Easter Sunday – The Resurrection. Fake News? (Helen Baker 16 April 2017)
The resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of our Christian belief. In fact, we might argue that it is the defining moment in the history of Christianity.
It is the gospel message that the first disciples preached – Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.
It is the truth that converted Saul from violent opposer of Jesus to Apostle.
It is at the heart of the creed – which announces the beliefs of the early church.
It is the ultimate proof that Jesus was not just another man, but was, infact, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Son of God, Saviour of humanity.
But, you know, there are millions of people in our country today, and around the world who would argue that all this stuff about Jesus rising from the dead is just fake news. In fact, Donald Trump might think he coined the phrase ‘fake news’, but the reality is that the concept of ‘fake news’ has been around since the time of Jesus.
Questions about Jesus’ resurrection aren’t new – they have been around from the very day of it’s happening. The resurrection story has been debated, questioned and doubted in every era of history. Alternative stories have been suggested – Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, he just fainted (swooned); the body of Jesus was taken by his followers and hidden; the resurrected Jesus was an imposter; Christ’s resurrection was not his body, but his spirit.
And for modern people, it is reasonable to question the likelihood of a man dying and then rising to life again. We live in a world where those things that are dead, stay dead. And we have good scientific evidence to back up our claim that that is how the world works. And scientific evidence is the only sort of evidence that will convince most modern people. As far as resurrections are concerned, it is difficult to find that evidence! Professor Richard Dawkins has been quoted saying “Accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are about as well documented as accounts of Jack and the beanstalk.”
And up until recently, even when I was studying at London School of Theology, it was widely accepted that people will believe most things if there is scientific evidence – this was the upshot of the enlightenment era. But even in these last 10 years we have moved significantly away from that era of thinking into post-modern territory, and what people believe now is even more difficult to pin down – each person is entitled to believe what they like, for what ever reason they like. And with the rise of social media, there is more ‘truth’ around than there has ever been before. In fact, last year, the Oxford English Dictionary selected ‘post-truth’ as it’s word of the year. The definition of the word is “relating or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” … post-truth – an invitation to eternal ignorance!
Now I have to say I have been somewhat appalled by the debates over Brexit and the U.S. presidential elections. I have found the debating process disappointing and those responsible patronising and self serving. But the fact that these debating styles have given rise to such a word as ‘post-truth’ leaves me thinking: Why are so many people so desperately opposed to believing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, for which there is actually ample evidence and proof – enough to convince many great minds over 2000 years, when they are happy to believe politicians who make ridiculous promises, accusations and statements which are clearly rubbish a lot of the time?
Why is the truth about Jesus – which provides us with good news, so much harder to take than dubious, unproven ‘fake’ news of today?
And if we can get an answer to that question, perhaps we can find a way to get the word out – to spread the news – to give people hope that in the resurrection of Jesus is life; love; grace; mercy; justice; joy; kindness; … peace. In this world of bad news, we have the actual truth which is good news.
Well I personally think that the church has to stand up and take responsibility for some of this. I think that the Church have lost the trust of some people because they have on occasion been hypocritical; Christians have not always behaved with great dignity, honesty and integrity – but have judged others by biblical standards. Consequently, I suspect people have come to distrust the word of the church.
I think that over the years we have muddied the water with alternative ‘atonement theories’ which provide different explanations for why Jesus had to die and be resurrected. Some of the theories blame God – one suggests that somehow, this violent, humiliating torturous death was the only thing God would accept in order to have a relationship with us. And yet we tell people that we believe a loving, faithful God; In another theory we try to explain that somehow we had to pay a price – as though God needs us to transact with him in some kind of business deal, and yet we tell people that our God is forgiving and gracious. The theories don’t fit our explanation of who God is. They tell us that God’s love is conditional. And yet we tell everyone that God’s love is unconditional. Consequently, I think we have given a rather confused message about Easter. We have failed to make it clear – through good teaching and example, what Easter really means for the world. God did not insist on the death of the man Jesus, humans insisted on the death of God. We have sometimes given the impression that God is a violent, mean monster rather than a loving, saving creator God and yet nothing could be further from the truth.
The message is getting lost; the word Easter is losing ground in the English language, the importance of Jesus is hidden by the confusion of what he came to do.
Chocolate is more important – and more easily understood than the fact that we were saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection
Here is an example – https://www.facebook.com/BBCScotland/videos/1674177669278658/
So the message that Christians need to take out into the world – the message of Easter is more important now than ever. The message that we need to tell people is this message of hope:
God has always been ‘with’ us. God has loved his people since the very beginning of time. He made the world ‘very good’ and he made humanity ‘very good’ because his desire was for ‘goodness’.
God has walked with his people throughout all the messes they have made. Often he has provided ways out of the mayhem they have created – he has rescued them from slavery, fed them in the desert, protected them from enemies. And yet throughout he has told them what they need to do to play their part in their own ‘goodness’.
To help us to understand what we have to do to maintain the ‘good’ relationship with God, he came to earth and showed us how to be like him; to be kind, to be truthful, to put others first: To heal illness, to banish inequality and value each and every other person. But when people found Jesus’ truth too inconvenient for their own selfish motives they had him beaten, humiliated and killed on a cross. But still God used their inhumanity to save them. Taking our sin on him, Jesus died – and our sin died with him. If you need to know why Good Friday is called ‘Good’, it’s because God never left us for one moment. Even when we murdered his son, he used it to restore our relationship with him. Even when we chose to be people who ignored the example of the most perfect person who ever came into the world, he redeemed us – where we repeatedly brought sin he restored goodness into his world.
And when, in our humanness, we thought Jesus was defeated by our sin, God proved himself yet again. Our sin, however enormous, however relentless, was not and is not powerful enough to overcome Him. God has the authority, God has the power, death cannot overcome Him.
Jesus is risen. Halellujah! The risen Jesus is the proof that God walks with us through what ever mess we create. That is no different today than at any other point in the history of humanity. God is with us, He is risen in you. He is risen in the this church, in this village, in this country, in this world. He is showing us the way that we need to behave in order to do our part to put it right. Just as he always has. We are not without power – but it comes from the example of Jesus. When humanity looks to the example of Jesus, and chooses to follow him, when people let the Holy Spirit into them, then we are equipped to do so much good. We bring food to the hungry, company to the lonely, refuge to the homeless, peace to the suffering and healing to the ailing. We put the needs of others before our own needs. And the problems of the world are diminished. And as we do our bit, we can be assured that God is doing the rest. Even when we murdered his son, God used it for our good. He will not abandon us, he will work with us. and we know that because Jesus is Risen. HE IS RISEN INDEED. HALELLUJAH!
Now take THAT message out to the world and spread the good news as you were commanded to do by Jesus Christ himself. Amen
Palm Sunday – Jesus the Political Activist (Helen Baker 9 April 2017)
From east to west, the city of Jerusalem was crowded with people coming together to celebrate Passover. At the West Gate many were waiting. An air of anticipation was growing as people waited for the procession to enter the city. At any moment this man; the one about whom so many had heard; who had such power, such an effect on everyone he met, would arrive, processing with all his followers and retinue.
As the crush got thicker, so the atmosphere heightened; some were excited, some were curious, but many were afraid. Lots of people had heard of this man, but few had actually seen him. They wondered if he would be all they expected. They wondered if they would be able to get close enough to get a glimpse of him; to touch his robe even.
In the distance, horns could just be heard. The procession was coming. From the city gates it was possible to see the dust rising in the distance – there must be a lot of marchers. The noise got closer, and the shouting from the crowds marked the progress of the march – it wouldn’t be long before the spectacle was before them. The excitement was palpable, but people were on edge, not sure what his arrival would mean for them.
Suddenly they were in sight – first came the foot soldiers, marching proudly in their leather armour, carrying shields and javelins. Hundreds of them, all marching in centuries and perfectly in time with one another. Then came the cavalry – such enormous horses, snorting and stamping as the crowd pressed in on them. The soldiers so noble in their feathered helmets. As they held up their banners, they waved in the breeze, and the sunlight glinted on the golden eagles mounted on tall poles, visible to everyone.
Then, there in the middle of it all, on the tallest, most handsome horse was the governor – Pontius Pilate. The governor always came to Jerusalem at the time of Passover. This was the time when the city was full to overflowing with faithful Jews, all eager to take part in the Passover, and express their faith. It was also the time when all that passion was most likely to overflow into another Jewish uprising. Pilate knew that, Rome knew that, and it was for this reason that the impressive procession of the Roman Army made such an entrance. Everything about the triumphal entry of Pilate and his army shouted ‘victory’, ‘power’, ‘money’, ‘status’, ‘strength’ and ‘rule’. Everything about it said ‘don’t mess with us, we have all the power and control. You are ruled; we are the imperial army and we will crush you if you do not conform.’
Meanwhile, on the east side, another procession was heading into the city. More people, another crowd, and a fair amount of excitement as people whispered to one another about what they had heard of this man. As word spread, the anticipation grew – lots of people had heard about this man, but not all had heard him preach or seen him work his miracles in the name of God.
In the distance they heard shouting and singing. The procession was coming. It sounded as though there was a lot of marchers. The noise got closer, and the shouting from the crowds marked the progress of the march – it wouldn’t be long before the spectacle was before them. The excitement was palpable, but people were on edge, not sure what his arrival would mean for them.
Suddenly they were in sight – this time there were no foot soldiers in armour, just disciples, dressed like ordinary people, dancing and singing hymns of praise. No cavalry on horses. Instead I like to imagine, were Martha and Mary with Lazarus; a living symbol of the triumph this procession represented, alongside the man who’s sight had been restored, the lepers who had been healed. And there, in the centre of all the hulabaloo was Jesus, riding on a nursing donkey; it’s colt trotting along beside them. This entrance was the most humble, dignified, and peaceful demonstration Jesus could possibly have made. He was fully aware of the effect his triumphal entry was having on the crowds. No banners or shining eagles required here. The shouts of the disciples and followers of Jesus was all that was needed to make it clear that the victory they represented was God’s victory; the power, the strength and the rule were not from dominant forces bent on oppression, but heavenly rule, which meant freedom and peace for the people. And all along the road the crowds laid their cloaks and palm leaves on the road to shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna!”
The only fear evident from the crowd was among those who demanded that the praise for Jesus stop immediately; because they knew that their own selfish status would be crushed when God’s kingdom came to earth.
Take a moment to picture these two triumphal entries occurring in mirror image, coming into opposite sides of the city, offering opposite demonstrations of power and strength, and consider what that might mean for us today. ….
When you realise that these two processions were mirroring each other on that day, you have to realise that Jesus wasn’t entering the city in a passive way, but was making a bold proclamation; a symbolic demonstration to the people and the authorities that the true king had arrived.
I think that this idea shatters the image I had as a child of Jesus with his heavenly smile, passively riding on a donkey to his death on a cross. Rather, we have to realise that Jesus knew what he was doing when he organised his entrance. His was a pre-planned, clever entrance, purposely staged to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah, that the king entering Jerusalem on a donkey was to banish the weapons of war from the land and speak peace to the nations. Jesus’ belief in a liberating, inclusive, non-violent, peace-seeking kingdom of God was over and against the oppressive, greedy, elite-loving, peasant-starving kingdom of Rome.
Taking all this into account, our saviour Jesus comes off looking like a well-organized and creative nonviolent activist.
This activist Jesus, speaks truth to the powers of his day, bolding proclaims an alternative vision for his world, stages public demonstrations that would impress any activist in today’s world, and invites us to follow him.
As we consider this activist Jesus, I wonder what it might look like to follow him today? What would it look like to speak truth to the powers of our day, to proclaim an alternative vision for our world? Where would living a vision like that take us?
Lets go back for a moment, and look again at the way the crowd reacted to Jesus, and assume that they understood the reference that Jesus’ highly politically charged entrance was making.
As Jesus approached, the people in the crowd were recognising him as the Messiah, and waved palm branches and threw down their cloaks, spreading them over the road. We know this image well, but I wonder if you realise that to throw your cloak down on the ground was a sign of homage and submission? It was akin to throwing yourself down before the king to ask for mercy. So this action, combined with the cries of HOSANNA, which means SAVE U tells us that the people of Jerusalem were willing to submit to Jesus, hoping that he would become their new ruler and liberator.
As we meet today, we must ask ourselves some questions about how we follow Jesus. When we replay the story of Jesus’s triumphal entry are we willing to metaphorically throw our cloaks on the ground before him? When we sing ‘hosanna’ what do we mean?
I thought I’d give you an opportunity to reflect on this for a while, and I’ve set up a few different prayer stations for you to go to, and pray, think, and respond to the political, activist Jesus who asks you to follow him today.
On the screen we will have a number of pictures from around the world, which depict Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem. How do you relate to the story of Jesus making a public and risky entrance into the city, knowing that he was heading toward his own death?
On one table will be some stones. Think about what the stones would have cried out, if Jesus’ followers had not praised and worshiped him.
On another table is a poem called ‘Hosanna’ think about what you might want Jesus to save you from and write it on a post-it to create a prayer wall.
Second Sunday of Lent (Helen Baker 12 March 2017)
Here are the 3 short talks that I delivered during the service:
1 Green Pastures
I want you to imagine yourself lying down in a green pasture. What does it look like? What does it sound like? How do you feel?
Might your imaginary green pasture look something like this: PP x3
What if it looked more like this: PPx2
You see the writer of the psalm would have been thinking more of the last pictures than the first. The shepherd would have been leading his flock through barren places, always searching out patches of pasture where he might graze his sheep. It is no wonder the sheep are so dependent on the shepherd.
In our country the shepherd will gather his sheep and lead them into a field of rich grazing where he can leave them to happily feed. Not so in the Middle East where the shepherd must ever be looking out for the next patch of greenery.
And this seems to me to be a picture of our Christian lives. We seem so often to be wondering through barren and dangerous places.
Sometimes our faith seems fragile.
Sometimes temptation seems ready to pounce at every turn.
Sometimes we feel we are failing, or in danger, or difficulty or darkness.
Sometimes we are weary, empty, hungry, threatened.
We are like sheep wandering in the wilderness, feeling lost in wastelands.
But there is always a good shepherd – even as we walk the barren path. And he is always leading us to the next green pasture – to salvation, safety and sustenance.
And he doesn’t just leave us out in the pasture. He makes sure that we are safe. He builds a pen, and at night he leads us out of the pasture and into the safety of the pen, and in John 10:17 Jesus describes himself not only as the good shepherd, but as the gate: He tells us that he ensures our ultimate safety by laying across the entrance to make sure that no sheep can escape into the dangerous land where wolves roam, and to make sure that no predator can get to the sheep. PP x2
Ours is a shepherd who provides for us in the barren and bleak places. Ours is a shepherd who protects us in the difficult and dangerous places. And so, with him, we may feed freely and settle securely.
2 Calm Waters
Throughout the gospels; the whole bible infact, water is of great importance. In desert lands with arid mountain landscapes it is not hard to imagine the significance of a flowing stream or river that would provide water for the animals to drink, water for people to drink and cook with and wash in. PP x2
A tiny spring, bubbling to the surface high up in the hills would be a Godsend, literally, to those who passed by, quenching thirst and wetting parched lips with its crystal clear, cold waters.
From tiny springs to larger stream, the waters flow before feeding down into a larger river. A wide river, used to water crops. Always flowing and moving but so often seeming still and tranquil.
So it is not surprising that the psalmist, in trying to conjure up a picture of rest and protection, uses the image of us being led by the shepherd along the bank of a river with it’s still waters. We can imagine scooping up it’s cool water to drink, or paddling in it’s gently flowing waters to cool our feet. For me, it’s the image of sitting by the bank hearing the bubbling sound and taking time for quiet contemplation.
Some of my favourite verses of the bible relate to water: In Revelation 22 it talks about the crystal clear river which runs through the streets of the heavenly city, with trees of healing growing on it’s banks.
In Jeremiah 19 it says: Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
and whose hope is the Lord.
For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters,
and that spreads out its roots by the river,
and shall not fear when heat comes,
but its leaf shall be green,
and it shall not be anxious in the year of drought,
neither shall cease from yielding fruit.
When Jesus the good shepherd leads us by quiet waters, we need not fear the heat of the barren landscape of Palestine; we will not thirst, and we are able to go on.
And Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan. When we are baptised by water and the holy spirit, God claims us as his own, washes us from sin, and sets us free from the power of death.
And in that most beautiful of stories – Jesus and the woman at the well, Jesus said “ … those who drink of the water that I give them will never be thirsty.” The water Jesus gives us is ‘The water of life’, it will never dry up, and will sustain us for all eternity; it is ‘living water’.
3 Restoring Our Souls
So the we have been making a link this morning between the shepherd of the psalmist, and Jesus who called himself the ‘good shepherd’. We have reflected on how shepherds lead sheep through the barren land to the pasture where they can eat and relax in safety, and how that relates to our Christian lives. Because let’s face it, even following Jesus, we all know that life is rocky, and difficult, and presents us with challenges that can make us feel that we are in dangerous and barren places.
We have also thought about the properties of water; which quenches our thirst, washes us, cools us, and gives us life. We have pictured ourselves being led by the still waters of psalm 23.
And I hope that in imagining ourselves let to safety and comfort we might recognise that Jesus, the good shepherd, restores us.
God restores our soul because we can’t restore it ourselves. I mean we try don’t we? When I’m stressed I turn to chocolate and coffee. Others will tell you that going out for a few drinks is their crutch. I wonder what you turn to when you need to unwind or regroup?
And whilst chocolate or alcohol might provide temporary relief from our woes, they never work in the longer term do they? They just add to our problems.
To recognise that we go through difficult times, and that we get hot and thirsty, is to recognise that we get hurt along the way. I know most of you at least a little bit, and I know that everyone of us has been chipped, damaged and in some cases almost completely broken. We simply don’t get to our ages and not experience difficulties in our lives do we? But what we know from psalm 23 is that Jesus walks with us through all our trials, and at the end of every journey through darkness, difficulty and danger he brings us to green pasture and running water. We might not see it at the time, but it is true. Even in the darkest of times we are in receipt of God’s provision. And when we are broken we are restored.
The story of my mum’s dream.
So being ‘restored’ will mean different things to different people:
Restore can mean to give back something that has been lost or stolen. God promises us his peace and joy, but too often, we are guilty of allowing his gifts to be stolen from us, squeezed out of us by life, and the things around us. But God can restore these to us, if we ask him.
Restore can also mean to return something to its former condition. When we think of God restoring us, it’s probably when we are overwhelmed, damaged, hurting or broken. Then, God puts our broken pieces back together, repairing us, and restoring us to our former condition. PP
In Japan, when a precious object is broken, it is repaired with gold to show the mends using a process called ‘kintsugi’. This repair method celebrates the artifact’s unique history by emphasizing the fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing the artifact with new life.
But to restore something, can also mean to return it to its original condition. Completely renewing it, so that it becomes what it was originally created to be. I don’t believe this kind of restoration is what the psalm is referring to though. When Jesus leads us we change – we might be all our former pieces, but glued together beautifully, or we might change somewhat. Sometimes he comes to us like a whirlwind or a refining fire – perhaps turning everything upside down, pruning away things we don’t need, destroying things that may be harmful to us, restoring us in a surprising way.
If we look back, we can probably all see times when we have experienced God’s restoring grace at work in our lives. And it is an ongoing process – God has restored us, God does restore us, and God will restore us – throughout this life, whatever difficulties or demands, traumas or tensions we face.
So I end by reading from ps. 62
Truly my soul finds rest in God;
My salvation comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
He is my fortress, I shall never be shaken …
Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
My hope comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
He is my fortress, I shall never be shaken.
My salvation and my honour depend on God;
He is my might rock, my refuge.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
Pour out your hearts to him,
For God is our refuge.
Matthew 4:18-22 – The church built a sermon together. (Helen Baker 26 February 2017)
Here are the notes that I made when preparing for the sermon, so although I can’t publish the results of our service, I hope these notes will help you to think about the passage.
- what does ‘follow’ mean?
- what did the brothers think when Jesus said he would send them to fish for people?
- they left their nets ‘at once’. Did they just get up and go? What happened to their stuff? Was that sensible?
- Did they already know about Jesus? What made them feel able to get up and follow him without question?
Jesus later saw James and John. He called them and they left their boat and their father to follow Jesus.
- Did Jesus have a thing about brothers?
- What did they say to their father?
- What did their father think?
- they left immediately – why? no planning? No questions?
Questions about Jesus:
- Why did he choose these men?
- How did Jesus justify pulling them away from their lives like that?
- Jesus must have felt a level of authority to be able to command these men. What did he know about what he would be doing?
- Was he aware of who he was?
What does it tell us about the disciples?
- Awareness; somehow they knew something of Jesus – whether they sensed it, or knew about him, or had met him before. They must have been aware of something of Jesus’ quality – we just don’t drop everything to follow a stranger unless there is a reason.
- Expectancy; anticipation – there must have been some sense that by following Jesus that something significant was going to happen.
- Follow; this is not a part time occupation. This was a ‘give up everything (even your father)’ kind of all in following. The disciples didn’t know where they were going to go with jesus. It’s quite possible they went to places and situations they wouldn’t have chosen. Given the way they sometimes seemed a bit clueless (particularly in Mark’s gospel) we assume they really didn’t anticipate, and of course couldn’t anticipate, the extent of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
- Immediately; Williams p10 Jesus told the disciples to leave everything ‘immediately’. He expands on this in Luke 14 where he talks insistently about the need for disciples to love him more than their father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters. (14.26) Even more than they loved themselves ‘whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciples (14.27). I find this alarming. It makes very hard reading. But Williams tells us that it is our relationship with jesus which defines who we are. “Being with the Master is recognizing that who you are is finally going to be determined by your relationship with him. If other relationships seek to define you in a way that distorts this basic relationship, you lose something vital for your own well-being and that of all around you too. you lose the possibility of a love more than you could have planned or realized for yourself. Love God less and you love everyone and everything less.”
What can we learn about Jesus from this short passage?
Maybe Jesus knew something about these 4 men – things that made them qualified for the task ahead. But I don’t think so. We have no reason to assume that. What the text tells us is that Jesus was walking along the shoreline. Inevitably, the men he met were going to be fishermen. He met two sets of brothers, and he called them to follow him, which they did. Maybe the writer could have told us about the other times Jesus was out walking, and called other men, who refused to follow him. Or maybe that day Jesus had called other fishermen and they had also refused him. We have no way of knowing because its not in the text, but I suggest that the only reason Jesus knew these men were the right men was because they obeyed him when he called them. What does that tell us about Jesus? That he was prepared to call anyone who felt the call and could obey.
The temptation with this text is to see it as the first stage of a whole journey. It’s really difficult not to, because we already know what came next, and how the story of the disciples developed. My challenge this week has been to try to keep my sermon anchored to the text and not get carried along with our fuller understanding of discipleship, grown over 2000 years.
Because the idea of being a disciple of Christ was born in this moment. The moment that Jesus, recognising who he was in Christ, having grown into a man, been baptised, and tempted in the desert, called men to follow him. How can we rest here, in this small passage, and just understand it’s significance, without being tempted to rush ahead to a full understanding of what it went on to mean to these men that they were disciples of God’s Son?
There are only really two aspects to discipleship demonstrated in this passage I think – call and obedience. I’m open to hear if others got anything else?
What can we learn for our own discipleship?
- We are disciples too, and we follow Jesus, but we are not like Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John because we cannot follow Jesus in the literal way that they did. We can’t be around Jesus watching, listening and learning day after day.
- In those times, to be a disciple meant literally living with your teacher. It meant following them everywhere they went, listening to every word they said, in the expectation that they would catch every pearl of wisdom that their teacher had to share. It didn’t mean attending certain lessons each week – or even coming to church every Sunday! Discipleship was more a way of living – a state of being. Peter, Andrew, James and John couldn’t carry on fishing and be Jesus’ disciples in-between trips out to sea. When he called them they had to leave that behind, because being a disciple required them to make that their entire life.
- Jesus asks his disciples to love him more than anyone
- Jesus asks us to go where he goes, regardless of whether it’s where we would choose.
- Jesus asks us to relate to those whom he related to; the last, the lost, the least.
- How does this story affect you? How does it make you think of Jesus, of the disciples? Of your own relationship with Jesus?
- You want to know my first thoughts? I’d have found it very very hard to just get up and leave my boat and my father. I think I would have needed to have a very clear idea of who Jesus was before I’d give up my family and my livelihood. I am amazed by the obedience of those first disciples. They had no notion of what following Jesus would be like. They didn’t know he was the son of God – nobody did at that point. They didn’t know about the hostility, the hounding, the ultimate death that Jesus would die. They didn’t know that when Jesus was gone that they would be the founders of the church.
- Our job is not producing fruit. Our job is to abide in Christ, and if we do, the Holy Spirit will produce the fruit, and this fruit is the result of our obedience. As we become more obedient to the Lord and learn to walk in His ways, our lives will change. The biggest change will take place in our hearts, and the overflow of this will be new conduct (thoughts, words and actions) representative of that change. The change we seek is done from the inside out, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t something we can conjure up on our own.
Matthew 3:11-17 – An imaginative retelling of the passage (Helen Baker on 12 February 2017)
Try to put yourself in the scene I’m going to describe. It means you need to use your imagination, and it would be great if you could try to suspend your knowledge of the story and try to be surprised by it. Imagine yourself really there, and really witnessing the scene for the first time.
You are standing on a raised bank of dry, pale earth, near the edge of the River Jordan. Imagine yourself there. What are you wearing? Are you with anyone else? Behind you, the desert stretches away with all it’s arid hills sparsely covered with vegetation, and speckled with boulders and stones. The sky above you is pale blue and there are a few clouds scudding along on the light, warm, south-easterly breeze. You feel the sun on your head and shoulders, are you enjoying it’s morning warmth, or is it making you feel uncomfortably hot? The breeze blows sand over your open sandals. You can feel it on your skin, rubbing under your toes. Does it feel good? Or are you unhappy that your feet are getting dirty?
You’re looking out over the River Jordan where, once again, John the Baptist is standing on the bank, preaching. There are scores of people listening. Some up on the mounds like you, others lining the edge of the river. Are you happy standing a little way away where you can survey the whole scene, or would you like to be down by the bank, in amongst the throng, feeling the press of bodies, and hearing every breath and word of the prophet/preacher?
You are all listening intently to this man, who has captured your imagination with his compelling faith. “The kingdom of Heaven is near. Repent. Clean up your lives” he calls. And so far, dozens have entered the water and been baptised by John. They have repented; committed to live pure lives. Others have hassled John, heckling him and demanding to know why they should be baptised when they already have the law. But John brooks no excuse – knowing the law does not prevent you from living sinful lives. Your sin will only hold back the kingdom. “Do you want to be responsible for holding God back? Repent!”
He’s whipping you all up into excitement as he announces the coming of a long awaited Messiah – “He’s coming! He’s more powerful than me! He will give you God’s wind and God’s fire, not just water. He’ll clear out the mess – he’ll clean up God’s farm so that only the good wheat is left!” After all this time, you are excited that John is prophesying the imminent arrival of a long awaited Messiah.
Are you inspired by John to go down and be baptised? Are you keen to be involved in ushering in the kingdom? Or do you relate more closely with the men who are arguing that you already uphold the laws and do everything required of you? Does this baptism seem like nothing more than an act – a ceremonial performance which will change nothing?
What are you expecting this Messiah to be like? John has built up your expectations – the man who will come sweeping into your lives with a great explosion, a blaze of light and colour, transforming the entire world in a single blow. Is this exciting? Or does it worry you?
As you listen, imagining and contemplating the scene John is painting for you, you notice a man walking along the stony riverbank toward the gathered crowd. He is not in a hurry, and he is clearly paying attention to John’s words as he comes closer. He looks like most other men of his age – around 30 – dark hair and eyes, and wearing a simple tunic gathered with a leather belt around his middle. Over his shoulder he carries his cloak – not needed in the warmth of the day. He walks quietly but confidently through the crowd and approaches John. They know one another and greet each other warmly. You are standing just about close enough to hear snatches of their conversation: “John, I want you to baptise me.”
John is shocked. His face says it all! “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”
You are not clear about what is going on. John has been baptising people in this spot for days now, stridently urging us to comply and be baptised, but he doesn’t want to cleanse this man.
Clearly he has some authority though, because despite John’s obvious misgivings, when the stranger persists saying “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” John walks into the water.
His friend puts his cloak on the shore, and follows John into the river. They wade in to their hips and stop to look at one another. John clasps the man’s hands against his chest with one hand, and then puts his other hand on the man’s back. He prays, and the man prays too. They cast their eyes up to the skies and John plunges him under the water. This baptism was no different to the rest, and you wonder why there was any hesitation from John.
John assists him in getting back on his feet in the water. Drenched, with the weight of the water pulling the man’s tunic, he has an air of serenity about him. As you witness the scene, you become aware of a vibration. It’s not a sound, it’s not like anything you’ve felt before, but the very air around you is shaking. The hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as you look up; there is a split in the sky; it has been rent from one side of the river to the other. A shaft of pure light pours down from above, lighting up the scene with brilliant white luminescence. From the tear sours a dove, which lands gently on the head of this perplexing character.
You are terrified, as a roar like thunder comes from above. The ground shudders, and you feel unsteady on your feet. You’ve never heard anything like it before, and yet you know it is the unmistakable voice God most holy. All around, people are staring up at the sky. Their faces bathed in bright light, which accentuates the fear and astonishment expressed upon them. “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Matthew 3:11-17 Sermon – Baptism: Jesus and ours. (Helen Baker on 12 February 2017)
When Jesus came to John, he was fully aware that the baptism John could offer was only of the traditional, symbolic nature. Jesus knew that all those who had been baptised were making a public statement of repentance; washing themselves clean of their sins, and committing to live better lives from that moment forward. That kind of baptism was hugely important for all who took part, but of course for Jesus, who was without sin, it had a different significance. When Jesus came to John asking to be baptised, it was in order to show the rest of us three things; first, that it is important for us to do the same. second, that Jesus is one of us. Fully man, subject to the same God, with all that this entails. Thirdly, Jesus’ baptism is surprising. And it is his first act as the fulfiller of God’s plan. Just the first act. From here on, Matthew will be telling us the gospel about Jesus’ life, all of which is about fulfilling God’s plan – keeping the promises that God made to his people so long before. As Tom Wright put it:
“… these are promises which will blow God’s wind, God’s spirit, throughout the world, which will bring the fire of God’s just judgment on evil where-ever it occurs, and which will rescue God’s penitent people once and for all from every kind of exile to which they have been driven. But if he, Jesus, is to do all this, this is how he must do it: by humbly identifying himself with God’s people, by taking their place, sharing their penitence, living their life and ultimately dying their death.” (Tom Wright)
Dramatic words! But I hope they help you to understand the significance of Jesus’ baptism as the first act of his Messianic ministry, which would affect the whole of history.
Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of his ministry. Our baptism serves a different purpose. Our baptisms are out of obedience to Jesus’ commission – he told his disciples ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ (Matt 28:19)
I’m not sure how many people here have been baptised – quite a number I know, but for those who have made different kinds of commitment to Christ please don’t be offended. Baptists believe that following Jesus’ pattern of baptism is what we are called to do, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t recognise your confirmation too. That said, if you feel called to be baptised please do talk to me after the service.
We are, like Jesus, baptised with water. And like Jesus’ baptism, when we are baptised we are washed clean of our sin. Just like people of Jesus’ time we repent, and turn our lives toward God and the kingdom of heaven And this is an important part of the baptism today. But it’s not all. As I said, we are baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Through baptism we become one with Christ and the Spirit of Christ is within us.
I’m going to show you a video of a baptism now. Those of you who have been baptised may well prefer to think back to their own experience, but for those who haven’t been baptised here’s a taster.
Pay attention to the promises made prior to the immersion, and the prayers that were prayed after the song.
What did you notice about the promises I made and the beginning?
- Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?
- Do you turn from your sin, renounce evil and intend to follow Christ?
- Will you seek to live within the fellowship of His church and to serve in the world?
“I now baptise you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit” Splash!
Prayers at 3.30 mins
- Pour your holy spirit into Helen so that she overflows
- That rivers of living water might pour from her and out into the world into which you call her.
- equip her to do the work that you’re calling her to.
- give her an inner strength to cope in the difficult times.
- echo the words you spoke to Jesus “that you’re proud of her, that you love her that you know her by name; “I know who you are; I called you; come and walk with me.”
- Lead her as you call her. That she would know you with her all the days of her life.
In Baptism we publicly declare ourselves to be children of God, born again into the life of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit. From that day on we identify ourselves in a new way – Christ led and Spirit filled. Most of those prayers Colin prayed were about the Spirit filling me, equipping me and strengthening me weren’t they?
In Romans 8, Paul talks about life through the spirit. He tells us that ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.’ A little further on in v16 Paul tells us ‘The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’
The sprit came of Jesus in a very visible, audible and extraordinary way, but just because we don’t see and hear it, don’t doubt that we are baptised in the Holy Spirit too: That we are then living in the spirit and seriously, co-heirs with Jesus.
Jesus was baptised because he wanted us to know that he was a humble human, subject to the same requirements as any other person. He wanted us to know that Baptism was important for us too.
If you have been baptised then I ask you spend time remembering. It was a significant day, and a symbolic day. It was an act that you chose to take part in because your faith was that important to you. Be encouraged by that faith on dark days. Be upheld by God’s faithfulness in your life, and remember the Spirit is within you always. The Spirit of Christ Jesus, which brings us into the realms of God’s kingdom, a part of that eternal life, brother and sister of Christ, child of God.
If you have not been baptised I’d ask you to think about it. Jesus did it. He asked us to do it. Baptism is an important part of Christian faith. Of course you are a Christian if you have affirmed your faith, but we believe that this is the pattern the gospels ask us to follow. Through baptism you are made one in Christ, baptised in the Holy Spirit; freed from the law of sin and death. Back to Romans 8 – ‘those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.’
John called everyone to be baptised in order to prepare the way for the kingdom of heaven to come. Jesus obeyed. Jesus called for us all to be baptised – to prepare for the kingdom of Heaven to come. Through the Spirit of Christ in us, as brothers and sisters of Christ we are baptised to be filled with the Spirit which leads us toward God, to live our lives here according to God, not according to our own desires.
Jesus’ baptism is the first act of his public ministry. It was important to him, and we should not under-estimate the importance of baptism for us too.
Matthew 3:1-12 – Repent! (Helen Baker on 5 February 2017)
John the Baptist was the first prophet since Malachi 400 years earlier. In the same way that Matthew’s gospel bridged the gap between Old Testament Scripture and the New Testament, so John spanned the chasm between the promises of the old prophets and the hopes of the people he ministered to.
By all accounts he was an unusual chap – living in the wilderness, dressing in camel hair and eating locusts and honey, but that certainly didn’t put people off listening to what he preached! He drew crowds from near and far and had a very clear message for them.
God’s kingdom is near, and each person needs to prepare for it’s fulfilment. Everyone needs to ready themselves; they need to smooth the path – fill in the hollows, flatten the peaks and make it straight and flat and smooth. John is telling the Jewish people that they are a vital part of the kingdom with a responsibility for it.
This was a new message for the people of God. They were used to the idea of God who sits up in heaven, alternately smiling or frowning down on his people depending on their behaviour. But John was asking them to prepare for God’s kingdom – his rule to come to earth. If you think about the tradition of the temple, where no one could go near the inner temple where they believed God dwelt, no impurity could be near God – no sin, no dirt. Where only the most perfect goats and vegetables could be offered as a sacrifice, where the priests had to ceremonially wash before they could enter the temple’s inner sanctum, then you can understand the message John was giving. “Get clean he is telling them. live a pure life, ditch all those bad behaviours and sinful ways because GOD IS COMING.’ 400 years of silence from God and then John bursts out with this message. GOD IS BRINGING HIS KINGDOM HERE. And the sin of the people would act as a stumbling block if you like – all the sin would cause cracks and ridges broken bits on the path, all of which would block our progress toward the kingdom.
So John was preaching that God’s people need to repent. In order for the kingdom to come, they needed to get ready. Prepare. to confess their sins and be baptized in the River Jordan.
And as for the arrogant amongst them – the Pharisees and Scribes who felt they had no need of repentance; those who believed that simply being of Israel guaranteed them a place with God for eternity? John had a harsh message: Doing nothing isn’t good enough. Your salvation is not a birthright. Simply continuing to adhere to the old ways, paying lip service to the laws, failing to genuinely prepare their hearts for the coming Messiah will block the coming of the kingdom.
So what do we think John was asking of the people? What did he mean by repentance? Because whatever he was talking about to the Jewish people then, he means for us today. And in a way, this is an advent theme isn’t it? Preparing ourselves for the coming King, and indeed, in the lectionary, this passage falls in advent. But the message doesn’t only apply in the weeks before Jesus’ birth, it’s a message we need to hear and respond to every day.
What do we understand by repent?
- really really sorry
- I won’t do it again
- changing my ways
The heart of the word repentance means
- turning around,
- starting over,
- taking another direction,
- choosing another course.
These are not ‘feelings’ words – they are verbs. To feel sorry about something is not the same as doing something about it.
Repentance is recognising what is wrong with what we’re doing now and then knowing what is right and important and necessary – it’s about what we will do differently, and in a biblical sense at least, it means that we need to return to our understanding of shalom – God’s deep desire for peace and equity for all people, in order to know what is right behaviour. Repentance is about our lives contributing to God’s shalom in the world, and not preventing it.
In a moment I’m going to ask you to think for a bit about what repentance might look like for you, but first, a warning. When we start thinking about what God’s peace and justice looks like there are so many things I could repent of, we as a community and nation could repent of, even we as a species could and should repent of:
- Pollution and climate change.
- Poverty and food scarcity.
- Racial injustice.
- The lack of clean water.
- Overflowing prisons.
- The number of children living below the poverty level.
- Crime and violence.
- War, terror, forced migration, genocide
… And the list goes on. If we get drawn into such thoughts repentance quickly becomes a daunting thought and it seems easier to just give up and go home and close the curtains!
Instead, I’d like you to look at two aspects of repentance; one personal aspect, and one communal – a church wide change. So first, spend some time in daydreaming. Think about what God might be inviting you to change your life into. dream about what your life could be like. Then choose one thing – one element of your life that you would like to repent of. One thing you’d like to change direction on. It could be anything – mending a broken relationship, acceptance of someone different to us; a fuller prayer life; spending more time in nature; to take better care of yourself; breaking a bad habit. I don’t know, anything. Be guided by the Holy Spirit.
After about 5 minutes, think about our church fellowship. Where do we need to make changes as a community? What areas require a shift of direction? How could we be better bringing peace and equity to our brothers and sisters, and to our local community?
Repentance is not a chore. It’s a gift. God doesn’t condemn us for our sins, but gives us the opportunity to turn away from them and move toward his kingdom. God came to earth just as John knew he was going to, and rather than beating us over the head with our sins, he came and took on human life to be with us; to bring us hope; to show us the way to the kingdom; to take our sins away from us so that we wouldn’t be blocked from the Kingdom by them. Only God could do that – only God, through his Son Jesus Christ could bring us closer to His kingdom, and the promise of abundant life.
So take that one element that you feel you can change. And make that your challenge. It’s not a chore. It’s a gift. In walking away from something negative you walk toward the kingdom. You choose shalom. God’s deep desire for peace and equity for all people. Amen
Matthew 2:13-23 (Helen Baker 0n 22 January 2017)
A paranoid king sat on the throne, concerned only with keeping his position of power. The lengths to which he went to protect his position were well known and well documented: For instance, those amongst his predecessors rightly feared him, since he executed them, and their leading men without ceremony. Some of those executed were married into his own family and were strangled or drowned.
To be a predecessor was dangerous, but it was no less precarious to be his mother-in-law, or worse, his wife – both of whom he had assassinated.
But despite all the fear and bloodshed, under Herod’s rule, Jerusalem grew – Herod built many beautiful buildings including rebuilding the temple. But his most notable building was his own palace; built on the western wall of Jerusalem, on an elevated platform, it consisted of two main buildings, each with its own banquet halls, baths, and accommodation for hundreds of guests. In the centre of the palace were gardens with porticoes. The grounds included groves, canals, and ponds fitted with bronze fountains. There was no end to the luxury you could experience if you were amongst Herod’s friends.
Herod was a man intent on ruling, building, eating, drinking, building more and ruling more. If you got in the way of his lifestyle you could expect a short life.
If you were his son – and he had 3, you could expect little more than death; two of them were strangled upon his orders, and the third was put to death only days before Herod died himself.
Herod’s main concern was to make sure that no-one could take his throne from him. He was paranoid about being succeeded: He set up an internal spy network, and every time he heard that there was even a rumour of revolt, he would have the suspects eliminated.
This is all background to help you understand why, when Magi arrived in Jerusalem and asked ‘where is the one who has been born king of the Jews’, they set in action a predictable chain of events. He demanded to hear the prophecies of the Jewish people regarding their messianic expectations. Upon hearing that the Messiah was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem he determined to put a stop to this threat.
“Kill all the boys under 2” – A shocking response in most circumstances, and yet There is no reason to believe that for a man capable of killing his own sons, such slaughter would be even vaguely inappropriate. It was simply the way that Herod eliminated any threat to his elevated position. Herod slaughtered the innocents in his fear, power seeking, anger and evil.
Bashar Al-Assad sits at the head of the Syrian regime. Initially he presented himself as a reformer – a rejecter of the regime of his predecessors. He gave the impression of slackening off the control of the previous government, but he quickly began reversing his reforms and, punishing those he had freed – especially the intellectuals. His government resorted to the same tactics of intimidation as his father’s, making use of unfair trials, an ironclad press law and notoriously cruel security forces to maintain control.
To be a part of the previous regime is dangerous in the Syria. The executions and assasinations might not be as public as in Herod’s time, but still it is right to fear Assad.
But despite the fear and power seeking of his regime, Assad has been able to build a new and successful financial sector, opening private banks for instance. Whilst many have struggled in modern Syria, Assad has also built enormous five-star resorts and lavish restaurants. Those who count themselves amongst Assad’s friends and loyal colleagues have experienced no end of luxury. Isn’t it interesting how many parallels exist between power seeking leaders like Herod and Assad?
In January 2011, citizens across Egypt and Tunisia began demonstrating against their governments. Before the year’s famous spring had even begun, popular unrest was shaking some of the most entrenched regimes in the region. But it had not yet touched Syria.
Then, a few months later, when Syria saw dissent from its own people, the regime cracked down. YouTube videos surfaced of security forces firing into crowds. within weeks, around 7,000 people had been detained. Then came the accounts of tortured minors, disappearances and crammed jail cells, not to mention chemical filled bombs dropping on civilian areas.
Jump forward to the present day and we can see the lengths to which Assad will go to destroy the rebels who threaten his regime. The city of Aleppo, where many of the rebels are hiding out, is now lying beyond ruin. The innocent families resident in Aleppo have been the victims of the governments unending attack on the city. No regard has been shown for them – even when aid was being delivered during a ceasefire, the government didn’t keep it’s word. Anyone who dares to threaten Assad’s power – and anyone – man, woman or child who gets in the way, will be wiped out. And there is no question that such massacre would be deemed by him inappropriate. It’s simply the way Assad deals with any threat to his elevated position.
I make no apologies for drawing comparisons between an evil dictator portrayed in our holy bible, and Assad’s cruel destruction of the country of Syria. It helps us to understand our world, it helps us to understand our faith, and it helps us to understand God.
When a story appears in the New Testament – a story which is a part of the birth of Christ, and yet is a story of fear, power seeking, anger and evil, it is easy to think these things must all be a part of Gods plan. It is very difficult, and very dangerous to understand every act in the world as being of God. This text is called by some a ‘fulfillment text’ because the sadness of the slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem is seen as the fulfilment of Jeremiahs prophecy about Rachel weeping for her lost children. As soon as we start seeing words like ‘fulfilment’ we start making judgements – surely the fulfilment of a prophecy must be the fulfilment of God’s plan, revealed by Jeremiah. So God planned for these innocent babies to die? God allowed babies to die because of the birth of Jesus? What kind of a God would want innocent children to die?
The idea that God plans for evil, or even allows evil takes us into dangerous and misguided ground. I have been reading this book by a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It is a hard read, but deeply touching. I commend it to you. The book documents Elie Weizel’s experiences and the horrors that he witnessed. He was a devout and educated Jewish boy, who had dedicated himself to his God and his faith. But listen to the words he wrote (P32)
As he witnessed first hand, the horrors that the German soldiers inflicted on innocent men, women and children, he found himself unable to accommodate God. And I don’t condemn him for one moment. Few of us have ever witnessed unfettered evil like Elie did. And hand on heart I don’t know that I would feel any different if I had prayed and implored God to intervene, but seen the slaughter continue, the cruelty continue, the neglect of humanity for it’s fellow souls continue. Elie could not see the actions of his captors as separate from a God.
But when we look at horrific incidents in the world we must be prepared to consider that they are the actions of humanity. They are the actions of people with free will to act upon their thoughts and feelings; their desire for good, or power, or evil. All sane and rational people have the capacity for compassion, altruism, fairness even at the cost of their own best interest. God has given us those abilities, and the free will to use them or not. But God is not going to interrupt the workings of the entire planet to intervene in humanities behaviour – that would mean that we have not got free will, and it would cause chaos in our lives. But God can intervene in helping us to navigate our way through the complicated nature of our lives. Joseph listened to God and fled from Bethlehem before Herod was able to inflict his worst on his son.
Equally, we have the ability to help those who have fled the carnage in Syria. We have the money, the space, the skills and the technology to intervene in many ways. We have the political and military clout to wade into Syria if that seems the right thing. We could do no end to show our compassion if we opened our hearts to God.
But that is why we are called to work on our understanding of our God and of who Jesus was. Because it is simply not possible to accommodate a distant God when we encounter evil. Elie knew God through ancient scripture, and his knowledge was of a God who had his hand on wars, determining the outcomes according to his divine will. Elie didn’t believe as a Jew, that God sent his Son – who was God, to earth. To be human, and to encounter all that it means to be human. He was close to us. He was one of us.
And he came so that we would know that we’re not alone. We do not suffer alone. Fear alone. Live and die alone. God doesn’t magic away the sins of humanity, he doesn’t control us and prevent us from our despicable behaviour. But he has shown us through his Son how to be kingdom people. And he has shown us that evil is not in his nature.
There is so much I could have said about this passage – it is so rich. But I chose to concentrate on God’s constant presence with us. God shares with us in our success, our joy; when we smile he smiles with us. But equally he stands with us in our pain. When we cry, God cries. There is never a moment in our lives, or in the life of our world when we are alone. It doesn’t change the pain, but it changes our perception of suffering. We do not suffer alone. The families of those slaughtered children didn’t suffer alone. The Jews of the holocaust didn’t suffer alone. Syria doesn’t suffer alone.
Bad people exist in our world. They are led by forces of evil that are not of God. They rule countries and exploit people. That has forever been the way of the world. Herod was one example, and Assad is another. There have been many others in-between. Elie Weisel blamed God for the evil he witnessed. But God didn’t do it. God couldn’t do it. God is love. God’s heart is broken by the death of babies, the death of Jews, the death of Syrian families. When people ask me why does God allow these things I know it comes from a fatal misunderstanding of God. It tells me something about what the church is teaching – or not teaching, that we could blame God for the evil of people. Whatever you think or believe about God I ask you to understand this; God is with us; amongst us; in us through Jesus. He gives us the capacity to fight evil with love – the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
I know the saving grace of Jesus Christ. If you know the saving grace of Jesus Christ then help others know it too so that they can be led by the same mercy, grace and love that we know.
Herod did not triumph in the world. Assad will do his worst, but we must pray that the goodness in our world – the good people, inspired by the love and mercy of Jesus Christ will stand up and put down the powers and principalities of evil. Amen
New series for 2017 – The Gospel of Matthew. Chapter 1 (Helen Baker on 15 January 2017)
This week, as I was reading various articles, I was struck by 3 that I read in one morning, all talking about the pressure that our churches put us under to do more, be more, think more, understand more, change more.
I read an article from an American pastor who despaired of the fact that church made him feel he was never ‘good enough’ – not holy enough, not active in the community enough, too sinful. This was not a criticism of any one church, it was the fact that we are all under pressure to ‘be like Jesus.’ And of course, ideally, that is our aim – to be the best disciples of Jesus we can be. To leave behind our human sins and look to Jesus as our model and our pattern. Only last week I explained to you how Jesus’s humanity allows us to understand that we share his DNA, and that we’re invited to be a part of the movement of the Holy Trinity.
But what this guy was saying is that he feels constantly ashamed that he can’t keep up with the expectation. What he was also saying, was that the underlying reason for this, is the pretence that every one else puts up, that we are actually living up to these expectations. He put it like this: ‘There’s this ardent love and commitment to Jesus that’s just dripping from everybody’s lips with such eloquent and Jesus-flavoured verbosity. And here I am—riddled with serious doubts and questions, embarrassed that I’m not feeling nearly as into Jesus as apparently I should.’
This, along with the other articles made me stop in my tracks. Because I know that I have asked a huge amount of you all during the last couple of years. I’ve asked you to tolerate changes to how we worship God, and the structure of services. I’ve asked you to think about how we respond to our community in the light of our faith. I’ve asked you to find money, gifts, time, to give to others. I’ve asked you to pray and talk about what we do next. I know these are not all new things. I know you have faithfully served the church and community in lots of ways over the years. But we have new programmes, more outreach, additional bible study and extra plans for more things to do. I’m conscious that in asking so much of you all I may also be adding pressure to your lives, and doubt to your faith. This is not my intention, and most certainly it’s not my desire. Rather, I want us to feel satisfied that we are doing what we are called by God to do, that we are doing it well, and not doing more than we are able. In doing that, I hope that you know that Jesus is well pleased. Nowhere in the bible does it say ‘do more – enough for you is not enough for me’.
Our time together on a Sunday morning should be a time of rest and re-filling: A time to reconnect with God. A time not only to get right with God, but to get to know God even more, and be ever more filled, through Jesus Christ. So over the coming weeks and months we are going to study the Gospel of Matthew so that we can understand in new and fresh ways that Jesus is ‘good news. I want this series to refresh you, inform and inspire you. I hope it will deepen your personal relationship with Him. So I hope you can rest now, as I remind you why following Jesus is good news for you!
Matthew wrote his gospel for the Jewish people. He wrote in a language and in a style and using concepts designed to appeal to those who knew the Old Testament and whose thought world had been formed by allegiance to the God of Israel.
If you think about the Old Testament, you know that from beginning to end and all in between, one of its primary messages is that God is sending a saviour for the world. This is what the Jews understood and expected. Matthew’s focus was on making sure that they understood that that saviour is Jesus.
Matthew is the first book of the New Testament because what it does is to provide a bridge from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Of all the gospels, Matthew alone is careful to show that Jesus is the saviour that was foretold in the Old Testament. If the first hearers of Matthew’s gospel were Jews who had converted to Christianity… or were thinking about converting then they had to understand that Jesus was a part of God’s plan.
As we go through this gospel over the coming weeks, you will quickly see that Matthew is going to use one image in particular over and over in his gospel, and that image is the Kingdom. Over and over Matthew will talk about Jesus being the King. He will stress that the Kingdom of God is here now, and that Jesus is here, although the Kingdom won’t be completely here in all of its glory until Jesus returns again to crush Satan’s head once and for all.
Our goal is to become a part of this kingdom and to serve the king, and so Matthew will try to show us that we should give our lives to this king and be a part of his kingdom, for this is truly the Kingdom of Heaven.
What Matthew does not say is that we have to be equal to Jesus. When you feel under pressure to DO more and more, just remember; Jesus is king. We are asked to become a part of the kingdom – a part of the plan. We are asked to do our part, not Jesus’ part.
So that is an overview of why Matthew wrote the way he did, but for this morning, lets just look at the beginning few verses. Matthew begins his gospel with a long list of Jesus’ descendants. For the Jewish people; those to whom Matthew was writing, genealogy was very important. Who you were depended on who you came from. Matthew was able to show that Jesus fulfilled the scriptures; he was from the line of David, and he was from the line of Abraham.
As you know, David and Abraham are two very important men in the history of the Jews. Both of these men were given promises by God.
Abraham was the first person called by God. And he is vitally important in the history of Jesus’ line because when God called Abraham, he made him a promise. And we can read that promise in the same section where God calls Abraham, in Genesis 12:2-3,
Matthew also said that Jesus was the son of David. Why is this significant? Remember, Matthew is going to stress that Jesus is the promised King who is bringing in the new Kingdom, and David was the greatest king that Israel had ever had. David was a man after God’s own heart and was during David’s reign that Israel was at its finest. Under David the borders of Israel stretched the furthest, its influence was the greatest, its glory was the brightest. Even though David was very human and made some very big sins– he loved God with all his heart and God loved David in return. He loved David so much that he made a promise to him. God made this promise in 2 Samuel 7:16.
But then there was a very long gap. A time of hope and expectation, but also a time of war, exile, loss of faith and no sign of God’s promises being fulfilled.
As Galatians 4:4-5 says, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of son.” In the fullness of time God sent his son. He sent Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
That’s why this one verse at the very beginning of the New Testament deserves a whole sermon, for this one verse shows how Jesus came to answer all of God’s promises once and for all, not just for Israel, but for the whole world.
For from the time that man sinned in the Garden of Eden, God had two things that he intended to accomplish:
- He wanted to redeem his fallen people.
- He wanted to reclaim the world for His glory.
And you know what, he did both of these through Jesus Christ, as an answer to the promises to Abraham and to David.
Through Jesus, God has made a way to redeem every person on earth who would call upon his name. This son of Abraham has truly blessed every nation on earth. That’s one promise fulfilled.
But Jesus came to do more than redeem fallen humanity. He came to eradicate sin and reclaim his glory. That’s why this son of David came to be a king. He’s not on any earthly throne today. But he is the King of kings who sits on a heavenly throne and who will rule for all eternity.
That’s why it is so important that Matthew prove from the Old Testament that Jesus was descended from both David and Abraham, to show that he was the fulfillment of God’s promises to both these men. God promised to send his Son to save us, and although it took a long time, God kept that promise. God promises that his Son will return, and because he kept the first promise, we have faith that he will keep the second.
And that’s the Good News for us today. Because as Matthew shows us, Jesus was the son of Abraham, who has come to bless all nations of the earth. Jesus was also the son of David, who has come to be the king of our lives.
You can be a part of this promise, by making Jesus your king. That is all you have to do. It’s not a small thing to make Jesus your king. It requires dedication to learn and know Jesus more. But beyond that it only requires you to be you. Because God the Father, Son and Spirit loves you unconditionally already. You are good enough for him. The Father already sent the Son to save you. Nothing you can do will change that.
But you have to be the best version of you that you can. So I’m not asking more of you than I already have. I’m not asking you to do more than you can, give more than you can. And I’ll never tell you that what you do and who you are is not good enough because you are the person God made you to be. My call to you this morning, in the light of Matthew, is simply to recognize that Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s promises in the OT, and that if you are prepared to work on believing that, then you are already a part of the kingdom; you are already working with Jesus to bring his kingdom to earth. You are already serving the king. And the kingdom is here now, and the king is with us. Praise be to God.
Advent 2 2016 Mighty God
As Anthony explained so eloquently last week, the people of Israel were waiting for a saviour who would lead them, and although their hopes were repeatedly raised, they were never completely fulfilled in any of the kings who came along. Isaiah’s prophecy was pregnant with the anticipation that a wonderful counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace would come amongst them and save them. Isaiah’s prophecy would have been well known amongst the Jews, as would many other prophecies which had been made throughout the centuries. This morning I want to spend a little bit of time understanding the importance of the prophecies that had been made about the Messiah.
There were, infact, more than 300 prophecies, making 109 distinct claims about the 1st coming. They foretold what the Messiah would be like, what he’d do, how he’d live and how he’d die. Some of those prophecies go back as far as David who prophesied that the Messiah would die with pierced hands and feet in Ps. 22. Infact, Ps 22 is also where David wrote the words “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?; the words Jesus used in his dying breath.
Around the time of Jesus there were many people claiming that they were the new Messiah. But with each claim came disappointment – the kings born into the role were always disappointing, and others who claimed the role always turned out to be false; they were never able to fulfil the many prophecies on which Israel based their understanding of Messiah.
Then, John came along repeating and renewing the prophecies of old. “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, Make straight the way for the Lord.” He proclaimed. By using these words of Isaiah, he was putting his listeners on high alert; they would instantly know that John referred to the prophecy Isaiah made about what kind of person the Messiah would be. ‘I baptise with water,’ John replied, ‘but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’
Without John’s preparation it would have been very difficult for people to see Jesus as Messiah: He didn’t fulfil any of the expectations that the People had of the coming Messiah – he was poor, of humble beginnings and without apparent power. By no means was he a king. And it was in a king – or at least, a person with power, that the people expected to find their messiah.
But actually, even in his humble beginnings; even in the place of his birth, Jesus did fulfil the prophecies. Infact, he fulfilled every single one of the prophecies. Of all the people who had made a claim that they were the Messiah, only Jesus did that. And if you think about it, although he hinted, Jesus never called himself the Messiah at all.
So let’s look now, more specifically at how Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be a Mighty God? When we look at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what can we pinpoint about him that made him mighty? And how can does that apply to us today, in this world, in these times?
The expectation was, that when the Messiah came, he would come with POWER. It is understandable isn’t it, that if he is a Mighty God, he would come with power? But the beginning of the baby Jesus’ life was, frankly, not a particularly powerful start was it? So can we say with certainty that Jesus came with power?
Well, Jesus stated in John 18:36 that his kingdom is not from this world. He was saying in that statement that his power is not grounded in the usual authority of the empire; it is not an authority that comes out of the end of a gun, in violent or coercive ways. His authority was divine because it was rooted in the ‘will of the Father’. And the intentions that the Father had for the world were unlike the intentions that Rome had for the world. And this would have been difficult for the Jewish people, because they had been expecting a saviour who would wrench them free of the established powers who had subjugated them. They would have been expecting an uprising – a fight for freedom in the traditional sense.
But instead, Jesus came with the authority to transform. He exercised counter-power: power to break power, power to restore and enact change and bring new life.
As an example, lets look at how Jesus was confronted by a man with an unclean spirit in Mark 1:21-28 – Throughout the interaction, it is not the man who speaks to Jesus, but the spirit within him. And the unclean spirit recognises Jesus’ authority immediately. He knows that Jesus is a threat to his existence; to his function which was to debilitate his host. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God”.
The spirit may not quote Isaiah, but his reference to the Holy One of God is an acknowledgement of Jesus’ divine power.
“Be silent and come out of the man”
and the spirit immediately obeys. Not because he wanted to come out, but because he was helpless before the lordly command of Jesus. All this occurred in front of a crowd of people. They witnessed what they recognised as a new kind of authority; something they had not seen in other men. And they spread the news far and wide that there was a new teacher – one with ‘authority’. They didn’t know his power was divine, but they were questioning what this man was about. Because he was making new life possible by exercising power over the enemy of life.
Then, in another example we read about the mighty power that Jesus demonstrates over a great storm (Mark 4:35-41). When Jesus is woken he issues a command to the storm …
“Peace. Be still!”
The word is different, but the command is the same as that given to the spirit. Jesus disempowers the threat of death from the storm just as he did from an unclean spirit. He reduces the power of the storm, and the power of the unclean spirit into meekness and silence. He commands them to submit to his authority.
The reaction of the disciples is like the reaction of the crowd – a sense of awe – ‘who is this man that even the wind and the sea obey him?
In both cases, the forces of chaos and death – what Walter Bruggemann refers to ‘agents of uncreation’, are compelled to obey. You could choose so many of the stories about Jesus – the time he commands the paralyzed man to “stand up and take your mat and walk” or the time he declared “your sins are forgiven”. When he feeds the multitude in the wilderness. All of these show Jesus declaring his lordly authority to bring new life; abundant life. That, I would suggest to you, demonstrates the power of a Mighty God: The power of God for life. The power which can only come from the Creator.
As we wait, and rest, and contemplate who it is we are waiting for in this season of advent, what does it means to see Jesus as Mighty God today? This has been a tough thing for me this week. Not because I doubt his might. But because the world we currently inhabit seems to be in such a state of chaos. So absorbed by powers of evil, cruelty, death and destruction – ‘agents of uncreation’ if you will, that we are sometimes compelled to ask the question ‘where are you today Mighty God?’
When our faith is in a Mighty God, our instinct is to pray Lord, sort this mess out for us. Come in power. Wipe out the powers of evil. Cleanse us. Create New Life. Bring your kingdom here and now. And when God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way we want him to, in the timeframe we have dictated, then we sometimes start to ask questions. ‘Is he real?’ ‘Does he care?’ ‘Is he Mighty?’ ‘Is he even still around?”
In 1966 Time Magazine published their 50th Anniversary edition with the title ‘Is God Dead?’. It looked at the problem for theologians of making God relevant for a modern society. It was later voted one of the top 10 magazine covers that shook the world.
I can’t, in one sermon, tell you why God doesn’t answer those prayers. I don’t know God – I can’t imagine his power, his plans. But I can talk about God’s presence with us today – through Jesus, who revealed God’s might through his life and death. Sometimes, the only way to demonstrate the presence of something, is to compare it to the absence of something. I wonder what the world would look like today if there were no God. When I thought that, I was reminded of the poem “Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley.
PP I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
However mighty Ozymandias had felt himself to be; however wondrous his creations had been, none of it had survived. Not even his huge statue of himself. Can the same be said of the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace?
There are savage wars, great suffering and pain, in our world today. And I am not belittling their relevance in what I say. But these are the seemingly inevitable outcomes of humanity’s failings. They are not the work of Jesus. So, do the works of Jesus survive today?
Every village, town and city in Europe and North America has a church or cathedral. And although Christians are on the decline in these countries at the moment, there is no will to destroy these buildings of worship, any more than anyone is calling for changes in the way we carry out justice in the law, or the civil structure of these countries, all of which are rooted in Christian thought. Jesus’ work is evident in every strand of our society.
If we look beyond our own country we see that in China there are 90-150 million Christians, and in 2007 about 50 million bibles were printed, making it the top country in the world where Gods word is read and spread.
In Africa only nine million people were Christians in the year 1900, but by the year 2000, there were an estimated 380 million Christians. It is one of the two most widely practised religions on the continent.
and in South America almost 92% of the population are Christians.
The orthodox church of Russia and the East continue to thrive, with 225–300 million believers, making it the second largest church worldwide after the catholic church.
In all, it is believed that there are 2,100,000,000 adherents to the Christian faith in the world in 2016.
PP So the reality is that evidence of Jesus’ life and work, his death and resurrection are evident today just as they have been through out history. Although Christianity isn’t the only faith in the world, it is far and away the largest. It amounts to 32.5% of faith worldwide. Other Abrahamic religions make up 21.7% of religions in the world. So over 50% of people in the world today have faith in the God who made promises to Abraham in Genesis, Those who are ‘non religious make up only 16% of the world’s population, and according to some polls, those with no faith are shrinking rather than growing, such is the hunger for spiritual fulfillment.
People attending church in all corners of the world today will tell you that their lives are still touched by Jesus in powerful and mighty ways. Jesus had a hugely powerful impact on my life. I’m here today to stand witness to that.
Just this week a lady told me how mighty God reached into her life at the point when she was planning a quiet exit from a conference so she could commit suicide. As she was leaving the room, the person at the front said “God has a plan for your life but you have to be alive to live it.” She suddenly focussed on the speaker who then repeated the statement whilst looking straight in her direction. Right at that moment she knew that our Mighty God was present and she did a deal with Jesus. That deal has continued to keep her alive in future suicidal episodes since. You may have an equally powerful experience of the Mighty God in your journey.
So do we think that the mighty power of Jesus has crumbled like the works of Ozymandias? I don’t think so. All the evidence shows that Jesus is alive and well in the world. He is continuing to impact the daily lives of millions upon millions of people. And we have been empowered through his Holy Spirit. We have been called to be the church. We have been given the healing, compassionate, loving power of Jesus to light up the darkness. God showed us, through Jesus, that He is mighty enough to be humble, loving; giving his life to be our advocate. Perhaps if we look at Jesus as Mighty God, as we wait and contemplate, we might find great power within ourselves to make a significant difference in our troubled world, bring peace where there are storms, and banishing unrest from those who are suffering.
Isaiah prophesied that when the Messiah came he would be our Mighty God. Jesus came and demonstrated that he was Messiah by using his divine power and authority to triumph over evil in his life, in his death and in his resurrection. Throughout the ages, people have heard of all Jesus did, and have continued to follow him, because he was, and is, clearly the Messiah who saves. As we wait for the Messiah to fulfil the prophesy that he will return, we can have faith in him; in all he was, all he is, and all he will be when he comes again.