Monday, October 24, 2016
I’m following the lectionary reading this week. They say every preacher should preach from this three-year cycle. I have done it twice in my life, and since I am now falling into the trap of preaching my favourite hobbyhorses, I think it is time I go back to the lectionary! The Old Testament reading is the first four verses of Habakkuk, chapters one and two, whilst the gospel reading is the story of Zacchaeus, a story of Jesus ‘seeking and saving’ the lost. At first the two readings seem quite unrelated, but upon reflection they are really not. In chapter one Habakkuk is bemoaning the destruction and violence all around him, which in his context of the 722 BC Syrian exile, was extreme. The present day atrocities in Syria and of ISIS somewhat equate to what Israel were experiencing back then. They were indeed dire days. Jesus, familiar with suffering and pain himself, tackles the problem of ‘violence and destruction‘ by including the ‘outsider’, who is a representative of all that is wrong! Befriending Zacchaeus, the loathed tax collector, who is a symbol of Israel’s enemies, is how Jesus preached the gospel. It seems lost on us today that Jesus’ solution to the problems we face (at least in part) is to preach the gospel to those we disregard. We are more comfortable to isolate, make fun of, and scapegoat the problem-makers, rather than befriend them with the gospel. The Lord’s answer to Habakkuk, the first four verses of chapter two, is, “But the time is coming quickly, and what I show you will come true. It may seem slow in coming, but wait for it; it will certainly take place, and it will not be delayed. And this is the message: "Those who are evil will not survive, but those who are righteous will live because they are faithful to God.'” Note, how in the midst of Habakkuk’s ‘crying out’, he goes into the watchtower to wait for God to answer him and to act. The more dire it gets, and the more we long for God to say something or do something, the more we need to be still, pray, and wait. God’s answer, whilst we befriend and preach, is that good will overcome evil, but we will have to wait, and remain faithful.
Sunday, October 9, 2016
Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” These words of Jesus describe the essence of Christian faith. It is the following of Jesus that distinguishes the Christian from any other. It is following that defines who we are and how we live. Anyone can believe (take a look at James 2:19), but not everyone follows, and it is the follower, the imitator of Jesus, who is the essence of faith. The power of following is two fold: 1. Following is based on thinking that leads to action. Romans 12 says we should be ‘transformed by a complete change of mind’. Following ‘transforms us by a complete change of mind’, because to follow engages the mind. To follow means I am reading, and thinking, and reflecting on who I am and how I act. There is no other way to know how to follow than to read up on the one you are following. Follow him carefully and he WILL transform you inside out. It is as simple as that. 2. Following is also an act of the heart. A transformed mind is not enough on its own, transformation coming from following Jesus goes much deeper than that. Following is also a matter of the heart. Jesus was totally comfortable with tears, pain, suffering and sorrow. In other words he was human, in touch with his emotions and the emotions of others. So we easily and readily talk about the passion of Jesus. Ours is just not an intellectual faith, but also a passionate faith. If we are not in touch with ourselves and with others, we may not be in touch with God? Is this not why Jesus hung out with folks from the other side of town, because he was in touch with humanity? Following Jesus changes both our minds and our hearts. Following Jesus is both and; not either or. I invite you when you read this to take a moment, pause a while, take a seat, make a cup of tea, and ask yourself: “Am I following Jesus?” “Am I reading up on Jesus, and knowing Jesus as best as I can, so I can follow Jesus as best as I can?” “Is my heart in my faith?”
Monday, September 26, 2016
Every now and again, in a moment of vision, or hope, or faith, or clarity, you see something great in the struggling and challenging circumstances you find yourself in. Be you a minister in the rural eastern Free State like me, or a farmer, or a businessman, a businesswoman, or wherever you are. The talk of the town is quite depressing right now. Numbers are down, finances are down and optimism is down. And here in this part of the world the change of season has brought with it all kinds of illness and ailment. I am having one of these ‘great’ moments that defy logic and explanation! For some time now I have not been sure how to lead the church through these difficult times. Most everything I know, and have tried, has failed. Then the other day I prayed the prayer of ‘relinquishment’; to surrender, and to let go to God all the things that seem beyond me. To relinquish, NOT to give up, but to rather say, “I can’t do this anymore, can you do it, God?” Right now, in the churches I serve in Bethlehem, Bohlokong, Clarens, Senekal, Fouriesburg, Kestell, Paul Roux and Lindley, and in neighbouring Ficksburg and Marqaurd – amidst great financial struggle, dwindling numbers, and races still separated by years of division, I ‘saw’ and ‘experienced’ who we really are as a church, and what we can become together. What for months has looked bleak, and has made me feel despondent, suddenly looks brighter. And it’s not because I am on top of the world, and all hyped up and optimistic. Actually, to the contrary. It’s like an invisible corner is turned. Suddenly things that have been stuck are becoming unstuck, plans that just seemed not to get off the ground, are getting off the ground. People are opening themselves, and risking themselves. I don’t want to think about it too much, or analyze it too much. Rather just enjoy it, and let it have a course and an energy of its own. It feels like the rain that fell into a ravine and filled up everything in its path until it ran into a huge desert. Try as it might it could not cross the desert, and began to dry up. Eventually it let the wind carry its water into the clouds, and blew across the desert, and carried on watering the earth, bringing life and energy where previously there had been none.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
Joy is the most elusive attribute I know, and I suspect not just for me, but for most of us. I mean real joy in life. Alive inside, more often than not, regardless of circumstance! A couple of months ago I read this quote from CS Lewis. "If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desire not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, we are like ignorant children who want to continue making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation at the sea. We are far too easily pleased." To live with an ongoing sense of joy has to first mean we have come to terms with our sufferings, and have leant to embrace them as teachers and growers of our character. In my own ramblings with joy I’m discovering joy also requires some deliberate intention and effort. As much as I would like joy to flow naturally, it seems to have a nature that needs purpose, and goal. I don’t think CS Lewis meant ‘drink, sex and ambition’ are not common with joy, rather he meant discover these, and other pleasures, in a far deeper way. Rather than fool with them as though they can satisfy, find the source of joy and let it inspire and strengthen your life. So what is the source of joy? Methinks it is seeing God/being in God, that reduces your own sense of importance and entitlement, which allows you to live with a greater sense of freedom, spontaneity and generosity that would normally otherwise escape you. The source of joy is to really know your life is not all about you, but actually all about God and others. Isn’t this why Jesus repeatedly said we should die to ourselves? Joy is when we get ourselves and our own (often) petty agendas out of the way. Then we are free to love with joy. I honestly don’t believe it gets better than this!
Friday, September 9, 2016
Continuing with Jesus and his family… I think it is one of the lesser known facts about Jesus’ life that he and his family had more then their fair share of misunderstanding and confusion. Most family encounters took place in his hometown of Nazareth, a nothing little village inhabited on the whole by Jesus’ wider family, “They rose up, dragged Jesus out of town, and took him to the top of the hill on which their town was built. They meant to throw him over the cliff, but he walked through the middle of the crowd and went his way.” On another trip to Nazareth, after he taught in the synagogue, they said, “Isn't he the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon? Aren't his sisters living here?" And so they rejected him. Again, in Nazareth, “a large crowd gathered that Jesus and his disciples had no time to eat. When his family heard about it, they set out to take charge of him, because people were saying, "He's gone mad!” Still in Nazareth, because Jesus was avoiding the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem who were wanting to kill him, his brothers came to him and had this conversation with him, “The Festival of Shelters is near, "Leave this place and go to Judea, so that your followers will see the things that you are doing. People don't hide what they are doing if they want to be well known. Since you are doing these things, let the whole world know about you! (Not even his brothers believed in him). Jesus replied, “You go on to the festival. I am not going to this festival, because the right time has not come for me." He said this and then stayed on in Galilee. After his brothers had gone to the festival, Jesus also went; however, he did not go openly, but secretly.” The next time we see the family all together, it is at the cross, and they are united, albeit in grief and sorrow. Jesus saw his mother and the disciple he loved standing there; so he said to his mother, "He is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "She is your mother." From that time the disciple took her to live in his home. Lastly, they are all together again, this time in Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts, “They gathered frequently to pray as a group, together with the women and with Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers.” The perfect family? By no means! A family called by God, in all their humanness, to be the instruments of God – through their confusion, misunderstandings, pain, sorrow, and suffering? Oh yes, just like our families.
Sunday, September 4, 2016
Let's do some thinking about Jesus, and the ups and downs of his family life. We will start with his mother, Mary, and the seven sorrows she carried. Jesus’ family were real people with real problems. The first clue Mary got about the sorrow she would bear through the life of her son, was from the prophet, Simeon, when he said to her, “This child will be a sign from God which many people will speak against and so reveal their secret thoughts. And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart.” Soon after Jesus’ birth, Mary’s family endured the plight of refugees, whose world of suffering, pain and hopelessness are transparent before us today. It was no different for Mary, and her toddler, Jesus, as they fled for Egypt in the middle of the night, and lived in a foreign land in fear of their lives. The next drama Mary faced was losing Jesus in Jerusalem, for three days, when he was twelve years old. Think of that happening to one of our children today! Perhaps these events were all preparation for Mary for what was still to come. Following Jesus’ journey of carrying his cross through the streets of Jerusalem, were a group of weeping women, one of which was Mary. If that was not enough, Mary then endured Jesus’ crucifixion itself. We read; “Standing close to Jesus' cross were his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” Then again, Mary grieved, as Jesus was laid to rest, “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph were watching and saw where the body of Jesus was placed.” What do we make of all of this? Are Mary’s experiences not a guide for family life today? The ups and downs we experience, the losses, tragedies, sufferings and sorrows that come our way, shape us, like they did her? Do Mary’s experiences not teach us that life’s most true and profound lessons are learnt the hard way? Were Mary and her family not who they were, to some extent because of what they had gone though, together? Is there not also some insight into a mother’s heart? Indeed, Mary is deserving of the title ‘a most blessed woman’, as so many parents still are today.
Monday, August 15, 2016
The words written here have been a long time in coming. Only recently have I been able to put this belief and conviction into words. It all has to do with the mystery, power and wonder of the cross, or as Paul said in Corinthians, “The message, which is offensive to the Jews and nonsense to the Gentiles, the message that makes sure Christ's death on the cross is not robbed of its power.” Forever, it seems to me, the message of the cross has been told as an act of violence (sacrifice) God engineered in order to put humanity right with him. Or in other words God had to violently sacrifice his Son so that he could love those who had become unlovely to him? Truthfully I have never really understood this. It suggests two things: o Firstly God’s love can be restricted by our behaviour. o Secondly, and much more significantly, it suggests violence is the way to deal with the human condition of evil and sin. So entrenched is this idea in modern thought that we follow it, almost without exception. If there is a problem, you get rid of it – hate, division, prejudice, war, assassination, divorce, revenge, terror, murder, take sides, split – are all spurred on by this philosophy. If God used an act of violence to solve a problem, then so can we. And we do, in so many different ways. Think about it for a while. Rather than buy into this way of thinking about the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, I see it differently now, like this: Humanity (through the specific context of the time) murdered Jesus in an abhorrent act of violence. God knew this would happen all along (Ephesians 1:4,5), and he allowed it to happen as it was the perfect opportunity for God to show what redemption and love is really all about. He took all that happened on the cross on himself without reserve, and loved us in return. There was no violent sacrifice by God (it was done to him by us, He didn’t do it), just open arms of love, love which has always loved and always will, love which said, “Father, forgive them for they know what they do.” We choose the substitutional, sacrificial, way of seeing the cross, God having to use violence on himself to buy his love for us back, over God voluntary receiving violence and rejection in a great act of love without retaliation, mainly because we are hard wired to retaliate, to act negatively, hatefully, violently, and prejudicially, rather than loving those who hurt, offend and reject us, just like God did. The first way allows us to believe without a real change of heart, the second way requires a profound life changing transformation.