A disturbing part of the text, which should not be taken literally, tells us if our right eye causes us to sin, we should gouge it out. If a body part causes us to stumble, we should cut it off and throw it away. Maybe Jesus is being humorous but he is definitely using hyperbole to express the point that we should not be doing certain things. In Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 9:6, God expressly tells us not to hurt ourselves. In Leviticus 19:28, God even forbids tattoos. I press this point because there is no way Jesus was telling us to hurt our bodies, which we should keep as a temple to God.
This text encourages us to examine our lives, recognising our struggles and conflicts. I recent advert for BUPA UK Mental Health Hub says, "There are 7 billion versions of normal. With 7 billion unique people on the planet, there’s no such thing as ‘normal’." We all have different personalities, we are all at different stages of our life, and we are all developing both physically and spiritually in different ways, therefore, it is not unusual for there to be tension and conflict in the world. God, I think, allows that, especially as he gave us free will, but the love that we offer through the grace of Jesus is accepting one another's differences, listening to other people's opinions and in so doing enrich our thoughts and quality of life.
No one forces people to become Christians. The Holy Spirit is at work, always. It is up to us as Christians to show the distinctiveness of life by putting God first, others second and ourselves third. This reading in Matthew comes after Jesus telling the disciples they had to be like salt and light. This passage helps us see more clearly how difficult it is to follow the commandments, especially in a society where moral values are turned upside-down but if we do want to make a difference, Matthew 5:21-27 inspires us to transform our lives and to be the disciples Jesus wishes.
My most recent sermon was based on Matthew 5:13-20 but to enjoy this reading more, you should also look at Isaiah 58:1-12 and the acrostic Psalms 111 and 112.
Salt and Light
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
The Fulfillment of the Law
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Deuteronomy 28 leads us to believe that those who are blessed are those with wealth, power and status. According to Matthew, Jesus started his ministry by challenging this. In the Beatitudes, which is Matthew 5:1-12, we read that those favoured are the humble, i.e. those poor in spirit; those who are hurting, i.e. mourning; the meek, those who hunger after righteousness; the merciful; those who are pure in heart, i.e. their motives and agenda for doing things is focused on God's love; the peacemakers, those who try to unite and bring people together; and those who are persecuted for the sake of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount, echoed in Luke, continues for three chapters: 5, 6 and 7, and might indeed be a collection of his sayings rather than one discourse. In the Beatitudes, Jesus sets out his stall and reveals that being a disciple is going to be costly.
The standard of following Jesus is high. Matthew 22:37-39 sums up beautifully all that is required: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself." In Matthew 7:12, what has become known as the Golden Rule reminds us to do to others what you would have them do to you. In John 13:34, Jesus adds a new commandment on to of the 613 found in the books of the Torah: "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."
The scene is set, Jesus has a huge crowd of interested people and he has already invited them in by opening the gates for those who will be blessed by God. Then he goes on to talk about his disciples being salt and light.
Just for fun, I thought I would look on the internet for all the interesting uses of salt:
I believe there are 35 references to salt in the Old Testament and 6 in the New, so clearly salt is important. Indeed, Leviticus 2:13 reminds us that every offering of your grain offering should be seasoned with salt. The Hebrews harvested salt, especially around the Dead Sea. The Hebrews poured saltwater into a pit and let the water evaporate until there was only salt left.
We are called to be the salt. For salt to work, it has to be involved. If you just keep salt in its container, nothing will happen, but once you spread a little bit, then the flavour is enhanced and the chemical Sodium Chloride (NaCl) can start to interact with its surroundings. Jesus was saying to us that we have to be involved, we have to act with our surroundings and we have to improve things. Our way of life should be distinct from society so that we can show people how things should be done with God at the centre. There is an adage that says people do not care how much you know, they only want to know how much you care. So Christianity has to show love in action. As James says in his letter Chapter 2:14-26, faith without deeds is useless. So, if we are to be the salt we have to interact and improve the circumstances wherever we go.
Salt cannot lose its taste, however, it can be contaminated to such an extent that the salt is no longer distinctive. It can be added to things, which makes the salt bland. Jesus warns against this by talking about salt losing its taste, so we must be careful about being contaminated, for example, being contaminated by society and enjoying the comforts of technology, which remove us from worship and take us away from God's presence.
Jesus then goes on to say we must be the light of the world. The usefulness of light is that it removes darkness. When young, many a scary monster disappeared when the light was turned on. Light enables us to see the world as it really is. Light causes growth. Light transmits messages either by code or from a lighthouse as a warning sign. Light can guide and light shows us the path.
I light a candle. How far away do you have to be before you can no longer see this candle, or what do we have to do to stop you from seeing this candle? Jesus has the words of eternal life, as Simon Peter says in John 5:68, and now his disciples have been told to spread the word to repent because the kingdom of heaven is near and that people can have a new relationship with God, creator of the universe. By loving God, loving your neighbour and loving one another with a sacrificial love, that the Greek word agape sums up, and acknowledging Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, will lead to eternal life.
So we are beacons of light: either a candle or a lighthouse; but we have to shine as a light to the world (Philippians 2:15). I read that you can see a naked flame 1.7 miles away but, of course, we can put things in front of the flame that would stop you from seeing it or extinguish the flame. Jesus warns us not to hide our light under a bushel, which in essence is an 8-gallon wooden bucket. The image is there: shine, don't allow a bucket to be put over you so that your light cannot show guidance or even warmth to others.
How can we ensure we worship correctly? Micah 6:8 reminds us to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God. Isaiah 58:6-9 confirms what true worship is. “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"
What stops us from being salt and be foolish instead? Not being active in the community and allowing ourselves to be contaminated by the standards of today rather than the standards of God. What stops us from being light? Allowing our light to be hidden or diverted or extinguished. If we can remain salt and light then we will be bearers of hope that through Christ our sins are forgiven, a new life created, our relationship with God restored, and eternal life, in whatever form that will take, is assured.
5th January 2020
Readings: Matthew 2:1-12
Let me first concentrate on the "Wise Men". Certain readings go together and so with Matthew, you also need to read:
Nowhere do we have the number of visitors from the east but because there are three gifts, we assume there were three. Nowhere does it say they were kings and nowhere does it say they were wise men because, I believe, magi actually means astrologers. I read that magi is the plural magoi, which in Greek means Zoroastrian Priests. These priests prepared horoscopes.
Zoroaster was Persian, living in the 2nd millennium BC, although there is no concrete evidence on when he lived and was one of the first rulers to follow a single god. This god's name was Ahora Mazda, meaning "wise lord". He believed in one universal god who was all good, uncreated and a supreme deity. Zoroaster was born from a 15-year-old Persian virgin, therefore, miraculously conceived, and started his ministry at 30 after defeating the temptations of Satan. He predicted other virgins would conceive prophets and the Zoroastrian Priests believed they could foretell by reading the stars when these prophets were born; they were star-gazing with a purpose. Matthew's text, therefore, was not only for Jews and Gentiles, because the Magi were Gentiles, but also for the Zoroastrian religion.
As an aside, when I was researching, I wondered who was the first ruler to espouse a monotheistic religion. It was none other than Akhenaten, the father of Tutankhamun, who reigned 1353-1336 BC. Akhenaten was a Pharoah during the 18th dynasty and worshipped the sun god Aten, however, he was disliked and subsequent pharaohs tried to write him out of history and reverted to polytheism. Around the same time, Zoroaster and Akhenaten were looking at the possibility of there only being one god.
The three kings, which we will call them for simplicity's sake, appear to have been given names from a Greek manuscript dating around 500 AD. The more I read, the more confusing the various attributes of the three kings became. Over time, various characteristics and traits have been given. The three kings cover the three ages of men as well as come from three geographic areas, showing they are representatives from the known world at that time. With no sense of certainty, I offer the three kings names and their gifts:
The story of the three kings is said to happen two years after the birth of Jesus, so them coming to the stable is poet license. In Matthew, Jesus is a child and the kings visit a house.
What of the three gifts? King Herod was going to kill all children under the age of two in Bethlehem and so, for the reading of Hosea to come true, the Holy Family goes to Egypt so that they can be called back out. It may well be the money needed to live in Egypt was financed by these three gifts.
My normal caveat to my sermons is that any new information I find, I offer to you in faith for you to take on board or not. I just thought I would let you know these are some of the thoughts that surround the story of the three horologists.
As I was preparing my last sermon, it seemed to me there were too many Herods in the Bible, so I thought I would clarify.
Herod the Great, who came to power in 37 BC as King of Judea, is the Herod in the Christmas Story, the Herod who slaughtered the children. He died shortly after Jesus was born.
After he died, Herod the Great's kingdom was split into four and Herod Antipas was the Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. It is this Herod who built Tiberius and it is this Herod who ultimately beheaded John the Baptist. He died in 39 AD after ruling for 43 years.
The grandson of Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa I, who ruled from 41 to 44 AD is the Herod who killed James, son of Zebedee.
Too many James's! The Letter of James, tradition tells us, was written by Jesus' half brother. It is said Joseph and Mary had other children, namely James, Joseph, Simon and Mary. James was not a disciple but tradition says on seeing Jesus resurrected, was converted. He became known as James the Just, who was stoned to death in 62 AD. It is this James who wrote the letter and it is this James was head of the Church in Jerusalem. It is important to realise this because, in my reading, there seems to be an awful lot of confusion between James son of Zebedee and James the son of Alpheus, who are the named disciples and are, therefore, sometimes given credit for this letter.
The lectionary readings start with Isaiah 35:1-10, then Matthew 11:2-11 and James 5:7-10.
What a change from last week's lectionary reading (Matthew 3:1-12) where John the Baptist arrives on the scene wearing clothes made of camel hair, full of confidence in the new Messiah being the saviour of the Jewish nation. Today, we see him locked in a jail, which we believe is called the Fortress of Machaerus that was built on top of a hill. full of doubts: is Jesus really the Messiah? John sends his disciples to check.
It is okay to doubt. I was taken by my copy of Christian Writer, which had a quote from the American writer, novelist and Presbyterian minister, Frederick Buechner, who said, "Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid." I believe someone counted 365 times the words "Do not be afraid" are written in the Bible, one for every day of the year, so clearly, that is a Biblical message for us to take heed.
On the same day, by chance, I was reading a magazine from Barnabas Aid and its editorial contained this: "We must remember that God is in control, that He who holds us in the palm of His hand will keep us by His power (1 Peter 1:5). He has inscribed our names on the palms of His hands to ensure that we are ever held in remembrance (Isaiah 49:16). Therefore, at the start of His 2020, let us remember that we are enfolded by God's mighty hands."
So, we have to hold in tension that we can doubt but that also ultimately we are loved and part of God's almighty plan. Thomas the apostle famously doubted, John the Baptist doubts.
When I am speaking to people about Christianity, two doubts often come up in conversation. Doubt 1: why does God allow suffering? To which I respond, do not blame God, why do WE allow suffering to happen? Doubt 2: do prayers work? My answer, prayer does work, sometimes not in the way we think and sometimes not in the timing that we want, and sometimes it might seem our prayers are not answered but that is because it is not in our best interest. From my experience of praying a lot, I would say our prayers are often answered. I do not know how it works, but then I do not know how gravity works. I accept the forces of gravity, therefore, I accept the spiritual forces of prayer. It is okay to doubt.
Jesus, annoyingly, does not say "Yes I am the one", yet rather "look and see." As we are told in the Isaiah passage, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will rise etc. but we have seen in Matthew's Gospel the raising of Jarius' daughter (9:22), the lame are walking (9:6), and the blind see and mute people shout for joy (9:27). So, Jesus is saying, look I am fulfilling Isaiah's prophesy. So, we have to look and see where Jesus is working in our world today; can we see glimmers of hope that help us confirm Jesus is very much alive?
Going back to my Barnabas Aid magazine, I see how they are helping so many Christians who live in persecution and it is heartening and humbling to see such faith in societies where it is dangerous to be Christians receiving hope.
We certainly need hope because, on the same day that I read Christian Writer and the Barnabas Aid magazine, I bought The Big Issue. It is a marvellous magazine to help the homeless, which has a strapline "Giving the homeless a hand up not a handout." Each official vendor receives a percentage of the profit, so they are business people. The magazine is of high quality but reminds us how many people are in debt. Salient figures are, "a third of Brits in poverty will borrow £200 to cover the cost of Christmas." "Collectively, the 3 million people in problem debt and the 10 million people on the brink will be pushed £3.5 billion deeper into debt this Christmas." It advises "186,183 three day emergency fund parcels were given out last Christmas by the Trussell Trust" and the expectation is the same this year, perhaps more. There have been "2.6 million people on Universal Credit as of October 2019." (The Big Issue, Issue 1388, page 23)
So, we have reasons to doubt but also reasons to hope. Coming up to Christmas, we remember the candles surrounding the Advent wreath of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. God uses the unexpected to fulfil his plans because, quite frankly, it seems ludicrous that the saviour of the world was born to impoverished parents in an occupied country and yet, God plans to establish God's eternal kingdom by reconciling us, who live in a broken world, to have a relationship with a God who created the universe. So, I have my doubts and yet I know that Jesus Christ was real and I have, as we all have, a part in God's plan to ensure there is hope for all God's children in a world of over 7 billion people, we can make a difference and ensure we start making changes that benefit others. We can stop the suffering and my prayer is that God gives me the situations where I can make a difference.
Luke 19:1-10: Luke 19:1–10 (NKJV): 1Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. 2Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. 3And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. 5And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 6So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. 7But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.”
8Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”
9And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; 10for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
It would also be useful for you to read Luke 18:18-25, which is the story of a rich man wanting to know how to achieve eternal life and Jesus' response telling him to sell everything he owned. Other background references are: Ezekiel 34:16, Exodus 22:1, Leviticus 6:5
This story or pericope is so famous that perhaps we miss how radical Jesus' actions were. Also, I am aware that it is probably one of the most well-known stories and so, I aim to offer you a new reflection, which will cast light upon the reading as well as help us in our daily living.
The scene is set in Jericho, which is twelve miles northeast of Jerusalem. It was the scene of the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the place a blind beggar was healed (Matthew 20:29). It is located in the Jordan Valley and is believed to be the oldest inhabited city in the world, founded in 9600 BCE. It has one of the oldest protective walls and is the lowest city in the world at 846 feet below sea level. It is on the main trading route and the area has a flourishing agricultural industry, as well as being the main producer of balsam.
Jericho has had a chequered history; with the first permanent settlement in 9600 BCE, it was continually occupied throughout the Bronze Age but was later destroyed. It flourished once again and by 7th century BCE, Jericho had become a big town, but this was also destroyed following the Babylonian conquest of Judah in around 586 BCE. Whilst the Persians rebuilt the city, it came under the rule of Alexander the Great between 336 and 323 BCE and was subsequently controlled by Syria who strengthened the defensive walls. Mark Antony gave the royal estate at Jericho to Cleopatra in around 25 BCE and, following the Roman oppression, granted Herod absolute rule over Jericho. Herod built a royal palace, hippodrome and theatre, thus establishing Jericho as a major city. The roads were treelined with sycamore-fig trees, which had sprawling, low-level branches offering shade and a food resource.
This is the setting for one of the most famous stories in the Bible. When the Roman empire expanded it began to tax the population to help pay for the very army that was oppressing them together with sending money back to Rome. The Roman authorities knew how much money they wanted to receive from each area but allowed tax collectors to bid for how much they were willing to raise for the taxes and take a margin for their benefit. The taxes were hated by the populous and the collectors were even more hated because they were squeezing as much money as possible for their own gain. Zacchaeus was a Jew and he was seen as a betrayer of his people by being a tax collector and was hated accordingly. He would have been barred from the synagogue and would not have had many friends.
There is a song I learnt at Sunday School that went something like this:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see
And when the Savior passed that way
He looked up in the tree
And said, 'Zacchaeus, you come down!
For I'm going to your house for tea!
For I'm going to your house for tea!'
Zacchaeus was a wee little man
But a happy man was he
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a happy man was he;
And a very happy man was he
My suggestion is that because he was short he probably, throughout his schooling and young adulthood, would have been teased incessantly. I wonder if becoming a tax collector was his way of seeking revenge on his tormentors. I believe the name Zacchaeus is the Hebrew for pure/innocent. No doubt when he was born, given such a lovely name, he was probably well-loved but because of society's incessant need to label people and to bully, Zacchaeus became the product of all that nastiness. So motivated was he for revenge that he became not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector. He no doubt enjoyed the "respect" of the citizens but he was not happy.
There must have been a time when he realised he was lost; it is only when you realise you lost that you seek to find a different direction. He was fortunate a window of opportunity was to come when Jesus walked through Jericho. Being a "wee little man" he would have had trouble seeing Jesus through the crowds, so was willing to put dignity to one side and climb the sycamore-fig tree, one presumes not wishing to be seen as he did have a position to uphold. There is an element of risk-reward: is the risk of being spotted and looking silly overshadowed by the reward of hearing what Jesus was saying?
Yet, Jesus stops and calls him by name. An unanswered question is how did Jesus know Zacchaeus' name? How did Jesus know he was up a tree? In the only recorded account, Jesus invites himself for a meal and Zacchaeus takes this window of opportunity. He has a personal encounter with Jesus and, as with all personal encounters, the effect is life-transforming. Here we have a man who wanted to change and not just repented in words but repented in action, giving half his possessions to the poor as well as recompensing anyone with whom he had defrauded, paying them four times as much. Jesus offers him salvation, he needed no longer to be separated from God and his status as a Son of Abraham is reinforced. There is a tradition that suggests Zacchaeus went on following Christ and became the first Bishop of Caesarea.
So, what can we learn from this amazing story? Are we lost? Do we need a new direction? Are there habits and routines that we have fallen into and feel so comfortable with that are stopping us from being close to God? What windows of opportunities are there that we can take?
Always consider the risk-reward ratio. People can change and, therefore, by labelling, we sometimes stunt their growth into their potential being. Never tease or bully because you never know the hurt you are causing or the revenge that may follow.
On Sunday, I was fortunate enough to preach at Western Road URC. The reading came from Luke 18:1-8. The parable is about the nagging wife who, through her persistence, managed to persuade a judge who cared for neither God nor his people to acknowledge her rights. The main thrust of the sermon was about the persistence of prayer and how one keeps on praying even if one cannot see those prayers answered. The parable also causes us to think: if a judge can be convinced by continual nagging, how much more would a loving father give to his children?
I cited that it took Colonel Harland David Sanders of KFC fame 1009 attempts before his chicken recipe was accepted and that WD40 gets its name allegedly because this was the 40th attempt to get the formula right, however, I wanted to concentrate not on persistency, but prayer.
When thinking of prayer, it is very easy to say that God will always answer. Indeed, it is a Biblical truth that whatever we ask for, God will give. "For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened." (Matthew 7:8) Yet, it is also a Biblical truth that, as Jesus said in the Lord's Prayer, "Thy will be done". So, as we consider prayer, I want us to imagine a cauldron or a pot into which we will put some of our thoughts and see what brews.
We know for sure that God is good, God is love and in God, we can trust. We know for sure God hears our prayers. We know that God wants to do God's best for God's children. God is ultimately in control. We know that God answers prayers either now, immediately, or in God's good time and that God surprises us by answering prayers in ways we weren't expecting. We know that we can use our good and bad experiences to help others and in some ways, when bad things happen, the experience not only strengthens us but can be used to inspire other people.
Into the pot goes the many blessings that God gives us for which we must say thank you. We must have an attitude of gratitude but we must also continually look for those blessings because sometimes they are hidden.
Into the pot of prayer goes our positivity of mind and trust. We know God is working for us and we can be assured that the outcome will be what God wants.
Into the pot must also go the tension between what we want and what God wants for us. We have to align our thoughts with Gods.
Into the pot goes our freewill. As we have been given this gift, we can choose what direction to take our lives. We have to accept that our free will may clash with other people's free will.
Into the pot of prayer goes the knowledge that we are a fallen people, we are sinners. Through Jesus Christ, who has paid the ransom for our sins, we have an opportunity to have a new, bright relationship with God the creator.
I am in no way advocating gambling in this next story but there is a joke where a person cries to God asking to help him win the lottery. God hears the prayer and replies, "meet me halfway and at least buy the ticket." The idea is we have to play our part if prayers are to be answered. I want to emphasise we have a role to play, we cannot only rely on God's actions.
The final ingredient into our pot is that we can be the answer to somebody's prayer. We have it within ourselves to be the hand, the heart, and the feet of Jesus. We should be looking for opportunities where God works through us to be the answer to prayer.
So, what have we got in our pot; and more importantly, what other doubts can you put in the pot to make it your personal stew? The final answer will come when we meet our loving God, creator, redeemer, sustainer in heaven as to why things happened they way they did and why it sometimes seemed God's face was hidden.
I believe that through the persistent power of prayer we can lessen anxiety, remind ourselves of our purpose, our meaning and our value by continually looking to see how we can be the answer to somebody else's prayer. I am reminded of a quote, "Helping a person will not necessarily change the world, but it will change the world for that person." So let's nag, nag, nag.
Today's sermon is taken from the reading Luke 14:25-33.
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
Jesus certainly knows how to stir things up; he tells the ever adoring crowd that they must hate their family if they are to follow him. Is Jesus using hyperbole, overstating what the crowd have to do for effect? Did he want to attract attention and warn the crowd that following him needs total commitment? Or, did he mean you have to hate your family; which sits uncomfortably with most people?
I believe that Jesus wanted attention and wanted to stop the crowd in their tracks. They had been amazed by the healing, bedazzled by the miracles and bewildered by the parables, but Jesus wants them to understand that following him means to change everything about their life: renouncing all possessions, looking again at your priorities, and removing all distractions.
Families are central to the Jewish way of life. They are integral to the Jewish community. They nurture and nourish but Jesus is saying, the commitment you give to a family must come second to the commitment you give to him. Jesus is being very upfront, laying it on the line that if you wish to follow him, you have to pick up the cross every day. This is not a jolly ride, this involves real hardship. It involves real focus because it will bring a split in the family and a split in the community when it is already hard enough living in a land oppressed by a burgeoning Roman Army.
Following Jesus is not an add on, there is a cost to discipleship: a cost of money, a cost of time and a cost of energy. Jesus warns us in two parables to sit down, stop what you are doing and think this through: is the cost of following of Jesus, despite the risk, worth the reward? Jesus is not into numbers, he is deliberately trying to whittle down the thousands into hundreds and tens because he does not want half-hearted disciples but those who truly believe Jesus is the Son of God.
The Luke passage is offering us the choice to follow Jesus or not. It is saying we have to prioritise, reassess our commitments and sit down and think of the true cost of following Jesus. The two parables put forward the suggestion of planning, of forward-thinking and making sure we go into this commitment with our eye wide open.
Our second reading is from the very short letter to Philemon 1:1-21.
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
This letter has been used in the past to advocate slavery. Paul does not condone the economic use of slaves who were indeed indispensable in society. What Paul does do in the letter is give the runaway slave Onesimus an equal status because he is a brother of Christ, as is Philemon following his conversion by Paul.
We believe the letter was written when Paul was under house arrest and that he was released shortly after writing this letter as well as letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians. Philemon was a wealthy member of the Colossian church and a Greek landowner converted by Paul. The letter shows us how the early Christians met in people's houses and that to have a slave or slaves was as common as having a car is today. We have no idea what Onesimus has done wrong, whether he has stolen things or worse, but we do know he has run away and that, therefore, Philemon has the legal right to kill his slave if he so wanted.
Onesimus means "useful" and we must not lose the humour of Paul in using the word "useful" a couple of times in his letter. We do not know what happens but presume Onesimus returns, what happens to him then is unknown. Did he return to slavery? Was he given an exalted position because he was a Christian and had the personal guarantee of Paul? What did the community think of his return and what did the community think of Philemon? Slaves must be punished and know their places, I can hear angry chants being cried. But Paul is building bridges, he is trying to remove hate and create a new relationship where all people are seen as equal, whether they be rich landowners or slaves. It is about transforming relationships and the way we associate with each other. Slaves should not be possessions but free children of God.
I was shocked when researching for this sermon to discover that there are said to be 27 million slaves in the world today. Internet research tells me that various industries depend upon slavery. One example is the seafood industry: I read that Thailand, which is the third-largest exporter of seafood in the world, has been accused of crewing fishing boats with Burmese and Cambodian men who have been forced to work as slaves.
The internet further advises that cannabis factories and nail bars use victims of slavery. In the UK, there are as many as 13,000 who have been trafficked from Albania, Nigeria, Vietnam and Romania. The Sex Industry is a huge source of sexual exploitation and forced begging highlights how victims are exploited by being forced to beg on the streets by criminals and give all the money they receive to gangs.
If this is true, then we have to think very carefully about our lifestyles and how we shop and who we support. We should be ever mindful that if products and goods are so unbelievably cheap, we should ask how the shops make a profit.
God is love (1 John 4:8) and Jesus' example shows us we have to love everyone and that his love is all-inclusive. But is this too glib? Do the drug traffickers, those who exploit people, and those who have committed heinous crimes, deserve this love? We are told to forgive but are there some unforgivable things? Paul, in Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13, tells us to submit to governing authorities but in that submission, are we giving tacit agreement for the crimes the government may commit?
Luke, in the book of Acts 5:29, helps our thinking when he says that we must obey God rather than men. The whole question of forgiveness is answered in Deuteronomy 32:35 and Romans 12:17-19 where it says that it is not up to us to judge, leave it to God and it is God's judgement that will be merciful and fair but incisive on judgement day. It is not up to us to forgive, it is up to God because God knows.
Do not hate but love. Follow Jesus and be committed to Jesus if you feel you can pay the price and leave judgement to God who is our Sovereign Lord.
Luke 12:13-21 (NIV)
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Alongside this text, one should read Paul's letter to the Colossians 3:1-17.
At the heart of this reading, is this truth: a person's life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions. Luke 12:34 reminds us that "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Take a moment for this sentence to be absorbed. Your life is not a collection of possessions.
What makes the farmer a fool? There is nothing in the text to make you believe he has earned his money illegally or through exploitation. The fact that he is a wealthy man is not bad in itself, so why call this farmer a fool? If you look at the text, you will see that I have highlighted all the "I"s that are quoted. He is a fool because he has put himself first. There is no sense of gratitude and there is no thought of sharing. His thinking is, that if he built bigger barns, his future is secure and he can eat drink and be merry. The foolishness is in thinking that possessions come before God.
We have to ensure we know who is truly God in our lives. Do we bow to the god of money, to the god of time, to the god of family, to the god of holidays? Or, do we bow to the true God from which grace and salvation come?
So, we must check our priorities. Is a million pounds enough or will we always be asking for more money? Are three holidays a year enough or should we be looking for four or five? We must consider what "enough" looks like.
Colossians 3 helps us answer what we should be collecting. We should be getting rid of anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language, and building resources of compassion and kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
The other issue the text indicates is when we have so much money or possessions, we move away from God. This is because we fail to understand our need of God, there again, making us fools.
In Genesis, you will be reminded of Joseph building bigger barns to hold seven years of bumper crops. This, of course, was not for Joseph's gain but to help Egypt through the seven leaner years that followed.
I do not believe that the text in Luke is anti-wealth but it is questioning what you do with your wealth.
I read that there are 194 nations in the world. The top ten nations possess 80% of the world's wealth. Therefore, 184 nations only possess 20% of the world's wealth. The question of knowing what is enough and of sharing our possessions and of putting God first, who has entrusted with us the wealth of the world, seems ever more important in today's world. The text questions our lifestyle choices. Do we, as Christians, make different decisions in comparison with the rest of society?
Today's sermon is short but vital. We must make sure we are not rich fools. We can eat, drink and be merry. We can have wealth. God does not want us to miserable Christians. God wants us to look after all of His children, all 7 billion-plus, so if we are lucky, and have more than enough, remember a sense of gratitude and that sharing is part of God's kingdom. At the end of the day, "We can’t take our riches with us." (Ecclesiastes 5:15 NLT)
Luke 10:38-42 (NIV) At the Home of Martha and Mary
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
This passage should not be separated from the Good Samaritan reading (Luke 10:25-37). The lawyer asked the question, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds with two answers: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus illustrates the latter with the well-known parable.
The story of Mary and Martha is an example of how to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. So, in my opinion, these two pericopes must always be read together. Martha is an independent woman with money and owns the house. Jesus is not in any way saying that offering hospitality is not important. Indeed, Greek civilisation was oiled by the giving of hospitality, and so it was in Israel.
"Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." (Hebrews 13:2 NIV)
So, hospitality is vital but it is also true that Martha had distractions and worries. It is this that Jesus focuses on when Martha says that Mary is not helping. Mary, on the other hand, has chosen to listen to Jesus. She assumes the position of a disciple at his feet. It is because of this that Jesus says that Mary's priority is the right one.
Both Mary and the Samaritan were outcasts. For the Jews, both these people would not be considered worthy of hearing God's word and being a disciple. Yet, these two stories told one after the other highlight the inclusivity of the message of Jesus.
We need to challenge ourselves by looking at our everyday routines. Are we allowing distractions to come before worshipping God? We should be truly present in God and feel in as much the same way as we do listening to a piece of music that galvanises us and take us into a different place, transforming us momentarily.
We have to prioritise putting God first and align our lifestyles and our life choices with showing God the glory. What distractions do we have? Are we being too ambitious? Do we spend too much time chasing money? Are we weighed down with worries? By putting God first, these distractions can be sidelined and our focus will remain on God.
We have to rethink our image of God not as a domesticated, tame father but one who challenges us. The true purpose of God is to receive our worship and as Psalm 15 (NIV) says:
Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?
2 The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
3 whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbour,
and casts no slur on others;
4 who despises a vile person
but honours those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
5 who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
will never be shaken.
God's purpose for his creation is to be healthy and loved, hence we not only have to look after this wonderful world but also the 7 billion+ people who live in it, each of whom is known personally by God.
As we go out into the world, we know God loves us and cares for us, therefore, our lifestyle and life choices are such that we do what God wants, which is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbour, just as Mary and the Samaritan show us.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon