Saturday 9 December 2017

Mark 1.1-8 (NRSV)

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’,
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

My text this morning is written in Mark 1 and verse 3:

 “… the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’” 

Samuel Massey writes:

The message of Christ has raised up nations and brought them low, launched and defeated armies, started large social movements and destroyed others. Think of all that has been done in the name of Jesus Christ and how inconspicuously the Gospel begins according to Mark. Here we find none of the thunderous poetry used by John to describe the pre-existent Christ. We dream no dreams and no angels visit with us. Caesar Augustus and Herod seem pretty far away. No excuse here for Christmas trees or mob-ridden malls or long hours putting together services of lessons and carols--thank God! All Mark offers to us is John the Baptist, many people’s worst nightmare, smelling like a camel and calling people to change their ways.

Most people agree that the beginning of the Good News or Gospel of Jesus Christ has the ministry of John the Baptist as the starting point. The author of this wonderful record goes back to the Old Testament to show how John was the fulfilment of prophecy and he is correct in stating in the first instance that the message originally came from the prophet Isaiah. But the reference to the messenger in verse 2 does not in fact come from Isaiah, but from Malachi 3.1. Professor Charlie Moule explains: ‘The fact that the two quotations are both ascribed to Isaiah may mean that they occurred side by side under a single heading in some collection of prophecies.’ For me, it matters little; what does matter is that Jesus is indeed the fulfilment of the prophetic hope for a saviour; a Messiah. In verses 2 and 3, therefore, we see how Mark reminds his readers that the true Messiah would have been announced by a forerunner, and that John the Baptist was the Elijah that the Jewish people would have been waiting for. He also stresses that the people heard the integrity of John’s announcement and his message that ‘... nothing less than a national repentance would constitute the expected Messianic preparation.’ (Nineham)

It is not impossible that John had been a member of the Dead Sea Scrolls community in Qumran; those dedicated people who spent time studying the scriptures and preparing themselves by austere and disciplined living. This community had used baptism as a rite of passage for those who wished to join the Jewish faith. Bathing or sprinkling with water was a widespread religious symbol for purification. Ezekiel had used sprinkling as a figurative expression for the moral cleansing of the nation by God.

John’s message included baptism. Mark also points out that when John explained his baptism he made it clear that it was a preparation, not to be compared with the action of the one who was coming – the ‘mightier one’. This was the one important thing that John did that was not part of Old Testament prophecy – he baptised – or so it would seem; but the way Mark presents this important historic episode, brings John’s baptism in line with the prophecies in the way he makes John baptising become part of his proclamation. The prophecies spoke of a messenger or ‘proclaimer’ – ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’.

John’s baptism was of significance and baptism with the Holy Spirit is of special significance. Moule explains that ‘... the Holy Spirit is God himself at work among his people, and it is possible for a person literally to have the Holy Spirit poured over him like water ... like a deluge, purifying, judging presence of God himself.’

In Acts 1.5 Jesus also refers to baptism with the Holy Spirit and in Romans 8.9 Paul claims that unless one has the Holy Spirit, they are not Christian. In Acts 2, the beginning of the Church is marked by the signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel 2.28 ff.

John was dramatically portraying the great significance of his call to repentance. Those who responded to his call to moral reform submitted themselves to being dipped in the river as a sign of their response and commitment. But John called for much more than mere moral reform; he was preparing for something much greater.

We see, therefore, that Mark starts the story of Jesus long before his birth; it did not even begin with the appearance of John the Baptist preparing the way for his ministry, ‘... it began with the dreams of the prophets long ago, that is to say it began long, long ago in the mind of God.’ (Barclay) But this does not mean that John’s message is not vitally important as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord into the world and at the heart of this is the need for repentance.

Advent is a time of preparation – of getting ready – a time to return to God. It is a time when we need to be honest with ourselves and open our eyes to see the truth about who we are and how we are living. We need to be willing to see what we do not want to see; we need to be willing to admit to the sin that we have become so comfortable with, that we no longer see as a problem. This is the hardest part, because we do not like to think of ourselves as sinners and we like to think that we are always right.

