Salvation in Jesus Alone

Salvation in Jesus Alone (Acts 4:5-12)
by Tim Denne
Sunday 26th April, 2015
9.30am service

In Acts 4 we read that Peter and John have just prayed for and healed someone in Jesus’ name, and are speaking to the people and teaching them about the resurrection of the dead. This thoroughly annoys the Sadducees who, with the Temple guard, arrest them. The next day they are given a chance to speak and

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:8-12 (ESV)

Today I want to talk about the idea of salvation, what it might have meant to those hearing Peter, and how that challenges the way we think about salvation.

What does salvation mean to the recipients?

Peter and John have been arrested by the Sadducees for preaching about the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees appear to have been a ruling class amongst the Jews, who stuck to the Biblical law and did not believe in any kind of resurrection. Theologically their beef with Peter and John may have been no more than it would have been with the Pharisees, who did believe in resurrection.

Their real problem seems to be more with over-excitement.

The Jews were living in the land promised to their ancestors, but it wasn’t really theirs. It was the Roman province of Judea governed by a prefect and an occupying army. The Jews were given some autonomy over their own affairs but they were not in charge.

The Sadducees were worried about the people getting over-excited because they are trying to keep their heads down with the Romans. The Sadducees don’t believe in any kind of afterlife. Their hope is of restoration of Israel and freedom from Rome, but antagonising the Romans will only make things worse. They are pragmatists and politicians.

Jesus’ followers always had a different set of disagreements with the Pharisees, the other major and more popular Jewish group.

The Pharisees problem with Jesus and his followers was because they believed that the Jews’ freedom from Rome, the restoration of the land to the people of God would only come when they were forgiven of their sins and this would only happen when they were living rightly; observing the law. Jesus and his followers were a problem from this perspective because of their attitude to the Sabbath and the extent to which they seemed to make no effort to only associate with the righteous.

But all of these Jewish groups were thinking about salvation (or rescue) in terms of freedom from Rome and restoration of the land.

Stepping back a bit, in the Hebrew Scriptures they were familiar with, salvation (both in Hebrew and in the Greek version, the LXX) is used with reference to:

  • rescue from Egypt being God’s salvation (Ex 14:13; 152; Ps 106:9-10);
  • rescue from the exile in Babylon (Isa 46:13; 52:10-11);
  • God’s help to Israel in battle (Deut 20:4 LXX; Judg 3:31); and
  • salvation from the judgement of God in the sense that God allowed bad things to happen as judgement on Israel; this included their current situation (Hos 1:2-7)

Salvation was all about God saving his people from slavery, assimilation into other nations or death. And they understood their place in the world; their salvation was ultimately for God’s own sake so that he still had a people through which the whole world could be blessed.

Salvation for the Jews was not about whether they were God’s people or not, whether as individuals they were in or out. They knew they were God’s people. Salvation was about whether they could live in peace in the land, some kind of precursor to the kingdom of God.

Some of their hope for salvation settled on the idea of a messiah. He would deliver Jerusalem from the Gentiles, gather those who were still dispersed, and rule in justice and glory. It comes to its head in some of the Jewish literature written in the time between the Old and New Testaments, such as the Psalms of Solomon that talks of a new king and son of David who would purge Jerusalem from the nations that trample her down, throw out the sinners, and would gather together a people who he would lead in righteousness.

But to the Jewish leaders Jesus was certainly not the source of salvation; he was part of the problem, particularly because he didn’t seem to be standing for righteousness as they would define it, particularly in his attitude to the Sabbath.

And, provocatively, Peter uses language here originally used of David in Psalms 118 (the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone) to described Jesus. The same cornerstone (or capstone) language had been used in Isaiah 28:16 also to talk of something that can be trusted in Jerusalem (possibly the temple in Isaiah’s time) in contrast to the corrupt leaders. The cornerstone language used of Jesus is not only saying that Jesus is the foundation for faith in Yhwh; it is doing so in a way that contrasts him as cornerstone with a deeply suspect leadership that was built on a foundation of lies; they have made lies their refuge and taken shelter in falsehood (Isa 28:15).

But the main point is that the original hearers are not concerned about personal salvation. They are concerned about the fate of Israel. Whether it will enjoy peace and whether it will start to play its role as light to the rest of the world. Salvation was about restoration of Israel to its proper place.

When we think of salvation, we tend to think of it in very personal terms. Am I saved? Or is such-and-such saved? But I think there are many similarities to this Jewish idea.

New Testament

The Greek word used in the NT (and in the Greek OT, the LXX) is soteria hence theology relating to salvation is soteriology.

The same word that is used here “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” is used:

  • when Jesus heals blind Bartameus and tells him his faith has made him well (Mark 10:52); or
  • the woman with the issue of blood who is healed when she touches Jesus’ garment and Jesus says that her faith has made her well (Matt 9:22); and
  • the demon-possessed man who was made well when the demons entered the herd of pigs (Luke 8:36), and
  • there are numerous other examples.

Salvation has this sense of wholeness; things are as they should be.

And we get an idea of a bigger picture when we read Paul in Romans 8 talking of how we are saved in the hope (or confident expectation) of our resurrection and the restoration of creation. Paul uses language of creation eagerly waiting for us. Jesus’ resurrection was a pattern for us and the world as a whole.

So the idea of salvation hasn’t got narrower, it’s got much bigger. It hasn’t shifted from Israel getting its land back to me going to heaven; it’s moved from the land of Israel to the whole of creation coming back to how it should be. The world is being saved; not just you and me.

So how does this happen?

There are loads of theories of what Jesus achieved when he died on the cross and exactly how that act achieved salvation. They include:

  • penal substitution – we deserve the penalty of death but Jesus took our place; or
  • ransom theory – as in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Jesus (Aslan) dies in a deal with the devil to save everyone but tricks him when he rises from the dead; or
  • moral influence theory – Jesus’s supreme act of love inspires us to love

And there are several more which are more or less helpful. But Tom Wright (Surprised by Hope) makes the interesting point that the answers we get to the question of why Jesus died depend on the question we ask. So that if the question we ask is “’how can I get to heaven despite the sin of which I deserve to be punished?’ the answer may well be ‘because Jesus has been punished in your place’. But if the question is ‘how can God’s plan to rescue and renew the entire world go ahead, despite the corruption and decay which has come about because of human rebellion?’, the answer may well be ‘because on the cross Jesus defeated the powers of evil which have enslaved rebel humans and so ensured continuing corruption.’

And this is the thing – if salvation is about restoration, then the act that says “all is made well” is the resurrection. Sin or corruption no longer leads inevitably to death. Scripture mixes the cross and resurrection together, so we get Paul speaking of Jesus being raised for our justification. It’s tempting to try to separate these out and to say Jesus’ death did this and his resurrection that, but the Bible writers seem annoyingly less interested in this kind of systematic theology than many of us are.

Now a quick word on sin; I started by saying that for the Jews at the time of Jesus, their status, the fact that things were not as they should be, was related to God’s judgement on their sin. And the shift to things being put right depended on forgiveness of sin. Jesus deals with sin in a way that rings bells all over the place for the Jews: as sacrifice of atonement and Passover lamb. And the way to think about this sacrificial system is not so much God requiring sacrifice for sin (he makes it clear elsewhere that he has no particular interest in sacrifice) but for Israel it was an action that they could take and then get on with life. One of the problems with sin, as Romans 7 makes clear, is that you can end up focussing on your sinfulness rather than on life. An atonement sacrifice dealt with sin so they could get on with life. That’s what Jesus did once and for all.

And remember, in the Gospels Jesus forgives people on the basis of his authority (not his death). His resurrection vindicates this. He demonstrates that he is Lord and thus able to forgive. As Richard Beck (Experimental Theology) puts it: “you are forgiven because Jesus is Lord. Not because Jesus died. You are forgiven because Jesus is judge, and he will forgive those who appeal to him for mercy.”

Our Response

If we think that salvation is just about me and what happens to me after death, then getting ready for the future is just a mystery because it is all very “other” to now.

But if it’s this bigger picture, that God actually has in mind the rescue of the world from injustice and corruption in all its forms, and that the future resurrection of our bodies applies to the world also, then the response is very different, and preparing for the future includes using God’s gifts, just as Peter and John were healing people in Jesus name, and working for justice or peace or health or wholeness or the environment in a way that anticipates a future in which all of these are put right.

And salvation is not just from something it is to something. We are saved to live differently. The living differently doesn’t bring the salvation. Jesus does. But the living differently is kind of the point.

So when we read the words in Philippians 2 about working out your salvation in fear and trembling, I do not think this is saying we should be worried about whether we are saved, but that salvation is so tied up with living differently, that to work out your salvation will mean you inevitably clash with the culture in which you live. Just before this fear and trembling line Paul is writing to the Philippians about Jesus being willing to go to his death rather than claiming his god-ness. The point Paul was making to the Philippians was to be prepared to be persecuted also. Working out their salvation may mean they too face death.

