Posts tagged ‘Grace’

February 20, 2011

The right response to hatred

Light and Dark

Photo: Sunrise on the way to Timoleague, early one Sunday morning.

Sermon for Sunday 20th February.  Text: Matthew 5:38-48

Timoleague, Clonakilty HC, Year A 3rd Sunday Before Lent (Proper 2), 20/2/11.  Matthew 5:38-48

Humility is a difficult thing to grasp.  I had to laugh last week when I saw a politician on television puffing out his chest and saying “I am a humble man”!  Poor chap, I think the irony of boasting about his humility was lost upon him!  But of course politicians are easy targets, what about ourselves, are we in danger of being proud of our humility?  Well if we are then the few verses of our reading from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel will give us a jolt back into reality…

The Lord Jesus starts off by quoting a well-known phrase from the Old Testament law (from Exodus 21:24) and then He expands upon it:

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an  eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; (Matthew 5:38, 39)

How do we react when we are wronged?  Think about when you are in the car and somebody pulls out in front of you or cuts you up at a roundabout, or you are trying to turn on to the main road but some eejit is blocking the yellow box junction!  We can get a bit upset – perhaps we even secretly wish that our car was equipped with a mobile rocket-launcher!  When someone does wrong to us we want revenge!

The Old Testament law of ‘an eye for an eye’ was there to make sure that the punishment fitted the crime, so that a sentence was neither too harsh nor too lenient.  What does the Lord want us to do?  Does He want us to demand our rights?  No.  Does He want us to make sure that those who wrong us are punished?  No.  (This is not so much talking about crimes against the state which are punishable under law, it is talking about our relationships and dealings with people).  Do we have a readiness to resentment?  Are we easily offended?  Do we go into a sulk when we don’t get our way?  Are we keen to assert our rights?

The Lord does not want us to be like this, we are not to be a miserable selfish grouch who everybody avoids because they are afraid of upsetting.  As Mahatma Ghandi (who though a Hindu greatly admired Jesus’ teaching) said ‘an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.’  If we want God’s Kingdom to come, if we want His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven , then we have to let go of our natural wishes and desires and we have to respond as Jesus did.  If someone slaps us on the cheek, our first thought might be to punch their lights out, but no, we are to not retaliate.  If someone takes from us we are not to resist but offer them more!  If someone compels us to do something to help them we are to go the ‘whole hog’ and help them as fully as we are able to do so.

We are to return good for evil and blessing for cursing.  We are to love not only in word but in deed also.

Next, the Lord says:

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

Of course, nowhere in the Old Testament law does it say to hate enemies, rather the words had been misinterpreted over time.  It’s one thing to turn the other cheek but when the Lord asks us to love our enemies is that not going a bit far?  What is an enemy?  According to my dictionary, an enemy is someone who is opposed to something, and actively tries to damage it. (Collins English Dictionary sixth ed. 2003).  Is Jesus mad?  No, He definitely is not.  Perhaps we forget that once we were His enemy, and did He not treat us with overwhelming love?  We might say ‘I was never God’s enemy’, well before you gave your life to Christ, you were a sinner, what is a sinner, but someone who lives their life apart from God.  There is no sitting on the fence, either we are for God or we are against Him and to be against Him is to be His enemy. Listen to this, from Romans chapter 5:

8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

So in other words, the Lord Jesus wants us to behave towards others as He has behaved towards us, with unconditional love, grace and acceptance.

A professor of New Testament Studies, Gary M. Burge, writes the following true story

A few years ago in Jerusalem’s famed Hadassh Hospital, an Israeli soldier lay dying. He had contracted AIDS as a result of his reckless lifestyle and was now in the last stages of the disease’s terrible course. His father was a famous Jerusalem rabbi, and both he and the rest of his family had disowned him. He was condemned to die in his shame. The nursing staff on his floor knew his story and carefully avoided his room. Everyone was simply waiting for his life to expire.

The soldier happened to be part of a regiment that patrolled the Occupied West Bank, and his unit was known for its ferocity and war-fighting skills. The Palestinians living there hated these troops. They were merciless and could be cruel. Their green berets always gave them away.

One evening the soldier went into cardiac arrest. All the usual alarms went off, but the nursing staff did not respond. Even the doctors looked the other way. Yet on the floor another man was at work—a Palestinian Janitor, a Christian—who knew this soldiers story as well and also knew the meaning of the emergency. The Janitor’s own village had even been attacked by this soldier’s unit. When the Palestinian heard the alarm and witnessed the neglect, his heart was filled with compassion. He dropped his broom, entered the soldier’s room, and attempted to resuscitate the man by giving him cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The scene was remarkable: a poor Palestinian man, a victim of this soldier’s violence, now tried to save his enemy while those who should have been doing this stood on the sidelines. …

When you understand what it means for an enemy to love an enemy—and for the righteous to show neglect—then you will have a picture of the power of God’s grace at work in a person’s heart.

Gary M. Burge, Jesus, the Middle-Eastern Storyteller (Zondervan, 2009), pp. 24-25 (From preachingtoday.com)

It is of course easy for us to love those who love us, but the ability to love those who are actively hostile to us is another thing altogether.  One of the things that makes the Christian and indeed the Church of God different from the world is the ability to love unconditionally.

To live like this might seem like the bar is set just too high, but are we not children of God, and as children of God should we not be like our Heavenly Father?  If we only love those who love us, then where is the evidence of our conversion?  As Bishop J.C. Ryle puts it:

Do we flinch from the test? Do we find it impossible to do good to our enemies?  If that be the case we may be sure we have yet to be converted.  As yet we have not received the “Spirit of God.” (1 Cor. ii. 12.)

(J.C. Ryle, Expository thoughts on the Gospel, Matthew, 1856).

So who are our enemies?  The answer will be different for each of us.  They may be persons we do not even know, but who would wish us ill because of our association with Christ.  Sadly, our enemy may even be a family member or former friend or work colleague.  They  may make no secret in delighting in our failures and resenting our successes.

Here is the challenge:  You can be sure that if you are a follower of the Lord Jesus that you will have the opportunity to minister to those who hate you.  What will we do when that time comes; will we turn away and pretend not to notice, or will we reach out in love?

How happy would the world be if we were all able to live as Jesus taught.  But we are weak and we are proud and so stubborn.  Yet if there is a small spark of hope in us that is able to say “Thy will be done”, we can be assured that the very second we say “yes” to God, He is there and He will help us and He will give us every strength, resource and encouragement in Christ that we need to love, yes to unconditionally love even those who hate us.

Amen.

 

Advertisements
December 5, 2010

JtheB and the road to the Lord

Clonakilty in the snow

Thank you so much to the person (who wishes to remain anonymous) who posted me a Facebook message answering my call for help.  The message picked me up and got me writing again – thank you!

Today’s Sermon (Text: Matthew 3:1-12) Advent 2, Year A

In his poem “St. John the Baptist’s Day”, John Keble writes:

Where is the lore the Baptist taught,
The soul unswerving and the fearless tongue?
The much-enduring wisdom, sought
By lonely prayer the haunted rocks among?
Who counts it gain
His light should wane,
So the whole world to Jesus throng?(1)

The Lord Jesus said of John:
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist… (Matthew 11:11a)

John the Baptist was an amazing character. He lived in the desert wilderness, and Matthew tells us that he had raggedy old clothes made from camel’s hair, held up by an old leather belt. For his food / Bush Tucker Trial, he had a strict diet of locusts and wild honey. The honey sounds nice, but I’m not so sure about the locusts! He doesn’t really sound like the type of character one would normally listen to, does he? But what an awesome character John was, so holy and so humble, never seeking any credit for himself and always directing attention away from himself and onto Christ.

When I was at theological college, a Rector who I did a parish placement with discussed John the Baptist with me as I was preparing to write a sermon for that Sunday. He told me about a sermon he did on John the Baptist when he was a Curate at a well-to-do parish in Dublin. Unbeknown to the very proper elderly ladies sitting a couple of pews back from the front, a friend of his had been hiding behind the Communion Table from before the start of the service. This friend was dressed as near as possible to what John the Baptist would have looked like; he was all messy and dressed in old rags, looking like he had wandered in from the nearest desert. Right in the middle of the sermon at the pre-selected point of time, he jumped out and shouted at the top of his voice “Repent, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”. I’m told that the old ladies had such a shock that the preacher feared for their health. It took much apologising from both rector and curate to smooth things over afterwards!

You’ll be pleased to know that there are no hidden John the Baptists here this morning, behind the Communion Table or anywhere else!

Matthew tells us that John the Baptist came preaching in the desert. Here was a man who had given his life to God, and now God had a very important job for him to do. Firstly, he had to awaken the people to see their need to be converted and secondly he was going to introduce them to the Messiah, who would make it possible for the people to be converted.

If any of you have ever been to see a famous band or act such as U2, Lady Gaga or the Munster Ramblers :-/ perform, they will usually have what is known as a “support band”. This is a kind of “warm-up” act, to get everyone in the mood for the main performance. Usually however, people tend to ignore the support band and not bother coming out of the bar until the main performance starts. John is a bit like the warm-up act, though his job is infinitely more important. Perhaps a better example is whenever a head of state, such as a King or Queen does something important, they may be announced with a fanfare of trumpets, the red carpet will be rolled out, and people will have spent time beforehand making sure that everything is ready for the important person to arrive. This is exactly what John the Baptist is doing for the immanent arrival of the Lord Jesus and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John is blowing Jesus’ trumpet and he’s laying out the red carpet to prepare the way for the coming Messiah.

So John went into the countryside all around the River Jordan and he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The word Repent in Greek is μετάνοία (metanoia), It means ‘to change one’s mind for the better, knowing that you have offended someone (in this case God) and to look with abhorrence on your past sins’ (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon). Of course, repentance then is not just once off, it must be the way of life for the Christian. Every day in prayer and through reading God’s word we allow Him to work in us to align us to His will, to His plan and purpose for our lives and to repent of our old way of living.

Baptism was nothing new. The Jewish people had for a long time performed a ceremonial washing of Gentiles who had converted to Judaism. The idea being that Gentiles were unclean and they needed to be washed before they could become one of God’s people. But here John is having the cheek to tell the Jewish people themselves that they needed to be washed, they too were unclean! But he’s saying to them, “Yes, you are unclean, but you can be forgiven, your sins can be washed away.” His audience would have been well aware of some wonderful verses in the Hebrew Scriptures that tell us about God’s forgiveness, for example:

As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)

You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
(Micah 7:19)

A family member told me about a dream they had once, where they were looking out to sea. The tide was out and in the mud there was lots of junk, you know the sort of thing, old shopping trolleys, washing machines and so on. The person understood these to represent all the junk in their life, in other words, all the sin. But then the tide turned, the sea came in and completely covered over all the junk. This represented what God does with our sins when we say “sorry” to Him. Even more than that, because in the dream the junk was still there under the surface – but God does much more than that, He removes our sin completely.

In other words, when God forgives, He sends our sins away to a place from which they can never be brought back. When we forgive someone, we might occasionally remind them of the bad thing that they did to us, thereby showing that we haven’t totally forgiven them at all. But God doesn’t do that. He doesn’t remind us of our sins, He completely wipes them out, so that they are no more, literally, as far as the east is from the west, or as if they had been cast into the depths of the sea.

Quoting from Isaiah, John says that there will be:

A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight …’ The voice in the desert is of course John himself, but what does he mean when he says about making straight paths for the Lord? Perhaps that his audience should provide the Lord with ready access to their hearts and lives. May we let God’s access to us not be a windy narrow West Cork Boreen full of pot holes, but a highway where we openly welcome Him into our hearts and lives.

Later on, the Lord Jesus was to declare that John was in fact the most important of all the prophets. But even he is only a forerunner, he is only the one to announce the arrival of the coming King, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Lamb of God and Saviour of the world.

John welcomed the King himself, and many people who heard John’s message also welcomed Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Let’s ask ourselves, how straight the paths are between us and God; are there obstacles in the way? Let’s be encouraged by John’s message. Let us allow ourselves to be converted, to repent, to walk in the direction of God’s will for our lives. If we’ve done this already, let’s keep going, and let us allow God by His grace to remove every obstacle in our lives that prevents us from having an increasingly full relationship with Him. Let us pray:

Lord God, you know our lives so completely, you know my life. You know the obstacles, all the pit falls, all that hinders my relationship with you. Lord there are things I try to hide, things that I am ashamed of, things I avoid; words I should say and words I shouldn’t, things I should do and things I shouldn’t … I give this all to you now and I say ‘sorry’ with all my heart. Help me Lord, help me every day to follow you, every day and every moment of my life now and into eternity. For the glory of Your Name. Amen.

——————————————————–
(1) http://yimcatholic.blogspot.com/2010/06/poem-on-st-john-baptists-day.html

January 20, 2010

Messed Up


The above picture should show some nicely developed negatives of photos taken in the recent snow, unfortunately it looks instead like pictures taken inside a cave at midnight with no flash! It only took a fraction of a second. I lost my concentration and opened up the developing tank to the light. I closed the lid again immediately but I knew it was too late. Film is very very sensitive to light and so all 36 or so exposures were lost.

I’ve just started reading Dallas Willard’s book, “Renovation of the Heart”. Some words on page 2 resonated with me:

But the situations in which we find ourselves are rarely as important as our response to them.

A ruined film is of course nothing in the context of our lives, where we will face good and bad situations, sometimes overwhelmingly so. But my response to this minor mishap gave me an insight into my own mind in dealing with an albeit insignificant mess up of my own making. My first reaction was to consider giving up and not bother with trying to develop my own films any more and of allowing myself the indulgence of a good sulk and perhaps a good moan too while I was at it.

But then I thought that well I will just learn from this mistake and there’s no way I’ll ruin my film in the same way again, (though probably I will find many other ways to ruin future films too).

I seem to be the sort of person who can only learn by failing first. I thank God for His overwhelming grace. Time and time again He picks me up and dusts me off and sets me on my feet again. I love Him for that…

August 15, 2009

Men at work – God at work

Nikon D70s, f9, 1/320 sec, +1.2 EV, ISO 200, 27mm equivalent (click to enlarge)

It’s probably an urban myth, but supposedly in China one of the ways that they keep unemployment levels down is through division of labour. For example, you go into a shop and buy something – one person will put it in a bag for you, another will take your money, a third person will hand you your receipt and a fourth will open the door for you and wish you ‘good day’. Perhaps someone in Cork City council has taken Chinese philosophy to heart…

Of course it’s all very well for me to sit here and have a bit of laugh at these guys’ expense, but I’m sure there are many who would question the value of what I do too. Is there really a place for Christianity or any kind of traditional religion in the 21st century? Is it not all just superstition and a ‘pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die’ mentality?

If there is one thing I’m certain of it is this:

Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy.
(1 Timothy 1:15, The Message)

Every day God is changing people’s lives. From the very second we look over our shoulder and want Him to come into our lives, He is there. Seeking proof, or assessing the relevance of Christianity is found not in scientific, quantifiable study, but in countless hearts, minds and lives that have been transformed among all those individuals who can say:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me….
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.