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
SERMON: Seeking Divine Guidance (Matthew 1:18-25; 2:1-18; Luke 1:26-33, 38; 2:1-14)
There are some people in life who appear to have it all together. They know exactly what they want out of life, and they appear to be progressing very nicely towards their goal. In contrast, there are others who appear to live life without purpose. People who don’t know what they want to do, or where they are going. And in the middle – perhaps the majority – are people who seem to travel along the journey of life in stops and starts. Sometimes being enthused and inspired, whilst other times grinding to a complete halt.
Now wherever you are in life, I’m sure that at times a bit of guidance wouldn’t come amiss. And not just any guidance, but divine guidance that is clear and unmistakeable. Like a voice calling out from above, or a large hand appearing from the clouds pointing the way.
And if that’s you – wanting some kind of inspiration and guidance – then I would suggest that the clues on how to get it are in the all too familiar story of the first Christmas.
B. DIVINE GUIDANCE
1. Mary (Luke 1:26-38)
After all, doesn’t the nativity story start with a girl of about 12 years of age, who suddenly, without any warning, becomes faced with an angel? And what the angel did was to map out exactly what was going to happen to her next.
She was to have a baby – a baby conceived through the Holy Spirit. The baby was going to be God’s son, and king of his people. But her child was not just going to be any king. No, her son was to rule in eternity.
2. Joseph (1) (Matthew 1:18-25)
Next in the story, of course, is Joseph, Mary’s fiancé. A man probably somewhere between 19 and 30 years of age.
And Joseph, realising that Mary was unmarried and pregnant, was wrestling with the knowledge of the public shame and disgrace that that would bring. Now he too was visited by an angel. And the angel told him the place that God had for him in his plans as well.
He was told to marry Mary, regardless of her condition, and he was to name the baby Jesus. And it was very important that he did this, because Jesus’ role in life would be to save his people from their sins.
3. The Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)
Now talk about divine direction! But it doesn’t end there. Because next we find ourselves in the fields with the shepherds, who were guarding their flocks, at night, from thieves and wild animals.
And for them divine guidance was received twice over. Because, firstly they were visited by an angel, who told them to go to Bethlehem, to see the Messiah that had been born. And then secondly, by way of confirmation of what they had been told was true, they were suddenly surrounded by a heavenly host singing praises to God.
4. The Wise Men (Matthew 2: 1-2)
And meanwhile, some distance away to the east, there were some wise men – students of the stars – who had been studying a strange phenomenon in the sky. A phenomenon they believed meant a great leader had been born. So they followed the star to Judea.
Now at some stage they probably got side-tracked into going to Jerusalem (because isn’t that where an important person should be born?). But after being directed on by Herod to Bethlehem, they found the star again, and followed it until it stopped over the place where the baby lay.
5. Joseph (2) (Matthew 2:13-15)
Then once the wise men had left, Joseph received a second visit from an angel. However this time it was not good news.
Herod was out to get Jesus – to kill him. Herod was fearful that the baby Jesus was a threat to his own throne. So, as a consequence, Joseph accepted the instruction of the angel, and headed off with Mary and the baby to Egypt where they would be safe.
So, looking for a bit of inspiration, a bit of divine guidance in life? A voice calling out of the clouds? A large hand pointing the way? Oh wouldn’t it be lovely if things were as simple as that? As simple as the divine guidance that was given to Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men.
C. WHAT SORT OF PEOPLE?
So the question we should probably ask is, “What sort of people were Mary and the rest? What was so special about them that they received such clear and precise direction from God? Were they rich? Were they powerful? Were they influential people? Or were they ordinary people like you and me?”
1. Ordinary People
Well, for the main part, they were just ordinary people. Mary and Joseph may have had important people in their family trees, but they were not rich or important themselves. Indeed Joseph was a lowly carpenter, and Mary and Joseph had to contend with all the normal struggles of life – the same as anyone else.
The shepherds too, would not have been rich or powerful either. Indeed around that time being a shepherd was considered one of the lowliest types of jobs that you could do. So there was nothing very special about them either.
Only the wise men would have been people of wealth and influence. And their wealth and power is indicated by the presents they brought – of gold, incense and myrrh.
2. People of Faith
What made them all special though – was that that they were all people of faith, or were people who were looking for God.
a). Mary (Luke 1:26-38)
Mary was a girl who had found favour with God, presumably because of her strong faith in God. She was God’s willing servant. And that is indicated by her willingness to be used by God – to become pregnant – with all the social ramifications that that would bring. She was only too willing to be God’s instrument in history.
b). Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25 & 2:13-18)
Joseph showed his faith – by sticking with Mary – regardless of the public consequences. He was obedient to the request of the angel, despite the public disgrace of Mary’s pregnancy.
Furthermore, when told of the danger to the baby’s life by Herod, he again showed his faith, by not hesitating, but setting out immediately with wife and child, and escaping to safety in Egypt.
c). Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)
The shepherds meanwhile – would have had a strong religious background. They would have been waiting for the Messiah. So when they heard the message of the angel that the Messiah had come, they did as they were told, and went looking for the baby.
d). The Wise Men (Matthew 2:1-2)
And the wise men? Well, we really don’t know much about them at all. But what we do know is that they were open to divine guidance. They were looking for a king, but not just any earthly king. They were looking for a divine king. A king they intended to worship – who they recognised was somehow “king of the Jews”
Envious eyes!!! Yes, we can all look on Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men with envious eyes. They were all given clear and precise direction by God to the direction he wanted each of them to take. And wouldn’t life be so much easier if things were like that for us too?
So what can we learn about divine guidance from the Christmas story? What sort of things should we be looking at, when we are seeking divine guidance?
Well, it seems to me that there are three things about the story of the nativity that we should consider.
1. People of Faith
And the first is, as I’ve just said, that Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men, were all people of faith to some degree. All were either devout believers, or were earnestly seeking God,
As a consequence, when we are looking to God for guidance, perhaps we should ask ourselves: “Do we approach him from the perspective of faith? Or do we do so without first having made any real commitment to him at all?”
That doesn’t mean to say that God cannot and will not help people who don’t believe or give him his due – there are plenty of examples in the Bible to say that he can and does. However, asking from the perspective of faith is surely a much surer way of receiving divine guidance.
2. Pointing to the Messiah
Secondly, all the revelations – the several appearances of angels, the heavenly host, and the star – all pointed to one thing: God’s salvation work: the reconciliation of people with their creator, through God’s son who was to be born into the world.
Consequently, when we look for divine guidance, perhaps we should ask ourselves: “Do we approach God from the perspective of what he wants us to do, in pointing our lives and others towards Jesus? Or do we seek God’s guidance based on our own wants and desires?”
3. Willingness to Serve
And, thirdly all those in the story who received divine guidance had one thing in common. That is, they had an openness to accept the guidance given – and to be led by God, no matter where that would take them.
And that is in complete contrast to some of the other characters in the bible. Including two people whose stories with God begin with very rocky starts. Because Moses came up with every excuse why he shouldn’t do what God asked of him, and Jonah just ran away.
No! Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise men responded immediately to God. There were no ifs, buts, or maybes. No delaying committee meetings. They set out on their journeys, and they did what they were asked, even though none of them really knew where their journey with God would take them. They stepped out anyway. And they trusted that God would continue to encourage and guide them every step of the way.
So when we are looking for divine guidance, perhaps we should ask ourselves: “Are we approaching God from the perspective of being a person of faith, or are we someone who has made no real commitment to him at all? Does the guidance we seek focus on God, and the salvation wrought by Jesus, or is centred on our wants and desires? And are we willing to carry out our part in God’s plan – whatever that might be, or do we want to be able to pick and choose, dependent upon how comfortable we are with what he wants us to do?”
Now without doubt the first Christmas was a very special occasion. And it should be expected that the people involved would need to have been given special direction. Consequently, it may be unrealistic for us to expect visits from angels, or heavenly hosts, or stars to follow, as we seek God’s guidance.
Nevertheless, if we want to receive guidance from God, then perhaps it shouldn’t be unreasonable to request guidance from the perspective of faith, from the perspective of how we are to be part of the continuing story of salvation, and with an attitude of willingness to carry out our part in God’s plan – whatever that might be.
So, for those whose lives seem perfect, or for those who find life a struggle, or even for those whose life’s journeys are a series of stops and starts, the story of the first Christmas should be an inspiration for us all.
Indeed, the way God intervened in history with the birth of the Messiah, with the guidance and direction for Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men is something we should all consider. And it certainly should give us something to think about for our own inspiration and guidance, well and truly after the Christmas season is over. And well after all the tinsel and trees are put away.
Posted: 19th December 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Four Questions About Christmas (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-20)
I know it’s not Christmas yet, nevertheless, I want to ask the question, ‘How do we celebrate Christmas?’ And the reason I ask that is because it can never be too soon to consider our reply.
Because how we celebrate it, is a mark of how faithful we are to our Lord and Saviour. It says something about whether we believe or not. As a consequence, with all the preparations for Christmas starting earlier and earlier each year, we need to be prepared.
And that is why, today, I want to ask four questions about Christmas. And, by doing so, I want to see whether the way we celebrate the birth of Jesus is right or wrong.
B. THE FOUR QUESTIONS
1. Why Was Jesus’s Birth Really Necessary?
And the first question is: ‘Was Jesus’s birth really necessary?’
Well, I’d like you to imagine that you are God, and you’ve created a whole universe of your own. You’ve done it for a purpose: so that you can enjoy it, and so that you can be involved with the creatures that you’ve made.
And in order to enjoy your creatures to the full, you’ve given them freewill—the ability to choose for themselves how they live, how they respond to the world around them, and how they respond to you. You didn’t just want puppets—creatures that would do whatever you told them because that’s the way they were made. Rather, you wanted beings that responded to you on their own terms—that would treat you as God because they wanted to, rather than because they were made to.
All well and good, except that the consequence of creating beings with freewill, is that, generally, none of them have really acknowledged you as the creator. Most, whilst acknowledging your existence, have little time for you. Many want to replace you with gods of their own—made to their own liking. And some, even refuse to believe that you exist at all.
Now, if you were God faced with this scenario, what would you do?
Well, of course the obvious answer is to wipe the lot away; to create a flood or something like that, and maybe start all over again.
The trouble is you’ve already done that. And because you love your creation so much, you have vowed not to do it again. So, what do you do next? And what do you do, particularly as your second creation, has become as bad, if not worse, than the first?
The problem is that you can’t wipe out your second creation and be true to yourself. Because you’ve promised not to do that. So you need to come up with an alternative solution. And what you need is a means to remove that blockage—that sin of rejection—but without destroying the creatures that you’ve made. You need a substitute—a scape goat—so that the sin of the guilty can be passed on to someone who is innocent.
The trouble is, that scapegoat needs to be someone special. It needs to be someone who can experience everything that the rest of your creation has to face; someone who can live with the same limitations of any other human being. But someone who is free from sin and corruption themselves; someone who is able to have a perfect relationship and can live life totally devoted to you, the creator; someone who is prepared to give up everything for the cause, even his own life; and someone who will take the whole punishment, for the creatures that you’ve made.
And so, we ask the question ‘was Jesus’s birth really necessary?’ To which the answer is: Absolutely! He did it for our benefit. Because without exception, we are all guilty of not putting our creator first. And even if we were guilty of only doing that once, we would still be deserving of the same punishment as if we were a continuing offender. As a consequence, we all need the solution that God offered, that began with the birth of Jesus on that first Christmas day.
2. What Actually Happened When Jesus Was Born?
Now the second question, ‘What actually happened when Jesus was born?’ perhaps brings us into more familiar territory.
Of course the birth of Jesus didn’t just happen in isolation. It was foretold throughout history.
And in particular there are prophecies dating up to six hundred years before the birth of Jesus by the prophets Isaiah, Micah, and others foretelling the birth, life, and death of the Messiah.
Of the event itself, Nazareth in the time of the Emperor Augustus was a small and unimportant town in the district of Galilee. It was the home of Joseph and Mary—engaged to be married—and to whom each (separately) had been visited by an angel, telling them that Mary would become the mother of the long-awaited Messiah.
And, of course, while they were waiting for the baby to be born, Emperor Augustus ordered that a census to be taken. A census it appears which occurred every fourteen years—and was held so that the government could work out what taxes were due from the people. However, because of this census, Joseph had to return to the place from which his ancestors came. So he had to travel to Bethlehem, one hundred and thirty-five kilometres to the south, taking Mary with him.
Now, Bethlehem, for such an event, would have been a very crowded place. And as a consequence, finding accommodation was a problem. And so, Joseph and Mary had to stay in a cave, an outhouse, or a room in a private house. And while they were there, Mary gave birth to a son and she used an animal’s feeding trough as a makeshift bed for the baby. And he was given the name Jesus, which means ‘God saves’.
And although the importance of the birth passed unnoticed by most people, shepherds were alerted to his birth by some angels. So they went to see him. Seven days later on a visit to the Temple—and without being introduced—Simeon and Anna who worked there, recognised him and rejoiced at the birth of the Messiah too. And sometime later, even up to two years, Jesus was visited by some ‘wise men’ from the east—probably astrologers from Persia who studied the stars and believed that unusual events in the heavens were signs of important events on earth. And on arrival in Jerusalem, the astrologers were informed that according to Old Testament prophecy, God’s promised Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem ten kilometres to the south. And following the star, again, they found Jesus, and gave him gifts fit for a king.
But like all good stories, there is always someone nasty lurking in the wings. And King Herod, always fearful that someone might threaten his throne, heard about Jesus’s birth. And being determined to make sure that this new ‘king’ would not become a rival, he ordered that all boys less than two years of age in the Bethlehem area to be killed. As a consequence, Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus, south to Egypt, where they waited for Herod to die. Which he did in due course.
Unfortunately, Herod’s son Archelaus, was just as bad as his father. But despite that, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus returned to the family home at Nazareth. They just took a more roundabout route to avoid unwanted attention.
3. Why Did the Church Begin to Celebrate Christmas?
The third question is ‘Why did the church begin to celebrate Christmas?’
Now, that may seem like an odd question. But we need to remember that for the first three hundred and forty years after the birth of Jesus, Christmas was not celebrated by the church. It was not considered an important festival. And even today Christmas is not the most important festival on the church’s calendar.
So, why did the Church begin to celebrate Christmas?
Well, the celebration of Christmas really came about through an accident of history—and has its origins in Rome about 336 AD. Now even today we don’t know when Jesus was born, but it was most likely to have been in September, not December. And it was probably about 4 or 5 BC and not 1 AD. However, on 25th December each year, in Rome, a festival was held to worship the sun in the sky. And it was celebrated on 25th December, because that was the day in winter when the days stopped getting shorter, and started to lengthen. As a consequence, it was believed that the sun had conquered, yet again, the long nights of winter.
The problem for the Christian church was that the festival went against everything the church stood for. People were supposed to worship God, not the sun in the sky. And people were supposed to depend upon God, not on the apparent gods who controlled nature. And for the Christian church, what was worse, is that no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t stamp out the festival. The celebrations were just too popular.
So ever inventive, in the end they stopped trying. And instead, they gave the festival a Christian twist. And so it became known as the ‘Feast of the Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness’. (In other words Christmas as it is known in the western world.) And they changed the meaning of many of the practices to conform to the Christian faith.
Then, from small beginnings in Rome, the new festival grew in popularity. From Rome in the fourth century, it spread to Southern Turkey and North Africa. And in the fifth century, it finally arrived in Jerusalem, where one would have expected any celebration of Christmas to have begun.
The consequent customs of Christmas have derived from a number of sources—and they are mostly of non-Christian origin. Merrymaking and the exchange of presents find their origin in the Roman Saturnalia festival, in honour of the Roman God Saturn. The greenery and lights come from the Roman New Year celebrations, and have all sorts of pagan implications. And the tradition of feasting and fellowship comes from a German-Celtic background.
For a long time, in the US (and England) Christmas celebrations were objected to by the Puritans because of their pagan origins. And so it was only in the 19th century that the celebration of Christmas became really popular, and began to look anything like what we know it today.
4. How Should We Celebrate Christmas Today?
Which leads us into the fourth and last question: ‘How should we celebrate Christmas today?’
Well, Christmas means different things to different people. For some, it is a time of giving and receiving of presents; for others, it’s a time of catching up with relatives and old friends. For some, it’s nice food and drink—and even a time when it’s OK to over indulge; and for others, it’s a time to sing carols and to recall a pleasant story (that is, if you gloss over the poverty and the need for the holy family to be on the run).
Yes, Christmas means different things to different people. However, what it should mean, and how it should be celebrated, should be wrapped up in the three questions (and answers) that I’ve just outlined today.
1. Why Was Jesus’s Birth Really Necessary?
Because to the question of ‘Why was Jesus’s birth really necessary?’ we have an image of our creator God, who was prepared to go to any lengths to save his creation. That’s the point of Christmas. It’s about a plan by God, so that you and I can be rescued from the wrong choices we’ve made—and continue to make—which includes our inability to treat God as we were created to do.
Without God’s plan, we would be lost. With God’s plan, we have the opportunity to be saved from ourselves.
The way we celebrate Christmas, then, should reflect, more than anything else, the choice that God has given us all: to accept God’s plan and spend eternity with God, or to remain outside God’s plan with all that that implies.
2. What Actually Happened When Jesus Was Born?
To the question ‘What actually happened when Jesus was born?’ we have an image of the creator God who not only gave us a plan, but who put it into practice too. As a consequence, we have something concrete to respond to. And that’s also what Christmas should be all about.
That means that the story of the nativity—the story of the birth of Jesus—is not just a nice story and one we should think of once a year. But rather, it is a story we are called to respond to. It’s about a saviour we need to accept deep in our hearts. And if we do that, then the birth of Jesus isn’t something we would want to celebrate once a year, but would be something that has meaning every day of the year.
3. Why Did the Church Begin to Celebrate Christmas?
And to the third question ‘Why did the church begin to celebrate Christmas?’ Well, even if we consider that the church was misguided in thinking that they could totally and permanently transform a pagan festival, at least we should acknowledge that their motivation was in the right place. They wanted to rescue people from themselves; they wanted to save souls.
4. How Should We Celebrate Christmas Today?
And that’s what Christmas should be about for us too. Because if we have accepted God’s plan and our need for rescue, and if we have accepted Jesus as our saviour, then the only step that really matters is our responsibility to give others the opportunity to accept God’s plan too.
However, we must always remember that God values free will, and people may not always do what is best for themselves.
Now there are many other questions that we could ask about Christmas. And these are only four that I’ve touched on briefly today. However, even these four raise some interesting questions in regard to what we believe, and how we respond to the Christmas story.
Not least of which is: ‘Have we accepted and adopted God’s plan for ourselves?’ ‘Has the birth of Jesus really made a difference to our lives?’ ‘Do we live our lives with a focus on sharing Jesus, and God’s plan with everyone that we can?’ And ‘Are all these things the central focus of our Christmas celebrations today?’
Something to think about in our approach to the Christmas season this year.
Posted: 30th April 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: A Christmas Quiz (Matthew 1:24-2:18; Luke 2:1-20)
So, because trivia nights and quiz shows have become so popular, what I thought I’d do today is to give you a quiz. And today it’s a quiz based on the trivia surrounding the biblical version of the Christmas story. So here goes:
Question 1: What sort of building was Jesus born in? Was it an inn, a stable, a house, or we don’t know?
Answer: We don’t know. We know it wasn’t an inn because there wasn’t any room there (Luke 2:7). And the tradition about a stable relates to the fact that Jesus was placed in an animals’ feeding trough (Luke2:7), which could just as well have been put in a room in a house for something to put the baby in. So the answer is we really don’t know. Although a cave or a room in someone’s house are considered the most likely options.
Question 2: How many types of animals are mentioned in the biblical version of the Christmas story, and what were they? Was there one type: sheep? Were there two types: sheep and donkeys? Were there three types: sheep, donkeys and camels; or are no animals mentioned in the story at all?
Answer: Only one type of animal is mentioned: sheep. There is no mention of a donkey on which Mary may have ridden to get to Bethlehem. There is no mention of any animals surrounding the actual birth of Jesus, unlike what you see in nativity scenes. And there’s no mention of any camels that the wise men may have travelled with. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any other animals there. But the only animals mentioned in the bible are sheep. And they were in the fields being looked after by the shepherds.
So, how are you doing so far?
Question 3: How many wise men were there? Were there 2, 3, 4, or we don’t know?
Answer: We don’t know. All we’re told is that there were some Magi, Wise Men or Kings depending upon the translation you’re reading (Matthew 2:1). The traditional number of three is a guess based on the fact that there were three types of gifts given—gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:12). However, in reality we really don’t know how many there were.
And one last question:
Question 4: Where did the wise men find Jesus? Was it in Bethlehem (at the place Jesus was born), Bethlehem (at a house somewhere else), Nazareth, or we don’t know?
Answer: we don’t know. What we do know is that the star that the wise men followed led them to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1), and that King Herod told them that the Messiah was expected to be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5). But even though Herod sent them off in the direction of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:8), it was the star that led them to where the child was located (Matthew 2:9). If indeed it was Bethlehem, it is an indication that, by the time the wise men appeared, Mary & Joseph may have settled in Bethlehem. But it’s very unlikely that it would have been at the same place where Jesus was born.
So, how many got all four right? How many got three right? Two? What about one? And who’s brave enough to say they got none right? Well, however many you got right in a sense it doesn’t matter, because, as I said at the beginning, these questions are all about trivia. And sometimes we can be so keen on getting the little details right, that we miss the bigger picture.
Because the real Christmas story isn’t about where the baby was born, how many types of animals there were, or the number of people who came to see the baby and where the baby was at the time. The real story of Christmas is about the fact that Jesus was born, and the reason why he needed to be born at all.
And the reason that Jesus was born? It was because God had a problem, and still has a problem, with the people he created—you and me. And the problem is that we like to go our own way. We like to put ourselves before God, and before other people. As a consequence none of us are fit to live with God when we die.
It was for this reason that Jesus was sent into the world, so a baby could be born, grow up, live a perfect life and pay the price that we should rightly pay for all the times that we ignore God, and for all the other things we do wrong, or don’t do as we should.
The crunch point of the Christmas story, then, is not whether we remember the trivia, but whether we have put our faith and trust in Jesus for what he has done. Because only by doing that are we able to have our slates wiped clean. Only then can we be treated by God as though we are perfect. And only then can we live with God in eternity. So we need to remember that that is really what the Christmas story is all about.
So, how did you go with the quiz? Good, OK, not so good? Well don’t worry, it’s not the trivia that counts. What counts is what we have done with the reason behind it all. It’s what we do with the baby that matters.
Posted: 23rd December 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Heroes of the Bible – John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-17; 4:12; 11:1-18; 14:3-12; Luke 1:5-25, 39-45, 57-66)
Every now again someone special comes along, and grabs our attention. It might be someone with a bright personality. It might be someone whose character is a little bit quirky. It might be someone who is particularly good at sport. It might be someone with good leadership skills. It might be someone that has been motivated by a particular issue, and has decided that they need to make a stand. Or it might be someone who has worked tirelessly for the community for many years, without fuss, who doesn’t want to be the limelight, and would prefer to simply carry on doing what they enjoy and do best – helping others. But whoever that person may be, whatever the attraction, it’s someone who comes across as genuine, and just that little bit special.
Now, of course, some we might class as heroes. Others… well they might not have reached hero status, but they are people we can look up to and admire. Some may have received public recognition, whether through a pat on the back, a certificate of appreciation or even a nomination for the citizen of the year award, or other such honour. And some… well, we may just wish that they had.
Now as I sat and thought about these kind of people, I couldn’t help think, “just who are my heroes?” Is there any one I could think of that I could really say that I admire?
And I came up with someone. Someone who was not involved in Australian history. He wasn’t even born in the last 500 years. But he is someone for whom I have the utmost respect. Because his courage to stand up for what he believed in, in the face of adversity, I believe, is something to be admired. And he is of course, a character from the bible.
B. JOHN THE BAPTIST
1. Who Am I?
Now the person I thought of had his life mapped out before him before he was even born. He was born a little over 2000 years ago. And his birth was a miracle in itself. He was surrounded by disciples in later life, and some continued on well after his death. And he was put to death when he was probably little more than 30 years old.
He spoke out against corruption in the world. He got up the noses of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and even a king. And he called people to repent of their old ways, and return to a relationship with God.
Worked out who it is yet? Because I’m not talking about Jesus. I’m talking about John the Baptist.
2. John’s Birth Foretold (Luke 1:5-25)
Now John’s story began, as I’ve indicated, before his birth. His parents Zechariah and Elizabeth were both of the priestly line, and they were godly people. However, they were getting on in years, and had not been blessed with any children. Indeed, in one sense they had given up on the idea.
The stigma on them, at the time, for not having any children, would have been tremendous. Not having any children was seen as a sign of divine displeasure, and a public disgrace. And it may have been because of that stigma that Zechariah was motivated to pray earnestly to God for a child.
Can you imagine his shock, then, when an angel appeared to him, whilst he was at work serving in the temple, and declaring that his prayers were about to be answered. That Elizabeth would have the son that they had desperately desired.
Now Zechariah might have thought at that point that everything was done. Mission accomplished. But, as it happens, that was not the end of the story. Because the angel then proceeded to map out John’s future. Zechariah was told what his son’s name was to be. He was told the kind of upbringing to provide, including special dietary requirements. And the angel even told him what John’s task was to do (and remember John hadn’t even been conceived at this point).
John’s task was to prepare the people for the Messiah. He was to function like an Old Testament preacher – calling the people to repentance, in the same way that Elijah had. And he was to be filled with Holy Spirit (like Elijah) to carry out the task.
John was going to be someone very special. Very special indeed. And sure enough after the angel’s visit, a miracle occurred: Elizabeth became pregnant.
3. Mary Visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45)
Now we are not told much about John’s upbringing – what he was like, the sort of things that he did, or even how his parents actually brought him up. However, we do have two cameos which give us insights into the background of his early childhood.
And the first, was before he was even born. Because when Elizabeth was visited by one of her relatives – the young Mary (who at the time herself was carrying the baby Jesus), we’re told that as soon as the unborn John heard Mary’s voice, John leapt for joy in the womb. The unborn John recognised just how important Jesus was, and the role that Mary had to play.
4. Birth of John (Luke 1:57-66)
And the second was, seven days after John was born, at the ceremony of circumcision, when there were all sorts of pressures on Zechariah and Elizabeth by neighbours and relatives to name the baby after his father, Zechariah and Elizabeth stuck to their guns, and insisted on calling him John.
This was indeed an indication of the joy that Zechariah and Elizabeth had of the birth of their son, and their determination to bring him up according to the instructions that they had been given.
5. John’s Ministry (Mt 3:1-12)
And every indication is that they did a good job. Because the next time we see John, he is fully grown, about 30 years of age, and is preaching in the wilderness in Judea. And looking every bit the part that was mapped out for him.
He was doing his odd quirky things – wearing clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt. And his diet? Locusts and wild honey. Perhaps all intended to be a visual protest against self-indulgence.
And the role that he was playing? Well he was doing exactly the task he had been called to do. Being an Old Testament style preacher, calling people to repentance, and preparing the people for the coming Messiah.
And using his upbringing, with his father working in the temple, he called on the people to repent of their old ways, and to be baptised. He called the Pharisees and the Sadducees to account. And as we find out later in his story, he also upset at a king in the process.
6. The Baptism of Jesus (Mt 3:13-17))
And when the Messiah approached him… when Jesus came up to him as he ministered to the people in the wilderness…. Well, for the second time he recognised him straight away. And even though he knew that Jesus was the one person who did not need to be baptised. On Jesus’ insistence he baptised him anyway.
And what a baptism it was – as evidenced by the divine signs: the Spirit of God descended like a dove on Jesus, and God’s voice calling out from heaven expressing his pleasure at his son.
7. Arrest (Matthew 4:12, 14:3-5)
Of course, shortly after that, John was arrested and thrown into prison. He’d upset just one too many people. He’d upset King Herod, by telling him that it wasn’t kosher to be living with his brother’s wife. Well, not whilst his brother was still alive, anyway.
8. A Moment of Doubt (Matthew 11:1-6)
And as he languished in prison, he had what most of us have from time to time – a moment of doubt. Was Jesus really the Messiah?
You see like others, Jesus had not turned out to be the kind of Messiah that he had expected. His disappointment was natural. And I guess being locked up for several months, his doubt lay heavily on his mind. But he had his disciples, and he wanted reassurance. So he sent some to Jesus to check. And what he got back was not just reassurance of who Jesus was, but confirmation by Jesus of his own role in the salvation of the world.
9. Execution (Mt 14:6-12)
Now whilst John was reassured, he was never released from that prison. He was executed by King Herod on the prompting of Salome and Herodias, and his head was delivered on a platter.
What an amazing man. John – a man who had had his future mapped out for him, even before he was born. A man who was faithful to his calling. He was a man of courage who spoke out against the abuses of power. But he was a man too with an active concern for the spiritual welfare of his people. For sure he had a moment of doubt – but that only shows that he was human. Despite that John was truly an amazing man.
