Thursday, January 29, 2015

In the Presence of God

When I was in Tasmania last year, my son and his wife arranged a ceremony in which they presented their newborn Son to God, through the arms of another couple of Salvation Army officers.

It was a lovely ceremony in which Davey was handed over to David and Sarah, soon to be officers in the Salvation Army.  David and Sarah held Davey, said a prayer of blessing over him and then gave him back to his parents.  Not all that different from what we do – but without water.  They even had God Parents.

Our Gospel text today is generally referred to as The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple.  We read it recently – on the Sunday after Christmas to mark the naming and circumcision of Jesus a week after his birth.  This is an event that marks the act of purification women can take 40 days after the birth of a child.  We don’t much like those ideas these days, but it is interesting that in the Bible the number 40 comes up again and again, and generally relates to a period of formation.  We will start another one soon – Lent or the 40 days before Easter.

There are many layers of meaning in this story from which we can take our thoughts – the challenge always is what shall we consider today?

Let’s start with a question:  How do we respond to being in the presence of God?

When we think of the word “Presentation” which we use as part of the title for this story, we think of a number of situations where what you see is less important than what lies behind it.  When I went to the doctor, presenting with unbearable pain in my right leg that does not respond to the normal physiotherapy or medicines, he looked deeper into things and found a tumour in my spine – in the middle of my back.  I had no pain in my back.

So, when this little baby boy was “presented” in the temple some of the other key people in the story saw more than just a baby boy.

Simeon, the old man who spent a great deal of time in the Temple courts immediately recognised more than just a baby.  As his first response he gave thanks to God.  He recognised he was in the presence of the Promised One and he thanked God for it.  Simeon had been living in expectation of meeting this One on the strength of God’s promise to him.

Then he blessed Joseph and Mary and gave Mary a word of knowledge about the future that lay ahead of her son.  In some ways there was a sense of foreboding in this.  The suffering and trouble he announced was not really good news, was it?

Then there was that other old person, Anna, the prophetess.  She also recognised that this was more than just your everyday little boy.  She recognised that he was the Promised One, and like Simeon, she praised God, but she did more.  She told everyone who would listen to her about this child.

Now these events were not without an effect on Joseph and Mary.  They were amazed by what both Simeon and Anna had said and I am sure that it deepened their natural sense of love for their first-born child.

So, let’s go back to my opening question:  How do we respond to being in the presence of God?

You have come here today to be in the presence of God.  Well, I have to tell you, God is here.

Did you come expecting to hear something from God about something that is a particular worry for you?

Did you come hoping that you would catch a glimpse of God?

Did you come with a sense of thanksgiving for what you have already experienced of God?

Did you come here as an expression of love and joy in what you have already experienced of God?

Friday, January 23, 2015

God's Grace is Offered to all.

Last week, Oliver reminded that it is God who comes to us – who offers his grace and power for transformation to all.

The readings today in some senses restate this, but I would like to explore just one aspect of it with you this morning – and I am going to use the story of Jonah to unpack this.

Those of us who had the benefit of Sunday School when we were children will surely know the story of Jonah.  If we didn’t we probably have difficulty finding which few pages of the Bible it is told on.

So let me do a little story-telling to set the scene.

The Lord appeared to Jonah and gave him a mission – “Go to Nineveh and tell the people there to turn their lives around towards God.”

It is obvious to anyone that Jonah was not pleased with this.  Either he thought the Ninevites were a lost cause (a bit like the Samaritans of later times) or he knew exactly how much trouble this mission would get him in.

So, what does he do?  Nineveh is a city in Mesopotamia and is probably in the eastern most areas of the known world.  Jonah, however, goes to the coastal city of Joppa and catches a boat to Spain, to the western most limits of the known world.

He was running away from it, not doing it.

While he is at sea, God deals with him in an extraordinary way.  He is swallowed up by a big sea-creature and spent three days and three nights thinking about things.  In Australian language we would say he was “having a good hard look at himself.”

The treatment worked.  Jonah decided he would do as God asked and the sea creature released him. 

So God restates the mission, as we read today, and Jonah sets out to tell the people they have 40 days to repent.

Much to Jonah’s surprise, the people do repent.  Even the King issues a national edict to repent.  And God relented from the threatened punishment.

This made Jonah mad – I really like his explanation to God about this.  “I told you this would happen,” he said.  “This was why I was running away to Spain.  I knew you are a loving and merciful God, always patent, always kind, and always ready to change your mind and not punish.”

This is really a rather amazing thing to say.

The last part of the story is a little bit of an object less from God for Jonah, saying that Jonah should care as much about the 120,000 lives that would have been lost in Nineveh if he had not done as God asked him to do.

So, what do you make of this story?

Is it a lesson to us all that we have to do what God tells us to do – or else!!!?  I don’t think so.

You remember when we embarked on this season of Epiphany I reminded you that this season was about celebrating that the grace and revelation of God in Jesus was for all humanity, not just the Jews? 

At times, we Christians can get the idea that this is the great new dimension that Christianity brought to eh Family of God.  Certainly, if you read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 3 in particular, you get the idea that this offering of God’s grace to the Gentiles was the final revelation of what had been a great mystery.

Yet here, in this ancient story of Jonah, there is a very obvious hint to the Israelites, that God’s grace and mercy is for all people – not just the Jews. 

The Wise men saw and recognised God’s grace and mercy in the child Jesus, whom they had searched for.  The people of Nineveh, when they heard the call of Jonah to repent or be destroyed, recognised the gracious offer of God to save them if they repented – turned their lives around.  So this is an Old Testament Epiphany Story.

This story is a reminder to us that there is no-one who can be regarded as unworthy of God’s grace and mercy.  Being part of this church is not about how good you are or can be.  Being part of this church is simply about recognising how unworthy each one of us is – we do not deserve this.  It is enough to make the self-righteous Jonah’s of this world really mad.  And it is this unworthiness that is the great leveller in the church.  We are all in the same boat.  That is what we mean when we speak of the Church being INCLUSIVE. 

Everyone is welcome in this Kingdom, because it is by God’s grace that we are saved, through faith.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Come and See Jesus

This sermon was preached by Oliver Yangi - a Theological Student on placement in the parish.

Praise be to God and he is excellent all the time .

It is great that we are in the house of the Lord.

Today, we are looking at this passage from John 1:43-51 and begin to think about what it means to follow Jesus.

I suppose, in a sense, every sermon is about what it means to follow Jesus but there are four aspects I want to draw on this morning out of the dialogue and interactions in this story that John records for us.

And the story is set for us as Jesus decides to head for Galilee and thats when the encounter with Philip begins.

The first point we notice is actually very easy to miss. Right at the start of the story, John says: Jesus found Philip. If you go to any book shop and look in the spirituality section, you will find autobiographies of people who have devoted themselves to the spiritual life through the years. And very often, they write about how they spent many years seeking out a spiritual leader to follow. They may have tried out the ideas of gurus, or philosophers, they may have sat at the feet of great preachers and wise teachers trying to decide who to follow.

But that is not the same for us as Christians: that is not even an option because, as John says, Jesus found Philip. Philip didn’t find Christ. Christ found Philip. The truth at the heart of the Christian story is not that you and I have found Christ but Christ has found us.

We did not decide for God but he knocks at the door of our hearts and is you to open  it for him or not.

Although God calls for us, it is your own decision to follow him or not.

And the narrative that runs throughout the Bible is of a God who constantly seeks out his people. And thats the case right from the beginning of Scripture. Let us never think that we chose God: he has chosen us! As Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:4: For he chose us in him before the creation of the world…” eg, Abraham, Moses and many others.

And this is important because the knowledge that God has sought us out rather than vice versa is crucial in keeping us humble before God. Even our own faith is not our own decision!

And once Jesus finds Philip, he issues a single command: Follow me”. We put  Jesus as number one in our lives: that is what is demanded of us as Christians.  Philip is compelled to follow Jesus and leaves all else behind: his work, his family, his possessions, his ambitions. It all has to go when we follow Christ. We get a new experience.

