Saturday, 17 November 2007

When salvation comes

LUKE 19:1-10

The story of Zacchaeus: one of the most famous vertically challenged people in the bible!

In verse 9, Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham”.

How does Jesus know?

1. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus

It might have been curiosity. It might have been because of the things people said about Jesus; it might have been the fact that Jesus had been nicking some of his employees. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector – and he was the man who would have been left with the headache when someone like Matthew left everything to follow Jesus. We don’t know.

But he had a desire to see Jesus. And it was not a simple, “I wonder what Jesus is like?”

It was a real desire.

We know that, because he was not put off by other people. He is a small man, there is a big crowd, and they’re not going to let him through. So Zacchaeus swallows his pride, gathers up his robes and climbs the tree.

So the first question that we need to ask of ourselves or of those for whom we pray is this:
Do we or do they have a desire to see Jesus?

Do I really want to know who Jesus is?

It doesn’t matter if it is out of curiosity: Who is this man who a quarter of the world professes to call Lord? Who is this man that they have built cathedrals and churches like St Mary’s after? Who is this man who has been more influential than any other person or movement in providing a foundation for the laws and customs in this land for the last 1000 years? Who is this man they changed the calendar for? Who is this man that people say is alive, who answers prayers, who heals, who transforms lives?

Of course it needs to be more than simple curiosity. Simple curiosity gives up at the first hurdle. We were in Barcelona last week (just thought I would drop that in), and visited the Gaudi ‘Sagrada Familia’ cathedral: it gave me some ideas for St Mary’s (joke). You could go up 120 metres in the lift and look out over Barcelona. We thought, “That would be interesting”. And then we saw the queue! So we said ‘no thank you’. We had a desire to go up to the tower and look out, but it wasn’t that big a desire.

Is our desire to find out about Jesus, to discover more about him, to see him, big enough to make us climb trees! Is it big enough to overcome the opposition of others? Is it big enough, for instance, to give up 4 Wednesday evenings and come along to the Introducing Jesus course?

It is very interesting that on this and two other occasions in Luke, it is the crowd that has to be overcome before people can get to Jesus. The friends bringing the paralysed man to Jesus (Lk 5) cannot get to him because of the crowd: so they dig through the roof. The blind man who calls out to Jesus as he is passing is told to be quiet by the crowd: but he persists until Jesus hears him (Lk 18); and the crowd here are the obstacle preventing Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus, so he climbs a tree.

Actually the crowd are an obstacle to Zacchaeus in two ways. First they are a physical barrier, and secondly they mutter when Zacchaeus goes with Jesus. The judgement of the crowd is that Zacchaeus, because of his work, is not a fit man for Jesus to be seen with. And there may well be times when you are told that you are not fit people to seek Jesus: too young (people like you don’t get interested in religion), you’re not respectable enough, you’ve messed up too much, abortion, living with someone and you are not married, practicing homosexual relationship, wrong profession.

If you want to see Jesus, don’t be put off by those who say that Jesus is not for you. Don’t be put off by the demands of family or work or special interests. If you have a desire to see Jesus, feed it. Come along to Introducing Jesus, go on to the web – there are some links on our parish website to some very helpful sites, read a book, talk to a friend.

How much do we really wish to see Jesus?

It is when people begin to seek him that things happen.

I remember a friend in a church in London many years ago. His name was R. He believed in Jesus, but he wanted to see Jesus. He wanted the sort of intimate relationship with Jesus that his wife had. He desired the power and the presence of Jesus.

And Ross became a real pain to us. He read, he prayed. He complained because nothing was happening. He hungered and he thirsted for Jesus

He was not really the sort of person who I would have expected to do so. He was 30 years old. He worked in the city. He earned £70k per annum, before bonuses (and that was 24 years ago).

And he would not be put off by my reassurances: “It is OK. We are called to live by faith and not feeling. Trust the promises of God. Not everyone’s experience is the same”. He would not settle for it. He wanted more of Jesus.

How does Jesus know that salvation has come to this house: because Zacchaeus because really wanted to see Jesus.

2. Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus when Jesus invites himself into his home

It is one thing to wish to find out more about Jesus
It is quite another thing to have Jesus come into our home and our lives.

It is about who is in control.
When we’re desiring to see Jesus, we’re in control. We can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. We can choose to climb the tree or we can remain on terra firma.
But when Jesus comes into our lives we give up that control to him.

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus.
He gets quite a shock: Jesus wanted to see him.

Jesus stops at the tree, he calls Zacchaeus by name, and he tells Zacchaeus, “I’m coming to stay with you”. It is a statement of fact. He doesn’t ask Zacchaeus, ‘May I come and stay with you?’

Have you noticed how, in the gospels, when it is a question of people becoming followers of Jesus, it is nearly always Jesus who takes the initiative? They come to Jesus with their needs, or because they wish to listen to him or ask him a question, but it is Jesus who calls them. He calls the disciples. He says to them, ‘Come and follow me’. And he calls Zacchaeus.

It is outrageous.

I mean Zacchaeus of all people. Rich, wealthy, immoral Zacchaeus. Shouldn’t Jesus be going to the poor and downtrodden and maybe vaguely moral or religious? No wonder the crowd mutter.

Of course it is outrageous. It is also astonishingly wonderful

In God’s love even Zacchaeus is called by Jesus. Indeed Jesus has come specifically to seek him out. That is what he says at the end, “The son of man has come to seek and to save the lost”.

And we know that salvation has come when we hear the self-invitation of Jesus into our lives and when we welcome him into our lives and into our homes.

And Jesus does invite himself into our lives. And he is always inviting himself into new and different areas of our life: the things we watch on TV or the websites we visit, where we go on holiday, our sex lives, how we spend our money, our political attitudes, how we treat our boides, how we relate to the mother-in-law or the person we disagree with, or to that very crabby but also quite lonely old chap who lives two doors away, what we do with our evenings, our work or business, our relationship with husband, wife, children, parents, brother or sister, how we look at ourselves.

And while we’re inside and he’s outside, we pretend we are in control.

But when we hear his self-invitation and welcome him, we actually let him take control.

Jesus knows that salvation has come to Zacchaeus house because Zacchaeus has welcomed him in.
3. Jesus knows that salvation has come to Zacchaeus because Zacchaeus’ life changes

Zacchaeus not only gives; on top of that he also makes restitution.

Notice, Jesus doesn’t ask him to do so. He chooses freely to do it.

One of the marks that salvation has come to us is that our life changes, and it changes not because we have been told to change it, but because it happens.

When a person becomes a Christian, their life begins to change. One of the most obvious ways that people change is how they use the name of Jesus. Nobody tells them they should stop using the name of Jesus or God as a swear word – they just stop using it. Or we see it when a person owns up to something, or begins to struggle against a destructive habit whereas before they would give in, or when a couple living together stop sleeping together, or choose to get married; or when a person chooses to forgive, or starts to spend time in prayer and bible reading. Nobody tells them that they should: as they listen to Jesus, it simply happens.

And, for Zacchaeus, the change in life was very marked. A man who had been always out getting started giving. He gave away half of what he had. And on top of the act of giving, he made an act of restitution – again choosing to offer more than the law required him to offer.

I spoke earlier of R who I knew 24 years ago. He did get his meeting with Jesus. It changed his life. One of the results was that he gave up his £70k pa job in favour of one that paid £16k I saw him again about 15 years after he made that decision. He has never regretted it.

I need to speak a word of caution here: as a person allows Jesus to come closer to them, so at times it feels as if our life is getting worse rather than better. Something we thought we had overcome comes back with a vengeance. And we wonder, “Has salvation come to my house. Why is my life not changing?” That is a question we need to ask. We may need to listen again to the self-invitation of Jesus, to submit again to Him, to confess and we may need prayer. But one of the ways that our life changes is that as we come closer to Jesus, as we allow him to come closer to us, so we become much more aware of just how sinful and mucky we are. And so rather than despairing when we see our sin, we can actually rejoice, and with God’s help deal with it. A spiritually dead person will not be aware of sin or their need for forgiveness: the fact that we see our sin means that God is at work in us.

