Saturday, 25 August 2007

Remembering God

2 KINGS 23:1-23

Last week we were looking at bad King Manasseh

This week we are looking at good King Josiah

Josiah was Manasseh’s grandchild.

As an aside, that is very reassuring. Evil is not hereditary. It does not run in families. If a grandparent or parent mess up, it does not mean that you are condemned to mess up.

But our reading today tells us of Josiah’s reforms.

REDISCOVERY

It all begins with the discovery of the book of the covenant in the temple. It is the rediscovery of what, for us, forms most of the Old Testament of our bible.

So many works of God in our lives begin with a discovery – or rediscovery - of the bible.

There was Sally. She had had a child. She suddenly became very conscious of both the privilege that had been given her, and the responsibility. She became aware of her need to do things right. But she didn’t know what was right. So she started to read the bible – and God got hold of her

Or there is the young man who began to come to church because his girlfriend wanted him to. He started to read the bible, and was grabbed – not by the book, but by the God who speaks through the book

Or there was Frank. Frank was in his 80’s. He’d been coming to church for many years. He’d heard the bible read. But one day something happened. Instead of hearing words, he heard the message. And he met, probably for the first time in his life, with the Jesus who loved him. Three days he died.

Or there was the 17 year old who went to church, was involved in the youth group, who had made a commitment to Christ. But he started to read the bible: and that was when things changed. That was when he started to meet with Christ.

Of course for the people of Israel in the time of Josiah, the bible had always been there. It had just been hidden away in a corner, forgotten, neglected.

But then – you know how it is – a new boss, a cleanout and someone finds it. They start reading. They think, “Hey, this is big”. So they take it to the boss, the king. He says, ‘Find someone who can tell us what this is all about. So they go to Huldah, the prophetess (who, by the way, is Isaiah’s aunty). And it begins to make sense.

And it is significant that it is called the book of the covenant, or testament.

Because this is the book that tells us how God has made a covenant, an agreement, a promise to the people of Israel. God has said to them that he has chosen them to be his people. They have done nothing to deserve it. It was simply that in his love God has chosen them.

The great phrase, and it is repeated 15 times in the Old Testament, is that God says to the people of Israel: “I will be your people and you will be my God”. This really was the ultimate special relationship

Revival, renewal, new life begins when people discover the message of grace that is found here.

The Old Testament tells us of the covenant, the promise that God gave to the people of Israel.
The New Testament tells us of the new covenant, the new promise that God gives to all people.

Because just as God said he had chosen Israel, so because of Jesus, that choice is now extended to all people, whether Jew or non-Jew. And the message of grace is the message of God’s love: that God forgives and accepts and invites us to become his people and to walk in relationship with him. It is the message that God offers intimacy; that he speaks to us; that he offers us new life and a new identity and a new purpose. He offers us freedom and uniqueness. It is the message of hope.

And virtually the last chapter of the last book of the bible has these words, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God”.


DEDICATION

God offers people a covenant: he offers a relationship: “I will be your God and you will be my people”

It is God’s initiative. It is God’s offer.

But we have to respond. We can say ‘yes’ or we can say ‘no’.

Bad king Manasseh didn’t consciously say ‘no’. He simply forgot the covenant; he ignored it. He acted as if it did not exist. He did not want God to be his God.

Josiah however says ‘yes’
In verse 3, Josiah pledges himself to follow the Lord, and to keep his commands with all his heart and soul

And for us, God offers us a covenant, a relationship. God makes an offer: “I will be your God and you will be my people”.

And for that covenant to become active, to become real, we have to receive it – we have to say ‘yes’. God is not going to force anyone to come into a relationship with him. He loves us too much for that. We have to choose to opt into it. At some point, (and I don’t think it matters whether it is a conscious or an unconscious decision), we have to stand beside Josiah and the people and we have to pledge ourselves to the God who offers us a covenant: “to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all our heart and mind”. Or as we repeat in our communion service, “To love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength”.


RENUNCIATION

If God is to be our god, then there is no place for other gods.

For Josiah, it meant there was a lot of clearing out to do.

Out went the shrines, private altars and the high places.
That was because many of them were dedicated to false gods; and even those that were dedicated to God were still not right because God had said that the temple in Jerusalem was the only place where he was to be worshiped.

Out went all the stuff that was dedicated to other gods – even stuff in the temple: the Asherah pole, the male shrine prostitutes, the horses and chariot dedicated to the sun.

And for us if God is to be our God then there is no place for other gods.

Some stuff, some behaviour has to go.

When people became Christians in Ephesus, many of them had been involved in occultist practices. So they had a bonfire, and they destroyed their books about the occult and witchcraft.

And Jesus tells his listeners that if their eye causes them to sin, cut it out.
He is not, I trust, wishing to be taken literally. But what he is saying is that if what you are looking at is causing you to sin, cut it out. If a magazine or TV programme, or website, or book, or particular association or place is causing you to sin, cut it out.

And sometimes even things that have been helpful for us can get in the way. A particular set of bible notes. A routine for praying. Something that we use to pray with. I’m not saying that routines, or candles or prayer chains or crosses or bible notes are wrong. They can be incredibly helpful. The problem is when they take the place of intimacy with God. And if that happens, we need to get rid of them.

The desert fathers were very strong on this dimension of renunciation. They used to say to new monks, “Flee women, world and bishops” – which was a dramatic way of saying, have nothing to do with sexual immorality, with the ambition to have or get more, or with status and power. There was something that Tony Blair said in the speech when he announced his resignation that I thought was very profound: he said, “Sometimes the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down”.

And Paul writes to the Colossians (ch5, v3ff)

“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
.. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

And elsewhere we are told, you cannot serve both god and money. If money gets in the way of our relationship with God, get rid of it! That is why tithing is such a good spiritual practice. If we don’t think we could do it, money has too much of a hold over us.


CELEBRATION

Many people think that Christianity is simply about negatives. It is not. God offers his people life. He offers us freedom – freedom from sin, freedom from stuff. He offers us uniqueness – an identity that will survive even death.

We see that from here.

There is the honouring of the memory of the prophet of Judah (vv16ff): Josiah honours a man who has been faithful to the word of God, to the message of the covenant.
There is the celebration of the Passover. “Neither in the days of the judges or of the kings of Israel or the kings of Judah had any such Passover been observed”. It was a real celebration.

And that is significant. The discovery of the message of the covenant; the dedication of lives to God; the renunciation of things that destroy life, lead not to "silly devotions and sour faced saints", as Theresa of Avilla used to call them. I was watching Midsummer Murders on Friday, and again getting so frustrated about how religious people are portrayed by the media.

We are talking here about life. The Passover was a party: they had good wine, they had good food. And they celebrated.

They celebrated:
Ø the work of God in the past: how he rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt;
Ø the presence of God in the present
Ø covenant that God offered them.

We are aware that the Christian life is about dedication and renunciation. We are probably not as good at remembering that the Christian life is about celebration.

We have a God who loves us, who desires us. He offers to be our God and invites us to become his people. He offers us life. The Christian life is about walking the cross now; it is also about anticipating the resurrection now.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Trusting Jesus

This is one of those very hard passages in the bible
In verse 27, Jesus answers the woman with what seems an incredibly offensive statement: "First let the children eat all they want," he told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."
He calls her a dog.
It was the term that Jews used for Gentiles (the Gentiles could be just as abusive when talking about the Jews). Some commentators say that the word that Jesus uses here is the word that means 'little pet dog', but even if that is the case, it doesn't really change things.
Jesus calls her a dog and says that the good things - God's salvation, healing and life - are for the children: for the Jews.
It is not politically correct.
The woman however,
  • does not seem to be offended

    Maybe she had not expected an answer at all. After all she knew that she was not only a Gentile, but a woman, coming to a Jewish rabbi. Most Jewish rabbis would not have even bothered to speak to her. At least Jesus speaks to her.
  • accepts the premise: she does not challenge the validity of Jesus' statement. Instead she answers, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
  • perseveres in her request: she is after all desperate

Most of us here are, I guess, of Gentile descent. We are not Jews. And this passage is particularly for us

It is, as Tom Wright points out in his commentary, a highly political incident. It is not simply the story of how a Gentile woman throws herself on Jesus' mercy, gives a witty reply and receives the answer to her prayer. There is something much more radical happening.