I once heard a great youth worker teaching us about discipleship and he said this: If a young person says, Can I be a Christian and still have a boyfriend?the answer is No. Can I be a Christian and still enjoy a drink?the answer is No. Can I be a Christian and still go clubbing?the answer is No.  Not because there is anything inherently wrong with boyfriends or alcohol or clubbing: there isn’t anything wrong with these. But there is something inherently wrong with a question thats phrased: Can I be a Christian and still dot dot dot?A question that is phrased like that suggests that the enquirer wants to follow Jesus but still keep something back, some part of their life, for themselves, and that is the problem

Jesus, when he calls us to follow him does not give us any Get-Out clauses: as someone once said He is Lord of all, or not at all. Following Jesus is a radical commitment that demands every aspect of our being. Of course we get it wrong from time to time and fall short of the ideal but the intention of radical discipleship should always be before us.

Second, we notice what Philip did when he set out to follow Jesus. Did he go on an Alpha Course? No. Did he join a church? No. Did he get baptised? No. The first thing he did, according to John, was find his brother Nathanael and tell him about Jesus! The first rule of being a disciple of Jesus is very simple: tell other people about Jesus!( which is the 1st mark of the five  Diocese mission plan: to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God.

And what is so lovely, I think, is that Philip didnt have any great learning and yet he was really effective in being an evangelist for Jesus. Ive just said how God finds us, not the other way round. But look what Philip says to Nathanael: We have found him about whom Moses in the law wrote…” Well, Philips theology isnt very good: Jesus found him, he didnt find Jesus! But, nevertheless, he is effective in bringing Nathanael to Jesus.

So often, we think we cant tell other people about Jesus because we dont know enough or we dont know our Bibles well enoughbut none of that matters. We dont need to be theologians to be effective. We just need to tell people about our christian experience and be passionate for Jesus, and he will do the rest!

Thirdly, to be a follower of Jesus means keeping on going despite the knocks. Nathanaels response to Philip is not particularly encouraging, is it? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?Philip had come running over to Nathanael, passionate about sharing this good news about Jesus, only to be met with a really cynical response.

Sometimes, when we tell people about Jesus, we are met with cynical responses or rudeness or apathy and it can be really discouraging and it can knock our self-confidence. But when it happened to Philip, he didnt get into some theological debate about the merits of Nazareth as a geographical region or its place within the salvation history of Israel or anything like thatHe just said to Nathanael, Come and see!And, when it comes to evangelism, thats all we need to keep saying: Come and see!”  We don’t need to get involved in heavy theological debates. “Dont take my word for it. Come and see!and let God do the rest.

Now, there is a real challenge to us here in Holy Cross as a church because today, I want to ask this  rhetorical question for us to answer: if people do Come and see, what will they find? Will people receive a warm welcome here? Will they get a sense of God changing lives? Will they have an experience of worship that gives them access to God? Will they go away with a sense of excitement that something is happening here? Is Jesus at the centre of Holy cross? If they come and see, will they meet with God? All good questions for us to ponder as our Diocese Mission Action Plan unfolds.

To me, I think we have something special here in holy cross. It is not by chance that we have such a vibrant ministry with young families. Therefore we need to go ahead to invite people to come and see. Second, to help make their experience fulfilling. Those who are befrienders, welcomers, morning tea providers, childrens craft helpers, readers, intercessors, liturgical assistants and group leaders are all enhancing and enriching our experience of worship, teaching and fellowship, helping make them inspirational and meaningful. Something worth inviting people to come and see.

Remember :-

Being a disciple means being found by God.

Being a disciple means telling others about him.

Being a disciple means not losing confidence when the message is not always welcomed.

Fourthly and finally: Being a disciple means receiving peace and blessing from God.
Jesusresponse to Nathanael is very interesting indeed. Lets look at this part of the passage: When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!Nathanael asked him, Where did you come to know me?Jesus answered, I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’” Now, theres two things to be said here:

First, is to do with the word ‘see. Philip had said to Nathanael, Come and see!And the word he used for ‘seehad to do with use of the eyes: we look and we see something. But twice the word ‘seeis used with regard to Jesus in this passage: Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him…” and I saw you under the fig tree…” And on both those occasions, there is a different word for to seeused than the one Philip used.

On both occasions, the word used has nothing to do with physical sight through the eyes but speaks of perception instead.
Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him that is to say, he saw into Nathanaels heart as he approached and recognised him for who he truly was. It is only Jesus who can see our heart and know who we are.

And secondly, we read Jesuswords that, I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called youwhich suggests that Jesus knew of Nathanael before this encounter - not in a physical sense of having seen him before - but in a more spiritual sense of having had his hand on Nathanaels life before that encounter from all eternity.

Yes, Jesus Christ had found Nathanael, just as he had found Philip even though both Philip and Nathanael thought they had found Jesus. And there is a real sense of peace that we can derive from the knowledge that God has had his hand on us even from before we became aware of him.

But secondly, it is interesting that Jesus says: I saw you under the fig tree. That is a phrase that is used three other times in the Bible: 1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4; Zechariah 3:10. For example from 1 Kings – “During Solomons lifetime Judah and Israellived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig-tree. And each time that phrase is used, sitting under the fig-tree is a symbol of living in the peace and blessing, which an obedient relationship which God provides.

And so, in this passage from John, Jesus perceives in Nathanael the obedience of a well lived Jewish life. He says, Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!meaning that Nathanael has known the peace and blessing of God on his life. But, in a relationship with Jesus, there is even more for Nathanael to receive: far more than obedience to the Jewish law could ever give him. Jesus says to him: Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.I think Jesus is commending him for having been an obedient Jew but he is calling Nathanael into a deeper place of peace and blessing through a relationship with him.

And, as Christians, we know that peace and blessing can only derive from our relationship with Jesus. The more we allow Jesus to be the centre of our lives, the more we know peace in our hearts.

So this is seemingly a very simple passage; a lovely story about the calling of Philip and Nathanael. But it is full to the brim with deep teaching on the nature of discipleship

We did not choose God he chose us from all eternity.

We are called by him primarily to tell others about the good news of Jesus.

We are not to be discouraged by the response we may get from others but trust that an encounter with God will be life-changing for them too.
We are called into a life of peace and blessing with God: Jesus sees us, he knows everything about us and perceives our deepest needs and, if we follow him, as he says to Nathanael [we] will see heaven opened…”

Jesus Christ is, indeed, a Saviour to be followed and it is a lifetimes work for us to live out these two simple instructions: Follow me!” “Come and see!

Today, we follow.  Today, we come and we will see.

May God almighty fill us with his spirit and give us courage to do and reach out his word in Holy Cross and the community around!  Amen.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

God Approaches Us

The many different traditions of Christianity reflect diverse understandings of how we might apprehend God in our journey of faith.  The selections of Scripture in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Second Sunday after Epiphany give us glimpses of four different ways God approaches us.
The story in 1 Samuel 3 of God calling the young lad Samuel show us an example of God approaching us in silence.  Our modern world cannot cope with silence.  We fill silence with all sorts of noise.  I smile at people walking along the beach with ear pods in their ears - obviously listening to something, but ignoring the joyous noise of the seaside surrounding them.  But there are times when we  need to relax into silence.  Samuel had no problem with silence.  It was part of his world.  It was in his night-times of silence that God spoke to him, not in the busy routines of temple life in the daytime.
Speak Lord - Samuel
Silence is one of the ways in which God can approach us, address us, soothe us, stir us, call us, and renovate us.  In the silence the Word can speak.  Because silence does not come readily in our noisy, frenetic world, it takes self-discipline to create space and silence in our lives.  If we are not inclined towards self-discipline, then let us not complain about the apparent absence of God.  Silence cannot be found without some effort on our part. - Bruce Prewer.
The Psalms often give voice to the presence of God in creation.  Psalm 139 is perhaps a supreme example.  In this Psalm we are reminded that there is nowhere on earth that will remove us from the presence of God.  God is found not just in sacred places but everywhere.  It celebrates the intimacy of God's  involvement in our own creation and God's knowledge of our innermost thoughts.
Psalm 139 does not argue the case.  It celebrates it.  It is like a grand creed of delight in God’s willingness to seek us out everywhere.  Whether we recognise it or not, God will always be with us.  Nowhere is too far, no place is too humble, no situation too dark, no circumstance too secular.  God approaches us everywhere. - Bruce Prewer.
One of the consequences of the incarnation is explored by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians in the 6th chapter. He describes our bodies as "a temple of the Holy Spirit."  This metaphor suggests that as gods dwell in temples, here we see that our God dwells within us.  
In this Christianity diverges from those religions and religious practices that encourage us to dissociate ourselves from our bodies in order to experience God fully.
God does not scorn our human flesh and blood.  God approaches us through our bodily lives, chooses to reside there.  Treat bodies charitably, with respect and love.  If we want to find where God approaches, take a look within that personal temple where light and darkness wrestle for supremacy, and where light refuses to give up. - Bruce Prewer.
The Apostle John opens his Gospel with rich metaphorical language that seeks to express the unique way that God has approached humanity in the person of Jesus.  He tells some stories after this prologue in his first chapter which declare in no uncertain terms that in this man, God has come among us.  The gathering disciples encourage their friends to "come and see!"  Jesus' encounter with Nathanael is perhaps most striking for the explicit language given in the voice of Nathanael, declaring Jesus to be the presence of God among them.
For Christians, God’s incomparable approach is through Jesus.  Nothing equals this.  Nothing is more certain, or more reliable.  The words and deeds, and the unique person of Jesus, have been for many generations a veritable highway for the coming of God into human experience. - Bruce Prewer.
God does approach us in this world and in this life.  The most important work of our Journey of Faith is perhaps cultivating eyes and ears, hearts and minds that we open and receptive this recognizing these approaches of God and responding to them.  
These thoughts were distilled from a sermon by Bruce Prewer for this Sunday, the second after Epiphany in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Second-Chance Living

