Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sunday 24 February 2007 - The Temptations of Being Human

The text for tomorrow's sermon is based mainly on Luke's account of the Temptation of Jesus: Luke 4:1-13.


Introduction – Setting the Scene

Imagine with me, if you will, a scene about 40 minutes into a 2-hour movie. We – the audience – have been closely following the development of the main character.

Armed with the screen-writer’s exposition and with a little help from the narrator, we already understand that the central character is someone very special. And right now, 40 minutes into the film, the anticipation is building. The script and the acting and the music all indicate that something very impressive is about to happen that is going to change the course of the film. From this point forward, nothing is going to be the same.

And then it happens – that compelling, mysterious event that we’ve been waiting for – Jesus is baptised. The background music swells dramatically and triumphantly. The heavens are opened. A great light pours forth and the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus. And a voice from heaven – somehow both quiet and thundering at the same times – declares “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased!”

Ahhh. So that’s it! That’s the revelation we’ve been waiting for. Mystery solved. The audience sits back in their seats and people relax a bit, content in the knowledge that they now understand who this man is. As the voice-over narrator reads the genealogy of Jesus, one or two people contemplate whether to get out of their seats to buy some Malteasers.

But wait! The scene once again changes dramatically and abruptly. The music is loud, poignant - at once both threatening and hopeful. Clearly the drama is not yet over!

Jesus is going to be tempted by the personification of all Evil – the Devil himself. Jesus, Son of Adam, Son of God will be put to the test.

And at the end of this testing, we will know the answer to the question: “What kind of a Messiah is Jesus going to be?” Is Jesus going to the sort of Messiah that many of his contemporaries are expecting – one who uses power to free the Jewish people from the hands of an occupying force? Or is he going to be the sort of Messiah that is indicated in the Gospels – a Suffering Servant Messiah? Is Jesus going to be a Son-of-Adam Messiah or a Son-of-God Messiah?

Well, of course, we know the answer. We’ve heard this story told many times, those of us who have been Christians all our lives. Jesus is going to be the Suffering Servant Messiah. He’s going to suffer and die on the cross and all who believe in him and call on his name will be saved.

The thing is, the temptations of Jesus are not just temptations that were specially designed in order to try to invalidate his Messiahship. These temptations are at the core of what it means to be a human being living in a sinful world. And if Jesus was fully divine, he was also fully human.

By human standards, these three temptations are subtle, reasonable and are considered by many to be best-advised. Evil is powerful when it weaves its way into our standard operating procedures and when it presents itself as “the way things are”.

The First Temptation

The first temptation that Jesus is presented with is the temptation of “The Lord helps those who helps themselves”. Just in case I need to say it in so many words, this saying comes from popular culture and is most emphatically not to be found anywhere in the bible.

It is in Jesus’ response to this temptation to turn a stone into bread that we can understand the precise nature of the temptation. Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy 8: Moses’ warning to the people of Israel not to forget God in times of prosperity. A person does not live by bread alone, Jesus responds

The first temptation is the ever-present temptation that humanity has to try to help itself. To forget that everything that we have is given to us by God. It’s the temptation to think that we are in control of our lives, to think that the good things in our lives are there not as gifts from God but because we deserve them.

Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we repeat the words “Give us this day our daily bread” Yet, generally speaking, our lives are not dominated by people going around saying: “I’m so thankful for everything that I have, that I sometimes can’t take it all in!” or “There are just no words that will express the feelings of thankfulness that I have.”

What we do hear are lots of cultural messages that encourage us to spoil ourselves because we’re worth it. We hear messages telling us to take a well-deserved holiday or to buy ourselves a well-deserved treat.

Now, I’m not saying that God wants us to be miserable or to suffer simply for the sake of suffering. I am saying that God-followers are called to remember the truth that all good things in our lives are blessings from God.

Although our culture gives us the seemingly reasonable message that we deserve what we have and that our lives are under our own control, disciples of Jesus are called to remember the truth of God’s sovereignty.

Jesus’ Messiahship will not be based on his reliance on his own power. Jesus’ Messiahship is going to be based in his humanity. He will conduct his Messianic mission as a human being living in radical obedience to his heavenly Father. Jesus’ Messiahship will be a witness to his faith in the sovereignty of the Father.

The Second Temptation

The second temptation is the big one – the temptation to wield power over other human beings. Jesus has just indicated his faith that everything human beings have comes from God, but now the Devil is claiming to have power over the things of this world and he is encouraging Jesus to choose to be the kind of Messiah that uses might on the side of right.

Jesus responds by quoting from the Great Commandment – the foundational principle of both Judaism and Christianity – “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him”.

Jesus was being tempted to be the kind of Messiah that many people in his time were waiting for – a powerful King. However, Scripture tells us clearly that Jesus was being called to be a Suffering Servant and not a powerful King. And it’s not just because Jesus had to die to atone for our sins; it’s also because servanthood is the very nature of Christian discipleship The way of the world is to wield power; the way of Christian discipleship is to be a servant.

Our culture holds fast to the idea of using might in the cause of right. One of the commentators on this passage – John Pridmore in The Church Times - writes the following: ‘The same seductive voice seeks to persuade the Church, as it sought to persuade the Lord of the Church, to be a power for good - to be a power for good. To use power to achieve what must be done may be a necessity for the army, but for the Church to do so is always idolatry. The temptation to "worship the devil" is not to do weird things in the woods at midnight. It is the temptation to stride the corridors of power. And, ever since the conversion of Constantine, there has been little evidence of the Church's attempting to resist it.’

I said earlier that these temptations are subtle, reasonable and considered by many to be best-advised. I said earlier that evil is most powerful when it weaves its way into our standard operating procedures and when it presents itself as “the way things are”.

The use of might for the cause of right is hugely seductive because the alternative seems totally impractical, unrealistic and even suicidal. I do like John Pridmore’s observation that. ‘the temptation to "worship the devil" is not to do weird things in the woods at midnight.’ The temptation is simply to follow the way that seems most “realistic” and “practical” in our sinful world.

The Third Temptation

The third temptation has to do with putting God to the test.

Jesus was tempted by an action that most of us would find easy to resist. I’ve not yet heard of many people tempted to throw themselves off tall buildings. The interesting thing about this temptation, though, is that whatever the outcome, Evil would have won.

Jesus’ survival would not have been regarded as an oddity in his culture – it would have been proof of Jesus’ political Messiahship and it would have gained him the power offered by the second temptation. Had Jesus not survived the fall, his death would not have been a victory over sin, death and the power of Evil; it would simply have been pointless.

However, the temptation to test God is something to which ordinary human beings are tempted. This is the temptation to demand that God must “magically” intervene in a situation and sort things out in the manner which I think is best.

Human beings have many different ways of putting God to the test in this way.

The so-called “Prosperity Gospel” is one way in which people of faith may put God to the test. The “Prosperity Gospel” gets preached in different ways in different situations but it sounds something like this: “God wants everyone to be happy and healthy and wealthy. All you have to do is speak in tongues or give half your salary to the minister or believe the right things about healing ministry and all your problems will be solved.”

The other way that people put God to the test is by rejecting God or not believing in God because God has not intervened to “magically” sort out their problems. So some people will say that they have turned their back on God because he allowed a loved one to die. Other people will say that because there is so much suffering in the world, they are forced to believe that God does not exist.

All these ways are ways of putting God to the test, of demanding that God do things our way.


Perhaps unique amongst all human beings, Jesus overcame all these temptations. He chose to become fully human and to trust in God for his needs in full obedience; he chose to ascribe all power and sovereignty to the Father; he chose to believe in a God who does not need to be put to the test.

In overcoming these temptations, Jesus not only defined the nature of his Messiahship, he also became an example to us.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent and so I think that is it fitting that we look at our human nature in the mirror of Jesus’ example and in the light of human temptations.

I do, however, want to remind you that, as you examine your consciences during Lent, that you remember where this season is leading: to an empty tomb and a living Lord.

With the Israelites of old, Christianity proclaims that God is steadfast, abounding in mercy and most of all – full of grace – despite the unfaithfulness of his people. We believe that God offers forgiveness to all through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the cornerstone of our faith.

The examination of our consciences during Lent is the stuff of discipleship but it is our trust in God’s offer of forgiveness that makes us free to repent in the first place!

During Lent, I pray that we remember that we do not presume to come to the Lord trusting in our own righteousness, but only in the mercy and forgiveness that was brought into the world through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen

Sunday 11 February 2007 - Injustice is on borrowed time

This is a short sermon aimed at adults (and whoever else doesn't fancy a kip) at an all-age communion service. The texts are: Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 6:17-26.


We’ve spent some time this morning discussing how God wants us to be rooted and grounded in him and in his way of doing things. The passage we read from the prophet Jeremiah tells us that the person who follows the ways of God “Shall be like a tree planted by water….It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green.”

But this passage also raises the issue for me of whether being a follower of God means that you won’t have any hardship, that you won’t have any illnesses and that life will be one big bowl of cherries. Because in real life things don’t always seem to work out that way. There is even a popular saying that acknowledges this phenomenon: “No good deed ever goes unpunished”.

It would have been easy to take the Jeremiah passage and preach to you that following God is the path to happiness or to self-actualisation. But had I done that, I would not have been preaching the truth and I would not have been proclaiming to you a biblical worldview.

The New Testament shows us that the early church suffered for the sake of following Jesus. And in Luke’s version of the beatitudes, which we have just read, we see that Jesus expects his disciples to be hated, excluded, reviled and defamed because of him.

So what exactly is the deal here? If we follow God will we be happy or will we have troubles?

I’m afraid that rather than give you an answer I’m going to come back at you with a question. Why is it that you are following God? Why is it that you wish to be a disciple of Jesus?

Because if your reason for following God is “to be happy” then you are following God for the wrong reason. In very simple terms, the reason for following God is because God is God and God is to be obeyed. The reason that we follow God is because God’s way is the right way. Sometimes, following God will make people happy, but that’s certainly not to be guaranteed.

Often times, following God is so contrary to the way that the world works, that being a disciple of Christ might actually involve hardships. Certainly Christians in places like China and in Burma or other countries where the church in persecuted know the negative consequences of being a Christian.

Closer to home, many Christian people struggle with an environment at work where they feel that they are being asked to behave in ways that are contrary to their Christian faith. Sometimes they have to choose between behaving in a Godly way or keeping their jobs.

But in the Beatitudes, Jesus assures people who choose God’s path, that although they may feel persecuted, that they are actually blessed. Anyone who sets their life on the path of following God and who suffers in consequence of their discipleship is blessed by God. Contrary to the common view that to be happy, rich, and have a full belly is evidence of God’s blessing, Jesus’ tells us that if worldly happiness is our main objective, then our reward is now and not in the Kingdom.

So what is following God all about then?

One of the commentators on the Jeremiah reading puts it this way: “The dice are loaded in favour of righteousness; injustice is on borrowed time.”

As Christians, we follow God’s way not only because it is right and because God is to be obeyed, but because we believe that we have a real and a concrete hope for the establishment of the Kingdom of God. We believe that, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus “The dice are loaded in favour of righteousness; injustice is on borrowed time.”

Everything that God does has one objective: the Kingdom of God, the New Creation, the Resurrection Life. This is the place where justice and righteousness will be established and where the Messiah sits at God’s right hand. The prophets longed for the establishment of God’s Kingdom of justice and righteousness and as Christians, we believe that Jesus is the fulfilment of their prophetic longings.

Following God is about Truth. It is about doing what is right. It is about trusting that God is working his purpose out and that, because of Jesus, there is a real and concrete hope for the future of humankind.

In the Kingdom of God, the poor and the hungry are poor and hungry no longer. In the Kingdom of God, all those who have suffered at the hands of evil are validated and blessed by God.

The establishment of Kingdom of God requires divine intervention, but it is not just a “spiritual heaven”. The divine intervention has been done: God sent Jesus, who died because of our sins. Jesus rose from the dead, victorious over sin, death and the power of evil. Jesus’ Holy Spirit has come into the world and empowers Christians to spread the power of life, truth and righteousness into the world.

As Christians, we know that we are God’s tools here on earth. We do not follow God because following him will make us feel good. We follow him because, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have the firm hope that “the dice are loaded in favour of righteousness; injustice is on borrowed time.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I pray that we will be like trees planted by the water. May we send our roots out into the living waters of the Holy Spirit. When the heat comes, may we continue to grow strong in the knowledge that God has promised that his Kingdom of justice and righteousness will prevail. Amen

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Sunday 4 February 2007 - Forgiven Sinners, God Believes in You

This is a two part sermon. I used to do a lot of two-part sermons but some reason I stopped. Each scripture reading is followed by a talk and the two talks are also separated by a hymn. In addition to being a two-part sermon, this is something of a narrative sermon in the first person. Something different for a change.


The first part is based on
1 Corinthians 15:1-11

I’m Paul. Paul of Tarsus.

At the moment, I’m in the middle of writing a letter to the Christian Church in Corinth. “And now I want to remind you, my brothers and sisters, of the Good News which I preached to you, which you received, and on which your faith stands firm.”

The Gospel message is the key to our faith as Christians and it is central to what we are all about. But I think that sometimes we can take this message for granted or it becomes so commonplace that we hear the words but they don’t have the same impact that they did when we first heard the Gospel. That’s why it’s important for followers of Christ to keep reminding each other of the Gospel message.

I know that my brothers and sisters in Corinth are perfectly familiar with the Gospel message, but I hope that by reminding them of it that they can hear it in a fresh way:

“Christ died for our sins as written in the Scriptures, he was buried, was raised to life three days later as written in the Scriptures; he appeared to Peter, and then to all twelve apostles. Then he appeared to more than 500 of this followers at once. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared also to me.”

What’s that? You say that this sounds more like a recitation of events than a statement of belief? Well, we in the first century church believe that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried and that he rose from the dead. That he appeared to so many people after his death is just proof of the resurrection. I think you have a creed now that says much the same thing, don’t you?

What’s that you say? Ah yes, the resurrection! That’s a tough one for a lot of people! Don’t think that it was any easier to believe in my day than it is in yours. We weren’t all a bunch of superstitious primitives you know. I’ll bet the Greek philosophers could give your 21st century scholars a run for their money! Some of them didn’t even believe in an after-life.

Hmm, but you do bring up a good point. I think I will have to write a bit more about resurrection next. I’ll probably point out that belief in the resurrection is essential to the Christian faith but that no-one knows exactly what the resurrection life will look like or what sorts of bodies we will have after the resurrection. I need to give it a bit of a think but I do insist that ‘resurrection’ is an important part of our faith; If Christ was not raised, then our faith is in vain. Oh! That sounds good; must make a note of that for later.

But in the meantime, my point is that because of Jesus’ death on the cross and God’s forgiveness of our sins, humanity has a real and concrete hope for the future. And disciples of Jesus like you and me have been initiated into a church that believes in real and concrete hope for humanity.

Being a follower of Jesus isn’t just about having some sort of religious experience today. This is what some of the Corinthians seem to think and where they have taken their eye off the goal. They’ve not really been behaving like people who are hoping for a realised Kingdom of God in the future. They’ve been focussing on the minor things like spiritual experiences and whether or not being a disciple of Apollos or Peter brings one better spiritual gifts.

There have been rivalries and factions among them, each faction claiming that members of their group are better disciples of Christ than the others. Of course, I had hoped that the church would have been beyond factions by the 21st century, but it can be so hard for us human beings to grasp the meaning of the Gospel.

Anyway all this focus on who is the best sort of Christian or what sort of spiritual experiences a Christian has to have completely misses the Good News of the Gospel of Christ. The point is that we are all forgiven sinners. We are all sinners. And through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are all forgiven by God! The life, death and resurrection of Jesus demonstrate God’s transforming power and this power can transform human society as well as individual lives.

Do you want proof of God’s transforming power? Look at me. I get the feeling that some of you in the 21st century have conveniently forgotten the fact that before Jesus appeared to me on the road to Damascus, I had made it my life’s work to murder Christians. When I say that I am the least of all apostles and unfit to be called an apostle, I’m not just mouthing pious words. As far as I’m concerned, I’m telling the truth. I murdered people. I murdered Christians.

When Jesus appeared to me, the first shock I had was the painful understanding that far from being a righteous man, I was actually a sinner. The chief of all sinners. That was a horrible experience, let me tell you. I had dedicated my life to trying to serve the Lord of Heaven and then, in a blink of an eye, I understood that I was persecuting him instead. But thanks be to God, immediately after that, Jesus revealed to me that his mission here on earth was all about reconciling God and humanity and that God offered me forgiveness.

It was then that I understand that I am a forgiven sinner – that we are all forgiven sinners. That might sound like a contradiction in terms – being a forgiven sinner – but it’s actually a wonderful freedom!

Human beings don’t have to try to play the impossible game of trying to earn God’s forgiveness. Christ has made forgiveness possible on our behalf. And we don’t have to try to hide our sinfulness from God either; he sees us as we are and, in Christ, he offers us the grace of his forgiveness.

What’s that, you say? That sounds more like what you call the Gospel message? Well, that’s a relief! I’m glad to see that things haven’t changed that much in the 21st century.


The second part is based on
Luke 5:1-11

Shalom, brothers and sisters! My name is Simon but people also call me Peter, or Cephas in Hebrew. That all started when I left everything I had to follow Jesus of Nazareth, my Rabbi and my Lord.

I first came across Jesus in the synagogue when he read from Isaiah and seemed to be claiming to be the Messiah. Everyone spoke well of him until he suggested that the Messiah had also come for the Gentiles and the outcasts, and maybe especially for the Gentiles and the outcasts. Well, I can tell you that that caused quite an uproar among the congregation! People began to chase him out of the synagogue and they tried to stone him. But I was intrigued by this person Jesus who had a strange air of authority about him.

After he left the synagogue, Jesus came to my house where my mother-in-law was lying very ill with a fever. We were worried that she might die but Jesus healed her immediately and she was well enough to get up out of her bed and prepare a meal for us there and then!

Well, I tell you, that certainly increased my curiosity about Jesus even more. Of course, it is not unheard-of for holy men to be healers here in the first century, but I was beginning to entertain the possibility that Jesus might be more than just a holy man. Jesus and I were beginning to develop a relationship and because of that relationship that my regard for him began to grow.

It was the incident with the unexpected catch of fish that changed everything for me. I’d always believed in God but after that experience I realised that God believed in me!

Let me see if I can try to explain this a bit better.

I’m an experienced fisherman. Me and my mates had been trawling all night and we really didn’t catch very much. Do you know what it’s like when you try to do something and fail? You’ve got the experience. You’ve got the knowledge. You try your best but all your efforts come to nothing. If that goes on and on you start to doubt yourself and what you know.

Maybe I’ve lost my ability to catch fish. Maybe I no longer have the right knowledge. Maybe I need different equipment. Maybe I’m not trying hard enough. You’re grinning. I think you’ve been there, right? You know what I’m talking about.

So then Jesus comes along. You have to remember that we’re already getting to know each other and that I’m already thinking that there is a lot more to Jesus than just being a rabbi or a holy man. Jesus has got this whole crowd of people following him, hanging on his every word, but he comes to me and to my boat and he asks to go out into the lake.

Now, this already felt like a bit of encouragement. Because when I was cleaning my nets, I was feeling like something of a failure. And then this man who could be the Messiah comes up to me and asks me to do what I do. He trusts me not to sink the boat even though I’m feeling like a failure.

It’s a good job I already knew something about him and about his character, because when he asked me to cast my nets into deep water in the morning, I got my back up a bit. In about a half a second the thought crossed my mind, ‘I’m the fisherman! You’re a Rabbi!’ But then I thought, ‘Why not? The worst thing that can happen is that I end up in the same situation I was in a few minutes ago. And anyway, I already think that there is something special about Jesus. Why not just listen to what he says?’

And so I listened to him and I did something that went against all of my fishing experience. And Jesus was right! My nets were filled with fish. So many that the boat almost couldn’t carry them all back to shore.

And then my eyes were opened. I saw that Jesus was the Messiah and my Lord. I can’t really explain why. The first thing that came out of my mouth was ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.’ Funny, isn’t it? All those other people had been chasing Jesus around trying to get close to him and now I’m saying ‘Go away from me.’ You just can’t come face to face with pure holiness and not understand that you’re a sinful person. And that’s painful.

But Jesus didn’t go away. More than that, he told me that he wanted me to follow him and be his disciple! Me, a sinner! A simple fisherman with only a basic knowledge of the Torah! No ordinary Rabbi would even consider having me as his disciple, but here is the Messiah, the Son of God, showing me that he believed in me and in the work that I could do with him. Just like we caught all those fish that morning, Jesus showed me that together with him that Jesus would use me to “catch” many people to be his disciples.

Well, you all in the 21st century know the rest of my story. I wasn’t a perfect disciple by any means, but God still used me to build his Church. In my cheekier moments, I like to think that my mistakes and personality quirks can encourage other Christians to realise that God uses all sorts of imperfect people to do his work on earth.

The thing that I learned about God during my life is that God doesn’t work alone. Being Creator of the Universe, he could work alone, but he wants to work with us. Imperfect as we are. Isn’t that amazing? Being a follower of Jesus wasn’t always an easy thing to do - you know I became a martyr in the end - but it was worth it. Well, for me, anyway.

God took me, flawed as I am, and used my life to his glory. God believed in me and I know he believes in you too.