Category Archives: Sermons

Isaiah to Paul: From Feeling Rotten – to the Fruits of the Spirit

One of my very first sermons, I was still in training – but it’s not a bad effort and does have something valuable to say.

 

Have you ever thought, ‘I can’t do this’, or ‘I’m useless at that’?  Have you ever refused to try to do something, saying, ‘I’m not clever like you’, or I’m not…’ or ‘I can’t…’  That’s what Moses said when God called him in Exodus 4:10, ‘But Moses said, “No, Lord, don’t send me. I have never been a good speaker, and I haven’t become one since you began to speak to me. I am a poor speaker, slow and hesitant.” Today’s reading are about people coming to recognise what they can offer even when they’ve thought they were really useless.

 The reading from Isaiah comes when God is going to restore Israel to the land.  They’ve been exiled in Babylon for about 70 years and they’ve heard every possible criticism from their prophets during that time.  They’ve been told how sinful they were, that all their actions and behaviour have been wrong for ages, their precious city, Jerusalem, the city of the lord they’ve heard described as a harlot.  They’ve been downtrodden among the Babylonians and cast down by God.  They’ve been so miserable its unbelievable – they’ve been utterly shattered, and worst of all, it seemed that God didn’t love them anymore. 

 Imagine if something like this happened to you, your whole community transplanted to a nasty council estate on the edge of some really wealthy area where you could see how the other half live but live in grotty circumstances yourselves; your working folk condemned to work on the bins; and your church back home burnt down. Worst of all, some spiritual authority comes along, maybe the Bishop, and tells you you’re all useless and its all happened because you were so sinful.

 You’d feel truly awful.  Now, Isaiah, who certainly took his share of having a go at the people for their awfulness, comes along with a series of songs of joy.  He’s telling the people that God still loves them.  That their city is to be his Bride.  That a time of rejoicing is coming.  Do they deserve it?  Well, according to all the prophesies until just before this one, presumably not.  But God is infinitely generous, they’ve been through their bad times and God has wiped the slate clean, but he’s not waiting for them to start behaving properly again before he starts telling them the good news of what’s coming, he’s rejoicing in it, and asking them to rejoice with him.

 God asking us to rejoice with him is part of what happens at Cana, when Jesus turns the water into wine.  Its something more than that though, we’re not just rejoicing at a wedding that Jesus happened to be invited to, after all, we’re not even told who’s getting married, the wedding isn’t an important part of the story at all.  What we’re rejoicing in is that Jesus turned the water into wine.  In one translation I’ve seen its even described as ‘foot-washing water’, not necessarily the best quality water then.  That’s us.  Just jars of water and not the best water at that.  And with that infinite generosity that is so much the nature of our God, Jesus turns us into wine.  And not just any old wine either, the best wine.  I’ve probably never drunk wine as good as the wine served up at Cana, my limit for a bottle of wine is £5 in Tesco; reasonable wine, but far from the best.  But the wine Jesus serves, like the water he offered to the Samarian woman in John 4 was more than just water,  is more than just wine.  The best wine is that which is of Jesus, the wine of his gift to us.  And that is what our jars of foot-washing water are filled with.  In his generosity, Jesus re-makes our nature of not particularly special with his gift that remakes us into the best wine.

 Now lets think of some people who don’t particularly feel awful but who probably think of themselves as not having any particular strengths, nothing in particular to offer to others.  People who don’t really think of themselves as being of value to their community.  Know some people like that?  Of course you do, there may even be some you know who you think of like that.

 Well that’s the sort of community who Paul is talking of.   People who don’t know or value their own gifts.  And people who don’t value each other’s gifts.  That’s the gifts that God gave them, the gifts that God has given you.

 

When Jesus remakes us as the very best wine we definitely have gifts, not that we deserve them, we are still the very imperfect people that we always were but we all have something to give.  So there are two things we have to do with that, we have to use our gifts and not hide from them, Jesus said, in Mk 4:21: “Does anyone ever bring in a lamp and put it under a bowl or under the bed? Doesn’t he put it on the lampstand?   We also have to try to see those gifts in other people, see how the light of the Lord lights them up too!

 The gifts that Paul is talking about in his letter aren’t particularly meaningful to us today, so what sort of gifts might we think about when we look around us.  What sort of gifts do we see in ourselves, in other people; what sort of gifts do we see as needed by the church or by the community?

 There are some gifts that we easily recognise in the Church, gifts of speaking, gifts of making music, the gifts that make for good planners and committee workers, but there are other gifts that we either don’t notice or undervalue.

 There are the practical gifts, the abilities to make and mend; the abilities to clean and sort out stuff.  Useful to the church when something is broken, dirty or chaotic but useful too in the community.  Do you know someone who can’t afford tradespeople and is having to put up with things being broken in their home?  Or someone who has come through some kind of crisis and could really do with a bit of help putting their home back to rights?  You might think you don’t want to be seen as ‘interfering’ but its not interfering to be available to others to ask for help when they need it.  You might not think of something like fixing your neighbour’s broken cot as a particularly Christian service, but caring about your neighbour is where its all at.

 But there is one gift that is truly special and is not only undervalued, it is hardly noticed.  It’s the gift of listening. We live in a society where it’s the noisy gifts that get noticed, this is the quietest gift of all – but its oh, so precious.   Do you know someone who’s really quiet but who somehow gets to hear everyone’s tales of trouble?  Someone who always seems to have time to listen to others.  Now there’s a real gift and usually, the people who possess it don’t even realize.

 So look at yourself, what gifts do you have?  Not as something to be proud of, after all, your gifts are gifts from God, not something you own but something you can be grateful for.  So, being grateful for them, what do you do with them?  How can you offer them to others?

 And what gifts do you see in your neighbours?  It may be that, looking at someone you don’t even like, you may see some marvelous gift, some quality that they are itching to use in the service of the community around them.  We are told to love our neighbours and sometimes that’s not easy, but if we can’t love them, we can at least value them – it’s a step in the right direction!

 So, we, the jars of poor quality water, turned into the best wine by Jesus, need to see how to offer that wine to others, how to appreciate the Jesus-given qualities of our fellows and truly, how to be glad and thankful to Jesus for the change that he has made, and continues to make in our basic nature. 

 

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Christ the King

Psalm 72. 1-7 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%2072.%201-7&version=CEV

1 Samuel 8. 4-20  http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Samuel%208.%204-20&version=CEV

John 18. 33-37 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%2018.%2033-37&version=CE

 

This is all about the difference between secular rule and the Kingdom of God. We’ll start with Samuel.

The people wanted a King
Up until this point the people had been ruled by Judges. Judges who operated the Law of God in its day-to-day application for the people. While they might be warriors, it wasn’t a necessary part of the role. They might not be recognised by other countries about as people who could represent the land, and whom treaties could be made with. The people wanted a King – someone who could stand as the acknowledged leader, who could lead them in war and negotiate for them in peace.

Foolishness of wanting a King
But Samuel warned them that this would not, in reality, be good. A King would treat the people like slaves, would take the best land for himself, would tax them to pay for his luxuries, would take their sons to fight and their daughters for service. But they wanted a King, just as the countries round about had kings. Just imagine for a moment, if the countries round about had had democracy. And the people, wanting to be like other countries, had asked for a system of electing representatives. Similar warnings might well have been given: they will form an elite, they will expect the best of everything for themselves and their families leaving little for the rest of you. They had had the Law of God, and now they wanted the rule of men, raised on a pedestal above them. Samuel was telling them that they were foolish.

The Law – equality
Up until that time, the Law regarding land had been a system of distribution and sharing. Land, given out at the end of the Exodus had been by Tribe, not to individuals. Tribes were expected to share the land among themselves so that all could be provided for. Supplementing that were laws which provided for those who for whatever reason found themselves without land – if they had sold it because they were in debt – then after 7 years they could have it back. If in desperation they had sold themselves or their children into slavery – again, after 7 years they could have their freedom back. Those who had no land and therefore no crop had the right to gather whatever was left after a harvest which was not to be too efficient – leaving plenty for the gleaners. Widows were a particular point of honour since they had no means of survival – they were to be provided for by their late husbands nearest relative. There were many other laws which ensured that all could survive and no-one fall into dire poverty. And these laws had been administered by the Judges – but a King would be more concerned about his own status and the luxury which could demonstrate it; he would be more concerned about demonstrating his power both within the land and to other countries. He might have a general willingness to ensure that no-one starved, but it was no longer going to be at the top of the agenda. The people were not content with God’s law – they wanted secular rule. And Samuel told them they were foolish.

The Psalm – for a Fair King
And then we have a Psalm. I wonder how long after they found themselves with a King this psalm was written? The notes in my Bible suggest it may have been a Coronation Song. If so, then either they’d already had experience of how unfair life under secular rule could be, or they were seriously taking Samuel’s warnings to heart! The song asks God that the King be fair in his dealings, be supportive of the poor and maintain peace for ever. ‘Peace’ of course, would have been the word, ‘Shalom’ and we should remember that that is much more than just an absence of obvious violence. It is that peace which arises when people are content with the situation they find themselves in. So it requires an absence of greed and ambition, and a sufficiency for all, of the resources required for survival and even, at a basic level, comfort. That is, it requires a society without vast inequality.
The Gospel – Jesus the true King
And so, we move on to the Gospel. Where God has indeed given us a King, a true King who operates by the Law of God and has demonstrably little interest in the ‘law of the land’. He doesn’t set out to disobey it but if he does so as a result of maintaining God’s law, well, that’s the way it goes.

God’s Law – or the Law of the Land?
Since he is capable of healing the cripple or the leper before him then he should – he does, since God’s law says to ‘love your neighbour’, care about the people around you – how could he obey God’s law if he doesn’t heal them when he can. Where there is no conflict with the law of the land, he clearly knows it and operates it, sending lepers off to the temple to make the appropriate offering for healing. But where there is conflict it is God’s concern for the sick that matters – and so he heals on the Sabbath, he is not angry when a woman touches him for healing, although her haemorrhage means that her touch, even just of his robe, means that he is now unclean, and he tells the story of the Good Samaritan which demonstrates God’s abhorrence of the need to maintain social norms rather than help the vulnerable and needy, in this case the need for ritual purity. We don’t need ritual purity today, but we can see the same concept in many modern forms.

A kingdom – out of this world!
So Pilate asks Jesus ‘are you the King of the Jews?’ And Jesus answers, ‘My Kingdom does not belong to this world’. We could understand that as him being King of a Kingdom located entirely within Heaven, and not upon earth at all. But, remember, he taught us to pray, ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ The kingdom coming is dependent on God’s will being done on earth – it is not independent of the earth that we live upon.

So if Jesus is King, here on the earth, but his kingdom is not of the earth – there where is it? Or perhaps, more appropriately, what is it? A place where God’s law rules? More accurately the state of being where God’s law rules.

It’s a difficult difference to grasp, especially considering he clearly considered the law administered by the temple as not being God’s law, and more than Roman law was.

English/Scots understanding
At this point, it may be helpful to introduce another difference – the difference between the understanding of kingship in England and Scotland (I can’t use Welsh law here, I don’t understand it well enough, but it was probably more like Scots law than English). Did you know that there was never such a thing as a ‘King of Scotland’? Scottish law was always different from English. A Scottish Laird was not the same thing as an English Lord. While a Lord was appointed by the King to have control of an area of land, and that land could be reallocated from one lord to another, a Laird was the head of his family and there was nothing the king could do about that. His power, was not in the land, but in the loyalty of the people. Similarly, the king, was King of Scots, not of Scotland. His status was as a leader of the people, not owner of the land.

Jesus’ Kingdom
Jesus has no kingdom in the world as Pilate would understand it. Pilate’s idea of kingship would relate to power, taxes, status and military might. Jesus had no interest in such things. Jesus had come to bring in a different kind of kingdom. A kingdom of hearts and minds, a kingdom of attitudes, not one of obedience or resources.

God’s Kingdom, Jesus tells us, is one where we are free in our hearts, free from social conditioning, free from the demands of the law wherever they conflict with God’s law to love him, and to love our neighbour. That doesn’t mean, as some churches have interpreted it that you can be cruel to someone because they’re not observing God’s law as an individual church may understand it. God’s law cannot be obeyed by breaking the law that tells us to love our neighbour.

The Kingdom of which Jesus is King is not one which demands of us our money, our sons to be sent to war, or our daughters into service. It does not demand of us obedience or that we support anyone’s status. It demands one thing of us only – Love.