Saturday, 14 January 2017

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

1Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord* and ours:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 
4 I give thanks to my* God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6just as the testimony of* Christ has been strengthened among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the first ten verses of the passage, the name of Jesus is mentioned ten times. This was going to be a difficult letter for Paul to write because the situation in Corinth was difficult and when dealing with problems like this, it is good to remember that we ought not to try to do this in our own strength, but always to look to Christ for our guidance and direction. Barclay writes: “... to this difficult situation he took Jesus Christ, and it was in the light of the Cross of Christ and the love of Christ that he sought to deal with it ...”
In this introduction Paul introduces his reader to two things: Firstly, it tells us something about the Church – it should be the church of God – and in this case not the church of Corinth! Whatever denomination we might come from and cherish being part of, we must always remember that we are all part of the same family of God. When we think of it in this way we are sure to discover all the things that unite us rather than those things that divide us.
Verses 4 ff refers to the experience of the Corinthians, of Jesus and His grace: they were enriched in all areas including speech and knowledge of every kind. This was my experience. As you recall when we were at school, I was but of minor intellect, but when I found faith, my mind was set free and I have had the privilege to study at two universities and completing three degrees. I know that many of my teachers would be astounded!

There is another dimension. No one can ever argue a person into Christianity; all we can say is “Try it and see!” When people do, they find that its claims are all true.

One of the most special parts of this experience is the receipt of gifts that we are given, wonderful gifts that are free and undeserved. I have already referred to my gift, that of learning and teaching, which is all of grace. All our special gifts are from God. This is in fact true of all people, but too many do not acknowledge this. The world would be such a different place if it were so. Barclay writes: “If we fully realised that, it would bring new atmosphere and character into life.”

Such skills as we possess are not our own achievement – they are all gifts from God and therefore are held in trust – they are not to be used as we want to use them, but as God wants to use them – not for our own personal profit or prestige – but for the glory of God and for the good of humanity. If only all realised this, would the world not be a far better place with less poverty and suffering and much more beauty and joy?

From verse 8 Paul brings things to a head as he speaks of the day of our Lord Jesus Christ – then ultimate end. In the Old Testament, the idea of the day of the Lord keeps recurring: it was the day when the Jews expected God to break into history and when the old world would be wiped out and the new world born. On this day all people would be judged. Now Paul translates this in a new way by referring to the day of our Lord Jesus Christ referring to the day when Jesus will return in all his power and glory – indeed a real day of judgement – but our judgement is not one of fear and punishment but forgiveness, acceptance and love. Barclay concludes:

“The person who is in Christ can meet even it unafraid because he will be clothed not in his own merits but in the merits of Christ so that none will be able to impeach him.”

This reminds me of that wonderful hymn And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood (with echoes of the prophecy in Zachariah 3)

1.             And can it be that I should gain
                an interest in the Savior's blood!
                Died he for me? who caused his pain!
                For me? who him to death pursued?
                Amazing love! How can it be
                that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
                Amazing love! How can it be
                that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

2.             'Tis mystery all: th' Immortal dies!
                Who can explore his strange design?
                In vain the firstborn seraph tries
                to sound the depths of love divine.
                'Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
                let angel minds inquire no more.
                'Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
                let angel minds inquire no more.

3.             He left his Father's throne above
                (so free, so infinite his grace!),
                emptied himself of all but love,
                and bled for Adam's helpless race.
                'Tis mercy all, immense and free,
                for O my God, it found out me!
                'Tis mercy all, immense and free,
                for O my God, it found out me!

4.             Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
                fast bound in sin and nature's night;
                thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
                I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
                my chains fell off, my heart was free,
                I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
                My chains fell off, my heart was free,
                I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

5.             No condemnation now I dread;
                Jesus, and all in him, is mine;
                alive in him, my living Head,
                and clothed in righteousness divine,
                bold I approach th' eternal throne,
                and claim the crown, through Christ my own.
                Bold I approach th' eternal throne,
                and claim the crown, through Christ my own.



Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3:13-end (NRSV)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,* with whom I am well pleased.’

My text this morning is written in Matthew 3.15:

‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’

Since the earliest times people have been troubled by this important event. John’s Baptism was clearly one of repentance. John was doing something radical; never before in the history of the people of Israel had a Jew been required to be baptised. Jews used baptism, but only for proselytes who converted to Judaism from others faiths. It seemed to the Jews just natural that these people be washed of their sins, something that was not necessary for those who were children of Abraham. They believed that Baptism was for sinners, and no Jew ever conceived of himself as a sinner shut out from God. John now made it clear that, as a Prophet of God, the Jews needed to realise that they too were sinners that they could not rely on any special relationship with God. And many at the time were prepared to acknowledge their need to change. As Barclay explains: “… now for the first time in their national history the Jews realised their own sin and their own need of God. Never before had there been such a unique national movement of penitence and of search for God.”

When Jesus arrived, he posed a special problem for John who knew that here was one man who did not need to be baptised, yet was offering to go through the ritual for sinners. As Matthew records in verse 14: “14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’  And so John consented. 

What does Jesus mean when he said ‘… in this way to fulfil all righteousness …’?

The people offering themselves for Baptism at this time would have been devout Jews. For them, any reference to righteousness would have been a reference to God’s faithfulness to the Covenant he had made with his people so that he could be in a special relationship with them. This was the major function of Jesus, to make it possible for anyone, to enter into a relationship with God. In order to do this, Jesus would have to identify completely with the people, take upon himself their sin and guilt, and so bring them into a relationship with God.

When Jesus came out of the water, the Spirit of God descended upon him in the form of a dove – the symbol of purity and of divine love.

This must have been a wonderful moment for all who witnessed it, especially for Jesus himself.

Jesus was in many respects an ordinary man. This is a core Christian belief, that Jesus was God incarnate – God in human form – but that this mystery includes the fact that he was at the same time fully human.

In his humanity, it would have taken time for him to realise what his mission must be. He had spent most of his life in a small and insignificant village called Nazareth in Galilee. He would have faithfully attended the local synagogue each Sabbath – which would also have been nothing special - in fact the services there would probably have often been somewhat below standard. All through this time as he explored the Scriptures as they were read and expounded each week, as he prayed and discussed things with the local rabbi, it would have gradually dawned upon him that God was calling him to something special. For thirty years Jesus had been performing simple duties as a carpenter, waiting for the right time for his ministry to begin. John seems to have provided the appropriate opportunity.

This would have been the moment Jesus had been waiting for: people were conscious of their sin and their need of God as never before. In Baptism, Jesus identified himself with the people he came to save hoping that they would be receptive to his message.

The voice that Jesus heard would have been of great significance: This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” It is a quotation from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Every Jew acknowledged that that this Psalm referred to the Messiah and Isaiah’s prophecy described the Suffering Servant – which was also of Messianic significance. Barclay explains: With his Baptism, Jesus received confirmation that he was indeed the Chosen one of God and also, that the way before him was a way of suffering. Barclay concludes:

“In that moment, there was set before Jesus both his task and the only way to the fulfilling of it.”

Matthew’s Gospel is a mature reflection on what had happened, a deep reflection that would have taken time to explore the Old Testament scriptures so as to be able to discern deep and significant meaning. We know this, because Matthew used Mark’s account, which we know to be the oldest of all the Gospels, as well as other sources from those who had witnessed the events of Jesus’ life and had taken notes. Matthew took all this to the Jewish Scriptures and brings out important truths. The subtle differences between the two accounts are of great significance.

In Mark’s account the whole event seems to have been a private matter between Jesus and the Father he records ‘… he saw the heavens open.’ In Matthew it is a public event: he writes ‘… behold the heavens were opened …’

In Mark, God speaks only to Jesus: “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” In Matthew God speaks to all present: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

The conversation between John and Jesus only appears in Matthew, probably to address the difficult question raised by Mark’s account over time, especially for his Jewish audience:

·         Why did Jesus need to be baptised?
·         Did Jesus’ baptism imply his sinfulness and his need for repentance?

Matthew’s study of the Jewish Scriptures opened up the meaning for his first readers and for us today. Matthew’s account is full of allusion to imagery about the Messiah. Jesus is the fulfilling of the crossing of the Red Sea, the word beloved is a reference to Genesis 22, and the reference to Abraham’s almost sacrifice of Isaac, the dove and water is a reference to Creation in Genesis 1:2 and Jesus as the New Adam. J C Ryle adds another interesting detail. When priests took up their office, they were washed with water. Jesus is our great High Priest was washed in obedience to the Law. The only other time there is any record of a voice coming from heaven was the giving of the Law to Moses at Mount Sinai. Jesus was to hear this voice a second time at his Transfiguration which follows immediately after his announcement that it is his task to suffer and die upon the Cross. As De Dietrich explains that at his Baptism …

… God glorifies his son in the very moment when in self-humiliation, makes the shame of humanity his own.

All this places great honour on the sacrament of baptism because Jesus himself honoured it by submitting to it himself.

Let us all remember our own baptisms, even though most of us will be able to recall anything about what happened. But we can know a number of important things.

Firstly, our parents loved us so much that they wanted to make sure that we were grafted into the love of God by grace.

Secondly, and  this is the most important thing about it, it is all of grace – something that is the greatest blessing that can never be earned or deserved – simply a gift of unconditional love given to us by God. This is what, for me makes infant baptism so special. The helplessness of the recipient is what makes it special, the passiveness of the recipient adds to it. Jesus gave himself for us and gives his love to us, the love of God himself.

Thirdly, Jesus did indeed fulfil all righteousness. Matthew was able to write this with confidence, because he was able to look into the finer detail of the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry and confirm that, in him, we have a close and intimate relationship with God, for the same Spirit that confirmed Jesus’ calling, confirms our salvation and calling.

Lastly, the Jesus that was baptised, is the Jesus that is present with us by his Spirit as we gather for worship and as we live with him and in him. This Jesus was fully human like us and so knows our every experience. He is kind and understanding, and when we fall, never tires of forgiving us and restoring our relationship with him.

As Jesus himself explained to John: ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Amen.