35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ 36 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. 37 They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’ 38 ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?’ 39 ‘We can,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’ 41When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ Mark 10:35-45
Brian Keenan went to Beirut in 1985. He was looking for a change of scenery from his native Belfast. He went to lecture in English literature at the American University of Beirut. Having grown up in Ireland, he was well aware of danger. But a sense of adventure and the desire to experience a different culture drove him to this once beautiful but now violence wracked city. Arriving in Beirut, Brian was frustrated by his lack of freedom. Being non-Lebanese, he was an obvious target for kidnappers. So if he was to visit friends, he would first ring them, outlining the route he intended to travel and the time he expected to arrive. Nevertheless, there was always an element of risk to going anywhere.
Then one day, only a few weeks after his arrival, he was kidnapped. A Mercedes passed him in the street and then blocked his path. He recounts, “Out jumped four men, the driver with a pistol and three other men in their mid-twenties, each with a Kalashnikov in his hand and a handgun in his belt. Exchanging glances, he was quickly pushed into the back seat of the car…I was taken by four men to a small cell... A mattress was laid down on the ground. The room was smaller than an average bathroom.” This was to be the beginning of his captivity in Beirut for four and a half years.
Keenan details his horrifying experience in this book, ‘An Evil Cradling.’ Keenan tries to explain the experience of being held hostage: “My first hours, then days and then weeks, I found myself constantly having to deal with the slow hallucinations into which I had been dropped. I had been removed from a known reality. The four concrete walls of my shoe box sized cell formed my only vista. Beyond these I could see nothing, only my imagination gave me images, some beautiful, some disturbing and unendurably ever present...Exaggerating this distorted sensitivity were the voices of my captors in a disembodied language...There were the cries, too, of the other prisoners...some of them weeping and in the long hours of darkness some of that weeping became screaming.”
Keenan endured four years of isolation from the outside world, not knowing whether it was day or night, solitary confinement, being moved from one safe house to another, beatings, and cruel rumours of imminent execution. Then, without any warning, it was over. “A man kneels in front of me, his hand gentle on my shoulder. It is the voice of one of the chiefs. Quietly, he says “Brian, you go home.’ I am silent and unstunned. ‘Home, you mean another place?’ I ask, for I have heard these words before. Again the hand at my shoulder and the voice: "You go home, family, Dublin." And just like the kidnapping, so is the release. Driven in a Mercedes to the rendezvous point. Hidden and secret negotiations had brought an end to four and a half years of suffering I cannot begin to grasp.
Brian Keenan doesn’t go into what led to his release. Perhaps there was a ransom. Perhaps a release of prisoners led to his release. A life for a life. This story is in one sense so foreign to our lives that we could never understand the torment of Brian’s mind, or the pain of his isolation. But, in another sense, the story of being held captive, and then released, is our story.
One of the forms of the confession of sins that we use begins, “We are born in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” These words are an affront to our sense of human agency, the idea that we are in control of our lives and free to make of ourselves what we will. But the objective evidence, which we see played out every day, in events large and small, is that we human beings make the wrong choices. We inevitably place our needs first, and this leads to a clashing of wills and a zero-sum game. The former Prime Minister Paul Keating once said, “In the race of life, always back self-interest - at least you know it's trying.”
In Luke 4, Jesus speaks about the purpose of his ministry, using the words of the prophet Isaiah, “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 … to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” As we journey with Jesus through Mark’s gospel, we see that he does exactly this. A man captured by an evil spirit is set free, a person with leprosy is healed and reintegrated into his community, a woman rendered socially and ritually unclean by a 12-year illness is healed and enters the freedom of a normal life.
Brian Keenan was completely shocked when his moment of release came. For many of us, the moment of release burst upon us so unexpectedly too, even unknowingly, when the water of baptism was poured on our head, when the words proclaiming freedom were spoken over us. “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We were wrenched from the captor Satan’s hands, and placed into the safe, loving hands of our heavenly Father. Behind the scenes, much had taken place to secure this freedom. God decided, even before the beginning of time, that he could not bear the imprisonment of those he created in his image, now enslaved by their desires, their power, their ideas. What we human beings thought was freedom, the ability to pursue our own interests, unencumbered, was poison to us and our common life.
So God purposed to rescue us who were held hostage to sin. He would send his Son, Jesus into this world, to be our substitute. Through his perfect life and obedient death, he would take the place of all those imprisoned in their sin-cells. The life of Jesus, given up on the cross, would be the ransom., the price paid to redeem us from our captivity. “This is what the Son of Man has done. He came to serve, not to be served- and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
This is the most powerful hostage drama of all. The one who was free of sin, the one who was God himself, submitted to capture, to torture, to execution, all to take our place and to release those whose lives were diminished by the father of lies, and who lived under the ultimate fear of death.
This rescue story was foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “The Lord says, ‘It was my will that he should suffer; his death was a sacrifice to bring forgiveness. My devoted servant, with whom I am pleased, will bear the punishment of many, and for his sake I will forgive them.” Isaiah was speaking of the servant Messiah that God would send. Jesus didn’t exercise his divine authority to control and dominate us, but to serve us and all people Baptism was our point of release. This is where God exchanged our sin and selfishness for Jesus’ perfect life. This is the point of no return, no looking back.
When Brian Keenan was first captured, he thought, “If I'm going to die here [in captivity], my biggest regret is that I haven't had any kids. The feeling quite overwhelmed me." Three years after his release, he married and had two children. He reflects, "Having kids is all about the here and now; there's no time to focus on the past. The years I was locked up were an incident in my personal history. They're not all of me."
Our captivity to sin is part of our human story, but it no longer defines us. We are now defined by what Jesus has done for us through his sacrificial death on the cross, and his resurrection. This is what Paul reminds us in his great chapter on the gift of baptism, Romans 6: “We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
This new life looks is the servant-life of Jesus released in us and through us. Again and again, Jesus’ disciples come unstuck as they seek to follow him according to their own conception of his mission. They thought of glory; he spoke of suffering. They hoped for prestige and influence; he spoke of suffering and servanthood. Today James and John want the place of honour; Jesus was enthroned as Messiah on the cross. We are no different from them. Jesus patiently and lovingly calls his disciples together, the first 12, and us too, and offers this divine corrective, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
We have been set free to flourish. Our freedom brings life and hope to others. We are not defined by our past, but transformed by the presence of Jesus’ risen, servant life in us. Amen.
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18 ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good – except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.”’ 20 ‘Teacher,’ he declared, ‘all these I have kept since I was a boy.’ 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ 22At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Jesus looked round and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, ‘Who then can be saved?’ 27 Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’ 28 Then Peter spoke up, ‘We have left everything to follow you!’ 29 ‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’ Mark 10:17-31
Life consists of the haves and the have nots. We are very much the people who have. A house. A car, usually two. Lots of other things. An education. A job. We are literate, healthy, and well fed. In global terms, we are very much the haves. We are people who are greatly blessed.
Today Jesus comes across someone like us. A man who has it all. Pedigree. Piety. Property. In Luke’s account of the same incident, he is called ‘a rich young ruler’. He is a young man with the world at his feet, from a well-to-do and well-respected family.
But although he appears to have everything, he is conscious that something is missing from his impressive resume. This is the quest that has brought him to Jesus. ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
This question fascinates me, not only because it is one of life’s big questions, but because of the way that this young man phrases it. ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Perhaps the question contains the answer, although the man doesn’t recognise it. An inheritance doesn’t come by doing anything, but simply by being born or adopted into a family. Let’s leave that thought hanging as the conversation progresses.
Jesus begins with the commandments, God’s statements about what constitutes the good, indeed the godly life. Jesus quotes only from the second table of the ten commandments, those that have to do with our relationship with others. Given that this young man is pondering the big questions, perhaps he presupposes that he knows the big three commandments about our responsibilities toward God.
This confident, poised young man considers that he is on solid ground with his piety. ‘Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.’ How do those words strike you? An arrogant boast perhaps, or a sign of self-deceit, big time. Or maybe, just maybe, if this man understood obedience to be keeping the letter of the law, if he hadn’t murdered anyone, stolen anyone’s property, committed the act of adultery, then he was in the clear. He clearly wasn’t in the audience for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
So far, so good, he might be thinking to himself. My pedigree and my piety stand me in good stead in the eyes of the good teacher. But what about his property? What does Jesus have to say?
Jesus looks him straight in the eye, and ‘loved him.’ What is this love? Perhaps it’s the love which yearns for the heart and the life of this man. It’s a love which wants even more for him than he already has, a love that wants to free him from everything that he has, and which we will see, has him. ‘One thing you lack… ‘Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’
Did you catch all the action words there, in Jesus’ command? ‘Go, sell, give, come, follow.’ The man certainly heard exactly what Jesus said: asking him to give up everything in which he trusted and bring himself, naked of his pedigree, piety and property, to Jesus. No other teacher had ever asked this of him; at most the Rabbis suggested giving away one fifth of what one owned. But this teacher wanted all or nothing.
‘At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.’ He was gutted and went back to the things that had driven him to Jesus in the first place, back to that nagging sense of dissatisfaction, even when he had almost everything.
And it wasn’t just this young man who was stunned. The disciples were also shocked that such a prime candidate for the kingdom would be turned away. And they were even more disturbed when Jesus began to speak about how hard it was for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God. In their minds, wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. So how could wealth stand as a barrier
Jesus only compounds their confusion. ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ The disciples realised the dilemma. If the rich man’s pedigree, piety and property didn’t get him over the line, then what hope was there for the rest of them. Their question cuts to the chase ‘Who then can be saved?’ What hope have we got, Jesus? Who can pass your test? Who is good enough to measure up to your standards? Is there any point keeping on following you?
Does the same question enter your mind today as you hear this story? ‘Who then can be saved?’ How can we get across the line? To think this way is to view our relationship with God as if it based on our pedigree, piety and property. Pedigree could be a heritage of Christian ancestors. It could a lifelong association with the church. Piety could be the efforts we make to ensure that when it all boils down, God will be impressed with us. And while we might confess that it weas God’s grace that brought us into his kingdom, we haplessly fall into the trap of making it all about us and our efforts from that point onwards. And we all like to think that we make a good fist of living according to God’s will, or at the very least, following the golden rule, doing good to people around us, and expecting good in return. Being a decent neighbour, a law-abiding citizen, a considerate friend. But 100% obedience. Each and every time. Not a chance. Never. It’s so hard to get rid of the self-righteous impulse.
Then there’s our property. In a society of haves, what we have has become so crucial in forming our identity and maintaining our status. Surely we understand this man’s sorrow. We build, we buy, we save, we invest. All these things are not bad in themselves. But when we invest them with ultimate meaning, we have crossed the boundary from gratitude to greed.
Jesus said to the rich young man. ‘You lack one thing.’ You have plenty of things. An enormous number of personal qualities and advantages. But the problem is that they have you. Jesus could as easily say this to us, couldn’t he? You have plenty of things. Personal, physical, material advantages. Do you have them, or do they have you? If they have you, who are you trusting for meaning and hope in life? Me, or them?
What’s your answer? Jesus wants the honest truth. He got it from the disciples. They realised the drastic implications of their faulty discipleship. ‘Who then can be saved?’ Your pedigree won’t save you. Your piety will never be enough. And your property is no hedge against eternal death.
Jesus looked his disciples straight in the eye, with the same love that he directed toward the man. Jesus’ disciples think to themselves, ‘We’ve run out of options.’ But Jesus says: ‘With human beings this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’ Entry into the kingdom demands all that we have, our best obedience, and yet all we can do, or have, is never enough. Life with God is always and only God’s gift. That’s the ultimate security. Trusting in the promise of God, who makes the impossible possible.
This is seriously scary. Peter wants to hedge his bets. ‘Lord, we have left everything to follow you.’ Is there a hint here that Peter’s angling for a reward for what he and other 11 have done, in responding to Jesus’ call? A little later the 12 are jockeying for position in Jesus’ cabinet room. But life in the kingdom is not about rewards for services rendered. It’s about being rewarded by God the Father for Jesus’ life of service, rendered to us. Note how Jesus looked at the young man and ‘loved him.’ Loved him despite his self-trust, his inability to follow. We can’t love God first. We are incapable. The good news is that God loves us first in Christ, that Jesus in the very next breath tells the disciples that he must continue his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. ‘How hard it is to enter the kingdom the kingdom of God. So hard in fact, that only God through Christ can make it happen.
Let’s go back to the rich man’s question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Nothing. You only receive an inheritance because you are a son or a daughter. There’s a better question, ’Who do I trust to receive eternal life?’ Jesus says, ‘Trust me. Follow me. I’ve blazed the trail. I’ve done what you were incapable of. I’ve lived a perfect life of love. Through my cross I’ve made you my brothers and sisters. A place in the kingdom is the gift that you inherit, because you’ve born into the king’s family through baptism. Eternal life is my gift to you through faith.’ Leaving behind trust in our piety, our pedigree and our property and following Jesus connects us to a whole new family, a much richer, more meaningful life.
Jesus’ words today strike a jarring note in a world of haves, because trust in him involves untrusting our pedigree, piety and possessions. Through making himself the last, and the servant of all, Jesus gifts us with a relationship with God based on who he is and what he’s done, not on us. It’s not about trying to impress God. That’s impossible. It’s about the fact that God has us. And because of this ultimate security, we are now free to use our pedigree, piety and possessions to love this gracious God, and our neighbour, because of his love for us. Who we are, and what we have, now that God has us, is for his glory and the good of others. Amen.
10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 12 You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn-bush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure for ever.’ Isaiah 55:10-13
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, God speaks to us:
Rain and snow fall from the sky. But they don’t return without watering the earth that produces seeds to plant and grain to eat. That’s how it is with my words. They don’t return to me without doing everything I send them to do.
It’s a simple illustration. Rain falls on the earth. The earth produces food, because that’s what it does.
Similarly, God sends out his Word to do his will. We hear it and it produces life in us, because that’s what the Word does.
It’s straightforward. We don’t earn or create salvation for ourselves any more than the barren earth produces a crop on its own. That only happens after rain. It is the same with us. On our own, we can do nothing. We can only wait for God’s Word, which he unfailingly sends us.
Now, this is actually good news – gospel. We rely on God for everything. Not just physical stuff like rain and seasons, food, health and so on, but life itself, with a capital ‘L’. Without God’s Word, nothing happens, just like earth cannot produce seeds or food on its own.
There’s much we don’t understand about this, both physically and spiritually, but the principle is clear. God is the source, and we rely on him. Martin Luther wrote about these verses, ‘For all the enemies say, “Do you really think that everything depends on the Word? We must act, work, and think.” Here the text confounds their thoughts. He does not say, “Our works and our thoughts do this,” but, “My Word.” It is therefore a consolation for the purpose of lifting up the weak, lest they be offended at the lowliness of God, who has every victory in His Word.’
Thank God, the universe doesn’t wait for us to understand how it works before the sun shines and the rain falls. There are far too many wonders in creation for us to know them all! These days we might think we know more than Isaiah did about rainfall, but we certainly don’t know everything about how climate works. Behind every discovery lies mystery after mystery. Maybe Isaiah understood a few things about creation and how it works that we, with all our science, have actually forgotten.
Even more so, then, what a great relief it is that we don’t need to understand everything about God’s kingdom. But God’s Word does tell us what we absolutely need to know. We call it the gospel. God loves us, loves the world, so much that Jesus gave his life to save us. He is the Word come down to earth, to water it and give it life. Come to him, listen to him, and live!
The Lord has done this. No doubt about it.
Luther, in his usual practical way, points out that Isaiah is not just painting a beautiful picture. It is practical comfort for those who fear that the Word of God is too weak to help us in our current state. He wrote, ‘the Word seems so weak and foolish that there appears to be no strength in it. How can it be believed that all the power, victory, and triumph of God are in the word of a feeble human mouth? And so He comes to meet this scandal of the weak and the stubborn.’
Like Isaiah, Luther points out that the Word of God comes to us in physical ways. Isaiah speaks of the word that comes out of God’s mouth. In his case, that was the mouth of the prophet. For us it is the mouth of preaching and teaching, which God does through real people in real times and places – even when it is over the internet.
And this is why the church exists! If it is not speaking the Word of God, then it is empty and meaningless. Without the Word of God, it wouldn’t matter how pious, correct, and holy we are. We could fight all the evil in the world, battle demons, conspiracies and heresies, but without the clear word of the gospel, God’s saving, all inclusive love for us and the world, we will achieve nothing, be nothing.
We are to be the mouth of God, through which God’s Word goes out to do what God wants. And what does God want? That everyone who believes in Jesus may not perish but may have eternal life. Therefore, the words we speak must be words of compassion and love.
This is why God created his church. And this is how the LCANZ plays a part in God’s great, universal plan for his creation. We might be small. We might seem weak. We might not be as up to date and modern as some others are. Those things would be nice, and we keep working at them, but they’re not why we’re here. We’re here for the Word, and the Word comes to us in weakness, even like a single drop of rain that lands on the parched earth.
Come! Listen! Live!
Writing to the exiles, Isaiah describes a world transformed. It is no longer a world captive, but a world released:
When you are set free, you will celebrate and travel home in peace. Mountains and hills will sing as you pass by, and trees will clap. Cypress and myrtle trees will grow in fields once covered by thorns. And then those trees will stand as a lasting witness to the glory of the Lord.
Once more, this is picture language. Trees don’t have hands with which to clap and mountains don’t sing – at least, in as far as we know! But the point is clear. God’s people are free. Their exile is over. Even creation is transformed as a sign of the joy and peace that comes with the Lord. We see everything in a new way. Where once we saw darkness, now we see light. Where once we were confused, now we have clarity. Where once we were afraid, now we are confident. Our exile is over – we are home.
The Lutheran Confessions link these verses directly to the ministry of Christian proclamation – what we call ordination. It all links to the purpose and promises of God, the gospel which, as St Paul writes, is ‘the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes’ for ‘the righteous will live by faith.’
This is not just a future hope, but a truth which, through faith, we experience now. Christian faith is not a waiting game in which we juggle the odds of an uncertain future, placing our bets this way or that. We aren’t trying to appease an angry God or prove God’s existence. We don’t need to second guess God because faith is a lived experience, something we know at first hand. Knowing God changes our world. Our external circumstances may look the same, but we now have peace, joy, and comfort where before there was unrest, sadness and fear. Through the Word, through Christ, God’s kingdom has come, just as we pray. Today, by faith, we already live in a new world of love, peace and joy.
As I think about our lives, and about our church, and as I listen to these verses, I am astounded at what I see. So much is similar. We might live in physical safety and comfort, but the longing for freedom remains. Human machinations to build a lasting, stable world have failed or seem to be failing. Society has turned a corner, away from faith. Ironically, in the western world we have never had so much stuff, but we feel our resources are stretched. The church is ageing – who will carry it forward? Personal ethics and morality are being replaced by virtue signalling and posts on social media. We can’t free ourselves from the things that threaten to overcome us. We are burdened, anxious, even trapped by events, by our lives, and by time itself. We feel like exiles, strangers in a strange land. Who will restore us and lead us home?
What better time can there be to hear God’s invitation once more? Life in this world is temporary, we know that, but life in God is eternal. Salvation is freely available. Jesus sets us free. We are redeemed. Our captivity is over, because God’s Word never goes back to him without having done everything he sent it to do, and he sent it for the salvation of the world.
Come! Listen! Live!
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
38 ‘Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.’ 39 ‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said. ‘For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. 42 ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung round their neck and they were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. [47And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48where ‘“the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” 49 Everyone will be salted with fire. 50 ‘Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.’ Mark 9:38-50
“What will the neighbours think?” This is a good question for St John’s to ask? What do our neighbours think of us? We can answer that question in the widest possible way by looking at some data from McCrindle Research in which over 1300 Australians were surveyed about what they thought about the church.
44% of people who interviewed said that the church was beneficial for their community. 47% weren’t sure, while 9% were definitely negative. On balance, most of our neighbours don’t mind that the church is there, and that it helps people in need, but few of them feel any need to engage personally.
When non-Christians were asked for the top three negative things were about Christianity, church sexual abuse came out on top. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus speaks about those things which cause “these little ones-those who believe in me-to stumble.” The word which is translated as stumble comes also means “to scandalise.” We know how the church has scandalised little ones in its midst through the evil of child sexual abuse. People have abused the truth placed in them by God and their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Our neighbours think so much less of us, rightly so, because the church has failed to live up to its own standards, and has not loved as Christ loved.
Non-Christians also felt that the church was outdated, and judgemental. Many of our neighbours no longer share the moral foundations on which the Christian faith is based: a purposeful creation made by God, human beings created in God’s image, a sexual ethic which sees marriage as the right space where a sexual relationship is expressed, and indeed, marriage itself as the lifelong union of a man and a woman. I’m sure you can think of other points of divergence. Our neighbours have moved on, and we feel left behind.
Mark McCrindle, who collated this research, makes this clarification: “People haven’t rejected the product, just the retail outlet (or their perception of it which then becomes the reality).” The product is Jesus and the good news of the kingdom he proclaimed. The retail outlets are churches like this one, and we hear loud and clear what the neighbours think. Their view is summarised in these three words: “Exclusivity, Authority, Hypocrisy.”
Now we might want to protest that this isn’t the case at all. But we have to grapple with this perception and work out how to respond to what our neighbours think of us. Today Jesus’ disciples are forced to think about their attitude to those who are not part of their inner circle. Jesus has just cast out a demon out of a young boy, after they tried but didn’t succeed.
Imagine the disciples’ annoyance, then, when they came across someone else who was “driving out demons in Jesus’ name” where they couldn’t. In their pettiness, they “told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Look at how quick the disciples were to make judgements about other people and their motives. They didn’t think much of the neighbours. Jesus didn’t think much of their response either. He had a totally different, much more generous view of the situation. “Do not stop him…no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me.” God is up to much more than we give him credit for, in and through people we don’t even know.
I’ve spent my whole life as part of the Lutheran Church. I have needed to learn that God is up to much, much more than what is happening in this denomination dear to me. My neighbours in other churches are doing the work of the kingdom too. So I have to confess that I have not always loved my Christian neighbours as myself, and certainly not as much as I have loved my own church.
But what about other neighbours, the people we live next to, work with, who pass by this church building every day? Jesus makes a thought-provoking statement: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus challenges the disciples to have an open mind about those who have yet to make their minds up about Jesus. I’m sure that the disciples were wary of what other people thought about them and guarded with those who were outside Jesus inner circle. Was their attitude one of “exclusivity, authority and hypocrisy?”
Jesus certainly wasn’t like that. See the trouble he got into from the Pharisees, for example, who sought to ring-fence God’s reputation and protect God from sinful people. They criticised Jesus for mixing with the tax collectors, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, those suffering spiritual oppression. What would the neighbours think? But what was more important to Jesus was what God thought of the neighbours. God 3 wanted them to know that they weren’t rejected by him; rather, he loved them, cared for then, wanted them to return to him, wanted to lavish his fatherly love on them. Jesus’ life and ministry was proof positive of God’s love for all.
We see how open Jesus was to receiving his neighbour’s hospitality. We see how he engaged with those who didn’t know him or understand his message. He was happy to receive “a cup of water” from them, and their reward was to encounter the living God. How have you been blessed by the hospitality of another person, someone who wasn’t a Christian, but showed you grace and love? Perhaps more often than you think.
I think many of us feel that we are coming under increasing attack as Christians. We certainly face a hard-line secular agenda which wants to remove all faiths from the public square, but particularly Christianity, because it has been the majority faith and has for many years had considerable influence in shaping our culture. We appear to have lost the public debate about marriage, abortion, and euthanasia. It’s easy to become cynical, disheartened and even bitter about this. But Jesus doesn’t allow us this option. He calls us to generous-hearted love, the kind of love that he has poured into our hearts through his cross and resurrection. He bore all human hatred, apathy, opposition, and anger in the cross, and replaced it with his tough, unyielding love.
Jesus also calls us to turn whatever antagonism or apathy we receive into an opportunity for us to do good. We know well Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt was a precious commodity in the ancient world. It was used to flavour food, and in that context, it was shared as a sign of hospitality. So to be salt was to be hospitable, generous, committed to the well-being of friend and stranger.
Salt was also a preserving agent, keeping food fresh before the advent of refrigeration. Jesus uses this meaning when he says to his disciples today: “Everyone will be salted with fire.” He is warning his disciples of the hard times ahead of them as they confess Jesus as Lord in a world in which the title “Lord” was reserved for Caesar alone. I think we are beginning to understand the cost of making this same confession today, where living and speaking as a faithful Christian might see us labelled as troublemakers. We are learning that sometimes we have to say no when others are saying yes, and the other way round too.
What will the neighbours think of us? That’s a good question. And a critical one for St John’s as we ponder our place in this particular neighbourhood. But the prior question we need to ask is, “What do we think of the neighbours?” Jesus calls us to live like him, to approach our neighbours with a generous heart and a light spirit. And Paul encourages us to “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:5,6)
I came across this quote recently. How do we deal with a growing animosity toward the Christian faith? “What we and our society now need most is Christian discipleship-men and women who love Jesus and seek to conform their lives to him…in ordinary ways…not in big campaigns but in small daily choices made by people insignificant in the eyes of the world…in hope, mercy and communities of friendship.” In particular, he lifts up mercy: “When Christianity occupied a more dominant place in our culture, we were allowed to overlook mercy many times. Losing that dominance gives us many occasions in which to show mercy.”
What do you think of the neighbours? Amen
Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah.’ Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’ Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’ (Mark 8:27-38 27)
I was tuning out in front of the TV the other night when the Hospital Home lottery advertisement flashed before my eyes. It said: “South Australia is one of the best places in the world to live, and it could get even better! Here’s a chance to live your best life in a luxurious, fully furnished Scott Salisbury home on the Esplanade at South Brighton! Every day would be a dream with ocean views, the beach at your front door and NO mortgage. Plus you’ll receive $500,000 to spend however you like!”
My mind starting ticking. We could pay off the mortgage, buy a new car, set up the kids, and of course, we would donate what was left over for a good cause. This was every aspiration, wrapped up in one single 100-dollar ticket. Living our best life. Then the ad was gone. How quickly my attention was captivated by this vision of the good life. How did this feeling betray the level at which I often live my life: about the things I have, or that I want. Where did God fit in?
We might want to ask the disciples about what they thought the good life looked like? For some time they have been observing Jesus closely. They’ve been amazed by what they’ve seen. This man has power like no one else. Who else can walk on water, calm a storm, and heal those who are sick, and release those oppressed by evil. And to top it off, he can draw a crowd simply by opening his mouth. Following Jesus as he gets closer to the centre of power, Jerusalem, means that more good things await them.
Today it appears that Jesus wants to take the pulse of public opinion. Perhaps he’s looking to launch the next stage of his campaign to get his hands on the levers of political power. “Tell me,” Jesus says to his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” There’s a lot of chatter about Jesus. He could be John the Baptist, risen from the dead after his execution by Herod. Or Elijah, because of the remarkable miracles of healing and raising the dead. Or at the very least a prophet, and a powerful one at that.
Jesus homes in on the personal. “Who do you, those who are following me, who do you say I am?” Peter grabs the chance to articulate what has been privately thinking for some time. “You are the Messiah.” There it is. He said it. The secret’s out. You’re the man who is going to lead our people to freedom, making us rulers of their own land, masters of our destiny once again. And we, your disciples, will be living the dream, the best life with you.
What happens next is entirely unexpected. “Jesus rebuked them not to tell anyone about him.” This word will be used three times in this reading. It’s a strong word Jesus uses to call out evil and shut it down. So what’s the problem here? It will become abundantly clear in the next verses, which form the centre of the gospel of Mark. They are crucial verses for us too, as we grapple with our hopes and dreams for Jesus, and what we think the good life looks like.
“And Jesus began to teach them…” Hadn’t Jesus taught them anything before? Well, yes he had, about the seed of God’s word that produces a hundredfold growth, about Jesus’ battle against the evil one, about what makes a person clean, or unclean. But all of that was preparatory for this word about the purpose of Jesus’ life. “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Jesus speaks plainly. And that’s the problem. The disciples’ dreams are dying right before their eyes. They wanted great things for Jesus, and by extension, for themselves. At a personal level, they can’t abide the thought of their master’s death. Peter, as usual, is the only one bold enough to say what the others are surely thinking. He gives Jesus a stern dressing down. There’s that word rebuke again. But this time Peter finds himself on the wrong side of Jesus, and ultimately of history. Jesus returns fire with his own rebuke. “Peter,” he says, “Your plans bear the fingerprints of Satan. They are derailing God’s plan. They say much more about you than they do about God.”
And just when the disciples thought it couldn’t get tougher, it does. Not only is there a cross on the horizon for Jesus, there’s one for the disciples too, and not just the twelve but all those who follow Jesus: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
There is no possible way of misunderstanding what Jesus is saying here. Being a disciple does not mean success according to the way the world judges it. It’s not about gaining power over other people. It’s not aspiring to a comfortable, even a pleasurable life. This is actually the path of ruin. The good life, the best life, is about following in the footsteps of the one who denied himself and took up his cross. There is no doubt that is a hard and challenging word. And it sets us on a collision course with our society.
Social researchers have identified a mutant variant of Christianity that seeks to remove the offence of the cross from the faith. You may have heard of the term they use to describe it: Moral Therapeutic Deism. It’s a cut-price Christianity, without the cross. These are its tenets:
1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other as taught by the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven.
What’s missing? These same researchers note that “this is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign God, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice...Rather, what appears to be the actual and dominant religion is...feeling good, happy, secure, at peace.” This is a faith that has nothing to do with the very things Jesus calls disciples to do. And it’s a faith that is ultimately ashamed of Jesus because it doesn’t acknowledge that the cross puts an end to our often petty and self-focused and sin-corrupted dreams and aspirations.
When self is the keyword in our society, denial is a dirty word. Jesus is calling us to a life where our will is not the controlling factor in our lives. In an age where we are told we must construct our own morality, the call to place ourselves under the control of someone else is an incredibly difficult thing. Following Jesus calls for a fundamental re-definition of our lives, dreams, and aspirations, and placing all these things in the hands of the one whose love for us is complete, pure and unending. It’s the cross which points to our brokenness of the self, and the cross that provides a new way of life through Jesus’ ransom of his life for us.
Lam and Serina, and Lukas and Lyndsay, today through baptism you join us in taking up your cross. It will mean making unpopular choices, facing uncomfortable questions, deciding to put Jesus first and not being ashamed of him when we are shamed by others. But we don’t walk this path alone. Jesus has walked the way of the cross before us. And we follow behind him, as he leads. Only he was able to carry his cross to the bitter and yet beautiful end. So we walk together with him, and with one another, people who are determined to live God’s good life, the fullest, riches, most fulfilling life there can be, with the sure hope of life to come, behind and through Jesus Christ the Messiah. Amen.
Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’ Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. (Isaiah 35:3-7)
Do you feel that you are coping well at the moment? Or do you feel overloaded, and there’s a risk that the circuit breaker protecting your wellbeing is going to trip? I must admit that this thought has crossed my mind, most days. There’s so much going on. Some of it is external: work, family life, appointments and demands. I often feel that I have little control over our schedule, and our lives.
But there’s another, more insidious kind of overload, and perhaps even more debilitating. It’s the busyness that’s going on in our minds, the abundance of information and concern that many of us are carrying after 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan, continuing in Myanmar, Syria, Haiti, Lebanon, and many other places. Then there’s geopolitical tension, climate change, economic wellbeing. And if that’s not enough, there are the burdens that each one of us are carrying individually.
Controversial Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote an article the other week entitled, “If you can’t take any more in, there’s a reason.” I think her diagnosis of our collective state of mind is spot on. She said, “I just do not think our psyches were developed to hold, feel and respond to everything coming at them right now; every tragedy, injustice, sorrow and natural disaster happening to every human across the entire planet, in real time every minute of every day. The human heart and spirit were developed to be able to hold, feel and respond to any tragedy, injustice, sorrow or natural disaster that was happening IN OUR VILLAGE.”
I resonate with her words. There’s simply no more space in my mind and my life to worry about yet more stuff, no capacity to fix the myriad problems of the world. Where do I go with all this? The best place is to let our concerns dialogue with what God has to say to us today. His words are 2 new every morning, and they are also his faithfulness in action, as he fills us with the hope that he is still Lord of the Universe, and the God of all who are bowed down.
We began today’s service with these words: ““ 1-2 Hallelujah! O my soul, praise God! All my life long I'll praise God, singing songs to my God as long as I live.” That’s why we are here, is it not? We place our lives in the hands of the God who is in charge of everything. This is critical for us to remember in the context of our harsh judgement of those who lead us, no matter where we stand on the political spectrum. The psalm goes on:
“Don't put your life in the hands of experts who know nothing of life, of salvation life. Mere humans don't have what it takes; when they die, their projects die with them. Instead, get help from the God of Jacob, put your hope in God and know real blessing! “
We know that the Scriptures call us to pray for our leaders, and to respect and honour them, because they have been called by God to carry out this vital role. The many conspiracy theories floating around COVID-19 are both disrespectful of our leaders, but perversely they call us to place absolute trust in other shadowy people, who are singularly unqualified to lead. The bottom line is that only one we can fully trust is God, who we believe has deep, profound concern for the future of the cosmos, all those in it, and us too.
Let’s unpack the promises God makes today through his prophet Isaiah. The context is grim. God’s people Israel were exiled in Babylon. A thousand miles away, the promised land lay in ruins. God’s people knew that this was a consequence of their actions. They felt drained, hopeless. And the predominant feeling was that God no longer cared, and with good reason. We get a sense of their lack of resilience, their despair even, in the image that God uses to call them to hope, and a future. “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way…” Have you felt the same way in recent times, as you deal with the overload, the messiness that seems to get worse across the globe? Are you despairing about the fact that we human beings seem to be the problem, not the solution, and yet, you know your calling, as child of God, to live in the light?
God continues: “Say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear…” There is much to be afraid of. Where will we find our strength to nullify fear? The answer is clear: “Your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” It’s my guess that we’re not too comfortable with these two strong words: vengeance and retribution. They sound negative, life destroying. But what they point to is the way that God deals with those things that suck the life out of us: he meets head on everything that diminishes our lives, our relationships, our creation. The list is endless: greed, lust, the desire to control others, fear, sickness, and death. These are the tools that the evil one has at his disposal. This is what God goes after.
Vengeance means that God can’t just stand by and let things unravel. He’s going to restore his creation to what it was in the beginning. The Bible uses the word ‘shalom’ to describe the peace where everything fits together the way God intended it.
The other word we hear from God is retribution. Retribution means the final ‘come-uppance’ for everything that stands in the way of God’s good plans for his world. Evil will not win; God does. And that’s because of God’s direct intervention in this world through his Son, Jesus. Jesus waged a ferocious battle with everything that stood in the way of God’s plan for humanity: sickness, hatred, broken relationships, war, even death. But he did it not with the weapons that we human being employ: those that overwhelm with violent power. He did it with love.
In today’s gospel we are presented with two profound encounters with people living on the edge of polite society-a Gentile woman from what was thought to be a God-forsaken place. She was what we might term a robust discussion with Jesus. She’s not settling for second best. How does she know that too, is part of God’s plan? She takes it right up to Jesus. When he says “First I should feed the children—my own family, the Jews. It isn’t right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs” she fires back: “That’s true, Lord, but even the dogs under the table are allowed to eat the scraps from the children’s plates.”
And then we this amazingly, earthy encounter with a dear man who was also unable to talk. Look at how Jesus responds to him., He doesn’t say anything, because the man can’t hear. He lets his fingers do the talking. “He put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then, spitting on his own fingers, he touched the man’s tongue. 34 Looking up to heaven, he sighed and said, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened!” 35 Instantly the man could hear perfectly, and his tongue was freed so he could speak plainly!” What a remarkable, tactile, grace-filled miracle.
And this down to earth love is grounded in the most sacrificial way in Jesus’ cross. Jesus confronted the ultimate enemy, death. Death was what we deserved for our sin and alienation from God. Jesus readily embraced our fate and allowed God’s vengeance, his holy anger at sin, to be exhausted on him. And in raising Jesus from the dead, God confirmed that the journey toward the renewal of the whole creation has begun. And that we, empowered by the gift of faith that he has placed in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, we join with God in acts of love that bring this future to birth in the lives of others, person by person.
James reminds us today what this looks like. “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ you are doing right…Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom.”
We might not be able to solve the big problems of the world. About those we petition God to act in mercy, and we keep on praying and agitating for peace and mercy on the bigger stage. We have confidence that God has got this, that this world is not condemned to its fate, and that God is steadfastly working for peace, shalom, even when we can’t see it.
At the same time, we love at the down to earth, local and personal love that Jesus showed to us. A love which through the cross is strong enough to change the whole creation for God. Simple things like feeding someone who is hungry, clothing someone who doesn’t have enough clothes. To which we could add-getting alongside someone who is grieving, providing a listening to someone who isn’t coping, getting to know our neighbours. We can be confident that God is at work in the small as well as the large.
In recent weeks, the hills around my house have been carpeted in green, and the little creeks have been running down the many gullies, for the first time since I’ve lived there. I’ve seen it as a local parable of the cosmic promise of God to lead all people from futility to purpose, from a wasteland to a wonderland. “The desert and the parches land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom…Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.” Stand strong in this beautiful promise. Love freely in his love.
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?’ 6He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘“These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. 8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’ 14Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.’ 17After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 ‘Are you so dull?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 20He went on: ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and defile a person.’ Mark 7:1-8, 14-23
People my age have watched an awful lot of TV in our time. And that also equates to too many hours of advertising. One ad that came to mind was for a brand of soap called Solvol. A young boy called Geoffrey comes in from playing outside. We see him by the bathroom basin. A shrill voice calls out. 'Wash your hands, Geoffrey.' Then, as he reaches for the soap. 'With the Solvol, Geoffrey.' He reluctantly complies.
I only understood that ad when I become a parent myself. And now again, in the era of COVID-19, we realise how critically important good hygiene is. Handwashing is one of the ways that we can stop the spread of the coronavirus, along with social distancing and of course more recently, mask-wearing.
I’m sure you are familiar with the old saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.' And it seems that today’s gospel reading makes this link explicitly. “The Pharisees, and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus…noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.' The issue, however, wasn’t poor personal hygiene not, but something deeper than that. Washing your hands wasn’t a medical but a religious issue.
The Pharisees, whose name meant, 'the separated ones' wanted God's people to take seriously this call to holiness. They believed that this was best done through strict ordering of all aspects of their lives, designed to keep them from breaking God's law, by restricting their contact with things which were considered unclean. But the whole system had become so unwieldy that people had forgotten the main point of the exercise: reflecting God’s nature by loving and serving one’s neighbour and being a light to the nations around them.
We might think that Jesus’ response to the Pharisees today excessively harsh. After all, they were trying to honour God the best way they knew how? But the trouble was, that they were making their external behaviour the main game and were neglecting the matters of the heart. I use the word ‘heart’ in the way that the Bible understands it: not as the organ that pumps blood around our bodies, but as the source of our desire and will. And the heart is where God operates on us, and in us.
Washing your hands or ensuring that the cups and pots and pans you use are clean is not a bad thing. It has health benefits, that’s for sure. In our day and age, being careful about the kind of food we put into our bodies is also a good thing, and part of the careful stewardship of the gift of life that God has given us. And there are whole industries dedicated to wellness, but there we can see that they’ve turned diet and lifestyle into something which, if we are not careful, can make us look good in the eyes of others, just like the Pharisees had done. This points to the deeper issue that Jesus addresses today: what’s happening on the inside for each one of us.
When challenged by the Pharisees about why Jesus; disciples didn’t live according to the tradition of the leaders, Jesus doesn’t hold back: “‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘“These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” The word ‘hypocrites,' means those who are play acting, those who are wearing a mask. You can’t tell what’s going on underneath, just like I can’t tell what you’re thinking or feeling as I preach because your reactions are hidden by the masks we must wear.
Outward rules designed to safeguard purity mask an inner sickness that no amount of ritual washing can make clean. 'You have got it inside out,' Jesus is saying. You major on the surface, on how you appear to other people, but you ignore what's happening on the inside.” In Matthew's gospel, Jesus says of the Pharisees: “You clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” When we fixate on certain behaviours that make us fit for God, we put the focus on ourselves, and we also exclude others who don’t measure up because they don’t do what we do.
What are the human traditions that trip us up? How have I been guilty of being more concerned for having the right worship practice, the right outward form of things, than for the mercy and grace of God? Have we made unwritten rules about who we will mix with, and who are the kind of people that should be part of this church? Have we ignored the stuff that lurks beneath the surface?
Jesus cuts to the chase: “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” Segregating yourself from so called 'sinful people', washing your hands in a prescribed manner, observing the right traditions, won't heal the inner defilement of sin. “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come…” Jesus goes on to list a whole vile catalogue of behaviours, which we can relate to specific commandments- adultery (6th), theft (7th), murder (5th), greed (9th, 10th, deceit (8th), blasphemy (2nd).
This leaves each one of us completely exposed before God. Focusing on the outside might hide our inner mess from other people, but not from God. I thought the Pharisees had made it hard. A plethora of rules about what to eat, how to wash, what constituted work on the Sabbath. Surface level things are hard enough to get right. But Jesus' words completely nail me. The problem lies within us. All of us are born with spiritual heart trouble. We cannot go anywhere near keeping God's law, that is, loving God with our whole heart, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus is right; 'it is from within the human heart that evil intentions come.' Who cares about dirty hands when we have a defiled heart?
We need fixing from the inside out. And that’s the sphere of Jesus’ operation with us and with every human being. Jesus wasn’t afraid of being contaminated with our sin. His holiness, his love was so strong that it was able to neutralise all our uncleanness. His cleanliness, his holiness, is the godliness that he gives us. Jesus’ death on the cross is proof positive of a love that can never be overcome, a vaccine for sin that is 100% effective. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus made our hearts new and living through the Holy Spirit. Baptism is that washing on the inside that has made us clean, and godly. What we now know with absolute confidence is that the potency of Jesus’ love within us is far, far stronger than our sin, and will not wear off over time.
And today especially, on this First Communion Sunday for ten young people in the St John’s community, we celebrate the gift of Jesus’ forgiving love through his body and blood in Holy Communion. The miracle of this meal is that we feed on Jesus, the Living Bread, internally, physically, and spiritually, and we are renewed in godliness, and nourished to live internally for a life of love externally.
We don’t have to major on the minors anymore. We don’t have to be burdened by worrying about what or how much we must do to receive God’s love. We don’t have to make rules and preconditions about how God works in our lives and our world. We can joyfully live in the confidence that comes from knowing God loves us and fills us with his love. This is what I think James means in his words to us today: “But if you look carefully into the perfect law that gives freedom and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you’ve heard , then God will bless you for doing it.”
This translates, James continues, into a faith that is “pure and faultless…[that] looks after widows and orphans in their distress and [keeps] oneself from being polluted by the world.” This is a faith that majors on selfless love and welcomes others to experience the God who brings healing from the inside out.
Our world is such an unforgiving, judgemental, and hostile place. What an opportunity we have to invite others to experience the freeing love that we have received. From inside this place, we go out, with clean hearts, clean hands, and clean lives. Amen.
24 Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God. 2 Joshua said to all the people, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: “Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River Euphrates and worshipped other gods. 3 But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, 4 and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I assigned the hill country of Seir to Esau, but Jacob and his family went down to Egypt. 5 ‘“Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I afflicted the Egyptians by what I did there, and I brought you out. 6When I brought your people out of Egypt, you came to the sea, and the Egyptians pursued them with chariots and horsemen as far as the Red Sea. 7 But they cried to the LORD for help, and he put darkness between you and the Egyptians; he brought the sea over them and covered them. You saw with your own eyes what I did to the Egyptians. Then you lived in the wilderness for a long time. 8 ‘“I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived east of the Jordan. They fought against you, but I gave them into your hands. I destroyed them from before you, and you took possession of their land. 9When Balak son of Zippor, the king of Moab, prepared to fight against Israel, he sent for Balaam son of Beor to put a curse on you. 10 But I would not listen to Balaam, so he blessed you again and again, and I delivered you out of his hand. 11 ‘“Then you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, as did also the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites, but I gave them into your hands. 12 I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you – also the two Amorite kings. You did not do it with your own sword and bow. 13 So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.” 14 ‘Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshipped beyond the River Euphrates and in Egypt and serve the LORD. 15 But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.’ 16 Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! 17 It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we travelled. 18And the LORD drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.' Joshua 24:1-18
Throughout their married life, my parents had a small, printed metal picture which used to sit on the dressing table in their bedroom. It was their wedding text, from Joshua 24:15: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I thank God that they sought, day by day, to live out these words, in their marriage, and in the way that they brought up my sister and me.
These words come the mouth of Joshua. Joshua was Moses’ right hand man, and before Moses died, on the edge of the promised land, he commissioned Joshua to lead God’s people into their new home, across the Jordan. In his farewell sermon, the book of Deuteronomy, Moses took great pains to stress that it is God who has got them to this point, on the cusp of freedom. From his experience leading God’s people, Moses knew that not only would they take credit for everything that had happened to them; they would also grow smug and selfsecure in the land of promise. “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful and do not forget the Lord your God.” Forgetting God meant elevating themselves: “You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”
We all suffer from bouts of forgetfulness, aided and abetted by a culture which stresses our personal achievements. Remember the wise fool about whom Jesus speaks in Luke 12. Counting all of his money and indulgently reflecting on his achievements, he thinks, “You have plenty of good things laud up for many years. Take life easy, eat, drink and be merry.”
Sound familiar? Isn’t this the constant temptation we constantly face? Of course, we work hard to provide for our loved ones. We get an education, we progress up the ladder, we save for our retirement, we look back on what we’ve done. What do we see? I guess it depends on what glasses we use to view our lives.
Joshua was a great leader, who led his people in a successful conquest of the land of Canaan. He would have beewithin his right to point to his strategic leadership, his military acumen. But if you read through the book of Joshua, there’s a different focus. It starts with his name-Joshua, which means “The Lord saves.” God speaks to him as he takes on the his role: “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them…Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go…Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
The book of Joshua is an account of what God does for his people, not about Joshua’s courage or skill. When God had fulfilled his promise to give his chosen people this land, and as Joshua’s life draws to a close, Joshua gathered the people together and God retold their rescue story from his perspective: “I am the Lord your God…I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the river…and gave him many descendants…I sent Moses and Aaron...I brought your fathers out from Egypt…I gave your enemies into your hands…I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”
“Now,” Joshua says, “Fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and truth.” God never asks before God gives. Mercy comes first, and as a result of the grace coursing through our veins, we can respond to God wholeheartedly. This is only through the new Joshua, Jesus, whose name also means, “The Lord saves.” Sent by the Living Father, he is the bread that came down from heaven. Eating this bread results in life forever with God.
Jesus’ claim to be sent from God, and to be the only path to the Father was not meant with universal acclaim. Even many of Jesus’ disciples recoiled at the implications of his words. Joshua, too, was aware that not all of God’s people would be on board with his words. He issues the challenge, “If serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose this day whom you will serve.” There’s no such thing as spiritual neutrality. There were plenty of gods to go around in the ancient world, crafted from stone and wood. There are plenty of gods today too, although they are much better disguised: personal freedom and security, a plenitude of possessions, health, career. They might be more sophisticated, but no less deadly. All of them seek to turn the spotlight on ourselves, and off God and his grace.
Joshua wasn’t having any of this. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” This was Joshua’s line in the sand. It wasn’t his once for all decision, but his daily and ongoing posture and practice. The Apostle Peter came to the same conclusion: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
The same is true for us. Our life with God begins with his decision for us through the gift of his Son Jesus and his precious life.
This decision was enacted in our baptism, where God brings us through the water of death and chaos into a life of peace and security in the new covenant of God’s love in Jesus. This is what we have seen played out before our eyes when Chester was baptised. His parents Ed and Fi serve the Lord by bringing their son to the Lord’s house, and the Lord himself makes Chester his dwelling place. Now the Spirit of God fills Chester with the heart, the desire to serve the Lord.
Our life continues with God, day by day. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” This is a great wedding text, but an even better word from God to shape each and every day. It asks us, firstly, to reflect on all that we have received from God’s hand. Secondly, it makes us aware of the alternative option-to place our trust in other flaky gods of our own making, including our achievements and the things we own. Thirdly, it reminds us of the community of faith, in our homes firstly, if that’s the situation in which we live, but also in this community, all those who find their shelter in the house of God. Here we find the security we crave, and the life we long for. Amen.
1 I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. 2 I will glory in the LORD; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. 3Glorify the LORD with me: let us exalt his name together. 4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. 5 Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. 6 This poor man called, and the LORD heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. 7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. 8 Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. 9 Fear the LORD, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. 10 The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing. 11 Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. 12Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, 13 keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. 14 Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. Psalm 34:1-14
I’m not a great cook. My family will attest to that. I have an extremely limited roster of recipes. I’m not the person to cook a meal for visitors. Rather, I’ll deal with the drinks, but even then, I get sidetracked with conversations and forget that I’m meant to be acting as the host. At the end of the night, I’m in charge of cleaning up.
Last week we were blessed to hear from Nathan Bradtke. Nathan broke down the huge topic of mission into bite size pieces. In particular, he shared three simple strategies that have served him and his family well as they look to share Jesus with others. They were: people are not projects, reorient your life to be relationship focused, and utilise hospitality. Jodi and I have spent some time this week pondering these words, and how our lives need to change in order to be more open to opportunities we have to share with Jesus with people we know.
Hospitality was the third strategy. Hospitality is saying, “Welcome to my home, my space. You are a treasured guest. Let me serve you. Let me get to know you a little better. Let me share with you something of who I am, what is precious to me.” This is most often done in the context of a meal, but hospitality is broader than that. It’s an attitude of welcome toward the other, the guest, the stranger, the outsider.
St John’s Vision Statement begins with these words: “We are a Christ-centred, welcoming, vibrant community…” We are blessed that the Holy Spirit prompts people to join us in worship or reach out to us. Our prayer is that we model the welcoming love of God himself in our interactions with them, and that, in the words of today’s psalm, they “taste and see that the Lord is good.” This is the essence of spiritual hospitality.
This is what we hope will happen for people who choose to send their children to Concordia College. People have many reasons for this decision. For some Christian parents I’ve spoken to here and in the wider Christian community, it is because Concordia is a Christian school, and they want their children to grow in the foundation in which they’ve been nurtured. Others like the focus on pastoral care and values. Others find the school a convenient choice because of where they live. Whatever the reason, my prayer, and I hope ours too, is that students and families are able to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
These words come from Psalm 34. It’s a thanksgiving prayer. David was in a sticky situation, on the run from Saul who was trying to kill him. In all of his tight scrapes, and also in those situations where he himself was at fault, David was aware that God was the ultimate reality in his life. It was when he failed God that this became even more clear, as he moved toward God in confession, and received the forgiveness that is God’s alone to give. “I sought the Lord and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears…this poor man called out, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.”
This is the story that we can also tell, of how God has reached down to us through his Son Jesus, who in becoming a human being, experienced life in our skin, enduring the persecution of those who opposed God’s ways. Jesus wasn’t a tourist enjoying a holiday among us, but God with skin on, God who identified with us and our broken human condition. In the willing sacrifice of his life on the cross, he broke the curse of evil that we trace back to our first parents. Not only that, but he also blazed the trail of new and enduring life in his resurrection. This is our life now, in the middle of the messiness of the second year of COVID-19, and of all the other stuff that we are dealing with personally.
We can say to people, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who take refuge in him.” To take refuge is to hide oneself, as a child is wrapped in its parent’s arms. This is the good news that we pray those who are part of the Concordia College might come to know through school worship and class devotions, Christian studies, and the witness of Christian teachers and the St John’s church community.
There’s more good news to share. David goes on, “Fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.” Much of the advertising with which we are constantly bombarded plays on our fears of not having enough, or not having enough of the right things, the status symbols. Chasing these trinkets is a pathway to constant dissatisfaction. A relationship with the Creator of all is the circuit breaker that disables our status anxiety and envy of others. “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” We’ve been given the most precious endowment-the title ‘child of God’, the rest is window dressing.
“Come my children, listen to me. I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” COVID-19 has shaken our world. At the personal level, we worry about the health and wellbeing of loved ones. At a wider level, we are concerned about our state and nation, and what impacts the pandemic will continue to have. At the global level, we see countries where COVID chaos is unfolding. We can add to that the future of the whole planet, as we digest the release of the IPCC report into climate change. People feel anxious about what’s coming next, and whatever control we felt we had about the future has vanished.
“The fear of the Lord” is not another fear to add to an ever-growing list of concerns. “The fear of the Lord,” we read in Proverbs 9:10, “is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Fear is not the sense of cowering before God’s might and majesty. Fear is the sense of awe and wonder at the God who made all, yet also made us, and wants to have a personal relationship with us. Not only that, but through his Spirit, God wants to play a part in our lives moment by moment, enabling us to live well and wisely, in the power and the pattern of his Son Jesus.
Some people choose a school for their children based on its Year 12 results. A high ATAR is seen as the pathway to a successful life. Wisdom, though, isn’t predicated on having a high IQ. In biblical terms, wisdom is a gift from God, a way of navigating life conscious of God’s guidance, and relying on his insight.
In Proverbs we read that wisdom invites all people to her feast, “Let all who are simple come in here, and to those who lack judgement, “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed.” Leave your simple ways, and you will live; walk in the way of understanding.” We may recoil at the word ‘simple.’ Naïve is another way it can be translated, lacking the capacity, the information to make wise decisions. Remember, wisdom isn’t a case of how many degrees we have, but the way we allow God to inform and direct our choices.
We are in the business of spiritual hospitality. Here in our gathered worship, but also through the mission and ministry of Concordia College. God lays out the table. His word is the main course. Good news is on the menu. God’s Spirit takes what is taught and proclaimed and leads people to faith. We pray that people are able to feed on Jesus, the Living Bread, that they discover that he, in his life, death and resurrection, is life for the world. Amen.