Archive for January, 2013

January 27, 2013

The day they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff

Inchydoney Sea Thrift

Photo: Sea Thrift flowers at Inchydoney, on the side of the small cliffs there.

Sermon for Sunday 27/1/13.  Text Luke 4:14-30

Many of you have I’m sure lived away from home for a time and if you have, can you remember what it was like coming home?  Perhaps you were nervous, perhaps you were excited about seeing your family and friends again and revisiting those places that were so much a part of your upbringing.  Think too of what it was like going back to the church in whose pews you sat as a child…

The Lord Jesus had been away from His home town for a while; He had been down in the south of the country and there he had been baptised by John in the river Jordan and then he had been in the desert wilderness and Samaria.  Now he was back in the North, back in Galilee and was returning to His home town of Nazareth, to his Mother and family and to the houses and streets and Synagogue with which He would have been so familiar from his growing up years.

Luke tells us that Jesus was ‘filled with the power of the Spirit’ (14)  There was something different about Jesus now, of course, he had always been different, he had after all never sinned (2 Cor.5:21), and as fully man and fully God, he had always been full of the Holy Spirit.  Now though there is a new power about him, his ministry has fully begun – He has been baptised and filled anew with the Spirit and he has overcome the devil in the desert.  He has a new focus, a new passion and commitment.  He has been going around the synagogues in the area and everyone has been really impressed with him and sung his praises.

So, the Lord is back in Nazareth and on Saturday morning, the Sabbath, he goes to church (I mean synagogue, but it really was quite like church).  The Synagogue in Nazareth would have been small, it would have been traditional, they wouldn’t have had the latest worship songs.  I think it’s safe to say that Mary and perhaps Jesus’ younger brothers and sisters would have been there and it’s not hard for us to imagine the anticipation in the air as the Lord stood up to read from Isaiah.  He unrolls the scroll and reads the words:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (from Isaiah 61:1,2).

As he rolls up the scroll and hands it back to the attendant you would have been able to hear a pin drop, all the eyes are fixed upon Him.  This is Jesus, the local boy made good.

It all starts off very well.  Jesus says in response to the reading from Isaiah:

‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (21)

Now this is a very bold statement, these words from Isaiah are part of a prophecy about the Messiah, that He will be the one sent to Israel to set them free from oppression and captivity and to usher in a new era of God’s blessing and favour.  Jesus’ audience like what He has to say; Luke tells us that, ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.’ (22)

But the honeymoon doesn’t last long.  The awe of the people in the ‘pews’ doesn’t linger, they say, ‘hang on a minute, isn’t this Joseph’s son, we’ve known him since he was knee-high to a grasshopper?’  It is always easier for the outsider to be listened to; we take them at face value and give them the benefit of the doubt.  But when it is one of our own, one whom we have known since they were a child then it is much more difficult for us to accept them and what they have to say.  So for these people of Nazareth it is a difficult thing to accept that this child of Joseph as they thought, (see 3:23) is the Messiah.

The people are confused and that confusion will very soon turn to anger.  They had heard about the miracles that Jesus had been performing and His reputation was growing all the time, but could He really be the Messiah?

Perhaps any ordinary preacher would have snuck out the back door by now, but Jesus is no ordinary preacher, and He will certainly not let anyone get in the way of God’s Word.  There is more to say and He is going to say it:

‘…there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine all over the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.’ (25, 26)

The citizens of Nazareth were just like their fellow countrymen and women throughout Israel, they were a proud people.  As far as they were concerned, they had the monopoly on God.  Their history showed that they were God’s chosen, special and blessed people.  They would have treasured the promise of Deuteronomy 7:6, which says:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

The Lord Jesus is saying that God also loves the other nations; Jesus will die not just for the sins of Israel but for the world: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)  Jesus reminds them of how God sent the prophet Elijah to a foreign widow for food and shelter when he was on the run from king Ahab (1 Kings 17,18).  In case the point has not hit home, Jesus gives them another example, of the Syrian army commander Naaman, who was healed of leprosy through the ministry of Elisha.  In other words yes God loves Israel, but He also loves the rest of the world and He wants to reach out and save them too.

For the people of Nazareth this was a great insult, it wounded their national pride and conceit.  It would be like God saying to the flag-waving Unionists that He also loved and deeply cared about their Roman Catholic neighbours and wanted them to do the same.  How outrageous, how insulting, how blasphemous!  We don’t mind hearing that God is great and just and holy and pure, but when we are told that he will have mercy on people who we don’t like and with whom we strongly disagree, we cannot stand it.[1]  To find out that God loves those whom we hate will make us furious and so it was with the people in church that morning.

‘They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.’ (29)

What drove the people to fury was that God was rescuing the wrong people.  It would be someone in Britain or France during world war two speaking about God’s healing and restoration for Nazi Germany[2].

One of the beautiful things about the unity service we shared in the Roman Catholic Church last week was the joy of just being able to be together, free of the past, the past where we were suspicious of each other, the past where each saw themselves as the ‘real’ church and the other somehow not part of God’s true church on earth.  The joy was not ours alone but a joy that, I believe, was and is a gift given to us by God.  Generations of mutual suspicion and mistrust are, all over the country coming to an end.  None of us know what God has in store for His united Church on this Island, but the Spirit is leading us and it is wonderfully exciting.  Yes, there will always be those who will cling on to the past, who are able to give lots of reasons and examples as to why this cannot be God’s will, but so long as we keep focusing on the Lord Jesus, we will not fall into that trap.  We don’t want to find ourselves unwittingly in that angry mob as they bundled Jesus out of the church and marched Him to the cliff edge.  Jesus had returned to the town and to his home church full of the Holy Spirit and they did not like it.  God was in their midst, it should have been the start of a wonderful revival, there should have been many conversions and healings, it should have been a time of wonderful blessing and joy.  But what did they want to do when God showed up in power?  They wanted to kill Him, to kill God!  No longer was God in the box they wanted to keep Him in, so they wanted to hurl Him off a cliff.

What on earth must be going through Mary’s mind at this point?  Luke doesn’t tell us; instead we are left to ask ourselves the question, ‘What would I have done had I been there?  Would I have gone along with the crowd, would I have tried to stop them?  Am I angry at Jesus for loving the people that I don’t like, the people I disagree with and the person I can’t forgive?’  It’s OK to be angry, but in that place of rage let’s not push Jesus away, rather let us fall on our knees and surrender.  Remember that He loved us even though before we gave our life to Him, we were God’s enemies (Colossians 1:21).  Let us surrender ourselves now and always to the one who loves even us, loves us so much that He gave His life in our place.  Not only does He love us, He loves our enemies too and He wants us to do the same (Matt.5:44)… Amen.

 


[1] J.C. Ryle, Expository thoughts on the Gospel, Luke, Vol.1, James Clarke & Co. 1956, p.122

[2] Tom Wright, ‘Luke for Everyone’, SPCK 2004, p.47

January 18, 2013

A holy enchantment

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Nikon D7000, 35mm f1.8 G DX,  (1/250 sec, f8, ISO 400) Processed in Instagram.

It was Sunday morning.  As usual I was in a hurry to get myself ready and get out of the door, into the car and on my way to church to make it in time for the 9.00am service.  To make matters worse when I did get to the car it was coated in ice!  I quickly dashed back inside and filled a large jug with warm water to defrost the windows.  I was really running late now (or so I thought).  I drove reasonably quickly whilst taking care to be on the lookout for patches of ice on the road.  The sun was just coming over the low hills on the Eastern horizon, it was spectacular.  I had the camera in my bag and I started to think about how I would find the time to take a photo.

Much to my surprise I arrived in Timoleague in good time, I was early.  At the entrance to the village I pulled over and got out with my camera to try to get a picture of the Abbey ruins with the sun rising behind it, but there was a problem – I only had a 35mm lens, which meant that the Abbey was too far away and there would have been too much junk in the foreground of the picture – I really needed 150mm or more to get the right shot.  A voice in my head said ‘drive on, keep going’.  I got back in the car and drove to just beside the Abbey, facing the estuary, the tide was high.  I got out of the car and walked over to the water’s edge.  As I was lifting the camera to my eye I heard a flapping noise to my left; my presence had alerted a duck and he was now flying low across the water.  He came into the viewfinder and I waited until he was in just the right spot and then I pressed the shutter release.  I had my photo, but much more importantly I was now relaxed and ready for worship, my stress had gone.  Somehow in that moment by the water’s edge I connected with God, with His Creation as a means, a platform for holy enchantment.

January 13, 2013

When you pass through the waters

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Photo: Glencar Lough, Co. Leitrim, January 2013.

Sermon for Sunday 13/1/13.  Text: Isaiah 43:1-7

Have you ever been in that place where you just want to give up? The pressures of your work, your family situation, your finances or whatever sphere of life you are concerned with just becomes too great, too overwhelming? You wish that you could get on a boat or a plane and find a desert island somewhere where there would be no telephone, only the sound of lapping waves, no bank statements, only leaves falling from the trees and no one to be cross with you or gossip about you, only the feeling of the warm sand running through your fingers…

All of us who have lived for any length of time know that life can be great but it can also seem like hell at times too. Sometimes as Christians we think that we cannot get emotional with God, we have to keep a stiff upper lip and pretend that everything is alright. Really what we want to do is find somewhere where we can shout and something that we can punch, but instead we think that God would not approve of such behaviour so we bottle it all up somehow until it bursts out of us in some other way, such as during an argument with a friend or when we beep the horn ferociously at someone who cuts us up at a roundabout!

Martin Luther King Jr. was perhaps the leading light of the movement in the United States in the 1950s for racial equality through nonviolent resistance. I doubt any of us could imagine the pressure and stress he was under; he received as many as 30 to 40 threatening phone calls a day. One night in January 1956 he returned home late after a long day of meetings. His wife and young daughter were in bed and he was eager to join them, but then the phone rang; it was yet another threatening call. He wanted to go to bed, but he could not shake the menacing voice of that phone caller that kept repeating the hateful words in his head. He made some coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. With his head buried in his hands he cried out to God. There in his kitchen in the middle of the night, when he had come to the end of his strength, God spoke to him. King later wrote: “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on … He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone, no never alone.’ In the stillness of the night the voice of Jesus was greater than the voices of hate and it gave King the courage to press on, to press on for the rest of his life[1]. That is what each of us needs, the voice of Jesus speaking into our lives, into our situations. It is a Voice that is greater than anything or anyone that can come against us.  If we are a Christian, then we have a relationship with God. In our reading from Isaiah, God says of that relationship:

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you … he who formed you … Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Aren’t those phenomenal words? God created us, he knitted us together in our mothers wombs (cf. Ps.139:13), He knows us completely and He speaks to us as He spoke to the people of Israel and he tells us not to fear, he has redeemed us (in other words he has freed us from blame, we are forgiven), and not only has He redeemed us through the cross of Christ, he also calls us by name.  I remember in the equivalent to National School that I went to all the girls were referred to by their Christian names but all the boys were simply called ‘boy’. It was wonderful then in my next school to hear my new teacher, Mrs. Jenkins, call me by my name.  I felt like a real person, I felt valued and it made me want to do my best work for this kind teacher.  God knows us by name, He knows us intimately and He cares about us and we matter to Him.  I love the bit at the end of the verse where God says, ‘you are mine’. Can you imagine God punching the air, saying your name and going ‘yes, you are mine’? We are not an afterthought for God, He is passionate about us.

Verse 2 has appeared in lots of songs, the words are poetic and beautiful:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

There’s a magnificent song by U2 called ‘drowning man’ about a man drowning in the “winds and tides” of life. As you listen to the song you can imagine him being swept down a fast moving river and he is about to be carried away out of sight when suddenly out of the darkness comes a voice saying “Take my hand … hold on tightly … hold on and don’t let go of my love … hold on tightly to this love which will last for ever…” All of us go through troublesome waters in life and if we try and swim in our own strength we are more likely to fail. But God’s promise is that the waters shall not overwhelm us.

When I read the words ‘walk through the fire, I am reminded of the event recorded in Daniel chapter 3, where Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into the Fiery Furnace for refusing to worship a 90’ high gold statute. But rather than be burnt up in the flames they were completely unharmed, with even their hair left unsigned! When King Nebuchadnezzar looked into the furnace he exclaimed to his soldiers:

Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire? They replied “Certainly, O king,” To which he replied:

Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.

God sent a heavenly visitor to help the three men during a time of great trial. God will help us too. Perhaps some of you have stories of how God has helped you through great trials and difficulties in ordinary or extraordinary ways. Perhaps we would be amazed too at all the times and in different ways God has saved us in different situations which we have no idea about…

Fire and water represent the totality of trials, of whatever sort and however they come – in all things, the Lord is with us[2].  As I was thinking about this I remembered the story of Terry Waite, a representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury who went to the Lebanon to try to secure the release of four hostages but ended up being held hostage himself for four long years. In his autobiography he writes much about his faith in the midst of intense difficulty. One of the bits I remember is where he used to save a little bread when it was given to him and together with a little water in a plastic cup he used to recite the Communion Service from memory. In solitary confinement, far from home, frightened, he nevertheless drew great comfort and support from the fact that God was with Him in the midst of his great trial, He did not allow Terry Waite to be overwhelmed or drown in despair, God carried him through until he was released.

In the next few verses, God shows His people how much they mean to Him, by naming the nations he has saved them from and punished in their stead, Egypt (remember Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea) and Ethiopia and Seba (countries beyond the borders of Egypt). Then Isaiah plunges forward in time to a regathering of God’s people from the ends of the earth at a time far removed from the day of writing.  Some people say that the modern day nation of Israel is a fulfillment of this prophecy, with Jews from all over the world leaving the countries of their birth and setting up a new home in the land of their ancient ancestry.

In the past God gave nations in exchange for His people, with Christ though He did much more than that.  Isaiah himself would give a clear indication of this in chapter 53 when he wrote of the Messiah, the suffering servant:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

In Christ we have the ultimate fulfillment of all that Isaiah wrote. Through Him, we have a special relationship with God; we are His children, called by name, knitted together by Him in our mother’s womb. He is with us before we were formed; he is with us through life and through death. Certainly we are his if we want to be.  Often I come across people who are going through trials of one kind or another and it breaks my heart to see them trying to cope without God’s help. For different reasons people try to cope on their own – but it really doesn’t have to be like that.   He calls your name, He tells you not to fear, He has redeemed you and you are His now and always… Amen.


[2] Alec Motyer ‘The Prophecy of Isaiah’, Inter Varsity Press, 1995, p.331