We also need to make confession to those whom we have wronged. This too is hard, because it is so out of fashion and so many people are out of the habit of doing it. But there is absolutely no point in us apologising to God until we have first apologised to the people we have offended – as Barclay suggests: ‘The human barriers need to be removed before the divine barrier can be removed. When we have done what it is humanly possible to do; then we can make our confession to God. It is only when we confess that we have sinned that God can give us those lovely words: “You are forgiven!”’

But there is another side to this – and important side – and also very difficult. So often these days people feel offended and the person who causes the offence knows nothing about it, because they never intended to cause any hurt at all! People can be over sensitive sometimes and it is not impossible that they might also have no right to be offended. We must never forget that an integral part of Christian love is that we are not easily offended; we are not touchy, over-sensitive people. So, when we do feel offended we need to ask the first and most important question: “Am I justified in feeling offended or am I being touchy?” because if it is true that we ought not to be, then it is we that need to come before God and seek forgiveness; and it is best that the other person concerned knows nothing about it all.

But is must also be a time when we reflect on the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, implanted there at our baptism and springing into life when we came to faith; it is this Spirit that gives us the courage to do the difficult things, and also fill us with God’s pure love and forgiveness, leading to a deep sense of inner peace and joy.

These are difficult, and big challenges, but central to practical Christian living.

This passage stands apart from the rest of the Gospel as a sort of curtain raiser in which the reader is introduced to the context, so that when the curtain goes up in verse 14, they will already know who the lead character is and can understand the significance of the message they are about to receive.

This makes clear that Mark wrote his Gospel from a particular standpoint, i.e. that he accepted the traditional Jewish position of a Messianic hope; so he wrote about Jesus not from biographical or psychological interest, because he believed rather, that in the life of Jesus, the Jewish hope had found fulfilment. He believed that, in Jesus, God had begun his ‘... final intervention in history, the first, but decisive stage in the overthrow of the powers of evil and the establishment of God’s Sovran rule.’ (Nineham)

And because of the revelation of this central fact in the history of humankind was to be explained, it could transform people’s lives. The same is true for us this Advent and Christmas. The advent of Jesus means that there can always be more to our lives, more in our lives. There is yet another opportunity for the Holy Spirit to deal with the sin in our lives. But we need to admit that it is there, want to do something about it and then open our hearts to the transforming love of God in the Holy Spirit. John said to the people of his generation and I believe the message is as true today as it was then:

   “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. Amen.

Break Free From the Scrooge Syndrome

Each year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, a great number of people find delight in the marvellous story written by Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. There is something in the story that lures us back to it year after year; we never seem to grow tired of hearing its message. The main character in the story is a surly old man named Scrooge, who lives a miserly existence. He sees no benefit in being generous with the poor, or even providing a living wage to dedicated workers. He clutches onto his money and despises the thought of parting with any of it. But it is not only his money that Scrooge withholds from others, it is his entire being. He withholds love and kindness, he withholds warmth and friendship. Then, one night, Scrooge undergoes a profound crisis. He sees himself through the eyes of others. He has a vivid vision of his past; and then his present. But what is most frightful to him - what shakes him to the core of his being - is when he is granted the opportunity of a lifetime. He is allowed to witness his future. But his future proves to be so dark and frightening, that it prompts within him a dramatic change. He undergoes a radical transformation and becomes an entirely new person. Rather than being cold and indifferent to people, he becomes generous and compassionate.

It is a heart-warming story. But more than that, it is a hopeful story. It provides us with the hope that we too can make needed changes in our lives. We can break free from the ruts we have burrowed, and the negative behaviours we have cultivated. We can become kind and compassionate, humble and hospitable, joyful and generous.

I have never read anything which suggests this, but I wonder if the story of John the Baptist influenced Dickens and served as an impetus in his creation of A Christmas Carol?

Sunday 26 November 2017

Christ the King

Ephesians 1.15-end SERMON
Paul’s Prayer
15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

My text this morning is written in Ephesians 1:15-16:

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.

In this passage we see the essence of the characteristic of the Church: loyalty to Christ and love to others. These two are inextricable linked together because true loyalty to Christ will always, if it is authentic, lead to love for others (verse 15).

There can be a loyalty to Christ that does not issue in love for others. Some monastic orders shut themselves off from the world, and I have to confess that this makes little sense to me, unless its purpose is to be of service to others. If not, it strikes me almost as a form of selfishness because the individual concerned might feel closer to God and have a sense of peace and tranquillity, but this is of little worth unless it also leads to love for others. At the same time, I have enormous respect for those monks and nuns who live this way so that they might be of more use in caring for the needs of others. The Jesuits, Fransiscans and Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity are notable and wonderful examples as was the case of the Community of the Resurrection in South Africa with their school, colleges and hostels and a notable example being Trevor Huddleston. This was true of early Methodism as well: when people came to Christ and became part of the Church, the society they lived in was transformed. Loyalty to Christ must issue in love for others or it is meaningless.

Indeed, whatever we do, unless it results in love for others, is worthless. The Spanish Inquisition and the Pharisees are examples of those who were guilty of trying to be so right that this led them to do the most hurtful things to others. I believe Paul here gives us a practical yardstick with which we can measure if something is truly right; anything that does not issue in greater love for others should make us seriously question what we do, because it is only in our loving of others that we show our love for Christ.

In our Gospel reading we are told of the very practical way this love ought to be demonstrated: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the cold, visiting those in prison. Jesus, in this parable identifies with each person in need, because on the cross he took their place. We meet with Jesus when wee minister to those kin need – indeed that person becomes the presence of Christ for us. De Dietrich, in her commentary on the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats explains what Jesus is implying here: “How many times will we have passed by Jesus without recognising him.” She continues:

He comes to us under the figure of the stranger, the refugee, the person of another race, or the sorry bore. And we turn away, or treat such persons with humiliating conceit. Ione day he will say to us: “That was I.” Could he then not say to us: “You pretended to know me, but I did not know you!”

I am glad to hear that in some cities there has been a revival in attendance at Cathedral worship. I love Cathedral worship with all its pomp and beauty; but there is a real danger that this can cover all sorts of dreadful things. We have all heard of times when Cathedrals have been in the press because of conflict, strife and general inappropriate behaviour. Sadly, I have also experienced this first hand, and in fact, it is a major reason why today I am ordained as a Methodist and not an Anglican! Gladly, most Cathedrals are beacons of love and hope in Christ in the heart of our cities. Beauty only really becomes beautiful when it is an ingredient in showing love for others.

This refers to some theological debates as well. The ‘truth’ will become evident when the theology issues in greater love for others. All too often, in debates and discussions, Barclay accurately states that ‘... we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.’

Paul then prays for a Church that he loves and that is doing well. He prays that they may have wisdom using the word Sophia (which refers to the deep things of God) and so asks that the Church might be taken deeper into the knowledge of the eternal truths. This reminds us of an important dimension of our life and ministry. It is necessary that we are a people of depth – that the Church be a thinking people. We must beware of dumbing things down; but rather, always strive ourselves to go deeper and deeper into the depths of truth which issues in love. At the same time, this is worthless unless we make it a personal discovery as well. Socrates said: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ Barclay suggests that an unexamined religion is not worth having and adds: ‘It is an obligation for a thinking man to think his way to God.’ Lionel Swain adds that knowledge here also means something else; it is knowledge in the sense of ‘intimate experience’. Thompson adds that here, Paul is praying for ‘... a deeper understanding of the ...Gospel and its implications, so that one can move closer into line with God’s mind and attitude.’

The ministry of the Church must be a teaching ministry. The exposition of scripture from the pulpit is a vital element, because we know that the scriptures are God’s primary way of communicating with his people of every age and generation. The paradigm was set on the road to Emmaus when Jesus expounded the Word to the disciples and they felt their hearts warmed within them – as was the case of John Wesley on that important evening in Aldersgate Street in 1738. As we listen to the scriptures read and the preacher’s exposition, we should not only be interested in what the preacher thinks but more importantly we should also asking: “What is God is saying to us as a Church; and what is God saying to me as an individual within the Church?” We come seeking knowledge that touches us and moves us, challenges us and blesses us – we come – as verse 18 explains: to have the eyes of our hearts enlightened.

But as our Lord reminds us in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, unless this enlightenment leads to love, as de Dietrich explains, we may have the most orthodox of beliefs, but we remain in death.

We are therefore in this passage, challenged to get things into proportion. So much time is spent in the church discussing mundane matters and these often result in conflict. How much time do we, as a Church, spend discussing the ‘... eternal verities of God?’ How many hours do churches spend discussing ‘problems’ for every one that is spent discussing the depths of theology? Paul here is praying for the people to be led into a deeper wisdom of the eternal things of God and this prayer will never be answered unless we give up time to listen to what God is saying to us; time prayerfully discussing what this means and then acting on what we feel God is calling us to do.

Paul then prays for a greater realisation of Christian hope. We live in days of despair. The economy is terrible and the myth that money is the root of all happiness and security has been destroyed. But many in our society have nothing to replace it with. We need to offer the world an alternative – the alternative – the universal and eternal way. The insight we can offer the world is that even in the midst of suffering and uncertainty, there is always hope and this hope is sure. We know that God’s cause and ways will win the day eventually, for this has been the testimony of history – for even if we do not get to experience it in this life, there is nothing – not even death – that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (as Paul stresses in Romans 8).

Paul continues in his prayer for a new realisation of the power of God. For Paul, the proof of the power of God was in the Resurrection of Christ. Sin had done everything in its power to destroy Christ; people had done everything to get rid of Christ; but God raised him from the dead. The Resurrection proved that his power is greater than any human agency and that no human can thwart the power of God. Even though we can’t fully understand it all the time – God is ultimately in control. The last verses also make clear that all in the heavenly realm are also under God’s ultimate control. But even more importantly, this same power is available to us, to help, to strengthen and encourage those who are committed to being faithful to God’s call. Our assurance is not based on mere wishful thinking, but on a fact of history: God did raise Jesus from the dead. Think of Jesus and the disciples at the time of his death. Everything seemed hopeless, crushed, ended – but God raised Jesus and he appeared to his disciples and the ministry continued and still does. As we gather together as a community of faith, Jesus continues to meet with us, especially in the breaking of the bread, nourishes our relationship with him, and encourages us to go out into our world giving expression to his love for others. This is the focus of the Gospel reading appointed for today where Jesus tells the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

The last verse is of great significance for us – because it refers to the Church in every age as the body of Christ.

Despite reforms and improvements over the years, the 20th century was a human catastrophe and disunity still remains throughout the world between different races, languages and religions, sadly even within Protestantism. Jesus died to bring unity – but we still seem far from it. This ideal of unity is expressed in the next chapter where Paul speaks of Christ breaking down the wall that separates. As Barclay puts it: ‘Jesus Christ was above all things God’s instrument for reconciliation.’ He uses the analogy of a doctor finding a cure for a deadly disease: unless that cure is taken to the different parts of the world where the disease is prevalent, sufferers will not be cured! Doctors must get to know about it and must be trained as to how to use it.  The cure is there – but it needs a corps of people to take the message and the technique throughout the world. The same is true of the Gospel – it is there – but unless it is taken into the world, it remains ineffective. It is only in Christ that all can come together; it is only in Christ that there can be unity and peace and flourishing – and the Church is the agent that is given the task of taking this good news to all people. The church ought to be the corps of Christ but so often it has become a corpse!

Christ is the head – the Church is the body – and the wonders of salvation cannot become real in the world unless the Church takes it to the peoples of the world. Barclay explains: ‘... God’s plan for the world is in the hands of the Church ...’ It is God’s plan that the warring elements of the world be brought together in peace; and to make this possible he sent Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but this message and this power must be taken out to all people. The Church is the body, with Christ as the head, and so it is in the hands of the Church to bring all this to fulfilment.

The Church – we – are called to be a living organism with the ascended Christ as the head, called to do his work in the world ‘... as once his own body and flesh and blood had done it.’ This is the essential nature of the Church, as A M Hunter explains: the Church is‘... an organism truly responsive to the impulses of the mind and heart of Christ, an organ sacrificially expendable in the carrying out of his great and gracious purposes ...’

I know that this circuit is committed to being faithful to this calling and so, as Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus:

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.