Sunday, 30 November 2008

How then can we be saved?

Advent 1 year B Sermon   Isaiah 64:1-9

At least 160 people have been killed since attacks began last Thursday… in the Indian city of of Mumbai… a city you probably know best as… Bombay.

Those who died were Westerners and Asians…all caught… in indiscriminate gunfire and explosions…or taken hostage.  Christians… Muslims… Jews and Hindus …fathers and daughters, international tycoons and spiritual seekers…in hotels and restaurants…railway stations and community centres.

 Those responsible have declared "open war" against India…in retaliation for what they see as … 60 years of Muslim persecution… and India’s support of U.S. policy.

On and on it goes…the cycle of revenge…an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth…religious and ethnic warfare…attack and revenge …injury and retaliation.  India…Sudan… Iraq… Thailand… Wanaka and Hawea…sometimes people die physically…sometimes they just die emotionally

Nations…communities... churches and families…torn apart because no one is willing to give in… no one is willing to forgive… to turn the other cheek…to love their enemies.

And don't we just sit there in front of our television sets and feel powerless…just like the prophet Isaiah.

Oh, God…that you would tear open the heavens and come down

God please come down…

because only your intervention…is gonna save this wretched planet. [pause]

Today on the first Sunday of the Church Calendar

the first Sunday of… the Season of Advent…We look forward to the coming of the Messiah…from 500 years before Jesus was born

In Isaiah’s prayer…we hear the anguish cry of God’s people… as they lament the state of their worldwe listen to their longing for salvation…as the third prophet in the scroll of Isaiah…pleads with God on behalf of the Hebrew people

Isaiah cries out…our worlds in an absolute mess… and God we know it’s our fault… so only your intervention will save us.

Because ‘All of us have become… like one who’s unclean,  and all our righteous acts… are like filthy rags

       we all shrivel up like a leaf, 
       and our sins sweep us away... like the wind….’

God… the whole world is so off track…that without your help… we’re powerlessWe can’t fix this. We need you jump start humanity…recharge our batteries… heat us up…

‘As when lightening catches the trees on fire and causes water to boil.’

God… you’re gonna have to come down yourself and do something awesome and spectacular like lightening

‘to make your name known to your enemies 
       and cause the nations to quake before you!’ [pause]

Because we’re in such bad shape… we can’t do it. People don’t even know who you are God… ‘cause they’ve never seen you in action…it’s been a long time since you dazzled us with wondrous deeds.

‘No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you.’

From our perspective God …it looks like you’ve walked away and left us alone…to suffer the consequences of our own actions…it feels like you’ve abandoned us. [pause]

But…in ancient times, Isaiah prays

‘when you came down, when you did awesome things we didn’t expect…even the mountains trembled before you.’

And God… you’ve got a reputation that goes back a long way…as being the only God who ‘comes to the rescue… [pause] of those who gladly do the right thing, and remember your ways.’

But we’ve been so unfaithful as a people…we have to face facts don’t we God…If you’ve given up on us in disgust.

‘How then can we be saved?’ [pause]

And then the prophet does this incredible thing on behalf of the people …he goes from pleading to God…for some awesome cosmic intervention to put things right…Isaiah goes from pleading …to weedling…to reminding God…he created human beings in the first place…

‘Yet, O LORD, you’re our FatherYou’re the potterwe’re merely the clay. We’re all the work of your hand.’

So maybe… we can rely on your mercy and forgiveness?And that somehow we’ll be saved after all. 

So Don’t be angry beyond reason, O LORD;don’t remember our sins forever. Oh, look upon us, we pray, for we’re all your people.’

And without your help we are lost. [pause]

Two thousand five hundred years later…two years before I was born…an intact scroll of Isaiah was discovered in the caves of Qumran… on the west bank outside Jerusalem. Copies of around 800 documents… known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

Most Biblical scholars believe the scroll of Isaiah was written over a period of 300 years… across the reign of six Jewish Kings…followed by the Babylonian exile and the return of the exiles to Jerusalem… after 538 BC.

The third part of Isaiah from which our text comes today… contains many words of rebuke for those who’ve returned from exile. The wealthy and educated elite who were carried off to Babylon are disappointed by what they find when they get home…They’re trying to make sense of what it means to be God’s people when so many have forgotten what it means to worship  God.

They’re ready to give up… trying to do anything about the mess they’ve found… and hanging in the air all the time

is the question of what God’s response will be to their plea for divine intervention. To their longing for God to act…to their yearning for a messiah…who would proclaim the year of the LORD's favour. [pause]

Five hundred years after this… in the village of Nazareth…

a young rabbi would begin his public ministry… reading from this part of the scroll… written after the exiles returned…

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, 

       because the LORD has anointed me 
       to preach good news to the poor. 

       He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, 
       to proclaim freedom for the captives 
       and release from darkness for the prisoners, 

to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour 
       and the day of vengeance of our God, 
       to comfort all who mourn,

 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— 
       to bestow on them a crown of beauty 
       instead of ashes, 

       the oil of gladness 
       instead of mourning, 
       and a garment of praise 
       instead of a spirit of despair. 

       They will be called oaks of righteousness, 
       a planting of the LORD 
       for the display of his splendour.

God had acted… not with mighty acts of power…but in the person of a young man… who would teach his followers… to love their enemies… and heed the words of the prophets… to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God.

A young rabbi who would suffer and die for this teaching…for this way of life…in order that God’s will would be done…on earth…in order to bring about the reconciliation of all people… to God and one another.

In Jesus God answers the desperate question of all people… who wonder if there’s a way out… of the mess they’re in…who wonder as Isaiah did.

How then can we be saved?’

To this question… Jesus replies

‘follow me’.

In this is the very core of the Christian faith…and the story we remember every Christmas: That in Jesus… God has come down to save us…to get us out of the mess we’re in… as nations as communities  as churches as families and as individuals…by showing us how…to be humble peacemakershow to do justice and love mercy…no matter what the cost. [pause]

Unlike the ancient Hebrew people …we no longer look forward to the coming of the Messiah.

As Christmas approaches we look back… to remember and retell and celebrate…the coming of the one we believe to be the saviour of the world.

The one who rescues us by teaching us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven… by the God who created us.

And if you aren’t already a follower of Jesus…I recommend you become one. Become his disciple…give your life to him… learn about his ways.

Trust in his mercy and forgiveness… for the messes you’ve made…and with join with us… the broken and forgiven ones…as we seek to continue his saving work of reconciliation and peace in this time and in this place.

In a time of silence let us remember…in Jesus…

God has come down to save us…

and in prayer let us all …give our hearts to him once again.





Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Countil of Elders

Pentecost 28 year A Sermon

By the end of our time together last week…

we’d been sitting with Jesus and his disciples as they gazed with wonder… across the valley at the grandeur of the Jewish Temple…

As Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem for the last time… we heard how he warns his followers…

of the day that’s coming… when no stone would be left standing… in Israel’s holiest place.


And Jesus asks them… no matter how bad things get …

to keep their eyes on him and their hearts on his teaching…to watch for him…. in the unclean of this world…to look for him… in the prisoner the sick and the hungry.


The age of the old Mosaic covenant… is coming to an end. And in the days that follow…as Jesus celebrates the Passover with his friends…

he will constitute a people… of a new covenant.

Forty years later… when Jerusalem and the Temple finally fall to the Romans … Jesus apostles…

inspired by the coming of the Holy Spirit…

will already have been at work … right across the Empire…

planting new cells of Jesus’ followers

…trying to carry out God’s purposes of love…

proclaiming the good news of God’s desire…

to reconcile all humanity…all creation…to himself.


Read from Acts 11 and 13


Elders slide

The movement was steeped in Jewish history and tradition from the start… their founder Jesus…

their chief rabbi and master …whose interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures would be their yoke.


As their ancestors had done from the time of Moses…

 ‘with prayer and fasting they appointed elders in each church and committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.’And so from the earliest days… the Elders exercised a collective authority among God’s people. They formed councils of equals… to discern the will of God…

to oversee the spiritual health of the faith community… and ensure its future well being.  

 From the time of the Babylonian exile every synagogue elected acouncil of Elders… a gerusia in Hebrew

presbuteron in Greek… appointed by the people to be their leaders. 

From time to time a great assembly of Elders would be called… to meet in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Greek word for this was Sanhedrin. And the Roman’s did their best… to dismantle its authority…by breaking up Palestine into five provinces each with it’s own Sanhedrin.

And while the Bible portrays various forms of church government… among the earliest Christians… it’s easy to see our own Presbyterian form of government in the Jewish roots of the movement. Even the name Presbyterian is rooted in the ancient Greek word presbuterion the New Testament word for the collective [never individual] authority of the Council of Elders.

But by the end of the second century a common pattern developed where a bishop presided over a group of churches…with personal authority over their leaders.

A threefold ministry was emerging of priest…elder and deacon…

 And by the end of the third century…when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity…

he declared the whole Empire to be Christian…by decree…and  slowly the church took on…the character of an imperial hierarchy.

For one thousand five hundred years…this imperial pattern held… until finally its weaknesses and abuse of power… would lead a priest called Martin Luther…to nail his protest to the Cathedral door…

Beginning the protestant…the protestant reformation… of which we are a part …

So when we look around our town at the six churches who work so wonderfully together …we see we’re all trying… to be faithful followers of Jesus… working in our own way to make disciples… and express God’s purposes of love in our community…

What sets us apart from one another… isn’t what we believe… but how we chose to govern ourselves.

In the Presbyterian Church there is no higher office than Elder. Authority is collectively vested… in the Council of Elders… we call Session…. Some Elders like myself are called by God and by the church to be teaching elders…others are called by  God and the church…

to the office of ruling elder…to exercise along with me … spiritual and missional vision and provide discipline when it’s needed.  

Our Council of Elders is subordinate to regional council’s of elders… called Presbytery at which our Elders are represented… Presbytery is in turn subordinate to our national council of elders…the General Assembly.

Our form of church government provides a way of living together where the concerns and initiatives of all members are taken seriously. And any member of this church… can appeal our decisions… all the way to the General Assembly.

We’re accountable to the whole church… and to you…to ensure our mission and resources are used strategically and responsibly…in faithfulness to God’s purposes of love.Having seen my brothers and sisters in other churches… flounder under different systems…

I believe our form of government…is one of our denomination’s greatest strengths.

Throughout the church there’s a desire for passionately committed and faithful leadership. People are crying out for servant leaders willing to lead by example.

All those who accept God’s call to Eldership are ordained to the office. And so today… as our ancestors have for thousands of years…we will ordain David Baird with the laying on of hands.

 Let us sing about the call of God…

I the Lord of sea and sky



Sunday, 9 November 2008

Keep watch!

Pentecost 27 year A Sermon  Are you a wise or foolish virgin? How on earth would you know?  

When Jesus tells this parable in Matthew’s Gospel…

it’s just two days before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem…as thousands of Jewish pilgrims…

make their way into the city for the Passover…when Jesus comes through the gates on the back of a donkey…there’ll be no mistaking his intentions

to claim his identity as king and messiah…

Ecstatic crowds will greet him

But for now…Jesus and his disciples are tired and dustyoverwhelmed by a day taking in the sights of Jerusalemnever have they seen anything…as massive and majestic as the Temple…yet Jesus warned them that very morning… of its destruction

‘…not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’And now they’re anxious to know the signs of the end of the age… and they demand Jesus tell them…when and how it will happen.

So in Matthew’s story…Jesus leads his disciples outside the gates once again…And up to the top… of the Mount of Oliveswhere as the sun sets….they can look out across the valley… at the majesty of the Temple Jesus knows… they still don’t understand…

the enormityof what’s about to happen…how long it’s going to take…and the part they’ll play …and so as they settle in for the night…Jesus speaks to them about signs of the end of the age.


Slide words

"Watch out no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming 'I’m the Christ,' and deceive many

You’ll hear of wars and rumours of wars, but don’t be afraid. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 

Such things will happen…but all these are just the beginning of the birth pains. The end of this age is still to come. [pause] "Then you’ll be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith…and betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but those who stand firm to the end will be saved.

And the good news of the kingdom will be preached to the gentiles…

and then the end of the age will come.

And as Jesus disciples look out across the valley…

trying to imagine how such a great Temple could be brought down…Jesus reminds them of the messianic prophesies in Isaiah and Daniel… And tells them all this is going to happen in their life time…[pause]


Just hours before what’s supposed to be Jesus’ greatest triumph

…his grand entry…signalling the victory of Israel’s God…

over all the powers and principalities of Rome and Caesar

Just hours before this…Over and over… in prophesy and parable… Jesus urges his friends to keep watch…

to keep the faith… to remain wise and faithful servants

no matter how long they’re left waiting on their own [pause]


But Jesus disciples are ready now! Bring it on Jesus…

bring on the kingdom right now! Jesus talk about waiting and his dire predictions… aren’t what they want to hear.

But without them Jesus followers might not understand the parable he tells them next…about the wise and foolish virgins…

a story full of ancient messianic imagery… the bridegroom and his wedding banquet… the coming of the kingdom of God…And…please guys…Jesus insists… no one knows the time…even I don’t know it…but I promise you

‘At that time… the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.’ 

Five were foolish and five were wise. 

The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t take any oil

The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming,

and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

Finally…at midnight the cry rang out:

'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' [pause]

There’s a scramble of activity as all the virgins wake up and prepare their lamps. But the night’s been a long one and the lamps of the foolish virgins… start to sputter 

Our lamps are going out. They cry to the wise virgins

'Give us some of your oil.

 'No way say,' the wise ones, 'there may not be enough for us all and we don’t want to miss anything… go buy your own. And so the foolish virgins wander off

into the darkness in search of oil…

I mean how foolish is that…the Bridegroom’s already there! The party’s going to start. And the foolish virgins wander off. The Bridegroom’s already there. Only the wise virgins who stay put…go in with him to the wedding feast.

 The foolish virgins miss their opportunity…because at the last minute…they lose their focus… [pause]

 So don’t get side tracked…Jesus warns his disciples

because no one knows the day or the hour.

Keep your eye out for the bridegroom…If you believe I’m the anointed one of God…no matter what happens keep your focus on me…Remember…

how I’ve taught you to live and to love…and you will enter the kingdom of God …you will enjoy the wedding feast of the lamb [pause]

Now it’s clear Jesus isn’t offering us… a series of signs …that precede his return to earth many centuries in the future…No…Jesus is speaking of real events about to unfold in the life of his disciples… in the history of Israel and Jerusalem…

events that will bring an end to the age

the age of Mosaic Covenant…

Not only is Jesus is warning of the ordeals his disciples will face after his death… but the suffering and destruction of all Jerusalem and its holiest place…

the Temple…at the hand of the enemy…

Israel refuses to love…


The religious system which rejects Jesus’ message of shalom…and seeks his execution…will fall…

And Jesus does’t know the time table…

"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’

So remain faithful… keep your focus on me

Jesus is telling them. [pause]

Seven years after Jesus death and resurrection…the Jews were still rioting against their occupiers…

In retribution… Caesar Caligula would raise a statue of himself in the Temple… to the horror and disgust of all Israel…Jesus followers reading Matthew’s Gospelwould see this event in Jesus words from the prophet Daniel… about the abomination that causes desolation being raised in the holy place…

Over the next twenty years… the Jews would fully rebel against their Roman masters. General Vespasian would be dispatched from Rome to restore order. By the year 68 AD, Jewish resistance in the north will be wiped out and the Romans will turn their full attention...

to the subjugation of Jerusalem.

 That same year, the Emperor Nero will die by his own hand, creating a power vacuum in Rome. In the resulting chaos, General Vespasian will be declared Emperor and return to the Imperial City. The final assault on Jerusalem will be lead by his son, Titus. [pause]


Our only first-hand account… of the attack on the Temple … comes from the Jewish historian Josephus ….a former leader of the Jewish Revolt …Josephus writes that the Roman legions surrounded Jerusalem for months…slowly squeezing the life out of her.

 Finally in AD 70… the Roman army breached Jerusalem's outer walls and began to ransack the city. The soldiers finished their assault by destroying the Temple. In victory, the Romans slaughtered thousands of men women and children.

 Many thousands more are sent as slaves to the mines of Egypt, others are dispersed to the gladiators arenas throughout the Empire…to be pitted against wild animals for the amusement of the public.

The Temple's sacred relics are taken to be paraded in celebration of the victory. [pause]


And after the Temple falls…though a remnant of Jesus followers remain in Jerusalem…the others will have scattered to the ends of the earth…

They will have passed through the crushing disappointment of Jesus’ crucifixion…

only to be inspired and energised by an encounter with the bridegroom they could never have expected.

Yes Jerusalem and the Temple will fall…the end of the age of the Mosaic covenant will come…but a new people of God will already be continuing Jesus’ work across the Empire…ushering in God’s Kingdom on earth…

Reconciling all nations to God…and gathering a people of a new covenant.


Those people of peace would keep their focus on Jesus as they face persecution and the jaws of lions in Jesus name…

Of course many who will call themselves Christians will take their focus off him as the centuries unfold…

But here we are today worshipping in his name

facing uncertainty and anxiety over the future …

will we keep our focus on Jesus…and the way he taught us to live and to love…will we look for him in the people and signs of Shalom around us…or will we rush away into the darkness

…and miss him when he comes?

 So even when your strength and faith are running low… may you keep your focus on Jesus…

may you keep watch for him …may you remain his faithful servant