In Mark 7:1-23, Jesus has effectively broken down the divide between things that are clean and unclean. It was a very physical divide, and being ritually clean was one of the very visible ways that Jews separated themselves from Gentiles. The Jew refrained from doing things that would make them ritually unclean, and they observed rituals that made them clean. But Jesus, in Mark 7, states that ritual cleanness or uncleaness is irrelevant. He says the real difference is not between those who are ritually clean and those who are ritually unclean, but between those who are clean on the inside and those who are unclean on the inside. In other words he has gone quite some way to breaking down the divide between Jew and Gentile

Now he has left Bethsaida and gone to Tyre, a Gentile region, because he needs to be on his own for a while. But this Gentile woman comes to him, and she tells him about her daughter who is possessed by, and the word that Mark uses is, an 'unclean' spirit.

So what will Jesus do. Will he remove that which makes her daughter unclean on the inside? In other words, has Jesus come to totally abolish all distinction between Jew and Gentile.

And the disciples would be waiting to see how Jesus answered the woman. How far would he go?

Would he send her away -
Or would he heal her daughter - abolishing all difference between Jew and Gentile?

He does neither. Instead by his answer

1. Jesus affirms the priority of the Jewish people

When he says to her: ""First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs.", he is saying very clearly that there is a difference and that he has come first for the Jewish people.

It was Abraham, a descendant of Shem (hence the word Semite), who was chosen by God to be the father of a people who would be God's representatives in the world and bring God's blessing to the world. (As an aside, it is interesting that God chose a family through which to bless the world, rather than a people who lived in a particular place.) And it was to the Jews that the word of God was given - the word of God's presence and guidance and protection and blessing. It was to the Jews that the laws were given - good laws, laws that enable people to live. It was to the Jews that the warnings were given - warnings that if they strayed from God, if they were unfaithful, then disaster would happen. It was to the Jews that the sacrifices and priesthood were given, so that they could know that they were forgiven and that God would hear them when they prayed. And it was to the Jews that the promise of a messiah, a deliverer, a saviour was given - who would come and usher in the Kingdom of God and its reign of healing and peace and love.

And in her answer, "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs", she is recognising that - as Jesus put it - salvation comes from the Jews. She realises (and many of the Jews did not realise this) that she is kneeling before the Jewish messiah.

And as Christians we need to remember that to seek Jesus, to kneel down at Jesus feet, to seek his mercy, is to kneel down before the word of God that came to the Jewish people; it is to receive the history and the legacy of the Jewish people as our history and legacy. It is to receive the Old Testament as the word of God

A Jewish lady was in this church last year and she looked up at the star of David window above the entrance to the chancel. And she asked, "That is a Jewish symbol. Why is it in a Christian church?" And my answer was that as Christians we believe that Jesus is the descendant of David, not just in biological terms, but in terms of the promise. He is the one who was the child who God promised to David who would reign for ever and who would bring in God's Kingdom.

So we do need to remember that the people who God first called to be his children were the physical biological descendants of Abraham through Sarah. We need to remember the very special place that they had in the plans of God, and that they still have in the heart of God. There is no place for anti-semitism, or anti-anybodyism for that matter, in this world. But there is particularly no place for anti-semitism in the church, and it is to our shame that there have been times when the Christian church has led the persecution of the Jews.

So Jesus affirms the priority of the Jewish people

2. Jesus extends the mercy of God to all people

Jesus answers her request. He removes the unclean spirit from within her daughter. In other words he is saying, 'the Jews have priority; I am the Jewish messiah; but now God's mercy extends to all people'.

But notice why Jesus grants her request.

It is not because she gives a witty reply; it is not because she somehow deserves Jesus to answer her request. It is because she throws herself on Jesus' love and mercy. She realises that what she will receive from Jesus will be complete gift.

