DEVOTION: Going Against the Grain (Luke 1:26-38)
I probably don’t have to remind you, but Christmas is fast approaching. Indeed, I only had to go into one shop today to find Christmassy things on display. And there was nothing very religious about any of it—it was all related to the pagan celebration.
However, as I thought about that, my mind turned to the story of Mary. Because put yourself in Mary’s shoes for a moment. She was probably a girl of about twelve or thirteen and engaged to be married—all quite normal for those days. But all of a sudden, she was confronted by an angel who told her that God needed her to do something.
Now Mary was evidently deeply religious, and the mere presence of an angel made her fearful. But when she told that she would have a baby, and that her fiancé was not to be the father … Well, you can imagine how she would have felt. It would have gone against the grain of everything that was socially and legally acceptable—let alone what she was brought up to believe. But this was God who was making the request—and the conception was not going to be through normal means.
Even so, that doesn’t mean she would have been totally happy with what she had been asked to do. But she trusted God, and she agreed to do what she was asked. And, indeed, in time she learnt to appreciate the magnitude of what she had done. And we may all be relieved that it was Mary who was asked to do something outside her comfort zone, not us.
But Mary’s response, does rather raise the issue: if God were to ask us to do something radically different, how would we respond? What would we do if God said to us, “I know your customs. I know the things you’re comfortable with, but I want you to do something that you’re totally uncomfortable with—something that goes against the grain of everything you’ve been brought up to believe”?
Now would we say, “No! We’ve never done things that way before; it’s not the way we do things”? Or would we, like Mary, trust God. Because although we may not feel totally comfortable, we know that we need to trust God, anyway.
Posted: 2nd November 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Practicing the Christian Faith (Luke 4:38-44)
If I were to ask any group of people today what it means to practice the Christian faith, I would probably end up with a variety of responses. Some would say that it means living a good life; others might suggest it means living according to certain ethical principles. Some would say it’s a matter of being married in church, and having your children “christened”, whilst others might indicate that it’s a matter of being involved in the church—but only as much as they feel they need. Some would believe it is doing your bit for the upkeep of the church, whilst others …. Well you get the idea. If I were to ask any group of people today what it means to be a Christian, I would end up with a variety of responses. But would any of them be right? What does it actually mean to practice the Christian faith?
Well I’m going to suggest that to find out what practicing the faith is really about, we need go no further than the example of Jesus himself. And the passage from Luke 4:38-44, gives us a cameo of what Jesus taught his disciples to practice. And there are four things in particular we should note.
Because the first thing we find is the importance Jesus places on worship (38a). Indeed Jesus was in Capernaum, and because it was the Sabbath he went into the synagogue, to worship and to participate in the religious life of the community.
The second thing that we find is the importance Jesus placed on compassion (38b-41). Because Sabbath or not, when Jesus left the synagogue he went to the home of Simon (Peter), and healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. And remember fevers in those days were not necessarily life threatening. But Jesus healed her on the Sabbath anyway.
Then at sunset, when the Sabbath was considered to over, and the new day had begun, people came from all over the town bringing the sick and the demon possessed—all of whom Jesus healed. However, these were early days in his ministry, he didn’t want his ministry to be side-tracked, and so he told the demons not to disclose to the people who he really was.
The third thing that we find is the importance Jesus placed on private prayer—being alone with God (42). Because even in Jesus’s busy schedule he made time to be alone with his Father.
And the fourth thing that we find is that Jesus remained focussed on being obedient to God (43-44). He was keen to find out and do the things that God wanted him to do.
So, let’s get back to our original question. “What does it mean to practice the Christian faith?” Well, what we see in Jesus is none of the ideas I mentioned at the beginning. Indeed, there is no indication that what is required is simply to live a good life, or to live according to certain ethical principles—important though those aspects may be. The story doesn’t indicate that all one has to do is to be married in church, and having your children “christened”. It doesn’t illustrate the idea of being involved in the church, but only as much as the need is felt. And it doesn’t mean the need to do your bit to preserve the fabric of the building.
On the contrary, Jesus’s example shows that practicing the Christian faith, involves commitment to regular public worship, showing compassion to others, spending time alone with God, and wanting to hear and do the things he asks us to do. That’s what the practice of being a Christian is all about. And we have no better example than the one Jesus set before us to follow.
Posted: 30th August 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Black and White Gospel (Luke 6:20-26)
In this world there is a tendency to talk about things in terms of two extremes. We talk in terms of black and white, rich and poor, the able and the disabled, the haves and the have nots. Now of course, we all know that there are normally all sorts of shades in between. Nevertheless talking about things in terms of two extremes can be a very helpful way in clarifying issues.
Now one of the masters of talking in terms of black and white was Jesus, because Jesus talked in terms of those who had faith and those who hadn’t, those who believed and those who didn’t, and those who were saved and those who were lost. But whereas we might understand, or even hope for shades in between, with Jesus there was no such option. And we have an example of what I am saying in Luke’s Gospel.
The situation was that a crowd of disciples and others had assembled. Jesus had healed the sick of their diseases, and demons had been cast out. And only then did Jesus begin to address the crowd. And what he had to say was very much in terms of black and white.
He addressed his followers first, and talked about what it meant to be a disciple. He told them that they would face many hardships. Indeed, because they had chosen to follow him, they would not have an easy life. But in a sense that didn’t matter, because any follower of Jesus would be well and truly compensated by God. They would be given the divine gift of salvation. They would have the religious joy that only faith could bring. And God would bestow on them many other blessings besides.
Then in contrast, Jesus addressed the unbelievers in the crowd. He spoke to those who had come to listen, but had not yet made any commitment. And in contrast, Jesus spoke to them in terms of divine judgement, and a number of woes that they would face if they remained unbelievers.
Now in each case, Jesus didn’t say that these things might happen to them. He said that they would happen to them. The believers would face persecution—it was guaranteed—but they would receive their rewards from God too. In contrast unbelievers could continue to live their lives any way they wanted to, but in the end they would be punished. There were no if’s, but’s or maybe’s. Everything was black and white.
Now lest we think Jesus was being a bit rough, that he didn’t care, let’s think of the circumstances. Before his speech, Jesus had already demonstrated compassion for the people. He had healed people of their diseases, and he driven out unclean spirits. And only then did he encourage his disciples to stick with the faith, and speak to the unbelievers regarding the consequences of their lack of faith. Physical healing was fine, but people needed spiritual healing too.
In other words, Jesus did not talk about the two extremes, believing that there were shades in between. For Jesus there was no third option, there were no shades of grey.
Now many people today would like there to be more alternatives—and may even live in the belief that there are. But when it comes to the Christian faith it is a simple matter of black and white. Christianity is an exclusive religion. You either believe or you don’t; you’re either in or you’re out. And that is something that we need to consider for ourselves.
It is also something we need to consider when talking to others about our faith. Because we would be grossly negligent, indeed do others harm, if we should suggest to anyone that there is another way.
Posted: 6th September 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Judging Others (Luke 6:36-42)
One of the hardest lessons in life must be learning not to judge others; not to look down on others because they don’t meet our particular standards. Because, whether it’s people who have hurt us personally, whether it’s because we can’t agree with other people’s lifestyles, or whether it’s because of a number of other reasons, comparing others with ourselves—and judging them accordingly—is a very natural part of life. After all, don’t we all go through life being taught what is right and wrong—even thinking through issues and creating our own personal standards—only to find others either occasionally or habitually breaking them?
As a consequence, to be faced with a bible reading like, “Do not judge, do not condemn,” the natural instinct is undoubtedly, “How can I do anything else?” After all, there are some people who leave themselves open to be judged or condemned. Yet, despite that, Jesus taught that far from judging and condemning, we should be forgiving, and giving. And he gave quite a number of reasons why that should be so.
And it might be helpful to remind ourselves of them.
Because the first reason that he gives, is that we should be imitating God (36). God has provided a pattern for his children to follow; a standard of comparison to maintain, which was expressed in the earthly existence of Jesus. Jesus showed mercy and compassion to sinners and we are expected to show mercy too. In other words, God’s children are expected to show the character of their father, which goes beyond the level of normal relationships, even to the point that enemies should be included in our compassion and care.
The second reason that he gives, is that we should not usurp God in our judging and condemning people (37a). It is God’s role to judge and condemn, and we should not be putting ourselves above God. That doesn’t mean that we can’t use discernment and discrimination in our own dealings, or even be indifferent to the moral condition of others. However, we are not to have the attitude of a censor. Because if we do act as judge, then, Jesus teaches, we too will face the judgement of God in return.
The third reason that he gives, is that God cannot forgive our sins whilst we are holding a grudge against someone else (37b). Now none of us are perfect; all of us make mistakes. And if we can’t forgive others who have done us wrong, how can we expect God to forgive us? Instead, we are to forgive those who have committed an offence against us, even at the cost of our own pride and position.
The fourth reason that he gives, is that we should demonstrate our gratitude to God for what he has done for us (38). God has demonstrated his immense goodness to us in the salvation which he provides. And therefore, the response of his people to not judge or condemn others, in the same way that God has not judged or condemned us, is the kind of action that God approves. Not only that, but there is a bonus in this one. We will also be rewarded by God according to the measure that we have employed.
The fifth reason that he gives, is that without him (Jesus) we would be nothing—we’d be continuing on in blissful ignorance. We’d simply be following each other blindly, going nowhere, but around in circles. It’s because of Jesus that we have been enlightened to a better way (39-40). We therefore shouldn’t set ourselves up as different to Jesus. Jesus has shown us a better way. And even though we may not fully understand it now, our actions one day will be vindicated, and we will receive our reward from God.
And the sixth reason that he gives? Well, it’s all very well us picking faults with everyone else, but what about our own faults (41-42)? We can profess piety, righteousness, or whatever we like until we are blue in the face, but unless we can prove we are completely faultless, then we are only play-acting. Who are we, then, to point the finger?
Six reasons, then, that Jesus gave, why we shouldn’t judge others. A pretty comprehensive argument, then, on why we shouldn’t judge or condemn, and why we should forgive and give.
However, I can think of a seventh. Because you may, with me, have witnessed what happens to people who cannot forgive. Because the event, the cause of the unforgiveness, continues to eat away at the person over the years. Small incidents become blown all out of proportion, and sometimes the cause of the unforgiveness is forgotten altogether. The result over time, is that the person who refuses to forgive, becomes more and more bitter and twisted—their whole lives become consumed by the one event. Life ceases to bring any joy, and bit by bit their spirit dies.
Now without a doubt, not judging others can be one of the hardest lessons in life. And it’s hard, not just because there are so many new things to learn, but because there are so many old habits that have to be unlearned too. But Jesus’s case is very convincing. We need to learn not to judge or condemn, and we need to take on an attitude of forgiving and giving. If what Jesus has done for us means anything, we should, as a matter of course, express a character that goes beyond the level of normal relationships. And we should be able to forgive even our own worst enemies.
Those six points of Jesus again. We need to imitate God. We need not to usurp God. We need to forgive others, so that God can forgive us. We need to show our gratitude to God, with the bonus that one day we shall see our reward. We need to accept that forgiving and giving is a better way. And, lastly, who are we to point the finger?
Now some people may have done some rotten things in the past, and even things that have seemed unforgivable. But Jesus has left us in no doubt the price of judging and condemning others. He didn’t say it would be easy, but his expectation is that rather than judge and condemn, we are to forgive and give.
Posted: 23rd June 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: What Kind of World Do I Belong To? (Luke 7:31-35)
If you were asked to describe the state of the people of this country, what would you say? Would you describe them as people who have purpose and direction, and know where they are going? Or would you describe them as people who are here one minute, gone the next, and with no real hope or ambition?
Well, I think we know what Jesus would say, because he said it about his own generation. He described his own people as fickle and indecisive, and not really knowing what they wanted. They were people who expected others to behave as they wanted them to behave, but in the end were never really happy with anything that anyone did at all.
Indeed he told a parable to describe his people, as children playing games. Like children sitting around playing musical instruments, expecting others to dance to their tunes. And he illustrated his parable to describe the, then, current situation.
For John the Baptist they played a happy tune—suitable for a wedding—but found that John wouldn’t dance to the tune. Instead they noted that John was a sad sort of figure—he wore strange clothes, he didn’t eat the right foods—so they dismissed him for being too mournful. But then Jesus came along, and he was a happy figure—he ate lots, and he celebrated with the people. And yet they refused to play the happy tunes that they had for John, and instead played a funeral dirge, which Jesus refused to dance to.
Now it’s important to note that neither John nor Jesus tried to dance to the tunes that were being played. Both were faithful to the commands of God. But then Jesus’s point is that even if they had tried, the people still wouldn’t have been happy them. John was sad—and they weren’t happy with him, because they wanted him to be joyful. And Jesus was joyful—but they weren’t happy with him, because he wasn’t sad. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus described his people as being like fickle children? They didn’t know what they wanted; they were changeable in their demands. And he concluded that only God’s children could have any hope of being consistent—because they had access to God’s wisdom.
Now does the world that Jesus knew ring any bells for us? Well, I’m sure it does. Indeed sometimes it can seem as if we are surrounded by people whose expectations swing madly from one extreme to another. After all, how often do we hear people say that they want God to be a God of justice, but then insist that their own mistakes shouldn’t count against them? How often do we see people wanting God to be a loving Father one minute, but then one who is willing to turn a blind eye to their misdemeanours the next? How often do we find people seeking guidance one minute, but then freedom to live the way they want the next? People want a saviour, but they want to do it their way too.
So even today people are fickle and inconstant, and even today only God’s people have any real hope of understanding his wisdom. Which, I guess, tells us where we should be. Because even now we need to remember that we need to dance to God’s tune, not that of the people—just like John and Jesus. But then even if we tried to dance to the tune of others, it is highly unlikely they would be happy with what we do anyway.
So what kind of world do we belong to? One that is fickle, and inconstant; one which swings from one extreme to the other, never being really happy with either. One that wants a saviour, but wants to do it their way too. And the message for us? Well the thing we need to remember is the need to consistent in ourselves, and in our faith. People may be fickle, but God isn’t. And there is only one tune we should be dancing to—and that is God’s tune. There is no other way.
Posted: 12th September 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Cost of Following Jesus (Luke 9:57-62)
There is a cost factor in everything that we do. If we want to go on holiday, there’s the financial expense. If we want to build friendships, there’s the time and effort, and the need to share something of ourselves. And if we want to belong to a club or organisation, then there’s the membership fee, and the need to be willing to abide by the rules.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, to realise that there is a cost factor when it comes to the Christian faith too. There’s a cost factor involved in deciding to put Jesus first. There’s a cost factor involved in the need to grow spiritually, and in the need to leave some of the things that we love behind. And there’s a cost factor regarding the need to share our faith.
As a consequence, being a believer, is not a simple thing to be. Indeed, it can be very costly. Which is why, when we read the story of the three men—who made such wonderful statements of allegiance to Jesus—we can wonder whether they really understood what following Jesus was about at all.
Because the statements that they made were just that—mere statements. And Jesus saw through them straight away. Indeed, none of them were prepared to pay the cost. None of them were prepared to pay anything but lip service to following Jesus.
And in that, is a lesson to us all. Because just as Jesus made a call on each of those men’s lives—and they responded with wonderful statements—so too does he make a call on ours. But what is our response? And will we be guilty of only paying lip service too?
Because it seems to me that we have three choices. Firstly, we can reject the call of Jesus out of hand and relieve ourselves of any pretence. And if we do that, we can just go on living as if a relationship with God doesn’t matter. Secondly, we can pay lip service to the call of Jesus, and we can pretend to be his followers. But in the end the result will be the same. Or thirdly, we can take a risk, accept Jesus’ challenge and go wherever he takes us. We can then trust in God to do the rest.
Of course, each of the options comes at a cost. And a cost with which we may not be totally comfortable. But that’s faith. The only real issue is: What price are we prepared to pay?
Posted: 18th February 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Commissioning in the Church (Luke 10:1-20)
Whenever something significant happens in life, we seem to have a ceremony to go with it. When children are born, we have naming ceremonies. When two people decide to live together, we have weddings or other forms of commitment. And when people die, funerals are a common event. And whilst not everybody participates in these ceremonies these days, nevertheless, the so-called “rites of passage” are still held by many in high esteem.
But it doesn’t end there. Because if we want to launch a boat, we have a commissioning ceremony. And when their time is up, a service to decommission them too. When someone is appointed to parliament, there is a swearing-in ceremony. (And there is a swearing-in ceremony every time a minister is appointed or changes portfolios.) And even in the church we have services to commission, ordain and consecrate people for various functions.
But why do we commission people in the church? And on what basis do we do it?
Well, to answer that, I’d like to refer to an incident in the life of Jesus. It was a time when Jesus appointed and commissioned seventy-two people to go on a mission. And at the time he didn’t just send them off on their own to all the towns and places he was going. No, he first told them, “There is an abundant harvest, but few labourers. So, appeal to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his field. Go! I am sending you like lambs into the midst of wolves. Take no purse, pouch, or sandals. Do not greet anyone on the way, etc. etc.” (Luke 10:2-4). Then, he sent them out in twos.
And this raises a number of issues regarding commissioning in the church that I would like to address.
And the first issue is, that commissioning plays an important part in setting people apart for a specific task.
Jesus needed to appoint some people for a specific task. He wanted seventy-two people, to send them out with one thing in mind—to prepare the people of the towns and villages ahead for an encounter with him. It was that simple. Jesus understood he couldn’t do his job all on his own. He needed help. What’s more, if others prepared the way then the short time that he could spend with them had the potential to be far more effective. As a consequence, it was important to engage others in his mission too. So, Jesus commissioning seventy-two people.
So, if we are Jesus’s disciples, think how important it can be for us too. Because, yes, we could leave it all up to Jesus to do his work, but think how much more effective his work would be, if there were willing helpers preparing the way ahead for an encounter with the Messiah. People who God could use to spread and share the message of the kingdom. People appointed, set apart or commissioned for particular tasks.
The second issue is, that having selected the seventy-two, Jesus used the appointment to detail what was expected of them.
Interestingly, the seventy-two were not given quotas on conversions, they weren’t told that their effectiveness would be measured by the number of people who attended the synagogue the following week. Indeed, they were warned that the opposite might be true because they were told what to do if they were made unwelcome. But what Jesus indicated to them was that they were expected to exercise their faith—to share what they believed with the people they went out of their way to meet. They were to use the spiritual gifts that they’d be given for the benefit of all. And the rest … Well the implication is that they were to leave the rest up to God.
As a consequence, that is true of us too. Because, if we have been commissioned, the expectation is about us exercising our faith—sharing what we believe. There should be no quotas, no pass or fail mark. Simply the need to share our faith and leave the rest up to God.
The third issue is that the appointment of the seventy-two did not come from a spiritual vacuum but followed a period of much training.
Now, I’ve often heard described of this passage that training was unnecessary and not provided. And a superficial reading of this passage might suggest that this was true. However, at the time of this incident, Jesus was near the end of his earthly ministry. He had been travelling around teaching, performing miracles, and his disciples had had a good opportunity to know what made him tick. And as Jesus began his final trip to Jerusalem the one thing you couldn’t say was that the seventy-two had received no training at all. Indeed, the seventy-two would have received much training. So, he used the appointment to give them their final instructions.
As a consequence, training is very important. It was for the disciples, and it is for us too.
And the fourth issue is, that Jesus provided a great deal of support for his workers.
Now that might seem an odd thing to say, particularly when he told the seventy-two not to take spare clothes, food, bedding or anything like that. But, yet, Jesus told them to go out in twos. No-one was asked to go out without the support of another, who was to be with them at all times. In addition, Jesus gave them the authority of God, and he gave them the authority to speak and to act in God’s name. Jesus also provided a home base—not only to come back to, but who would be ready to listen to all their stories too.
Support was very important. And it is very important with us too. Because wherever God’s authority is given, it is important for a good solid home base to come back to.
When we consider commissioning in the church, then, we have the model of the appointment and commissioning of the seventy-two disciples by Jesus to consider. It provides a model which identifies the need to specifically set apart people for specific tasks. It provides parameters (or expectations) under which people are expected to work. It provides appropriate training for the respective tasks. And most importantly it offers a support structure on which those commissioned can depend.
Commissioning is a very important aspect of church life. And when we do it, I can think of no better way than using the model given to us by Jesus himself.
Posted: 16th June 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Restoring the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17)
1. The Problem of the Sabbath
One of the features of today’s world is that it doesn’t take seriously the need to have time out from the routine of normal living, or the need to spend quality time with the creator. As a consequence we live in a society that expects everything to be available at all times, at any time of day and night, and at a touch of a button. It expects shops to be open seven days a week, and somehow has learnt that it’s not possible to cope unless they are. And it has learnt that sport, family commitments, and other activities are just as important—perhaps more important—than the idea of gathering together for worship.
2. The Purpose of the Sabbath
Now, I know that the very early on in the Church’s life the day of rest was changed from a Saturday to a Sunday. And that was so that there could be a weekly remembrance of the resurrection. And, I know that as Christians we live under grace and not the law, so there is an emphasis on what Christ has done, rather then what we can do for ourselves. But regardless of that, there was a reason why God told his people to keep the Sabbath. And that was in order to have some time out each week from the daily routine as day of rest, and for the community to set aside some time each week to spend time with God. And, God did that, because he was concerned not just about our physical and mental welfare, but he was concerned about our spiritual welfare too.