I usually listen to the radio when I drive my car.  On Friday morning I heard an interview on Radio National.  They were speaking to an Australian Lawyer living in Tel Aviv in Israel. 

More than 20 years ago Gidon Bomberg founded an organisation called Eco-Peace Middle East.  Through this organisation he is creating local peace between people in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  He persuades them to put aside some of their political interests so that they can work together to protect their most valuable common resource – water. 

Water is a common theme in the stories we have read from the Bible today.  In the very beginning the world was covered by raging waters.  In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel he tells us about Jesus and John and the River Jordan.

Water is a very powerful image.  In our Old Testament Texts, and some of the NT ones as well, raging water is a fearsome thing.  It is dangerous.  It is something that can kill us.  That is why they use the imagery of God holding the waters back – to keep the people safe from its destructive power.

Yet we also know that water is a powerful symbol of life.  If people in desert places can access water they can grow things.  They can grow food to keep themselves alive.

The imagery of death and life are also bound up in water baptism.  Paul reminds us that we are “buried with Christ in baptism.”  When you think of immersion baptism, this image really works.  If the priest does not lift you up out of the water you will die.

Paul goes on to say that our emergence from the water is like a resurrection.  Under the water we were as good as dead.  Now we are alive.

But we are not just alive.  We are more than alive.

When someone has nearly died and then they get it back, they seem to live life differently – we might say more fully.  They try to make sure they get the most out of this BONUS they have been given.

This is the kind of difference all Christians should be living like.  When they are baptised it is like they have died and been given their life back.  And this new life is to be lived to the full.

Now, I am not sure about you, so I shall just speak about my personal experience.  Sometimes I forget this.  Sometimes I just live an ordinary life.  I need lots of reminders that through the water of my baptism I am really living a second-chance life.  I suspect I am not along among Christians in this.  Over the years I have seen many Christians trying to remind themselves of it often.

When we baptise someone in church we remind everyone of their own new life through baptism.

When we celebrate Easter we all renew our baptismal vows.  These remind us of the new life we have through the waters of baptism.  And the priest sprinkles us again with the blessed water.

Something you might see in some churches does the same thing – every Sunday.  In some churches the font is near the door where you come in.  The minister will always have some blessed water in that font.  When people come into church they can dip their hand in the water and be reminded of the living water we have received from Christ.  They might sign themselves with the Cross with their wetted fingers.  This is like the sign of the cross they were marked with in their baptism.

And every Sunday, when they come to church, they remember that this is their second-chance life.  They are called to live it differently.  Jesus offers us life to the fullest.

So, today, I have placed the font here at the top of the centre aisle.  I have put some water into it and blessed it.  When you come up to receive Communion you might like to take this opportunity to remind yourself in a physical way of this spiritual reality we are living in God.  Even if you do not want to take communion today you might use that time to come and remember the life you now have in Jesus because of these waters of baptism.