And we need to remember that what we receive from Jesus we receive as complete gift.

We have done nothing to deserve it.

The cry of the woman, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." has become part of our communion service: "We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table, but you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy .."

The woman could have said: "But I'm also a child of God and so I deserve the good things". That is how she would be told to answer today: stand up for yourself and for your rights. But she knows that before God she is not worthy to receive anything; before God she has nothing that she can demand. She is completely dependent on the mercy of Jesus.

It is a very difficult thing to be helpless. And before God we are helpless. There is nothing we can demand, and there is nothing we can offer.

I do not know what it is that we are crying out for: it might be for a sick child, or a child who we have lost. It might be for someone who is the grip of something that is destroying them - something or someone that cannot be removed by medicine, or education, or psychotherapy. It might be for a desperate longing: for a reconciliation with someone, for a partner, for a child, for a particular job, for peace. It might be that we are in a pit that is so deep we simply cannot see any way out: a financial disaster or marriage crisis. It might be that we have messed up and are in deep trouble - maybe nobody else knows about it. It might be for forgiveness, for meaning in life or intimacy with God.

I do not know. What I do know is that before God we are helpless; we have no right to receive anything, but that because of Jesus, whoever we are - Jew or Gentile - we can cry out to Jesus to have mercy.

And I also know that because of Jesus, the Jewish messiah, the saving mercy of God extends to all people. He will answer our prayers. Sometimes immediately and wonderfully, as in this case. Sometimes we may need to exercise faith. And sometimes he may answer our prayers not as we wish, and in very painful ways for us, but ways that actually are for the ultimate best.

There is one more thing that I would like to say. I spoke earlier about us as Gentiles having no rights before God. But because of Jesus death we do now have one right: the right to become children of God. In other word, although we are not worthy to even gather up the crumbs under God's table, we have been invited to come up and to sit at the table - not as servants of God, not even as friends of God, but as children of God.

Loving Jesus

John 21:15-19

We’re looking today at Jesus’ question to Peter: “Do you love me?’

It is an unusual question.
Peter has denied, let down Jesus. Three times he has told people: “I do not know the man”

Jesus could have asked him:
Are you sorry?
Will you be loyal to me?
Will you lay down your life for me?

Instead, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you truly love me?”

At the heart of the Christian life is love for God.

It is the first and great command.

To know God, to trust God is to love God. Because God is love.

We do not love God because either we do not know God, or because we do not love love.

Ø When we look at the one who is completely other to us, who is eternal (beyond all ages), who is bigger than all our concepts or categories, who created us with a word, and yet who loves us personally and knows us by name – how can we not love him?
Ø When we look at the one who made us and this world, who gives us life, beauty, music, creativity – how can we not love him?
Ø When we look at the one who welcomes us, who forgives us, who accepts us, who gives us the right to become his children, to share in the intimacy that Jesus had with him – how can we not love him?
Ø When we look at the one who gives us his promises, so that even when we go through difficult and dark times, even when everyone else deserts us, there is hope – how can we not love him?
Ø When we look at the one who gave us his only Son, and with his Son gave us everything: identity, purpose, fulfilment – how can we not love him?
Ø When we look at the one who gives us his Holy Spirit, his presence to live in us, strengthen us and guide us – how can we not love him?
Ø When we look at the one who even when we deny him, in big ways or in little, goes on loving us and who gives us second or third chances – how can we not love him?


1. Jesus asks Peter to go back to the beginning.

Peter has made a fairly clear declaration of commitment to Jesus

He has said: “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you”. (John 13:37)

But Jesus does not want Peter to make a statement of commitment.
This is not the time and place.
Peter has made great statements in the past – and he has messed up.

Jesus, in his love, simply wants to give Peter the opportunity of saying to him, “I love you”

Peter does love Jesus

He is someone who has been touched by grace – and he has responded in the only way possible: with love.

When Jesus called him, Peter was given the gift of seeing himself as he was, and seeing Jesus as he was. He didn’t like what he saw. He said, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man”. But Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be a fisher of men”.

And Peter is devoted to Jesus:
He is the first to confess who Jesus is
He is horrified when Jesus tells them that he is going to be crucified
He pledges his undying loyalty to Jesus
When they come to arrest Jesus, it is Peter who takes out his sword and tries to defend him
When the others run away in the garden of Gethsemane, when they arrest Jesus, it is Peter who follows Jesus
It is Peter who is the first to get to the tomb when the women tell them that they have seen the risen Jesus
It is Peter who, when he sees Jesus on the shore, earlier in chapter 21, jumps out of the boat fully clothed to meet him.

And it is because Peter loves Jesus that he is so devastated that he has denied Jesus.

And now Jesus takes Peter back to the beginning:

He is not asking Peter to make a declaration of commitment, a statement that even Peter will not fully believe is possible
He is simply asking Peter to declare his love for him here and now

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than all of these”

There is a time and place for commitments.

Preachers will ask people to make commitments. “Will you give your life to Jesus? Will you follow him for the rest of your life?”

But I am not sure that God is particularly looking for statements of commitment. What he does look for, particularly when we mess up, is a declaration of love.
He is allowing us to declare the love that we have for him, out of which commitment flows.

The question that Jesus asks Peter is a question that he asks each one of us: “Do you truly love me?”

And the answer that we give? With Peter we say, “Lord, you know ..”, but if there is spark of love for Jesus, a spark of gratitude, a glimpse of a recognition for what God has done for us, or even just a desire to love Jesus more, then I think that we can answer: “I love you”

That is all that God and Jesus need. They can work with that.

2. Jesus asks Peter to look at himself

Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me more than these?” – no doubt looking round at the other disciples. “Do you love me, more than they love me?”
Peter’s answer is significant. He simply says, “Lord, you know that I love you?”

Peter has given up making comparisons.

He may indeed love Jesus more than the others.
But he doesn’t know.

Please, we do not judge other Christians as to where they stand with God. We may agree with them on certain issues. We may profoundly disagree with them. But it is not our place to assess whether we love God or Jesus more or less than they do. Our job is to declare our own love.

Peter’s commission is to ‘feed the sheep’, not to judge the extent of the love of the sheep. That is between them and God.

The important question is not how much they love Jesus, but how much you or I love Jesus

So Peter gives up worrying about other people. Well, almost. In the next few verse, after Jesus has told Peter what will happen to him, Peter sees John. And Peter says to Jesus, “What about him?” And Jesus reminds Peter of that great spiritual truth: “Mind your own business”.

3. Jesus recommissions Peter

Three times Peter denies Jesus
Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”
Three times Peter says “Lord, you know I do”
And three times Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep”

Jesus gives Peter a new calling. He is still to be an evangelist, “a fisher of men”
Now, he is to “feed my sheep”, to be a pastor and a teacher

I wonder what you imagine to be the qualifications for a pastor.
Based on our passage, I suspect that they are twofold:
Ø An awareness of their own sin
Someone once said to me that if I am ever shocked by someone else’s sin, then I do not know myself well enough
Ø An awareness of the love and forgiveness and redeeming power of God.

There is one more thing.

Don’t get me wrong. Declarations of commitment are important.

When we were thinking about working in Russia, we wondered whether God was calling us or not. We tried to push several doors and nothing happened. And then someone wrote us on a postcard a very simple message: “Say your prayers and make your commitment”. We did that, very consciously. Literally, three days later, out of the blue, we had a phone call from the States and a man said, “I’m hoping to set up a bible training college in Russia, and I’m having a conference in Riga in two weeks time. Can you be there”. And that was the beginning of the opening of doors.


Peter has said: “Lord, I will lay down my life for you”

The first time that there might have been the possibility of that happening, he bottled out: “I don’t know him”

But Peter continued to follow Jesus, and in the end he did lay down his life for Jesus. He laid down his life for Jesus in his death; but more than that, he laid down his life for Jesus by the life that he lived. He was sold out for Jesus.

And the reason that he was prepared to do that was quite simple. He knew that Jesus loved him; and he loved Jesus.