Jesus knows that salvation has come to Zacchaeus house because Zacchaeus seeks him, because Zacchaeus welcomes him and because Zacchaeus life changes.

So I ask of you and me
Are we seeking him?
Have we welcomed him?
Is our life changing?

Because the bible teaches that as we look at Jesus, at his glory and his love, so we begin to look like him.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Cursing the fig tree

MARK 11:12-25

In our passage today, we meet gentle Jesus meek and mild! As if!

Ø He curses a fig tree
Ø He overturns the tables in the temple

So what is going on here? Is Jesus having a bad hair day? He’s hungry. He sees the fig tree. He goes over to get a fig, but there is no fruit. So he zaps the tree.

The setting is significant. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem in triumph. He deliberately sets out to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah. We saw that last week. He is God's king coming to God's city. He is coming to his throne.

And in these verses what we see is that God’s king comes to God’s city and he finds it wanting.

The fig tree is cursed because it is not bearing fruit. We are told the reason it is not bearing fruit: it is too early on in the season. But it doesn’t change the issue. Jesus is looking for fruit. And if the fruit is not there, then there will come a time when God will act in judgement.

Maybe we think the fig tree gets a raw deal. It is worth remembering this is a fig tree (and it did not have a tree preservation order)! What Jesus is doing here is no different to what any gardener does when they remove a shrub because it is no longer needed.

But Jesus is here acting out a parable.

He has come to God's people. He is looking for fruit. But he does not find fruit.

And as a result, God's judgement is coming on them. Jesus’ cursing the fig tree is his very dramatic way of saying to the people, ‘It is almost too late. The patience of God has finally worn thin. God is going to act in judgement.’

And in case people do not get the message here, Jesus makes it explicitly clear in the parable of the tenants in Mark 12.

The story of the cursed fig tree wraps around the story of the cleansing of the temple. On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus turns over the tables of the money changers and challenges the traders.

The place where people were meant to worship God, where they were meant to enable others to meet with God, has become a place where people worship money, and where people rip each other off. If there was one going to be only one place where Jesus would find good fruit, it would have been in the temple. And what does he find? Exploitation and idolatry.

What are we to make of these verses?

1. Don't think that Jesus is tame.

Philip Yancey writes: “As I studied the life of Christ, one impression about Jesus struck me more forcefully than any other. We have tamed him. The Jesus I learned about as a child was sweet and inoffensive, the kind of person whose lap you'd want to climb on. Someone cuddly with a beard. Indeed, Jesus did have qualities of gentleness and compassion that attracted little children. But Jesus is not tame. They would not have needed to crucify a tame Jesus”

Jesus is the one who loves us, who gave his life for us, who offers us forgiveness and new life. But he is also the incomprehensible Son of God. He is the one who was there before the beginning of time. He is bigger than, beyond, all our concepts and ideas and imagination. He is even beyond the very categories that we use to think: concepts of space and time.

We cannot put him in a box. We approach him with confidence, because he has given us some very precious promises, and because he has backed up his promises by dying and rising again for us. But we also approach him with awe and reverence. He is God; He is the one who made us. He is the one who has every right to destroy us. He is the one who curses a fig tree and it withers from the root. He is the one who announces the judgement of God on the temple. He does not answer to us; we answer to him. He is going to be our judge.

2. Jesus is looking for fruit

What sort of fruit?

Looking back over the previous verses
Ø The fruit of praise: men and women recognising that Jesus is the Lord
Ø The fruit that comes when men and women choose to follow him rather than follow their own desires or the desires of the world
Ø The fruit of service
Ø The fruit of love and compassion and humility before God

Isaiah, in chapter 5, describes Israel as a vineyard. God ‘dug it up, cleared it of stones, planted the choicest vines and built a watchtower’. He then waits and looks for this vineyard to bear fruit: for justice and righteousness. But instead he sees violence and distress. So he says, “I’m going to remove the watchtower and the wall. My vineyard will be trampled and become a wasteland”

But God has still not given up completely on us. And throughout the Old Testament there is the promise of a root, a stump of Jesse, who will be established. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is that root. And Jesus describes himself as the true vine. And he says to his people, ‘If you remain in me, fixed to me, you will bear fruit: the fruit of obedience and love’. But he warns that if we do not remain in him, we will be cut off and burned

3. Jesus is looking for authenticity at the place of meeting with God.

There was no authenticity at the temple. The temple was the place where God had said that people could come to meet with him. But they had turned it into a place where they could rip off the people who came to meet God

Compare Amos 5:21-24

God hates it when we try to use prayer to further our own little gods.

Self-centred prayer: make my business prosper and make the enemies business fail
To boost our own ego’s (‘the long prayers’)

I am not saying that we should not pray about the things that are on our minds. I am not saying that we should not pray for the bigger house, or the promotion, or business success. What I am saying is that in our prayer there has to be a place for saying, but "Father God, your will be done, your kingdom come", and if your kingdom coming means that I do not succeed or am not healthy - it doesn't matter.

Sometimes I ask people to write a list of the things that they pray for – and then we compare our requests with the Lord’s prayer.

In verses 22 to 25 Jesus teaches about prayer with faith. On the surface it does seem that Jesus is giving us a blank cheque: if you believe something enough then it will happen. It does seem that Jesus is extolling the virtue of positive thinking, of what some people have called ‘name it and claim it’. Look at verse 24.

But we cannot take verse 24 out of context.

The faith that Jesus is talking about here is

1. Faith in God. It is not faith in prayer, but faith in the God who answers prayer. I sometimes say that I do not believe in the power of prayer. I believe in the power of the God who answers prayer. And there is a significant difference.

In verse 22 Jesus says, "Have faith in God". God can do all things but God will not necessarily do all things. In the end prayer is not about me and my desire, but about God and his desire.

2. Faith to move mountains. And in this context, the mountain that Jesus is looking at is almost certainly the temple mount. In other words, Jesus is saying, “If you have faith then you can change the whole order of things. You can pray in the kingdom of God”.

"What then is the nature of petitionary prayer? It is, in essence, rebellion—rebellion against the world in its falleness, the absolute and undying refusal to accept as normal what is pervasively abnormal. It is, in this its negative aspect, the refusal of every agenda, every scheme, every interpretation that is at odds with the norm as originally established by God." (David Wells).

Prayer is not primarily praying for the things that our on our mind, but for the things that are on God’s mind.

Remember Mark 8. Just before Jesus tells his disciples that they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him, he has turned to Peter and said, “you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns”. Following Jesus, taking up our cross, means asking God to put into our mind his concerns.

And remember Jesus, in Mark 14:35, praying in the garden of Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will”. It is the prayer that has everything: intimacy, confession, request and submission.

And I think that this is why verse 25 is there [v25]. Prayer is not to be used as a weapon for our own personal battles. If they hurt me, then it is not for me to pray that the ground will shift under their feet or that the mountain will fall on them. If they hurt me it is my task, as someone who has been forgiven, to forgive. A man once said to John Wesley, “I never forgive”. To which Wesley replied, “Then sir, I hope that you never sin”. And maybe asking God to give us the will to forgive someone who has hurt us may be the mountain for which we are praying to be moved.

Jesus is here encouraging his disciples and us to pray big prayers. He is encouraging us to pray for the impossible. But the things for which we pray are to be the things that are on God’s agenda and not our own. We are to pray for God’s kingdom to come. We are to pray that we will be people who bear good fruit.

So the fig tree: it really is Jesus’ last warning to the people of Jerusalem. It is the only time he does anything like this. It is the only time that he uses his power to destroy. But he is desperate for the people to realise what is happening. He is desperate to see the fruit that God requires. He is desperate for people to realise that judgement is round the corner. And so he acts out, in the most dramatic way possible, the judgement of God.

He passes judgement on a fruitless fig tree in order that he might not need to pass judgement on a fruitless people.