Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Coming to grips with Immanuel- God with Us (A christmas day reflection based on Luke 2:1-20 & John 1:1-18)

This image has been my focus for reflection this Christmas. I’ve got four Children and one of the most vivid memories I have of their births is that moment I first held them and I put my figure down to touch their little hands and their fingers closed around mine. Now I know that it is simply a grasp reflex at that stage, but it felt like a recognition and connection. The start of what has been a great adventure and joy in knowing my kids and having our relationship grow and change as they have grown and changed. Having it mature as they and hopefully I have grown and matured.

So the image behind me has all that personal stuff in it. You’ve probably got your own memories and moments that connect with it. But I’ve also used it this year to get my head round the fact that at Christmas we both celebrate the birth of a simply human baby and amazing and mind-blowing truth that as we had read out in John’s Gospel the eternal word of God, that was there before the beginnings, the one who created it all, became one of us.

When I was young we used to borrow a friend’s batch up north for Christmas Holidays and I remembered driving through Orewa on the way up north and passing the camping ground and seeing the tents all pushed up against each other, and John uses that kind of kiwi holiday image to express that God become one of us… He says the word became flesh and pitched his tent at our place. Of course for John it wasn’t camper at Orewa that he had in mind, rather, the tabernacle that accompanied Israel through there wilderness wanderings and was for them the place where God dwelt in their midst. When they became a nation, it was the temple in Jerusalem. But that God in our midst had even got closer.

God steps into a world in the grips of political unrest, in Jesus he steps right into the midst of life’s nitty gritty. Luke starts his Christmas narrative with Augustus as the roman emperor and Herod as the ruler under him in Judea. The family is forced to go to Bethlehem to register, so that taxes can be levied and collected.  He steps into a housing crisis, there is no room except a stable. God’s coming into the world is like a family living in a garage in South Auckland. There is political turmoil, in Matthews gospel which we didn’t read today ,Herod does not want a possible rival to his power so sends death squads to kill all the male children under two in Bethlehem, the Christmas stories finishes like any conflict situation event today with mothers crying for their slaughtered children  and Jesus family fleeing for safety as refugees to another land.  God’s steps into our world and come to grips with its pain and sorrow, its hardship and its joy. 

Like with my kids, Jesus born in Bethlehem grew up as well, john tells us that in Jesus we beheld God’s truth and grace. People were gripped by his teaching, about God’s love and a new of living because of it, caring for the poor, the lost and the least, the kingdom of God. They were gripped by him he reached out and welcomed back those though outside and cut-off, he reached out into sickness and bought healing.

When he was rejected by the powers to be, his hands were gripped, and nailed to a cross, a roman torture and execution device, and he died. The gospel tells us that three days later he rose from the dead and his disciples gripped him again and saw the nail prints and knew it was true. Since that time the world has found itself having to come to grips with this Jesus born in Bethlehem: his offer of forgiveness and new life lived in relationship with God through him and a call to live out his teaching by loving one another. They have to come terms with Immanuel God with us…

Well returning to the image that has been the centre of my reflections this Christmas, I find that it not only shows the reality of God becoming a human being but also that I find in my life I am gripped by Jesus Christ.

I find him gripping and compelling.

I am gripped by God’s great love for us. God’s welcoming embrace

 I am gripped by Christs rich mercy when I see my own spiritual poverty

I am gripped by Jesus death on the cross, the fact that through that all I have done is forgiven, the slate is whipped clean,

I am gripped by the offer of new life in Christ, a life of Hope, peace and joy and love. The themes that go with the advent candles we lit this morning.

 I am gripped by his teaching and its call for us to follow him and live a life full of sacrificial service and love for others, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to show compassion and grace as God’s grace has been shown in Christ.

 I am gripped by the reality of Immanuel, God with us, God’s abiding presence through the Holy Spirit, to lead and to Guide,

 I am gripped by the possibility of light in the face of the same darkness in the world today as the one Jesus was born into.

I am gripped by God’s kingdom and justice breaking into the powers of this world, not with over whelming force or shock and awe, but in kindness and compassion, humility and seeking justice. Treating all with dignity (because they are loved by God) and grace. 

I am gripped by Jesus

This Christmas hopefully the simple of image of a baby’s grip reflex helps us to come to grips with Jesus, Immanuel, God with us… That God has drawn near and become one of us, that God’s truth and grace has been revealed to us, shown in Jesus teaching his life, death and resurrection. That you might come to grips with that reality, you might now the presence of Immanuel God with us. Come to grips with who Christ is.  

How does Christ come today? (reflection on Luke 2:1-35 and Matthew 2:1-12 )

The readings we had today from Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus birth. On one level it is the story of a very human event, a woman giving birth to a baby boy. A very human event, as the birth comes at an inopportune time. Forced to travel to a town where her husband’s family was from to register, so the government could tax the people. Caught in a housing crisis where there was no room. Not even travigo.com  or any other website could have found them a suitable place. They simply have a stable, maybe in today’s world it would be a crowded garage. There is political unrest and the need for the family to become refugees for the safety of their child. It’s a birth that would fit into the many stories of similar children in disadvantaged situations we’ve seen, or experienced here in New Zealand and in the world around us, this year… but not life changing.

On another level there is something profound and divine and world changing in this birth, in the child the stories birth speaks of. There is the long-awaited hope of Israel, that God would act, here as John’s gospel says in a very kiwi Summer Christmas Holiday way ‘the word took on flesh, and pitched his tent at our place. Here in the grip of the power of Augustus of Rome and the paranoid dictatorship of Herod in Judea, God’s kingdom, steps into our world. Not with fanfares or conquering armies and over whelming power, but in a child’s birth, in a stable. We understand that because the importance of the child which Mary and Joseph call Jesus, which means saviour, is revealed to us in  and through the characters we meet in the gospels narrative: Jesus Parents, the shepherds (washing their socks by night), the wise men travelling from the east, (one on a tractor, two in a car, one on a scooter tooting his hooter)  and Simeon and Anna. They tell us the real story and in how Jesus comes to them I believe is insight into how Jesus comes to us today in our lives and our world.

We didn’t read the start of Mary’s story this morning, but Luke’s account of Jesus birth is very much Mary’s story, he has told it as she had told him.  Mary is a woman of faith, she has grown up knowing God and God’s love for his people. She has a hope for God to step in and bring his justice and mercy into the world. So while she is surprised by the angel Gabriel, her response to the amazing idea of having a baby despite being a virgin she responds “may it be to me according to your word.” When she has confirmation in meeting her older cousin Elizabeth who is also pregnant, she breaks out in this amazing song, of God’s blessing on her and the whole of humanity and the hope of good news to the poor and the lowly being lifted. Jesus becomes very real in her life, in fact it is the focus of her life. That leads her to depth of despair and death, just as Simeon had told here in our reading this morning), when she sees her son grown to a man, nailed to a cross and crucified and brings new life as she experiences the reality of who he is when he is raised to life again.

For many people Jesus comes to us in that way… People are bought up in the Christian faith, the faith of their parents, they know the bible stories, they know the reality of God, then there is a time that Jesus Christ steps into their lives and their faith and trust in him becomes their own faith, their own hope, they own it. For some it’s a process of pregnancy, growing inside us,  for others it’s as sharp as the dawning of a new day.

I was visiting a friend who is pastoring at a Methodist Presbyterian union parish and he mentioned John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, the moment when faith in Christ that has guided him all his life became so much more real and personal. John Wesley wrote of it in his dairy

 "In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." 

His faith stopped being just a belief and it became a personal reality of the grace and presence of Jesus Christ that lead to him preaching in fields and streets and great revival and social reform in England and round the world.

The shepherds know nothing of Jesus, but it is revealed to them in a profound spiritual experience. An angel appears to them and tells of them Jesus birth, Then as if the sky has simply rolled back like a theatre curtain there is an angelic army singing and proclaiming Glory to God in the highest and peace to earth’. These outcast men in their society are told the most profound truth, and they rush off to see if it true. When they see what the angel has told them is true they go hope rejoicing, something has changed, here is God’s promised salvation.

I grew up in a Christian home and went to church, but as a teenager I began to walk away from that faith and would tell everyone ‘no I am not a Christian and you can’t convince me to be otherwise. I don’t believe it’, and it was only after a profound Spiritual experience that I came to follow Jesus.  At a church camp, which I’d gone to because they were fun and all my mates were going, after a very boring preacher had spoken, he invited people to come forward and become a Christian, and at that moment it was as if the heavens opened and God was very real and very there and Said ‘Howard I want you to follow me’. I decided to become a Christian.

Many of you have had profound spiritual experiences, the key is to be like the shepherd and go and see the truth behind what you’ve experienced and find it in Jesus Christ.

The wise men come to Jesus through there exploration and understanding of the world. They  are about the wisdom of their age and they are astronomers, star gazers, precursors to the scientists of our age. They see a new phenomenon in the sky which leads them to think something special has happened, they grasp something of its significance so go to see it for themselves. They go to the authorities and the people and places that you’d think would know about such things, and while they find some guidance there they encounter someone for whom Jesus coming is odds with their own asperations and worldview, but they continue their journey and encounter Jesus. They worship him and in the gospel story it is they would proclaim that Jesus birth is not just for the people of Israel but God’s salvation for all humanity. They represent us in the story.

Jesus comes to people today as they are willing to seek and search for truth as well. I am reading CS Lewis’ memoirs ‘surprised by Joy’ and Lewis talks of his process of coming to believe in Jesus as God’s son. He was a professor of English literature at Oxford University and in his discussions of philosophy and the nature of myths and stories and truth with his good friend JRR Tolkien, Lewis talks of coming to the point of believing that the Christian myth was the real myth… later he would talk of a motor cycle ride, maybe you’ve had a similar ride, where he started not believing in Christ, but somewhere along the way he knew he believed.

The Christ who stepped into our world at Christmas time, who grew into a man and spoke of God’s kingdom and love and then was crucified and rose again, still comes into our world today in different ways, but Christ wants to make himself known to each one of us, God’s love for all humanity is at the heart of the Christmas message.  It is the best present we can hope for you this Christmas.

That might be a natural place for me to stop, but we have missed a couple of people in the  Christmas narrative.  Simeon and Anna are sort of the forgotten people of the Christmas story, they are not at the manger, they are not there because of angel choir or shining star, but they are show us how Jesus steps into most peoples lives today. Simeon and Ana are people of faith who when they encounter Jesus and the Holy Spirit reveals who Jesus is to them, just can’t help but tell everyone who will listen about the child… about Jesus. Simeon does it through a formal act of worship, he uses the words of scripture, but declares to the people gathered in the temple that this indeed is God’s salvation come into the world, and Ana Well she just tells everyone.

How does Jesus come today…  in so many different ways in people owning their own faith, through spiritual experience and the tough journey of seeking truth… but you know what Jesus chooses to come into this world through you and me… as we have encountered him  and its changed our lives and we are willing to share it. Most people come to know Jesus because friends and family members are willing to tell the Christmas and the rest of the Christ story to them.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A gift and He makes all things beautiful in his time (Ecclesiasties 3:11)

For our thirtieth wedding anniversary my wife Kris gave me a wonderful Pounamu Toki. We both really liked this particular piece with the deep green colour and the paler flecks running through it. They look like flaws in the stone, but it is those possible flaws that make the pendant stand out and speak to us.

How Pounamu is formed probably explains the colouration... The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand describes the formation process of Pounamu from a geological perspective.

Geologists have determined that nephrite and bowenite formed deep in the earth, probably at depths in excess of 10 kilometres. Hot fluids caused a chemical reaction in zones where volcanic and sedimentary rocks were in contact, which produced narrow deposits of pounamu. High-quality pounamu is usually surrounded by altered material classed as serpentine.

As the mountains of the South Island were formed over the last two million years, the narrow bands containing pounamu were lifted up to the earth’s surface. The action of rivers and glaciers released the stone from its host rock into screes, river gravel and glacial deposits. Pounamu continues to be carried into rivers and down to the sea by erosion. In the more accessible areas, any exposed pounamu has been quickly collected.

then once the stone is collected the artist carver fashions it to bring out the beauty in it. Using the skills and talents God has given him.

I've given my Toki a name (if I am allowed to do such a thing and this isn't just cultural appropriation) I've called it Ataahua which is Maori for beauty. Firstly because it reminds me of my wonderful and beautiful wife and thirty years of great marriage and companionship, which hasn't be accomplished with out its pressures and having to work hard to craft it.

But also because Ataahua is the word that appears in Ecclesiastes 3:11 at the end of the preachers list of all the seasons and times of life... affirming that God makes all thing beautiful in his time. 'I hanga e ia nga mea katoa kia ataahua i tona wa ano:' and that he has placed eternity in the hearts of man.

It reminds me to have hope in God's sovereignty and purposes. It speaks of God's  continued work in my life through Christ's presence by the Holy Spirit; shaping me, making me whole, somehow with the pain and sorrow and the strong depth that are forged in pressure into something beautiful... and a prayer that God would continue to do so and allow me to similarly like a Toki or adze be used to help speak that beauty into other peoples lives.

As a New Zealander (kiwi) I am aware that God speaks to me more and more  through the bounty, culture and artistry of this land.

I was also very honoured to have my supervisor for the past four years rev Tim Pratt bless it before I wore it. It was appropriate to have someone who had spoken into my life and had been a friend for most of my life, to do it...

Monday, December 18, 2017

Bridging the gap: Alone in a dark Universe!...Christmas tells a different story

 This is the message at a local community carols event called Glow in the Park. It's sponsored by the Maungakiekie Tamaki local board (council) and put on by local churches (Mt Wellington Community Church, Tamaki Community Church, St Peter's Presbyterian (that's us), St Matthias Anglican Panmure and Streams Methodist. You can check out the action on our facebook page. We had the gospel Christmas passages read out in five different languages with English translation on our big screen and I had the great privilege of sharing the gospel message... 

I'm not very good at taking selfies but I took one of me on the stage with everyone with their glow sticks in the audience and really managed to miss getting everyone in it... 
Can I show you the world most expensive selfie. In fact it’s the world’s most long distant selfie as well and one of the first. You’d need a real big selfie stick if you were going to use your phone to take this one… If you were born before 14th of February 1990, if you are old like me, you are probably in it.
You see as the Voyager 1 space craft exited the solar system, it preformed one last task it turned round and took a selfie for us, looking back through the solar system it took a photo of the earth from a distance of about 6 billion km’s…. It’s the one on the screen… can you see yourself in it. 
Yeah even with my glasses On I can’t…In fact the earth is less than one tenth of a pixel in this image, and it looks like it is a mote of dust caught in a beam of light. A speck in a cold dark universe. The photo is called the pale blue dot, and a famous astronomer has said that it shows how fragile and alone we are, everyone who has ever lived all we value our whole existence is on that pale blue dot. We are alone in the dark with no expectation of help. It’s a good reminder for us of our fragility and smallness as we tackle how we care for our planet and environment, but its not the whole picture. 
The Christmas story we had read out to us this evening in all those different languages, tells a different story. A story of hope and love for humanity for you and me.  
It tells the Christian belief that the God who made the universe cares about us and in Jesus, the baby in the Christmas narrative, drew near to bring light into our darkness.
It’s a message of hope…That God is not way off and distant… that somehow we simply look at the night sky and wonder if God is even there and if God is does God care. 
This is part of Michael Angelo’s painting of creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and it shows God's hand and Adams human hand almost touching. But there is a gap. And a lot of our religious activity and spiritual practices is humanities attempt to close that gap from our side.
Again Christmas tells a different story. My Wife Kris and I have four children. I remember vividly holding each of them for the first time and putting my figure out to touch their little hands and having them close around mine. That says the gospels is how close God came. God stepped into our world, God closed the gap. I love the very kiwi Christmas holidays way John’s gospel puts it… God pitched his tent at our place.
We often think of that nativity scene of Jesus birth as an idyllic hallmark moment, on the front of a Christmas card from a distant relative. But God chose to step into the midst of the nitty gritty of real life.
He was born in that very rushed trip to the place where Joseph was from. Like a Christmas dash to our family home or to get round all the relies for various meals in one day.
He was born in Bethlehem, as a result of the government wanting people to register so they could be taxed.  You can’t escape the old taxes… or the new ones.
He was born during a housing crisis, the only place available was a stable, and he had a manger as a bed, a manger is an animal’s feeding trough. The modern equivalent would be a garage, maybe some of you can relate to that. Imagine God choosing to enter the world in your garage.
He was born in the midst of political trouble, as his birth, caused the local paranoid dictator, Herod, to plot for his death, and send death squads to Bethlehem to kill all male children under two. How many children in the world today suffer because of conflict and war.
His family had to flee as refugees to another land for safety. Our world is full of similar stories today.
I know leading up to Christmas you are used to the people trying to sell you stuff, putting on the hard sell So I want to simply finish by saying. The Christmas story shows us God’s love for humanity, for you and I.  Jesus steps into the world, his life, his death and being his raised to life again is the way we can come to know God. 
 Jesus Christ can step into your world and your life, amidst all its nitty grittiness and bring hope and love and  a fresh start, if you’d simply ask.
You know as more people come to know Jesus and his love, then the Christmas story can transform this pale blue dot, we live on… in simple overlooked little things…  “like loving our neighbour, showing mercy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness and generosity.”
So may Jesus Christ draw close to you and God bless you, this Christmas.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Advent Prayer... for those on the go...

Have you ever noticed how images of advent candles are in peaceful settings? They are designed to look like they are in the quite country church or vast city cathedral at a midnight Christmas eve service... But Advent just does not seem like that. It's busy and rushed and its near the end of the year and life just seems to try and squeeze it out... even church life... This is simply an advent prayer... I started it last year and didn't have the time or energy to finish it, but I've finished it for our  'Carols, colouring in and Christmas cake' all age worship event.  It doesn't fit probably into a Church that is following through the themes of advent each week. It's sort of an advent prayer for those on the go... in the midst of a busy schedule at the end of a long year and maybe its like we are just squeezing it in. Maybe its a fight back against those things... anyway feel free to use it as your prayer or any parts of it that you find helpful. 

Sometimes it’s easy to pray LORD,

And sometimes it’s not

Sometimes our words flow like a rushing stream

Our hearts full of wonder and thanks for your great love

Sometimes it’s as if the well has dried up and there are no words

We are tired, caught in the seasonal rush, its been a long hard year

But when we turn and contemplate advent there are words

There is… Hope…Peace…Joy…and Love

Faithful God, who keeps his promises

Our hope is in you, the one who sent his only son

 Beyond our circumstance and sight, and the deep darkness of night

The light of your truth and grace has dawned in this world

‘Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe’*

In Jesus, the word made flesh, your kingdom has been established

In Christ’s life, death and resurrection, sin and death and defeated

In Spirit led love and service, God’s kingdom breaks into our world today

Prince of Peace,

In the strife within us, our brokenness and pain

Amidst the conflict that rages around us in the world

You have come to bring healing and wholeness

In Jesus Christ, you have enabled our sins to be forgiven

You call us to be one in you and love as you have loved us

You commission us to share in your ministry of reconciliation

And you send us out to be your peace makers in this world

Lord our God, who rejoices over us with singing

We find our deepest joy in who you are and what you have done

You made us for relationship with you, to know and be known

While we had turned our back on you, you reached out to us

When we turn back, you run to embrace, and heaven parties hard

You’ve poured your spirit out on us and are with us to the end.

We can have joy even in the face of sorrow, injustice and death,

Because you have overcome them and they are defeated

Father God who loves us so much

We know what love is because you first loved us

That love came as near as a baby’s hand gripping a finger

It was shown in Jesus hands reaching out to touch and heal

 hands that blessed children, and welcomed outcast

In hands nailed to a cross, for our sake, for our forgiveness

In hands examined for nail scars, raised to life again

A love that will not let us go, and calls us to go and love

Holy God, gracious saviour,

Thank you for hope… peace… joy… and love

This Christmas, O Lord, may we know the reality of them in our lives

We confess we have done wrong and left good you call us to do undone

We pray you would forgive and restore a right spirit in us

We thank you that you are faithful and just and we are forgiven

Fill us afresh with your spirit, to know you more and make Christ known

That in our hope, peace, joy and Love we may bring you glory.

* this line is from  Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn's song 'The Cry of a Tiny Babe' off the 1991 album 'Nothing but a Shining Light'... it is one of the most poetic and powerful reflections on Christmas and I have to admit I find it hard not to include it every Christmas somehow... 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The messianic hope of Psalm 132...

Psalm 132 is a royal Psalm, it is a two-part prayer for the king. It starts by looking back to the high point of Israel’s nationhood, the reign of king David. Not because Israel moved from being a collection of tribes barely eking out an existence amongst hostile neighbours to being a strong secure nation. But because of David’s passion for God and God’s dwelling place with his people.  In practical terms that is shown in David’s tireless work to bring the ark of the covenant, the symbol of God’s presence with his people up to Jerusalem and giving it a permanent home, among God’s people.

The second half of the prayer looks forward, it is a prayer for David’s descendants, for kings who would be as faithful as David and that God would keep his promise and place a descendant of David on the throne forever.  Israel’s hope was that God would be faithful to his promise.

Psalm 132 is also a psalm of ascent, it has found its way to this present place in the collection in the time of the exile and beyond, it’s part of the dog-eared hymn book of those who would go up to Jerusalem for the three great festivals. It is a prayer when Israel was conquered, and the people were in exile of the hope that God would establish his kingdom and reign again. When faced with kings who did not reflect David’s passion for God and God’s rule and reign it becomes a crying out for change and renewal, a prophetic psalm as people come to worship for justice and righteousness. The books of kings often has the tragic epitaph for king after king, that they did evil in the sight of the Lord, it’s a repeated again and again to justify God’s faithfulness to his covenant by removing the people from the land. But even then that faithfulness is Israel’s hope, God keeps his promise.

AS such psalm 132 is a messianic psalm voicing a hope that God would send someone to reign with justice and mercy. The poor would be feed, people who sought the Lord would know his rescue and salvation, that the forces that oppose God’s righteous reign would be put to shame… there influence, and power broken and destroyed.

As such Psalm 132 is an advent Psalm pointing us to the birth of Jesus Christ and the fulfilment of God’s promise. While it is only quoted twice in the New Testament, both in acts, it is echoed in the description of Jesus as one who has a passion for his father’s house, that like David who would not rest till he had done what God called him to do, not that Jesus didn’t sleep but as Jesus said ‘the son of man does not have a place to lay his head. That in his death and resurrection Jesus acted as a priest a go between God and humanity and bought about salvation. The because of Jesus there is joy. The horror of a crown of thorns has become a radiant crown of god’s love. God has faithfully kept his promise and established God’s king and his kingdom has come.

How does all of Psalm 132 connect with us here today.

Part of our spiritual journey is to pray for the powers to be, our leaders and government, it is what Paul tells the fledgling church in places like Romans 13. Maybe with a change of government there is a hope for a new age, but the focus of our prayer and our hope is not our human leaders, but their acknowledgement of God’s leading, God’s justice and God’s mercy and ultimately our hope is firmly founded what ever the government in God’s saving action in history. God’s chosen king.

It gives us a great reason to keep on celebrating Christmas, there is pressure in our pluralistic society to simply have a festive season, it doesn’t matter what you believe this is the time of year when we all get together as families and celebrate and hopefully give the economy a bit of boost as we spend, spend, spend. Some years it seems to dark to get filled with joy and be all happy, world events look dire, there is tension and misery, and conflict, personal circumstances may seem gloomy or grief stained, and the pain of loss is felt the sharpest. But just as this psalm looks back to the high point of the ark being bought into Jerusalem, we look back at the light and hope and promise of God’s ultimate victory that came into our world, when the word became flesh. AS Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn says redemption ripped through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe’. In the dark we celebrate and have hope in the light come into the world. It prophetically speaks to the dark that it has lost.

The psalm lastly invites us to have hope, our hope our joy is not in our circumstance or situation, but it is the faithfulness of God, that God can be trusted to keep his promise. In Jesus God stepped into our world, the word became flesh, God’s kingdom is established in Christ’s death and resurrection, God dwells with us by the presence of the Holy Spirt to lead and guide us and Christ will come agin to put all things right.

Lets pray

Monday, December 4, 2017

God's salvation plan: Saved to do good for the common good (Titus 3:1-15)

Our faith in Jesus Christ needs to make a visible positive difference through our actions, behavior and relationships if it is genuine.  I’m not talking about moral perfectionism we all make mistakes, we all have our faults and foibles, we all get it wrong. But if there is no discernable difference between the behavior of Christians and the Society around us, then we are either in a place that can only be described as the Kingdom of God, and Hallelujah or there is a disconnect between gospel truth and gospel living in our lives. We need to ask the question, is the church simply an extension of the culture and climate it lives in, or an expression of the Christ it claims to live for?

 “True Christianity”, Francis Schaeffer told the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in 1974, “produces beauty as well as truth. If we do not show beauty in the way we treat each other, then in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of our own children, we are destroying the truth we proclaim.”

We are working our way through what are known as the pastoral epistles, and in particular Paul’s letter to Titus. Looking at what Paul can tell us about both Christian living and Christian leadership as he writes to encourage his coworkers in maturity and ministry. Paul had sent Titus to Crete to finish the task of establishing the Church on the island, and for the church in Crete how the Christian faith was to be lived out in society was as major an issue as it is for us in our changing society today.  

After a long introduction, in his letter Paul tasked Titus to appoint leaders, elders and overseers who were able to model and teach how the Christian faith was to be lived out. Titus was tasked with teaching the Christians how to be an example of Christ like living in whatever place and strata they found themselves in their very structured society: He applied the gospel to the Roman household Code, when we looked at it in our cafĂ© service we talked of God’s call to ‘lead where you are’. Now in the passage we had read out to us today, Paul tells Titus to remind the believers on Crete that God’s salvation plan was a call for them “to devote themselves to doing what is good.”

The passage is set out in a very Jewish thought pattern, the central thing is in the center, in this case it is an expounding of God’s salvation plan. Paul calls it a trust worthy saying which means that it is not necessarily his own words, rather it maybe an earlier formula of the gospel that the Cretans would have been familiar with, that Paul then uses as a rational for God’s people being about the common good. That is bookended by two different sets of relationships. The first is with the wider society, how they are to relate to civil government and interact with people in the public domain, outside the household. Then in the end he applies it to how they are to relate to the false teachers who have been causing disruption in households and the church on Crete. Because it’s a letter the whole thing is wrapped up with personal information and greetings.

We are used to the images of before and after, that we see in ads for all that weird and wonderful fitness equipment and sure to work diets. Paul uses that formula of before and after to talk of the difference the gospel has made. At one time he says… Before…  “ we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslave by all kinds of passions and pleasures, we lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating each other.” Just like the images in those commercials we are not supposed to like the before image that is painted. We individually may not have been like that whole description and it is not saying that humans are not capable of  great good outside of Christ, rather Paul paints a picture of the state that we all have found ourselves in, it is an expression of the fallen state of humanity … foolish speaks of a life lived without reference to God. Atheists often speak of not having their own annual holiday, and jokingly I suggest April 1st,  because in psalm 14;1 it says “ a fool says in their heart “there is no God”. Moving on the rest of Paul’s list is the damaging opposite of the Christian faiths call to obedience, self-control and loving one another.

Paul then talks of what God has done to change the situation. It’s not a fitness machine and our own efforts, but Christ’s death on the cross and his effort for us that makes us  fit into God’s family.  Because of God’s kindness God sent our savior Jesus Christ, not because of what we have done right, but because of God’s righteousness and mercy. The savior has washed us clean of all we have done wrong, which is symbolized by our identifying with Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism, and has poured out his Holy Spirit on us to renew us. That we may have the hope of eternal life: That we are heirs, welcomed into the family of God, and have the hope of eternal life. Here is the good news of Jesus Christ in a nutshell.

But with that formula perhaps what’s missing is the after image. People can view it like you would an insurance policy for the afterlife, or maybe even like one of those fitness machines that are so easy to fold up and store away that we fold them up and store them away under the bed and forget its there and you don’t’ change, and occasional you’ll say Oh yeah I bought that one I must pull it out sometime. No says Paul here is the picture of what its like after, we’ve been called to devote ourselves to doing what is good. We are not saved by good deeds we are saved for good deeds, for showing Christ like love and compassion and care, and that says Paul is excellent and profitable for everyone. Its for the common good.

It’s to be worked out in the public arena, in how we relate to government and wider society. It’s a call Paul says to obey and be subject to rulers and authorities. On one level it’s about compliance, keeping the laws and paying taxes. Social structure and order is a positive for society, that Christians are to uphold. In Roman 13 Paul talks of government being appointed by God, with the purpose of defending the innocent, acknowledging the good, and punishing those who do wrong.

It’s more than just compliance however says Paul, we are called to make a positive difference, to be ready to do whatever is good. When the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon God’s word to them through Jeremiah was to seek the peace and prosperity o the city where they lived. AS Jesus put It is about being slat and light. On a large scale John Stott talks of how historian say the Wesleyan revival saved England from a savage and bloody revolution like the one that happened in France, the reawakening of Christian faith lead to social reforms like the abolition of slavery, the end of child labor, the call for universal education, people needed to know how to read so they could read the bible themselves, public libraries and patronage of the arts, the establishment of the RSPCA and animal welfare measurers. We see it today with the mana in which groups like the salvation army are treated in a New Zealand society that tends to be suspicious of Christianity. On a smaller scale we had Steve Farrelly speak at our mature and marvelous service at the start of October, who when he heard of all the reports because of his Christian faith went to a decile one school to ask how he could help and now runs breakfast clubs in well over seven schools round the city and country, and genuinely makes a difference. It was great at the pizza and planning gathering last week to hear the desire for us to be involved in various ways with the issue of poverty in New Zealand. In his concluding remarks Paul brings doing good down to the very practical level of helping and providing hospitality to Itinerant Christian leaders Zena the lawyer and Apollos. That in doing that they will use their resources to provide for other peoples needs and not simply use them for indulgence.

In 1 Peter 2:11-12, Peter uses the metaphor of being an alien in a strange land to speak of how Christians were to act in society, maybe into days political climate it is important to see what is being said here in terms of us being migrants from the kingdom of God. Like many migrants we are very aware of wanting to be good citizens and keeping the laws of our new land but also we want to contribute to it and make it a better place as well so we bring the best of our culture, in our case the best of that culture is Christ.

One of the big challenges of Paul’s assertion of submitting to the government and authorities is what happens when you find yourself facing a despotic, oppressive or cruel and corrupt or evil regime. Do we simply submit?  Paul’s teaching here is helpful. Firstly, as salt and light, we should always be a movement for good in society, that acts as a counterpoint. It is not simply being a people who are opposed to something but who live out a Christ honoring alternative. Do not says Paul over come evil with evil rather over come evil with good, secondly the list of attitudes to people in verse 2 of the passage we are looking at today speak not only to how we are to treat people in society in a loving manner but how we are to respond in difficult situations, The Christian is called to have a prophetic role to speak the truth in love, not to slander and speak ill of people. Peaceable and considerate speaks of a commitment to a Christ honoring response, and gentle is the word meek which means that we are not willing to let anything, no slight or threat or violence stop us from the focus of the common good, God’s preferred future… Our examples are Christ facing the cross, martin Luther king Jr and his nonviolence.

Paul also helps us out in his instructions to Titus on how to deal with the false teachers who were disturbing the Church. Jesus called us not only to love one another but also to love our enemies, and Paul gives a balance between that and the necessity to safeguard the church. He tells Titus not simply to get caught up in the arguments about genealogies and quarrels about the law. That was of no use.  He was not to let the false teachers set the agenda. Paul always addresses false teaching and error by going back to the gospel basics of Christ crucified and gospel living of loving one another, which in Titus he couches in the virtues of Greek philosophy. He also gives them a process to work through. One that we find Jesus giving his disciples in Matthew 18 It kind of has the sound of a process for dealing with complaints in the work place, a series of warnings then dismissal, and to a certain extent it is just that, however in the NIV translation using the word warning takes away from the idea Paul has of admonishing the people who are disturbing the Church. It isn’t simply stop doing what you are doing it’s a sitting down and working through it from the gospel, its always with the hope that people will change and see the truth. It’s only when they proved themselves unwilling to change that Paul uses the idea of removing them from fellowship. Even then this is not to be seen as punishment but with the hope of reconciliation and restoration to the truth.

It’s interesting that Paul can quickly move from this important teaching about the gospel and its implications on how we are to relate to the society around us to simply finishing off by telling Titus news about the movements of other Christian leaders… It’s the form of a Greek letter to do that, but it speaks to us that looking to relate our Christian faith to the wider society is lived out in the everydayness of life. In the midst of our plans for the day and life, and our  comings and goings, the Holy Spirit may speak of people who need our help on practical levels and Paul’s quick to point out that that is where this doing good for the common good starts. The kingdom of God breaks into the realms of this world in small acts of kindness. We celebrated one of our congregation, Dulcie Blairs life at her funeral here on Thursday and the stories that came to the fore of her 95 years were of service and care, of hospitality and a home open to all, a welcome for those who were in need and sharing the precious everyday skills with others (Dulcie cooked for the youth camps Ralph directed for close to forty years,  a knack for making people feel welcome, and for ralph and Dulcie how these things made an impact on the lives of so many, in this church and through involvement in a wider youth camping with thousands of young people. That it had ripple effects in the community and country… A real testimony to how doing simple good deeds impacts the common good. You and I have been loved and saved by God he has poured his Holy Spirit out on us and calls us to devote ourselves to doing Good, you know what that is Christian leadership.