Our risks are thankfully much reduced, unlike Christians in many parts of the world. But the underlying message is still the same. Salvation should mean something because it is actually saying I want to be part of this brand new world in which there is justice and peace and wholeness and in which creation is not groaning that can only come when Jesus is lord and salvation means we can and should start to act that way now.

The offer of salvation to others must still be made. Jesus has done all that needs to be done but we still need to choose to live in hope. I used to travel to work with someone who would regularly greet me with “another day closer to death”. And so it is. But it’s also another day closer to resurrection. Living in a way that anticipates it is declaring our trust that it will happen and that there is no other name but Jesus by which we and the whole of creation can be saved.

Eternal Life

Eternal Life
By Reverend Charmaine Braatvedt
Sunday, 15th March 2015
John 3: 14 – 21

Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of the teaching that Nicodemus received when he came to Jesus in the darkness of the night to be enlightened by him.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council whose great attribute was that he was willing to learn from Jesus.

What fabulous lessons Jesus taught him!

Today’s reading picks up the story from just after Jesus had spoken to Nicodemus about the importance of being born again in a spiritual sense.

He goes on to reveal to Nicodemus

  • the truth about his identity as the Messiah
  • and why he has come into the world.

Like the wonderfully good teacher that he is, Jesus works from the known to the unknown as he teaches Nicodemus. He starts with a very familiar story that comes from Moses and the Exodus narrative.

Let’s take another look at today’s Old Testament Reading from Numbers 21: 4 -9.

In this story Moses is leading the Israelites, who have escaped from slavery in Egypt, on a journey to the Promised Land.

They are a complaining and a difficult lot and Moses spends much of his time very frustrated with them, as this cartoon reveals.

mosespartssea

On this particular occasion they are complaining about the food:

“There is no bread, there is no water and we detest this miserable food”.  Every parent of every teenager can identify with Moses on this one.

Their lack of gratitude to both God and Moses is astounding. Rejecting the heavenly manna was tantamount to spurning God’s grace.

At this time they are struck by a plague of venomous snakes that bit the people and many died. As is the way with painful experiences, this crisis caused the people to reflect on their behaviour. The outcome of this reflection was repentance for their ingratitude to God and Moses.

Moses took pity and prayed for the people and then the Lord responds by giving Moses a most puzzling instruction:

“Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and will live.” Is God being ironic here? The instrument of their pain becomes the location of their healing.

Anyway, Moses obeyed and sure enough, whenever anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

There has been much discussion and debate about the significance of this story. However, it is clear that its significance does not lie in whether snakes are good or bad. Rather the story tells of God’s power and compassion. As long as the Israelites looked upward and submitted their hearts to God, they were cured. When they did not they declined.

Now there’s a method of biblical interpretation called typology. This is when an element found in the Old Testament is seen to prefigure one found in the New Testament. The story of Moses and the snakes is a case in point.

Jesus uses this story typologically.

He says that just as people were healed physically by looking at the bronze snake which Moses lifted up, so people will be healed spiritually when they look in faith to him, the Son of Man.

In both stories, the source of salvation is God in whom we are to have faith.

It is significant that both stories make the point that those who confess their sins find God’s healing.

In the Numbers story, once the people had repented of their sins and turned back to God, they were physically healed.

So it is with Jesus, the Son of Man. Once we repent of our sins and turn to Jesus, we are spiritually healed.

It is somewhat ironic that it was pain and death that brought them to their knees and hence brought the people to a place of healing.

Just so the pain and death of Jesus brings healing to a repentant sinner.

Jesus goes on to say that just as Moses lifted up the snake which became an instrument of healing, so “the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes may have healing, ie eternal life in him.” V15.

Those words lifted up signify not only that Jesus would be lifted up to die on a cross on a hill,

they also foretell that he will be lifted up from the dead, resurrected, glorified and lifted up to heaven.

Verse 15 also introduces Nicodemus to the idea of eternal life.

Then in John 3:16 we read that it was essentially to give believers eternal life that Jesus came into the world.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

John 3: 16 has been called ‘everybody’s verse’ because in it Jesus declares that Jesus has come so that the whole world might have eternal life.

This is the essence of the good news of Jesus Christ.

I wonder what you understand by this term, eternal life?

Most commonly, eternal life refers to continued life after death. However it is in the Gospel of John we learn that the term means more than this to the Christian believer.

John’s Gospel makes it clear that eternal life is a present-tense possession.

Eternal life is something we can gain in this life here and now. It’s not something that begins when we die and go to heaven.

There are a number of verses in John’s Gospel that support this theology (See John 4:14; 5:24; 6:27; 6:40, 47).

This eternal life is defined for us in John 17:3.

“Now this is eternal life that they know you as, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

So Jesus defined eternal life as knowing God, meaning experiencing an intimate, close, personal relationship with God as Abba Father.

Many people believe that Jesus died to forgive their sins.

But how many people feel as though they have a close, personal, intimate relationship with God?

There are those who think that kind of relationship is reserved for when we get to heaven.

While it is certainly true that we will be close to God in heaven, the eternal life that Jesus offers is available here and now and it is a life in God that brings with it an intimate relationship with God right here and now.

Many Christians are trapped by a theology that says your sins are forgiven but you have to wait for your time in heaven before you can really start living. That is missing the main point of salvation.

Eternal life is the very life of God available to us right here and now in Jesus.

However, having just said that God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, Jesus then appears to go on to contradict himself saying that whoever does not believe in him stands condemned.

Wow that’s a bit harsh Jesus! Or is it?

The Israelites rejected the heavenly bread out of ingratitude. What’s to be done with those of us who reject the one who says I am the bread of life?

The Biblical scholar William Barclay tells the story of a man who went on a tour of an art gallery in Europe. At the end of the tour he said to the tour guide:

“Well I don’t think much of your old pictures.”

The tour guide replied:

“Sir I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those who look at them.”

This is so with Jesus.

When we are presented with the Gospel of Jesus we have a choice to either accept it or reject it. If we accept it we are accepting salvation if we do not we are rejecting salvation. The choice is ours. A bit like a drowning person who may choose either to accept the life buoy or not.

God sent Jesus in love for our salvation.

It is not God who has condemned us but we ourselves if we do not receive him.

God only loves us. He offers us eternal life, intimate fellowship with him out of love. It cannot be forced on us we have a free will to accept his gift or to refuse it.

Now there are many reasons why people may reject a relationship with Christ.

  • Have you noticed that it is often the case that in any really good person there is always an unconscious element of condemnation within them, for they show us up for who we are and we don’t always like what we see. Christ is the light. His life, teaching and presence reveals to us the truth of our own fallibility and we don’t always want to engage with that revelation.
  • Furthermore, when we are engaged in unworthy activity, like addictive destructive or unloving behaviours, we don’t want a flood light shed on that activity or on us.

Tell the story of cockroaches who scatter when the light goes on.

In those times or situations when our own consciences convict us that we are doing what is wrong we gravitate to  the concealing darkness of secrecy rather than towards the revealing light.

Adultery, theft, exploitation are all done in secret.

When our deeds are wrong we prefer darkness.

John is spot on when he writes:

Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.

Coming into the light refers to coming to Jesus as Nicodemus had done.

It also implies full disclosure, for light illumines dark places and makes secret places public.

Nicodemus’ lecture on Theology 101 is concluded with these words

“But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done, has been done in the sight of God”.

There we have it Jesus calls us to come out of the darkness into his light not to condemn us but to offer us a relationship with God that will last for all eternity. We have a choice that is open to everyone in the world to accept this gift or to reject us and there are consequences to either choice. The good news is that the door is always open and like the Israelites in Moses time we can always come back and he will always take us back because that is the nature of love.

Time for Reflection.

Take a moment to consider:

  1. What is the heavenly manna with which you are being fed at present? Give thanks for it.
  2. Is there an area in your life that requires spiritual healing? If so would you turn your eyes towards Jesus the son of man lifted up and ask him to heal you in that area of your life.
  3. Eternal life is a life of intimate fellowship with God available to us right here and now in Jesus. Ask the Holy Spirit to infill your mind and heart that you may experience the fellowship of eternal life with him right here and now today.

Nicodemus was a good man, a faithful man but like all of us he had his dark spots. His salvation lay in his willingness to learn from Jesus as does ours. As you come forward for communion today, you may like to symbolically light a candle to indicate your thankfulness for some new insight some new understanding or conviction that God has placed on your heart or mind or spirit today.

Jesus heals the man with Leprosy

Jesus heals the man with jesushealslepersLeprosy
Mark 1: 40 – 45 and 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Rev Charmaine Braatvedt
Sunday 15th February, 2015

“A man with leprosy came to Jesus”.

When we read the Gospel stories it is tempting to gloss over the diagnosis of leprosy with a shrug and to give it no more thought.  However in New Testament times there was no disease regarded with more horror than leprosy.

Those who had leprosy developed tumours which ulcerated and emitted a foul discharge. The nerve ends of the limbs were affected and this led to a loss of all sensation. Tendons contracted and hands and feet became like useless claws. Eventually the sufferer would lose their limbs, feet legs hands noses would drop off and the victim became utterly repulsive to themselves and to everyone else. The term leprosy also included other skin diseases and any such disease rendered the sufferer unclean. Therefore victims of what was described as leprosy were forced to live apart from the rest of the community and wherever they went they had to shout out loud “unclean, unclean.” A modern equivalent might well be the Ebola virus.

Lepers not only bore the physical pain of the disease but also the mental anguish of being banished and shunned. Worst of all was that in those days leprosy was incurable.

Here confronting one such victim of the disease we see a most revealing picture of the nature of Jesus and by definition of God also. Jesus does not drive the leper away as anyone else in the same situation might have done. Instead he responds to him with understanding and compassion.

“A man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees,

“If you are willing you can make me clean.”

Earlier in the chapter we read that Jesus drove out evil spirits and demons and that he healed many who had various diseases. Today his gift for healing is taken to a whole new level. The man had leprosy. There was no known cure for leprosy in those days.

Jesus’ response to the man was inspiring. We read that

Jesus was filled with compassion.

He reached out his hand and touched the man.

By touching the man who is unclean, Jesus ran the risk of making himself ritually unclean also. However Jesus’ compassion for the man superseded his risk of personal defilement. He focuses on the man’s desperate need and says:

“I am willing “he said “Be clean!

Understanding that though the man might be healed of the disease he was not yet healed of the forces of social and religious prejudice against someone with leprosy he wisely sends the man away to the priest to offer sacrifices that the law of Moses demanded for him to be ritually cleansed. The sacrifices would be evidence to the priests and the people that the cure was real and that Jesus respected the Holy Laws of Moses.

So we learn from this passage that Jesus was compassionate, powerful, wise and that he had divine power since the Jews believed that only God could cure leprosy.

What strikes me about Jesus in this story is his spiritual discipline. He is grounded in his truth, in the love of God, in the divine wisdom of God and in his belief in the healing power that is vested in him. This gives him a confidence that is awe inspiring. We read:

“Jesus stayed outside in the lonely places, yet the people still came to him from everywhere.”

The challenge for you and me is that we have been called to be like Jesus. Our church has been commissioned to be his hands and feet in the world. When I examine my life I see that there are many ways in which I fail to measure up to that calling. How as we stand on the brink of another year of ministry can we grow into a church which is worthy of our calling?

Paul gives us some clues.

I have a pair of marathon runners in my family. They buy special shoes and gear, get up at the crack of dawn, run endless kilometres, eat special food, do stretch programmes daily, measure their heart rates and breathing rates and any other rate they can think of in order to prepare for the marathons they are to run. The marathon is a primary focus of their attention.  I gather this is all very necessary if one is to succeed at finishing the marathon. Apparently you cannot just get up one morning put on your jogging gear and go. No you have to train for such an event, discipline your body and your mind punish your body even for its own good if you like. Paul was always fascinated by the picture of the athlete. He shares the metaphor of the intense training of the athlete with the church of Corinth because athletics was a big deal in Corinth. If he were writing to New Zealanders he may well have used the metaphor of the intense training of the All Blacks to make the point that there is no easy way to be a Christ follower. An athlete gets nowhere without self-discipline and training and so it is with the Christian faith walk.

The Christian life is counter intuitive.

It is easier to be prejudiced than tolerant, it is easier to be judgemental than compassionate, it is easier to be self- interested than to be self- less, it is easier to be comfortable than to be challenged, it is easier to be cautious than to be brave, it is easier to be silent than to speak the truth and all too often it is easier to hate than to love.  The Christian life is a battle and a flabby soldier cannot win the battle; a slack trainer cannot win races and a lazy Christian cannot become more Christ like.

Just as a runner has a goal in mind to cross the finishing line to get a medal or a certificate that says you completed the race in good time, so the Christian journey has a goal. Paul calls it the crown of eternal life. The Christian walk has an aim and a purpose just as the marathon runner has an aim and a purpose and if we lose sight of that aim, if we do not intentionally train in order to achieve that aim we become aimless. It is a truism that to just go anywhere is the certain way to arrive nowhere.

So how do we train ourselves for the Christian journey?

1.Firstly we need to catch the vision and set our eyes on the prize. By that I mean we need to fully appreciate the worth of the goal that is the great appeal of Jesus. The goal of following him is life LIFE in all its abundance and fullness. Life today tomorrow and forever!

That is the crown , that is the prize.

  1. We need to know who we are following and in knowing who we are following we also need to know ourselves. We need to discipline ourselves to truly knowing who Jesus is in order to truly know who God is. We do this by following a training programme called the spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines can be described as those behaviors that augment our spiritual growth and enable us to grow to spiritual maturity. This process of spiritual growth and development begins to take place the moment a person encounters the risen Christ and comes to Him for salvation.
    The foremost of the disciplines is that involving the Word of God and constitutes the reading, study, memorization, and meditation of Scripture.The second discipline is that of prayer. Our prayers are a spiritual communion with God through means of thanksgiving, adoration, supplication, petition, and confession. The wonderful thing about prayer is that God meets us where we are. He comes alongside us to lead us into a deeper, more real relationship with Him, not motivated by guilt, but driven by His love. Prayer changes us. Prayer changes lives.The third spiritual discipline is that of fasting. It’s about submitting to God, acknowledging that He is your source for everything and realizing that you don’t always have to give your body what it screams for.

The fourth spiritual discipline is that of gathering as the church community for worship and for support. We train together as a community.

The fifth spiritual discipline is giving. Giving of ourselves to others in ways that are sacrificial. This includes our time and our talents. Jesus models this sacrificial giving time after time culminating in his death on the cross.

For some of us the hardest thing is giving our hard earned money away. But it usually stems from this idea that it is ours. It’s not, it’s Gods. He gives it to us to manage, not to keep. If giving money and resources is difficult for you, this is a great time of year to engage in the spiritual discipline of giving.

As we move into lent both individually and as the church let us take on board the challenge Paul sets us to discipline ourselves that we might become worthy of our calling. As spiritual athletes let us embark on a training programme that will lead us into Christ likeness. Let us hold before us the life of Christ and may his life set our direction as we strive for the prize  the crown that will last forever, the life that Christ promises, life in all its abundance and let us do so not in our own strength for we cannot cure ourselves but in the strength of the Holy Spirit. May the cry of the leper be our cry also “Jesus If you are willing you can make me clean.”

And may we ever discipline ourselves to embrace his unfailing response:

“I am willing “; “Be clean!

Trusting God

Trusting God
by Tim Denne
9.30am Service, 8th February, 2015
Isaiah 40:21-31

Introduction

The word translated “believe” in the New Testament (pisteuo) is the verb form of the noun (pistis) which is translated as “faith”. Using believe as the translation can often give the impression of a very passive response to God, as though all we do is give some kind of intellectual assent to who God is and what he’s done.

“Trust” is an alternative translation of the word for believe that gives a different, more active sense of the word.

I was thinking about all this a couple of years ago when Peter Enns, one of my favourite theologians, put up a blog article entitled “Why I don’t believe in God anymore” in which he made much the same point. As he puts it:

The older I get, making sure all my “beliefs” of God are lined up as they should be loses more and more of its lustre. I see the Bible focusing a lot more on something far more demanding: trust.

So the title of my talk today is trusting God and if I was to give it a subtitle, I would borrow from Peter Enns, and add: “why I don’t believe in God anymore”

Isaiah

I’m going to start in Isaiah, because the church calendar places us there, but also because as I read it, trusting God is a major theme of the book.

Isaiah’s prophecy is addressed to the southern kingdom of Judah a couple of hundred years after the split from Israel. It is a small nation, surrounded by other more powerful nations, surviving partly because of its olive oil industry that supplies the regional super-power, Assyria. There is almost constant tension between Judah and its northern neighbour Israel.

The problem from Isaiah’s perspective was that the links Israel was developing with other nations to ensure survival were having other impacts. Israel was assimilating with the other nations, was adopting their practices and serving their gods.  Isaiah’s appeal to Judah, as they started to look to Assyria for protection against Israel, was to not copy Israel, but to trust YHWH their God. They weren’t to be either pro-Assyria or anti-Assyria. They should be pro-YHWH.

Isaiah was saying don’t go down the same route as Israel has, turning to other gods rather than YHWH. That route leads only to destruction. And the history is that soon after this period, Assyria invades and captures most of the people of Israel and carries them off to be slaves elsewhere, pretty much never to return.

The reason for God’s concern is that Israel is meant to be different from other nations. It is meant to be a light showing others what God is like.

In Isaiah 36 we see the Assyrian army moving into Judah, annoyed that Judah has rebelled against it and has made an alliance with Egypt. They destroy their towns and are on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The king’s envoy mocks the Judeans:

‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me?  Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.  But if you say to me, “We trust in YHWH our God,” …     Come now … I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them …  

“Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in YHWH by saying, “YHWH will surely deliver us. This city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.”  Do not listen to Hezekiah. For thus says the king of Assyria: Make your peace with me … Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, …

King Hezekiah cries out to God, asking that he saves them for his own sake, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that YHWH alone is the great “I AM

This trust is rewarded and that night the angel of YHWH kills 185,000 Assyrian soldiers and they leave the next morning.

But Hezekiah’s prayer was an interlude in the inevitable drift towards destruction for Judah. Around about 590 BC the people are invaded by the new kingdom of the neo-Babylonians, Jerusalem is destroyed in 586 and the people captured and deported to Babylon.

We pick up the story again in Isaiah 40:21-31, some 200 years later. This is now addressed to the people of Judah in exile in Babylon. It reminds them why their God is to be trusted and makes promises for those who trust him.

Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;  ​who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.

40:21-23

This is a God you can trust in. He made the world and everything in it. He can do what he wants.

YHWH is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. 

Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for YHWH [or those who place their trust in YHWH] 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.

40:28-31

This is the promise: for those who place their trust in God: they will have renewed strength, they will run and not be weary; they will walk and not faint.    Worrying, in contrast, is exhausting.

As I read Isaiah this whole stretch to chapter 40 has been making the same point; if Israel (in the wider sense) as a nation is fulfil its role, to be the nation that is a light pointing to God, different from other nations. The clear point of difference is that they trust God.

This message to Israel was put in place from the beginning:

when Israel was first formed as a nation, during the Exodus from Egypt, they lived on manna. And the key lesson that went with manna was trust. Those who tried to store it found it mouldy in the morning, but there it was again the next day. For the most basic of things, food, God instilled a lesson for them day after day after day – trust me and I’ll look after you.

We can go back even further to the stories of the garden. The basic lesson there is not to look to define good and evil for themselves. Trust the God who made the world to have the knowledge of what is good and what is evil.

 

New Testament

So let’s move forward to the New Testament and we hear similar stories of trust. I want to pick on one in particular.

The story of the rich young ruler is a curious tale in which the young man asks Jesus “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

Now just as an aside, references to eternal life in Scripture are more about quality than quantity. They are almost always better translated as something like “life of the age to come”, ie how are we meant to live in the kingdom of God. This is a life that starts now (the already but not yet) but only fully comes about at our future resurrection, when heaven comes to Earth and life is as it should be. We are called to start living now the life of the age to come. Eternal life starts here. So his question is not so much “how can I be saved?”, but if “I’m meant to live now as in the age to come, what does that look like?

And after talking about keeping commandments Jesus’ suggestion is to sell everything he has to give to the poor. It’s a shocking story for many of us who read that and think – really is that what you expect? But I think, without trying to diminish the story, the point coming through here, yet again, is Jesus saying that the life of the kingdom is one in which people put their trust in God. You can see the contrast with this rich young man. At the most basic levels he was confident about life because he had nothing to worry about. He did not have to trust God for anything.

Jesus makes the wider conclusions that it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Now again, I don’t think this is equivalent to saying, it is difficult for a rich person to be saved, but it is hard for a rich person to live the life of the age to come … because it is difficult for them to learn to trust God.

Jesus at the end of his sermon on the mount, tells his disciples, who are not rich young men, not to worry about anything. They should look for examples to the birds of the air and lilies of the field (Matt 6). They don’t worry.

This is the life we are called to: not worrying when we have every reason to, but trusting God. And learning to trust God when we have no need to.

 

So why trust?

For the ancient Israelites, trusting God was what was meant to differentiate them from other nations, because they were meant to be a light drawing others to God. Trusting God makes so much sense as a differentiator because it pulls a nation out of the constant cycle of alliances and wars, all of which are fundamentally about finding protection, increasing wealth, moving ahead.

The step of saying everything I need comes from God is a step off that ladder, with implications for peace and justice.

The implications for peace are obvious. A nation that is trusting God for its security does not need to be expansive to protect itself. The conflicts at the time of Isaiah included Israel making alliances with others to make pre-emptive strikes against other nations.

Trusting God also has implications for justice.  Throughout history, and certainly at the time of ancient Israel, nations progressed on the back of injustice in the form of slavery. That’s the only way to get ahead. If ancient Israel had been able to live a life that trusted God, it could truly develop a just society because the pursuit of justice or equality does not compromise prosperity (shalom).

Now I am not suggesting that this argument has political capital now. We are still in the not yet of the kingdom. But you can see how, if Judah had truly lived like this, it would have been a radically different society that would have shone like a light in an unjust world.

If we look at this at the personal level a similar pattern would emerge. If we were to say that a person that fully trusted God, (1) acknowledged that everything they had came from God; and (2) that they had full confidence about their future, it again frees a person from the cycle of driving ambition or nagging fear.

Again, I think the vision of a fully trusting person and a fully trusting society is a vision of the life of the age to come. Post resurrection, when God’s kingdom is fully come. But we are called to start to live like this now.

not worrying when we have every reason to, but trusting God. And learning to trust God when we have no need to.

Because those who trust in YHWH 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.

Trust now

From the beginning God appears to have made trusting him as the main requirement on us. We miss the point if we reduce this simply to some kind of intellectual assent of who he is and what he’s done. And to be clear, I am not talking salvation here: Israel had been chosen when God asked the people to trust him. We are talking about what it means to start to live in the already but not yet world of the kingdom.

So what does a life of trusting God look like. One that makes us different from others? For some people here, trusting God is probably a daily reality. Whereas for others, who may be more comfortable, may have little opportunity to trust God.

And here I think the response is something like, add a bit of adventure to your life. Look for something to trust God for. Ask him for something to trust him for. Start praying for something, for someone; trust God to do something. Because it’s trusting God that lifts us out of the ordinary.

Prayer:

Help us not to worry when we have every reason to, but to trust you.

Help us to learn to trust you even when we think we have no need to.

Where Was Jesus Born?

Christmas Day Sermon 2014
Rev Charmaine Braatvedt

Anyone who remembers the 80’s will know that the video we are about to see, entitled Bethlehem Rhapsody is a take -off of the Band Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

It tries to tell the nativity story using puppets which children of today might relate to. It takes the details of the story and works creatively with them while honing into the central truth which is that in Jesus came to fulfill the role of the promised Messiah.

Take a look

Context is important when we look at a story like the nativity and ask the question

What does it mean to me today in the 21st Century?

So let’s look at the details of the story as we find them in Luke’s Gospel.

In reality, where was Jesus born? …..

Bethlehem in a stable is the obvious answer.

I wonder if you are aware that nowhere in the Bible are we told specifically that Jesus was born in a stable.

This doesn’t mean that he wasn’t born in a stable, it simply means that we assume he was, because we are told that once his mother Mary had given birth to Him, she wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.

There are two things about the context of the story of the nativity that you might like to bear in mind this morning.

In Jesus’ time and still in many parts of the majority world, the stable was part of the house.

Under the main part of the house would be the room for the animals.

This made a lot of sense because the heat from the animals would rise and heat up the whole home, consequently making this model an inexpensive and an environmentally friendly heating option.

Also accommodation for travellers in Jesus’ time was fairly primitive on the whole. The eastern khan or inn was like a series of stalls opening off a common courtyard.

Travellers were expected to bring their own food.

All that the innkeeper was expected to provide was fodder for the travellers’ animals and a fire for his guests to cook on.

The town of Bethlehem was very crowded at the time of the nativity on account of the Roman census and clearly, according to the story, there was no regular accommodation for Joseph and Mary.

So it may well have been in the common courtyard that Mary’s child, Jesus, was born.

The word which we translate as manger refers to a place where animals feed and so the Greek word could either have referred to a stable or the animal food trough itself.

All that aside, today I want to talk a little bit about the significance of Jesus being born in a manger or a stable.

 

  1. Firstly Isaiah reminds us that one of Jesus’ names was Immanuel. This means God with us.

Now a good question to ask is:

God with whom?

God with the good people, the nice people, the middle class people, the Christian people?

God with people in general?

The fact that Jesus was born in a stable seems to indicate to me that in Jesus, God came to be not only with all humans, but also with all of creation: animals, stars, planets, humans and angels. God with all, all that God has made is redeemed and made whole in Jesus.

We read in Colossians 1

Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation —all things have been created through him and for him….For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

christmasday2014

It’s important to recognize that Jesus’ closeness with Creation goes hand in hand with his redemption of Creation – just as his closeness with people goes hand in hand with their redemption, too.

The New Testament makes it clear that for Jesus, Creation is a place of closeness to God and of spiritual revelation.

Numerous times, he goes into the wilderness to pray Jesus spends time in Creation.  He values it as the place where he goes to commune with God.  He chooses it as the place where he reveals the most important things to his closest friends.  This closeness with Creation, and this respect for its importance, is the reason Jesus saves and redeems it.

If we follow Jesus we value what he values and our Christian walk must include, in addition to humans, an ethical and redemptive response to the environment and the other creatures of God.

 

  1. It is very significant that Jesus was born in a stable and that the very first people to meet him were shepherds. A common image for God was that of a Good Shepherd. See Psalm 23. The prophecies about the Messiah all

affirmed that he would be like a shepherd herding people into the kingdom of God. That was his primary purpose for coming into the world. So being born in a stable references Jesus, the lamb of God and Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Jesus, like the Passover Lamb, humbly came to give us his life for us and Jesus as the Good shepherd, shepherds us with his teaching and example into the kingdom of God.