11. Compared To Elijah (Mt 11:7-18)
And indeed, Jesus agreed. Because Jesus compared him to the prophet Elijah. John was a messenger, and not just any messenger, but one who was to prepare the way for the Messiah. And in a culture steeped in expectation that Elijah would come again for that very purpose, Jesus indicated that indeed John was that man. And he fulfilled his role, even down to the dietary requirements. Exactly as God had planned.
John, an amazing man? Yes! A hero? Well in a sense, yes! But one of a kind? No! And do you know why I say no? Because I believe, in many ways, the story of John the Baptist, is the story of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. And I’d like to pick out five things about John that can be equally applied to anyone who is a Christian.
And the first relates to God’s knowledge of us before we were born: Because just as God knew John right from the start, so too did he know all of us. Indeed we can read in Psalm 139 how God searches us and knows us; he even knows how we think (Psalm 139:1-2). But more than that, he created us in our mother’s wombs as well (Psalm 139:13-14).
The second relates to us being chosen by God. Because just as John who was chosen to serve God, so all of Jesus’s disciples have been chosen – us too. Jesus told his disciples (as recorded in John 15, that we did not choose him, but he chose us (John 15:16a). Further, that we do not belong to this world, but have been chosen out of the world…” (John 15:19b).
Thirdly, we haven’t just been chosen, but we’re part of God’s plan. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus telling them that he have not only been chosen, but we have been predestined to take part in God’s plan for the world (Ephesians 1:11).
Fourthly, just as John was filled with the Holy Spirit, so too are all believers. Indeed John, himself, told his converts that whilst he baptised them with water, the one who followed him would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Matthew 3:11)
And fifthly, just as John was called to be an evangelist, so too are we. Jesus said to his disciples. Indeed Jesus charged his disciples to go everywhere in the world, with the purpose of making disciples, baptising them, and teaching them as he had taught them (Matthew 28:19-20a).
So in a sense, what’s the difference between us and John the Baptist? Absolutely nothing. Now doesn’t that make you feel humble? We are no different from one of the great heroes of the Bible – John the Baptist himself.
Now, we started off thinking of people we admire. Some who are bright, some who are a bit quirky, some who are good at sport, others leadership. And others… well their claim to fame is that they just quietly work away, making no fuss, just getting on with the job.
Now some of these have received recognition, and others… well maybe we wish they had. Some are heroes, and others … well we can’t help but admire them.
John the Baptist was created by God. He was chosen by God. He was part of God’s predetermined plan. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. And he was charged with the role of an evangelist. And that’s exactly the same for all Christians who have ever lived, or are still living today.
Now, we may not all be heroes in other people’s eyes, We may not all be about to receive a reward – whether as a pat on the back, or a recommendation for an honour. But in the end it doesn’t matter. What matter is that we are faithful to God.
For each and every one of us, our roles were set out before we were born. What we have to do, then, is identify the tasks that God has given us to do. And to live our roles no matter where they may lead.
Posted: 25th July 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Getting Things the Right Way Around (Matthew 3:13-17)
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)
“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: The Spiritual Journey (Matthew 7:13-14)
It can happen when we are young, when our parents move (and we have to move too). It can happen in the decisions that we make about our education, and the kind of work that we want to do. It can be about our decision to have a partner, and the many compromises that are needed to be made to join two lives together. And it can happen with the decision to retire, and with a whole new set of circumstances to face. Etc., etc.
There are numerous events which can cause us to re-evaluate, and find our lives pointing in a different direction. But it isn’t just the more “secular” events that can change our lives, an encounter with God can see us change too.
Indeed, imagine we have a map, and on it we have marked our life’s journey. We begin at Point A and our goal is Point B. And if we did that, we could see the path we can take for our journey. We would also a number of distractions that can divert us too. But, imagine, all of a sudden, we have an encounter with Jesus. And what that means is that we need refocus our goals and change our destination.
Now the problem is, that to be Christians we don’t have a choice of the journey. We all start at Point A—being sinners—and we all need to change direction from Point B (where we were headed), to Point C (where we can enjoy eternal life). And how we do that, in Biblical terms, is that we need to “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate that is wide and the road that is broad leads to destruction—and many enter through it. But even though few find it, the small gate and the narrow road leads to life.” (Matthew 7:13-14). Furthermore, in the words of Jesus himself, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).
When we consider the list of life changing events, then, an encounter with Jesus would have to be far more dramatic.
But having said that, however, we may all be sinners, buy your starting point (Point A) will not necessarily be the same as mine. We all come from different backgrounds. Furthermore our experiences from Point A to Point C may be very different too.
Indeed, even the early disciples came from very different backgrounds. Many were fishermen—uneducated men looking for the coming of the Messiah. Matthew was a tax collector—one of the most hated occupations in the land. And the Apostle Paul was a Pharisee—out to protect the Pharisaic version of the Jewish faith no matter what the cost. All their faith journeys were different. Their starting points were different, and so were their spiritual experiences.
Yes, they were all on the same road together, well eleven of them at least. But their journeys and the speed at which they arrived at their destination was different, one from another.
As a consequence, when it comes to the Christian journey, the task may be to go from Point A to Point C, but not everyone will start at the same place; people will travel at different speeds; not everyone will get to the same destination without stopping; and some will get very distracted on the way. Indeed, you may know some people who have been in the church for years, but who are quite happily plodding along at their own pace. You may also know others who are keen to reach the end goal as fast as they can.
We’re all different. And, as a consequence, God’s calls us to exercise the different gifts that he gives us, which are all designed to help, encourage, build each other up, and keep as all on track as we continue our common journey. And because of the constantly changing dynamics of the church, those different gifts and abilities will be required to be used at different stages on the journey.
And that should suggest that it’s not just once that we should expect an encounter with Jesus. But that it will happen again and again, as he tweaks our paths on the journey.
As I indicated at the beginning, it may be very nice to live a life where everything goes smoothly along. Indeed, it may be what most of us desire. But we all know that life’s not like that—that there are stages in life, that require us to re-evaluate our goals and reassess our journeys.
And just as that’s true for the more “secular” events, it’s also true in regard to our relationship with God. At some time or another, God calls all people to change direction, from Point B (where we want to go) to Point C (the way to eternal life). But where we start from, and how we travel along that path, will be very different for us all.
Prop – Map
Posted 14th March 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing (Matthew 7:15-21)
If you’re anything like me, when I read the bible, I sometimes find a passage that makes me very uncomfortable. Perhaps I don’t like what it says, or I don’t agree with it. And it’s like there’s a temptation to tear the page out; to edit the bible to make it more palatable.
Of course, it’s quite normal for Christians to find things that makes them uncomfortable—even in the bible. But the idea is that we should use these experiences, not to edit our bibles, but so that we can grow in the faith.
Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Indeed there are some people who don’t just find the odd thing with which they are uncomfortable, they find whole sections. And the end result is that they are tempted to not just tear the odd page out, but to virtually demolish the book.
And something like that situation is what is described in this gospel passage. Because Jesus describes a group of people, who have no problem making a profession of faith. Indeed, they make all the appearance of being faithful followers, even to the point of leading and teaching others. But in reality, it’s all a show. They’ve either not made any commitment, or they’ve torn out so many pages, that by their actions, they show no commitment to Jesus whatsoever.
As a consequence, what we have is some advice from Jesus: “Steer clear of these sorts of people. Do not be taken in.”
Because the first thing he suggests is that we should look out for such people, because they are false teachers (15). The only thing they can be relied upon is to lead us astray. They present themselves as harmless, but their real interest is their own profit. And they will try to further their own interests at the expense of others within the church. And we don’t have to go far to find them, because they will come to us. They are wolves (ravenous wolves), in sheep’s clothing. They may claim divine inspiration, but they do not speak on behalf of God at all.
Secondly, he suggests, they can easily be recognised. Not by their outward appearance or what they say, but by the things they do (16-18). Their lifestyle will not match up to their profession of faith. Their quality of thinking, and the manner in which they live their lives, will betray them for who they really are. So if we take note of what these people do, and refuse to be charmed by their false words, we will recognise the people for what they really are.
And, thirdly, he says that the fate of these people has already been sealed (19-21). Discipleship means more than just religious activity. And if all they have is a profession of faith, which cannot be backed up by being productive members of God’s kingdom, then they face condemnation by God.
In other words, a profession of faith is not enough on its own. And in the terminology of Jesus, these bad trees will be cut down and thrown into the fire. They will not inherit eternal life with him in heaven.
Now just by way of a comment here. Jesus was not advocating a salvation by works, i.e. having to do things in order be saved. But he was advocating the need for a profession of faith with an appropriate way of life. Jesus’s argument is that if someone really trusts in him for their salvation, then that will have an inevitable effect on their lives. Indeed, their lives will become less self-centred and will increasingly reflect Jesus’s teaching. But those who simply profess a faith, and who continue to be arrogant and live self-centred lives . . . Well, all they really demonstrate is that they have no real commitment of faith. And consequently their words or just a mockery.
So what’s in this all for us today?
Well, firstly, we need to heed the warning of Jesus to be on our toes. It’s not just the New Testament church that had problems with false teachers and false prophets. Indeed, the same situation is (sadly) alive and well and in the church today.
Secondly, we shouldn’t be naïve. No matter how presentable or charismatic a person can appear to be—regarding matters of faith at least—we should not allow their personality to cloud our judgement. Indeed, we should try to see if what they say is consistent with the way they live. In other words we should test to see if people claiming to be teachers are genuine or not.
And thirdly, we should take comfort in the fact that God already knows who these people are. It’s not up to us to judge them, that is already in hand. We may want to distance ourselves from them, particularly from their teaching, but their fate has already been decided and we need do no more.
As a consequence, within our churches and without we will find a variety of responses to Jesus. From those who have a problem with one page of the bible, to those who want to tear most, if not all of it out. But Jesus’s warning, is to take heed of those who profess the faith but by their actions show that they really aren’t believers at all. People who use their profession of faith to deceive others, thus gaining some benefit from themselves.
Some sound advice. But maybe also a reality check. After all, how many pages have we torn out to make the bible more palatable for ourselves?
Posted 21st November 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Jesus’s Kind of People (Matthew 9:9-13)
In recent years, there’s been a lot of publicity about the rate of suicide in this country. Indeed, the examination of it—particularly youth suicide—and the reasons for people taking their own lives, has been of increasing concern. As a consequence, there have been moves into reducing, if not combating suicide, and in many cases the causes have been identified.
Some can’t cope with life. It is too stressful and suicide is an easy way out. Others feel that everyone is against them, and no matter how others try to help they can find no one who can give them support. Some have problems with living with a mistake that they have made in the past. It makes life intolerable because it just won’t go away. Others . . . Well there seems to be no identifiable reason at all; the cause is just a mystery. And the list goes on . . .
Yet whilst some people see suicide as a way out of whatever they are going through, it’s also true that many times that number, facing similar problems, cannot consider such an extreme solution. Because there are many who seem to have few friends; who have feelings of very little worth; who find life hard to cope with; and have a very low self-esteem.
As a consequence, how many people have you heard saying, “I’m not good enough;” “I made a silly mistake, and I can’t forgive myself;” “I’m not important;” “I have no talents or abilities;” “So and so is better than me;” “I’m just a waste of space;” and “I’ve got nothing to offer”?
Sound familiar? Well if it does, and if even you can identify with some of those sentiments yourselves, then this message is for you. Because far from being useless and of little worth, these kinds of people—even you and I—may be “Jesus’s kind of people.”
Let me explain what I mean.
B. THE CALLING OF MATTHEW
Now the background to the story is that Jesus had just spent time with some of the so-called “undesirables” of society. And what is meant by that, is people who, in the Pharisees, eyes were of dubious moral background, people who would make them ceremonially unclean, or people whose jobs, or whose place in society, was not highly rated.
Indeed, Jesus had been confronted by two men, both possessed by demons. And Jesus had responded to their needs by casting out the demons. He had then been presented with a man who was paralysed because of the sins that he had committed. Yet again he responded to his needs by telling him that his sins were forgiven, and by telling him to get up and walk.
Now, interestingly, in neither case are any objections to Jesus having dealings with these people recorded. But then in each case the men, or their friends, had approached him. However, as the gospel story continues, it is Jesus who then takes the initiative, and it is then that the Pharisees became very vocal in their opposition.
2. The Calling of Matthew (9)
And so the story opens with Jesus seeing Matthew sitting at his booth.
Now Matthew was a tax collector, and consequently considered as the lowest of the low in Jewish society. Because not only did he collect revenue on behalf of the Roman rulers, but he made sure that he padded the accounts, to line his own pockets too.
Matthew, then, was not a total nobody. And although he was probably only a subordinate in his role of collecting customs dues, he was undoubtedly rich and had much power. But he probably didn’t have much to be proud of. Socially he was an outcast. He was a traitor to his own kind, and a thief. And, as the story goes on… he was Jesus’s kind of person.
Indeed, Jesus called him to follow him. That is, not just to abandon his post, but to formally settle up his business, make a decisive break with his old lifestyle, and begin a lifestyle of discipleship following him. In other words he was called to give up his lucrative trade, to live a life of faith with Jesus. And that’s exactly what he did.
3. The Business Meal (10)
And so the next thing we’re told is that Jesus was not only invited into Matthew’s house, but on top of that, a lot of other undesirables—tax collectors and sinners—were invited to eat with them too. Matthew arranged a feast for his former business associates, with the clear intention of introducing them to Jesus.
And Jesus, far from backing away from mixing with this group, who had lived either immoral lives or had low occupations, was happily joining in the occasion. Jesus had accepted his role in spending time with the outcasts, and those considered least important, and he was not going to shy away from his role, no matter what he knew he would face from the Pharisees.
4. The Criticism of the Religious Leaders (11)
So when the Pharisees arrived on the scene—presumably after the meal, because they wouldn’t have wanted to have been there or to have seen to been there at the meal—the challenge to Jesus would not have been unexpected.
By mixing with those whose pasts were doubtful, with those who jobs were not considered nice, Jesus had made himself “unclean.” However rather than face Jesus directly, the Pharisees took the cowards way out and confronted the disciples for an explanation. They asked, “Why does you teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” They said, “Your teacher,” as though they were wiping their hands of all responsibility.
5. The Defence of Jesus (12-13)
But Jesus, knowing the question was really aimed at him, responded in two ways.
Firstly, he stated the obvious: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Indeed, Jesus not only justified his concern for the outcasts and the neglected but challenged the Pharisees to self-examination regarding their own spiritual life. He verbalised his role as needing to be with sinners, rather than the righteous. Because as the Pharisees considered themselves to be “righteous,” there was no need for him to spend time with them.
However, secondly, Jesus responded, by telling the Pharisees that they really didn’t understand the scriptures that they claimed to know so well. And in a pointed barb, he quoted a passage from Hosea: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6a), and then told them to go and learn what it meant.
From a background of concern for those who some considered less important in life, who had come to him, Jesus clearly illustrated that these kinds of people were precisely the type that he needed to be concerned with. Which is why, when the time came to use his own initiative, he picked out the outcasts of society—the people the elite wanted nothing to do with.
The story of Matthew and his tax collector friends, then, clearly illustrates the kinds of people to whom Jesus was called. And despite criticism from the Pharisees, he did not waiver from being with those who were of his primary concern.
But more than that, Jesus saw something in them that was special, that perhaps no-one else could see. For he had this uncanny knack of picking people, who appeared to be totally unskilled and unsuitable for the tasks that he was to give them. And yet, with the help of the Holy Spirit, they turned out to be some of the greatest leaders and contributors to the mission of the church.
So Matthew, hated by the general populace, was chosen not just to be any follower, but to be one of the twelve disciples. And, if we consider the other eleven disciples too, who were uneducated fishermen and the like, mostly unskilled . . . Who would ever thought that they would become the nucleus of God’s church?
Jesus could see someone’s potential, that no one else could see. He could see talents and abilities, that with the support of the Holy Spirit, that would make his followers, including the disciples, into great men and women of God. And yet to the rest of the world they may indeed have been “a waste of space”.
Now the implications of this story are many.
Firstly, for those who feel useless, of no value, who feel they are not good enough, who are not seen in the best light in the community, who have made mistakes in the past which continue to haunt them, who believe they have no talents or abilities and nothing to offer, the message is that you are probably Jesus’s kind of people. If Jesus were here today, you would be the kind of people that Jesus would be mixing with. You would be the kind of people that he would care for and spent time with.
Now that doesn’t mean we all have to be tax collectors and sinners, or even have a dim dark past. But just as in the past, Jesus chose not to mix openly with those who considered themselves righteous or worthy, so the same would be true today.
Secondly, for those who feel they have no talents and nothing to offer, then the fact that Jesus was able to identify hidden talents and hidden qualities, not only in Matthew and the disciples but in many others too, should be of great encouragement. Because no matter what other people tell you, Jesus saw something special in all of his followers. And that applies to all of us today too.
Thirdly, for those who consider themselves righteous or worthy, this story is also a reminder to check to see whether that is true.
The Pharisees saw themselves as righteous and yet they couldn’t have been more wrong, otherwise Jesus would not have had to send them away to learn what the bible meant. The Pharisees were righteous only in their own eyes. And we need to make sure that we are not only righteous in our own eyes too.
And fourthly, this story has much to say about the church and its mission. Because if Jesus spent his time with the undesirable people, the uneducated, those whose jobs were looked down on by society, with the ordinary people that the Pharisees had no time for, where does that imply that, as a church, our mission should be?
Yes, the church has welfare agencies, and they probably do a great job in providing emergency housing, bond assistance, marriage preparation, budgeting, and a number of areas where largely government funding is available. But that does not excuse us as a church in our role as a congregation, or even as individuals, in continuing Jesus’s ministry to those around us as well.
So today, do you feel that you’re not good enough? Do you feel as though you’ve made a silly mistake in life and can’t forgive yourself for it? Do you feel as though you are not important, that you have no special talents or abilities, and that others are so much better than you are? Do you even feel that you are a waste of space, with nothing to offer?
If any of that’s true, then this story is for you. Because rest assured you are Jesus’s kind of person. You’re not only the kind of person that he would spend time with, if he were around today, but he would also be able to identify some hidden talents and abilities that even you don’t know that you have. And in a world where sometimes there is little encouragement, there can be no greater message of hope.
Today, you are important in his eyes. You have reason to keep living and for life to have meaning. And, today, you should be important in the eyes of the church too.
Posted: 12th May 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: What Kind of Legacy? (Matthew 9:18-26)
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
DEVOTION: Who Do People Say that I Am? (Matthew 16:13-20)
In Biblical times people had opinions about Jesus. They were the results of what they had seen for themselves or what they‘d heard from others. And that included not only facts, but expectations of who they wanted him to be. And the same would be true for us today too. After all, some people could claim they know us personally, while others might say “I’ve been told all about you.” In either case people’s opinions will be based on reality or on the expectations of who they think we are.
But if we are told about someone by their history—by a series of events—it doesn’t necessarily tell us what kind of person that they really are. After all a Buddhist monk completed a three-year Christian theological degree yet remained a practicing Buddhist. And the attitude to Jesus in New Testament times was that the crowd often misunderstood who Jesus was; they didn’t have a clear understanding of who he was at all. And what makes it harder still, is that just because someone does certain things and says certain things, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are who they say they are. So a description of a series of events may be interesting, and even may say something about a person, but it really doesn’t describe who a person is at all.
So how did people in biblical times know who Jesus was? Well at this point in his story, the disciples had begun to learn who Jesus was, even if at this stage it still wasn’t clear. Like the crowds, they had witnessed many things—his miracles, his teaching, and the way he cared for others. But as disciples they had also witnessed a man with emotions, feelings, concerns and an overwhelming desire to tell people about his Father. And he had given them plenty of opportunities to build a relationship with him.
So when Jesus asked that question, “Who do people say that I am?” he may have expected some sort of answer based on his history—on the historical events that people had seen or heard about. He may have even expected an answer based on people’s hopes and expectations. But when he asked Peter directly, he got a much more intimate insight. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Now today we know who Peter thought Jesus was—we have it in black and white. But who do people think that we are?
If people can only describe us by a string of historical events, or by their hopes and expectations of us, then they really don’t know us at all. But if they can describe who we are because of our emotions and feelings, our hopes and our dreams, and our enthusiasm for the gospel, then they may well have a better idea of who we really are.
After all, as Christians, how passionate are we in our faith? And is that passion something that people can clearly see as we go around sharing the good news of Jesus.
Posted 15th November 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-35)
The topic of forgiveness is a subject that is raised continually in the bible—Old Testament and New Testament alike. So much so, that there is a danger of it being too familiar—an issue that can be easily glossed over. Despite that, the bible teaches that forgiveness is essential. Because without it we cannot be reconciled with God, and we cannot be reconciled with each other either. Forgiveness, then, is an essential part of our faith journey—not an optional extra.
Furthermore, whilst the topic of forgiveness runs throughout the whole bible, without a doubt, it culminates in the person of Jesus. Someone had to pay the price for sin. It was the reason for his existence, and forgiveness was central to his teaching. So, in this passage from Matthew’s gospel we have some words of Jesus that, perhaps, puts the whole issue of forgiveness into some sort of perspective. And I’d like to draw attention to three things:
2. God’s Forgiveness
The first is that it is God who has given us the gift of forgiveness (23-27). It is God’s initiative, and something that is completely undeserved.
Now as the story goes there was a king, and he had many servants who managed his affairs, and the king thought it was time to see how they were managing his money. So he initiated an interview with an official who was responsible for ten thousand talents of his money. Now whether the man could not account for the money through dishonesty or incompetence, we don’t know. But, whatever the reason, he was unable to give the king back his money. So the king issued a decree that the defaulter, and his wife and children, be sold into slavery. The man had run up a huge debt, and now he had to the penalty.
Of course, all this spelled disaster for the unfortunate servant. With such a huge debt, and with all his assets sold, there was no chance of him ever being free again. His only hope was to throw himself at the mercy of the king. So he wholeheartedly pleaded for mercy. He fell down and prostrated himself, even though he knew that he had no hope of paying back the debt. This was no half-hearted plea. His plight was desperate, and he was ready to promise anything.
And fortunately for him, the king was compassionate. His initial anger was replaced with compassion, and he did more than the man asked. He released the man, and he forgave him his debt.
This first part of this story, then, serves to illustrate God’s forgiveness. It illustrates that no matter what we do we can never repay God the debt we owe for the sins we have committed. We rely totally on his grace.
3. Our Forgiveness of Others
The second thing, however, is to understand the magnitude of what God has done, compared with the way he expects us to treat others (28-30).
Because in our story we find that the man who had been let off a debt of ten thousand talents then confronts a man who owes him a hundred denarii.
Now what we have to understand, here, is the magnitude of the amounts concerned. Ten thousand talents would have been the earnings of a farm labourer had he worked every day for 160,000 years. On the other hand, a hundred denarii would have taken only a hundred working days to earn. In other words the man who had been forgiven a debt that he could not possibly repay was being asked to forgive another man who owed him far far less.
But did the man forgive him? Did he let him off the debt, as the king had done to him? No! He had the man thrown into prison where he knew only too well that it would be impossible for the man to pay off the debt.
This second part of the story then, serves as a comparison between the magnitude of God’s forgiveness, and the relatively small debts that others owe us.
4. The Price for Failing to Forgive
And the third thing is that there are repercussions for failing to forgive others (31-34).
Now the king’s other servants were evidently disgusted with the man who had been forgiven much, so they told the king what had ensued. And, of course, when the king heard what his servant had done to the man who owed him so little in comparison, he had his servant brought to him and he confronted him about the injustice. The king had forgiven him a debt that would have been impossible to repay—he had received such striking generosity. So why couldn’t he have been generous in return. He had pleaded for mercy for himself, but where was the mercy he needed to show to the other man?
So, the king, angry with his official, took action. He handed the man over to be tortured. And there he was to remain in jail until his entire debt was discharged—which would never have happened.
This third part of the story, therefore, serves to illustrate how God views any lack of forgiveness on our part. After all, if God can forgive us so much, isn’t it only a small thing to expect us to forgive others, as a result.
Forgiveness then, is a very important aspect of our lives. It is a gift from God. It was his initiative in the beginning and is something that is totally undeserved—and without it we would have no hope of a relationship with him.
God’s forgiveness shows us the magnitude of what God has done, and we need to reciprocate by forgiving the relatively minor offences (in comparison) of those who do us wrong. However, we need to remember that forgiveness comes at a price—that there is a penalty for lack of forgiveness. Indeed, if we can’t forgive others, then we can hardly expect God to forgive us either.
Posted 11th April 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:1-11)
Who today considers Jesus to be their king? Who today considers Jesus to be the most important person in their life? Because it’s very easy to forget that Jesus is king.
As a consequence, one of the most encouraging and uplifting stories in the bible has to be about the events of Palm Sunday. Indeed, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem would have been a sight to see. There would have been all the colour, noise, and excitement. And it may well have been one of those events where many would say, “I wish I’d been there.” Because Jesus not only paraded into Jerusalem as a king, but he was accepted as king too. And there were a lot of people there.
Apart from the disciples, there was a large crowd who had gathered from the surrounding countryside. And they not only spread their cloaks on the road but cut down tree branches for the donkeys to walk on. It seemed that everyone was excited about their king coming to Jerusalem. And they weren’t afraid to let everyone know.
Then when they arrived at Jerusalem, the whole city came out to see Jesus. It must have been quite a spectacle.
That was the first Palm Sunday. And yet a little over four days later, Jesus was arrested, abandoned by his disciples . . . And where was the crowd? Well, bit by bit over the next four days they had all just turned away.
There was a series of incidents that had turned things sour. There was a confrontation with the religious leaders in the Temple that same Palm Sunday. The next day there were more problems with the leaders in the Temple. Later on, in the week, others had become involved, trying to trick Jesus with their questions, trying to get him to say something that would leave him open to accusation. And by the Thursday a plot had been organised to dispose of him, with one of his disciples agreeing to betray him.
So come Thursday night, when Judas and the large crowd had come to arrest Jesus, his closest disciples had fled, and he was alone. And obviously lots of other things also happened too. Because come early Friday morning when the crowd were given a choice of whom to save—Jesus or Barabbas—it was Jesus who was given the thumbs down. Jesus had to go.
In just over four days, then, the singing and the praising had gone. The triumphal entry had been forgotten, and even the most convinced believer had deserted. And that rather puts a different light on the events of the first Palm Sunday.
Now, of course, the motivation for abandoning Jesus would have been varied. Judas had probably been disappointed that Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah that he was looking for. The disciples had probably been in fear of their lives. Indeed, they may have thought that if they hung around, that they might be crucified too. And the crowd? Well, who knows what they thought? Maybe a bit of group pressure to conform? We’ll never know. But what we do know is that it took only four days for the people to turn from being followers of their king, to ones who willingly sanctioned his death.
And as I thought about that, it made me think, “What sort of believer am I? Am I a four-day believer only, or is my faith much more meaningful than that? If push comes to shove, and I was placed in a position where my faith was challenged, and my life was threatened, would I buckle under like those at the first Easter or would I remain standing tall and firm?”
Palm Sunday and the week before Easter, to me, then, is a challenge about how seriously I take my faith. It’s a reminder of those glorious days, when everyman and his dog seemed to sing Jesus’s praises (religious leaders excepted). But it’s also a reminder that only four days later, Jesus was completely abandoned.
But that’s me. What about you? Just where do you stand? How strong is your faith in Jesus our king?
Posted: 22nd March 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Face of the Enemy (Matthew 21: 1-26:56; Mark 11:1-14:51; Luke 19:28-22:62; John 12:1-18:11)
1. Our Enemies
Who here has enemies? Who here has ever had enemies?
You know it seems in life, that at some time or another we have all had enemies. We may have had enemies at school, at work, in our families, or at any number of other situations. It may have been someone who didn’t like something we had said or done. Or it could have been someone who just didn’t like us or what we stood for.
Nevertheless the reality is that at some time we probably have all had enemies. But have we always known what they look like? And have we always come face-to-face with them?
2. Jesus’s Enemies
Now someone who had plenty of enemies was Jesus. And if we follow his story, some of them are very obvious. But the one thing he doesn’t do is hide away from them. On the contrary, he faced up to them on a number of occasions. And no more so than in his last few days of his life on earth.
Because as we approach this week before Easter, and as we recall Jesus’s return to the city of Jerusalem, one last time, we are faced with the part of the story of Jesus, as he faces up to his enemies in a very intense way.
3. Holy Week
Let’s review the week at hand . . . And to do so we need to merge the four Gospels together, to get a complete list of the events in Jesus’s last days of life. And this is what we find . . .
B. THE EVENTS OF HOLY WEEK
1. Friday or Saturday
Starting on the Friday or Saturday, six days before the Passover, we find Jesus and his disciples arriving at Bethany—at the house of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Now Jesus had been on the road for a while, headed to Jerusalem, knowing full well what was ahead. But here they are, Jesus and the disciples, only 3 kilometres from the city, setting up a home base—so they could go into Jerusalem during the day, and return to Bethany at night.
All innocent enough, except we’re told that the chief priest and Pharisees were expecting Jesus, and even then were looking for an opportunity to arrest him.
Come Sunday, then, we see Jesus at Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, on his way to Jerusalem, preparing a grand entrance into the city. A huge crowd turns up and cheers Jesus on—which is good. But we’re told the Pharisees are there too—but just a little too afraid of the crowd to arrest him. We then see Jesus riding into the city on a donkey.
The next day, Monday, Jesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem, and on the way Jesus inexplicably curses a fig tree. He then goes into the Temple, where for a second time Jesus challenges those profiteering from people wanting to make sacrifices to God. So he overturns the tables—further exasperating the chief priests and the teachers of the law, let alone the owners of the tables.
Some Greeks come to Philip requesting to see Jesus. Then Jesus talks to the crowd about what it means to be the Messiah. He gets a mixed response, even from those who had witnessed his past miracles—suggesting that some of the crowd were already beginning to move away. And some of the leaders believe, but are too frightened of the Pharisees to express their faith.
Come Tuesday, and Jesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem. On the way they see the fig tree—now withered from the roots. And it is now that the disciples find out why Jesus cursed it. It is a teaching tool—to teach his disciples about the need to remain fruitful, to be constantly active in the faith. A commentary, if you like, against the religious leaders. They then continue on to the Temple.
But this time the chief priests and the teachers of the law challenge Jesus face-to-face. They try to trick him, so that he would lose popular support. In response Jesus challenges them about their own beliefs and behaviour. And he prophesies that their authority will be taken from them. Which, of course, then leads to more challenges and trick questions from the Pharisees, the Herodian’s and the Sadducees—each trying to undermine Jesus’s authority in the eyes of the crowd.
And this intensity of attack and response probably then continues in and around the Temple on the Wednesday too. But whether it does or not, each time the authorities ask him questions, Jesus comes up with some challenges of his own—mostly about their authority which Jesus claims is self-imposed. And he challenges them about how they have become stumbling blocks to normal everyday people, having a relationship with God.
Later we find Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. Then in a rare moment of quiet he watches as a poor widow puts two small copper coins into the Temple treasury.
Then on the way back to Bethany, they stop at the Mount of Olives. And there at the Mount Jesus has some time alone with his disciples. He talks about his death, his second coming, and the destruction of Jerusalem.
Whilst they are there, we learn that the chief priests and elders are now in earnest to get rid of Jesus. But they have to get their timing right. They need to totally discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people, and they have to avoid his arrest and death clashing with the celebration of Passover.
Jesus and the disciples, then move off back to Bethany, where Mary anoints Jesus’s body for burial. And in apparent disgust at the waste of money, Judas Iscariot goes off to the chief priests to help them in their plot.
Thursday arrives, and Jesus gives instructions on where he wants to eat the Passover —at a certain man’s house in Jerusalem. Now there are no indications that on Thursday he went to Temple at all, and it is likely that Jesus may have remained in Bethany, using the time preparing for what lay ahead.
However come the evening Jesus and the disciples recline around the table; he washes the disciples’ feet: they start the meal; Judas leaves the room to prepare for his part of the betrayal; Jesus predicts Peter’s denial; and they conclude the meal—which includes the institution of the Last Supper. Jesus then spends a long time teaching the disciples, and praying, before going to the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.
There Jesus prays some more, the disciples go to asleep, and Judas returns with a crowd—which includes people armed with swords and clubs, a detachment of soldiers, and officials from the chief priests and Pharisees.
C. THE ENEMIES OF JESUS
Now the rest of the story I hope is familiar to you all. I certainly don’t intend to talk about it today. Because we all should know that Jesus returned to Jerusalem so that he could be arrested and crucified, so that he could save the world of their sins.
But what we can so easily gloss over, in his final days on earth, was his need to come face-to-face with his enemies—and his need to confront the enemies of God. And in such an intense way too.
So who were Jesus’s enemies, and why did they show such an intense hatred of him?
Well firstly there were the chief priests, the teachers of the law—the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. And their claim to fame was that they were supposed to be steeped in the teaching of the Old Testament, and could be trusted to portray God’s word. Unfortunately they were far more interested in the positions they held in society, and they enjoyed all the extra bits and man-made traditions they had added to God’s word. As a consequence they were advocates of the status quo. And they didn’t care that they were stumbling blocks to others having faith in God.
Jesus’s lifestyle and teaching challenged their position. Jesus showed them up to be the phoneys that they were. He threatened their position in society—and so he had to go.
Secondly, there were the Herodians—a Jewish party who favoured the Herodian dynasty to the Roman occupation. They were probably very disappointed in a Messiah that had not come to dispose of the Roman invaders. And at the time they sided with the Pharisees.
Thirdly, there’s Judas Iscariot, one of the 12 disciples, who for some reason decided either that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that he wanted him to be, or that Jesus needed to be forced to act in a different way.
Fourthly, there was the crowd, some of whom who had been very vocal in supporting Jesus on the Sunday, as he rode into the city on a donkey. But who even on the Tuesday at the Temple, had started to melt away.
And if we were to include the events on the Thursday night, when Jesus was arrested, we would probably include the rest of the disciples as well, who by that stage had abandoned Jesus too. Indeed the words of Jesus “Whoever is not with me, is against me” (Matthew 12:30) may well have come back to haunt them.
Now there’s a common theme amongst Jesus’ enemies: The religious leaders were part of the religious establishment. And Judas Iscariot, the rest of the disciples, the crowd, and even the Herodians would have been looking for the Messiah, and been steeped in the knowledge of Jewish faith.
Jesus’s enemies were not people outside of the Jewish faith, but people who claimed to be within. The faces of Jesus’s enemy were not complete strangers to the beliefs of the Jewish people, but rather were people who more naturally attended the Temple and the synagogues, or at least had a nodding acquaintance with the faith.
His enemies were people who should have given him support; they should have been able to be relied upon. But in the end they didn’t. The religious leaders saw him as a threat to the things that they loved. And so he had to go.
Enemies! We all have them. But I’m not sure that any of us would want to face the number or intensity of the enemies that Jesus faced in his last week on earth.
But what does all this mean for us? Well it seems to me that there are two distinct lessons we can learn from Jesus’s story.
1. Identifying our Enemies
And the first is the need to identify who our real enemies are. Now in saying that, I think we need to take who our enemies really are seriously. Jesus’s enemies were not people he had made a table for, which had wobbly legs. No they were people who claimed to be on God’s side; they were people within the faith, but whose hearts were elsewhere. They were people who liked to be leaders, who behaved in such ways that they were stumbling blocks to others. And they were people who claimed to uphold God’s laws, but who were in love with the man-made rules with which they had replaced them.
And don’t we get in a tangle these days between faith, and the add-on’s that people love?
After all, does it really matter which candle is lit first? Does it matter if we have candles at all? Does it matter if the pews face a particular way, or even the style of the building in which we worship? Does it matter if the leaders wear robes? Does it even matter if we use a book for worship at all?
Now finding something that is helpful is fine, but when that “helpful” becomes a “must do”—that is when the gospel is changed, That is when we’ve lost the plot, and that is when we’ve become no different to the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’s time.
Jesus’s enemies today remain those who begin with the gospel and add to it. Now what is added may seem quite innocuous—at least at first. But there is a tendency for these little things to be added to, and added to, until you get to the point where the gospel is unrecognisable. The moment something changes from something that is “helpful” to something that is a “must do” the gospel has been changed. And those who insist that the new tradition be upheld—the new Pharisees—effectively become the face of the enemy.
So who are our enemies? They are the same enemies that Jesus faced in his final week on earth. They are people who claim to be believers, but have added to the faith. They are the leaders, who by their behaviour place obstacles in the way of others. And they are people who claim to have faith, but then wander away.
2. Equipping ourselves to Face the Enemy
The second thing we can learn from the story, then, is the need to equip ourselves for a time when we may need to face or confront our enemies too. And how we can do this, is to look at the example of Jesus.
Because throughout Jesus’s life he did many things. He prayed; he participated in the life of the Temple and the various synagogues he visited on his journeys; he familiarised himself with the bible; he surrounded himself with supporters; and he practiced sharing his faith with those he met on his journeys.
Prayer, teaching, mixing with others, supporting and getting support from one another. Does that sound familiar? Well it should do, because that’s the whole point of God’s church.
And the trap is, if we fail to do those things, if we fail to prepare ourselves against our enemies, then we will be the ones responsible for letting God’s enemies in, because we won’t really know who they are. And we will be the ones standing idly by—letting things drift—when we should be standing up and being counted.
So do you have enemies? Have you ever had enemies? Well my hope is that if you said no to those questions at the start, that maybe by now you will have changed your mind. Because if Jesus had enemies, and had to face his enemies in his last week of life, then if we are followers of Jesus, then we will have enemies too. Indeed the same kind of enemies.
So, two questions:
Question one—do we know who our enemies really are? Do we recognise the same problems in the church today, as what Jesus faced in his last week on earth?
And question two—are we preparing ourselves for a confrontation? Because, like Jesus, one of the things we need to do is to be prepared to fight and confront our enemies too.
Posted: 19h March 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Eight Devotions on the Crucifixion from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 26:47-75; 27:11-61)
DEVOTION 1: JESUS ARRESTED
Like a lot of good mystery or detective stories the story of the death of Jesus begins with a list of people as long as your arm. Some of whom have dubious motives, and others you have to wait for the story to pan out to find out where they stand.
There’s Judas, the man who was set to betray a friend. There’s the crowd, who came armed with swords and clubs to arrest Jesus—the henchmen of supposedly respectable men of society. There’s the companion of Jesus, who struck out with his dagger. And there were the disciples, who deserted Jesus and fled.
And amidst the turmoil, the violence, and the desertion, one man remains calm and steady—Jesus. A man on a mission, who willingly gives himself up for a purpose.
Now I don’t know about you, but if I’d been in that situation, I don’t think I would have coped very well at all. In fact, if I’d been there, I would have led the disciples in running away. But Jesus… Well, he knew what was coming. And despite that, he was at peace. So, to Judas he said, “Friend, do what you came to do.” To the companion he said, “Return your dagger to its place.” And to the crowd he said, “All this has come to pass so that the prophetic scriptures might be fulfilled.”
Jesus knew in advance what was going to happen. Indeed, he had spoken to his disciples many times about it. And now the time had come. He knew God’s will, and he knew that the Messiah had to suffer. And he knew that he should not be diverted from the task in hand, even at this late hour.
And just as Jesus wasn’t to be diverted from his task, we shouldn’t be diverted from our God given tasks either. Because, like Jesus, some of us have a lot of odd characters appearing in our stories. And, sometimes we are encouraged to divert from the path that God has set for us.
But despite that, doing God’s will should be as important for us as it was for Jesus. And even though that may take us, like Jesus, to places we don’t want to go, that shouldn’t stop us from following God, and walking in his ways.
The story of Jesus is a shining example of what it means to be a person of faith—to follow God wherever he leads, despite the temptation to do otherwise. It’s an example we would all do well to follow.
DEVOTION 2: BEFORE THE SANHEDRIN
I guess one of the things that most of us want is to be liked, loved, and appreciated. Can you imagine, therefore, being faced with people who have been plotting to kill you; facing people who are prepared to trot out all sorts of false things about you; and basically just manipulating the situation so they have an excuse to execute you? Because that was what Jesus faced at the Sanhedrin.
Oh yes, they asked him if he was the Messiah, to which Jesus replied in the affirmative. But in reality, the chief priests and elders had already decided his fate—before he was even dragged before them. They were simply looking for an excuse to kill him, and they didn’t care from where it came.
But Jesus was not dishonest. He did not lie in the hope of saving his own skin. He gave them the excuse they were after. And as a consequence, they slapped him, punched him, and spat on him.
Now that’s not the sort of behaviour you’d expect from men of God. And yet, it’s exactly the punishment meted out to Jesus, for the “crime” of being the Messiah, the saviour of the World.
And just as the path that God led Jesus on was not easy, so the path that God leads us on is not easy either. We may well prefer to be liked, loved and appreciated, but that is not necessarily what you or I will receive if we go on our journey with God.
Jesus was abused by people who should have known better—whose morals and beliefs should have been so much higher. And we can expect to face the same reactions from the people that we meet too.
But then this world is full of hostility. Some people prefer living in the dark. It hides their faults, and their failings. And for us to live in the light, shows people up for the kind of people they really are. So, no wonder we can expect hostility.
Indeed, at times, like Jesus, we may be sworn at, spat on, or abused for our faith. But like Jesus, that shouldn’t stop us from standing up, and being counted, for what we believe.
DEVOTION 3: PETER DISOWNS JESUS
I have every sympathy for Peter. Because, it’s all very well pointing the finger at him—Peter, whose claim to fame was that the denied any connection with Jesus three times. But, I wonder, if we’d been placed in exactly the same situation, whether we wouldn’t have done the same thing.
But, then, where were the other disciples at this point? They had effectively denied Jesus by running away. In Peter’s case, however, his life was on the line. And it has to be said that even Peter still didn’t really understand who Jesus was. So you can perhaps understand Peter’s predicament.
But then, standing up and professing one’s faith to strangers—or even family members who don’t share your beliefs—would have to be one of the most difficult things to do. It can involve embarrassment, ridicule, or worse. Added to that, a lot of people are really not sure what they believe. They find difficulty in articulating it; they just don’t know how to explain their faith. As a consequence, many people like to keep their faith “private.”
And yet, one of the things about the Christian faith, is that Jesus doesn’t allow secret followers. The woman who had suffered from bleeding for twelve years, may have sneaked up to Jesus to touch his cloak—believing that in doing so she would be healed—but she was not allowed to remain a secret disciple. And, in the end, neither was Peter or any of the other disciples. Because, just as Peter denied Jesus three times, so too was he required, later, to stand up and profess his faith three times as well.
Now we all face the same dilemma as Peter. We can face it with our family and our friends. We can face it when the Jehovah’s Witnesses knock at the door. But, when it comes to the crunch, do we profess that we know Jesus—that he is our personal friend and saviour. Or, like Peter, do we deny him, and live with whatever the consequences of that denial may be.
DEVOTION 4: JESUS BEFORE PILATE
Now this is, perhaps, the most important trial in human history.
In one sense, Pilate could not see that Jesus was guilty of doing anything wrong. But Pilate was not naïve, he was only too aware of the motivation of the religious leaders, in bringing Jesus to him.
However, Pilate, had another agenda—he was keen to keep the peace. And the last thing he wanted was a public riot. And even though he knew the religious leaders were motivated by jealousy—and had stirred up the crowd to get the desired result—Pilate did nothing to save Jesus, whom he knew to be an innocent man.
Of course that’s Pilate’s motivation. But, what about the religious leaders? Well, it’s not that they weren’t happy to see the Messiah. It’s just that Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah that they wanted. What they wanted was someone like Barabbas. Someone who would go out and spill some Roman blood; someone who would give them independence from the Romans. But Jesus wasn’t that kind of Messiah at all.
Jesus was an innocent man, proved to be innocent in court, and yet still sentenced to death, because he wasn’t the kind of person that some people expected or wanted him to be.
It’s a pretty poor excuse isn’t it? But it’s also a warning we would do well to heed. After all, even now, not everything ends as well as it should, even for us. People misunderstand where the church is coming from. They have expectations of what the church is about. And this colours their view of its purpose, particularly regarding the rites of passage—baptisms, weddings and funerals—and in regard to the church’s involvement in political affairs.
So, when the church does get involved, in terms of sharing the gospel and in speaking out on social issues, hostility can and does arise—because the church is not seen to be the organisation that many people want it to be.
As a consequence, we might try hard to do the right thing, to help others, to share our faith. But people will not always appreciative what we do. No matter how hard we try, we will not always please everybody. There will always be someone who wants us to be something that we’re not. And there will always be someone who cannot accept us for what we are supposed to be.
DEVOTION 5: THE SOLDIERS MOCK JESUS
Much has been made of the jealousy, beliefs and prejudices of the religious leaders—people who should have known better. Indeed, we have already seen that they manipulated the evidence to find Jesus guilty; that they treated him disgracefully. That they arrested him at night; that they spat on him, punched and slapped him; and that they manipulated the crowd so that they could get their own way.
But there is this little incident where there are no religious leaders, no crowd, and no Jews.
Now the auxiliary troops were recruited from among the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. As a consequence, a condemned man would have been a welcome diversion from the tension that mounted in Jerusalem prior to one of the major religious festivals. As a consequence, they made the most of the situation. They stripped Jesus, dressed him up, mocked him, spat on him, and struck him. They then returned him to his original state of dress, so he could be taken out and executed.
Even without the usual nastiness of the religious leaders, Jesus was regarded as an object of ridicule. And this time, the excuse was because he dared to rival the sovereignty of their emperor, who claimed to be divine.
In a sense, this part of the story shows that the rejection of Jesus was complete. His disciples had abandoned him. The Jewish religious leaders had rejected him. The Jewish people had chosen to side with Barabbas. Pilate, who had found him innocent of the charges, had decided for the quiet life—and consequently condemned him to death. And representatives of the Roman authorities had rejected him too.
Who else was left? No one, except God. And yet did Jesus waiver from the task in hand? No! What he had to do was far too important.
And, in that is a great message of encouragement for us.
Because how often do we feel down and without a friend in the world? How often do we feel that nothing is going right, and that we have the whole weight of the world on our shoulders? Probably more times than we would like to think. But, even so, when everyone else has deserted us, or is against us, we still have God. A God who is faithful at all times. A God who walked step by step with Jesus all the way to the cross—even when everyone else had abandoned him. And a God who is willing to be with us too, even in our darkest hour.
DEVOTION 6: THE CRUCIFIXION
Now, the story of the crucifixion is all too familiar. There are the two robbers, one on either side—neither of which (at least in Matthew’s version) were very much help at all. And there are the religious leaders still spitting out their venom.
But there are two more positive aspects to this story. Because Jesus did get some help, and from two surprising sources.
The first was from Simon of Cyrene. Now he wasn’t a willing helper, but he did help just the same. Jesus would have been far too weak to carry the cross on his own. And, so, Simon was co-opted into helping carry the cross through the narrow roads of Jerusalem to Golgotha—where the execution was to take place.
The second area of help was from those who provided the wine mixed with gall for Jesus to drink. Now tradition says that the women of Jerusalem customarily furnished this pain-killing narcotic to prisoners who were being crucified. And even though this assistance would not have been specifically provided for Jesus—and even though in this instance Jesus rejected their help—nevertheless, help was offered.
An unwilling helper, and a group who provided assistance to all—an interesting combination. However, it does suggest that when we are down, and have very little hope, help might just come from unusual and unexpected sources. Indeed, God isn’t restricted to only using the people that we know to help us, he is quite willing to use sources that we don’t know, or don’t expect, as well.
And what this means is that when we are in need (and even at other times), we need to be open to help from even the most unusual or unexpected sources. Because God wants and is willing to help us in every way that he can. Because, like the story of the crucifixion, we can get so wound up about the negative—about where help isn’t coming from—that we fail to see the help that God is providing for our needs.
DEVOTION 7: THE DEATH OF JESUS
One of the most dramatic pictures of all time. It’s like something out of a horror story.
It became dark from midday until 3pm, and at the point of Jesus’ death: the curtain in the temple was split in two from top to bottom; there was an earthquake; and tombs broke open and many of the faithful dead were raised to life. Now, is it any wonder that those guarding Jesus stood by terrified? If there was any doubt about who Jesus was, then it was well and truly dispelled for many who were near. And perhaps so too were the consequences of what they had done.
But, almost like a footnote, we’re told that standing by, seemingly unaffected by nature’s fury, were a group of women, whose only desire was to care for the needs of Jesus. Now obviously the women had been there for a while. But in the context of the story, these are the first friendly faces that Jesus would have seen since his arrest in the garden. Because there in the garden, the last he had seen of his friends would have been the backs of their heads, as they had run for their lives.
It’s like Matthew puts the comment here to say that Jesus did have friends, willing friends. It’s just that they were ineffectual, and that they arrived too late. Far too late to make any difference.
And that should be a warning we would do well to heed. Because when it comes to the spreading of the gospel, are we willing friends and supporters, or are we ineffectual, or always too late to make a difference?
In our Christian lives, God places us all in a number of situations, requiring us to stand up and be counted, and to minister to others in his name. But what sort of friends and supporters are we?
Now Jesus died in order that we might be saved. That’s clear. And he always had time for others, even when it was the least convenient. But is that a pattern we associate with our own lives? How much can we say we are his willing friends and effective in his service?
DEVOTION 8: THE BURIAL OF JESUS
It is said that Jesus was wrapped in a borrowed cloth and buried in a borrowed tomb.
Now Joseph of Arimathea, may have been a recent convert, but he knew what it meant to give. He wasn’t a poor man—in fact he had his own grave, especially carved out from a rock for his own benefit—and yet despite his riches, he knew what it was to be generous. In fact his faith in Jesus was so strong, his gratitude to Jesus was so great, that he donated his own tomb in which Jesus could be buried.
And for that he should be commended. But how grateful are we, with all the things that God has given us?
What do we give back in return? Do we give our time? Do we give our talents and abilities? Do we give our possessions? And do we give our money?
Now Jesus was born into a poor family. And at the point of his crucifixion the only thing he probably owned were the clothes that he wore—for which we are told the soldiers at the foot of the cross gambled. And yet despite that, Jesus had everything he needed. God, the Father, made sure of that. And Jesus was certainly generous with everything he had, including his time.
And yet, despite Jesus’ example, how often do we find ourselves hanging on to the things that we’ve got? Hanging on to our time, because there are just not enough hours in the day. Hanging on to our talents and abilities, preferring to do other things rather than use our gifts in God’s service. Hanging on to our possessions, because they are too precious to share. And even hanging on to our finances, because we need to make sure that we have enough, before we can consider giving to others.
And yet the example of Jesus was that although he was materially poor, he was spiritually rich. All his spiritual and material needs were met by God. A sobering thought as we recall his body, wrapped in a borrowed cloth and buried in a borrowed tomb.
Posted 6th April 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Seven Words of the Cross (Matthew 27:46; Luke 23: 34, 43, 46; John 19:26-27, 28, 30)
1. THE FIRST WORD:
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
a). The Issue of Forgiveness
Forgiving others is not always an easy thing to do. Nevertheless it is a vital part of the Christian faith. We need to forgive others, just as we depend upon God to forgive us. And the importance of our need to forgive is reflected in the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us” (Mathew 6). And the example of Jesus, is a very good illustration on how that should work.
b). The Example of Jesus
After all, sometimes the people were with him, and other times they were against. Sometimes there were huge crowds, and other times even his own friends wanted nothing to do with him. As a consequence, after three years of public ministry, Jesus had many people to forgive.
Indeed when he finally got to be too big of a nuisance for the religious authorities, because he upset the status quo, Jesus was finally arrested, tried, flogged, abused, and crucified. But did Jesus’ own words of the Lord’s Prayer come back and haunt him, because in the end he found he just couldn’t forgive? No! Because no matter what was dished up to him Jesus took it. No matter what any individual had done to him, no matter how horrible they had been, Jesus was able to forgive all those involved.
c). The Problem Of Forgiveness
Now one of the things that we hear from time to time, is some people referring to others as people they just can’t forgive. They could be family members, old friends, or even people responsible for war crimes like Hitler, Sadam Hussein and members of Islamic State. And yet Jesus quite clearly not only taught that we need to forgive, but he demonstrated it too. And for very good reason. Because in our case no matter what others have done to us, that’s nothing in comparison in what we have done to God. And if we expect God to forgive our greater sin, then we should at least play our part in forgiving others their lesser sin.
So, yes, some people in this world may have done some terrible things. And, yes, some of those things may have been done to us personally. But one of the things we need to remember, is that we need the forgiveness of God. After all, we ignore him, we put our own preferences first, we relegate him to second place, and we don’t do the things that he asks us to do. And if we need God’s forgiveness, shouldn’t we forgive others, all others, for the things that they have done to us?
d). The Challenge Of Forgiveness
Jesus on the cross had borne many things, and he was about to go through a very agonizing death. And yet despite that, he was able to forgive all those who had been involved, all who had ever done him wrong.
So the question that these first words on the cross should bring, then, is: Are we prepared to forgive others no matter what they’ve done? Are we prepared to do the same?
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2. THE SECOND WORD:
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
a). The Issue of the Afterlife
The idea of an afterlife is a very contentious issue in today’s world. Some believe that you live this life, and when you die that’s it, that’s the end, there is no more. Others believe that when you die you are reincarnated. You come back as an animal or as another person and given another go. And only when you’ve lived a perfect life, will the cycle be broken and you’ll reach Nirvana. And of course there are many other variations on the theme too.
Of course some of the interest on this subject, in more recent times, has been influenced by people who have had near-death experiences. Where they have seen images of the afterlife, or felt themselves going down a tunnel and entering a kind of Nirvana. But the reality is that the concept of life after death has occupied the minds of people for tens of thousands of years. And was even one of the hot topics of debate in Jesus’ time. Particularly between the Pharisees (who believed in the afterlife) and the Sadducees (who didn’t).
b). The Example of Jesus
Of particular interest in the debate about the afterlife, then, are Jesus’ second words on the cross. Words of Jesus spoken directly to one of the criminal’s crucified with him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Now, for those people who think that after death there is nothing, that once you have lived your life that’s it, then these words of Jesus show that that is nothing further from the truth. And for those who believe that you have to keep being reincarnated until you reach perfection. Well, that certainly wasn’t what Jesus was saying either. Rather the point behind Jesus’s words was that the criminal, even in his last hour, was able to admit his mistakes and put his total trust in Jesus. And because of that, that very day he was rewarded with a place in Paradise.
The repentant criminal’s sins were forgiven by God. His slate was wiped clean. And, consequently, this made him eligible for a place in heaven. This wasn’t the end, and it wasn’t a reincarnation. It wasn’t even a second chance. This was a resurrection. And because his sins were forgiven, this was a resurrection to eternal life. And importantly this resurrection to eternal life was not given to the other criminal who remained unrepentant.
c). The Problem of the Afterlife
Now one of things that should concern every believer, Is the number of people who live their lives as though God, Jesus, and eternal life just don’t exist. Yes, some may pay lip service to God, but God and godly ways are not the things that they live for. Instead they enjoy life, with the pleasures that it brings, without making any provision for their eternal wellbeing.
Now, obviously, a last minute change of heart can work, because it worked for one of the criminals. But the reality is, that very few people will know when their time is up, in order to correct their standing with God.
d). The Challenge of the Afterlife
When those criminals were nailed to their crosses, they knew what they had done in life. And chances are they knew what to expect in the afterlife too – eternal damnation. Neither had prepared for or were ready for what happened next.
So, the next question we need to ask ourselves is: Are we ready? Have we made our peace with God? Or are we living our lives, planning to make a last minute change of heart too?
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3. THE THIRD WORD:
“Woman, behold, your son.” “Behold, your mother” (John 19:26-27)
a). The Issue of a New Family
“Family” is a very important aspect of most people’s lives. Friends are important too. However, what the Christian faith introduces is a whole new dynamic to family life.
b). The Example of Jesus
Because when Jesus was on the cross, he looked down to the ground, and he saw two people in particular. He saw his mother Mary, and he saw his disciple John. And, at that time, two things would have been going through his mind.
Firstly, in the absence of his father, as the eldest son of Mary, he would have had the responsibility to care for his mother. (And by the time of the crucifixion Joseph’s absence from the family is notable). In the normal course of events the responsibility to look after Mary was his. Except for the fact that he was no longer in any position to care for her. And so he had to make alternative arrangements.
And, secondly, in his ministry, Jesus had taught his followers about family life. And that being followers, they were now members of a new family, a family of believers. And they had responsibilities to care for each other, just as if they were blood relatives.
Consequently, when Jesus was on the cross, what we see in Jesus’ third words, is a mixture of those two ideas: Jesus, as the eldest son, was making sure that there was someone to look after his mother after his death. Whilst at the same time linking two people (who were not related to each other) but who were part of a “new family”, because they shared a common faith.
c). The Problem of a New Family
Now, sadly, in these times, the need to care for one another (in the Christian family) is one that often gets overlooked. The aspect of coming together on a regular basis to worship, but with the particular intention of supporting and encouraging one another, frequently falls by the wayside for other priorities, including the excuse of needing to spend time with our blood relatives.
Indeed, ministry itself, including visiting the lonely, the sick and those in hospital, is often something which is relegated to a paid minister. Rather than being seen as every members responsibility, as part of their “new family” life. The consequent result, of course, is that people in the church feel uncared for. People drop out, and fade away, because of that lack of support and encouragement, that one would normally hope to receive from normal everyday family life.
d). The Challenge of a New Family
Despite that, however, we are still faced with Jesus, and his third words from the cross. Because they show that even in his desperate hour, and even with all the agonies that he was going through,
he still had time to care for his family, And he still had time to care for his Christian family too.
Indeed he knew that his responsibilities to his “new family” were just as important, and maybe more important, than his old.
So, the third question is: How important is our own church family to us? And do we really care for the people who minister up front, and those who sit with us on these pews?
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4. THE FOURTH WORD:
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46)
a). The Issue Of Sin
Sometimes, as we go through life, we can have moments where we seem to be all alone. We can feel deserted by family and friends, and we can feel as though God isn’t listening either. Of course sometimes we might wonder why God has apparently abandoned us. But others times we may feel as though we don’t deserve God’s attention anyway. Nevertheless that feeling of abandonment can be very devastating.
b). The Example Of Jesus
Of course something of this nature occurred to Jesus on the cross. And although in Jesus’ case he had done nothing to deserve being abandoned by God, nevertheless for a moment as he hung there taking in all the sin of the world, he felt the righteous judgment of God, judging him as though he had committed all of those sins. And as a result Jesus hung there, not only abandoned by his friends and followers, but abandoned by his Father too.
c). The Problem Of Sin
Now there are three things that this particular part of the story illustrates well.
The first thing is the seriousness to which God takes sin. Because it shows that sin really is a block between us and God. And yet in our world, how often do we find sin trivialized? When we slip, it can be easy to dismiss our fault in terms of, “It really doesn’t matter, not this once,” “What does it matter if I put myself first for a change?” or “It was only a little thing, it’s not as if it really matters?”
The second thing, of course, is that Jesus took on our sins for a reason: so that God could take away our eternal punishment from us. Consequently, we have the choice of whether to accept what Jesus has done, or to face up to God on our own. If we accept what Jesus has done, then we will not be punished in the afterlife for the things that we’ve done wrong, because our sins have already been dealt with. However, if we want to face God on our own terms, then we won’t have Jesus’ sacrifice in our favour at all. And we’ve just seen how seriously God judges sin.
And the third thing is, that once God judged Jesus as an innocent man, who had paid the penalty for others, God was able to lift off that dark cloud, and give Jesus the joy that his work was finished. And consequently when we are going through a rough time, we can be confident that, providing we have put our lives in the hands of Jesus, God will help us out. And he will return us to joy too.
d). The Challenge of Sin
Now, Jesus went to the cross knowing what he needed to do. And for a moment he felt the abandonment by God whilst all the sins that he carried were being dealt with. But in the end God was with him, and rewarded him for his faith. Consequently, when we feel abandoned by God, we can be assured that, if we are people of faith, we too can know that feeling of abandonment will not last either.
So the next question this morning is: Have we really accepted the seriousness of sin, and what Jesus has done for us on the cross? Have we really given ourselves to Jesus, knowing that he has dealt with all our sins?
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5. THE FIFTH WORD:
“I am thirsty” (John 19:28)
a). The Issue of Spiritual Thirst
When we exert ourselves by doing physical exercise, or when we suffer, we get thirsty. And we get thirsty because that’s the way our bodies are made.. Indeed the medical profession seems to constantly tell us that we need to keep our fluids up. And that we need to drink X amount of fluids a day. Now, when we are thirsty the simple solution is to have a drink. Except for the fact that, for some of us, we don’t always do it. We don’t always look after ourselves properly at all. And just as that’s true of physical thirst, so is it also true of spiritual thirst too.
b). The Example of Jesus
Now, as part of the story, as Jesus hung there on the cross, Jesus was thirsty, physically thirsty. And he was probably thirsty because of all the suffering that he had been going through. But then in the previous 12 hours he had been betrayed, arrested, tried, flogged, and forced (at least part of the way) to carry the cross beam of his cross. And now he was dying a very painful death, hanging on the cross.
However whilst he was physically thirsty, Jesus at this point, showed no signs of being spiritually thirsty at all. But then in his ministry years he had spent much time alone with God, much time in the temple and the synagogues, and much time debating the religious leaders too. Throughout his life, therefore, and by the time he had got to the cross, he had showed all the signs of being very much in touch with God, and keen to pursue his relationship even further. He wanted to do God’s will, not his own.
So, as he hung there on the cross Jesus couldn’t do anything about his physical thirst, except tell others of his need. But his spiritual thirst had been well and truly satisfied, because of his very healthy relationship with God.
c). The Problem of Spiritual Thirst
And, you know, I wonder with us, how much the problem is the other way around. Because the temptation is to put more store in our physical wellbeing than in our spiritual wellbeing.
Now, probably, for all of us here, fulfilling our spiritual thirst would, in some ways, not be a difficult thing for any of us to do. Bibles are relatively cheap, and come in all sorts of styles and languages. There’s something to suit everyone. And bible teaching is readily available too. Meeting together isn’t a crime here, and encouraging and building up one another in the faith, is a major part of what the church should be all about. And because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we all have direct access to the Father too.
And yet, how often do we hear those words: “I don’t need to do that. I can be a Christian without that,” “I haven’t got time,” “I can’t be bothered,” and “I’ve got more important things to do.”
Looking after our spiritual thirst, may be more involved than looking after our physical thirst, but generally, in the here and now, we have all the resources available for us to use. We just need to be willing to use them.
d). The Challenge of Spiritual Thirst
Jesus, hanging on the cross, at this point, was physically thirsty. And there was nothing he could do about it, except to call for help. But he wasn’t spiritually thirsty at all. In fact his relationship with God was perfect, just right.
So, the fifth question this morning is: Do we care as much about our spiritual thirst, as we do about our physical thirst? Or have we got it all the wrong way around?
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6. THE SIXTH WORD:
“It is finished” (John 19:30)
a). The Issue of Unfinished Work
One of the great satisfactions in life, I believe, is to be able to finish a task, put it aside, and know that that it was a job well done. And the reason I say that, is because it can often seem that there are half a dozen jobs on the go at any one time. And there is always something holding each of them up. And that can be very frustrating. It can also often seem that the only solution to getting things completed is to make compromises and cut corners. With the end result being far less than satisfactory.
b). The Example of Jesus
Consequently, what is interesting in the story of Jesus, is that despite the fact that people had opposed him, people had turned against him, and despite all that he’d been through, Jesus was still able to make that wonderful statement “It is finished.” There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes through in those three words. Jesus hadn’t been diverted from his task. He’d seen it through to the end, and it was a job well done.
Of course the question we should ask is: What was finished? Was it just his suffering? Or was it the whole reason for him being sent here in the first place. The whole package: birth, ministry, death, and the whole reason rolled into one.
Well, I think the answer is obvious. Jesus had done what the Father had asked him to do. He hadn’t compromised, or deviated from God’s plan one iota. He’d come to earth to be born as a baby, and he’d seen his task through to the end. And in all that time, he hadn’t been distracted from his task.
He had even endured the crucifixion too. All the things that God had asked him to do, he’d completed. And consequently he could feel satisfied with the completion of the whole task that he had been called on to perform.
c). The Problem of Unfinished Work
Now we might sometimes look with envy upon that kind of completion. Particularly when we consider the normal every day jobs that we do. With some of them seeming to get held up, and others needing compromise to get them completed.
However, there is one task that we have been given by God too. And that job is for all believers to tell others through words and deeds about the love of God and about God’s rescue plan.
Now this is a job that lasts a lifetime, and it will never be completed whilst we have breath. However we need to make sure that it’s a task that doesn’t get held up. And we need to make sure that it’s a task where we don’t cut any corners either. In other words, we need to put the same life and soul into the task that Jesus did. And we are not to get distracted, or change the task to suit our own purposes either.
d). The Challenge of Unfinished Work
Jesus, on the cross, was able quite confidently to make the statement “It is finished”, knowing that he hadn’t rounded any corners, and that he hadn’t adapted the gospel to suit himself. He’d completed faithfully the task that God had set.
So, the next question for us, this morning, is: Where are we with the task that God has given us? And are we confident that when it comes our time to face our maker, we too will be able to say with confidence “it is finished”?
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7. THE SEVENTH WORD:
“Father, I place my spirit into your hands” (Luke 23:46)
a). The Issue of Trust
Now, trust is one of those things that may be very difficult to do these days. There are people who are unreliable. There are people who simply say things that they think we want to hear. There are people who will say anything to get what they want. And, there are people who don’t do things the way that we would like. Consequently, there is a temptation to be as self-sufficient as one can possibly be, so we don’t have to rely on others.
Unfortunately for people who like to be self-reliant there are elements of life in which we are all dependent upon others. After all, we can’t all grow all our own food, build houses, provide medical care, etc. etc. without relying on someone else.
b). The Example of Jesus
Now Jesus’ last words reflect the fact that even he (the Son of God) could not be totally self-sufficient. Hanging on the cross Jesus was helpless, not only in what he could physically do, but in terms of his reliance on God for the next step in life. Yet despite that, Jesus’ words are full of confidence.
He knew above all else that the one person he could still trust in, even at his darkest hour, was his Father and his God. Yes the public had deserted him. Yes the religious leaders had finally got their way. And yes even his disciples had deserted him. But despite that he could still have total confidence in God the Father.
c). The Problem of Trust
And yet, how many people today have trouble trusting in God for anything?
Some people think if they work hard, or are reasonably good in life, or help others, then they can earn their place in heaven. And yet quite clearly that wasn’t what happened on the cross. Because Jesus’ words weren’t words of “I deserve eternal life,” but rather “I depend on you Father God, even for eternal life.” Some people may think that they can buy a place in heaven by giving money to charity, or by giving money or time to the church itself, and yet that wasn’t what happened on the cross either.
What happened on the cross was that even Jesus the Son of God needed to entrust his whole future into the hands of God. And indeed nothing that he had done, or could do, could possibly change his dependence upon God.
And the same is true for us today, too. If we have faith, then faith means the need for a total trust in God for our eternal welfare. Not “some” trust, with us doing a few extra on the side, as a bit of insurance added on. But total trust, which then should be reflected in the way we live.
d). The Challenge of Trust
Jesus on the cross, at the moment of his death, had to trust in God totally, for what would happen to him after his final breath.
So, the seventh question, today, is: Do we have that kind of trust? Because insurance policies, like good works, are never going to be enough.
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8. CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Today we’ve looked at the crucifixion of Jesus in terms of his seven last words. And each of them should remind us of something about what it means to live the Christian faith
a). “Father, Forgive Them, For They Don’t Know What They Are Doing”
Forgiveness was something that Jesus, even on the cross, was able to give to his detractors. And it is something that we need, and something we need to show too. We need God’s forgiveness. And the appropriate response to receiving God’s greater forgiveness, is that we should be prepared to forgive others too.
b). “Truly I Tell You, Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise”
Being prepared for the afterlife was something that neither thief had taken into account in their lives. But it is something that we need to face up to. Reconciliation with God needs to be at the forefront of everything that we do.
c). “Woman, Behold, Your Son.” “Behold, Your Mother.”
Jesus taught that when people become Christians they become members of a new family. And a family that has the responsibility to care for one another. Meeting and encouraging, and caring for our fellow believers then is an essential part of any believer’s life.
d). “My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me?”
The abandonment of Jesus by God, demonstrates the seriousness of sin. God has to deal with it, and has given anyone who will believe the ability to have their slates wiped clean. Consequently, we need to decide whether to allow Jesus to remove our burden. Or whether we want to face God alone.
e). “I Am Thirsty”
Jesus was physically thirsty, but his spiritual thirst was quenched. But then during his lifetime he had pursued a lifestyle of obedience and communication with his Father. Now, we may be good at getting a drink when we are physically thirsty. But can we say the same regard to our spiritual thirst for God?
f). “It Is Finished”
Jesus on the cross could quite happily confirm that he had completed the task that his Father had set. And that he was proud of the job that he had done. He hadn’t rounded any corners, changed the message, or done anything to compromise his mission. Now it’s our task to do the same thing.
g). “Father, I Place My Spirit Into Your Hands”
Even Jesus had to trust his Father for what lay ahead of him after the cross. He knew that what was to happen next was totally out of even his control. He had to trust in his father. And like it or not, we need to have the same trust too.
The seven last words of Jesus are a challenge to believers and non-believers alike. Because in those seven words are some very important principles and lessons. Indeed, ones we would do well to apply to our own lives today.
Posted: 4th April 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Church: Rites of Passage (Matthew 28:19-20a)
1. Our Ever-Changing World
In an ever-changing world, nothing stays the same for very long. In a little over fifty years we’ve seen some dramatic changes: TVs have gone from black and white, to colour, to stereo, to digital and now to 3-D. Recorded music has gone from 78s, to 45s, to LPs, to cassettes, to CDs, to being available to download online. Computers, that once filled an entire room, now sit on your lap. We’ve been to the Moon, and now we’re looking at Mars. And the pace of life seems to get faster and faster.
If ever there was a period of change in history this is it. However change is not just a feature of technology, it’s part of every aspect of life. Indeed, it affects our businesses, our friendships, and our family life.
So in a world of constant change, what we need to do is periodically stop, take a breath, and examine who we are, where we are, and where we are going. We need to see if what we are doing is still relevant.
2. Our Changing Church
And one the things that seems to be going through a bit of a shake-up in our churches at the moment is the idea of initiation ceremonies—the rites of passage at important points in life—birth, marriage, and death. But if I were to tell you that that was nothing new about that, would that surprise you? Because if we were to look throughout history, even in the bible, practices have continued to change.
B. RITES OF PASSAGE: WEDDING AND FUNERALS
With marriage, in early Old Testament years there was an emphasis on a relationship being consummated without the need for any ceremony or celebration at all. And the story of Isaac and Rebekah is an example of that. Skip then to the New Testament and the wedding at Cana, and we can see the whole village being invited to attend the celebration. However there is still no record of any ceremony whatsoever. Celebration, yes; ceremony, no. Indeed, in biblical times, even from external sources, there is no evidence of their being any wedding ceremony at all.
With funerals, in biblical times, the general practice was to bury people within hours of death. There was generally no preparation of the body, no pomp, and no ceremony. The attendance by a priest would have been strictly forbidden—it would have made him ceremonial unclean and unfit to carry out his duties. And it certainly wouldn’t have been performed in any consecrated building. As a consequence, it is only in later years that a more ritualised approach was adopted.
So in earlier times neither weddings nor funerals would have been conducted by a minister of religion. Nor were they conducted in any consecrated building. In fact, even in the Christian church, the earliest evidence of a church wedding, dates back to the 4th century A.D., to a period when Christianity had been adopted (for political reasons) as the religion of the Roman Empire. But even then, it was not for the masses. For even in England in the middle ages, it was customary for the general population to come to the vestry door for approval to live together, without the need for any church ceremony at all.
When we see changes in practices in regard to weddings or funerals today, then, we shouldn’t be surprised. Weddings and funerals have always been tied very much to the culture of the day. And history tells us that they neither practice has any real connection with the church at all.
C. RITES OF PASSAGE: BAPTISM
But what about baptism? Because baptism is the only one of the three that has any real religious ceremonial base. Is it alright for that to change too? Well as you can probably guess baptism is something that has evolved over time too.
Originating in early Old Testament times, the idea was not an immersion in water, but rather a simple ceremonial washing or cleansing with water.
In the Old Testament, during the time of Moses, priests who went into the Tent of Meeting needed to wash (Exodus 29:4). It was a simple ceremony symbolising the removal of any stains. The ceremonial washing indicated the washing away of things they had done wrong, the mistakes they had made. They were then symbolically pure and clean before the presence of God and could carry out their duties.
As time progressed the washing idea developed further. It became a rite of initiation, but for gentiles. It involved baptism: immersion in water. And the idea was that people of non-Jewish backgrounds who wanted to adopt the Jewish faith could symbolically wash away their past, clean themselves of previous beliefs and practices. They could then start life again as a new person, with a new found relationship with God. Baptism signified a desire for the gentile to adopt the Jewish faith. But, at the same time, it provided the means for Jewish believers to accept the gentile believer into the community of faith.
Despite that, however, at the beginning of the New Testament, and with the advent of John the Baptist, we are faced with a radical change. Because John’s baptism wasn’t just a ritual washing or a method of including gentiles into the faith. Rather John called on his own people—the Jews—to repent of their past ways and be baptised too.
John’s emphasis was on the need for moral change. Baptism was a commitment to put away the past, with all its mistakes, deliberate or otherwise. It was a commitment to put away self-interest, and to put away putting oneself before God and others. And with that it brought a new emphasis: It was about a total commitment to God and, as a consequence of faith, a total commitment to a Godly way of life.
John’s baptism included not only the need to have a complete break from past practices, but it required people to admit their mistakes, to confess their sins (Matthew 3:6), and to commit their whole way of life in a totally new direction.
And yet whilst John’s baptism was a radical change from the past, he still saw that his view of baptism was only temporary. Indeed he pointed to the time when the Messiah would come, and that baptism would be changed even more radically.
Consequently, with the arrival of Jesus, we should not be surprised that two new ideas were incorporated into the concept of baptism. The first, to equate baptism with the idea of death (Luke 12:50), with the necessity of Jesus’s own death and resurrection. (And with that many different images are provoked, like the need to die in order to gain life, and being dead to the old, and alive to the new.)
And secondly, the idea that baptism with water was incomplete. And that to be truly baptised one needed to be baptised with the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11) too.
In other words, Jesus acknowledged the value of a physical baptism with water, as something which cleanses; as something which is symbolic of our wish to put away our past and start again; as a sign of wishing to become a member of the community of faith; as a sign of repentance; and as a means to commit ourselves to focussing our lives on God. But he also acknowledged that we need God’s help. Consequently there was a need to include in baptism: The idea of accepting Jesus in his death and resurrection; and the need to accept the gift of the Holy Spirit to dwell inside each and every believer.
And that was a radical change to the meaning of the baptism of John the Baptist, and all the various meanings of baptism and ritual cleansing that had gone before.
D. COMMENT ON BAPTISM
So, then, when we talk about baptism today, what we’re actually talking about, is a number of ideas that have gathered over time, culminating with the stamp that Jesus put on baptism himself. And we have to remember that when we consider the relevance of baptism today.
Christian baptism is then (in brief): Firstly, a simple ceremonial washing; a washing away of the dirt of the past and becoming clean before our God. Secondly, it’s an initiation ceremony. It’s an act expressing a desire to be a member of God’s kingdom, and an acknowledgment of acceptance into the community of faith. Thirdly, it’s a decision to acknowledge past mistakes, to turn over a new leaf, and a commitment to something quite new. And fourthly, it’s an acknowledgement of the necessity of Christ’s death, with all the symbols that his death and resurrection conjure up. And it’s an acknowledgment of the need of the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, that is so essential for a true relationship with God.
And that is why when we practice baptism, in particular, we need to remember three things: Firstly, it is something that Jesus told his disciples to go out and do (Matthew 28:19-20). Secondly, Jesus taught it was to be administered in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). And thirdly, that water is to be used as an outward and visible sign (Acts 8:36) of something that should have already happened spiritually inside.
The practice of the early church was to administer baptism not only to individuals (Acts 8:38), but to whole households (Acts 16:15): parents, children, slaves, etc. And it is on this basis that many churches still practice infant baptism today.
E. IS BAPTISM STILL RELEVANT?
Having said all that, we again need to ask the question: “In our changing world, is baptism still relevant?” After all, weddings and funerals have changed—and probably many times over the years. But what about baptism? Does that need to change with the times too?
Well, to the question of whether baptism is still relevant, I think the answer is “Yes”. Man’s basic spiritual nature hasn’t changed; mankind is still very much in need of God’s solution to salvation. And that is what baptism is all about.
But if that’s true, does the form of the ceremony need changing? Well I think the answer is “No”. The symbol of water to indicate washing, cleansing, and even drowning to the old and rising to new life is still very relevant. And the ceremony in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is just as relevant now as it was in New Testament days.
So if the meaning and form are still relevant, that only leaves the question of when baptism should be administered. And in this we have to remember that baptism isn’t a simple naming ceremony, it is not an initiation ceremony into the world. And if that is what we want to use it for we undermine the whole meaning and purpose of baptism.
No, baptism is a serious response to God concerning salvation for the faithful to whom baptism is targeted. And if that is true, then baptism is just as relevant today, as it was when Jesus commanded his disciples to practice it nearly two thousand years ago.
Christening—or giving people new names—as an added symbol of putting away the past, may still be relevant for older people wishing to be baptised. But for non-believers, who are looking for some sort of ceremony to welcome their children into the world, an alternative, even secular welcoming or naming ceremony, would be far more appropriate.
Because baptism is not a ceremony that one should goes through and then forget. There are deep implications with baptism that shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Not least of which is the need to acknowledge mistakes, to put the past behind us, to make a concerted effort to live a new life, and to maintain and nurture a commitment to a healthy relationship with our creator.
So where does this all bring us to today?
Well, the church may have been involved in the conduct of baptisms, weddings, and funerals in the past. And in days gone by, when a greater proportion of the population went to church, the church’s development in that direction may have been understandable—although not necessarily wise. But things have changed, and with the diminishing interest in the church in our community and culture, it is perhaps time to put things right.
Some today may look sadly, on the changing role of the church, in regard to rites of passage, but let’s think about it for a moment:
With weddings, for many, the religious ceremony has completely dropped away. And for others even the cultural side is being abandoned—with no ceremony at all. But doesn’t that just take us back to where it all started, when no one had a wedding—religious or otherwise?
With funerals, the number of families opting for a non-religious funeral service is ever increasing. But then originally it was not normal to have a service at all, and in any event, it would not have been performed by a priest or in a consecrated building.
Of the three rites—baptisms, weddings, and funerals—only baptism is the exclusive property of the church. And that, as we have seen, is just as relevant today as it’s always been.
Indeed, with all the changes, it is right that the church should be left with only the one rite—baptism. Because it is the one rite that should have been its central focus all the time.
Jesus said. “Go and make disciples in every nation. Baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). He didn’t say, “Go bury the dead.” (In fact he said the opposite). He didn’t say, “Go conduct weddings.” He didn’t even say, “Baptise indiscriminately.” No! He told his disciples to go and make more disciples, and to baptise those new disciples in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And if the church had strictly adhered to that in the first place, it would not have got itself in the tangle over rites of passage in which we can see it is in today.
Posted: 13th August 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: All Good Things Come to an End (Matthew 28:20b)
Like all things in life, all good things come to an end—and life is full of things that we enjoy. As a consequence, when it comes to parting, it can be very difficult to let go. And yet, at some stage, we have to set certain things aside—we have to move on and do other things. And not necessarily because of our own choosing.
And the things we have to move on from can be our schooling, our job, a relationship, being a member of a particular club, or any number of other things—and events—that may come our way.
Having said that, saying goodbye to something is not necessarily the end of the world—even if it feels like that at the time. Indeed, it can open up a whole new world of opportunities and possibilities, that we may not have previous considered.
So for you and me—for all of us—there are times of transition and change. And it may not always be easy. It can include a time of dreaming of what could be, but it can also be a period of uncertainty about what lies ahead.
So with this in mind, I thought today that I would provide you with some thoughts. Thoughts that are just as appropriate to me as they should be to you.
B. SOME THOUGHTS
1. Always Seek God’s Leadership and Guidance
And the first thought is about God’s leadership and guidance.
Because, contrary to a fairly common belief in our society, God has not just created the world and left us to fend for ourselves. (Although, when we are struggling, when we’re finding it difficult to cope, and when we just don’t know which way to go next, it may seem like that at the time). No, that’s not the case. God very much wants to involve himself in every aspect of our lives.
And how do we know? Well as Christian’s we have several promises to consider. For instance, Jesus promised never to leave us, and that he would be with us, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). Jesus promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us in all things (Jn 16:13). And in Revelation we’re told that the faithful will be led to springs of living water. And the reward for being faithful, would be the end to suffering, hunger, thirst, and tears (Rev 7:17). And of course these are just three of the many promises of God.
However, if that is not proof positive that God wants to lead and guide us—and particularly through the difficult times of life—we also have the experience of the faithful.
For example Moses, under God’s leadership, was instrumental in rescuing the Israelites from Egypt; God used Moses in persuading Pharaoh to let his people go. And even though the people had no real idea of what this Promised Land looked like, or how they were going to get there and what would happen in the meantime, they followed God’s direction anyway.
Indeed, after the parting of the Red Sea, and getting safely to the other side, with not one wet foot, Moses (with Miriam) was so convinced of God’s continuing leadership and guidance, that they re-devoted themselves to God, believing that his leadership would continue on (Ex 15:13).
King David is another example. Because having experienced God’s leadership and guidance on a number of occasions—and, at the time, going through one of the rocky periods of his kingship—he wrote, in what we know as Psalm 23, about his confidence in God’s leadership to see him through the most difficult of times.
God, then, wants to lead and guide. Our God is a God who cares, comforts, and leads. And we have the witness of some very faithful servants to back that up.
Having said that, we need to back that statement up with some provisos: He’s not our puppet and we cannot pull his strings. His plans may, at times, be different to ours; so too his timing. So having God as our leader and guide does not necessarily make it easy. But then I’m also sure that we don’t always make it easy either, particularly when we don’t listen to him, or even want to listen.
Nevertheless God is with us, and wants to be with us. And he has promised that he will see us through. So we should always seek his leadership and guidance.
2. Expect the Impossible
The second thought is to expect the impossible.
When things seem utterly hopeless, and everything is going wrong, it’s helpful to remember some of the things that God’s already done. Because, as the angel said to Mary, prior to the conception of Jesus: “Nothing is impossible with God” (Lk 1:37).
At times, when we feel numb or just plain dead on our feet, we can recall the story of Elijah (1 Ki 17:17-24), who when faced with the Widow of Zarephath—whose son had become ill and had died—was used by God to restore the boy back to life. And there’s the story of Jesus and Lazarus, where Lazarus had died and was four days in his tomb, before Jesus raised him from the dead (John 11:38-44).
When we are hungry or thirsty (physically or spiritually), we can remember the miracles of the feeding of five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand (Mk 6:30-44,8:1-13). And we can recall how Jesus took small amounts of bread and fish, with the result that everyone had their fill. And then we have the story of the wedding at Cana, where the wine ran out (John 2;1-11) and Jesus ordered that six stone jars capable of holding twenty to thirty gallons each, be filled with water. And in this case, he didn’t just change the water into any old wine, this wine was the best they had served all day.
And, at times when we feel continually tested, when we feel as though we’re getting very little or no support, we can think of Job. How he was tested by Satan, and how he suffered dreadful losses to both property and family, and whose friends basically sat down and told him he only had himself to blame. But then we can also recall how God saw him blameless, and restored him to new fortune, with even greater riches than he had before.
Furthermore, when the church seems to be going nowhere, we can remember the Israelites in Egypt. How they suffered terribly—through slavery and the harshness of Pharaoh—and how God called Moses to be his instrument, and the miracles that were performed in the plagues that were sent to Pharaoh to let them go, in the parting of the Red Sea, and in the provision of manna and quail in the desert. And even though they wandered around for a while in the desert—forty years in fact, for being less than faithful—they did reach the Promised Land.
And when those times come (as they do to all of us), when you’re really not sure where you are going yourself, we can remember the call of the disciples—a motley crew of people, many lacking in education, and certainly not the sort of people that would have been recognised as having any leadership potential. And yet, Jesus taught, guided, encouraged, chastised, and led them to become some of the greatest leaders of the church that history has ever known.
God is therefore not beyond doing the unexpected. Indeed, there are numerous examples recorded in the bible where God did the unexpected and the miraculous. He met the needs of his people on a number of occasions. And although these stories are past history, as a people of faith—with a God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow—we should not discount the impossible from the way God helps us, even today.
3. Be Encouraged in Difficult Circumstances
And the third thought is to be encouraged in the faith.
The Apostle Paul, having visited and spent some time with the church at Corinth, wrote to the church there, to encourage them in their faith.
Now the church at Corinth faced big problems. Big, big problems. There was infighting with various groups going different ways, there were moral irregularities, they were suing one another, they were abusing the Lord’s Supper, they had entertained false teaching and false teachers, and they weren’t over generous in their assistance to other churches either.
And even if that list is not the same in the church today, there wouldn’t be many churches that didn’t have a few problems of their own. Indeed, the most common problems seem to be people intent in holding back—as though everything was good in the past; poor attendance at services; lack of commitment by some; and the lack of young families worshipping on a regular basis.
However, even with their difficulties, Paul saw that the church at Corinth had a future. He believed that, with God’s help, they could be led out of their current predicament. He didn’t give up on them, but encouraged them in their faith.
In other words, the problems that any church faces are not insurmountable. And Paul’s advice to the Corinthian church—a church in desperate trouble—may be just as applicable to us as it was to the church back then: “Be alert! Stand firm in the faith! Behave like men! Be strong! Let everything be done in love” (1 Cor 16:13-14).
Three thoughts then that can apply to us all:
Firstly, always seek God’s leadership and guidance. Things may seem difficult on occasions, but God wants to lead and guide. He may not always do it the way we envisage, but he does want to be with us, and to see us through.
Secondly, expect the impossible. God is concerned with the welfare of his people, and the welfare of his church. But he doesn’t necessarily conform to the standards of the world. He picks people the world wouldn’t choose, and he is not beyond the miraculous to suit his purposes either.
And, thirdly, be encouraged in the faith. If the Corinthian church was in a bad state—and Paul was still able to offer much encouragement—then how much more should we be encouraged in our walks with God?
Like everything in life, all good things come to an end. Life moves on.
In one sense these times of transition can be unsettling—things often don’t happen in the way we want, or at the pace that we want them. But rest assured, God will be with you and me, and if we let him, he will help us through.
Posted: 6th May 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis