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.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan Luke 10:25-3725 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
This is a famous story, which in some respects has lost its shocking end because it is so familiar. In the third century AD, Origen of Alexandra in Egypt (184-253) thought the Samaritan story was an allegory and proposed the following:
The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The Priest is the law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord's body, the inn, which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. The manager of the inn is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And, the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Saviour's second coming.
This reading was universally accepted for centuries but it was John Calvin who made us rethink the story.
It is very easy to dramatise this text and one would benefit taking a role and getting a sense as to how the story unfolds. You could be the innkeeper coping with the nuisance of a wounded man, which would be a hindrance to his business with only the promises that the Samaritan would return. You could be the Priest or the Levite thinking of excuses as to why they passed by on the other side and did not help. The story says that the road was from Jerusalem to Jericho, suggesting they had already fulfilled their temple obligations.
Martin Luther King Jr really enjoyed this parable and visited the actual road where the action of the story took place. It was indeed notorious for its danger and difficulty and was known as the "Way of Blood" because of the blood that had been shed there. In his "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech, on the day before his death, he described the road as winding and meandering. If the Priest and the Levite looked over at the man, they would wonder if the robbers were still around or perhaps the man on the ground was merely faking, to lure them over. So, the first question the Priest would have asked is, "If I stop to help this man, what would happen to me?"
MLK goes on to say, "On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
MLK is saying we need to do more than just help the beggar by actually transforming the whole situation in which these robberies occur. So, we have to look at the social infrastructure that supports poverty and creates an underclass. This parable is far more than what it seems and challenges us far more deeply than just asking who is my neighbour.
The second book of Chronicles 28:15 would have been well-known to people of Jesus' time. In essence, the Northern Israelite Army based in Samaria invaded Judea and took many women and children, creating carnage. When the captured women and children were taken to Samaria, the prophet Obed confronted the army, saying that they were no better than their Judean enemies. The army in Samaria, therefore, reclothed, looked after and returned their prisoners to their homeland. Knowing this story puts Jesus' parable into context.
I was fascinated by the difference between the Jews and the Samaritans and why there was this hatred. The Samaritans descended from the tribe of Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph's sons, as well as from the Levites. The Samaritan religion centred on Mount Gerizim, which they considered to be the true place for God to be worshipped. In the book of Joshua 8:30-35 and Deuteronomy 7 and 8, we read about the importance of this mountain and how earlier on in the taking of Canaan, this mountain was so important a temple was built. The Jews, on the other hand, made Jerusalem their centre of worship.
In Ancient Hebrew, Samaritan means guardian, keeper or watcher of the Torah Law, but in Modern Hebrew, it just means inhabitants of Samaria. The Samaritans, who may well have numbered up to 1 million in population, believed it was on Mount Gerizim that Abraham offered Isaac to show his total obedience and, therefore, the reason for God's blessing. The Samaritans believe in one God and that the Torah was given by God to Moses but that Mount Gerizim is the sanctuary of Israel's God. They believe in resurrection and Paradise, that the dead will be raised by a restorer who will probably be Moses, but that post-Babylonian exile works, such as the Tanakh and Talmud, which is so authoritative to the Jews, have no authority. It is said there are 6000 differences between the Samaritan Pentateuch and that of the Masoretic Jews. Even the Ten Commandments have differences, for example, the tenth commandment for the Samaritans is that they keep the sanctity of Mount Gerizim.
The Samaritans believe their descendants come from North Israel, either before the Syrian conquest in 721 BC or are part of the repopulating of the area following Sargon II of Assyria deporting 27,290 inhabitants. The Samaritans, therefore, were confident in their God, believing their history went right back and that theirs was the true religion.
One can now understand why the Jews and the Samaritans were so different and yet could have been so similar.
Where are you in the story? With whom do you most resonate? Would you take help from an archenemy and forever be beholden to them? Is there any sympathy for the Priest and the Levite? Read yourself into the story and understand the characters and how they interplay. The lawyer was asking honest questions to which Jesus the Rabbi responded appropriately but the challenge He gives remains. Who is our neighbour? If it is the person who showed mercy, then how do we go and do likewise? Good questions that demand individual answers. Amen.
We were delighted to welcome Dr. Keith White as our worship leader on Sunday. His family have owned Mill Grove in South Woodford since 1899 when they opened their doors as a safe place for people to stay within a Christian community.
It was an excellent service and, therefore, we asked Keith to share his sermon notes with us, which were based on the Parable of the Lost Son. Whether or not you were there on Sunday, we hope you enjoy recapping on the famous reading.
Exclusion and Embrace
Luke 15: 11-32
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his propertybetween them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The title of this sermon is taken from the harrowing experience of a Croat whose country and fellow-citizens were being attacked, raped, systematically murdered by Serbians. The burning question was put to him: “Can I, as a follower in Christ, embrace one who has done such evil to me and my people?” He wrestled with it in a book with exactly this title.
It is a question that is relevant to all of us all throughout our lives, but there are times when it becomes painfully acute. We are to love our neighour as ourselves. And that, according to Jesus, includes our enemies, Miroslav Volf turned to Jesus’ story of the Father with Two Sons, as the very heart of Christ’s calling and example. It is well known, but there is a feature that is little noticed: the father is never recorded as saying anything to the younger son, though he speaks to his servants and also the older son. Everything is conveyed in body language, actionsand instructions to others. And there is one action that so encapsulates the essence of the story that it has drawn people like Rembrandt and Henri Van Nouwen to it irresistably. It is the embrace. Here it is again: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Let’s ponder that in order to understand two things afresh:
Opening the Arms
I long for you. I am not content with being merely myself, without you. You are already in my heart though you have been away from me. So I am making space for you. There is room for you in my heart and life. I am not so cluttered, or so full of myself that every part of me is already occupied. And I invite you to respond. The open arms are rather like an open door. There is no need to knock. You are welcome. And this is risky. The nature of grace is that it is always a gamble! (Volf: 147 quoting Smedes)
The abiding image or picture we have of Jesus is on the Cross with his arms wide open. This is what opening His arms means, and costs. And this is what he calls us to do.
Embrace is not a taking hold, arresting, invasive or a one-way initiative. It’s not even a caress. Before it can proceed it needs the arms of the other to open. By opening our arms we have conveyed a message, but we will not force our way. It is the very opposite of violence. If embrace starts with the initiative of one person, it can never reach its fulfilment without reciprocity, the movement and response of the other. And there may be all sorts of reasons, experiences, traumas, fears, that require patient waiting.
Another abiding picture of Jesus is Holman Hunt’s picture The Light of the World. Jesus is knocking at the door of our hearts. And he has been standing outside and waiting for a long time…He is listening for a response.
Closing the Arms
This is where there is complete reciprocity. Each is holding the other; and each is held by the other. They are both active and both passive. It takes two pairs of arms for one embrace. In an embrace the host is a guest and the guest is a host. And this means a soft touch is necessary. Rembrandt gets this perfectly (worth looking at the picture again!). Not a bear-hug either way. An attuned response to each other, so that both feels comfortable, and understands that the other is comfortable too. And this requires the recognition that neither understands the other fully. There is an otherness about the person we close our arms around, a mystery. This is the beginning of a process of understanding and knowing that starts with the realisation that I do not fully know the other. In fact I have much I don’t know and much more to learn. This may be my enemy, but do I know her story?
Another picture of Jesus is as the Good Shepherd: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; He gently leads those that have young.” Isaiah 40:11
Opening the Arms Again
We cannot live in permanent embrace. We have not become one. This is not about the welding two others, so that they have become indissolubly one and can never be free of each other. Each is still “I” and “You” in relationship, and neither has ceased to be as a person, each with their own agency. This is where the real dance is in the relationship: we are not the same person, we are different, but we are open to each other. And the truth is that none of us in an island entire of itself: our identity is actually made up of our experiences and relationships with others. If we are to be and to develop, we need to be open to others, to realise we are strangers among our family and community, at home with “others” who we thought were our enemies. In embracing an other, outside can become part of our inside. Home and away are re-imagined. This is a journey of adventure, and who knows the outcome?! If broken relationships are to be restored, then the identitites of each must be rethought and reshaped.
The last words of Jesus to His chosen disciples are apt here: “Go into all the world…and I will never leave you nor forsake you”. This is the genuine opening of the arms! Any parent or teacher is not wanting the child or pupil to remain forever tied to the apron strings, or sitting in the classroom. There is always the desire to see the other explore in her own way. We know that this is risky, and safety or success are never assured.
All this is in the story, and much more. Not least the chilling self-exclusion of the older son, who misses out on the whole embrace. A total stranger at home. The silence of his response is perhaps the most deafening in recorded history. “All I have is yours…Come and celebrate the return of your brother, who was lost and is found, who was dead, but is alive again.” These tender and loving words echo in the stony silence which forms the end of the story.
Reflecting on embrace helps me to understand what Mill Grove is all about.
And surely this is what church is about?
This is how it is for all of us who are rooted in, inspired by, and ultimately redeemed and embraced by Jesus Christ.
On my first Saturday as an undergraduate at Oxford University, I played the piano to accompany the singing of the hymn, Jesus, the name high over all. For some reason the predominantly male sound coupled with the occasion meant that the words have been indelibly imprinted on my heart. They include these:
Oh, that the world might taste and see, The riches of His grace!
The arms of love that compass me,
Would all mankind embrace.
Keith J. White
M.A. (Oxon.), M.Phil., PhD
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon