SERMON: Heroes of the Bible - Joseph of Nazareth (Matthew 1:18-25)
Many people today like a good mystery, and with a heritage of stories like Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, and the Agatha Christie stories, etc., is it any wonder that a good mystery has become part of our popular culture.
Of course these days we are spoiled with choice to keep our little grey cells active. Nevertheless the sheer number of police shows, detective stories, and other programmes on television alone, is an indication of the popularity of mysteries. And there are those who like the challenge of solving the puzzle, before the mystery is resolved, and there are others who are quite happy to wait and let all the facts be laid out before them.
B. THE MYSTERY OF JOSEPH
Now mysteries are not just a modern phenomenon, nor are the restricted to the world of fiction and we can find mysteries even in the pages of the bible. And there’s one such mystery that I would like to deal with today, and that is, “What happened to Joseph, the husband of Mary, the adoptive father of Jesus?” After all, once Jesus turned 12, and they were on the way home from the Passover festival in Jerusalem, we never hear from him again. So what happened to Joseph of Nazareth, husband of Mary?
a). Joseph’s Physical Record
Well what we know about Joseph is not much. We know that he was engaged to Mary (Matthew 1:18). We know that when Mary told him she was pregnant, he decided to call the wedding off (Matthew 1:19). We know that an angel visited him, telling him why Mary was pregnant, and that he should go ahead with his marriage anyway (Matthew 1:24). We know that Joseph, being a descendant of King David, was required to go to Bethlehem for the purpose of a census, and that he took Mary with him (Luke 2:4). We know that 40 days after the baby Jesus was born, he took Jesus and Mary to the temple, so that Mary could perform the rite of Purification (Luke 2:22). We know that Joseph had a second visit from an angel – within 2 years of the first – telling him to escape to Egypt, because Herod was after the baby’s life (Matthew 2:13). We know that when in Egypt, Joseph had a third visit from an angel, telling him it was OK to go back to Israel because Herod had died (Matthew 2:20). And we know that every year Joseph (with Mary) took Jesus to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover (Luke 2:41), until Jesus was at least 12 years of age (Luke 2:42). But once Jesus turned 12, Joseph is conspicuous by his absence.
b). Knowledge of Joseph
Of course, that doesn’t mean to say that he wasn’t around. He was. And we know that because there are some other clues to this puzzle.
Indeed in Jesus’s ministry years we pick up the idea that some people knew that Joseph was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55); that some people knew Jesus’ father and mother (John 6:42); and that some people knew that Mary had other children (sons and daughters), including four sons – James, Joseph, Simon and Judas (Matthew 13:55). Indeed all good indications that at least at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry that Joseph was still around, But having said that, as the story of Jesus’s ministry progresses the only members of Jesus’s family recorded to have any interaction with Jesus were his mother, and his brothers (Matthew 12:48). And Joseph is still very conspicuous by his absence.
So the question, the mystery is, still, “What happened to Joseph? Where was Joseph when Mary and their other sons visited Jesus? And where was Joseph when Jesus was crucified?”
Well, I’m sorry to say, there is no definitive answer to this question – no one can be sure what happened to Joseph. But I’m going to suggest that if we switch from the actual events in Joseph’s life – to which we seem to have come to a dead halt – to concentrate more on his character, then maybe we can have a better idea of what really happened to him. And in order to purse the character of Joseph – the kind of person that he was – we probably need go no further than the passage from Matthew chapter 1. Because in it what we can get is a character study of our man of mystery. And it makes some very interesting reading indeed.
c). Joseph’s Character
1. Diligent in Keeping God’s Law (Matthew 1:19)
Because the first thing we can learn about Joseph from the passage is that he was very diligent in keeping God’s law. As far as Joseph was concerned the rules that God had given his people were not rules to be applied only when suited, but rather they were rules to be taken when the situation applied. In other words, he took seriously the need to apply God’s rules. And if God’s rules were kept, then God would be honoured.
Consequently, when Mary told him that she was pregnant, and that she had agreed to carry the child outside of their own marriage, Joseph’s first reaction was that the law as recorded in Deuteronomy (22:23-27) would need to be applied. And that law would have meant that Mary would need to be taken to the town gate, and stoned to death (with the father of the child who would be stoned with her). That was the penalty for those who willingly flouted the law in such manner.
2. Reflecting God’s Compassion (Matthew 1:19)
However, the second thing we learn about Joseph is that despite his understanding of the need to keep the law, he wasn’t someone who applied the rules without thinking, and by only taking one rule in isolation. No, he had a much greater understating of God than that. And instead, and this was before the first angel had even come to him, Joseph decided to apply other aspects of God’s law, like love and compassion, to the situation too. And in doing so, he indicated a greater commitment to God, than just a superficial keeping of the rules.
So instead of Mary being hauled into a very public place, and being stoned to death. Instead Joseph decided that he needed to break off the engagement quietly. And that would have meant giving her a bill of divorce in front of two witnesses. And that would have been the end of their relationship.
Now that would not have made Mary’s future life easy. But it was much more compassionate than allowing her to be stoned to death.
3. Obedient To God (Matthew 1:24)
The third thing we learn about Joseph Is that not only did he take God’s law seriously, and that he understood how to apply God’s rules in their entirety, but that Joseph was a man of God too. And he was willing to do God’s will no matter what.
Because when the angel first came to Joseph in a dream, and explained what was going on, and that Mary’s baby was a result of God’s intervention and not another man, and that Joseph should remain engaged to her, and take her as his wife anyway, Joseph’s response, when he woke up, was that he immediately did what God had asked; he took Mary for his wife. And the extent of Joseph’s commitment to God in this one act cannot be underestimated.
What Joseph was asked to do was to go against the grain of everything that he was brought up to believe, and everything that he held dear. And yet he did it anyway. And he did it because he was truly committed to his God.
4. He Adopted Jesus (Matthew 1:25)
And the fourth thing we learn about Joseph from this passage is that not only did he take Mary as his wife, but he formally adopted Jesus as if he was his own natural son too.
This whole passage in Matthew’s Gospel is the nativity story from Joseph’s point of view, not Mary’s (that’s recorded in Luke). And for any man to give a child a name in those days, indicated a formal recognition of the acceptance of a father-son relationship, regardless of whether that child was the father’s natural offspring or not. And of course Jesus being treated as the eldest son, had ramifications regarding position in the family, and inheritance.
In other words, despite the supernatural beginning to this episode in the life of Mary and Joseph, the depth of Joseph’s faith in God was demonstrated to be exceedingly strong. He married a woman who would normally have been stoned to death. And he adopted a child, which wasn’t his, to be his eldest son.
So, if that is the kind of person Joseph was, what happened to Joseph? Why did a man like Joseph simply disappear from sight? Joseph was a man who took his faith, and his family responsibilities, seriously. And that is demonstrated in the fact that every year, for at least 12 years, he (with Mary) took Jesus to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover.
Now Joseph doesn’t sound like a man who would stay at home, whilst sending Mary and his other children out to visit his adopted, but eldest son. Indeed the very idea would have been quite hostile to his beliefs, as well as to the culture of the day. So what could possibly have happened to Joseph?
e). The Role of the Eldest Son
Well, we do have one further clue. And the clue is some words that Jesus spoke whilst he was dying on the cross. Because a short distance away from the cross, his mother, Mary, and his disciple, John, were both standing together (John 19:26-27). And these are the words that Jesus said: His words to Mary were “Dear woman, here is your son.” And his words to his disciple were “Here is your mother.”
In other words, in all likelihood, by the time of the crucifixion Joseph was dead. He had probably died sometime between Jesus’s commencement of his ministry and his crucifixion. As a consequence Jesus, as the eldest son, was now responsible to care for his widowed mother. But now dying himself, Jesus was no longer in a position to carry out his duties as the eldest son. So he was trying to make sure that his mother would be cared for after his death. And who better to do that, but to ask one of his closest disciples to take on that role.
So, does that solve the mystery? Well not really, because there is no guarantee that the answer is right. However it is a solution which fits all the facts.
Whatever happened to Joseph, though, we are left with a legacy of the kind of person Joseph was. And perhaps a good illustration of the kind of person we should strive to be.
Now I know that we are people who live under grace, not law, but nevertheless Gods laws do give us clues about how God thinks, and how we should live. So as a consequence, what can we learn from Joseph for ourselves?
a). Diligent in Keeping God’s Law
Well if Joseph was a man who took God’s laws seriously, is that something that we can we say too?
Joseph understood that God’s rules were given to his people, as a community, to protect them from harm, to keep them on the right track, to show them that they needed to depend upon God, and to point others to God. But is that what God’s laws mean for us today?
In other words if God’s laws are there for our benefit, do our lives reflect their teaching? Or are they just things that we keep when we feel like it, and we ignore when they doesn’t suit?
b). Reflecting God’s Compassion
In Joseph we have an example of a man who saw beyond the letter of the law, to include the love and compassion of God. But is that something that we can admit to too?
Joseph saw that there were principles in God’s laws which go beyond their literal meaning. He wasn’t happy to just apply the letter of the law, but he wanted to embrace the spirit of the law. But is that something that we are happy to embrace too?
c). Obedient to God
In Joseph we have an example of a man who was willing to do God’s will no matter what the price. So much so, that he was prepared to put aside all the things that he found precious, and had meaning, in order to follow God’s will. Joseph was willing to do things which were not culturally acceptable, and went against the grain of many of the things that he held dear. He was willing to get well and truly out of his comfort zone. But is that something that we are prepared to do too?
d). He Adopted Jesus
And, finally in Joseph we have an example of someone who was willing to give up everything, including the rights of his own children to inherit position and property, for the priority of Jesus. The commitment that God required of Joseph was total. And the commitment that God requires of us, today, is total too.
Joseph gave his total commitment – he adopted God’s son. But have we adopted God’s son? Is Jesus the number one person in our lives, after whom everything else is secondary? Or do we have other priorities?
In today’s world there is perhaps nothing quite like a good mystery. One that taxes the brain, and one that is a challenge to solve. And the mystery about what happened to Joseph, the husband of Mary, and the adoptive father of Jesus, is one such challenge.
However, what isn’t a mystery is what made Joseph tick. He was a man of God; he was a man of compassion and love; he took God’s rules very seriously; and he took the idea of obedience to God even more seriously. Even to the point of abandoning all that he held dear.
Now even though there is a mystery surrounding Joseph that we can only guess at, Joseph was a great man of faith. The life of Joseph should be an inspiration to us all. But it should also challenge us regarding our own beliefs, and regarding the level of our willingness to respond to God’s call too.
Posted: 12th July 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Getting Things the Right Way Around (Matthew 3:13-17)
From time to time, we may all get the feeling that things aren’t quite right; that things should be different to the way they are. And that is something that John the Baptist felt when Jesus presented himself for baptism. But then John’s baptism was about repenting of one’s sins, and committing one’s life to God.
So, when Jesus, God’s son, approached John and asked for baptism, is it any wonder that he asked whether Jesus had got the whole thing the wrong way around. Because according to John, it wasn’t Jesus who needed to be baptised, but John himself.
But Jesus didn’t ask for baptism because he was a sinful man. He asked for baptism so he could identify with the people, and so that God could reveal him as his son to the people.
Now that should tell us something about God, and about how he works. Indeed, the story is an object lesson of how God thinks.
For God’s needs and priorities may not always be what we might think. And God’s ways may be very different to what we might expect. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when he asks us to do things, which we might have reservations about, and that we might think need to be done another way around.
When God asks us to do things that we are not comfortable with—things that don’t seem quite right—then this is a good story to remember. Because despite John having reservations about baptising Jesus, he did it anyway. And the result was truly spectacular.
And if that was the case with John, then imagine how God could use us, if only we put aside our own expectations too. Indeed, imagine what it would be like if we simply did what we were asked. Not because it seems right to us, but because it is something that God has asked us to do.
Posted: 22nd April 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Come, Follow Me (Matthew 4:18-20)
Three little words—come, follow, me.
“Come!” Jesus expects his followers to be active, not static. And regarding the disciples, that meant not only physically following Jesus around the countryside—meeting and interacting with all sorts of people—but it meant growing in terms of their spiritual lives too. Yes, Jesus taught large crowds, but he also had times with his disciples, where the more intimate discussions and teaching could take place too.
Responding to Jesus, then, involves being an active, not passive, participant in the Christian faith.
“Follow!” Jesus expects his followers not to dictate terms to him—in terms of what they will or won’t do—but rather to be led by him. And again, that has both physical and spiritual characteristics.
For example, Jesus called the Apostle Paul to go on a number of journeys, most of which were not very comfortable for Paul at all. And in this story, he challenged Peter and Andrew to put aside their jobs, their family lives, and their traditions, and follow him, no matter where it took them.
And when it comes to our choice between following Jesus and following the things that we love, we face a similar challenge.
“Me!” Jesus expects us to come and follow one person only—and that is him. Of course, the temptation will always be to do what we think best, the things that we know work, and the things that we like. But then that is the trap that the Pharisees and the Sadducees fell in.
For us there is only one Saviour; there is only one Lord. And it’s his church and not ours. So even though “coming” and “following” may be painful, at all times, even now, we need to have our eyes on only one person—the person of Jesus Christ.
Now in the story, Peter and Andrew responded to the command, “Come, follow me.” The question for us today is, “Are we willing to do the same?”
Posted: 29th April 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Salt and Light (Matthew 5:13-16)
There have been some great Christian witnesses throughout history—people who have stood up for what they believed, whatever the consequences, and despite the risks to their own safety, and their own quality of life.
There have been people like Martin Luther, who in the 16th century had his own struggles with faith, but then had the audacity to stand up against the abuses of the Church of Rome. There have been people like David Livingstone, who in the 19th century was known for being a great African explorer, but among other things was influential in stamping out the slave trade in Africa. And there have been people like Corrie ten Boom, who during the Second World War, lived in war-torn Holland, but risked her life, by hiding Jews from the Germans.
Now I guess we all have our own favourites in history. But without a doubt, none of these three set out to be heroes. Yes, they were people of faith, but it was the circumstances they found themselves in, together with the leading of God, that made all the difference in their lives.
But of course, all of that is in the past—that’s history—and it’s good to look back at others. But what about us? And what role should we play in making difference in the world today?
B. SALT AND LIGHT
Well today I want to look at some of the basics of the Christian faith, and in particular the expectation of Jesus of his followers. Because when Jesus talked to his disciples—as we read today—about being “salt” and “light,” Jesus was talking about the essential character that he expected of all of his disciples—and their influence for good in the world.
So today we have two basic statements to look at—statements that Jesus made to his disciples. We have “You are the salt of the earth.” and we have “You are the light of the world.”
2. Salt (5:13)
And with the first, “You are the salt of the earth,” his emphasis was principally on the negative.
Now salt has a variety of uses. Indeed it is often used as an agent of seasoning, purification, preservation, and fertilization. As a consequence in a world corrupted by greed, self-interest, hatred, prejudice—need I go on—the idea is that Christians are to be cleansers in the world. Now God may have set up certain institutions for the benefit of the whole world—institutions to curb man’s selfish tendencies, and to prevent society from slipping into anarchy. Institutions like “the state” and “the home.” But Jesus’s point was that the most powerful of all restraints within sinful society, was none other than his own redeemed, regenerate and righteous people. Christians. You and me.
b). Being Salty
And lest we begin to think what can I—one person—do. Then this is where a second idea of salt comes in. Because you don’t need much salt to affect what it’s mixed with.
You know, these days, there’s a tendency to think that as individuals we can’t make a difference. “Life’s too complicated.” “It isn’t that easy anymore.” And even amongst older people we can hear, “We’re beyond that. That’s for younger people.” And of course the excuses go on. Yes, in our society we have heroes—people that are admired—and even put on pedestals. But the general attitude is more, “I can’t make a difference, I’m only one person.” “I haven’t got any authority, influence or power” “What can I do, I’m a nobody?” People feel useless, and ineffectual, and maybe even a little afraid. They feel they can’t or won’t make a difference. And, sometimes, people just don’t want to get involved. And, sadly, that’s an attitude that seems to have permeated through into the church today.
And yet, Martin Luther became a novice monk, because of a rash vow he made in a moment of terror, after being thrown to the ground by a bolt of lightning. David Livingstone left school at 10 years of age, and worked incredibly long hours at a mill, before becoming a Christian at the age of seventeen. And Corrie ten Boom helped her father run a watchmaking and watch repair business. Three great Christians, who were just normal people. But who ended up making a difference.
Being the salt of the earth, then is a powerful image, and clearly illustrates the effect that even a faithful few would have on the world, to purify, to preserve, and to flavour the world, with Christian values. To make this world a better place.
c). Losing our Saltiness
Being salt in the world, then, is quite a responsibility. But it is not an optional extra.
But being “salt” does come with a warning. Because Jesus continued to say, that if we lose our saltiness—if we become contaminated with worldly ways—we effectively become useless.
In other words, Jesus’ point was that as Christians, we must retain our Christlikeness. We must not become assimilated to non-Christian thinking, or contaminated by the impurities of the world. Because if we do, we will make ourselves indistinguishable from non-Christians, and therefore useless for his purposes. Indeed, failure to persevere in good works, will effectively falsify whatever profession of faith that we might have.
The function of being salt, then, is largely negative—it is our role to help prevent decay in the world. And if we refuse that role … then what does that say about our faith, let alone the damage that will continue on unchecked?
3. Light (5:14-16)
But that’s “salt.” However, Jesus’s second statement “You are the light of the world,” is much more positive.
Because the function of light—for the believer—is a means to illuminate the darkness. What Jesus is getting at, then, is that as Christians we have the responsibility to share the light we have received with others. So if we have received the saving love of Jesus Christ, then that is what we are to share. If we have received the light of Christ, then we are not to conceal the truth that we know. Rather we are to share it with the world, no matter where that takes us, and no matter what the consequences will be.
Now, of course, for many that may all sounds a little scary. As a consequence over the years there have been many attempts to redefine “being the light of the word” and “doing good works” in terms of what people are comfortable with. Some have even suggested it simply means immersing ourselves in teaching, and encouraging and building ourselves up in the faith, rather than getting our hands dirty.
However this is a very narrow way of looking at what Jesus said. And if it sounds like it’s a way of trying to avoid contact with non-believers, you would be perfectly correct. But God’s works are not just works of faith, but works of love too. So Jesus’s expectation of his followers is that we will not only express our loyalty to God, but we will care for our fellows as well.
So “good works,” in this context, is a general expression to cover everything a Christian says or does—every outward and visible manifestation of his or her Christian faith. And again it’s not an optional extra. It’s the expectation of Jesus of all of his followers.
Salt and Light then: “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” That’s quite a responsibility we have. From the negative side of being salt, part of our role is to be active in trying to prevent decay, to help preserve, season, purify and fertilize the world. And from the positive side of being light, part of our role is to share what we have received for ourselves, and bring light to the world.
1. The Basic Issues
Two very powerful images. But images that tell us that reflect two great truths:
Firstly, that there is something terrible wrong with the world in which we live. It has become contaminated and corrupt. In general terms, people either reject God, or they twist everything he stands for so that it becomes unrecognisable. And secondly, even though we are not perfect, Christians have a role in showing the way, restoring God’s values, and being the messengers of hope to the world.
Now that’s quite a contrast. And yet how easily we confuse the two. Because when we refuse to be salt, and when we refuse to be light—when we don’t do what Jesus says we must do—it becomes so difficult to distinguish between the two.
2. Examples of being Salt and Light
After all, how often do we hear of people being dehumanised; people who are being treated as second class citizens—or not even human—because they are different? People who come from a different culture, a different race, a different religion; people who are not valued as highly as others might be. And how often do we shake our heads thinking there is nothing we can do about it?
And yet, David Livingstone went to Africa as a missionary taking both salt and light. He wanted to do something about the slave trade, and he wanted to share the gospel. And he tried.
How often do we hear of people being persecuted because they are different? Again, people who are from different cultures, different races, and different religions? And how often again do we recognise the problem, but feel helpless to help them?
Yet, Corrie ten Boom responded to the call to be salt and light. She provided sanctuary for Jews being persecuted by the Germans during the Second World War—at the risk of her own life—but within the context of a very openly Christian family.
And how often do we hear of people being taken advantage of and abused? And I guess the recent history of the church is one such example. It also demonstrates how much easier it is to turn a blind eye, than to stand up and deal with the problem.
And yet, Martin Luther stood up to the abuses of the church. He was the salt and light. He pointed out how the church was using the people to gain revenue, whilst at the same time he corrected the beliefs of the church. The sad thing, of course, was that he was kicked out of the church for his pains.
3. Salt and Light
Now I’m hoping that at this point that you can see that each of the people I have chosen—Martin Luther, David Livingstone and Corrie ten Boon—each of them, I have described as being both salt and light. In other words they haven’t just done good deeds, and they haven’t just told people about Jesus. And that’s for good reason. Because Jesus didn’t tell his disciples that they could be one or the other, but that they needed to be both.
The implication for us, then, is that there is a problem with having a charity mentality, if the Christian faith is not part and parcel of the whole thing. As a consequence whilst non-Christian charities have their value, they are substantially deficient. Similarly there is a problem with telling someone about Jesus, without taking into account their situation. We are supposed to be salt and light. Not salt or light.
But we don’t all have to go to Africa, we don’t all have to deal with the problem of a war, and we don’t all have to get into deep theological debates with the leaders of the church. Even though some of us do. Nevertheless we are still expected to be both salt and light to the world.
So where does all this leave us? Are we salt? Are we light? Are we one of them, or are we both? Or are we struggling with the whole idea? Indeed, have we become so contaminated with the world that we have become useless to God?
Being salt and light is not always easy, and in sense, some contamination with the world is unavoidable—after all, we are only human. Nevertheless we do need to try hard to see the distinction between the world and the ways of God, and to play our role, regardless of where it takes us.
So, today, are we God’s “salt”? And are we God’s “light,”? What are we doing, and how are we making a difference?
Now we’re not all going to be Martin Luther’s, David Livingstone’s or even Corrie ten Boom’s. In a hundred years’ time, our names may not even be in the history books. But that shouldn’t stop us making a difference.
Remember that Jesus’s words were spoken to a group of nobodies. And he not only expected them to take their part, but he expected them to make a difference. And it’s no different for us today.
So are we being the salt of the earth? Are we being the light of the world? What difference are we making today?
Posted: 4th February 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Spirit of the Law (Matthew 5:21-37)
These days we seem to be inundated with legal issues. On our televisions and in our newspapers we hear and read stories of people taking others to court. Not that many years ago we had a Public Liability crisis, which crippled community events and put the future of many small businesses at risk. And whereas in the past, it seemed like this was all the stuff of the Americas, these days we could easily comment, “Haven’t we got to the point where we are just the same?”
However, whilst it’s all very well for us to lament the current situation, couldn’t it also be said that the mess that we find ourselves in today, is simply the result of the way we view the law in our society.
After all, as a country, don’t we have a reputation of looking for loopholes in legislation in order to gain an advantage? And don’t we have to increasingly create new legislation to fill the gaps? Aren’t people increasingly seeking financial compensation when they feel they have been wronged, rather than take a more gentle approach? And aren’t we increasingly being encouraged to do so? And as a consequence haven’t we become a society that puts more value on the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law?
Now you’re probably wondering where all this is going. And I can understand that. Except for the fact that what I’ve described is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, even in Jesus’s time there were experts who knew the law, but who also knew how to manipulate it to their own advantage. What is interesting, then, is Jesus’s response to that situation—one of which we find In Matthew chapter five. Because what Jesus had to say has serious implications for the way Christians should view the law today.
B. THE CHRISTIAN APPLICATION OF THE LAW
1. The Background (20)
Now the background to the passage is that Jesus had a group of people in mind—the Pharisees. Now they claimed to keep the commandments. But what they meant by that was they kept the strict letter of the law—and in particular God’s law. And in keeping the letter of the law they may well have been right. Except for the fact that Jesus was concerned that they really didn’t understand God’s laws at all. Indeed he implied that those who professed the faith, but were looking for loopholes, and manipulating the rules to suit their purposes, were living lives well short of the mark. And people who purported to have faith, needed to consider that they were accountable to God for their responses to his laws. Indeed more accountable than those who didn’t profess the faith at all.
So that’s the background. As a consequence Jesus’s remarks were directed fairly and squarely towards believers.
2. You Shall Not Kill
a). The Letter versus the Spirit (21-22)
And the first point that Jesus made was, that far from just keeping the letter of the law, believers were expected to uphold the spirit of the law too.
Indeed, using the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill,” Jesus equated anger towards a fellow believer as the equivalent of murder itself. As a consequence it deserved the same punishment. And treating a fellow believer with contempt was a crime that required an even harsher penalty still. Furthermore, making a negative judgement against a brother’s membership of the kingdom was a crime worthy of nothing less than condemnation by God himself.
The importance of the sanctity of human life to Jesus, then, was not simply a matter of not committing murder, but it went much further than that. Indeed, he expected all believers, not only to be non-judgemental, but to treat all fellow believers with respect.
b). The Implication for Believers (23)
Of course why Jesus took such a stand is not implicitly stated in the passage. The implication, however, is that the behaviour of one Christian to another is of vital importance. Because how we behave reflects on our attitude to God, on his principles for living, and on whether we care for our fellow believers or not. It also reflects on how others see God and his church too.
So if we only keep the letter of the law, and not the spirit of the law, our spiritual welfare is at stake. If we are angry with a fellow believer, we may not have physically killed them, nevertheless we are just as guilty as breaking the Spirit of God’s law as if we had. And failure to make things right with a brother in the church effectively falsifies any profession of faith.
c). Two Choices (24-26)
So if a worshipper is it odds with another, Jesus said they need to pursue reconciliation. And as far as Jesus was concerned it needed to be pursued speedily and urgently. The worshipper was to get his or her priorities right. The believer was to take whatever steps necessary to restore harmony. And only when that was achieved were they to come back and resume worship. Because the act of worship was not as important as the spirit in which it was done.
And if someone refused to be reconciled … That then meant that they must bear the penalty for not being reconciled. And what Jesus describes, was not just the continuing disharmony between two believers. No! He was talking about the rejection of the person by God, and all of the eternal consequences that that entailed.
Now do you feel that you’ve been suddenly hit with hammer? Because I do. Indeed, Jesus could not have been more explicit. It’s not the letter of the law that’s important, but the spirit of the law. And in a country that looks up to people who play on the edge that can be very difficult to accept.
But by using the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill,” Jesus has reminded us that God’s laws are serious, and that the whole welfare of society depends on having the correct attitude to the law. That is why the spirit of the law is so much more important than the letter of the law, particularly among people who profess to be believers.
So in the case of the Pharisees, by only keeping the letter of the law, they had demonstrated an unwillingness to obey God’s commands. And as a consequence it not only put them off-side with God, but it gave them plenty of scope for a good deal of ungodly behaviour.
4. You shall not Commit Adultery (27-30)
Now, as far as I am concerned, Jesus had made his point, and could quite easily have left the matter there. But he didn’t. He continued on with a second example to illustrate his point. This time with the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”
And whereas the strict letter of the law related to the act itself, Jesus expanded it out to include looking lustfully at someone else. He then provided an extraordinary suggestion of plucking one’s eyes out, and chopping off parts of one’s body in order to prevent a believer from sinning.
Nevertheless, the point is clear. The law is about the sanctity of marriage, not just adultery. And it is the principle behind the law, not the letter, that is important.
5. A Certificate of Divorce (31-32)
Then having said that, he did it all over again. But this time with the topic of divorce.
Now nowhere in the bible is there any law from God commanding people to get divorced. But there is a regulation which is intended to protect the wife from being driven from her home without good reason—and that was the point of the bill of divorce. And that was what Jesus was speaking to. People were not taking seriously the principle behind law (the safeguards for the woman), rather they were using the strict letter of the law (and simply issuing a piece of paper). They were not considering the greater consequences for the woman at all.
So again, the principle that the spirit of the law, not the letter, is made explicit.
And then, Jesus did it all over again. And this time the issue was swearing oaths. That is, the solemn declaration that appeals to God in confirmation of what has been said.
Now this is at the heart of the principles of the spirit and the letter of the law. After all, in those days, it was not expected for people to be truthful all the time. So, when someone wanted to be taken seriously, they would follow up their statement by swearing a solemn oath in God’s name, to back up what they had said. Which, of course, in many instances, brought God’s name into disrepute.
And that is why Jesus’s expectation of his followers was that when they promised to do something they would fulfil that promise. That they were to restrict the use of solemn oaths to only promises made to God himself. And at all other times …. Well, they were to simply speak truthfully at all times.
In other words, the spirit of the law—being truthful at all times, was far more important than the letter of the law—swearing oaths. Because all swearing oaths did was to get oneself into trouble, and it didn’t reflect well on God either.
Now I think, with me, that you will agree that Jesus has made his point. But, had we read on, we would have found two further illustrations that Jesus made to illustrate his point—one on “Retaliation” (38-42) and the other on “Loving One’s Enemies” (43-48). Nevertheless Jesus is quite clear that keeping the spirit of the law is far more important for Christians than simply sticking to the strict letter of the law.
So how do we apply Jesus’s teaching for us today?
Well, firstly, as Christians, we should not be skirting the line between what is legal and not legal. Indeed we should not be engaged at all in looking for loopholes or ways around any law at all. Rather, whether it is God’s law or the State’s law, we should be looking for the principle behind the law. We should then uphold the principles of God’s laws, and we should uphold the principles of the State’s laws (in so far as they do not contradict God’s laws).
Secondly, we should understand that our motivation should not be what’s good for me, but rather what’s good for God and for the upkeep of a healthy community. Because it’s when we put ourselves first … That’s when we start to skirt the line between what is legal and what is not.
And, thirdly, we need to address, and to respond to the issues that Jesus raised:
In regards to the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill,” we need to take on board the principle of the sanctity of life. We need to care for others, and be actively involved in ensuring the quality of life for all people.
In regards to the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” we need to uphold the principle of the sanctity of marriage and the family. We need to recognise that the family is at the heart of the community. And if we tamper with that in anyway, the whole community will eventually come crashing down.
In regards to “Certificates of Divorce,” the lesson is that whatever we do, our actions have consequences—and often consequences for other people. So we need to think very carefully about the things that we do, and about how what we do affects others.
And in regards to oaths, we need to remember the importance of being truthful at all times, and that swearing oaths tend to reflect badly upon God. And, in any event, unless we are making a solemn promise to God, they should be totally unnecessary.
And if we can learn those lessons, we would be well on the way to applying Jesus’s principle of keeping to the spirit of the law, not just the letter.
Now, as I said at the beginning, in our country we see a lot of legal issues. We see them on the news and read them in the paper. We even see adverts encouraging us to pursue our rights. And much of this has been created because of the way we treat our laws—preferring the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. As a consequence we shouldn’t be surprised when we see people seeking legal remedies, rather than pursuing one of the many alternatives.
The letter of the law puts the individual before the community. It also puts the individual before God. As a consequence it doesn’t work. Because all it does is build distrust and broken relationships with other people, and with God. And it creates an environment where more laws are required to deal with the gaps and loopholes, in an ever increasing cycle. Only the spirit of the law takes seriously our relationship with God, God’s laws, and our relationship with other people.
In this passage from scripture we have just looked at, Jesus demonstrates the far better way. But is it one we are willing to embrace? After all, it does go against the grain of much of what our society admires.
Posted: 11th February 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: What Kind of Legacy? (Matthew 9:18-26)
As I was reading this gospel passage, I couldn’t help be reminded of my own mortality – and I began to reflect on the kind of legacy that I would leave for future generations. Not the kind of legacy (e.g. money, property) that we typically leave to our family, friends, etc.., but the spiritual legacy that comes from being one of God’s witnesses in the world.
Now I’ve never been a great one for wanting my name up in lights, but the reality is that whatever I do has an impact on others, and any influence I have may well continue beyond my lifetime. So I need to make sure (as much as I can, and with God’s help) that my legacy is worthwhile, uplifting, and points others to Jesus.
But to do that, I need to be alert to the dangers – and doing what I think best is perhaps the biggest trap of all. Indeed the man-made traditions so lovingly upheld by the Pharisees and Sadducees began with the principle of applying God’s laws to everyday life – all well and good. But they were so rigidly applied that they lost God in the process. As a consequence, I need to make sure that everything I do is God-centred, and not me-centred. Indeed there may be things that I like, and ways that I like things done, but I need to make sure that God, and God’s ways are at the focal point of everything I do.
This means that leaving a meaningful legacy is not just something that will happen when I die, but it is something that I need to nurture now. And that is a sobering thought as I reflect on my own mortality.
Posted: 7th November 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Persecution and Australia (Matthew 10:26-33)
Events around the world, in the last few years, continue to remind me of how lucky we are in this country.
After all, tensions are pretty high in many countries, particularly in places that are hostile to the Christian faith. There are many countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith. There are also countries where trying to share the faith can result in the death penalty. And most of this sort of persecution does not feature in our daily news.
In contrast, in most parts of Australia, we have it so easy. Yes, even here, Christians may be persecuted. But most people simply think that Christians are a bit odd—because they don’t always conform. And many may feel they should act differently around Christians because of religious sensibilities. However, in contrast to what others face in the world, we are relatively free to come and go; free to exercise our faith. And at the same time, for the most part, feel safe in what we are doing.
2. Jesus’s Teaching
As Christians, and as Christians who live in Australia, then, Jesus’s teachings on standing firm in the face of persecution may not seem relevant to us today. After all, we don’t face the same kind of persecution as elsewhere. It’s much easier for us to stand up for what we believe.
However, what I’m going to suggest is, that Jesus’s teaching is just as relevant for us, as to those facing physical persecution. Because although in Australia Christians don’t usually face death for their faith, we do face attacks on our faith nonetheless. Attacks which may be more subtle, but still put pressure on us to deny God and to reject what we believe.
B. JESUS’S TEACHING ON PERSECUTION
Now, today’s passage stresses the importance of whole-hearted allegiance to Christ. And the passage features Jesus, who faced physical persecution himself, telling his disciples—three times—not to be afraid.
1. Solidarity with Jesus (26-27)
The first “do not be afraid,” centres around the thought that Jesus was not respected by the Jewish authorities. And if Jesus was not respected, and the disciples were true followers of Jesus, then they could hardly expect to be respected either. Just as Jesus was persecuted, so his disciples would be persecuted too.
Jesus’s message was one of solidarity, of the need to stand together with him, and to resist any pressure to give in to the ways of other men. He warned them that they would be plotted against. Indeed, that people would meet in secret to plot their downfall, and would do anything to divert them from their task. But regardless of that, Jesus said, they were to keep on proclaiming the things that he had shown them and taught them. They were to be true to their beliefs.
Yes, others might plot in secret. But eventually their plots would be revealed for exactly what they are. In contrast, they were to stand up and openly speak of their faith in Jesus and the message of salvation, no matter what the consequences.
Now can you imagine the problems that being a Christian means to those in countries where people are persecuted simply for being Christians, let alone standing up and proclaiming the faith. But the fact that Jesus said two thousand years ago to his disciples to expect persecution, means that we should not be surprised when we hear of it now.
But what about us, in our own society, in Australia? Well we may not face the same problems, but as Christian’s, don’t we face pressures of our own?
After all, what about family pressures? Pressures to conform with family life, and not to be the religious nut of the family? What about pressures to skip church, just this week, because there’s something more important on? What about the temptations to indulge ourselves, to stretch the rules, when we really should know better? And what about the pressures to conform to community attitudes, that it’s OK to do certain things, even things that are “legal” or are “not illegal,” even if our faith teaches us not to do them? And what about the pressure to keep quiet about the things that we see and hear, when we know we really should be standing up and speaking out?
Yes, physical persecution may be one way that Christian’s can be persecuted for having faith, but there are far more subtle ways. Indeed, any pressure to reduce a whole-hearted allegiance to Christ, is just as bad as any other.
A lack of physical persecution may sometimes mean that we become too lazy in our faith, too relaxed, take God too much for granted. And yet the temptations we face to deny Christ, in many ways are just as real as if we were facing physical persecution ourselves.
2. Limitations of Human Abilities (28),
The second “do not be afraid” centres around the mistaken belief that we will be safe if we don’t stand up for our faith. And it poses the question, “Is it better to upset men, or upset God?”
Indeed, Jesus taught his followers that the worst that their enemies could do was to kill them. They could do no more. On the other hand, God could do so much more. It is the future of our souls which is to be our primary concern, not the physical harm that any enemy may inflict.
And on this basis, Jesus taught, that the disciples had little to fear from standing up and being counted. Because if their eternal wellbeing was the most important, then that was in the hands of God.
When we consider this “do not fear” then, it makes little difference to whether we are being physically persecuted, or are facing our own subtle brand of persecution. The issue is the same. That is, what is more important: our family, friends, society and culture or our relationship with God? Which is the one that can give (or deny) us eternal life?
If we resist the temptations of our family, or friends, what is the most that we have to lose? Oh, sure, life might not necessarily be pleasant. But isn’t it preferable to upset family and friends, than to risk facing the wrath of God? When it comes right down to it, is it this life that is more important, or is it eternal life with God?
3. God’s Followers are Valuable (29-31)
And the third “do not be afraid” … Well, it’s a reminder of how important Jesus’s followers are to God. And in a sense, it’s a comparison between how much God cares, and how much anyone else can care.
Jesus told his followers, that if the heavenly father cares for the humblest of his creation—for even the most insignificant of his creatures—then how much more would he care for them.
Jesus gave an example of a sparrow. Now, sparrows were sold in the market place for food. They were small birds and could command only a small price. Yet, even though they ranked low in the scheme of things—they were of little importance—Jesus said that God takes notice of every individual little sparrow. And nothing happens to any of them without the involvement of God.
The point is, that God cares very much for his people. That he knows absolutely everything about us, even the number of hairs on our head (which must change several times daily). And if he cares that much, how can anyone compete with the attention that he gives us.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we will get an easy ride. But it does mean that we should consider our options. So, if we are tempted to conform to other people’s expectations—to buckle under the pressure to please our family, friends, workmates, or whoever—then we should first consider who it is that really cares, and who really has our best interests at heart.
Of course, that might mean that we miss out on some things which seem fun, or rewarding. And some people may get the strange idea that Christians have no fun. But that isn’t what this is about. Christians should have fun, but only fun that is wholesome and spiritually rewarding. But what it does mean, though, is that given the alternatives we should always consider who really has our best interests at heart.
4. Reward for Allegiance (32-33)
Then after Jesus had said three times “do not be afraid,” encouraging his disciples not to buckle under but to remain faithful to the faith, it’s not surprising that he concludes his advice with a warning.
Anyone who openly declares allegiance to him, he will acknowledge before God. But anyone who disowns him on earth, he will disown before the heavenly Father.
There are permanent consequences of rejecting Jesus. Hence Jesus’s final comment is, that those who reject him will suffer. But not some slight and temporary inconvenience, rather the eternal consequences of rejection by God himself.
Jesus’s teaching on persecution, then, is a very powerful message, and one we need to take very seriously indeed. It’s a dramatic message, and one that couldn’t, perhaps, be put in terms more black and white. Because whilst we may usually think of persecution in terms of physical harm, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that in many ways the subtle influences to conform to this world, are just as real, and just as dangerous to our eternal wellbeing.
So, events around the globe, only some of which are widely reported, should serve as a reminder of how lucky we are in this country. We enjoy a relatively peaceful kind of life. Christians in Australia do not face physical persecution on anything like the scale that many face around the world. But that doesn’t mean that Christian’s don’t face pressures, which have the same consequences. The danger for us is that we can become lazy, relaxed, and take God too much for granted, with the result that we can fail to stand up and be counted.
Now Jesus taught his disciples, that they needed to have whole-hearted allegiance to him. That they needed to focus on a place in eternal life with God, rather than get wrapped up in living in the present. He taught them that only God could really care; that no one else could care like he did. That only God had their best interests at heart. And he taught them that if they were faithful to him, then he would be faithful to them before God.
And that poses a challenge for all of us in our faith. After all, how do we cope with persecution? Not necessarily the physical persecution that we hear about with others. But how do we cope with the many subtle pressures to our faith, that we face in living in a country called Australia?”
Posted: 18th June 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Depths of Faith (Matthew 10:37-42)
1. Competition for Attention
We live in a society where many things compete for our attention. We have family and friends, work, and home life. We have clubs and organizations for just about anything—from service clubs, sporting clubs, and clubs where you can just go and meet people. There are help groups and charities, and … Well the list goes on. And if you are young with children, much time is probably also spent in being a taxi service for many of the things and events competing for your children’s attention.
In fact, there are so many things competing for our time, and our money, that it really shouldn’t come as any surprise when we hear of organizations collapsing around us—and some that do very valuable work indeed.
After all, how many organizations have you heard about that used to be financial viable, but are now on the point of collapse—because of lack of financial support? How many organizations have you heard about, that used to have plenty of members, but are now about to close their doors because of lack of interest? They just can’t get the numbers to maintain their existence. And how many organizations have you heard about that people even claim to support, but when it comes down to it—when a special event is put on or money needs to be raised—those members are conspicuous by their absence?
2. The Place of the Church
Now one of the organizations that seems to suffer from all of these, in different ways, is the church. Some churches have found themselves in financial difficulty; some have closed, and some are teetering on the edge. And that is even though more than half of the population of Australia identify themselves as being affiliated in some way with the Christian Church.
In our growingly complex world things are not always what they seem. Yes, there are many things that seek our attention. And yes, we are all limited to the amount of time, and resources we can offer. But the fact is that we can’t do everything and be everywhere. Somewhere along the line we have to choose what is important to us; what it is that’s going to hold our attention. And unfortunately, that often means we have to let other things go.
So today, what should our level of commitment be to God and to his church? Should I response be different to any other organization? And how deep does one really need to be to be committed to God, and the Christian faith?
4. Introduction to the Gospel
Well, in our passage, Jesus talks to the disciples about this very thing. And Jesus draws a cameo of what it means to be a follower. And although the picture is not intended to be a comprehensive view of discipleship, nevertheless the ideas raised, and the three points he makes are very telling:
B. THE DEPTHS OF DEVOTION (37)
And the first point that Jesus makes is in regard to the depths of devotion needed to be his follower.
Now, at the heart of his point was a cultural understanding that nothing was more important than the relationship between a parent and a child. In fact, the Jews found it abhorrent that anyone should claim a higher relationship. And yet, Jesus categorically told his disciples that whoever placed more importance on family relationships than on a relationship with him had missed the whole point, and could have no part of him at all.
Now this might seem a bit rough, particularly regarding the strong belief of the importance of the family, and family relationships. But Jesus’s claim on the lives of his disciples was on the basis that he was more than a mere human teacher and leader. He was the Son of God. Therefore, being a follower of Jesus was not something that could be done on a superficial level, mixed up with all the other activities of life.
Indeed, the depth of devotion he required was total. Which meant not only putting him first before father, mother, son or daughter. But it required a loyalty that went beyond mere family relationships.
To the disciples at the time this would have been radical thinking, and it probably still is. But the implication for us is not that we should not hold family relations dearly, but rather that we should not allow family, or anything else competing for our attention, to get in the way of us and God.
Yes, we may have family pressures, we may have work pressures, we may have pressures from friends or from our club mates, or from one of a number of other sources—all that require our urgent attention. However, the message from Jesus is clear. If we allow anything or anyone to get between us and putting him first, then we really have no relationship with him at all.
C. THE DEPTHS OF COMMITMENT (38-39)
The second point that Jesus made was in regard to the depths of personal commitment.
In other words, how much does a follower need to give in order to be a follower of Jesus? And at the heart at his point, Jesus likened what he was saying to his disciples having to take up their own crosses and following him.
Now crucifixion, at that time, was commonplace. People were aware that anyone who was condemned to be crucified was on a one-way journey to death. So, having to carry your own cross to the place of execution was tantamount to giving up any claim on life.
So, in Jesus’s illustration, we find again that his demand on his followers was total. It was not good enough even to place him above their families in their affections. He needed to be placed first before themselves. His disciples were told that unless they were prepared to face persecution, even to the point of martyrdom, for his sake, they could have no part of him.
The life that mattered, was life for the sake of Christ—the life that took the same road of self-denial that Jesus took. And what was important, was not any benefit that they could secure on the way. What was important was the need to serve God and to serve one’s fellow man.
So, if putting Jesus before family was radical, then this was even more so. The implication for us on this second point, then, is that we are called not only to put Jesus before any other call on our time and resources, but we are to put our lives on the line for him too. We have to risk death for him—in the service of God, and for the benefit of others.
The things we like to do in life, our hobbies, our interests, the things we belong to, and the things that we support, may be important to us, and may give us much pleasure. However, they may also be the things we have to give up, or modify our involvement, to stop them getting in the way of our relationship with God.
In short Jesus says we have a choice. We can live for now and face the eternal consequences. Or we can live for him now and live with him in eternity.
D. THE DEPTHS OF CARE (40-42)
And the third point that Jesus made, is in regard to the commitment to care for our fellow believers.
And at the heart of this point is the idea that amongst all believers, the people who are likely to have the hardest time are those in leadership positions. And in New Testament terms this meant Apostles, Christian prophets and teachers.
It was the leaders of the church that faced an uncertain reception, as they went about declaring the message of the kingdom. It was the leaders of the church that were more likely to face persecution, and hostility. And it was the leaders of the church, because of their greater exposure to the public, who would sometimes need protection and a safe haven.
Indeed, Jesus taught his disciples, that whether it was the Apostles, the Christian prophets and teachers, or even ordinary church members, only false disciples would refuse help.
Jesus’s demand on his followers, then, was that they would help one another—from providing shelter from persecution, to providing a simple cool refreshing drink. If one was a true disciple, that sort of level of care needed to be given.
And the implications for this third point of Jesus? Well, even leaving the shelter of physically persecuted Christian’s aside, it raises the issue of needing to encourage one another in the battles of life and faith. To build up and encourage those in leadership roles, and to be always willing to give our fellow Christians the support that’s needed. Indeed, anything from our physical support to the provision of a refreshing drink.
Being a disciple, then, is not something that one can do in isolation to the church. The words of Jesus here makes that very clear. Because the faith that is demanded not only covers a commitment to put Jesus first, but it involves a commitment to provide for our fellow believers as well.
So, what Jesus describes in this passage from Matthew’s gospel, is a commitment that no other organization or person should demand of us.
He described a depth of devotion, where nothing and no one should get in the way between us and God. He described a depth of commitment that risks putting our own life on the line in order to carry out his will. And he described a depth of care, of hospitality and of willingness to provide encouragement and support towards our fellow believer. And that puts the kind of commitment required for God and the church, well beyond that of any other organization or being. With Jesus, there are no half measures. He expects, and demands total commitment.
Now in one sense, you could describe what Jesus stated as being impossible. How could we possibly meet all three criteria? We make mistakes; we could never be like he described. And you’re right, in this world we can’t, and Jesus knows that. But they are goals we need to take seriously. And ones, if we have any faith, we should strive, with God’s help, to attain.
So, yes, we do live in a world where there are so many things that compete for our attention. There are many things that compete with both our time and resources. As a consequence we need to spend time to work out our priorities.
Because whilst there are import things, good fun things, and some very worthwhile things that we enjoy doing, we also need to get our faith, and our church responsibilities into perspective.
The number of people in this country, who affiliate themselves in some way with the Christian church, is more than half. Yet the number who attend church, in contrast, is only very small. This then would suggest that most people, have very little idea about what it means to be a Christian, and what the demands are for those who claim to have a Christian faith.
But do we?
After all, none of us is perfect; none of us have got everything right. And in a world where so much is vying for attention, it’s very easy to be distracted from the demands that Jesus makes on our lives.
Posted: 1st July 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis