kingdom first; it's about loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; it's about loving our neighbour as ourselves; it's about loving each other in the same way that Christ has loved us.  Denying and loving God and others are two sides of the same coin.

The imagery of taking up your cross would have been understood by the disciples and Matthew's readers; many would have seen prisoners carrying out their crosses to a place of execution—the Romans didn't do crucifixions in private.  In effect, Jesus was saying, be prepared to go out and die.  For many in the early church that was literally true: think of Nero's persecution of Christians in Rome.  Down the ages, even in modern times, as I've already mentioned, some of God's children have been called on literally to lay down their lives for their faith.

This is the ultimate act of self-denial.  That thought gives us a way to understand what it means for us here, in our society.  To go out and die means to deny ourselves in the way I've already explained, while earnestly praying, 'don't put us to the test but deliver us from evil.' 

To follow Jesus kind of means the same thing again: to deny our own way of living and to really live out Christ's teaching and example.  In John 8:31, Jesus is recorded as saying, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free"  (NIV, 2011). His ways lead us to freedom and the knowledge of salvation.  Denying ourselves seems negative but it actually leads us to a better life.

All these are set against our instinct for self-preservation.  Looking at Christ's words in verses 25 and 26 of our passage, our instinct is a very dangerous thing.  And as the well-known prayer of St Francis reminds us: 'It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.'

These concepts are not foreign to us as Methodists.  Here are some of the words from our Covenant service, MWB p288  "I am no longer my own but yours.  Your will, not mine, be done in all things, wherever you may place me, in all that I do and in all that I endure; when there is work for me and when there is none; when I am in trouble and when I am at peace.  Your will be done when I am valued and when I am disregarded; when I find fulfilment and when it is lacking; when I have all things and when I have nothing.  I willingly offer all I have and am to serve you, as and where you choose…"

Let's not pretend that any of this is easy.  Everyone gets it wrong somewhere along the way; I certainly have, and I guess there are one or two here who would confess that they have too.

For those of us who have known failure, Peter's story is so encouraging.  Here he is, having recognised Jesus for who he is.  Soon, we hear him saying he'll die rather than disown Jesus, perhaps having remembered the words of Jesus we're thinking about today. Then his instinct for self-preservation kicks in and he disowns Jesus, not once but three times! 

But Peter isn't thrown on the scrapheap – God hasn't finished with him!  He's restored, he takes up the ministry Christ assigned to him, and he fulfils the potential Christ saw in him.  Tradition has it that Peter did eventually die on a cross for his faith.  But
  • God turned Peter around.
  • God can turn each and every one of us around. 
  • He hasn't finished with us yet!
Now let's turn briefly to the third point.

Messiah's Expected Kingdom to Come

In the last part of our passage, Jesus explains why it's important we live by his teaching.  Because Peter was right for the long run: there will be an eventual fulfilment of the Jewish Messianic hope and the Son of Man will come and establish his never-ending kingdom.  That's both good news and bad news.  Bad news because there will be those who think they've gained the whole world only to discover they've forfeited their souls.  Good news because it'll bring the promised reward for Christ's followers, their full and final and absolute salvation!

Summary

Jesus was radical in the way he lived and the things he said.  The words we've thought about today are deeply challenging.

We're called to be disciples, and to be a disciple is to deny oneself.  We're not all called to do great exploits but we are all called to be faithful. 

If we've failed up to now, we can find forgiveness and get started again, like Peter did, because Messiah died for us and rose again.

When I was preparing this the other day, as I typed out the words from Isaiah 53 my heart thrilled at what Jesus had done for me.  Death by crucifixion was an awful, gruesome thing and it cost him more than we'll ever know; but it means we can look forward, full of hope, for the coming of his kingdom. 

When we think of all that Jesus achieved, his cross takes on a wonder that both challenges and inspires us to live lives worthy of our Saviour.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Kingdom of God

Reading

Luke 17:11-37

Introduction

In the short period leading to the recent election, we've seen quite enough of politicians sidestepping the questions they were asked.  They seem incapable of giving us straight answers!  The outcome of the election perhaps shows that we're clever enough to notice what they're up to.  But are they clever enough to notice that we've noticed?

In the passage we've listened to, the Pharisees asked a direct question of Jesus, and he seemed, on first impression, not to answer directly.  Certainly, his answer wasn't what they expected.  But his answer was truthful, to the point, and gave them something to think about.  We can see this in verses 20 and 21, where we read, "Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, 'The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst.'".

The Pharisees' question: When will the kingdom of God come?
The Lord's answer, paraphrasing loosely: Your expectations are wrong; the kingdom is already here!

I want us to think today about what the kingdom of God is, how it works, and why we need it.  We'll do that with three headings to guide us:

  • Exploring the kingdom of God
  • Demonstrating the kingdom of God
  • Responding to the kingdom of God.

Exploring the Kingdom of God

The Jews expected God's kingdom to be established in physical form in the land of Israel, booting out the Romans and bringing them freedom under God as their only king.

They couldn't fail to be impressed by the ever-present display of Roman power and order, which served to enforce the absolute authority of the emperor.  Perhaps they imagined the kingdom of God to be much like that, but more powerful, deployed in their favour, and sweeping away all their enemies.  But when would that happen?

Jesus spoke on numerous public occasions about the kingdom of God, so he was the obvious person to have a view on when the kingdom would come.  So the Pharisees went and asked him.  There's no hint of any attempt to catch Jesus out in his words, so perhaps they were genuinely interested in his answer.

Were they puzzled or confused by his answer?  In effect, he tells them that the kingdom of God isn't  about powerful shows of dominating force, nor is it found in any geographical location.  In our modern way of thinking, we have the idea that God's kingdom is up there somewhere where God lives—but even that idea is ruled out by the Lord's answer.

Jesus tells them—and us!—that the kingdom of God is “in your midst.”  He wasn't telling the Pharisees that the kingdom was within their sect.  Looking more closely into the language used, we could translate his words as saying that the kingdom of God is “within your grasp.”  This fits in nicely with what Jesus says in Matthew 4:17 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

These ideas would've been a great encouragement to early Christian readers of Luke's gospel, spread around the Roman world as they were.  The kingdom of God was present wherever they were—and they belonged to it!

We all like to belong.  Our families give us a sense of belonging—that's not always a comfortable sense, is it?  We see church as a kind of family—and, let's be honest, that isn't always comfortable either!  Others see church as a kind of social club—and, obviously, there is society among us that helps us feel we belong.  But the kingdom of God isn't just a family, or a society—it's not even church as we experience it!  It's not a human institution cobbled together by like-minded people.  It's not something that we can bring about by our own efforts.  It's literally God's kingdom—it originates with him and he's made it accessible to anyone and everyone!  In sending Jesus, he's placed it “within our grasp!”

Our modern-world view of kings and kingdoms is very different from the ancient world's view.  Back then, Kings had authority.  They ruled.  These days, monarchs are largely notional figures: heads of state with no or little real power.  Our own queen, for example, reigns—and has done wonderfully for many years—but she doesn't rule.  We can't understand God's kingdom by imposing our modern views on it.

God is king in the ancient sense, not the modern—but he's a benevolent king.  He doesn't demand that we struggle and strive to attain his kingdom, he sends it right down among us so that we can find it and discover his fantastic love and grace for ourselves, and know that we belong whatever our circumstances.

The kingdom of God comprises all people who live willingly under the reign and rule of God.  People who are disciples of Jesus.  People who abandon their own ways to live as God requires: doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly in relationship with God.  People who pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—and mean it, to the extent that they actively engage with finding and doing his will.

The kingdom is within our grasp.  Have you grasped it?

Demonstrating the Kingdom of God

Jesus told the Pharisees that the kingdom of God isn't something that can be observed.  It's not like an army arrayed on a battlefield, or a geographical state we can pinpoint on a map.  But, quite clearly, God's kingdom is demonstrable, and Jesus went about making the kingdom evident and close at hand to all he met.  We can see that in the story of the ten lepers.  They came to Jesus and he healed them—that was pretty amazing!  One of them—a Samaritan for goodness sake!—discovered he was healed and came back to Jesus, thanking him and praising God in a loud voice!  Luke makes a point of mentioning that the man was a Samaritan: the kingdom can touch anyone, even the despised Samaritans; it wasn't just for the Jews!  Who might we see today as despised social outcasts?  Well, the kingdom of God is within their grasp too!

We heard of a modern-day example of the kingdom being made visible in the film clip [https://youtu.be/iXwmoypOHKw] we watched earlier.  Let me remind you of the salient points.
  • Joanna and Julian had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and once that had seen a successful outcome, they went to God in prayer to find out what they should do next.
  • They eventually heard about the terrible conditions in Pollsmoor Prison, with 279 acts of violence in one year.  They realised that this wasn't God's will.
  • So they visited the prison every day for a year, and introduced a very ordinary programme: bible studies and prayer meetings.
  • In the following year there were only 2 acts of violence, and just 8 the year after that.
  • What was their secret? recognising that God was already present in the prison; his kingdom was already within the grasp of the prisoners.  All they had to do was make God and his kingdom visible.
Take careful note how this was discovered in prayer, through spending time in God's presence; and our circuit leadership has been encouraging us to do that.  There's a world of a difference between, on the one hand, asking God to bless our ideas and, on the other hand, finding out what he wants to do and then becoming a blessing to others by engaging with his will.

How do we demonstrate the presence of God's kingdom?  The point has been made on numerous occasions that completing our “Room to Grow” building project was not the final goal.  Now that we have room, it's time for us to grow!  How do we do that?  Just what is God's will here in Wylam?  How do we make the kingdom visible?  We, too, like Joanna and Julian, need to pray, to seek out his will.

But there are some things we already know about.  For example, Jesus said, “A new command I give you: love one another.  As I have loved you, so must you love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn 13:34-35 NIV).  It's God's will that we love each other so much that the people around us take notice.  And, while we're at it, we can let that love overflow to them!

God has a plan for us.  He wants to make that plan known to us.  He has things in mind for us to do that make his kingdom visible.  It need not be complicated, and we can begin with prayer and by loving each other even better than we already do, and grow from there; and if God throws in some miracles along the way . . .

Responding to the Kingdom of God

The kingdom is in our midst, it's within our grasp.  But it's important that we grasp it for ourselves. It's been made available to us because it's something we desperately need.

All of us are in need of the salvation that comes with God's kingdom; we can none of us save ourselves.  All of us are offered the gift of salvation found only in God's kingdom.  All of us who grasp the kingdom, and live under God's rule, can know for certain that we are saved.  All in the kingdom can be saved to the uttermost, transformed to be like Jesus.

Right now, the door to the kingdom is open.  But this is a time-limited offer.  In the latter part of our reading, Jesus gave his disciples a fuller answer to the Pharisees' question.  There will be a time when Christ returns and the kingdom appears in power.  At that time there'll be a clear distinction between those who are on the inside and those on the outside.  At that point, the door will be closed. 
Christ may not come in our lifetime but, at the end of our lives, we'll certainly be held to account by God.  Are we on the inside or the outside?

The kingdom is within our grasp!  So how do we enter?  First of all, it requires a step of faith, a decision to trust in Jesus for forgiveness and the free gift of salvation, and with the rest of your life.  Secondly, Jesus told people to repent.  That's a total change of direction.  It means to recognise our need of forgiveness, to abandon our own ways, our own thoughts, and to follow Christ.  Living in the kingdom means learning to live under God's law of love. It's a lifetime's pilgrimage of discovery.

If you've not yet responded to God's offer of a place in his kingdom, today would be a good day to respond!

Summary

It's important to have a proper understanding of what the kingdom of God is and what it means for our lives.  As the Pharisees demonstrated for us, you can be as religious as you like and completely miss the point!

The kingdom of God may not be observable, as Jesus said, but neither is it invisible!  Our main response to God's grace in our lives is to discover and live out his will, and so make the kingdom evident in the world around us.

Salvation is found only within the kingdom of God.  God hasn't put this beyond our reach;  he's put it within our grasp so that anyone can find it and benefit from it.

Let's grasp the kingdom and live our lives so that others can see it and grasp it for themselves!