This continues on from the Plumb Lines sermon.
Reading: Mark 6:14-29 New International Version
14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
15 Others said, “He is Elijah.”
And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”
16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”
17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.
The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”
24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”
“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.
25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
There are three Herods in the Bible, and they all get confused with one another. The first Herod was Herod the Great. He is the Herod who was around at the Nativity of Christ. Herod the Great got his power from Emperor Augustus. He was a builder and built many great things, but he was evil. He had, we believe, nine wives and many concubines, but then when someone has as much power as Herod the Great, they can do anything. Israel was ruled by the Romans, so Herod had to be friends with Augustus, who gave him the kingship.
Herod Antipas was never king but he is the Herod in this story from Mark. He was full of ambition, paranoia and took after his father, Herod the Great. His father killed three of his sons, one of his wives, and his brother. He was just ruthless because he believed they were taking power from him. Interestingly enough, Herodias, the wife of Antipas, was the granddaughter of Herod the Great, who had killed her mother. Herodias was used to living in a situation where family members were killed and I wonder whether or not that in some way influences her behaviour. The third Herod, who we hear about in Acts, is Herod Agrippa who kills James.
There are stacks of things that we can learn by reading this passage in Mark 6. All the time, the Bible is teaching us and trying to make us better people. When we read this passage, remember that Herod was not a real King. He never actually had the title King. This passage is the longest passage within the Gospel that does not have Jesus as its central point. So, why does Mark include it? Instead of Jesus, it relates to John the Baptist, but it must have been very important for Mark.
A lot of history confirms much of what Mark says. The main author is Josephus (Joseph Ben Mathias), a Jewish historian who records these events outside of the Bible. Josephus tells us that Herod murdered John the Baptist. There is no mention of Herodias or Salome, who the Bible does not name but Josephus does, actually having anything to do with the murder of John the Baptist. But Mark is of a different opinion and Herod, whilst a bad man does not come out of it too badly. Mark has put the total blame onto the women. Mark is not anti-women, and we have had two powerful women in Mark 5 and 7 to prove this, but in this story, whilst Herod’s pride destroys things, he does not come over as being a very, very bad person. And this is where the plumb line in Amos 7 comes in. God's plumb line probably says Herod is bad, whereas other people may disagree.
John is imprisoned in the same place as Herod’s banquet. At the banquet, the women are on one side and the men are on the other. This is a bit like the 18th and 19th century where the men withdraw to drink port and the girls and the women talk about knitting patterns or whatever affairs they are interested in. So, we have this separation at this banquet. Herod sat with the people he wanted to impress, and how Herod impressed people was by having risque parties while the women were somewhere else. To impress his court, Herod asked a young woman, who Josephus names Salome, to do a dance. She danced to seduce the men, and she was probably only 12 or 13 years old. So pleased was Herod with her performance, he offered the girl anything she wanted. He even offered half his kingdom, which was not his to give as he was not actually a king.
The girl, who was Herodias’ daughter, asked her mother what she should request. Herodias really hated John the Baptist, because he told everybody that her relationship with Herod was wrong. Not only was she Herod’s niece, she was also married to his brother, Philip I. As far as the Jewish were concerned, this was incest and adultery, which John told her. Although this was the truth, Herodias was very upset. What do people do with the truth? Remember the reading in Amos? Do we ignore the truth or do we get rid of the messenger? Herodias did the latter, saying to her daughter, ask for John's head on a platter.
So, the daughter went to Herod, and said she wanted John the Baptist’s head on a platter. According to Mark, but not necessarily in history, Herod is crestfallen. The word Mark uses is the same word Jesus used when praying in Gethseme. His soul was heartbroken. Pride stopped Herod from going back on his word, so he delivered. John was an innocent victim of a power game.
I want to conclude by asking, if we were part of this gathering, who are we? Are we Herod, full of pride, not wanting to go back on our word for fear of losing face. Are we Herodias, a victim of their upbringing and of murderous intent? Are we like the girl, being manipulated? Or are we the other party-goers, who see this happening, but do nothing to stop it. I think we would be like the party-goers, not doing anything to stop it but still thinking it is wrong.
This passage is challenging us today in a similar way. Whenever we see something that is not right, are we going to be like the party-goers, and not do anything about it, or are we going to stand up for what is true? But standing up for what is true got Amos condemned, got John the Baptist condemned, and got Jesus condemned. Eleven of the Twelve Disciples, or twelve of the thirteen if you include Matthias, died horrible deaths because they spoke the truth. The cost of discipleship is high, but Mark challenges us to take our place in the party and think about what role we play. Are we going to be perpetrators of violence or observers of violence? There are lots of good people out there, but they have not stopped many of the world’s atrocities. There were lots of good Germans, but they never stopped Hitler. There were lots of good Chinese people out there but they never stopped Mao Zedong. There are lots of wonderful Russians, but they never stopped Stalin. There are lots of good people out there today, but they do not stop the violence by speaking out.
A question I always ask myself is what scars have I got to show because of my Christian faith? Have I spoken out when I have seen an injustice? Is my moral plumbline askew from God’s? Perhaps we should all ask those questions.
This sermon was first preached at Wanstead URC by Reverend Martin Wheadon on 11th July 2021
Reading: Amos 7:7-15 New International Version
7 This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. 8 And the Lord asked me, “What do you see, Amos?”
“A plumb line,” I replied.
Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.
9 “The high places of Isaac will be destroyed
and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined;
with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.”
10 Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: “Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words. 11 For this is what Amos is saying:
“‘Jeroboam will die by the sword,
and Israel will surely go into exile,
away from their native land.’”
12 Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. 13 Don’t prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom.”
14 Amos answered Amaziah, “I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. 15 But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
There are various questions that strike us during this reading. We have to remember Amos was actually a poor shepherd. He had not been trained, he had not gone to Northern College or Westminster College or anything like that. He was just obedient. That is one of the key things about God; God does not necessarily use the most intelligent people, he uses those who are most obedient. It is availability, not ability, that God looks for. Amos was very much in that camp. He was obedient and he was available.
Amos gives some very unpopular messages. The Lord tells Amos that he must set a plumb line. As we all know, a plumb line is a weight on the end of a rope or piece of string, which gives you a perfectly straight line. God is comparing the plumb line with God’s moral values - the things that God believes and to which people must adhere. This plumb line gives us a measure of what God believes in, as does the Bible.
Now, if I made a plumb line, how skewed would my plumb line be in comparison to Gods? My moral values have been forged by friends, family, society, television, and social media. My plumb line resembles what I think is true, but how true is it compared to Gods? Luckily, God has given us his plumb line in the Bible, which tells us what to measure as the truth. God is very clear in the Bible that God does not like poverty, does not like people being oppressed, and is not happy when people manipulate and take advantage. When we think about how good our actions have been, we need to compare them to how good God thinks we have been. There is God's plumb line, there is a society's plumb line and there is our plumb line, but sometimes, they are not all the same measurements.
In this reading, we have Amaziah, the chief priest of Bethel, and King Jeroboam, who ruled over the northern kingdom. King Jeroboam stopped people from the northern kingdom from going to the southern kingdom where Jerusalem was, yet everyone was expected to go to Jerusalem to fulfil their sacrifices and so forth. So, what King Jeroboam did was provide two other temples for his people to worship God. Amaziah was a priest assigned to one of these temples, which was Bethel. The other one was in a place called Dan.
Amos has been asked to give Amaziah some bad news. The northern kingdom was not behaving as it should, so they would be annihilated. It is important to remember this book was written around 760 BC, because in 721 BC, Assyria invaded the northern kingdom and wiped it out. What we are reading is a prophecy from Amos, 40 years before the event.
What happens when you hear the truth? Amaziah had two options. The first is to ignore Amos and believe the message does not relate to him or means something else. Secondly, he could get rid of the messenger, and that is what Amaziah did. He did not like what he was hearing and thought Amos was bad for morale, so asked Amos to go away. But Amos said, I can go away, but the truth remains the same. Unless they change their ways, they will be destroyed.
The message we can take from this passage is, where do we set our plumb line? What is the cost of our discipleship? If we have to say something, which we know others will not like to hear, what should we do?
The Cost of Discipleship is a book written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a lightweight book but it has heavyweight content. Bonhoeffer says that the cost of discipleship is, if you go to heaven, what scars will you be proud to show that you have sustained because of God. So, this passage examines us. It asks, what is the cost of our discipleship? Then we have to ask ourselves, what comes between us and obeying God? What obstacles do we put in the way to prevent us from obeying the word of God?
This sermon was first preached at Wanstead URC by Reverend Martin Wheadon on 18th July 2021
Reading: Mark 6:1-1 (New International Version)
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.
“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.
8 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
This story should be read in conjunction with the earlier episode in Mark 3 where Jesus is rejected. In Mark 6, Jesus is speaking in his hometown, Nazareth, in a synagogue, a place where he should feel safe and secure. In Mark 5, he raised Jairus’ daughter. He was able to do the most amazing miracles, even raising people from the dead, no wonder crowds surrounded him. In Nazareth, he was preaching to people he knew, so thought it would be a good audience. But because they knew him, they did not believe the things he said. To them, he was only a carpenter, a local boy. They were prejudiced against seeing the truth.
I wonder what blinds us from seeing the true person. Is it because we label them, and that we have our own prejudices? Prophets were workers for God, and here, Jesus is rejected in his own home town. How do we cope with rejection? Does it stop us? Should Jesus have said, “well as I've been rejected, I'm not going to go on”? Or did it not stop him, but just continue with such self-confidence knowing that his ministry was so important?
It is interesting that the lack of miracles coincides with the idea of Nazareth having no faith. This means that faith and miracles must in some way be connected. In chapter seven, Jesus sends the apostles out in pairs, and not just in order to drive out evil spirits and heal sick people. He sent them out with very little: no extra shoes, no money, just a stick, meaning they had to be reliant upon the people they met. Their trust in God would have been enhanced. They would have had some bad experiences, no doubt they faced rejection, but also some good experiences. Some people would have accepted them, allowing them to perform healings and exorcisms. So, the disciples learned to trust in God with their meagre list of resources.
The apostles became vulnerable and in many ways, this vulnerability meant that hospitality was forthcoming. Perhaps if they had gone out showing their wealth and expensive clothes, their message would have been overshadowed, but because they went with very little, the only thing to focus on was the message: repent from your sins; Jesus can forgive sins; there is a new way for salvation.
The great thing about this story is Jesus’ humanity. Here we have Jesus, the human Jesus, who has a hometown, a place where he was able to lay his roots, a place where he was a carpenter. Interestingly, in this version, Jesus was the carpenter rather than the son of a carpenter. The people Mark wrote about saw him as a workman, but he is not appreciated or accepted. This is the God of the universe being rejected. They took offence at him. How could the next-door neighbour be the Son of God, especially as they have seen him grow up? His brothers and sisters are mentioned, but not Joseph, the father, suggesting, as I read in a commentary, the people thought Jesus was illegitimate.
What makes this story important to me is this rejection by the family, both in Mark 3 and in Mark 6, which shows that when Jesus was alive, his family did not really understand him. Yet, after the resurrection, they did. We have two references, one in Acts 1:13-14 and one in Galatians 1:19, where the brothers of Jesus became prominent in the new Christianity. So, after the resurrection, they must have been one of the 500 who saw Jesus’ transformation. One brother, Jude, writes a letter, which becomes one of the 27 books in the New Testament. Another brother, James, becomes head of the church in Jerusalem. So, these brothers are prominent in the new Christianity, but they had previously rejected him. In Mark 3, they called him crazy, that he was beside himself. So, we have this wonderful story where these brothers did not believe, but in Acts and Galatians, their attitudes changed and they did believe in Jesus.
The other thing to note is, if we do not understand somebody, we will tend to demonise them. So, Jesus was derided because he was a carpenter, and people could not see beyond that label to the bigger picture. This story is true because it is quite embarrassing. If you were trying to create a superhero, you would not let him be rejected by his family. You would not have these vulnerabilities. Yet, somehow, his power to heal was limited to the amount of faith the person had. This embarrassment tends to suggest that it is true. It is difficult because I like my superheroes to be flawless. I do not like them to have weaknesses, but here we have the Son of God, with weaknesses. Fully divine, fully human, but within that humanity, he cannot heal everybody.
Another thing to mention is Jesus’s mother, Mary, and perpetual virginity. I have read that within the Roman Catholic Church, and within Islam, Mary could not have any more children, because she was a perpetual virgin. So where do these brothers and sisters come from? Within the Protestant Church, we believe that they were Mary’s because she was married to Joseph, but the Roman Catholics and Muslims say that they must have been from Joseph’s previous relationship. In this case, Jesus’ family are step-brothers. They still rejected Jesus, but still transformed after the resurrection.
The reading is also mentioned in both Matthew 13 and Luke 4. There are slight changes within the narrative, but because it is in the three Synoptics, it makes you believe that it is a true story. We can learn a lot of truth from this passage. We learn that we demonise those that we do not understand.
It also gives us some comfort in knowing that, when we try to preach and express our testimonies, and our words fall on ears that do not really want to hear the message, that the same thing happened to Jesus. The same thing happened to the apostles, the early disciples. So, it gives us some hope that, if even Jesus can not get his message across, then we are in good company when we fail. Of course, some people do not want to accept the truth because it is very inconvenient. It is costly to follow Jesus, his ways, values and morals. A costly suggestion in Acts is that we give our possessions to the poor, but, of course, Jesus was not against people having possessions. In Acts, there are lots of people, for example, Lydia, who were able to create wealth and use the wealth in order to help the disciples. So, Jesus is not against the acquisition of wealth, he is suggesting how we use it and questioning our motives. If we can use it for the furtherance of the kingdom, then that is okay.
It is worth looking back at Mark 3:20-35, where Jesus heals on the Sabbath. The scribes who come to test Jesus cannot say that the miracles did not happen. Instead, they say Jesus must be possessed by the devil or working for the devil. So, Jesus’ Galilean ministry of healing, exorcisms, teaching, miracles and radical thinking, which upset people’s traditional values, must have happened otherwise the scribes would have claimed the miracles did not happen and offer proof. So, when people argue that Jesus did not exist, we have this wonderful story where we can reveal Jesus did, in fact, exist.
When people say there is no evidence of Jesus existing, they forget to look at the evidence that is outside the Bible. If we look at that, we appreciate that the basic storyline is confirmed by non-Christian sources, such as Josephus the Jewish historian, Tacitus, Suetonius, Aeneas, Pliny the Younger, Trojan, and the Greek writer Lucien. All of these writers, outside the Bible, confirm the basic storyline of Jesus. Therefore, we do not have to rely upon the Bible in order to know that Jesus existed. So, this story in Mark 3 and Mark 6, embarrassing as it is, proves to me that miracles did happen. So we should not be embarrassed. It proves to me that Jesus was a real person. He was struggling, his family was embarrassed by him. But Jesus does not panic, he responds calmly. He makes us think about our values and suggests that perhaps the family we are born into is not the family we necessarily deserve. It is the people who believe that Jesus considers family. Of course, we know that the brothers do respond after the resurrection in the most magnificent way. They move from Jesus being an embarrassment to being the source of their salvation.
The other thing about Jesus is that he is able to forgive sins. This of course is a very radical thought. By whose authority is he able to forgive sins? How dare he forgive somebody’s sins? It is not really Jesus’ place to do that! Yet, he claims that he can forgive sins. The fact that the story of Mark 3 and Mark 6 has the humanity of Jesus coming through, and the truth of Jesus coming through, makes this a real person. We remember that in John 6:66, many disciples turned back and could no longer follow him, because Jesus’ message is a hard message. Even Jesus could not convert everybody. But in John 6:68, Peter says, “You have the words of eternal life”, and that is vital. It is important to know the reason why we follow Jesus, and follow this costly message, and follow the priorities, which are sometimes different to society. It is because Jesus has the words of eternal life.
Jesus works through people’s weaknesses. I was reminded of the Confederate Prayer.
The American Civil War was the most dreadful of civil wars, affecting some 31 million people. In the spring of 1864, a battle exploded on the outskirts of Richmond. After the fighting ended, armies marched off to grapple elsewhere. Some soldiers moved onto the battlefield to bury the dead. One party came upon the Confederate soldier. He lay amid the dead in the front of the battle line. Just before burying him on the field, the gravediggers made the usual search of the body, inside the shirt pocket was a sheet of paper on it. This common soldier, a day or so earlier, had scrawled some thoughts. They were a statement of what life meant to him. As such, the words are an everlasting testimonial to one simple human being.
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly how to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for – but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.
This sermon was first preached at Gants Hill URC on 4th July 2021 by the Reverend Martin Wheadon
Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 (New International Version)
2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. 5 I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
In chapter 11, we heard about Paul and all the suffering that had occurred to him. For following Jesus, he was beaten, stoned, lashed and constantly in danger. He speaks to the people of Corinth and, having established his credentials, he speaks of having a thorn in his side. Is this thorn epilepsy, is it malaria, an eye disease? We have no idea. We do know that he asked three times for this thorn to be removed, but this prayer was not answered.
This leads us to the subject of unanswered prayer. What did the thorn do for Paul? He learned how to be vulnerable. He learned how to rely upon God's strength, and not always on his own. He focused on God's grace and God's transforming power. So, the thorn in Paul's side ensured there was no self-absorption or self-importance. It is interesting to know how God uses our weaknesses or not our strengths. We, of course, know of God's grace and the undeserved and overwhelming love that God offers. That amazing grace “how sweet the sound” as John Newton wrote.
In Roman times, gods ruled over humans, judging them harshly. So, having a God of love that pours kindness onto undeserving humans simply because it is in God's nature was very foreign to the audience of Paul. Saying there is only one God, and that this God is a God of love was difficult for people to comprehend.
Where do we see God reveal God's love? Sunsets, meeting your life partner, concerts, music, reading a good book, recovering from illness? People tend not to look for the love of God when things are going well, but they often blame God when things are not going to their satisfaction. So, the thorn in Paul's side reminds us that there is another aspect to God. Paul prays three times and the prayers are not answered. Yet, Paul did not respond by refusing to believe in God, he responded by working out how the pain, the thorn, could actually help his life. Pain is essential to life and warns us of danger. It stops us from being conceited. Paul was very pleased with the success of his mission. The thorn reminded him all the time to be humble.
How can God use our weaknesses? It is when we are vulnerable that our relationship with God strengthens. Perhaps if you have just been told some really bad news, for instance, someone has cancer or a life-threatening disease, whatever it may be, it is not something that God has given you, but it is something from which you can deepen your relationship with God. A God who is a God of grace and compassion. Sometimes it is in weakness that we experience the fruits of faith, and our relationship with God gets better.
Paul prayed three times, and the answer was no. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, And the answer was no. So, not all our prayers are answered, and we must live with that. We endure the situation, and we try to understand what God is doing through it. What is God trying to teach us? How is our relationship developing with God? Are we truly trusting that God of the universe? Do we really believe that God knows what he is doing, that God is sovereign. Is it unfair that, just because we believe in God, we think our life should be absolutely fantastic, or is it more realistic to understand that God is a resource to get us through difficult moments when they arise? It is for us to show how our faith in God helps us get through even the harshest of times.
Paul's letter to the Corinthians is very much an example of us trying to learn through unanswered prayer. It is an opportunity for us to testify about our experiences of God. Sometimes, by telling people how great God is because we have had such a wonderful life does not really resonate with people. But if you talk about how God has helped you through the difficulties of life, because all people have difficulties, it is going to greatly enhance our testimony. It is talking about our experiences of God through painful life episodes and vulnerable situations that increase our experience and relationship with God. Sometimes we just have to endure the afflictions that life gives us.
Please note, I believe that God does not give us suffering. I do not believe that God is testing us. I think that life tests us, but a God of love does not test, even though we have the book of Job, whereby the discussion between God and Satan is very much a case of testing Job to see if he remains faithful. The code of the New Testament is a code of love, not of testing; but life tests, and it is up to us to use the resources God freely gives us to try to get us through the most dreadful of situations. Rely upon God's grace and compassion. Trust in God and know that we are part of a bigger picture. Whilst we can not see where our piece of the jigsaw fits in the bigger picture, we trust that everything is moving towards salvation and eternal life.
This sermon was first preached at Gants Hill URC on 4th July 2021 by the Reverend Martin Wheadon
One of the toughest questions any person, let alone Christians, has to answer is “why is there suffering?” I think suffering is part of life, and we have the resources of a loving Christ to help us through all of the difficult situations in which we find ourselves. Yet, we always strive to look for meaning. What is the meaning of the suffering we are facing or observing? Here are a few reasons people have suggested for the purpose of suffering.
Suffering allows us to show love. When Christians see someone suffering, they respond by offering love to others, just like the love given to them through Christ. Being there for people is a way of showing God's response to suffering. The Church is there too, via street pastors, food banks or night shelters, to help God respond to the suffering and the needs of people.
Suffering could also be a result of free will, the consequences of foolish actions. Every action has a consequence, and because we have the gift of free will, it is not up to God to keep on intervening and getting ourselves out of difficulties. So, the precious gift of free will leads to suffering because people are not putting others first. Instead, they put themselves first because of greed, pride, envy etc. The free will that we enjoy is also the cause of others suffering.
Sometimes we can learn from suffering. It promotes discipline, endurance and perseverance. If suffering is a long term situation, perhaps there are lessons we can learn from it or disciplines we can improve upon. Paul, for example, had a constant thorn in his side.
Suffering is common to all of us. It is human, it is inevitable, it is part of life. Perhaps the suffering of others brings us together? It certainly brings families together when a child is suffering. It prompts the question of what is fair. Often people complain that it is not fair that they have got gout, arthritis and so forth. Yet, what exactly is fairness? I have heard that if you do not experience the lows, you cannot enjoy the highs. It gives you some contrast. Having temporary low periods heightens the good times when they arrived.
Suffering teaches us humility and grace. When suffering, you may look for the little chinks of light, positive things. It makes you more aware of your circumstances and enables you to find grace in the smallest of things. Pain can push us forward; we can grow from pain. Suffering can promote willpower and develops character. It allows us to respond to and sympathise with other people's pain. As I have already said, suffering is something that everybody has experiences, therefore, all humanity can help one another.
How one responds to suffering is a personal choice. We cannot help what happens to us externally, but as Viktor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” The way we respond is up to us; it is our choice. As Christians, if we respond well, it helps us help others determine how they should respond. Suffering reminds us of our vulnerability. It is not a personal thing; we have not been targeted. It is not God's punishment for anything we have done.
Suffering, of course, is also a warning. Pain is a warning. If you put your hand over a hot stove, your body immediately forces you to retract it. If you have a hangover, the pain is a warning you had too much alcohol or drugs. It is saying, please do not continue to do this. An awful pain in your stomach warns the body that something is wrong. Suffering can also be cleansing, a purging. When you have come out of a period of suffering, you sometimes feel purer and better. It can increase your compassion for others. Our hardships help us understand how others are feeling and help us respond accordingly. We become more empathetic; we want to help.
Suffering is a reality check. It stuns. It tells us we have to stop what we are doing and get help. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, so the phrase goes. When we are suffering and feel like giving up, we somehow keep going and find new resources or willpower. This can develop us and make us better people. History is littered with people who have suffered, and as a result, have become better people. Abraham Lincoln, for example, suffered depression and suicidal thoughts, yet this made him a better president.
There is a quote from the 2006 biopic Rocky Balboa, which sums up what I have said. “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!” Suffering has many reasons, from which we can extract lots of meaning, but as I said at the beginning, suffering is just a fact of life. We have the resources of God to help us get us through, and, of course, we have the resources of the Church, our friends and our family to help us. If we are suffering, we should never feel that we are a burden. We must share our experiences of suffering, and in so doing, enable others to respond, enable them to show their humanity and kindness. Knowing these people are there helps you to keep going, as does knowing God is with you. God, of course, is in the suffering. God has suffered. God’s Son, Jesus Christ, suffered for us on the cross. God is not a God who is remote. God is with you, so use God as a resource. Pray. Read the Bible. There are many instances of suffering in the Bible, for example, Job. Know that you are not alone. You have not been singled out for punishment, so rely upon God to help you through the suffering. Amen.
Written by Reverend Martin Wheadon, May 2021
I read that agreeing with a woman is like reading the software licence agreement. In the end, you ignore everything and click “I Agree”. The reason why I mentioned that is because it is similar to the terms and conditions for being a Christian. We click and agree, because we think we are Christians, we go to church and everything else. But the terms and conditions for being a Christian is something that we need to unravel. It is easy to click "I agree", but if we actually look at the words, it is far more difficult and complex than that.
Today's readings, especially in John, is about love. I am going to express something that I hope does not receive your displeasure: before the world began, there was love. God operates outside time, space and matter. In fact, God created them, therefore, he cannot be confined to our understandings of the concepts. In Genesis 1:1, when it says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” God created time, space and matter. So, who created God? What was there before God created the earth? God has to be love, and it is from this love that the universe was created. There has to be, alongside cause and effects, physics and so on, a prime mover, the very first start. Scientists look into the Big Bang and discover all sorts of wonderful things, but God created in the beginning, so God is love.
Now, if God is an emotion, that helps us with a few things. The first thing is, how does God possibly hear our prayer? Does God speak perfect English? Does God know all the 6,500 different languages around the world? But if God is love, God will respond to emotion. Have you ever been moved by a piece of music, for example, played on an organ in church? Sometimes music warms our hearts, creating emotion rather than words. So when we pray, God does not care what words we use, but what God will know is the emotion and feeling we are putting into that prayer. It is the emotion that is expressed that goes to God, and God is, therefore, able to cope with all the various prayers that come up from us because God responds to the emotions that are behind them. Words do not matter, it is the emotion and the motive behind them.
God created the world, and it was wonderful. God took six periods of time to create it, and in the seventh period, God rested. It is quite important to remember that God incorporated rest in the seven days. We need to rest as well.
Jesus was radical. Last week, if you follow the lectionary, you would have read John 15:1-8: “I am the true vine.” For generation after generation since Adam and Eve, the people of Israel had failed to live up to God’s word. Prophets, such as Amos, pointed out where they were going wrong, but they did not listen. Jesus has now arrived saying, I am God enfleshed, I am the Son of God, therefore, you must follow me, not Israel.
Jesus is a radical being saying all sorts of amazing things. He says he will forgive sins. This is very radical. Let us say that I argue with my wife, who has done something wrong. I am feeling aggrieved and my wife is feeling aggrieved. Suddenly, a neighbour, who has overheard, comes round and says, “I forgive you.” What gave that neighbour the right to forgive us, when it should be my wife and I doing the forgiving? Yet, that is what Jesus was saying. He said he can forgive sins, that he has the authority to do so.
In John, Jesus says seven “I am” sentences. I am the bread. I am the light. I am the narrow door. I am the gate. I am the true life. I am the resurrection. I am the true vine. The words “I am” in Hebrew sound very much like “Yahweh”, which is the Jewish for God. People were not allowed to say that, or else they will be punished by death. Yet, according to John, Jesus said “I am” seven times. That is seven times Jesus claims he is the same as God. That is how radical he is, and I think we have to understand that, in our terms and conditions, we do not follow a God who sticks to the rules. Jesus breaks rules. For example, Jesus broke the Sabbath by healing people on that day of rest.
So, Jesus is a radical person, claiming the most amazing things. Judaism, in itself, is an amazing thing because it only has one God. In Greek and Roman times, the more gods you had, the better. This monotheistic religion claims you only need one God; you do not need Zeus or Jupiter, you do not need the God of War, you do not need the God of the Sea, you only need to have one true God. At the time, that was a revolutionary concept, which Jesus was behind. Jesus was a Jew saying radical things, making people rethink what they believe.
In John 15:9-7, what Jesus is talking about is love. Not just any love, but “as I have loved you.” The way he has loved us is sacrificial. There are eight translations of love in Jesus’ time, of which C.S. Lewis has identified four: a child/parent love, a friend’s love, lust, and Agape, which is self-sacrificing love. The latter is very hard to achieve, so it was not very popular before Jesus arrived. But this is what Jesus is asking us to do, to love one another as he has loved us. This is Agape, self-sacrificial love. It is putting other people before yourself.
Not only was Jesus radical, but the Holy Spirit is radical as well. The reading in Acts is very radical. It says you no longer need to worry about the rules concerning clean and unclean food given in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. That is another pillar of Judaism taken away. Another was the rule about circumcision. Gentiles were not circumcised, but the Holy Spirit was using the gift of Jesus to pay for the sins of those who ate the wrong foods and were even circumcised. This is a radical God, but it is the God you have signed up to in your terms and conditions.
We may think to ourselves, those challenges were then, what challenges do we have now? A hundred years ago, our challenge was determining women’s place in the church. This groundbreaking discussion meant the Congregational Church became the first to allow female ministers. We saw that the love of Jesus could not stop at these boundaries we put in place. So, it was only right and fair that women should know the love of the Holy Spirit and be ministers.
In the 21st century, the debate has turned to the LGBTQ+ community. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, queers and others who do not identify as heterosexual - what is their place within the Christian church? This is something we have to work out. The radical Holy Spirit is allowing us both free will and free-thinking. There is a radical God who wants everybody to know the love of Jesus Christ, and we have to start thinking about how we make that a reality. Whilst we say that what is in the Bible is true, perhaps the LGBTQ+ community does not get a fair look. We often cite Leviticus, but if we look at the Bible through the eyes of Jesus, perhaps that community deserves a warmer welcome. We live in a world where we sometimes have to be counter-intuitive. We live in a world where we have to have a distinctive voice. Some people use the Bible as a way of being distinctive, believing that by excluding people, they are keeping the truth of Jesus. But perhaps that is not right?
I want to leave you with this: God's love is for everybody. God’s love is self-sacrificial. Jesus said, “I am the shepherd”, and just as the shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, Jesus laid down his life for us. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus knew he was going to die, so tells his disciples to “Love one another as I have loved you”. He did not mean to love one another by doing nice things but lay down your life for one another. That is the radical love for that our Terms and Conditions have signed us up. Amen.
This sermon was preached at Wanstead URC by Rev'd Martin Wheadon on 9/5/21
Today’s reading is John 2:13-22.
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
The site of the temple was very historic. It was built on Mount Moriah where Abraham very nearly sacrificed Isaac. This is the same place where Solomon built his temple. The temple in the reading was one of Herod the Great’s major building projects. Construction started around 20 BC and, as John tells us, it took 46 years to build, although we know that it was not fully completed until 63 AD. The temple was comprised of the sanctuary, which housed the main part of the temple and the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. Within the precinct, the open-air Court of the Gentiles surrounded the sanctuary. It was here that Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest, had allowed traders to set up their stalls to help with the running of the temple.
During Passover, 300-400 thousand pilgrims came to the temple to exchange their Roman Denarii or Greek drachma into coins acceptable to pay the Temple Tax of half a shekel. Roman coins featured the image of the emperor, thus proclaiming his divinity. Therefore, these coins were blasphemous and not allowed in the temple. Traders of livestock or doves were needed to sell the appropriate sacrifices. Make no mistake, the traders were doing what Jewish law demanded. Yet, the temple itself was meant to be a place of prayer.
Zechariah, writing to the Jews returning from exile, portrayed a vision that, "Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a merchant in the house of the Lord Almighty." (Zechariah 14:21) Similarly, Isaiah 56:7, written around 681 BC, reminds us, “For my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” And, Jeremiah 7:11, who wrote to the people of Judah during his ministry between 627-586 BC, protests and asks, “Has this house which bears my name become a den of robbers to you?”
Caiaphas deliberately allowed the traders into the temple precincts, whereas they usually traded outside the temple in the Kidron Vallery. Jesus, in John’s account, at the beginning of his ministry, goes to the temple and is incensed, not with the actual trading, but the fact it was happening inside the temple. So, he drove them out with a self-made whip.
It is interesting to compare the report of John with the Synoptic Gospels. All three of the Synoptics record this episode at the beginning of Holy Week, i.e. the end of Jesus’ ministry. All three suggest this was the tipping point, the reason Jesus had to die. He had control of the crowd, and he was starting to meddle in the temple economy. It seems a logical place to write this story, but John has it right at the beginning, straight after the first miracle of turning water into wine. In John’s Gospel, there are three Passovers annotated. The period of John’s Gospel is at least two years, whereas the Synoptics have one year.
This story presents Jesus as a radical person. Jesus is angry and showing his humanity. John reminds us that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine. We also recall that Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death, again showing his humanity and compassion.
The question I ask, therefore, is when is it right to be angry? The history of this passage has influenced different responses. Origen, in the second century AD, said that the account was not historical but metaphysical. The temple is the soul of a person freed from earthly things to serve God. On the other hand, John Chrysostom, in AD 391, defended the historical account. People have used it to justify the use of violence by Christians, for example, Augustin of Hippo. In 1075, Gregory VII used it to justify his actions against the Simonic clergy. Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived 1090-1153, used it to defend the Second Crusade; and John Calvin used it to support his action against the polymath Michael Servetus when he was burnt at the stake for the heresy of rejecting the concept of the Trinity.
So, where do we stand on our thinking of righteous violence? It seems to me that the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) show a great deal about God as well as God’s people. The Israelites had just escaped from slavery in Egypt, where it was common to worship many gods. On Mount Sinai, God offers to Moses the Ten Commandments by which his people must live, the first being the very radical and scary commandment of having no other god but God. In Jesus’ time, the Romans and Greeks worshipped loads of gods, e.g. the twelve Olympians, so to demand they only worship one rather than have the protection of several was a scary, totally revolutionary concept.
God revealed that the creation of the world happened in seven days: six to create and the seventh to rest. This idea of working for six days and resting for one was for our good. God cares about God's people. In a world dominated by violence, when human life went unvalued, God gave the commandments of not killing, stealing or committing adultery. God was a God of community.
So, would a God who has laid these groundworks be happy with righteous anger? I think yes, but it cannot go beyond the confines of killing or being violent toward one another. There are Bible passages to help us when we feel or witness anger.
Proverbs 12:16 tells us that a prudent man overlooks an insult
Romans 12:17-21 says " Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath ... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Psalm 4:4: In your anger do not sin… trust in the Lord.
James 1:19: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
God wants us to love God and to love our neighbour. In doing so, we have to ensure that we do not uphold the status quo if people are being oppressed. Jesus cleared the temple, so we have to clear and declutter all the things that stop us from having a relationship with God. We have to cleanse ourselves and declutter ourselves from all the habits that lead us to do things that are wrong and lead us away from God’s presence. The temple was an awe-inspiring building. It spoke of the glory of God, but it is just a building. After its completion in AD 63, it was demolished in AD 70 when the Romans, after a 4-year siege, destroyed Jerusalem.
Our lives have to be built upon the foundation of a righteous God who loves justice and mercy. So, as well as decluttering ourselves to remove the obstacles preventing us from coming to God, perhaps we should look at the various laws we follow. There are many poor people in the world, but what are the systems that keep them poor, and how can we challenge those systems so that the kind of world that God wants for God's people can be fully realised? That is our challenge for Lent, that we not only look at ourselves, but we also look at society and think how it could be improved so that God's love, mercy and justice can be offered to all.
This sermon was first preached on 7th March 2021 at Western Road URC via Zoom
The two readings for today’s sermon are Micah 3:5-12 and Matthew 23:1-12.
The theme for today is authenticity. I recently had a phone call from a friend who was so happy to tell me the fruits of his metal-detecting. He had discovered a beautiful coin, which when polished glittered like gold. He told me it must be valuable because the coin's date was 48 BC. He was crestfallen when I mentioned it must be a forgery. 'How can you say that?' he cried. 'You haven't even seen it!' I said, 'BC stands for Before Christ. How could the coin have been minted 48 years before an event had happened?'
Let me first concentrate on the book of Micah.
5 This is what the Lord says:
“As for the prophets
who lead my people astray,
they proclaim ‘peace’
if they have something to eat,
but prepare to wage war against anyone
who refuses to feed them.
6 Therefore night will come over you, without visions,
and darkness, without divination.
The sun will set for the prophets,
and the day will go dark for them.
7 The seers will be ashamed
and the diviners disgraced.
They will all cover their faces
because there is no answer from God.”
8 But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the Spirit of the Lord,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression,
to Israel his sin.
9 Hear this, you leaders of Jacob,
you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice
and distort all that is right;
10 who build Zion with bloodshed,
and Jerusalem with wickedness.
11 Her leaders judge for a bribe,
her priests teach for a price,
and her prophets tell fortunes for money.
Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say,
“Is not the Lord among us?
No disaster will come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you,
Zion will be ploughed like a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble,
the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.
Micah was an 8th century BC prophet, writing between 742-687 BC, making him a contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea. I enjoy the book of Micah, particularly his succinct formula for life. "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8) Micah, in the text, condemns the other prophets, highlighting that what comes out of their mouths is dependant on what you pay them. There was collusion between the prophets and the heads of Israel. They hid the truth and supported ways that were contrary to the will of God. This is not uncommon today. Many studies present in such a way that the results will support what the sponsor wishes them to say.
Micah was very concerned that the ways of Israel were contrary to God’s will. The prophet Hosea says God desires "mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6)
Similarly, the Prophet Amos, when writing to the Northern Kingdom between 760-750 BC, before Micah was born, said God hated Israel’s religious feasts. God would have no regard for Israel's offerings, and God would no longer listen to the songs or music. God preferred that justice should roll like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream. (Amos 5:21-24 paraphrased)
In the text, Micah prophesies that Jerusalem will fall, which indeed it did to the Babylonians in 597 BC. Micah, Amos and Hosea are the background texts to the reading in Matthew.
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
The first thing to note is that Jesus is an unauthorised teacher. He certainly had not gone through the training that rabbis needed. For me to be a minister, I had to go through three years of training alongside three years of following trained ministers, passing exams up to degree level and interviews. Only after I had satisfied the requirements of the ministerial procedure, could I be ordained. Jesus came on to the scene without the formal training. Indeed, when he did speak in synagogues, he was thrown out. (Matthew 13:53-58)
The surprise of the Gospel is Jesus does not condemn the teaching of the Pharisees. There are six thousand Pharisees in the time of Jesus, and they were students of the law, experts giving counselling so that the people of Israel could live a life resulting in heaven. They were well respected, and Jesus acknowledged their importance by telling people they must do what the Pharisees instruct.
The complaint Jesus had with the Pharisees was what they did not practice what they taught. Jesus listed a whole list of things where the Pharisees were falling short. Alongside not practising what they preached, the Pharisees were unwilling to do what they demanded of others; the Pharisees loved to show off, they revelled in their titles and having the recognition of others. In short, they misunderstood their calling.
Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. By fulfilling, he had the bigger picture of God’s world in mind. Instead of the minutiae, Jesus took the Law and transposed it from being a burden to being a help. Matthew 12:1, when they caught Jesus picking grain on the sabbath, is an example of the humanity of God coming first and the Law second.
God’s Law is a gift to help us live in relationship to God and one another. It is this bigger picture that Jesus brings in his ministry, using the law to show Gods compassion and tolerance. Jesus brings no new ideas, he uses the tenets of the Old Testament all the time, but what he does do is refresh them and uses them in the context of the day.
Jesus also promoted the idea of servanthood. As a servant, you mould yourself around your master. In this way, his disciples were to live, moulding their lives around God via his son Jesus, using their teachings and powers to bring healing and wisdom wherever they went. Jesus was often in conflict with the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees, so following Christ was no easy discipleship. But their words needed to equal their actions, and this is the gift that Jesus’ ministry brings.
The Pharisees were literate, whereas the vast majority of the population were illiterate. The people of Israel needed leadership, and it was Jesus showed them how to live, restoring their relationship with God. So today, as followers of Christ, we must mould ourselves around the teachings of Jesus. That is our calling. We are free to accept or refuse. By accepting, our lives will change as our purpose, our values and our beliefs realign to that of God, our loving and gracious creator.
The readings for this sermon are Leviticus 19:1-2; 15-18, and Matthew 22:34-46.
Leviticus 19:1-2; 15-18
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
“‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly. ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour’s life. I am the Lord. ‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”
The Greatest Commandment
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘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.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Whose Son Is the Messiah?
While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
“The Lord said to my Lord:
Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”
If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
This week, I started to write down some of the lessons I have learnt about life.
If you were to ask me what was the greatest poem I have ever read, I think If by Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) would fit the criteria. Travelling on the underground recently, I saw a poem, which I think during Covid-19 and these unprecedented times is a new favourite. It is by John O'Donohue.
This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.
Jesus was confronted by Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees who wanted to trap Jesus by asking difficult questions. The Gospel reading today asks which is the greatest commandment. There are 613 commandments in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, so which one is the greatest? We know the Ten Commandments, surely it is going to be one of those? Instead, Jesus sums up all the 613 commandments with these words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” He goes on to say the second greatest is “Love your neighbour as yourself.” It is a helpful response, and the two go together because to show that you love God, you surely must love God’s creation. Therefore, we must love our neighbour whoever they may be.
Both of these commandments are mentioned in the Torah. Deuteronomy 6:5, which is part of the Shema Yisrael that Jews say twice daily, contains the first and "love your neighbour", is taken from Leviticus 19:18. So, it is not new, but Jesus has pulled these two together to summerise how we can truly worship God. It is how our Christian lifestyle is defined; the vertical dimension of loving God crossed with the horizontal direction of loving our neighbour. We know who our neighbour is through the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbour is anyone who is in need.
I sometimes forget how radical the concept of only having one God is. In Roman times, I think there were over 60 gods that you could worship, including, of course, the famous Olympian Gods: Jupiter, Venus, Apollo, Diana, Neptune and so on. It is radical to go from the safety of having so many powerful gods to pray to when you need help, to having only one. Even more remarkable, this one God loves us and wants to have a relationship with us. The Roman Gods never once had a thought for us, so through Judaism, this concept of God, creator of the universe, wanting time and a relationship with us is groundbreaking.
When I compare the Ten Commandments with the response Jesus gave, worshipping God, having no idols and not misusing God's name fall into place. Loving my neighbour means I will honour my mother and father, I will not commit adultery, murder or steal, and I will not give false witness or covet other people’s goods. The Sabbath reminds us, as Augustine (354-430) said, we have to love ourselves. We cannot love our neighbour as ourself unless we love ourselves. The Sabbath provides us that day of rest whereby we can not only appreciate God’s wonder, but it also allows us to recharge, restore and renew.
Jesus goes one step further in our reading. After answering all the questions, Jesus poses one based upon Psalm 110. This Psalm, written by King David, is the prophetic notion that the Messiah will not just be of David’s line, but will also be far superior to David, so much so David calls him Lord. Jesus’ question stumps the would-be questioners and silences them. We see Jesus as being beyond human, touching the divine, and it is that acknowledgement of his true self that quiets the crowd. We too have to acknowledge who we are for we often have a mask that we show the world; one we believe the world wants to see for which we will gain acceptance and love. But if we are to truly love ourselves, we have to remind ourselves of our true self rather than the self we portray to others.
So, we offer to God who we truly are knowing that God will accept us, love us and transform us.
This sermon was first preached by Rev'd Martin Wheadon at Gants Hill United Reformed Church on 25th October 2020
We start by reading Psalm 56:1-6, written over a thousand years before Christ was born. Verse 6 shows how it is possible to twist the writer's words.
1 Be merciful to me, my God,
for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
all day long they press their attack.
2 My adversaries pursue me all day long;
in their pride many are attacking me.
3 When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
4 In God, whose word I praise--
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
5 All day long they twist my words;
all their schemes are for my ruin.
6 They conspire, they lurk,
they watch my steps,
hoping to take my life.
This Psalm leads into today’s service, which is predominantly the Gospel story of Matthew 22:15-22, where the Pharisees and the Herodians try to trick Jesus. The lectionary also highlights Isaiah 45:1-7, so let us look at that reading first then lead into the Gospel.
1 “This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armour,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
2 I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.
3 I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
4 For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honour,
though you do not acknowledge me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
6 so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7 I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the Lord, do all these things.
Isaiah prophesied from 740-681 BC. This reading highlights Cyrus as doing God’s bidding. Cyrus the Great was born in 600 BC and died in 70 years later, we believe, on 4th December 530 BC, probably in battle. Cyrus became king in 560BC reigning for 30 years and had the grand titles of King of Anshan, King of Persia, King of Media, King of the World, King of Babylon, King of Sumar and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World. The strange thing about the passage is Isaiah wrote it around 150 years before Cyrus the Great came to power; it is a prophecy.
Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Persian Empire, now known as Iran. He was a great military strategist and is the only non-Jewish person given the title of Messiah in the Bible. He knew the world of politics but showed humanitarian traits as he respected the customs and religions of the people he conquered. His empire was the largest ever known at the time, spanning two thousand miles, including Assyria and Babylonia. It was Cyrus who allowed the Jewish people to leave their exile and for Jerusalem to be rebuilt. Cyrus is significant in the history of Israel, and Isaiah prophesied it 150 years before.
In one report, it said because Cyrus read the account of Isaiah, Cyrus made the prophecy come true by invading and freeing the people of Israel. God, therefore, is not limited to using the Jewish population; God can use anybody, Jew or Gentile. It is always important to remember this in our relationship with God; God can and does use us to fulfil God’s almighty plan.
We move into Matthew and the trickery with which he had to deal.
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
To put you in the mood here is a story:
In a small Italian town, hundreds of years ago, a small business owner owed a large sum of money to a loan-shark. The loan-shark was a very old, unattractive looking guy that just so happened to fancy the business owner’s daughter.
He decided to offer the businessman a deal that would completely wipe out the debt he owed him. However, the catch was that we would only wipe out the debt if he could marry the businessman’s daughter.
Needless to say, this proposal was met with a look of disgust.
The loan-shark said that he would place two pebbles into a bag, one white and one black.
The daughter would then have to reach into the bag and pick out a pebble. If it was black, the debt would be wiped, but the loan-shark would then marry her. If it was white, the debt would also be wiped, but the daughter wouldn’t have to marry the loan-shark.
Standing on a pebble-strewn path in the businessman’s garden, the loan-shark bent over and picked up two pebbles.
Whilst he was picking them up, the daughter noticed that he’d picked up two black pebbles and placed them both into the bag.
He then asked the daughter to reach into the bag and pick one.
The daughter naturally had three choices as to what she could have done:
1.Refuse to pick a pebble from the bag.
2. Take both pebbles out of the bag and expose the loan-shark for cheating.
3. Pick a pebble from the bag fully well knowing it was black and sacrifice herself for her father’s freedom.
She drew out a pebble from the bag, and before looking at it ‘accidentally’ dropped it into the midst of the other pebbles. She said to the loan-shark;
“Oh, how clumsy of me. Never mind, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.”
The pebble left in the bag is obviously black, and seeing as the loan-shark didn’t want to be exposed, he had to play along as if the pebble the daughter dropped was white, and clear her father’s debt.
Moral of the story:
It’s always possible to overcome a tough situation through out of the box thinking, and not give in to the only options you think you have to pick from.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus the Pharisees and the Herodians questioned Jesus. Knowledge of the Herodians is scarce, other than they must be supporters of Herod. Therefore, the Herodians were in opposition to the Pharisees - the common enemy of Jesus brings forth strange bedfellows. Yet, Jesus had the measure of them. The fact they produced a Denarius when Jesus asked for a coin has implications.
On the Denarius it reads "Ti(berivs) Caesar Divi Avg(vsta) F(ilivs) Avgvtvs", which in English means Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus. On the reverse, we have a seated female, believed to be Livia depicted as Pax, the goddess of Peace, with the words "Pontif Maxim".
Having the image of Tiberius was an anathema to the Jews. The fact that it claimed Augustus was God was offensive to the Jewish population. As a result, pious Jews did not carry that coin but did their business using smaller denominations. The coin itself was worth one day’s labour; smaller copper coins, which did not hold the face of the emperor, were quite ordinary and were used for daily life. So, the Denarius must have been produced by a Herodian because a Pharisee, would not carry such a coin.
So, Jesus comes up with the famous statement, “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's.” In some Bibles, the translation is not "render" but "give to Caesar". I understand the Greek "to render" means to give back, which implies they must have received something already. They were benefitting by the Roman occupation, profiting from the blessings of good communication, transport links, freedom from tribal warfare, stable currency with coins used all over the known world and general peace. It is strange to think of an occupation bringing blessings, and I presume if you live in such a society, the expectations are you give back to that society from which you have taken.
There is a common theme throughout the new testament. Jesus says to love your enemies, and Paul frequently writes to submit to the authorities, as does Peter. So, the idea of giving back to Caesar reflects they are part of the Roman situation. But when spirituality conflicts with society, Jesus says God comes first; even though we live in society, it is obedience to God that comes first. So, his famous sentence is quite brilliant, as it satisfies both parties and the people posing the question were amazed at the answer. They found the answer quite marvellous. The scene is then set for the Sadducees to have a go at questioning Jesus, but for the minute, Jesus had shown his ability at dealing with tricky questions.
So, let us reflect: we acknowledge the blessings we receive from living in society; we give back, but we also recognise God’s importance, which means we have absolute obedience to God. In today’s world, Covid-19 means we put our trust in God, but there are also so many other groups who are requesting our support, Black Lives Matter and climate change being two examples. We have to obey the law because it is Biblical, but that does not mean we cannot stand up for others. It is also Biblical that we should stand up and try to change the structures in society that result in injustice. It is a balance, what do we give back to our communities, and what do we offer to God?
This sermon was first preached by Rev'd Martin Wheadon at Great Dunmow United Reformed Church on 18th October 2020
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon