Archive for ‘Sermon’

April 8, 2012

Night had become day, death had become life.

Welcoming the Sunrise

Easter Sunday, John 20:1-18

I suppose that Mary Magdalene thought that things could not get any worse. Her Lord had been brutally killed and the horror of it all was still very fresh in her mind. Like any of us who have lost someone close, she wanted to go to where the body was. We feel that if we can go to where our loved one is buried that somehow it will help, we cannot find the words to express our loss and our sorrow, the bleakness and finality of it all, but we think that just being there will help, and it does. Perhaps this is what is going through Mary’s mind; she knows Jesus is dead, she saw it happen, but if she can just be near where His body is, perhaps it will help. She probably has had very little if any sleep and so before the sun has even come up she makes her way to the tomb. As she nears the place where Joseph and Nicodemus had laid Jesus’ body to her utter dismay, she sees that the large stone in front of the tomb has been removed and she knows that this can only mean one thing, that Jesus’ body is no longer there. She runs, as fast as she can, on legs that will barely support her to Simon Peter and to John and she says:

> ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ (2)

Peter and John waste no time, the news that Mary Magdalen has told them requires an immediate response. I wonder what they are thinking, is it horror at the possibility of Jesus’ body being stolen or at this point is even just a chink of light and hope entering their thoughts? Everything is happening quickly now, Mary had run from the tomb to tell them, now Peter and John run back from where Mary had come. John, the younger of the two men reaches the tomb first, he is cautious and he stops at the entrance and peers inside, he sees the linen wrappings lying there, but does not go in to investigate. Then Peter arrives, perhaps puffing and panting and with no caution whatsoever runs straight into the tomb, he too sees the linen wrappings lying there and also the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself (7). John then lets go of whatever it is that is stopping him entering the tomb and he steps inside. Describing his own reaction he says:

> … ‘he saw and believed.'(8)

‘Believed what?’ We might say. Certainly John believed that Jesus was no longer dead. He had seen Lazarus raised from the dead and Jesus had given enough strong hints that He would die and be raised again too (Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22) and now it seems that even as the sun is beginning to rise on that first Easter morning that the light is dawning in John’s mind, that what is happening what was Jesus had been telling them all along, He really was going to be killed and He really was going to rise from the dead. We don’t know why but Peter and John decide to go back to their homes, perhaps it’s to tell the others, perhaps it’s just to try and take in the enormity of the fact of the empty tomb, but as they depart we see that Mary has returned to the place of the tomb once again. Any of us who have stood weeping at a grave will know how she felt, though how much more so if the body we had come to be near was no longer there and we thought it had been stolen? Through her tears, Mary sums up the courage to peer inside the tomb. Instead of darkness, instead of a place of death she sees light, two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been. One angel sits where Jesus’ head had been and the other where his feet once were. The angels speak to Mary saying:

> ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’

Mary replies:

> ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ (13)

Something makes her turn around and she sees a man standing there. She does not know who he is, she thinks he is the gardener. The man speaks to her, as the angels had already done, saying:

> ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ and then ‘For whom are you looking?’

Still thinking this man was the gardener Mary says:

> ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ (15)

The man says her name, ‘Mary!’ And now he is no longer just a man, it is Jesus, it really is Jesus! To one moment be in utter despair and in the next be in complete surprise and joy must have been overwhelmingly wonderful for Mary; one moment her world was in chaos, the pattern of her life in shreds and tatters and in the next moment it was utterly transformed; night had become day, hell had become heaven, death had become life.

All Mary can do is turn to Him and say, ‘Rabbouni, teacher’. She clings on to Him, overcome at all that has happened. He is alive! He is not dead! This is the happiest moment, the turning point of history, of his-story, ‘death (as the Apostle Paul would later describe it) has been swallowed up in victory’ (1 Cor. 15:54).

Yes, Jesus was alive, more alive than ever He was in His earthly body. Mary and the others would soon see that Jesus’ resurrected body was different; He could appear before them suddenly in a locked room and He was not a ghost because he could be touched and because he could eat and drink.

Jesus does not wish for Mary to cling on to Him for long, there is something that she needs to do. He says:

> … ‘go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”‘ (17)

Here is a new level of friendship; Jesus’ Father is their Father too, His God is their God. The same level of intimacy that Jesus has with His Father they can have too. He is their Daddy and they are His dear children.

Of course it is Mary who has the important job of telling the disciples, of bringing them the Good News of Jesus’ message. She goes to them and says:

> ‘I have seen the Lord’

Mary then tells them what Jesus had said. The wonderful thing here is that if someone in the first century had wanted to invent a story about people seeing the risen Jesus, they certainly would not have dreamed about giving the star part to a woman, let alone Mary Magdalene! (From Tom Wright, ‘John for Everyone’ (Part 2) SPCK 2002, p.146)

But there it is, a true story, but one where the ending has not yet been written because the end of the story is up to you. You are standing there with the others at the empty tomb, what do you do, how do you respond? Perhaps you were too busy thinking about lunch or wishing that you had not eaten so much chocolate already this morning, but don’t worry about that now, the risen Jesus is standing before you, as He spoke to Mary, He speaks to you. Listen as He calls you by your name… Let us respond to him now, let us pray:

Lord Jesus, I am overwhelmed that you have risen from the dead and that you would call my name. I feel so totally unworthy and unclean to even be near you, and yet I know that it was because of this, because of my sin that You chose to die. Lord, to say ‘thank you’ seems wholly inadequate, but I say it anyway, with all of my heart, “THANK YOU”. Help me off my knees Lord, help me to follow you, help me to love you, not just now this moment, but for always… Amen.

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April 7, 2012

Joseph & Nicodemus

Good Friday - the shadow of the cross

Kilmalooda Easter Vigil, 7/4/12. John 19:38-42

Not long after I became a follower of Jesus, at the age of nineteen, my Mother gave me a small golden cross on a necklace as a present. I wore it every day, as a constant reminder to myself of what Jesus had done on the cross. One day at college, a fellow student noticed me wearing it and he asked me, ‘I see you are wearing a cross, does that mean you are a Christian?’ A perfectly normal question, but it suddenly dawned on me that I had told very few people about my becoming a follower of Jesus and for a brief moment I was faced with a choice; do I keep my faith a secret (in which case it would all be a sham) or am I willing to stand up and be counted as a believer in Christ? Thankfully, by the grace of God I found my voice and was able to reply, ‘Yes, I wear this cross because I am a Christian.’ It is not always easy to admit to being a follower of Jesus, as I have experienced many times since (and not always successfully) and no doubt many of you have also.

In our reading for this evening, two disciples of Jesus who had previously been afraid to show their allegiance to Him, come out from their hiding place and show, finally, that their faith really is genuine. Joseph of Arimathea, a respected leader in the Jewish council and Nicodemus, a Pharisee and also a member of the Jewish council come and bury Jesus’ body.

Joseph approaches Pilate and asks permission to take the Lord’s body away from the cross, and when the permission is given, he takes away the body. Nicodemus brings about a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes and together they wrap Jesus body in the spices and in linen cloths and they place it in ‘a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid'(41). In Matthew’s gospel we learn that this tomb belonged to Joseph and that he had recently cut it out of the rock (Matt.27:60). It was then in this new tomb, in which no one had ever previously been laid that they left Jesus’ body.

What must have been going through Joseph’s and Nicodemus’ minds at this point? I suppose we can hardly imagine what they felt. But now, when all the other disciples have scattered and fled, the two followers of Jesus that will stand up are the ones that previously were too afraid to do so. Something has happened, something has changed these two men, turning them from cowards to bravehearts. They no longer care what other people think about them, their lives are in danger for what they are doing, but that no longer matters, Jesus comes first, giving Him a proper and honorable burial is what matters now, and that is what they do.

One of the things about Jesus is that there is no sitting on the fence; either we are for Him or we are against Him (Matt 12:30). There is no cosy middle ground where we can pick and choose, where we can walk with Jesus when we need Him to help us and abandon Him when everything is going well once more. He wants all of us all the time!

I pray that all of us this now this Easter would see things as they are more clearly. Even if only for a moment would we shut out all the distractions of our busy lives and let ourselves be carried in our minds and in our spirits to the foot of the empty cross? Let us look at the hard, rough and cracked wood, the dry, dusty soil splattered in blood and ask ourselves, ‘What does this mean to me?’ Would it not change your life forever if someone died for you like that, and how much more so if it was God’s own Son who died for you like that? Guess what, it’s really true, He did it, He really did, and He did it for you … Amen.

March 17, 2012

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

St. Patrick

Statue of St. Patrick in Timoleague, Co. Cork

St. Patrick’s Day Sermon, 17/3/12
Text: John 4:31-38

Of course we don’t know a whole lot about St. Patrick and it can be hard to know sometimes where the facts end and the legend begins, but one thing we do know is that he was passionate about serving his Master. In Patrick we have a man of God and someone who was willing to give up everything in order to follow God’s call upon his life. For Patrick God was everything; he would have wholeheartedly agreed with the Psalmist when he wrote of God:

Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside you. (Psalm 73:25)

Wouldn’t it be great if we could have this same passion, this same focus and drive and commitment?

In the Gospel reading for today, we see that the Lord Jesus is tired from the long journey that He is making with His disciples, as they walk from Judea to Galilee. He is sat down by Jacob’s well, where he has just had that famous conversation with the Samaritan woman and the disciples come up to him and urge him, saying:

‘Rabbi, eat something.’ (31)

To which Jesus replies:

‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ (32) and
‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work’ (34)

It is as if Jesus is saying to his disciples that doing God’s will is even more important than eating! It is from doing God’s will and God’s work that Jesus gains spiritual strength and sustenance. Yes, we make sure that we are physically fed and nourished but what about spiritual food (in other words doing God’s will for our lives)? Perhaps one of the things that we are reminded of in Lent is that food is just for the physical nourishment of our bodies. Yes, we can enjoy food (and who doesn’t), but let it not preoccupy us so much. Let us spend more time being preoccupied with Spiritual food, doing God’s will, for that is where true nourishment is found.

We see a great and godly example in the life of St. Patrick. In his early twenties he was willing to leave his parents and homeland for the sake of following God’s call. Patrick heeded God’s call to come to Ireland, a land where the Good News of Jesus Christ had been little heard, a land of hardship and warring kings, a land of pagan worship practices and a land of spiritual darkness. But with the eyes that God gave him, what did Patrick see? He saw the same thing as Jesus saw when he said to his disciples:

‘… But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.’ (35)

Patrick saw a land of people who were starving, not for lack of food but for lack of God. In his own words he wrote:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.

Just as the Lord Jesus, in the land of the Samaritans, saw people who were ready and eager to receive God’s word, so Patrick saw that the Irish were hungry for truth and thirsty for salvation.

For someone without faith, it would have seemed an impossible task; to go to another country, where many of the people were hostile and speak to them of a God of love, a God who gave his Son to die in their stead upon a cross, in a place far away in time and distance from their own and yet Patrick did it anyway. Patrick took the risk, he did not play it safe. He did not try and form a committee or organise a mission conference or plan a direct mailing campaign, he just went.

As I think about that I find it exhilarating, exciting and liberating. We do not need to carry the weight on our shoulders of what we need to do and when and how we need to do it; it is not our work, but God’s. He is leader, we just need to follow.

As we look over Ireland today, in almost every conceivable way it is a very different Ireland from the one whose shores St. Patrick would have landed upon all those centuries ago. In Patrick’s time there were no tarmacadamed roads, no means of instant communication over long distances, no cars, no computers, no shopping centres or multiplex cinemas, none of the ‘stuff’ that occupies so much of the time we always complain we don’t have enough of today. Yes, the landscape might be very different, but the people are not so different really; just like our ancient forbears, we have hopes and dreams, ambitions and fears and we all like they need a Saviour.

The fields are as ripe for harvest today as they ever were. How many of the people thronging the streets of our towns and cities and celebrating this day are lost, lonely and hurting inside? For how many of them does life seem hopeless and bleak with no apparent purpose and meaning? And who are the St. Patrick’s today who will tell them and show them Jesus?

We are.

February 20, 2012

A mountaintop experience

Annascaul Lake(Photo:  Annascaul Lake, Co. Kerry, January 2010)

Yesterday’s Sermon. Text, Mark 9:2-9

Do you ever like to ‘get away from it all’?  You know, to go to some quiet place, away from the busyness and the hustle and bustle of everyday life, some place to relax and de-stress.  Probably most of us like the idea but may seldom if ever get around to doing anything about it.  If you look at the gospels, you will see that the Lord Jesus liked to get away from the crowds, He liked to spend time alone with His Father, time to recover and rest so that He could continue His ministry with a fresh energy and vision.

One such time though, Jesus decides to not go alone but to take with him three of His disciples, Peter, James and John.  The four of them journey together up a high mountain.  I wonder what was going through the disciples’ minds as they journeyed along?  Perhaps they were curious as to why Jesus was leading them up such a steep and rocky path, perhaps they wished they could get to the top sooner, perhaps they wished they were not so hot and thirsty and tired.  But whatever they are thinking or saying they do not turn back, they keep following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Once they reach the top, something remarkable happens.  In the second half of verse 2 and then in verse 3 we read:

And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 

This word ‘transfigured’ is a curious one, what does it mean?  It means to change or transform; the Greek word used is μετεμορφώθη (metemorphōthē), from which we get the word ‘metamorphosis’.  It is like the change of a caterpillar into a butterfly, and it was something like this that happened to the Lord Jesus.  His appearance changed, Mark tells us that ‘his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.’  There is something wonderful and beautiful and heavenly happening here.  Peter, James and John are seeing the Lord Jesus in his glory, in His deity and power and His appearance is like nothing they have ever seen before, it is like nothing else on earth.

I would imagine that as Peter, James and John looked on in awe, that any sense of tiredness at climbing the mountain evaporated at this point and was replaced with joy, elation, wonder and even a little fear at this numinous, otherworldly encounter with Jesus, whom they thought they knew, but now know in a whole new dimension.

As the three disciples gazed, unable to take their eyes off Jesus, look what happens next.  Mark writes:

4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

Elijah and Moses were two of the Old Testament greats, they were looked up to as men of God, as examples to follow, and great leaders of God’s people in the past.  During their lifetimes, both Elijah and Moses had spoken with God on mountains.

In Exodus chapter 34, we read about Moses meeting with God on mount Sinai and when he came down, his face had such a radiant glow that the people were afraid to come near him and so he had to put a veil over his face until he went back to speak with God again.

Elijah too met with God on Mount Sinai, (we can read about it in 1 Kings chapter 19), and it was there that God revealed himself not in a spectacular way, but in an incredibly gentle way, a ‘still small voice’ (KJV) or ‘gentle whisper’ (NIV).

So why then were these two Old Testament veterans meeting with the transfigured Jesus on another mountain and many many years after they had died?

Firstly, there is the obvious connection that they are, in talking with Jesus, in fact meeting with God.  There is an implied familiarity between them; these guys are not strangers, they have met before, they know each other.  Secondly, Elijah as one of the greatest heroes in the history of Israel, is there to represent all the prophets of the Old Testament and Moses, as the one through whom God gave the Ten Commandments is there to represent the Law.  So the significance here is that in Jesus, revealed in His Divine Glory, we are shown the One in whom all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah are fulfilled and the One in whom all the Old Testament law is fulfilled.  The Lord Jesus is shown to be above and superior to Moses and Elijah and the One who is the fulfilment of everything that had gone on before.

Last week we went on a family outing to the cinema to see the 3D Star Wars film that is out at the moment.  As we walked into the auditorium we were handed special glasses to wear so that we could see the 3D effects on the screen.  I must admit that the three boys found it very enjoyable (though my better half less so, as she actually fell asleep during the film).  Of course, special effects are not enough on their own to make a good film; the story needs to be good too.  The ‘Transfiguration’ of Jesus was much more than just special effects; there is a very important story and meaning behind what happened that day on the mountaintop.

Peter tries his best to deal with the amazing event and ‘special effects’, that he is witnessing and so he says to Jesus:

‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 

Mark tells us that Peter did not know what to say, he was terrified!  I think we can all have a bit of sympathy with Peter here; the experience was for him and the other two disciples way way beyond anything they had seen or heard before, even with Jesus.  Perhaps Peter is just trying to be hospitable and make a tent – they are after all on a mountaintop and maybe it was windy!  Peter, James and John may be terrified, but their life-changing encounter has not finished yet.

Next we are told that:

‘… a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 

God the Father is here and as He spoke centuries earlier to Moses and to Elijah He speaks again now to the disciples.  ‘This is my Son’, says the Father, the ‘Beloved’.  The bond of love and attachment between the Father and the Son could not be greater.  The word translated ‘Beloved’ means a complete and total unconditional and sacrificial love, a love that is beyond all others.  And it is the same word that Jesus Himself when He says to His followers:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34)

As the Father loves the Son so the Son loves us and asks of us to love each other.

Dumbstruck as they were, by what they had seen and heard, this extreme, mountaintop ordeal was now over for the disciples. We are told next that:

8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

It was over.  It had seemed like time had stood still, all their senses had been overloaded with this experience of the Divine and now it was all quiet, all calm and they were alone once more with Jesus, not the Jesus who was too bright to look at, but the same Jesus they had been with on the way up the mountain.

What they had witnessed Jesus told them to keep it to themselves until much later when He had risen from the dead.  I’m sure that once their fear had subsided and given way to worship they would have greatly treasured this ‘mountaintop experience’ for the rest of their lives and it would have been something for them to remember during times of doubt and fear, persecution and testing that lay ahead for each of them.  Perhaps we too can draw upon those great times with God that we may have experienced in the past to help us with the struggles of the present and future.  Mountaintop experiences can sometimes be the thing that keeps us going when we find ourselves in the darkest valley.

Maybe we think that getting away on a holiday would be the answer to all our stress and tiredness, but perhaps what we really need is an encounter with Jesus, a ‘mountaintop experience’ where we realise either anew or for the first time, who He is and what He has done for us, just how much He loves us and how He longs for us to come to Him, to follow Him, to believe in Him and to trust Him.  As God the Father said to Peter, James and John, so He says to us: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Amen.

February 13, 2012

Untouchable?

DSC_1165.jpg

Yesterday’s Sermon.  Text Mark 1:40-45

Have you ever experienced being an outcast?  Probably most of us have little idea what it is like, yet in the world today there are many people who are exactly that.  Imagine if wherever you went people shrank away from you and shielded their children from you lest they be contaminated!  Leprosy has over the centuries been a disease that if you suffered from it, you were forced to live apart from even your family, you were physically and emotionally made to be an outcast.  Of course Leprosy is better understood these days so thankfully the stigma associated with it is not as great as it once was.  However, many people today who suffer from AIDS can meet the same kind of rejection as Lepers used to, and then you have the Dalits in India, the so called ‘untouchables’ that make up 16% of the population of that vast country.  But what about you and me, have we ever experienced rejection?  We probably all have at one time or another, so it is not totally impossible for us to try and understand what it must be like to be an outcast.  I was never much good at soccer, and so I can remember what it felt like to be standing there, wearing overly large National Health Prescription glasses and sporting the most knobby knees, the last one chosen after all the other children had been picked for a team!  But joking aside, maybe you are facing rejection now in one way or another; at home or at work or at school or college.  Let us all try and bring our experiences to the reading from Mark’s Gospel today[1].

The Lord Jesus is near the beginning of His ministry and he is traveling around the villages in the region of Galilee when a man with leprosy came to him and kneels down, begging Jesus to make him clean.  the Lord’s response is both wonderful and miraculous.  No-one is an outcast with Jesus; to Him no-one is unclean or unworthy of his great compassion.  To everyone else this man suffering from Leprosy is an outcast, but to Jesus this man is another lost soul that needs healing and rescuing.  The man seems to have heard about Jesus and even though it was forbidden for a Leper to come into close contact with others, (Leviticus 13:45,46) this man is so desperate to meet Jesus that he disregards the rules.  He does not presume that Jesus will heal him, so he says:

‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ (40)

The Lord is deeply moved by this sight before Him, a man suffering so dreadfully from an awful disease.  Jesus’ response is not just compassion, but action, he responds to the man by saying:

‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ (41b)

The man had a desperate need and he had the faith to believe that Jesus could heal him.  Jesus responds by touching the man who was untouchable and he instantly and miraculously heals the disease that was in that day likened to being a living corpse and considered as hard to heal as resurrecting someone from the dead! [2] To Jesus, God the Son, this is all part of His work of redemption which would have its ultimate fulfillment in what He would achieve on the cross.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for this man who was untouchable to be touched by Jesus?  Perhaps one of the most terrible things about suffering from Leprosy was that he was completely deprived of any human contact; how long would it have been since he had even been close to a person, let alone felt the touch of someone who cared for and loved him?

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke of all of our need to be touched when he told the story of his three year old son, who awoke in the middle of one night and called out to his mother:

“Touch me, only touch me with your finger,”
The child’s mother was astonished.  “Why?” she asked.
“I’m not here,” the boy cried. “Touch me, Mother, so I may be here.”[3]

All young children crave to be held and I suppose this boy, the son of a great poet, was able to express it particularly eloquently!  But it is not just children, all of us long for physical contact, God made us that way, not only for human relationships but also for our relationship with Him.  Yes all of us need human touch but how much more do we need the touch of God to soften our hardened hearts and damaged lives?  Jesus longs for us to come to him, like this man with Leprosy, to come to him on our knees and ask Him to touch us and heal us and cleanse us.

I recently read something written by a lady called Jan, who wrote a letter to her Pastor, (who with her permission shared it online).  In her letter, she wanted to share her experience of illness.  Maybe some of you will be able to relate to this.  She writes:

It was the end. I knew it. I could no longer fight. I sat here emotionless. I was totally alone. Others had tried to help—doctors, nurses, parents, husband, children. But they were gone…

…Deep within myself I knew I was still sick. My symptoms worsened. So, here I was, back in the hospital.

I sat in the bathroom. It was the middle of the night. No people, no “miracle” medicine, no strength left. I was too tired to fight. I sat there—four walls surrounding me. And a bleak, monotonous “bleep” from my battery-operated IV filled the silence. I couldn’t stop the sound of that miserable machine, anymore than I could control my own miserable life. So I sat there—dull, miserable, in pain, with no hope.

It was while I was there that I finally did hear something else. I didn’t hear it with my ears—but I did in my spirit. I heard someone crying. And I immediately knew that it was Jesus crying for me. I was shocked—totally surprised. I didn’t think he would do that for me.

This experience did not leave me emotionally elated. Nor did I feel a physical touch. Life was the same; except I now knew I really was not in this battle alone. Jesus cared in a way my wildest imagination would never have hoped for or expected.

Slowly I got up and shuffled back to bed, my IV still “bleeping” in my ears. Life was the same but different entirely. I believe that Jesus at that time made intercession to the Father for me. When there was absolutely no one else that would help me, he cried for me. And I did recover. Thank you, Jesus.[4]

None of us need to be alone, ever, at any time, no matter what it is that we are going through.

Understandably, the man who was healed of Leprosy, was filled with great excitement.  The Lord then sternly warns him and says something that we might think a little strange:

‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ (44)

If you or I were healed of something as minor as hay-fever we would want to be telling everyone about it, how much more so if it was something as dreadful as Leprosy!? But perhaps the Lord does not want people to know Him only as a miracle-worker, with a reputation like a travelling magician.  Also, don’t forget that this is near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; He does not want the opposition to that ministry to grow too great too soon.  But as well as telling the man not to do something, He also gives him something that he is required to do.  As an act of witness to the priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, this man is to go and show himself.  The priest would then perform the ritual cleansing of the man and learn that it was Jesus who had performed the miracle.

Thankfully, when we go to church to worship we only need to bring ourselves, and maybe a Bible and hymnnal. This man however had to bring with him two clean living birds!  One bird then had to be killed and in its blood the bird that was alive had to be dipped.  the blood of the slain bird was also sprinkled seven times over the healed man, after which he would be pronounced cured.  Of course this sacrifice and the blood of cleansing was all pointing towards that ultimate Sacrifice which the Lord Jesus Himself would perform on the cross.  An act of sacrifice so total that it would never need to be performed again and an act of sacrifice that makes anyone who comes to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith clean, not just once, but always.

Because of what the Lord Jesus has done, we are no longer outcasts.  If you have not already done so, allow Him into your heart, into your life, let Him be your Friend, your Lord and your Saviour, let Him touch you and heal you inside and out … Let us pray … Amen.

 


[1] Much of this opening paragraph is either taken from or inspired by Susan Sayer’s notes from “Living Stones” Year B Resource Book, Kevin Mayhew 1999, p.61.

[2] S.U. Notes “Closer to God”, Vol.13 2002, p.15

February 5, 2012

How big is our God?

Blue Sky Thinking

(Photo taken at Trimpley Reservoir, Worcestershire, in 2009)

Sermon for today.  Text Isaiah 40:21-31.

There is a story that I read recently of African-American slaves toiling in the hot sun. They are working so very hard to pick cotton. There is a young woman and beside her is her small boy, maybe six or seven. She’s working in the fields and she has such incredible dexterity that she is able to pick cotton with her right hand and caress the forehead of her child with the left. But eventually, exhausted by working so hard in the fields, she falls down from the weight and the pressure of the work.  Her boy attempts to wake her very quickly, knowing that if the slave drivers were to see her the punishment would be swift and hard.

He tries to shake his mother, and as he’s trying to shake her, an old man comes over to him.  He looks up at the old man and says, “Is it time? Is it time?”

The old man smiles and looks at the boy and says, “Yes!” And he bends down and whispers into the ear of the woman who was now upon the ground and says these words: “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”

At that moment the woman gets up with such incredible dignity. She stands as a queen and looks down at her son, grasps his hand and begins to look toward heaven. All of a sudden they begin to fly. The slave drivers rush over to this area where she has stopped work and they see this act of human flight and are completely confused. They do not know what to do! And during their confusion, the old man rushes around to all the other slaves and begins to tell them, “Cooleebah! Cooleebah!”

When they hear the word, they all begin to fly.  And at that moment the slave drivers grab the old man and say, “Bring them back!”

They beat him, and with blood coming down his cheek, he just smiles at them. They say to him, “Please bring them back!”

And he says, “I can’t.”

They say, “Why not?”

He said, “Because the word is already in them and since the word is already in them, it cannot be taken from them.”

The old man had a word from West Africa, ‘Cooleebah’, a word that means God. It had been placed into the heart of these displaced Africans and now they had dignity and they were flying[1].

How big is our God?  I ask this question because it’s an important one.  Sometimes we have no problem singing “Our God is a great big God…” but other times, especially when problems are looming large our God seems to shrink doesn’t He?  Have you ever heard the expression “You can’t put God in a box”?  It means that we try to restrict God, we try to place limits on what He can and cannot do, and we start to believe that He could not help us, or heal us or provide for us or forgive us, when He can of course do all those things and so much more.  So let us ask ourselves today, “How big is my God”?

The background to our reading from Isaiah is that the people of Judah were in big trouble; for generations they had turned their backs on God and now it was Isaiah’s job to warn them that because they would not change their ways they were going to be punished.  A foreign army was going to come and attack them, defeat them and drag away many captives.  But also there was hope, God would ultimately save them not only from the Assyrians and Babylonians, He would save them from themselves too.  A bit like us, the people’s view of God had become stunted and small, they had not only put God in a box, but also stuffed that box away in a corner and out of sight.  In our reading today, Isaiah reminds his original audience (and us today) that God is all powerful and at the same time longs for those people who have deserted Him to come back.

Isaiah reminds us that there is only one Creator God, who not only originates all, but maintains and controls everything too.  This supreme Creator God also directs all of history towards a definite goal.  Therefore to believe in Him is to be assured of ultimate safety; that both the present and the future are secure in His hands. In verse 21 we read:

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told you from the beginning? 

Isaiah tells us that it should be obvious to us that God is not only there but that He is also the source of all things; that in comparison we are like grasshoppers, we are very small and He is very great.  I like the second half of verse 22, which reads:

who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in…

I have problems putting a wardrobe together, but God stretched out the vastness of space with a spoken command.

How big is our God?

Isaiah reminds us that the vastness of our universe allows us a glimpse of the might and majesty of our Creator. Philip Yancey in his book “Prayer: Does it make a difference”, gives the following description to help us appreciate the scale of the universe:

If [the galaxy in which we live] the Milky Way galaxy, were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup. Even now, two Voyager spacecraft are hurtling toward the edge of the solar system at a rate of 100,000 miles per hour. For almost three decades they have been speeding away from Earth, approaching a distance of 9 billion miles. When engineers beam a command to the spacecraft at the speed of light, it takes 13 hours to arrive. Yet this vast neighborhood of our sun—in truth, the size of a coffee cup—fits along with several hundred billion other stars and their minions in the Milky Way, one of perhaps 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. To send a light-speed message to the edge of that universe would take 15 billion years.[2]

No matter how big the people of Judah’s problems were, God was greater; no matter how big our problems are, God is greater.  How big is your God?

Look at verse 25 and 26, we continue on with the theme of God’s greatness.  Isaiah asks us to look up at the night sky and says:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see:  Who created these?  He who … numbers them and calls them all by name.”

How many stars do you think there are?  Scientist are not sure, but:

“In July 2003, scientists at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Australia announced their latest estimate for the number of stars in the Universe – 70 sextillion. That is 7 followed by a mind-boggling 22 zeros…”[3]

To give us some idea of the large number we are talking about, the number of stars is far greater in number than all the sand on all the beaches in the world.  Yet God not only has them all numbered, he has names for all of them too!

How big is your God?

O.K., you might be getting a bit fed up with me asking that question by now, but I do not mean to nag or annoy and I ask the question to myself too, “how big is my God”?  It’s not very nice to be someone who is suffering in some way and someone starts going on asking you how big your God is.  Of course we have all been there haven’t we, we say that God either doesn’t know about me or if He does He simply doesn’t care or is not powerful enough to make a difference, and if we were to feel like that we wouldn’t be the first to do so, the people in Isaiah’s day felt the same too.  Look at verse 27:

“Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God’? 

They thought that their way was hidden from God, that He could not see them and that he did not regard them in any meaningful way.  But nothing, NOTHING, could be further from the truth.  Look at the answer the doubters are given, and look a the answer we are given when we think that God doesn’t care about us:

The Lord is the everlasting God, 
the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 
29He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 
30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 
31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. 

We grow tired yet God never tires in any way, we only know a few things, God knows everything, (even before it happens).

Have you ever been in a hurry at the airport?  I can remember one time in Dublin airport running to get to the Departure Lounge, carrying a couple of heavy bags and puffing and panting as I went.  Then I looked to my left and noticed a man walking at a normal pace and going at least as fast as I was – he was of course standing on one of those moving platforms that you get at airports.  He was going the same direction as me, with the same amount of baggage and yet with a fraction of the effort!  When we walk with God it is a bit like that, by His Spirit he comes underneath us and bears us along. We’re still walking, but we walk dependent on him[4].

What is going on in your life right now?  Are you tired or sick?  Walk with God.  Are you lacking in faith or courage or wisdom?  Walk with God.  Have you lost your job or worried that you might lose it?  Walk with God.  Perhaps you don’t know how you are going to pay the bills and put food on the table.  Walk with God.  Do you dread going to school or college tomorrow morning?  Walk with God.  Are you afraid, do you seek forgiveness, are you lost or lonely?  Walk with God.  And when you walk with God, before you know it you will be flying.

A.W. Tozer wrote:

“Anything God has ever done, he can do now. Anything God has ever done anywhere, he can do here. Anything God has ever done for anyone, he can do for you.” [5]

Please pray this prayer with me:

Heavenly Father I ask that you would walk with me now and that you would come alongside me and bear me along.  Help me to walk alongside you, to hold on to you.  Help me to not try and walk only with my own strength but to know your support at all times and in every sense.  Lord I have many questions, but I somehow know that You are the answer, I choose to trust you now and for always…

Amen.

January 24, 2012

The ultimate ‘Fail Whale’, a lesson from Jonah.

"The Whale Tail", Clonakilty

Photo:  “The Whale Tail” sculpture in Clonakilty, the nearest I could get to a whale around here without getting on a boat!

Sermon from last Sunday.  Text: Jonah 3:1-5, 10 (though the whole story is discussed).

You’ve got to feel a little bit sorry for Jonah; he was just sitting there, minding his own business and then God comes along and tells him to get up on his feet and go to an enormous city and start preaching.  Imagine if that were us?  There we are sitting down one day, watching T.V. or counting our ‘Friends’ on Facebook and all of a sudden there is a Big Voice and the Big Voice tells us to get up off our backside, to leave our comfortable life in West Cork and go to a big city, far away in another country, where we have never been before and we are to walk the streets and market places and we are to tell people that they had better turn to God, because God is angry with them!  What would go through your mind, how would you react?  Right now, are you trying to push out of your mind something that God has called you to do and you are not yet doing?

Jonah ran away, he wanted to hide, silly thing that, ‘how can you hide from God?’ we say, but haven’t we tried to hide from God sometimes too?

There’s a wonderful few verses in Psalm 139 that go like this:

7Where can I go from your Spirit? 
   
Where can I flee from your presence? 

8If I go up to the heavens, you are there; 
   
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 

9If I rise on the wings of the dawn, 
   
if I settle on the far side of the sea, 

10even there your hand will guide me, 
   
your right hand will hold me fast. 

Of course, these are meant to be comforting words, but if you are trying to run away from God, then they will help you to see that it is all pretty pointless, because God is everywhere!

But that doesn’t stop Jonah.  He gets up, then standing at the crossroads and looking at the sign for Nineveh, (which is in the East), he takes the road heading in the opposite direction to a town on the coast called Joppa.  Then from Joppa he pays to board a ship headed west for Tarshish and as far away from God as he can get.

Once on board the ship, perhaps Jonah begins to feel a bit safer, perhaps he feels he can stop looking over his shoulder for a while.  It is an exhausting thing running away from God.  Jonah goes down into the safety of the ships hold and in no time at all he is in a deep sleep.  We are told that the LORD hurls a great wind upon the sea and that there is a mighty storm that threatens to break up the ship. Things are desperate and the crew of the ship sense that there is something supernatural going on here.  Perhaps this is a storm unlike any other they had seen and they reckon that it is somebody’s fault, they cry out to their gods for help and they throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship, but it is no good.  Jonah’s disobedience is putting the lives of everyone on board in grave danger.

But not for long, the captain wakes him up and says:

‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.’ (1:6).

They draw lots to see whose fault it is and sure enough the lot falls on Jonah.  The sailors are convinced that it is his fault and they ask him to explain himself.  Jonah replies:

I am a Hebrew,’ … ‘I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ (1:9)

And when the sailors learn also that Jonah is fleeing from this all-powerful God, they become even more afraid, so they ask him what to do because even as they are speaking the wind and waves are growing in strength and stature.  Jonah replies:

‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quieten down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.’ (1:12)

What an astonishing response.  Jonah realises that he is cornered, that it is ultimately futile trying to run and hide from God and so he gives up and resigns himself to the fact that he has lost, that God has won and they might as well throw him overboard because that is the only way that the storm will stop.  But the sailors don’t want him to die so they try hard to row the ship back to land, but it is no use so they cry out to Jonah’s God asking for mercy and they throw him overboard, into the dark ocean depths … and immediately the sea quietens down.

Perhaps Jonah is convinced he is going to drown, that the light from above will fade as he disappears into the inky blackness of the deep, that yes it is possible to run away from God, but if you succeed the place where you will end up is called hell.  But God has other plans; He sends a big fish to swallow Jonah.

Have you ever been swallowed by a great fish?  No, I haven’t either, but perhaps we have been or are in the same place that Jonah was.  Now at last the running away had stopped, Jonah cries out to the God that he had been running away from and he does something that he had not done for a long time, he prays.  Jonah pours out his gratitude to God that he has not drowned.  Overwhelmed with relief, he looks to God again and over a period of three days and nights, he refocuses his life, he stops trying to be in control and he hands his life back to God.

Jonah learns his lesson (I suppose that it goes without saying that he has learnt it the hard way!) So when God sees that Jonah is a changed man He speaks to the fish and so Jonah is unceremoniously spewed out onto dry land.  He stinks and looks like he’s been in the belly of a fish for three days, but he has been saved, he is alive and stands on solid ground once again.

God tries again, He says:

‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ (3:1)

So we are told that Jonah goes into the middle of the city and he speaks out the word that the LORD had given to him, he says:

‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’

I imagine that he was probably thinking that they would grab him and throw him in prison, or something much worse, but at least God was on his side now, he was doing the right thing.  But something amazing (and probably most unexpected) happened, in chapter 3:5 we read

5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

Next time you are thinking that people will think you are strange if you tell them about Jesus, think again.  You may very well be surprised at their reaction.  The longer we follow God’s way, the more we realize that we do not need to be afraid, so we certainly do not need to be afraid to tell people that we are going to church, that we are going to a Home Group or helping out with Sunday Club, God can and will use all these things to bring people to Himself.  The people of Nineveh were far from God, but on hearing the message from God they repented and they fasted and they changed their ways, so that in verse 10 we read:

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

If you ever doubted that God is the God of the second chance or that He is the God of new beginnings, read again the story of Jonah!  Just because we have made mistakes in the past, it does not disqualify us from serving God in the future.  On our own, none of us are good enough, none of us are qualified enough to serve God.  It is all down to His love, His mercy, His healing, and His undeserved favour.  One of the most incredible verses in the whole Bible is found in Romans 5:8, it says simply this:

‘… but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’. (ESV)

God loved Jonah and He proved it by not leaving him to be a victim of his own choices and in rescuing him from the dark depths of his own decisions.  God loved the people of Nineveh so much that He wanted to rescue them from themselves and the mistakes they had made.  He wanted to warn them and He wanted them to change their minds and be saved.  God loves you and me beyond all measure and He proves it by giving His Son to die for us, in the place that we deserved upon the cross.

Please don’t let your life become a tangled, mixed up mess of your own wrong choices and bad decisions, hand it over to God, all of it.  Trust Him, He does, after all know what He is doing … Amen.

January 12, 2012

“… so that our church does not die out with us.”

Overgrown church building

Below you will find the sermon from last Sunday as I had it printed out, (I think it came out a bit differently but anyway there was some interest in it so I thought I would post it here).  The picture above was taken at the ruins of Lislee church, near Courtmacsherry.

Text: Mark 1.4-11

A happy New Year to you all!  One thing I love about a New Year is that it is a reminder to us that God is a God of ‘new beginnings’ and that it is never too late (while there is breath in our body) to have a new start.  But of course it is not just at New Year, but all the year round that God works and He is always doing new and exciting things.

Recently I was listening to a talk by Nicky Gumbel (the man who started the Alpha course), about the church where he serves in London.  He reminisced about when he first started going there as a parishioner and how in those days there was a very small congregation and they were mostly elderly.  At their equivalent to a vestry meeting they said to the Vicar, (a chap called Sandy Miller), ‘Yes, we like traditional church services and the old language, but please do whatever you need to do so that our church does not die out with us.’  So, many changes were gradually made and one of them was to take the pews out of the church and replace them with chairs, so they could do more things with the large space.  Nicky Gumbel loves the chairs and now twenty or so years later he finds himself in a similar position to the older folk when he was young and that is to the young people of today, chairs are a hindrance and just so old-fashioned; they just want an empty floor!   The thing about chairs is that you are stuck in them and the young people love to be able to move around freely, sit in groups get up and go over to another group and so on.  So Gumbel says that even though he loves the chairs and finds it difficult when they are not there, he is willing to not have them at some of the church services for the sake of generation who are growing up in the church.

Why am I going on about this?  One reason is that I want us to start thinking a bit more about the future of the parish but mainly it is because I believe that there is a connection with our reading from Mark’s Gospel.  The Jewish people were very traditional and very stuck in their ways and it was John the Baptist’s job to wake them up.  Have you ever had someone throw a glass of cold water on your face?  Well, that is what John came to do, as Tom Wright puts it:

“John’s ministry burst in upon the surprised Jewish world.  Many had been looking for a sign from God, but they hadn’t expected it to look like this.  Many had wanted a Messiah to lead them against the Romans, but they weren’t anticipating a prophet telling them to repent”. (From Mark for Everyone, SPCK)

What did John want the people to do to be ready for Jesus?  He called them to ‘repent’, to turn around and start walking in the right direction, to wake up to God’s reality.  John wanted people to be ready for the new thing that God was doing.

While the other gospel writers give us more detail on the Lord’s baptism, Mark gets directly to the point, he tells us:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (v.9-11)

One striking thing here is the words of the Father, which in one translations reads:

‘You are my wonderful son; you make me very glad.‘

I don’t know what it is, but in our part of the world the relationship that fathers have with their sons is such that it is not unusual for sons to never hear things such as ‘my dear child’ or ‘I’m very pleased with you’, or even simply ‘I love you’.  I believe that these words of the Father to Jesus, the Son should be an encouragement to all of us Fathers who have sons, to follow the example given to us, to tell our sons that we love them, that we are pleased with them and how much joy they give to us and how proud we are of them.  As a father, it might be one of the most important things we ever do.

The account of Jesus’ baptism is very important not just for the relationship that we see between the Father and the Son but also their relationship with the Holy Spirit.  Now sometimes our lectionary readings come together remarkably well and today is one of them.  All of the readings show God at work doing new things by the Person, work and power of the Holy Spirit.  In the reading from Genesis chapter 1, it is the Spirit of God that broods over the chaos of the deep and breathes God’s creative life into it.  As Jesus is baptised God’s Spirit settles on Him, affirming His identity and mission.  In the reading from Acts we hear how a group of new believers break into a whole new dimension of faith as they are baptised with both water and the Holy Spirit and yes if we engage with this reading it is a bit like a wake up call, like a glass of cold water being thrown in our face.

There are of course many people today who think that Jesus was a great teacher, who gave us an important moral code and ethical guidelines as ideals to strive for, but then they leave it at that.  Jesus though is not past tense, He is alive today working with the Father and the Spirit as He always has and always will.  The option to see Him as just a good moral teacher is not enough.  He wants to do new things in us and through us.  He wants to indwell us by His Spirit so that the words of the Father to Jesus that day become the same words that He says to us.  “He sees us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Jesus Christ.  It sometimes seems impossible, especially to people who have never had this kind of support from their earthly parents, but it’s true:  God looks at us, and says, ‘You are my dear, dear child; I’m delighted with you.’” (Tom Wright, Mark For Everyone)

Your Heavenly Father loves you so very much, believe it.

In a similar way to that in which the Holy Spirit brooded over the face of the deep at the dawn of Creation, so He broods over us.  God wants to breathe His new life and love into the darkened chaos of our doubts, fears and sin.  He strongly desires to cleanse us with the blood of His Son and for us to let Him in, let Him work, let Him act in us and through us.

Change is something that typically the older we get the more difficult we can find to accept, whether it be the change that God wants to work in us as individuals or change that He wants to happen in the Church.  Over the past while as I have been driving around different parts of the country I have noticed more clearly than I ever have before the number of closed church buildings there are.  Now of course we can argue that church buildings are closed because of changes in population, emigration, intermarriage, Ne Temere and so on but I think the overwhelmingly greatest reason for church closure is the refusal to pass on the gospel to the generations to come in a way that is relevant to their language and culture.  Thankfully there are many churches and parishes that have successfully passed on the gospel message to the new generations and as you know this is something that we try (with limited success to do here) but I think no one would disagree that we need to be a lot braver and less tentative about it.  God wants to do new things in you and me and I believe he wants to do new things in this church and in this parish because He does not want this church to die out with the generations represented here today.  Remember that God is a God not of endings, but of new beginnings!  Let us pray… Amen.

May 8, 2011

The way…

The Road to Mombasa

The Road to Mombasa, which I took in 1988!

Today’s sermon.  Text Luke 24:13-35 (Year A, Easter 3)

Sometimes it’s helpful to think of life (and the Christian life in particular) as like a journey on foot.  For anybody that likes hill walking, this is not hard to imagine.  There will be times when the going is good, the sun is shining, the view is amazing, the ground is firm and we are warm and dry.  But as we all know, it’s not always this way.  Sometimes the ground is wet and hard going, it’s raining and there is no view because you are stuck in a bog in the middle of nowhere surrounded by fog – all you want to do is go home!  And of course we have highs and lows in our everyday lives as Christians – times when God seems very near and easy to talk to and times when He seems quiet, distant and very difficult to talk to.

It’s probably the latter that two of Jesus’ followers are feeling as they walk along the road to the village of Emmaus, about 11 Kilometres from Jerusalem.  This is still Easter Day, the same day that the women had met with the risen Lord Jesus and the same day that Peter and John had ran to the tomb, found it to be empty and wondered what on earth was going on.  So now in the latter part of the day a follower called Cleopas and another are walking away from Jerusalem discussing everything that had happened when all of a sudden a stranger comes alongside them and asks them what they are talking about.  In response, Cleopas turns to the stranger and says:

“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  (18b)

Then Cleopas goes on to tell the Stranger about Jesus of Nazareth and how He was a powerful prophet in both what he said and what he did and how the chief priests and rulers handed him over to be crucified.  Cleopas then says (you can almost hear the sadness in his voice at this point) about how they had hoped that Jesus was going to be the one who was going to set Israel free but alas it was three days ago now that he was killed.  But he hasn’t given up all hope yet because he continues by telling the stranger that that very morning some of the women in their group amazed them all by going to the tomb of Jesus and finding it empty and they talked about a vision of angels.  Then some others had gone also and found the tomb just as the women had said.

The Stranger listened to all of this and then said to Cleopas and his companion:

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then to enter into his glory?” (25, 26)

So then the stranger goes on to explain to them from the writings of the Old Testament about the Messiah.

Cleopas and his companion (possibly his wife, see John 19:25) are no doubt a bit confused by this stranger who has suddenly come up beside them on their journey.  Luke tells us that they were ‘looking sad’ (v.17)  After all, they were followers of Jesus and their Master, Friend and Teacher had been taken away from them like a common criminal and cruelly executed.  They couldn’t face staying in Jerusalem with the others any longer, they had to get out and go home to Emmaus.  It was too much to be able to cope with.  Were they running away?  Did they think their lives were in danger for being followers of Jesus?  Perhaps, or maybe they thought they would go home, away from Jerusalem in order to rethink and get some rest before they decided what to do next.

However, their confusion wasn’t to last much longer.  Things began to become clearer as this Stranger went through the Scriptures with them.  There are so many Old Testament passages that talk about the Messiah and the nature of His mission that we cannot go into them in any detail, but here’s perhaps some of the texts that Cleopas and his companion heard explained to them:  The promised offspring who would crush Satan in Genesis 3:15, the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, the pierced one in Zechariah 12:10 and the Messanger of the covenant in Malachi 3:1.  There are of course many more passages throughout the Old Testament, more than enough to explain about who the Lord Jesus is and what He came to do.

So the Bible study is cut short as they arrive at the village of Emmaus.  The Stranger acts as if he is going further, but Cleopas and his companion are very impressed and want to hear more of what he has to say, so with the Sun beginning to set they urge the Stranger to come and stay with them.  No doubt their conversation about the Scriptures is continuing over their meal when all of a sudden they notice the Stranger taking a loaf of bread, giving thanks for it, breaking it and passing the pieces to them.  You can imagine the mixture of emotions can’t you?  Shock, bewilderment, fear, guilt, love, but above all excitement.  It’s Jesus!  All along it was Jesus who had met them on the road, Jesus who had been explaining the Scriptures to them and now it was Jesus who they were eating with!  I’m sure they just wanted to jump up and down and shout and sing their praises and fall at the feet of their guest and worship Him.  But before they can do any of this He disappears!

They look at each other in astonishment and say to each other:

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?” (32b)

Just a few hours before they had been explaining to a Stranger about how sad and confused they were.  The Stranger had ministered to them firstly through God’s word and then through the breaking of bread.  As God had revealed Himself to them through His Word and through His Son their hearts and lives had been transformed from despair and confusion to utter joy and excitement.

Even though they are 11 kilometres away from Jerusalem and it is dark they cannot keep their excitement to themselves any longer.  They get up at once and ‘hot foot it’ back to the house in Jerusalem where the disciples are staying.  Even though they have travelled on this same road just a few hours before, their journey this time is very different.  Now they are travelling in the opposite direction (and not just in a physical sense).  On their journey out, they had been sad and confused and their feet had felt heavy along with their hearts.  Now they are full of joy, there is a spring in their step and they can’t wait to get back to the disciples’ to tell them what had happened.  They have done a complete U-turn from a state of sadness and ignorance to one of joy and understanding.

And so it is for us also.  Before we encounter the risen Lord Jesus, we are wandering around in a state of spiritual sadness and confusion.  The purpose and meaning of life is not clear.  Just as Cleopas and his companion were walking away from Jerusalem, where they should have been, before we encounter Jesus we are walking in the opposite direction from that which we are meant to be travelling.  But then Jesus meets us – do we listen to Him and what He has to say?  Do we invite Him in to our hearts and lives?  Do our hearts burn within us as we listen to God’s Word?  Do we repent and turn around and walk in the right direction?  Do we long to tell others what we have learnt and experienced?

Yes, life is a journey, but only Jesus provides a map that makes any sense of it all.  Let us then let Him walk with us and show us the way.  Let’s stop trying to take our own paths thinking we know best.  Let’s listen to Him, and follow always, Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Amen.

May 2, 2011

You want proof?

Spider Monkeys

(Photo: Spider Monkeys at Fotataken in 2009)

Sermon from Yesterday.  Text: John 20:19-31  (Easter 2, Year A)

We’ve all heard the phrase “Seeing is believing”; if we hear some news that seems out of the ordinary we want proof, so the man coming home from work with a pay rise will want to show the new pay slip to his wife, the woman who has a winning lottery ticket will carefully guard the proof of the win until it can be handed in, the sports fan will keep the ticket stub from the match when her team won the cup to prove that she was there and the proud Father-to-be will carry around in his wallet the fuzzy black-and-white ultrasound printout as proof that he is going to have a son or daughter.

Of course when it gets to matters of faith, this can be quite confusing, it is not like we can physically see God with our own eyes, we cannot pick up the phone to Him or send an email.  Jesus is not on Facebook or Twitter and it is not possible to go and see Him onstage or even in a Church.  That is of course why many dismiss the claims of Christianity without ever really bothering to look more deeply.  But there are many things which cannot be proven which we know are real; for example love, or the beauty of music or art.  Yes there are signs and indicators that two people love each other, but how would we mathematically prove it? The look of rapture on the Opera lover’s face as he is absorbed by his favorite Aria is clear to see, but could it be quantified or reduced to its core elements in a test tube?

In our reading from John’s gospel this morning we have something to greatly help us with this whole question of proof.  Firstly the Lord Jesus proves His resurrection in a way that is beyond any doubt and then He shows that it is also possible to believe in Him without seeing the proof and how wonderful it is when that happens.  The reading starts off with the disciples huddled together in a room with the door locked because they are still in a state of shock and numbness over Jesus’ death.  Even though the risen Lord had already appeared to Mary Magdalene and she had told them as such, they were still not able to see the bigger picture.  Their master had gone, their Shepherd had left them the flock without a leader to guide them, they were sheep left alone in the hills without protection.  They were afraid of being arrested and killed because they were disciples of the One who had been arrested and killed a week before.

The door is locked, there is no other way in and suddenly there He is!  Jesus comes and stands in their midst and says “Peace be with you”.  To prove that it is He, He shows them his hands, the scars left by the nails and he shows them his side where the spear went in.  Understandably the disciples are overjoyed that their master and their friend is with them once again.  In a moment their despair had turned to joy.

No doubt, Jesus sees the state that they are all in, a mixture of utter joy, excitement and maybe a little fear so he says to them once more “Peace be with you” and then he continued:

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.  When he said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (v.21)

Jesus was not only giving them a job to do, but also giving them the power to do that job.  What he required of them was to tell people about him, to proclaim the good news to all nations.  Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit”, as a foretaste of what would happen on the day of Pentecost, when all believers from that time on would experience the power of the Holy Spirit working in their lives.  Of course that mission to proclaim, to speak and to live out the gospel message is entrusted to us and to all believers today and is just as important as it ever was.

Then Jesus then says to them:

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.(v.23)

Of course he was not giving them the power to forgive sins, because only God can forgive sins.  Rather, Jesus gave them the privilege of telling new believers that their sins have been forgiven because they have accepted Jesus’ message.  All believers have this same privilege.  We can announce with certainty the forgiveness of our sin once we come to the place of repentance and faith.

It is easy to feel sorry for Thomas; he wasn’t there when Jesus visited the other disciples in the locked room and he wants proof.  When the other disciples told him that they had seen the Lord, he said to them:

Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. (v.25)

Next we read that a week later the disciples were again in a locked room, though his time Thomas was with them.  As before, Jesus came and stood amidst them and said “peace be with you” and then he turned to Thomas and said:

Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe. (v.27)

Thomas did not need to reach out and touch him, the sight of his Master induced a new depth of faith in him and he exclaimed:

My Lord and my God! (v.28)

Thomas got his proof and his response is clear, He calls Jesus God and Jesus does not object because what Thomas says is true.  Of course we might think that if we could have proof like Thomas did to show to people then many more would come to faith in Christ – maybe, but then there were many people around at the time who did not believe, despite the evidence.

I’m sure that we have all wished that we could actually see Jesus and hear Him speak to us in the way that we would speak with each other.  We want to know what he looked like (Did He really have long hair and a beard for example) and so on.  Like Thomas we want Jesus’ physical presence.  But God’s plan is far greater than this would allow.  He has not limited himself to a physical body.  That is why he is present with his people at all times, He is Here now and He is just as much with others as they meet in his name all around the world.  He lives in our hearts by his Holy Spirit.  He does speak to us now, through the Bible, and as we grow and mature in our prayers, we hear God’s still small voice speaking to us.  The Lord Jesus today can be as real to us as he was to Thomas.  For Thomas and the other disciples, they believed when they saw the risen Lord Jesus for themselves, and Jesus’ response to their joy and new-found faith was this, he said:

Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. (v.29)

The days when Jesus would be visible to the physical eyes were limited because he was soon going to return to his Father in heaven.  But Jesus would still be visible to the eyes of faith.  For the benefit of all those who would believe as a result of the testimony of the apostles, including us, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”.

Some of us believe because we were brought up by our parents to believe.  Some of us believe through finding the Saviour later on in life.  No matter how or when we came to believe, God blesses us because we do.

And so we come to a rather startling conclusion:  The proof of Jesus’ resurrection today is us!

Yes, we are the one’s given the responsibility to show Christ’s love and his power to forgive to a world that is lost, broken and hurting and which desperately needs a Saviour.  It is not up to anyone else, it is our job, our responsibility and our great and awesome privilege.

I’ll finish with some famous lines from Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
      no hands but yours,
      no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
      Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
      doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.

Amen.