Monday, March 31, 2014

Music driven by Complaints or mission in context... an interesting article and a continual challange.

 A facebook friend posted a link to an article by Ed Stetzer on worship music. I appreciate Ed Stetzer's insights and have valued some of his books in the past... mainly 'Comeback Churches 2007 (written with Mike Dodson ) and Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age' 2003. Both of which I have read when I have found myself ministering in a church planting situation and in working in a comeback church.
The article referred to the concept of multiple services based on different worshipping styles. All my church life I have been involved in music (not bad for a non musician really) and trying to connect worship with emerging generations of New Zealanders. Which means everything from the new wave of seniors through to postmodern youth of various eras and cultural tribes.  I agree with Stetzers
's critique of church life...
"Throughout history, the Church has condemned forms (of music) until they become mainstream. Culture changes, and the church eventually says, "that's OK". we were just kidding that whole time. Sorry we drove out a whole generation."
Unfortunately, churches, when given the choice to do so, will choose their traditions over their children. We've seen it time and time again."
I also agree with many people who talk about gravitating to the new simply because it is new rather than evaluating its worth.
But Stetzer is right the question that needs to be asked is what fits the Missional context in which I find myself now...rather than what do I simply like. In a recent publication by the Anglican Church in England called "From Anticdote To Evidence" that came out of a two year study of Anglican Churches that were growing... The conclusion was that worship styles were not as important as the thought and intentionality that goes into worship itself. Another factors when it came to worship styles were an openness to change and give things a go, A focus on those outside the church rather than simply those inside and an awareness of the need to minister to children and youth.
One of the problems of plotting the course of the blended style (which we are)... which we say is an inspirational blend of the best of the new with the best of our tradition is that as a smallish church that is growing in terms of an older congregation and young families is that while it can stretch to meet both those demographics is that it leaves you open to the problem of standing in the middle of the road... you are likely to get hit by traffic coming from both directions. and criticism can become the pressure rather than mission.
One of the metaphors I use from New Zealand life is the 21st parties I've been to down through the years. Where many different generations of the family have gathered together to celebrate the great event. The younger ones are usually out in the garage, which has been converted into an extra room, with coloured lights and a loud stereo. The aunties and older relatives sit in the lounge together and if there is music on its easy listening. and the parent aged people are in the kitchen working away. The family is together and they are all celebrating the same thing and gather together for he meal. But somehow they manage to do it in a way that meets all the different requirements.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

In The Face of Death: I Am The Resurrection and the Life (John 11:1-44) ... Sitting Under The Fig Tree: Encounters With Jesus in John's Gospel and Now (Part 8)

Because the reading was so long for this message we used the visual bible. It also helps to show the fact that John 11 presents itself as a series of scenes. That explains the screen shots I used as images in the second half of the message.
At the church I worked at in Tauranga there was a woman who was a receptionist at a local funeral home. She told us of the time two young men arrived at her counter and asked if they could have a body so they could pray for it to be raised from the dead. No, it wasn’t April 1st or a prank, one of the local Pentecostal churches had been doing a series of studies on miracles and had been encouraging the young people who had been attending to practise praying for these various healings. This week apparently it had been about raising the dead and so the young men in their earnestness and innocence had come to borrow a body to practise on. Now in the providence of God, the women at the counter was a wonderful Christian and graciously explained to them that she couldn’t do that as the funeral home was there to serve the families, to which the love ones belonged, so it wasn’t appropriate, she let them down very gently.
As we are heading into Easter we are working our way through ‘encounters with Jesus in John’s Gospel and now’. This week we are looking at Encountering Jesus in the face of death. In a very real way this narrative leads us directly to the cross, in the end of John 11, beyond our reading, we see that the religious authorities actually decide that if because of this miracle people will flock to Jesus, then the romans may crackdown on Judea, and it is better for the sake of the nation for one man to die than for all to die. This morning I want to have a look at this passage and see what it tells us about Jesus, remember that the miracles in the gospels are called signs and wonders and they point us to see who Jesus really is. And I want to explore what it has to say to us as followers of Jesus.
Ok what does it have to say to us about Jesus?
You’ll notice in the icons in the image to the  right that the figures are making a sign with their left hands, holding two figures up, it’s not a gang sign, we’ll it could be, nor are they being your typical Auckland drivers, it signifies the two natures of Jesus, his divine nature and his human nature and how the two met perfectly in Jesus. In the narrative of the raising of Lazarus this comes through most strongly.
We have one of the most moving pictures of the humanness of Jesus. The gospel narratives only give us glimpses of the private life of Jesus, but we capture some insight into Jesus friendships in the way that John talks about Jesus loving Lazarus and his sisters.  Adrian Plass says that you get the feel that these are the people that Jesus would relax and hang out with on a Friday night. From Luke’s gospel we know that he had been to their place for dinner.
The other thing that shows Jesus humanity is that shortest of bible verses ‘Jesus wept’, which comes also in the midst of verse that tell us that Jesus was deeply moved by what was happening. Paul Metzger says this does open “an ocean of questions for us.” Why when Jesus knew what he was going to do did he weep? What did he weep over? Yes Jesus identifies with the grief of the situation and the pain of those around him; he is a compassionate man, maybe even aware of the turmoil and pain he has caused by his delay. Although we do need to be aware that if you do the arithmetic Lazarus had died by the time Jesus would have been notified, as he had been dead for four days when Jesus got there.  But that delay would have caused some anguish for Mary and Martha. There is also a sense that he is moved by the disbelief of the people. Even Martha and Mary’s trust in Jesus as great as it is, will not go as far as trusting him in the face of death. In the end Metzger concludes by saying ‘God’s knowledge does not stop God from identifying with us fully in our pain.”
More than any of the other miracles stories in John’s gospel this also shows us the divine nature of Jesus. Jesus has been talking about being the giver of life and here there is a sign of what that means. That to believe in Jesus is to believe in the one that vanquishes death.  There are other instances in the gospels where Jesus has raised someone to life, the son of the Widow in Nain in Luke 7 and Jarius’ daughter in Luke chapter 8, both of which could be written off by sceptics as being close to death comas, but here Lazarus has been dead for four days and as Martha tells Jesus has probably started to decompose and smell, so there is no doubt he is dead. In fact in Jewish thought, the spirit of a person would wait by a body for three days before finally departing so even in their world view Lazarus was beyond the pale. We see Jesus here showing us that he is the resurrection and the life, that that is not just a future hope, as Martha said, ‘I know he will be raised to life on the last day’ but a present reality. Not that those who believe in Jesus will not die, but that what Paul calls our last enemy death has been defeated.
It also gives us insight into what Jesus means by revealing the Glory of God. All the way through these narrative Jesus talks of ‘the glory of God’ being shown in what will happen to Lazarus. It would be easy to wonder at why Lazarus and Mary and Martha had to go through what they did simply for the Glory of God to be revealed? When we think of the Glory of God, we need to realise that in John’s gospel that glory is always shown to us in the cross. The cross is where the Glory of God is shown most. And this is reflected in this narrative “Jesus approaches the grave of Lazarus” say RVG Tasker, “with tears in his eyes and anguish in his heart, to expend the divine power that would raise Lazarus from the dead, and knowing that he was destined to experience the same anguish in Gesemenene before moving on to Calvary to perform the redemptive act by which the sting of death would be forever drawn and in which believers would always see the glory of God.”
What does the passage have to say to us as followers of Jesus?
I have to admit that I started reflecting on this passage from a theological perspective, but when you read it, it’s a very human story. It’s told as a series of scenes with people and Jesus.
n this first episode or scene, the disciples find themselves wrestling and concerned for Jesus they know for Jesus to go back to Judea is to court danger. The proximity of Bethany to Jerusalem is not just a geographic note; it tells us of the closeness of Jesus to the people who we saw last week had tried to stone him. When it says many of the Jews came down from Jerusalem, it is short hand for the people who would have been Jesus enemies; it does not refer to the whole Jewish community.
The key thing that Jesus is hoping for is that the disciples may get a greater understanding into who Jesus is and believe. Thomas who we equate with his doubt rather than his faith is the one who shows leadership and courage. Admittedly he phrases it in a negative way, ‘we might as well go and die with him,’. In the end of course when it comes to Jesus death they will all desert him. In this scene I see a real challenge to us that we will see the glory of God more as we are willing, to step out of our comfort zones, to live a little dangerously. Jim Wallis talks of the best way to that is to trust our questions and where they will lead us and to get out of home a bit more often. Remember Jesus is the one who invites us to go with him and see, and who know what we will see as we trust Jesus to led us.
The second scene we have is Jesus meeting with Martha. Again Martha gets some bad press in the gospel, she is seen as being so focused on being the hostess with the mostest that she misses the opportunity to sit and learn from Jesus. She is probably the oldest sister and the weight of dealing with the visitors and making the arrangements for the funeral have fallen on her. Part of that may be why she goes out to greet Jesus, it is what would be expected, a social norm. But again she is a great example for us of faith. She tells Jesus that she believes that if he had been their sooner, , that Lazarus would not have died, because she believes that God will answer Jesus prayers. I wonder if there isn’t a bit of a rebuke in that because we know that Martha was not above being straight up with Jesus. However she affirms her belief in Jesus as The Son of God and her faith in the eternal life that Jesus had been talking about. But she does not get her head around the fact that Jesus can speak that life into the situation here and now in the face of death. There is no thought of a resurrection in her mind; in fact she is the one who tells Jesus there will be a stink if they open the tomb. I wonder if there isn’t a great hope for us here as followers of Jesus that in the midst of grief and sorrow and suffering that even beyond what faith we can have that Jesus is able to show the glory of God in those situations. It may not be the raising of Lazarus it maybe in another way, but for us as followers of Jesus there is the hope that even in the face of death Jesus is able to bring life.
It might be unfair to speak of Jesus love and compassion only when we talk of his encounter with Mary rather than Martha, maybe he meets both of them at the level they need to encounter him, Martha at the intellectual faith level and Mary at the emotional level. But we see in Mary’s sorrow that Jesus response is compassion and care. He delays no longer and goes to the tomb. He identifies with the grief and pain and is moved to act. Not that he is able to be manipulated by emotion or our fervour, remember Jesus had already told the disciples that he would raise Lazarus, but he identifies as we’ve already looked at with our human experience. I think for all of us there is that wonder of knowing God’s compassion and care, that in Christ God is with us in the midst of our suffering and sorrow, with our brokenness and pain, and as we’ll see as we head towards Easter, just how far Jesus is prepared to go to bring life and light into that situation.
And finally there is Lazarus, the last scene in our reading today is Lazarus being raised to life.  We don’t ever really get to know much about him. He is only mentioned here and in the party in the next chapter, he didn’t seem to be at home in Luke’s account of the other dinner party at Martha and Mary’s. We don’t have an interview about what death is like in the local newspaper or TV talks show. But we have a sign in his resurrection of the hope we have in Jesus own death and resurrection, that as followers of Jesus death is not the end, it is a door through which we walk, to be with Christ. Not only that but in this life as well Jesus is able to breathe and speak life into the most hopeless of situations, maybe it is not to prompt us to be like the two young guys in the story I started with, but that we can experience that new and abundant and eternal life In Jesus here and today. I wonder if many of us aren’t walking round like Lazarus and death hangs off us like grave clothes restricting us and we need to hear Jesus words “take off the grave clothes and go free”.
Jesus is ‘the resurrection and life’ in this life and as we have so powerfully been reminded of by the end of Desmond Tutu’s great tribute to his friend Nelson Mandela in the face of death “rest in peace, and rise in glory”.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Friendless Pastor..A Good Article....It was like Looking in a Mirror

A friend... that is a facebook friend posted a link to an article that caught my attention. It was called 'the friendless Pastor: How to Address our perennial problem' by Mark Bouwer in the march online version of 'The Leadership Journal". As I read it I found myself looking in a mirror. This summed me up very well... and when you do some cultural filtering.  research into New Zealand culture shows that traditionally New Zealand males didn't have friends rather they had mate... people they relied on at work and would there for do some other activities with outside that, and you get a good picture of something I find myself reflecting on quite often... Add in busy weekends and days off that don't match up with the norm and limited income...
And the easy way in which people can find themselves venturing further and further into cyber space and the brief release of having connected with others or being wired in rather than actual face to face time. I no longer have to go to a cinema to see a movie and interact with someone to go with me rather I'll just watch it on my laptop. You don't even have to go to a book store or library any more and talk to people you can download or kindle-a-fy it.
And with the way that 21st century life seems to place everyone on a treadmill I'm not sure that it is solely a issue for pastors, it maybe a human or at least a male issue ... A Smashing Pumpkins quote seems appropriate here... "Despite all my rage I'm still just a rat in a cage."  
One thing that Bouwer does not mention is that as there are demands on your time that equally time with your family becomes more and more precious, and I enjoy my family and I'm marred to my best friend, but if I'm honest Mark Bouwer has hit on a very sensitive area of my life... I am an introvert, I need time by myself to recharge. I have to admit that I do find the time needed into investing in genuine community with others to be taxing on an already people filled existence (I often talk of people overload) and yes  I do find myself to be rather bookish and solitary... I even jokingly responded to my friends posting of this link with "thank you I'll have to go off by myself and think it through'.
I have had an idea for a short story simmering in the back of my brain which I was going to title "the incredibly shrinking world of pastor Bob". It came to mind when I was living in Napier on a wonderful surf beach and found that my focus could shrink from the amazing reality of the grandeur of God's creation around me to focus on a small set of problems and an office which was also at my house... my world was shrinking and focusing on the Church... I would be surprised as I often am know in Auckland by walking round a corner and being confronted with an amazing view of the ocean, or the hills (here in Auckland the Waitakere's to the west) and realise that there was so much more beyond what I was focusing on.   This Friendship thing is part of that shrinking world syndrome.
I recently went to a Bible Class reunion and it was good to meet up with people who I had shared my formative and young adult years with and to remember that genuine sense of belonging and community. There was an easy sharing of lives with each other that I enjoyed and found healthy and encouraging. Bouwer focuses on the idea of a group to belong to that makes a point of spending time together on a regular basis and maybe it's time to cultivate such a group. Writing about it just maybe the first step.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Keyhole and Light and a whole new way of seeing things... Once again a bit of overstatement in the title.

Growing up in West Auckland, one of my favourite places to go was Piha... Piha is an amazing and wild beach out on the west coast of New Zealand.  During the summer about twice a week I'd head out in my old beaten up car and either go for a body board or just clamber round the rocks to the south of south Piha.
One of the amazing natural treasures of Piha is the keyhole, a sea cave or sea arch that goes through what is known as 'Camel rock' (it's Maori name is Taitomo). You can walk through the cave to a great flat rock to fish from (not that I was into fishing those days) or on the right tide you could body board through the cave on waves that came off the outer bar at Piha and  bounce off the rock walls in the white water, without hitting the rocks (much).
I have always had an affinity with Piha and it has left an indelible mark on my soul.
When I was looking for an image that went with John 11:25 for our service on Sunday. the evenings I had been at the Key hole came to mind... light coming out of a cave... sadly all my old photos have not survived and I could not find one online... however when I came across the wonderful pictures of sunset through the sea arch at Pfiefer beach in California I knew I had found a worthy replacement.
It depicts for me the hope and new life that comes not just from the majesty of the creation and a rugged seascape but from Jesus his life, death and resurrection. Something I hope my congregation will be able to reflect on as I've assoicted it with the words of Jesus.  
For me it expresses in a very vivid way the difference I feel known Jesus has made in my life. I find myself with a whole new way of looking at things   (and my family will tell you that the word play is just typical dad humour).

Sunday, March 23, 2014

My grace is sufficient for you: The All Sufficeincy Of the Grace of God (john 5:1-18, 2 Corinthians 12:5-10).... Presbytery Prayer and healing Service March 23rd 2014

It was a great privilege to be able to Preach at the Northern presbytery Prayer and healing Service on Sunday Night. With my opening quote I did wonder if I should have bought some coffee grinds and other grime with me to throw on the carpet. But common sense won out in the end.
" Some of us have been playing the part of a vacuum cleaner salesperson” says Paul Metzger,” with our "before (I met Jesus) and after ( I met Jesus) sales pitch." We promote Jesus like he's a new and improved Hoover, who will suck out all the messiness and dirt from our lives-only to find out to our horror and dismay, that he actually makes things messier.”
Tonight I don’t want to give that kind of sale pitch I want to focus on the passage we had read out in 2 Corinthians 12. It may seem a little strange and almost defeatist to speak at a prayer and healing service about a time when someone fervently prayed for a situation and the answer was “no”, they didn’t get  healed.  But in Paul’s experience there is something
profound and important and real for us, the grace of God… “My Grace is sufficient for you”… it’s not a cop out a consolation prize It is a real hope from a real God in the midst of the real messiness of life. “my Grace is sufficient for you”… it is what carries us through in the face of suffering and sorrow, life’s ebbs and flows …”my grace is sufficient for you, in your weakness I am made strong”… it is the basis of meeting our deepest, if often unacknowledged, need for forgiveness and relationship with God…”my grace is sufficient for you”… it is the basis of knowing God’s presence and blessing “my grace is sufficient for you” and it is the basis of praying for healing and help and seeing God answer…”my Grace is sufficient for you.”
Paul is having to defend himself and his calling as an apostle before the church in Corinth. In chapter eleven he speaks of his suffer for the gospel, then he goes on to describe for the super spiritual folk of Corinth about dreams and visions and then turns round and says that he will boast more about his weaknesses than these things. And he proceeds to tell them why. He talks of suffering from a thorn in the flesh a messenger from Satan, and fervently praying for it to be taken away three times and finally receiving a different answer from God “my Grace is sufficient for you, in your weakness I am made strong” It is Paul’s reliance on Christ not his own abilities that matters.
We don’t know what that thorn in the flesh was, people down through the ages have suggested many things; physical disabilities of different kinds, epilepsy, migraines, losing his eyes sight have all been suggested,  wrestling with nagging doubts, emotional issues, a temper that left him full of regret and humbled when he lost it as he had with the Corinthians. Some wonder as it was a messenger from Satan that it wasn’t another person whose constant ragging and bagging dug in and tried to rob Paul of joy and life. All we know is that Paul saw it as more than just a pin prick or prickle,  rather a constant source of pain, a festering sore maybe if he’d been into vampire movies he would have used a different metaphor…  like a stake to the heart. Paul also saw it as a spiritual attack.
Paul tells us that he prayed three times, and I don’t think that means  just three quick arrows prayers like the ones  my Mum used to talk about when she needed a car park close to a shop on a rainy day. More like three seasons of prayers, In his book “God on Mute” on wrestling with illness and the seeming silence of a closed heaven, Pete Grieg likens the emotional and spiritual process of prayer with that of the passion narrative, the Easter story, maybe here Paul encounters his own three long dark nights in gethsemane, or even the depths of the tomb.
Then, like the dawning of resurrection sunday,there is an answer, not that the thorn is removed and taken away, but rather an assurance from his saviour and his God, “my grace is sufficient for you, in your weakness I am made strong”.
And in the face of suffering and wrestling with this issue Paul finds light, insight understanding and peace. The thorn is not taken away But Christ answers Pauls prayer “my grace is sufficient for you” and Paul sees that it is in God’s continued presence and aid that there is victory over that thorn: That in facing that issue in the strength and goodness of God that he is able to testify more fully to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Last year I started to preach a series of sermons on whatPhilip Yancy calls ‘the question that will not go away’… where is God when it hurts? I wanted to be able to provide people with good solid theological reflection and readily packaged answers… I wanted to be that Hoover saleman. But as I looked at how God’s people had dealt with that question in the scriptures I discovered it wasn’t with pat answers and sound bite sized slogans. Rather there was a great pouring out of the depth of their souls in poems and prayers, songs of lament and longing. But in the midst of that there is a pattern of growth, a journey to accepting that “God’s grace is sufficient for you”. Walter Brueggemann, describes this pattern in the psalms as a three step process. psalms of orientation, when it all seems as it should be, it’s all beer and lamingtons and makes sense and God is blessing us. The Happy clappies if I may be so flippant. Then he talks of psalms of disorientation, which he likens to times when you’ve gone to the beach and gone out into the water on a clam summers day only to be meet by storm swells that pick you up and toss you round and round and as you recover spluttering and gasping for air another wave picks you up and rubs your face in the sand again, times when you wonder where is God in the midst of this. Then he talks of psalms of reorientation; when people discover the closeness and the presence of God with them in a way that enables them to carry on through lifes journey in the sure knowledge that God is with them and able to be sufficient for their needs, whether there is an answer, a healing or not. God’s goodness and grace and God’s presence and power is there with us. They are reorientated from the problem to the wonderful presence of God. “my grace is sufficient for you.”
More than that for Paul and for us in that answer is the reassurance that our deepest needs are able to meet in Christ. That in the grace of God our need for forgiveness and reconciliation with our maker and the world around is met. In the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has made a way for us to come back to know him and as john’s gospel says to have new and abundant life in Christ. That is the most amazing gift of God’s grace, it is the greatest healing and answer that we could hope for.
 In Philippians chapter 3 Paul likens God’s Grace to the inorganic rubbish collection. Or at least that is the picture that comes to mind for me. You know when it’s on because as you drive down the street outside everyone’s home is that embarrassingly large pile of broken, worn out and no longer working or wanted stuff. And Paul talks about all the things that he had going for him in his religious life before he met Jesus, and finishes by saying all this I pack up and toss out on the roadside for the scavangers and the rubbish collectors, compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ.
In the passage we had read to us in John today, we have one of my favourite stories of healing in the gospels. As I was re-reading it recently something that Jesus said really jarred me, it was like a slap in the face. When Jesus meets the man who he had been paralysed for 38 years and who he had healed, he warns him to stop sinning or something else even worse may happen to him; and I instinctively through what could be worse than being paralysed for 38 years being abandoned by your family and friends and have a vain hope of getting into the water of a pool rumoured to have healing properties when the water was stirred. But as Leon Morris says Jesus words are a call to him ‘that while he was now standing that if he did not come to Christ and live in a new way that he found himself in danger of standing in God’s judgement. Jesus compassion for the man went beyond simply his physical need for healing but for his wholeness and spiritual healing as well… to receive a total new life in Christ. Hear again the wonderful life giving forgiveness and reconciliation with God in the words “my grace is sufficient for you.”
Finally, can I say that that answer for Paul was not an admission that God does not heal. Paul had come to God with confidence and assurance that God was able to free him from his thorn in the flesh, that any messenger of Satan would have to flee at the power of Jesus name. Paul believed in Praying for people to be healed and that God healed people. A quick tour through the book of Acts and you see that this was his experience. In Acts 14 for example, in a small town called Lystra, they heal a man who had been born lame and the people think a god has come amongst them.  Paul would have known the gospel narratives even if it was only as oral tradition, he would have known that by the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus had healed many people. So he would have prayed expecting that God would answer and free him from that thorn in the flesh.
“My grace is sufficient for you” is the basis for that. That not only has the grace of God shown in Jesus enabled us to know and experience forgiveness and the presence and love of God in our lives, but that kingdom of God has broken into the realm of humanity and the consequences of our broken and fallen world are able to be put right, we can be healed and restored.  One of the things I love about the story of the man at the side of the pool is how it shows us the grace of God in Christ. Jesus had come to the festival and instead of being with the crowds partying at the temple, here he was with the broken and sick and abandoned by the pool at the sheep gate. In John’s gospel Jesus seems to know because of his divine origin what is going on in people’s lives and heart. But here it says Jesus found out about the man who had been there lame for 38 years. He had spent time hearing the stories listening to the people by the pool. The thing that amazes me the most is out of all the stories of healing in the gospels this one seem to happen with no mention of faith, it is all about Jesus initiating it, it is all about the grace of God. When Jesus asks the man if he wants to be well all he gets is the litany of woes and why not’s. Despite this Jesus speaks healing into his life. God’s grace is sufficient. It reminds me that healing is not dependant on the faith of the prayer or the person being prayed for it is the compassion and love and power and grace of the one being prayed to “my grace is sufficient for you.” The all sufficiency of God’s grace.
So tonight, for you here, how do you hear and recieve… “My grace is sufficient for you” do you hear it as an answer, an assurance of the presence and the love of God in Christ for you in the face of the ebbs and flows of your life.
Maybe even a door way to step through to trust Jesus in the next messy phase of your life’s journey as you like paul take on the ministry of the gospel in the church and outside. “My grace is sufficient for you”.
Do you hear it tonight as a call, you know you need to find that life that Christ offers. You know your need for forgiveness and new life… Not a empty promise that everything is going to be wonderful and rosey, but that a real God wants you to know and accept his real love in the midst of your real life. “my grace is sufficient for you”
Or tonight you hear it as an invitation, “do you want to be well?” do you want an answer in the situation you find yourself in? “my grace is sufficient for you”.

In Sight... Jesus and who is really blind? (John 9:1-41)... Sitting Under The Fig Tree: encounters with jesus in John's Gospel and Now (Part 7)

“There are none so blind as those that… will not see” and this thought came to me as I was reading and studying the narrative of Jesus healing the man born blind and its subsequent fall out. The whole story is about who is blind and who has sight. It sounds like a bible quote… right! But I googled it and found a website of quotes and misquotes from the bible… saying that are attributed to the Bible like “god helps those who help themselves” but are not in the scriptures and “there are none so blind as those that will not see” was high on the list. Yes it resonates with the wisdom of such verse as Jeremiah 5:21…”Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear:” and with Jesus explanation of why he speaks in parables in Matthew’s gospel but it is not a bible quote. It’s been attributed to various people, including Johnathan Swift, who wrote ‘Gulliver’s travels’, but before him a man called John Heywood. 17th century Presbyterian minister and bible commentator Matthew Henry used it quite a lot as well which probably helped people associating it with the scriptures. And it’s also known to people of a certain age because of the lyrics of the Ray Steven’s song “everything is beautifu in their own way." But it sums up nicely what is going on with the people round the man who Jesus restores sight to and the religious authorities who come to investigate this healing: It encapsulates for me and for us the challenge of this encounter with Jesus.
We are working our way through Encounters with Jesus in John’s gospel and now. AS we open up the gospel narrative my prayer is that it may open us up to encounter Jesus in new and deeper ways today… That eyes may be opened to the wonderful works of God and the person of Jesus Christ. And in looking at this encounter I want to do four things; explore what it was that this sign, the healing of the man born blind tells us about Jesus, look briefly at what this incident tells us about being followers of Christ, Give some insight from this passage about how we talk about Jesus how we witness to our faith, and finally to invite us to stand in this narrative and encounter Jesus today.
Last week we looked at the end of John chapter six, and before we move on to look at today’s passage, we need to fill in the blanks to give us the context. Last week we looked at the aftermath of Jesus feeding the five thousand, where many people were leaving Jesus because his teaching had got too hard. We also looked at the affirmation of Simon Peter, on behalf of the twelve “where can we go, You have the words of eternal life, we have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God” which showed that their eyes were beginning to open as to who Jesus was.
Ok let's fill in the blanks...After that John tells us that Jesus went up to the festival of tabernacles in Jerusalem and began to teach. We don’t have what he taught, rather we have an account of Jesus interaction with the religious authorities and leaders. They thought Jesus teaching was good and they wondered where this Hick from the sticks, this unofficial rabbi got his authority. Jesus tells them, he speaks of his relationship with His Father in Heaven, and as you can imagine that does not go down well.
At the beginning of Chapter 8, we have an interlude, we have the story of Jesus and the women caught in adultery. There is some debate over whether this passage actually fits into john’s gospel here, the argument before and after it seamlessly carries on, the oldest manuscripts of John do not have it. So in many bible translations it is in brackets or italics to show this in some it is simply included at the end of John’s gospel.
But the debate about who Jesus is and where he gets his authority from continues. Just before the passage we are looking at this morning it turns ugly. Jesus last comment is to say “before Abraham, I am” and the religious leaders reach down for stones to kill Jesus. Because in that statement Jesus is claiming to be greater than their ancestor Abraham, and “I am” echoes the name of God, YHWH, that was revelled to Moses at the burning bush. They know that Jesus is claiming to be God. John tells us it wasn’t Jesus time so he manages to walk away.
That leads us into the encounter with the man born blind. And the whole narrative seems to sum up what has been going on.
Firstly, what does this encounter, this sign, tell us about Jesus?
I don’t know about you, but I grew up in Sunday school hearing the stories of Jesus healing the blind and I think it can stop us from grasping the wonder of it and what it has to say. They simply become children's stories. 

 Leon Morris points out that outside the gospel there are no accounts of people healing the blind. Not in the Old Testament or the New, the nearest thing to it is in Acts where Ananias lays hands on Saul, and he is healed of a temporary loss of sight, again a sign. But in the gospels the most common healing that Jesus does is opening the eyes of the blind. What is it a sign of? Well in the Old Testament, in verse like Exodus 4:11, and Psalm 146:8 it is only God who can give sight to the blind. Elsewhere it is associated with the activity of the coming messiah, a sign of the messianic age. So as we go on through the narrative, for the religious Authorities to acknowledge this healing being from God, they need to acknowledge its source and what it is saying about Jesus, something they are not prepared to do. They wiggle this way and that to try and avoid that conclusion.
Secondly, what does this encounter have to say to us as followers of Jesus?
In this narrative, Jesus disciples have their understanding of suffering turned on its head. When they see the man born blind, they are perplexed because they equate suffering and illness with a direct correlation with Sin. With the man born blind they can’t work out who sinned this man or his parents. Now Christians believe that suffering and illness are a result of sin, in as much as they are consequences of a broken and fallen world, but Jesus dismisses their wisdom of the day and invites them to see things in a new way. Rather than consequence and curse, he invites them to see them as possibility for grace and the glory of God. It invites us even to look beyond the fatalism of someone being born blind so that later down the track they may meet Jesus to see these sorts of situations as opportunities for the grace and the work of God. To open our eyes to the people on the road and Jesus who wants to speak into those situations, that we can bring hope.
The man born blinds story also tells us some truths about being a follower of Jesus “ Some of us have been playing the part of a vacuum cleaner salesperson” says Paul Metzger with our "before (I met Jesus) and after ( I met Jesus) sales pitch." We promote Jesus like he's a new and improved Hoover, who will suck out all the messiness and dirt from our lives-only to find out to our horror and dismay, that he actually makes things messier.” The man born blind finds his healing and affirmation of Jesus brings him into conflict with his neighbours and friends, who cannot believe he is the same man. It brings him into conflict with the religious authorities as well. Life gets messy, they interrogate his parents, question his integrity and write him off as a sinner for breaking the Sabbath law. We may not catch the severity of what the NIV translates as “and they threw him out” but it is a technical term for him being excommunicated from the synagogue. Before he met Christ, he was ostracised because of the stigma of sin associated with his disability, a good Jew would give him some money out of religious obligation, but he lived on the edge of society, supported by his family, now he is officially ostracised as a sinner, cut off from Jewish society. He can see but everyone else will turn a blind eye to him. Bethany’s favourite verse comes from John’s gospel and captures the tension we face as followers of Jesus when he says “in this life you will have trouble, But I have overcome the world.” In light of the man being ostracised Jesus comes and finds him and invites him to believe in him, to find a new home in the kingdom of God, instead of being cast out and written off, in the gospel, even though we never learn his name, he is held up to us as an example of faith and one who can see spiritually.
What does the man born blind have to tell about how we talk about Jesus and how we witness to our faith?
AS I was preparing for this sermon I read a book review that is part of the debate in some Christian circles. A debate over whether or not apologetics is a good approach when it comes to witnessing to non-believers. Apologetics is the discipline of presenting reasoned arguments for the faith, some people see it as a sort of false intellectualising of the faith. Distilling what is basically a relationship down to principles and points of reason.  Others say that the basis for our witness is what we know of God and what he has done in our lives, this is often scorned as anti-intellectualism ,which does not do credit to the rational basis of the Christian faith.     
In reading the account of the examination of the man born blind, we see that he was willing to use both to defend what he knew of Jesus. He shared his personal testimony, “all I know is once I was blind but know I see”, he is obviously excited about it because he thinks that the religious leaders will see it as something amazing and wonderful, “Do you want to become his disciples as well?” But he is also willing to use their reason and logic to defend who Jesus is.   The religious leaders want the man to yes give glory to God, but not to acknowledge Jesus in fact they write Jesus off as a sinner, the man born blind then points out that this cannot be so because in the scripture it says that God answers the prayers of the righteous, and as he is before them born blind and now able to see, they can’t help but acknowledge Jesus is of God. They can’t dispute either his experience or his logic so they kick him out. They don’t want to see.
Finally, I wonder this morning where you find yourselves standing in relation to this narrative. RVG Tasker says the narrative is an acted parable about spiritual blindness and spiritual sight where are we in the narrative. Where are you, where do you encounter Jesus?
Can I say I find myself in a challenging position. I’d like to say I find myself standing with the man born blind, whose eyes are open, physically and spiritually by the end of this story. He sees Jesus for who he is and worships him. But in these stories I cannot help but find myself, embarrassed and shuffling my feet reluctantly standing amongst the religious people. Maybe it’s an occupational habit, maybe we who say we know Jesus find ourselves having to reluctantly admit we sort of kinda fit there. Am I blind to the reality of who Jesus is? Or at least do I do we have significant blind spots? Maybe we don’t see the wonderful works that Jesus is doing round us, because we’ll they don’t fit in our God shaped box, that we keep carefully locked and stored away. Maybe I don’t see the people on the side of the road that Jesus wants me to draw his attention to? Maybe I don’t see past sin and curse to possibility and hope?  But the place I find myself,  and the prayer  for all of us today is …
”Jesus Light of the world, open my eyes Jesus, help me to go and wash in the pool of “sent” and to see you and know you and worship you in all I do.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Does Christianity suck? A quick look at a great quote rather than a long apologetic about the faith.

Here is a great and challenging quote from Paul Metzger's book on John's gospel "When Love Came To Town" in the resonate commentary series.
" Some of us have been playing the part of a vacuum cleaner salesperson with our "before (I met Jesus) and after ( I met Jesus) sales pitch." We promote Jesus like he's a new and improved Hoover, who will suck out all the messiness and dirt from our lives-only to find out to our horror and dismay, that he actually makes things messier.
The Bible does not read like a sales pitch, however. It's about life, not an appliance, there are no guarantees in the Bible against messy spills."
I'm still processing it but here is a couple of quick comments... My daughters favourite Bible verse is John 16:33 ‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ and I like to think she likes it out of its wisdom and truth rather than its summing up of teenage angst. Jesus facing his own betrayal and death is uber-honest with his disciples  about the potential suckiness (new word in English language) and the hope that Jesus his teaching and action cans bring in the midst of that... not as a cure all, permanent happy pill, that leaves us skipping across the surface of life... or as some would have us believe skimming the cream off the top of life, but a deep engagement with real life in all its complexities and foibles, with the assurance of Christ's presence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the mess. 
Again I love Leonard Sweet' great reworking of the Jesus is the answer sales pitch... (not quoting him here rather paraphrasing...'Jesus is the question, the burning question that will not go away.'

the Freedom Statue


I don't often just blog these days...It does seem to take up lots of time I do not have  I usually just post my sermons online... but sometimes you find things just worth sharing.

 In search for images to go with a call to worship for Sunday I discovered the amazing statue by Zenos Frudakis. It is called freedom and in a statement about the work Frudakis says

 "I wanted to create a sculpture almost anyone, regardless of their background, could look at and instantly recognize that it is about the idea of struggling to break free. This sculpture is about the struggle for achievement of freedom through the creative process."

Although for me, this feeling sprang from a particular personal situation, I was conscious that it was a universal desire with almost everyone; that need to escape from some situation – be it an internal struggle or an adversarial circumstance, and to be free from it."

 elsewhere he says.
“I created the freedom sculpture because I knew the struggle to be free was not just a personal one but universal to the human condition”

One of the amazing things about the sculpture is that Frudakis invites people to stand in the statue to place themselves where they feel they are on the road to freedom.
So what verses from scripture was I using for a call to worship that lead me in a google search to find this wonderful sculpture... bucket list if I ever get to Philadelphia I must go and stand in the statue.
Jesus reading the scriptures at Capernaum in Luke 4:18-19.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
A wonderful synergy. Thank you Zenos Frudakis for such an inspirational piece of art... you succeeded in your vision. I hope you don't mind its association with these great words and  Jesus mission of liberation.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Following "When Jesus Says What?":(John 6:53-71)... Sitting Under The Fig Tree: Encounters with jesus in John's Gospel and Now. (part 6)

For a long time now I’ve had it in the back of my mind to preach a sermon called ‘1001 reasons not to go to Church’. But I’ve been reluctant to do it, not because I can’t think of that many reasons but because I can imagine people getting up while I’m preaching and saying, “that’s a good one, I hadn’t thought of that before… I’ll see you later.”… and walking out the door. Maybe I don’t want to do it because I can think of a lot of reasons to walk away from the church and put Jesus on the back burner, it would be a lot easier, but the words of Simon Peter, from the passage we had read today, keep coming to mind “Lord, to whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” 
Leading into Easter we are working our way through peoples encounters with Jesus in John’s gospel and hopefully in the gospel narrative encountering Jesus ourselves today. That is always my prayer as we look at the scriptures and open them up that we may meet with Jesus by the spirit. Last week we noticed a change in John’s gospel, that while he had received public acclaim and acceptance as he had started his ministry, now we see that he was coming into conflict with the religious authorities and powers of his day.  In the passage we had read to us today we’ve come to a point in our journey where peoples encounters with Jesus and his teaching have led many even his disciples to turn their back and no longer follow they found it too hard.  
Ok let’s put the passage in its context. A couple of weeks ago Margaret Liow looked at the feeding of the five thousand: an amazing miraculous sign of God’s ability to provide food and sustenance for his people. It tells us that at the end of this the people wanted to take Jesus and make him their king and Jesus has to go away to a mountain by himself and pray, it was not God’s plan, Jesus had come to bring the kingdom of God as the synoptic gospels focus on, not to reboot an earthly kingdom.
After this Jesus sends his disciples across the lake and we have the narrative of him walking on the water, the next day, John tells us, when they got to the other side of the lake, the crowds come and seek out Jesus and we have a discourse where Jesus challenges the crowd about why they are following him and begins to tell them the reality behind the miraculous feeding. That Jesus is the bread of life and it is only by feasting on his flesh and drinking his blood that people may find true sustenance that will bring life, abundant and eternal life. RVG Tasker says “he had not come primarily to satisfy peoples material needs but the deep seated, if not always recognised, need for forgiveness without which they could not enjoy eternal life.”  
And it’s into the middle of this discourse that we stepped with our reading today. Where Jesus turns and answers the question that his listeners had started arguing about… How can this man give us his flesh to eat? For us looking back from beyond the cross and with this section of John’s gospel so associated with communion, something that many of us find valuable and meaningful it’s hard to understand why what Jesus says here was so hard for people to swallow.
It’s not because they thought of the overtones of cannibalism, Jesus makes it perfectly clear that it is the spirit that gives life the flesh counts for nothing. Nor was it that they found Jesus teaching hard to understand, it wasn’t a misunderstanding, Leon Morris comments “ No doubt they found the discourse mysterious but it was not the parts they didn’t understand that were objecting to it was what they understood.” And it is helpful for us today to look at the things they would have found hard and wrestle with them as well. Because they are the same thing we find hard and the people around us find hard to understand when it comes to encountering Jesus.
The first thing is what we had already mentioned; people were coming to follow Jesus because in the words of Paul Metzger they were looking for a continuous supply of happy meals. “They were looking for more food rather than Jesus: They were not seeking him as an end in himself but as a means to an end.” Of course for Jesus Jewish audience, the miraculous provision of food had deep significance. They looked back to the wilderness and the way God provided manna through Moses, the key issue for the people in Jesus day was roman occupation, and there was a longing and expectation that God would send a deliverer and Israel would again become an independent nation. Even at the beginning of the book of Acts as Jesus is saying his final farewells before the ascension it is the question that somebody asks… “now will you restore Israel”.   So there was the expectation that with the provision of bread that here was the new Moses, here was the possibility of that liberation, a utopia on earth. And Jesus tells them that is not the case he points them to a greater truth that while their forebears had eaten the manna in the wilderness that they had died, but he was offering them sustenance that meant that even though they died they would have eternal life, and he would raise them up on that last day. Like with our modern day nutritionists a diet of happy meals will simply lead to death, but a diet of Jesus will lead to life.
It easy to follow Jesus when it is about what we can get out of it…When it about my needs, or my wants… Anthropologists talk about rice bowl Christians, when missionaries comes to a culture in undeveloped areas, they bring with them the technology and wealth of the west, which the people there equate with the Christian faith and they can turn to that faith to acquire that stuff.  Can I say it even happens in the west today, the idea of the prosperity gospel… come to Jesus obey God and he will richly bless you… materially… he’ll supersize your lot, or even that old evangelists message come to Jesus and everything’s going to be all right. Yes there is what Jim Anderson calls a redemptive lift for people who come to faith, if you change their life style, and priorities it will have a benefit, but Jesus is more about relationship with him in the midst of the ebbs and flows of real life, rather than lifting us to skim along to top, or to skim the cream off the top.  It’s not about going through the drive thru and getting the fast food and the plastic toy that comes with it. Don’t get me wrong there are benefits, the presence of God, peace, joy, love but Paul Metzger finishes his comments on this passage by saying “meaningful relationships,” which is what Jesus is after, “are costly and they don’t always taste nice.”
The second thing that people would have found hard follows on from that. Behind a lot of what Jesus says here are references to his death. In v.53 Jesus changes to talk not only about eating his flesh but drinking his blood as well, as Leon Morris comments the blood and flesh separate at the point of death. Then in verse 62 Jesus talks of ascending back to where he had come from and again it is talking of his death and all that takes place after that. In the synoptic gospels it is when Jesus starts talking about his death that we find even his close disciples questioning him and many stop following. They want simply a crust but Jesus offers them the cross and If people stumble at this discourse they will stumble more at the cross.
The resting image we have been using for the service this morning I think encapsulates this very well with the one way sign casting the shadow of the cross. To follow Jesus ultimately is the way of the cross, it is the way to life but that life comes from the cross, Christ laying down his life and in response to the life we receive us laying down our lives as well. We can gorge ourselves on Christianity high on glitter and glamour but low on Cross.
Thirdly, Jesus claim that he is the only way to find life, challenges what the people of his day and ours think. For the Jews their hope and identity as God’s people lay in who they were, they were God’s covenant people, by birth, and here Jesus dismisses that, he says that the flesh means nothing it is only through the work of the spirit of God, in Christ, that people can find life. Jesus exclusive claims about himself, confront their preconceived ideas and religious beliefs. Of course that exclusive claim that Jesus makes still puts people off today, with an increasing pluralistic society with its cultural diversity, we find it an affront for someone to claim they are the only way to find life.
There are some misunderstandings about Jesus claims that make it more offensive for our society that values tolerance. Jesus does not claim to have the exclusive truth. WE need to acknowledge that all religions and philosophies are able to express truth. It does not mean if we have come to put our trust in Jesus that we are right and all others are wrong. In fact Jesus comments here about the fact that no one comes to him except that the father draws him that should not only help us not be surprised that people walk away from following Jesus but also that coming to faith in Christ is not about us it is all about the grace of God, and we can share Jesus claims about himself, but we do so in a way that reflects that grace.
 I want mention almost as an aside the idea of election that comes up in this passage. Our reformed tradition is very strong on the idea of the sovereignty of God and the idea of predestination, that God has called and chosen people to follow him, so they will come to him and persevere in the faith. It too is often something that gets people all offended, to think about this kind of choosing goes against our understanding of human autonomy and freedom to choose our own destinies.  I just want to make two comments. The first is that it only seems to be with hindsight that we understand the choosing of God, and it always with the sense of God’s grace, not choosing people because they were the best or brightest or could quote the bible verbatim, in fact there is a strong sense that God chooses the poor and the foolish and the weak. The second thing is that many people have made it out to be a major pillar of the faith, trying to use it to understand Jesus death on the cross, and who he died for, the idea of limited atonement but here as in Calvin’s works we see it as a pastoral matter, its pastoral theology, that Jesus knows who will and will not receive him because it is in the nature of God to know that, the Jesus we encounter in John’s gospel always knows what is in people’s hearts. It does not stop him from reaching out to them and loving them, or willingly giving his life for the world. 
Ok I want to finish this morning by inviting us to encounter Jesus in this passage.
When we encounter Jesus there are always going to be times when we deal with that Question when we find ourselves saying “Jesus says What?” when what Jesus says challenges us and pushes us to the core, when we find it hard and maybe even offensive: Because the road following Jesus is a costly one. When we focus on who Jesus is and his claims about himself and the claim he has on those who would follow him, like with the people in this discourse, it is no longer possible to follow him unreflectively and without committing ourselves wholeheartedly. When Jesus says What?” it is often hard to swallow because it takes us from the shallow into the deep, it sifts the true from the false. It invites us more and more into relationship with Christ crucified.
The response at that time is one of two. To turn and walk away or to eat joyously, from the living bread that brings life. There are 1001 reasons to walk away from Jesus, but in the end where else can we go “you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe that you are the Holy one of God”.