 

  1. Jesus was always very clear that he did not come to save just one particular group of people alone rather Jesus was the messiah who intended to save the world.

And so it is significant that Jesus was born where both the poor and the rich would easily be able to find him. Everyone’s animals need to be stabled rich and poor alike, shepherds and magi.

Jesus didn’t attach much importance to worldly status and wealth. He looked deeply into the hearts and lives of people and offered them healing and salvation.

The word manger means hungry or food.

Manger as a noun means food

and as a verb it means to eat.

Jesus is the bread of life, born into this world to satisfy the spiritual hunger of all human kind.

We too as followers of Jesus must open our hearts to the need of those who are spiritually hungry and offer them the spiritual food of Jesus’ teachings and his salvation.

 

  1. Jesus’ birth was messy and chaotic as most births are. He was born into the messiness and ordinariness of every day human life. This means we don’t need to tidy up our lives before we invite Jesus into the stable of our hearts.

Who tidies up when they are having people round?

Why do we all do that?

Does it have something to do with wanting to impress people?

Have you noticed that the closer we are to people, the less we tend to tidy up for them.

Jesus says don’t tidy up for me. Let me into the cut and thrust of your life without any pretence or affectation.

Location is important and the Bible teaches us that Jesus wants to be located in the centre of our messy lives.

 

  1. Finally, that there was no room in the inn was symbolic of what was to happen to Jesus throughout his life. His teaching challenged people and made them uncomfortable especially the rich and powerful. Finally, they were so uncomfortable that the only place where there was room for him was on the cross. All his life and ministry, he sought an entry to the over-crowded hearts of humans and his spirit continues to do so today.

I wonder, how full is your life? Is it too full to include Jesus? Have you been too busy to pursue your relationship with him? A baby was born at Christmas, He was a gift to you and me. We all hunger to know God. The Bethlehem Rhapsody reminds us that through Jesus we discover that God is as non- threatening as a vulnerable baby, as pure and gentle as anew born infant, yet like all new borns we have to change our life-style to accommodate them and once we have done that we discover that was one of the best changes we ever made.

Allow this God to find a place in the stable of your heart this Christmas?

Midnight Mass 2014

Midnight Mass 2014 Sermonchristmasnewborn
by Rev Charmaine Braatvedt
John 1: 1 – 14

We have gathered here tonight to celebrate the birth of a baby; and clearly, not just any baby, but the birth of Jesus Christ.

So what does the birth of Jesus really signify?

St John in his prologue which I have just read, says that

Jesus is the word of God made flesh.

When I was a child we had a little ditty which we would chant when someone at school was being mean to us. It went like this:

“Sticks and stones might break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

I’m not sure if children still sing that on the playground these days, however, while it seemed to me to be a clever thing to say at the time, I always knew in my heart of hearts that nothing could be further from the truth.

Words have enormous power. There is tremendous energy and power in words,

They have the power to to hurt or heal,

to motivate or crush, to initiate action or to arrest action.
Let’s turn to the prologue of John’s Gospel where we read:

In the beginning was the Word

and the Word was with God and the Word was God…

and the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us…

John is talking about Jesus here and I would like to briefly explore what John meant when he described Jesus as

the Word made flesh and dwelling amongst us.
A bit of background might be helpful.

In the Jewish culture of the time, the spoken word was regarded as much more than a sound that communicated a meaning. It was regarded as a unit of energy. They believed that words were a bit like a modern day battery, charged with power.

Furthermore people took seriously the idea that once the power that is vested in a word is unleashed,

it cannot be brought back again.

I think there is a truth in this, with which we can all identify.

The author Jodi Picoult likens the spoken word to eggs.

“Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.”
The power of words and more especially the word of God is brought into focus in the first chapter of Genesis where we read

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. How did God create the world? We are told that God said

 let there be light

Let there be a firmament

Let the earth bring forth living creatures

Let us make humans in our own image.
So God spoke the world into being.

There is creative power in the word of God!

See Psalm 33:6
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.

Now it’s important for us to remember that John the evangelist was writing his Gospel in the town of Ephesus where there were not only Jews but also Greeks. The New Testament was in fact written in Greek so Greek thinking had a great influence on John’s writing.

The Greek term for word is logos.

Its meaning includes the notion of reason and wisdom.

In Greek thinking, the word of God is also the reasoning or logic of God as well as the wisdom of God.

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us …

When John says that Jesus is the word of God made flesh, he therefore has 3 understandings of the nature and purpose of the birth of the Christ Child, his significance for us.

When Jesus came to earth he embodied

  • the creative word of God.
  • the logic of God and
  • the wisdom of God

Let’s look at what each of these means to us in turn:

  1. Jesus is the creative word of God.

John’s Prologue confirms that God’s Word was already there at the very beginning and even before creation. His word is eternal. Jesus Christ the Word pre-existed Creation and was present during creation as part of the Trinity.

What this means for us is that we can be sure that Jesus, God’s spoken word made flesh embodies God’s nature and power. Since Jesus was there from the beginning we can be sure that God was and is and continues to be like Jesus.

So what did Jesus create when he came to earth? Simply put he created a new understanding of who God is.

Sometimes in reading the Old Testament we can be forgiven for thinking of God as just and holy but also stern and avenging. We may be led to the conclusion that it was something Jesus did that changed God’s anger into love and altered God’s attitude to humanity.

Not so much. The New Testament tells us that God has always been like Jesus.  The truth of the matter is that God has always been the same. What has changed is our knowledge of God. This came through the coming of Jesus. He gifted us with a new understanding of the compassionate and loving nature of God through his teaching, his life, death on the cross and his resurrection.

What the theologian William Barclay says is true, “what we learn through Jesus is that God has always been Christ- like”.

 

  1. Jesus is the logic of God

Why did God create the world?

The Scriptures teach us that God is love and love needs an object to love. God created the world to love it and because we are created in God’s image, we have the capacity to love, and so God intends that we too should not only love each other but return God’s love also. This is God’s logical and rational goal and purpose for creation, that love would permeate the whole of creation.

However, the world is a fallen place and we are all held captive by our fallibility. So it is that God reaches out in love to free, bring salvation, restore right relationship and reconcile all living creatures to himself by sending his son into the world as the embodiment of God’s loving logic.

John 3: 16 says:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that all who believe in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

Jesus is God’s en-fleshed plan to free the world.

He came and to all who received him, who believed his name he gave power to become children of God.

 

  1. Jesus is the Wisdom of God

In the book of Proverbs we see a 3rd meaning of the term word of God. Logos also means wisdom. In Proverbs 8 wisdom is personified as God’s agent, enlightening creation. God’s Wisdom is embodied in Jesus Christ.

John is saying that Jesus is the logos come down to earth the wisdom of God made flesh. The mind of God became a human person in Jesus.

So what does that mean for us today?

John teaches us that all we have to do in order to know the mind of God, is look to Jesus.

Jesus is the reason for the season and his gift to us lies in the fact that his birth as a child means that through him

The word of God which created the world,

the reason of God which redeems it and

the wisdom of God which sustains it is knowable to you and me and countless others who seek to know who God is and the  meaning and purpose of life.

All the words we say and sing this Christmas are impregnated with his power and love. All we celebrate is an affirmation that God who we struggle to know is knowable through Jesus. All we take from the simple story of a child being born in a stable is that the only truly grand thing in life rests in the power of loving words that translate into loving actions.

I would like to conclude with this this posting which I found on Facebook:

Action is always superior to speech in the Gospels which is why the Word became flesh and not newsprint!

May Jesus the word made flesh inspire you with his power, love and wisdom this Christmas and spur you to actions which fill the world you inhabit with the love of Christ.

We are the clay, you are the potter

potterclay

Advent 1. Isaiah 64: 1 – 9
Sermon by Reverend Charmaine Braatvedt

Today I propose to do two things in this sermon:

Firstly, I would like to introduce you to Isaiah and explain in part, why the lectionary focuses on the book of Isaiah during Advent this year.

Secondly, I would like to highlight one verse in the passage set for today that impressed itself on me as I read the set text.

It is verse 8 which is the one that uses the image of a potter and clay.

Firstly, meet Isaiah.

His name means “The Lord Saves”.

This Old Testament prophet is widely regarded as the greatest of the writing prophets.

He was a prophet for the kingdom of Judah, and lived around 740-700 B.C.

He began his ministry in 740BC the year King Uzzaiah died.

He was a contemporary of Amos, Hosea and Micah.

Isaiah was married, had two sons and spent most of his life in Jerusalem.

Rabbinic tradition has it that he may well have been of royal blood.

His familiarity with priestly rites has also led people to believe that Isaiah had a close association with the temple.

The central message of the book of Isaiah is that God is the Holy One of Israel who punishes his rebellious people, but afterwards redeems them.

The book, consistently addresses the hedonism of Judah and the nation’s lukewarm attitude toward God.

The book unveils the full dimension of both God’s judgement, which is likened to fire, and God’s salvation which is likened to streams of water bringing life to a desert.

Isaiah denounces Israel for its spiritual blindness and deafness. The prediction is that because of this, God will judge Israel and she will be like a vineyard that will be trampled when the Day of the Lord, comes.

However God is also compassionate and merciful and in the prophecy we see that God will redeem his people by sending a messiah, a king descended from David, who will bring God’s salvation to all people. This messianic king will be the servant of the Lord and  through the suffering of the servant king,  salvation in its fullest sense will be achieved for Jew and gentile alike.

The book speaks of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ, in a variety of ways—as a Branch, a Stone, a Light, a Child and as we have just seen, the King .

The New Testament writers recognized Isaiah’s special importance, quoting from it and alluding to it frequently. Isaiah is quoted in the New Testament more than any other prophet.

Many verses and phrases from the book of Isaiah have passed into common use in literature.

For example, there are seventy quotations from Isaiah in the Penguin Dictionary of Quotations …;

and Handel used much of Isaiah’s language in his great work called the Messiah.

So here’s why we are focusing on the Prophet Isaiah this Advent Season. As we wait metaphorically to welcome Jesus the Messiah once again this Christmas, it seems appropriate to reflect on the writings of the prophet who is most renowned for encouraging the people of God to turn from sin, to get their houses in order as they wait for the salvation that will come from God through his Messiah.

So now I am going to turn to the passage set for today, Isaiah 64: 1 – 9.

This piece of writing from Isaiah contains a message to the people which is written as a kind of sermon prayer.

The literary style is that of a lament.

Generally, a lament is a prayer that cries out to God from the midst of desperate grief, pain, or any circumstance that seems out of control.

It does so with the conviction, the faith, that God can and will bring relief. A lament is a profound statement of faith in God from the midst of utter human hopelessness.

As I said before, there is one verse in this lament that impressed itself upon me and that I would like us to reflect on today, it is verse 8.

“Yet you Lord are our Father.

We are the clay, you are the potter;

We are all the work of your hand.”
I brought some clay with me today.

If you were to describe clay to someone who had never seen it, how might you describe it?

It’s soft and smooth and squishy.

You can change the shape of it easily.

You can pat it out thin or roll it into a ball shape.

You can make all sorts of shapes and objects with it.

When I was growing up, I loved to play with the wet clay after the rains at the bottom of our garden.

The Bible talks a lot about clay actually.

Clay was a common material to the people in Isaiah’s day because they used clay to make lots of useful items like jugs, pots, oil lamps and dishes.

“Yet, O LORD, You are our Father. We are the clay, You are the potter; we are all the work of Your hand.”

 

  • Who is the clay? We are.
  • Who is the potter? God.
  • What is the role of the potter?

The potter moulds and shapes the material into something useful and beautiful.

  • Why do you think the Bible compares us to clay?

Why doesn’t it call us rocks or bricks or something that is already finished being made?

Perhaps because God is always moulding us and shaping us. He is ever creating, redeeming and giving life.

  • So in what way can those of us who are open to the transforming work of God be compared to clay?

As the song we sang earlier in the service intimates, when we submit to God’s authority in our lives we become like wet clay in his hands, allowing God our Father to  teach us; to discipline us and to transform us to be more like Jesus.

In our natural state we are more like dry clay, brittle and inflexible.

However God’s Holy Spirit softens us and makes us malleable so that God is able to use the people and happenings in our lives to mould us.

Even when we face adverse circumstances and difficult relationships, God uses these difficult times to change us and shape us if we allow his Holy Spirit to make us like pliable wet clay.

 

What are the circumstances in your life at the moment that God might be using to shape and mould you?

 

What needs to change in your attitude and way of being at this time, for you to become more like Christ?

 

Do you think God will ever be finished with us, and we’ll turn into a hardened piece of clay?

I don’t think so.

I think He’ll always be wanting us to be growing and changing into something more and more beautiful according to His purposes.

I once heard about a 102 year old man who when asked why he thought God had spared him for so many years said:

“God must still have a reason for me to be alive. I think it is that he is still working in my life , shaping me to be more like Jesus”.

So let’s determine this Advent to stay soft and squishy and open to God so he can do His work in our lives that we might become more Christ like.

I’d like you to take the bits of clay you have been given and as you shape the clay into whatever you like I’d like you to reflect on how the Potter is moulding, shaping and forming you, as you do so I am going to ask the music group to sing the song the Potter’s Hand once again for us.
Beautiful Lord, wonderful Saviour

I know for sure,

all of my days

are held in Your hands

Crafted into Your perfect plan

You gently call me

into Your presence

Guiding me by Your Holy Spirit

Teach me dear Lord

To live all of my life through Your eyes

I’m captured by Your Holy calling.

Set me apart,

I know you’re drawing me to Yourself.

Lead me, Lord, I pray.

Take me, mould me,

use me, fill me.

I give my life to the potter’s hand.

Call me, guide me,

lead me, walk beside me.

I give my life to the potter’s hand.

Aotearoa Sunday

marsden_cross1

Aotearoa Sunday
Deuteronomy 6: 1 -9
Mark 4: 26 – 34
Rev Charmaine Braatvedt

As many of you will know, this year, 2014, marks 200 years since the first Christian sermon was preached in New Zealand and hence it also marks the start of the Christian Church in New Zealand/ Aotearoa. It seems appropriate on Aotearoa Sunday, for us to spend some time considering the implications of that auspicious event especially as some of us will be visiting the site when we go on our Parish Pilgrimage to Oihi this coming Saturday.

The story is a good one. Like all good stories it is filled with drama, danger and adventure.

Two characters stand out: The Rev Samuel Marsden and the Ngapuhi chief Ruatara. These two men who became firm friends, collaborated together to bring the Gospel to these shores.

The sermon that Samuel Marsden preached to a Maori and Pakeha congregation on Christmas Day in 1814 stands out as a defining moment in our history because, not only did this event mark the start of Christian mission in NZ, the partnership of Marsden and Ruatara led to the development of a special relationship between Māori and the Pakeha missionaries which shaped our identity as a bicultural nation.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these two men.

First, the Yorkshire man Samuel Marsden:

Rev Marsden was the Anglican chaplain in the colony of New South Wales. In addition to being a chaplain, Marsden was also a very successful farmer in Parramatta, 35 km inland from Sydney. He was a blunt and plain spoken man who could be touchy.

By no means a paragon of virtue, he had many failings and foibles. He could be a hard man and acquired a dubious reputation for his harshness as a magistrate. However, he was a man of some gravitas and leadership. He was unpretentious and very generous with his time and his money when it came spreading the Gospel and helping others. Most of all, he was a committed evangelical Christian who was both visionary and practical in his commitment to carrying out the Great Commission of Jesus Christ, to preach the Gospel to all nations.

While living in Australia he developed a strong interest in New Zealand on account of the friendships he formed with some of the first Māori visitors to Australia. These included Te Pahi, the Ngāpuhi leader and his four sons who met Marsden in 1805 and with whom Marsden was greatly impressed.

Marsden’s God given passion for spreading the Gospel fueled his desire to share it with those who had never heard of Jesus and this desire took him back to England in 1807 where he approached the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) about setting about doing missionary work in New Zealand.

Marsden’s pragmatic vision was in line with the example of tent making in St Paul’s time. He argued that artisan missionaries should be employed to teach skills such as carpentry, blacksmithing and rope making using native flax, as a means of opening up the area for the Gospel. I suppose it was a very early version of ‘needs orientated evangelism’.

Marsden was very persistent and persuasive and so returned from England to Australia in 1809 with two artisan missionaries, William Hall, a carpenter, and his wife Dinah and their son, and John King a rope maker.

Let’s pause there to highlight the second important character in our story, Ruatara.

During that journey Marsden discovered that Ruatara, the young Ngāpuhi leader from the Bay of Islands was on board the ship. Ruatara was in a bad way. He had gone to England to explore trading opportunities and had even hoped to meet the King. When Marsden met him though Ruatara was gravely ill having been badly treated and humiliated on his voyage to England where he had not even been allowed to disembark. Marsden befriended Ruatara and nursed him back to health. Ruatara was always very grateful to Marsden for saving his life and for treating him with dignity and respect.

On arrival in Australia Marsden’s pastoral care for Ruatara continued. He offered him hospitality at Parramatta where he introduced Ruatara to new methods of agriculture including, interestingly enough, wheat growing.

Marsden’s plans for beginning a mission in New Zealand were however put on hold after the incident in which the ship the Boyd was sunk in retaliation for the ill treatment of some Maori sailors at Whangaroa in 1809.

A European reprisal raid resulted in the death of some sixty Māori including Te Pahi who hadn’t even been involved in the Boyd incident.

Given the tension in northern New Zealand the missionaries, King and Hall took up work in Australia until the dust settled. Thomas Kendall, a schoolmaster and a farmer joined them there.

Ruatara eventually returned to Oihi in 1812.

There he shared stories about his adventures in a very different world. He introduced wheat as a crop and showed his people how to make bread using a handmill he had received as a gift from Marsden.

In 1814 the governor of NSW gave  Marsden permission to open up contact with New Zealand. Marsden bought his own ship, the Active because it was proving very difficult to procure passages to NZ for the missionaries. This was a major investment and I think in part reflects Marsden’s commitment to his evangelical calling and in part reflects his astute business acumen.

William Hall and Thomas Kendall were dispatched on an exploratory voyage to discover whether it was feasible to set up a mission station in New Zealand.

During this expedition, they read prayers on board ship, sometimes in the presence of the Māori passengers and so impressed their fellow passengers that Ruatara encouraged them to migrate to NZ with their families.

In August 1814 the missionaries returned to Australia feeling very positive about going to NZ. On board their ship were Ruatara, the great Ngāpuhi leader Hongi Hika, Korokoro and other Māori traders.

While in Australia these men were introduced to aspects of European life: blacksmithing, carpentry, spinning, weaving, reading and writing, brick making, gardening and farming practices, the “English Sunday”, the magistrate’s court and they even got to meet Governor Macquarie.

In November of that same year,Marsden set sail on the Active from Australia with:

5 Māori chiefs Ruatara, Hongi Hika, Korokoro, Tuhi and his brother and 3 other Māori;

Thomas Hansen, the ship’s master, his wife Hannah and son Thomas;

3 Church Missionary Society missionaries and their wives: Thomas and Jane Kendall, William and Dinah Hall, and John and Hannah King, and five children;

2 Tahitians, 4 sailors, John Nicholas, 2 sawyers, 1 blacksmith, and 1 stowaway convict.

The ship also carried three horses, one bull, two cows, a few sheep and some poultry.

The missionary / Māori party arrived at Oihi Bay and Rangihoua Pa on the 22 December 1814.

We gain glimpses into the exchanges that were taking place on both sides as Maori and Europeans were learning about each other from written accounts of their arrival.

For example, when they landed horses and cattle the people were bewildered at such extraordinary looking animals. Apparently Marsden, ever the showman, impressed his Maori audience by mounting one of the horses and riding up and down the beach.

Ruatara’s stories about big dogs that could be ridden no longer seemed so preposterous!

Conversely, later that day, Korokoro and Ruatara not to be outdone staged a large mock battle on the beach for the missionaries’. The fighting parties in turn impressed the missionaries with a spectacular haka.

Ruatara was a natural leader. His evangelistic role in this first encounter of the Maori with the missionaries is significant and has a Biblical ring to it in that he prepared the way for Marsden and the missionaries by introducing them to his people. In this way he reminds us a little of Andrew who brought Philip to Jesus. Ruatara was determined to protect these missionaries. He is described as “The Gateway for the Gospel” Te Ara mo te Rongopai.

His support for the missionaries can be seen in that on Christmas Eve, 1814, Ruatara, on his own initiative, prepared a space where the church service was to be held as an open air church, he made an improvised reading desk, a pulpit, and lined up old wakas to serve as pews.

On Christmas Day, Ruatara and Korokoro, acted as Masters of Ceremony indicating to Māori the protocol of when to sit and stand during the service.

The Māori critique of Marsden’s service based on Luke 2: 10 was blistering. They said that they could not understand what he was on about. Ruatara famously replied that “they were not to mind that now, for they would understand by and by; and that he would explain the meaning as far as he could”[5]. He went on to precise what had been said in te Reo. This is significant for it meant that the Māori were to hear Marsden’s sermon through Ruatara’s translation. They were hearing the Gospel in their own language from one of their own leaders.

Marsden’s sermon and the service on Christmas day at Oihi in 1814, gave rise to a complex story which historians still struggle to unravel. Not all of our nation’s history has been positive, but framed by the Gospel reading of the mustard seed read to us today we see that from the early seeds sown by Ruatara and Marsden, grew a great big metaphorical tree called the Church which spread branches. On these branches generations of New Zealanders from all nations have been able to find a place of safety and spiritual nourishment.

Looking at the characters of those early missionaries, their mixed motives, conflicting interests and very human failings, I am struck by the second parable in today’s Gospel. Jesus says that people scatter the wheat seed on the ground. Night and day, whether they sleep or get up, the seed sprouts and grows though we do not know how. God makes it grow and turns it into a harvest. The seed of the Gospel was scattered by fallible people. In spite of their foibles and failings, the Holy Spirit used their efforts and enabled the seed to take root and blossom in New Zealand. This was no different in Biblical times. Moses David the prophets were all fallible people yet God used them nonetheless for kingdom work. Just so today God uses us with all our faults and failing. He calls us to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and it will be his Holy Spirit that will ensure its continued regeneration in this land.

Interestingly it was literally the wheat that Marsden showed Ruatara, that in part fueled his interest in the missionaries and it was the bread that came from that wheat that laid the foundation for them to hear about Jesus, the bread of life.

These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long

This is our time, it is the time for the Church of 2014 to stand in the tradition of the early evangelists in this land, to be missional, to pass on the baton of the Gospel to the people of New Zealand.  200 years after Marsden’s arrival, the Christian message still needs to be preached if New Zealand is to continue to be a hope-filled, Godly place in which to live.

Winner Takes It All

Winner Takes It Allworkinvineyard
by Rev Charmaine Braatvedt
Matthew 20:1-16
21st September 2014

The winner takes it all
The loser standing small
Beside the victory
That’s her destiny
The winner takes it all

The game is on again
A lover or a friend
A big thing or a small
The winner takes it all

The winner takes it all
The loser has to fall
It’s simple and it’s plain
Why should I complain?

The parable of the workers in the vineyard picks up on the concept of winning and losing, coming first and last.

The story goes that some of the workers were lucky enough to get jobs early in the morning and some were not.

Yet at the end of the day, the twist in the tale is that on account of the compassion of the landlord, they all got paid the same amount. They were in effect all winners.

This intrigues me and so, I would like to talk about the concept of winning and losing in the kingdom of God.

We have just had a general election and today we have a new government.

Like you, I have been considering my vote and this caused me to wonder what a Jesus party might look like?

Instead of an Act Party, his party might be called an Acts party. What do you reckon such a party might stand for?

Jesus summed up what he stood for in a simple mission statement:

Love God and Love your neighbour.

Everything else he did and said was by way of an explanation or an outworking of this mission statement.

So in the light of this mission statement I would like to explore the concept of winning and losing as it is dealt with in the parable.

What does winning and losing look like in God’s vineyard, his kingdom?

In the parable I believe the landowner is God and we are the workers. The parable is a commentary on God’s relationship with humankind which is both personal and compassionate and loving.

I’m a bit of an Abba fan, both in the Biblical sense and as the name pertains to the 70’s and 80’s pop group.

The Abba song, Winner takes it all, which we have just heard has a verse which goes like this:

The gods may throw the dice, their minds as cold as ice
And someone way down here, loses someone dear

This reminds us that we live in a fickle world where the winds of our circumstance blow hot and cold.

Furthermore, to quote another song, this time by Linda Ronstadt, pop singer of the 70’sEveryone loves a winner.

Once I had fame
I was full of pride
Well, there were a lot of friends
Always by my side

But my luck ran dry
Now my friends begin to hide

When you lose, you lose alone. More often than not, the love of the world is conditional and is meted out on the basis of beauty, good fortune success and such like.

Is this true of our Trinitarian God?

I somehow don’t think so.

The Gospel of John tells us that God is love and one thing we know about God’s love is that it is far from cold as ice. It is warm, compassionate and embracing.

Furthermore it is unconditional.

God’s love, often referred to as agape, is based on grace and so no matter who we are, what we do, or what we believe, we are the beneficiaries of God’s love.

That having been said, don’t you feel some sympathy for the men we read about in the parable, who worked longer and therefore expected to receive a greater reward, than the men who worked fewer hours?

I feel a sense of outrage that those who worked long hours in the hot sun, should be paid the same as those who’d worked for only one hour.

It simply doesn’t seem fair.

Isn’t this after all how it works? Whether you vote Labour or National they all seem to agree:

The harder we work, the more we should be rewarded with status, money, respect and even love.

Our worth, our love-ability, is to be earned.

You’ve got to put in the time if you want to reap the rewards

Everybody loves a winner.

This may well be how our Western society is organised, but we run into the realms of heresy when we import this notion into our theology because this is not how God works.

This parable teaches the shocking truth, that God does not only love winners. He loves the losers as well and his compassion extends to providing for every person according to their need. In the parable of the lost sheep, the loving shepherd went to a great deal of trouble to rescue that lost loser of a sheep!

The parable of the workers in the vineyard ends with a rhetorical question:

‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?

So the last will be first and the first will be last.’

Wow Jesus, that’s a big call!

There is a cultural consensus about what is fair and reasonable when it comes to the way society works which encourages us to be more critical of this parable, than any other of Jesus’ parables.

Of course it is true that anyone can be generous with their own money and resources, but let’s face it, elections are won and lost on this very question.

In the secular world, organised labour i.e. trade unionists and contractual negotiators, would not accept this as fair employment practice and any political party who tried to promote this practice would be dead in the water on Election Day.

On the other hand, consider this. I have shared with you before that this parable reminds me of something that I witnessed as a child that I found very upsetting.

I remember as a child that we used to drive past a 4-way stop intersection in S.A on my way to school at 7.30am. There I would see poor, unemployed people standing in droves waiting for someone to come and hire them to do unskilled word for the day.

I also remember how it would break my heart when returning from school I would see some of those same men and women at 3o’clock, still standing there waiting for someone to hire them.

The look of their despair still haunts me.

What, I wondered, would their families do for food that night?

Maybe the owner of the vineyard in the parable was operating from a similar awareness.

Surely the unemployed women and men who’d been standing in the market place all day, desperately hoping to get a job and feeling quite despondent because no one had given them one, needed a generous break too?

This parable attempts to address this dilemma.

We learn from the Parable that God’s love is undiscerning. Winners and losers regardless, are loved by God.

Everyone loves a winner, but God loves everyone.

I used to teach bible in schools and I remember that in one of my lessons, I shared with the children that God loves everyone no matter who they are or what they have done.

But does he love those who don’t believe in Him?

Yes I said.

Does he love all those nasty people in prison?

Yes I said.

So he loves murderers and rapists?

Yes I said.

I was surprised at how difficult I was finding it to say yes each time without adding riders.

I was thinking in worldly terms where conditional love is the norm.

Yet according to this parable, God’s love has no prejudice. He gives to each according to what they need not what we might think they deserve.

To understand God’s unconditional love go and watch new parents with their baby.

What does the baby have to do to earn their love?

This is how God’s unconditional love is revealed to each of us.

We live in a competitive world. The best are winners and we strive against others to be the best, to earn the rewards awaiting those who win.

The problem with competition is that, in the words of Abba, The winner takes it all and the loser stands small.

Or said in another way,

 The winner takes it all, the rest are left bereft.

In the Jesus party/ the kingdom of God, this is an injustice.

Everyone loves a winner, but God loves everyone and unconditionally at that. And here’s the thing if we are to be on Jesus’ team, in the Jesus party, then so must we.

If there are any winners and losers in God’s kingdom, then the winners are those who learn to love unconditionally and unselfishly.

This truth needs to shape how we treat the poor, the marginalised and those whom society might be tempted to label losers.

  • New Zealand has an unemployment rate of 5.6%

Lifewise says there are about 100 rough sleepers in a 3 km radius of the central city in Auckland and an estimated 15,000 in Auckland sleep rough in overcrowded garages or couch surfing.

  • According to a report by Every Child Counts, up to 270,000 children live in poverty in New Zealand.
  • The Ebola virus is causing havoc in Africa.  Nearly 5,500 people have been infected with the deadly disease, and already more than 2,600 people have died as a result.

Let’s take another look at verse15 ff

‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?

Or are you envious because I am generous?

So the last will be first and the first will be last.’

I wonder how this parable might inform what we do with what belongs to us.

How might we share our resources so that there are no winners and losers in our world?

What causes might we support that will mirror the love of the God in whose image we have been created?

How does belonging to the Jesus party, which I shall call the Church, impact how we live and how we reward and how we choose to share what belongs to us?

And finally,

What difference does it make to your day, to wake up in the morning knowing that no matter who you are, or what you have done, or how you are feeling, God loves you. I’ll say it again, God loves you, God loves YOU , so smile because that  makes you a winner no matter what you or anyone else may think!

Father’s Day

"Dad"
Father’s Day
by Rev Jonathan Gale
7th September, 2014

Luke 15: 11 – 32

The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother

11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

♦♦♦

Well, it’s Father’s Day. I have often asked myself what it is that makes for a good father. I’ve come up with the usual good things and there are many of them. But I do believe there is one critical characteristic of good fatherhood: and I’ll let you be the judge of whether it is so or not as we go along.

If you’ve been attending the Wed night services in the hall you might remember the story of the young boy who grew up on a farm and who just loathed having to use the dunny or long-drop outdoor toilet. It was cold in winter, hot in summer and stank all year round.

This particular long-drop was perched precariously on the bank of a stream and he longed to push it into the water below.

One day he found a large stick and wedged it up against the outhouse door, and giving a mighty shove, toppled the whole structure into the river.

That evening his father told him he wanted to see him in the barn. He knew this normally meant a hiding and of course he guessed what it would be about, so he hatched a plan.

As his father walked into the barn he said, “Dad, you know the story of George Washington? Well he chopped down a cherry tree and because he told the truth and admitted it was him, he wasn’t punished.”

“The difference,” said his father, “Was that George Washington’s father was not sitting in the tree when he chopped it down!”

Father-son, and for that matter, father-daughter relationships are not perfect.

When Charmaine asked me to speak about myself as a father I could tell right off that she assumed I had been a good father. I’m not sure that’s always true so I thought I’d speak about being a son instead – hence the picture of me, my father and grandfather. In fact it would be easy to talk about my father as I did so in June at his funeral. He was on my mind a lot.

But then I realised that the Gospel reading for today, the story of the Prodigal Son, actually better suited a talk about being a father mainly because when you look carefully at the passage, the father in the story has a few faults of his own. I could associate with that.

I was far from being a perfect father when the children were younger. My son’s earliest memory is of me reversing over his little plastic bike. I’m just glad I didn’t reverse overhim but of course that’s not what was on his mind. I had no idea it had happened and I just drove off to work in a hurry to his 3 year old sorrow at the state of his precious toy.

I also spent a lot of time away from home as a subject advisor until he was 3 and a bit and soon after discovered mountain biking and spent many a weekend away from home, but thankfully that didn’t seem to bother him.

When he was 4 or 5 I nearly got both of us killed in a cliff-face adventure. Our survival says more about him than me. When you’re both clinging to the edge of a precipice and your boy starts shaking, his nose bleeding and he says, “Daddy, I’m going to die” you know you’ve been stupid!

But I think – in line with the Prodigal Son’s father – I had one redeeming feature. I txted my son on Wednesday and asked him whether he thought I’d been a good father and these were some of his reasons why he thought so: “Spending time playing games with me when Lu was born. Ridiculously long, death-defying walks [we all know what he’s referring to there!]; encouragement; teaching me to body surf; but probably the main one though was letting me know I had your unconditional love and that you were proud of me.”

In that little phrase “unconditional love” lies an entire lifestyle. Praying together, reading bible stories together, going to church together regularly, championing God in conversation, loving my wife – in short – being a Christian and trusting God!

I think the Prodigal Son and his grumpy older brother had two things going for them: a father that loved God and a father that loved them. My son mentioned a few things we’d done together, but undergirding it all is unconditional love – and here’s the thing – I don’t believe that is possible without a love for God.

You see I don’t think I’ve been an excellent father, but I have loved God. I’ve loved God passionately and that has probably enabled me to communicate unconditional love to both my son and daughter. And I’m not talking here about being a religious nut. We’ve all come across those and wanted to run a mile. I’m talking about a genuine love for God.

The father in our Gospel story would not have been able to deal so compassionately with both his very different sons if he had not been a man of faith.

But here’s the secret. Any genuine love can only come into existence and remain in force in response to the knowledge that we in turn are loved. This is the secret to loving God: knowing and meditating upon the fact that God is a loving God who profoundly loves us.

A passionate love where God is not in the picture will be vulnerable to becoming misshapen, to quickly reaching the end of its resourcefulness; to selfishness, in a word.

My daughter’s response to the question “Was I good a father and if so how?” seems completely to have left out those difficult teenage years which is a relief!

I want to end with an incident in our relationship that goes to show that making an effort as a father is not all hard work and no reward, and that praying together with your children is probably the most important and rewarding thing you can do.

When my daughter was 2 years old I used to read her a story, say prayers and put her to bed each night of the week as Faith ran a night school for adult learners and so was away at work in the evenings. I don’t remember what the issue was but I was going through a tough time of sorts, probably to do with work. Of course I’d not said anything to my daughter but somehow the knowing little soul knew I needed comfort and she popped out with a little song for me one evening and it went like this:

The stars in the bright sky flash like a little brave fish

In the dark world, in the dark world

Go like a little brave fish.

The song stopped suddenly, she looked at me and gave me a hug. Somehow she knew I needed courage to face whatever it was I was going through at the time and to go like a little brave fish in the dark world.

That little song that spontaneously came to the surface was more than evidence of a bond of father-daughter love; it was, I believe, evidence of an early awareness of the way God loves: unconditionally and compassionately. When we’re open to God, we’re open to other people’s needs.

The father of the Prodigal Son showed just this kind of sensitivity. Vs 20 tells us But while he [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

Something told this man his son was in need and on the way home. While he was still far off, his father saw him.

Praying with my daughter had sensitised her to my needs. She was able to love me with a selfless compassion beyond her years because she had experience of God’s love in prayer. The Prodigal son’s father has a similar sensitivity. It is the one critical characteristic of fatherhood: unconditional love.

And it is so because that’s how God loves us

God bless you!

AMEN