That’s why the fourth commandment, that he gave his people, quite clearly states: Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy, as YHWH your God has commanded you. For six days you are to labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is to be set apart as a Sabbath to YHWH your God. So neither you, your son or daughter, your manservant or maidservant, your animals (ox, donkey or any other animal), nor any alien living with you, are to work on the Sabbath. That way your manservant and maidservant may rest like you should.
YHWH created the heavens, the earth, the sea and every living being in six days, and on the seventh day he rested. For this reason YHWH has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
In addition, remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and YHWH your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. For this reason too YHWH your God has charged you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15)
3. The Result of Modern Attitudes to the Sabbath
Now, of course, these days the fourth, and all the other commandments, are generally not considered relevant in our society. They’re usually explained away, taken so literally that they become meaningless, or when found to be inconvenient, are generally ignored. And we can see that reflected in the history of our own church. After all, after the flurry of activity in the 1800’s to establish churches around the state, the 1900s witnessed a period of slow decline, eventuating in the closure of numerous churches, and the amalgamation of many parishes.
As a consequence we can easily conclude: if we ignore God’s laws, we do so at our peril. We may be people of faith, not law; nevertheless God’s principles for living were designed to show us how to live healthy lives—in terms of our faith and our community. And as soon as we tamper with those rules, adjust them here and there—that is a recipe for deep trouble.
And we have an example from the Bible of what happens when people tweak God’s rules in the passage from Luke’s Gospel.
B. THE HEALING OF A CRIPPLED WOMAN
1. The Situation (10-11)
Now the situation was that it was a Sabbath, and Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues. (In fact, it is the last time Luke records Jesus teaching in a synagogue). However, whilst Jesus was teaching he noticed a woman—probably suffering from a fusion of the spinal bones—who was so bent over she couldn’t straighten herself at all. This woman’s complaint was serious. She‘d suffered it for eighteen years, and it was the result of some kind of possession or evil influence.
2. The Healing (12-13)
Now, Jesus would have been well aware of the attitude of the synagogue leaders to the Sabbath. He would have known that outwardly, at least, they professed the need to keep God’s commandment regarding the Sabbath. And yet lived by their own book of rules, telling people what they could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. Yet, despite that, Jesus spontaneously responded to the woman with compassion. He summoned her from the congregation, pronounced her “cured”, and laid his hands on her.
The woman’s healing was immediate. This wasn’t just some temporary easing of her ailment. The woman responded to Jesus by immediately straightening herself, recovering to a normal upright posture—a posture that she had been unable to achieve for 18 years. Then recognising God’s hand in her cure, she began to praise God thankful for her healing. Which, if you think about it, was very appropriate, particularly being in a synagogue.
Now if the synagogue leaders had been genuine in their need to keep the Sabbath, they would have rejoiced at the woman’s healing and they would have joined in the praises of God. But that’s not what happened. Instead they took offence at Jesus for healing the woman on the Sabbath. And why? Because he had broken the set of rules that they lived by. Yes they may have been created as a means to interpret the fourth commandment, but in their use had left the fourth commandment well and truly behind.
You see, there’s a connection between the world we live in, and the world of Jesus’s time. In our society many may say that they believe in God, and many may profess to live by God’s commandments. Yet how often do we see God’s commandments, trivialised, explained away, or ignored if they are inconvenient? It’s the same problem that Jesus faced. Only in Jesus’s day, there was a whole new book of rules which had replaced God’s own.
As a consequence what happened next was far too predictable.
4. The Arguments (14-16)
a). The Need for Compassion
Because, firstly, once the woman was healed, the ruler of the synagogue went on the attack. He was indignant at Jesus for breaking their man-made rules. However, perhaps a little afraid to attack Jesus directly, he directed his comments to the crowd. He told them that there were six other days in the week in which the woman could have been healed; indeed, it wasn’t necessary for her to be healed on the Sabbath. As far as the ruler was concerned Jesus should have waited for the following day. And, he may well have added something like “She’d already suffered for 18 years, so what difference would another day make”.
To which Jesus responded, by pointing out, firstly, how ignorant he was of God and his commandments. God was a compassionate God. And yet he had demonstrated no understanding of that; indeed he had failed to be compassionate to the woman too. Secondly, he had failed to recognise that it was God who had healed her. Indeed, the same God, who had given them the commandments in the first place. And thirdly, he pointed out how hypocritical that he, and others like him, were. After all they would think nothing of watering their animals on the Sabbath—something that was necessary for the welfare of their flock. So why, then, couldn’t they care for someone in their human flock too?
At the heart of Jesus’ words were a pointed comment on the rules that they had made up, rules that had replaced God’s commandments in their thinking. Rules that they rigorously enforced, to the point where God’s principles for healthy living, and compassion and care had been thrown out of the window.
Under God’s commandment, and under their own set of rules, it was permissible to water one’s animals on a Sabbath, provided they didn’t do any work. But under God’s rules that’s where it ended. However under their rules, for the Sabbath, there were restrictions on how the animals could be tied up, what sort of knots could be tied, how far one could take one’s cattle for water, etc. etc. So in raising the issue of the hypocrisy of applying man’s rules, Jesus was not only pointing out that there were differences between God’s rules and man’s rules—and God’s rules were far more compassionate—but he was demonstrating that man’s rules had become so complicated that they couldn’t possibly be kept. All they did was to impose an intolerable burden on those who were required to keep them.
b). The Need to Restore the Sabbath
And, following that line of argument, Jesus made the additional point that because they had replaced God’s laws with their own, they had forgotten what the Sabbath was all about.
Indeed, if the whole point of the Sabbath was that it should be holy, that it should represent a time away from the normal duties of life, and a time when the community could spend time with God, then it was actually fitting that the woman be cured by God, on the Sabbath, and in a synagogue, because in that way the Sabbath was positively hallowed.
5. The Reactions (17)
Now the arguments of Jesus, to the leaders’ responses, received two reactions. Firstly, Jesus’s opponents were humiliated. They’d been put to shame by his understanding of God; they’d been put to shame by his understanding of the commandments, particularly the fourth; and they’d been put to shame by his compassion for the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. And secondly, the congregation were delighted; they were delighted with everything about Jesus, with all the wonderful things that he had done, and was doing. They were delighted that people were receiving healing; and they were delighted that Jesus was intent on stripping away all the man-made rules—all the things that tied people up in knots. And in doing so, Jesus was restoring God’s rules, and making God, and the Sabbath, more accessible to the common people.
So what difference is there, then, between the world of Jesus’s day, and the world of today? Very little. In Jesus’ day, they had taken God’s rules, and made up a whole new set of their own. And people were actively encouraged to ignore God’s rules (on which they were supposed to be based). Similarly today, for the most part, God’s laws have been set aside, people pay only lip service to them, they’re explained away; they’re taken so literally that they have become meaningless; or when found to be inconvenient, they are generally ignored.
The common factor to both biblical times and today is that neither then nor now did or do people generally take God’s principles for healthy living, very seriously at all.
And that’s a problem, because whilst we are supposed to be a people of faith, and not dependent upon works, and whilst we may celebrate the Sabbath on a Sunday, we still need to take seriously the concept of the Sabbath, as it was originally intended. And just as in our story Jesus was successful in restoring its meaning to the common people—to give back the Sabbath to the people in that synagogue—so part of our role today is that we need (with God’s help) to try to restore the idea of the Sabbath. To give the Sabbath back to the people today too.
And that means that we need to take seriously, and we need to show by example, the principles behind God’s Sabbath rule.
So using Jesus as our example, his daily routine was that he wandered backwards and forwards across Palestine, and occasionally went into nearby territories. He spent time healing the sick; he performed miracles; he raised the dead; he taught people about God; and he spent time alone with his disciples.
1. The Need for Rest
But despite his normal routine, there were also times when he got away from it all. There were times when he went off on his own, to rest and recover from the routine of everyday life. Now he wasn’t always successful, because people followed him everywhere. But he tried, and tried, and tried—he was persistent. And he tried to make sure that the disciples got away from it too.
Now, the principle is quite sound. As human beings we were never designed to be going seven days a week. And consequently working flat out, without regular breaks, means that our health (and our work) will tend to suffer. In addition we were designed to communicate and have an intimate relationship with God, and with each other. And that requires a commitment of time and effort outside of our normal routine.
2. The Need for God
The second thing that Jesus did was to spent time on the Sabbath in either the Temple or in one of the many Synagogues that were scattered around the country.
For sure, Jesus didn’t just talk to, and worship, his Father only on the Sabbath. He talked to him at other times too. But come the Sabbath Jesus was there in the synagogue, to worship God, to pray to him and, importantly, to meet with the people. There he also taught, corrected, encouraged and shared the message of the Kingdom of God with those who had gathered to meet.
And the principle behind that is quite simple too. When God created mankind, he created us as communal beings. Now with today’s emphasise on the individual, our society may have lost that sense of community. Nevertheless meeting together to encourage one another, build each other up, and worship as a community is a very important part of who we are, and what we were created to be.
Of course, we all need to set aside time for God, daily. But one day a week, we should come together as a community, for that special community focus on worshipping God.
3. The Need to Care
And the third point about Jesus is that even on the Sabbath he continued to care. Indeed, he particularly made a point of caring for others on that day.
Indeed, immediately he encountered the crippled woman he responded. She may have suffered for eighteen years, but Jesus could not countenance her suffering even another day. And to me that raises the question about what the leaders of the synagogue had done in the preceding eighteen years. Had they prayed for her? Had they tried to help? Or had they given up long ago? Because what they should have done is that immediately Jesus presented himself in the synagogue, they should have brought her to him for healing.
One of the major aspects of the Sabbath, then, is the need to meet together. We shouldn’t come as individuals for whatever we can get out of it ourselves—and if we don’t get something then we just stop coming. Rather the point of coming together is for what we can put in, what we can give, and what we can contribute to the welfare—physical, mental or spiritual—of everyone else. Now that is what the synagogue leaders, tied up in their traditions and their rules, had failed to see. It is also something of which we need to be acutely aware.
Caring for one another is a vital factor in God’s purpose of giving us the Sabbath. Because if caring is not part of our Sabbath experience, then we really aren’t the compassionate caring people that God wants us to be.
Now history can teach us much. And our own history can be very revealing. But the decline in the church, the closure of buildings, and the amalgamation of our parishes all point to the same cause: people do not take God, his commandments, and the idea of the Sabbath very seriously at all.
Indeed in many ways our society has changed, adapted and corrupted God’s laws so they are virtually unrecognisable, just like they did in Jesus’s time. And we’ve seen an example from Jesus’s time on where that leads. Christians are saved by grace, not works, but the concept of the Sabbath—a principle of God for living—surely should have a place in our lives.
Jesus restored God’s laws in an age where they had been replaced by some very complex man-made rules. And in an age where God’s rules are often ignored or explained away, we should do our part in restoring God’s laws too.
We need to take time out each week from the routine of everyday life. We need to take the opportunity for regular worship. And we need to meet together, not for what we can get out of it, but for what we can put in—to care for others, and to keep in touch with our fellow believers.
That is the purpose of the Sabbath. And whether the Sabbath is celebrated on a Saturday, Sunday or even a Wednesday, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that the importance of the Sabbath is upheld and honoured as was originally intended.
Posted: 20th August 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Turning the World Upside Down (Luke 14:1-14)
1. Coping with Change
Whether we like it or not, there have probably been periods in all of our lives, where the things that we have held near and dear have been turned upside down. It may have been the result of someone dying; it may have been the result of a close friend moving away; it may have been the result of a drastic change to something we hold important in life; etc. etc. Regardless of the cause, however, we have probably all faced things that have upset the comfortable routine of life, after which things have never been quite the same again.
Now, at the time, these experiences not have been pleasant. Furthermore we may have had little or no control over what was happening. But after a while, in most cases, we probably learnt to adjust. And for some of us, we may have later wondered what all the fuss was about.
Change isn’t easy for most people. And when the things that we hold near and dear are turned on their head, change can be very difficult indeed.
2. Jesus, the Instigator of Change
Now one of the experts of change, and of turning the world upside down, would have to have been Jesus. Because not only did he overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, but he was also very good at upsetting all the accepted norms and standards of the day—the things that people felt comfortable with. Indeed, he spent much of his time challenging people to put away the past, to think again, and to think in a much more godly manner. And today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, is a very good example of Jesus doing exactly that.
B. JESUS AT A PHARISEE’S HOUSE
1. Introduction (1)
Because in the story we find Jesus, on the Sabbath, having accepted an offer of a meal in the house of a prominent Pharisee, and being surrounded by an elite group of lawyers and Pharisees. And despite being in the company of such an elite group, he challenged them to review their traditions; to radically change their attitudes to the things they held dear; and to start caring for, and considering, those they tended to ignore.
Now with an invitation to eat with a group of elite, one could easily have expected Jesus to be on his guard; to be very careful about what he said. But just as Jesus didn’t hold back from accepting the invitation, he didn’t hold back from challenging their dearly held beliefs either. And he didn’t wait until he got to the house before he started.
2. Tradition v Compassion (2-6)
Indeed, having just come out of the synagogue, and being accompanied by some of the other guests, Jesus, met a man with dropsy—a disease where the body swells up through fluid forming in the cavities and tissues.
Now, we need to remember that this was the Sabbath. And the people who were accompanying Jesus had strict rules about what one could and couldn’t do on a Sabbath. Given the situation, then, what was at stake for the Pharisees was their love of tradition, and particularly their Sabbath rules—and woe betides anyone who suggested, or practised, anything differently. But what was at stake for Jesus was compassion for those bound up by those rules that were imposed on them.
And with those two choices, as far as Jesus was concerned, there was no contest. He felt the Pharisees unspoken challenge to maintain their rules. But he also felt compassion for the man who needed healing. But, this time, instead of healing the man and arguing about it later (which is what he usually did), Jesus did it the other way around. He engaged the religious leaders by discussing their rules about the Sabbath first, and in doing so he embarrassed them into keeping silent. And then, in the absence of any objections, Jesus took the man, healed him and sent him home.
Now you can imagine the tension in the group accompanying Jesus as they arrived and entered the home. The healing hadn’t just been about the man receiving his healing; it had been about throwing out the traditions of the Pharisees and lawyers that they rigorously imposed on others. And, what’s more, Jesus had done it with a man they would have considered to be an outcast.
In other words before they even entered the house, he got under the skin of his host and guests. And that wouldn’t have been helped by the fact that Jesus, taking the initiative once more, raised a question regarding the legitimacy of his act. A question to which they could give no valid answer, because their ways were so obviously contrary to the love of God.
Before they’d even sat down at table, then, Jesus had taken the group of elite dinner guests, and turned the things that they held near and dear upside down. And why? Because the things that they held near and dear were contrary to God’s standards.
3. Pride v Humility (7-11)
Now, having done what he did, one could easily wonder why Jesus didn’t just walk away. After all, hadn’t he stirred the pot enough? However, whilst we’re not told why he stayed, I think we should know Jesus well enough to know that what he had to say was far too important to leave at that point. He wanted to restore God, and the worship of God, to the masses. And he could only do that if he was able to dismantle the burdens placed upon them by a small group of elite. As a consequence, before Jesus even sat down at the table he got stuck into them again.
Because once inside the door, Jesus noticed people hovering around the table, jostling for positions. Social ranking to this group was very important, and they believed in strict adherence to the rules of social standing. As far as they were concerned there were important people in life, and there were insignificant people in life, and there were people in between. Everyone had their place, and that included where people sat around the table. And yet, Jesus wanted nothing to do with that either.
Now what was at stake for the Pharisees was pride; their position in society; the need to be looked up to; the need for recognition; and their need to feel important. But what was at stake for Jesus was the need for humility. He knew that no-one had reason to boast in the eyes of God. And he knew that honour wasn’t something that you could gain for yourself, no matter how much one paraded up and down. Honour was something that could only be given to you by someone else, and even then it wasn’t something to crow about—it simply gave you more responsibility.
So in a room full of people who were obsessed about their position in society, and whose whole lives were surrounded by the need for honour, Jesus continued to rock the boat by making that very point. And if the tension in the house had not been explosive enough regarding the tossing out of the Sabbath traditions, then Jesus certainly made it so in regard to positions of honour.
So for the second time, in short succession, he showed there was a great gulf between the ways of God and the ways of man. And just as they were wrong about the application of their Sabbath rules, so they were wrong regarding their practices of places of honour too.
4. Rich v Poor (12-14)
Now having challenged the authorities twice, in short succession, one could easily think again, “Jesus, why didn’t you get out then, whilst your skin was still intact? Hadn’t you upset them enough?” But the seriousness of what Jesus was trying to say meant that he needed to stay firm; he needed to keep going, regardless of the cost to himself.
Because having finally sat down for the meal, and presumably being sat next to or very near to his host, Jesus was in a very good position to reflect on all the eminent people around the table. And it was then, that he turned to his host, and told him that the invitation list for his dinner party was all wrong. Indeed, when he was entertaining he shouldn’t invite his friends, or his relatives, or any rich people at all. Rather he should invite only those who had less than himself; only those who could not repay his kindness and generosity.
Now what was at stake for the Pharisees was the love of mixing with their own kind; with like-minded people; with the people they felt comfortable with. But what was at stake for Jesus was the need for the leaders to not only say they believed in God, but to demonstrate it, by putting their faith into practice. And they could only do that by caring for those less fortunate than themselves, and by inviting those who were unable to pay them back.
There was an issue of snobbery, and lack of compassion that needed to be tackled. And only a person who looked at the world through God’s eyes could really understand that.
Of course, one of the things about this episode in Jesus’ life is that we don’t really know how it ended. We don’t know whether he survived the meal intact, or whether he was tossed out on his ear. What we do know, however, is that before he left the table Jesus told them a story, a parable (which we haven’t read today). It was a story of the Great Banquet at the end of the age. And it was a story to which, he said, not one of those people sitting around that table with him was going to enjoy.
Yes they’d been invited. But their lack of true faith reflected in their love of their own traditions, their love of being important, and their love of mixing only with people of their own kind. And those were the very things which would exclude them from the banquet. Instead, the people they despised, excluded, and tied up in knots—they would be the ones who would sit down and join in the feast.
Now, talk about turning people’s lives upside down. Jesus was a master at it. All the things that the Pharisees cherished—traditions, position and snobbery—he confronted and swept away. But in the end they really didn’t have much to complain about. Because in doing what Jesus did, he reminded them of God’s principles—all that God stood for. And that was something that they had claimed to believe in, in the first place.
Now, of course, it’s easy to look back; it’s easy to smile at the mistakes of the past. And I guess for many of us the mistakes of the Pharisees are fair game.
But if we were to reflect on the history of our denomination, our parish and our church—if we were to reflect on the things that we accept as normal and acceptable—how would they stack up in the light of this gospel story? Indeed if Jesus walked in our church right now, what would he say to us? Would he be pleased, or would he have something to say too?
In other words, what this Gospel does is to ask the question, “Do we need to turn our world upside down too?” After all, do the way we do things, and the rules we expect people to keep, tie people up in knots, or are we actively involved in removing the obstacles to faith? Are our churches only open to the elite, or do we actually encourage the unalike to join our ranks, and even make them feel important?
And if we should reflect on the declining interest in the church, and the loss of contact with people in the areas that we serve, does this mean that we need a bit of a shake-up too? Do we need to be challenged to think again, and to think again from God’s perspective?
After all, Jesus was a controversial character; he wasn’t afraid to speak out when it came to the issue of restoring God, and Godly principles to people’s lives. And if we should find things which are contrary to God’s ways, even if they are being done in God’s name, then shouldn’t we be outspoken like Jesus too.
Of course that may well open us to a very hostile environment, and much of that hostility may well come from within the church. But that doesn’t mean that we can just hide away, or run at the first bit of unpleasantness. Rather, like Jesus, we may need to stick with it. Because we need to make sure, that even today, God and his church are accessible to everyone. But not just because the existence of our church buildings or our parishes are at stake. But because people’s relationship with God, and their eternal well-being, are on the line.
1. Tradition v Compassion
So, when it comes to a choice between keeping tradition, and making God (and the church) accessible to everyday ordinary people, we need to follow Jesus’ example.
Yes there maybe things that we hold near and dear, we may have our own personal preferences, there maybe things that we hold sacred, but what we have to ask ourselves is, “Are these things obstacles for others having faith?” And, “Do they pose an intolerable burden discouraging others from receiving what we have received for ourselves?” Because if the answer to either of these questions is yes, then like Jesus we need to wipe them away.
God, and his church, should be accessible to all people and at all times, and no obstacle should be allowed to get in people’s ways. The Pharisees might have liked things done their way, with their traditions and rules, but as Jesus quite clearly demonstrated that isn’t that way we should go. Indeed we should be actively dismantling any barriers that we find, and making it possible for people to have a relationship with God.
2. Pride v Humility
When it comes to a choice between social standing and the need for humility, we need to follow Jesus’ example too.
There is a big difference between man’s way of doing things and God’s way. And no matter what honour or position we hold, or to which other people elevate us, it’s not something we should hold on to with pride.
Humility, not abusing our position, but rather using the responsibilities we have for the benefit of others, are the things to which we should hold dear. God’s way is not for us to lord it over others, or expect people to look up to us. Instead we are to be humble and the servant of all.
3. Rich v Poor
And, when it comes to the choice between mixing with the people we feel comfortable with, or putting our beliefs into practice, particularly in regard to the care of the poor, we need to follow Jesus’ example too.
Yes, it might be nice to surround ourselves with like-minded people, people of similar standards, people we feel comfortable with, but that is not the Christian way either. Rather we should go out of our way to feel uncomfortable, and to care for those who would otherwise be unable to pay us back.
Now, we all face periods in our lives where our whole world is turned upside down. And the process of change can be pretty upsetting at times. Yet the example of Jesus is one we can all learn from. Because Jesus was the master of turning people’s worlds upside down—but for a very good reason.
In all things, there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way. There’s God’s way and there’s man’s worldly way. But no matter how uncomfortable it may seem, it is God’s way that we need to hold on to. And a good place to start to understand the difference is to examine our traditions, our place in society (and what we do with it), and whether we really do care for those less fortunate than ourselves.
Left to our own devices the lesson is that we will do things our way, and that the gulf between our way and God’s way will get wider and wider. That’s why Jesus stuck with it, and pronounced shock after shock after shock—shaking the foundations of everything that the Pharisees held near and dear.
And if we do the same exercise today? Well I’m sure it won’t be easy for us either. Indeed we may become very uncomfortable. But it is part of the responsibility of having faith, and we do have God’s help to help us through.
Posted: 26th August 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: A Difficult Book (Luke 14:25-33)
1. A Difficult Book
Without a doubt, one of the most difficult books to read is the Bible. Whilst others books can be picked up and easily read from cover to cover, for most of us, that is not true of the Bible.
For example, the Old Testament tells the story of God’s people over several thousand years. But if you try to read it like a novel, then there are a few snags for the uninitiated. First of all it’s not just a history book—a straight story of God’s people—it’s history, mixed with poetry, wisdom and sayings. And even the historical narrative is interspersed with lists of names, which in our culture do little to add to the storyline. There are lists of laws, some of which seem totally inexplicable. There’s a sort of Do-It-Yourself manual, on how to build any number of things—arks, tabernacles, and goodness knows what. And there are lists of different sacrifices, and specific details on how they are to be offered.
On the other hand, in the New Testament, the Epistles provide another problem. They present us with a one-sided view of situations that are not explained. Now obviously Paul and the other writers knew exactly what they were responding to, but us … Well we have to somehow fill the gaps.
Now I’m sure most of you would have been given a letter read, or you’ve been in the same room as someone talking on the phone. But if you’ve ever taken up the challenge of trying to piece what’s going on, without being able to ask any other detail, well that’s exactly what it’s like when we read an Epistle.
Now, with these peculiarities of the Old and New Testaments, add in the equation of a different culture, a different time, and a different world. Plus add in a different language, particularly the apocalyptic literature in the book of Revelation, and parts of the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, Zechariah, Matthew, Mark and 2 Thessalonians, and what have you got? Well, as I said at the start, one of the most difficult books in the world to read.
2. The Importance of Studying It
And yet, aren’t we as Christians, constantly told that this is the manufacturer’s manual, and we need to study it?
In the Old Testament, King Josiah obviously thought so. Because when the Book of the Law was found in the temple, having been neglected for years, he immediately had it read to him. He then tore his robes as a sign of repentance for ignoring the contents of the book.
Jesus obviously thought so too. Indeed he was always quoting from the Old Testament, teaching people about God, and trying to show others that his very presence on earth was the fulfilment of scripture itself.
And the Apostle Paul certainly thought the scriptures were more than a casual read. Because he wrote to Timothy, saying, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for reprimand, for correction, and for training in righteousness, in order that a man of God may be proficient, fully equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
So then, today, we are faced with a dilemma. The bible is not an easy book to read; nevertheless we are encouraged to study it. It’s not like any ordinary book, but we are supposed to try to understand it.
Indeed, if we want to know more about God—who he is, what he’s done, and what he is offering us—then the Bible is the book we need to read. If we want to know more about ourselves—who we are, and our purpose in God’s creation—then the Bible is the book for us. And if we’re serious about being Christians, then we should make reading this book an indispensable part of our Christian life.
Of course that may mean sometimes, we might need a little extra help—and there are many helps available, big and small. But persistence with this book can be very rewarding.
B. THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
For example, take today’s Gospel reading. Now it’s one of those passages where Jesus speaks some very harsh words. Indeed they’re the sort of words that on the surface appear totally contrary to the nature and teaching of Jesus. But dig a little deeper, and they make perfect sense. The words: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters—even his own life—he cannot become my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
Now one of my good friends, who has since died, had a solution for this type of passage … Tear the page out. But he always said it with a grin. That, of course, is one solution. But it’s also one that if you did that for every difficult passage you came across, you would end up with a very slim bible indeed. But there is another solution. We can try to understand what was going on; we can use the helps that are available. And when we do, we should come up with something like this:
1. Introduction (v25)
Jesus had been followed by a great crowd. In fact the crowd that was with him had been following him for quite some time. But Jesus was concerned about their sincerity. He’d talked about the cost of following him before, and he was concerned that whatever their motivation in pursuing him, they still didn’t really understand what it meant to be one of his disciples.
2. Two parallel sayings on discipleship (v26-27)
As a consequence, Jesus needed to respond to that, and his emphasis needed to be pretty strong. As far as Jesus was concerned discipleship involved total commitment–wishy washy wouldn’t do. So he needed to emphasise that that in order to get his message across. Hence the short pithy saying about hating one’s father and mother etc. Which he then followed up with a second, “If anyone should not take up his cross and follow me, he cannot become my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
In other words, what Jesus was trying to do, in these two short sayings, was to get the crowd to curb their, perhaps, overzealous and misdirected enthusiasm, and instead get them to focus on what it really means to follow him.
3. Two parabolic sayings with an application (v28-33)
And so the meaning of Jesus’s sayings is resolved. He didn’t really mean that we should go around hating people at all. But he did need to use those sorts of terms in order to make his point. And his point was: where there is a conflict between our obligations to our family and God, God should always take priority.
The problem for Jesus, though, was that even this very strong approach, didn’t work. And as a consequence he had to challenge them further.
Indeed Jesus knew the crowd were just being carried along with the excitement of the moment—the wonder of whom they perceived him to be. He knew that even with his difficult sayings they still had not really understood the implications of what they were doing; he knew that they would eventually just fall away. Which is why he challenged them again. But this time, in a further two sayings, he challenged them to consider not only what they were doing, but whether they’d thought through all the implications; whether they had truly considered the cost of discipleship. And so by way of illustration, he tried to get them to face up to the futility of their hollow commitment.
He used the example of building a tower, and the futility of a builder starting it without first making sure he had the means to complete it. And he used the example of going to war, without first making sure that the troops were going to be hopelessly outnumbered.
Jesus’s challenge to the crowd, then, was for them to make very sure of their commitment to him. They had physically followed him across the country, but did they really know what it meant to be a disciple? Discipleship involved commitment, and a commitment which put God first. But were they willing to make that commitment? Indeed had they considered what it meant in regards to the things they held dear in their lives?
4. Conclusion (v34)
Then having said all that, Jesus concluded his challenge with a final warning. For Jesus, the ultimate in uselessness was a half-hearted disciple. Indeed they were fit for nothing except to be judged.
1. The Value of Studying the Bible
Now today’s gospel is a very strong passage. Indeed he uses the term “hate.” But is that a bit strong? Well it’s certainly a bit strong on a superficial reading of the passage. That’s why it’s a good example of the importance of studying the Bible.
Because as we’ve found out, by looking at what was going on, Jesus needed to talk in those sorts of terms to get his message across. Even though, in the end, the crowd still did not respond to the challenge he was giving.
But maybe too, there’s an element of the limitations of culture and language. After all, the idea of “hatred” in this passage is not one of psychological hatred; it is not one of malice, revulsion, or anything like that. Rather, it is a term that Jesus used to denounce any obstacle that could get in the way of faith.
What this story illustrates, then, is there is value in pursuing the meaning of even the shortest passage. And if there is something to be gained in doing that, then imagine what can be gained in studying the rest—the history, the poetry, the wisdom and sayings.
After all if Jesus is the great High Priest—as he is described in the Letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 4:14)—then surely an understanding of the Old Testament priesthood is essential to understand what that really means. If Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins—as described by John (1 John 2:2), then we need to look at the sacrificial system to understand that. And if we are to live holy lives, then an understanding of the passages about God’s people needing to be holy, distinct, and uncorrupted of evil—as described in the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan—should be essential reading, even though many people today consider that story to be the hardest of all.
The Bible may be a difficult book, but it only remains a difficult book when it’s left unread.
2. Sticking With It
So there’s no need to tear out the page in Luke, and there’s no need to ignore whole chunks of the Bible. The Bible may be a difficult book, but it doesn’t mean we should give up on it. Indeed there is great value to be gained by sticking with it.
The Bible may be different to other books. It may be full of strange ideas and concepts—from a different age, and a different culture—but we shouldn’t dismiss any of it as valueless, because it doesn’t fit comfortably with what we know. And we certainly shouldn’t ignore the bits that record only one side of the debate.
With a little help, and a little perseverance, we can put the jigsaw of the Bible together. There are books we can read; we can share what we know with one another; and most importantly we can read the text itself. Indeed there are many things we can do for the mysteries of the Bible to be resolved.
God has called us to be people of faith. And that means that he not only wants us to place our faith in Jesus Christ, but he wants us to grow as well. And what better way is there to grow that to use the tools he has provided—not least of which is the Bible.
So today we have a challenge. In other words what do we do with God’s book? We’ve seen an example of the benefit a little study can make, but imagine what would happen if we did a whole lot more.
Now the bible for some is a barrier to faith. It’s just too difficult. And many people don’t even bother to read it. And that’s sad, because that means for Christians it has become a barrier to growth; and for non-Christians a barrier to salvation itself. And yet it need not be. After all, a little persistence, and a little study, can make a remarkable difference.
For me the place of the Bible in the Christian life is paramount. Indeed, what better way is there to find out more about God? What better way is there to find out more about ourselves? What better way is there to learn more about the Christian life? And what better way is there to find out how God wants us to behave?
Things of value often require a little effort. And that is distinctly true of the Bible. So let us be encouraged in the faith. Let us see the benefit that study of the Bible will bring. And let us immerse ourselves in the book that God has given us, to help us in our understanding of him, ourselves, and the part he wants us to play in the life of his church.
Posted: 2nd September 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Gospel for the Outcast (Luke 15:1-10)
Throughout history there have always been some who haven’t fitted in—whether because of race, religion, economics or social standing. And the world today is no exception.
Of course, as we watch the news or read the paper, there are a constant stream of stories from overseas of minorities suffering at the hands of majorities; there are many who seem to live with the violence and rejection every day.
But we don’t have to just look overseas for the kinds of people who don’t fit in—Australia has many of its own. And although in Australia our outcasts may not face the same kind of persecution that many overseas face, nevertheless we still have our share of homeless, unwanted, unloved, and uncared for people, who are snubbed or looked down upon by society.
So, this morning, two questions. Should we as members of God’s church be involved with the outcasts of our society? And if so, what should we be doing?
B. THE GOSPEL FOR THE OUTCAST
Well, I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers today. But I do suggest that there is no more appropriate place to start looking for the answers to both of these questions, than in our Gospel reading for today. Because in our gospel reading we have a description of a very mixed bunch indeed.
1. Introduction (15:1-3)
There were “tax collectors”—Jewish agents collecting money for the Roman government. A group detested by the people of the day. Not only did they work for their pagan conquerors, but they had a habit of defrauding the common people as well. There were “sinners”—not necessarily evil people, but simply people who refused to follow the Law of Moses, as it was re-interpreted by the teachers of the Law. Of course, this group may have included adulterers, robbers and the like, but it probably included many “good” people too. And then there was Jesus.
And the significance of the meal they were sharing? Well the fact that Jesus was sitting down and eating with them all would have been seen as a sign of friendship; a sign of acceptance; recognition by Jesus that they had worth.
And in addition to that group, there were some Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, “tutting” to themselves and complaining about how Jesus could possibly have any time or regard for these outcasts.
And this was the situation that Jesus used to get his message across. And his message had two principle purposes: firstly, to make the statement that all people are valuable in God’s eyes; and secondly, the need for all people to hear the message of salvation.
As a consequence, Jesus didn’t just spend time with the tax collectors and sinners, whilst the Pharisees and teachers of the law looked on. He told three stories as well. (Only two of which we are going to look at today.)
2. The Parable of the Lost Sheep (15:4-7)
And the first story he told was the familiar Parable of the Lost Sheep.
Now, on the surface the parable may seem a harmless story—a story about the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. But for those listening they would have recognised it for its shock value.
It was a story of a shepherd in charge of a hundred sheep, who when counting them at the end of the day, noticed that there was one missing. Now the audience hearing this story would have known very well the consequences for the shepherd. The shepherd would have been personally responsible for his charges. If one was missing, unless he could prove it was killed by a wild animal, he would have had to replace it out of his own pocket. Not an easy thing for a poor herdsman. So when Jesus got to the point in the story where the lost sheep was found, many there would have joined in the joy of that shepherd. They would also have understood the application that Jesus made, regarding the rejoicing in heaven over the one sinner who repents.
All seemingly quite innocent. Except in an audience of tax collectors, sinners, and religious leaders, the significance of telling a story about a shepherd would not have been lost. Being a “herdsmen” was one of the most despised occupations in the eyes of the Pharisees. The Pharisees and teachers would not have enjoyed the story at all. The point of the story, then, was that Jesus was not only illustrating God’s concern for the so-called outcasts of society, but he was exposing the Pharisees with their prejudices against such people, who they considered were not good enough to mix with.
3. The Parable of the Lost Coin (15:8-10)
And the second story, the Parable of the Lost Coin, was equally designed to have shock value.
It was the story of a woman who had ten coins. She lost one, and consequently lit a lamp, and searched for the coin until it was found. Then when she found it she was full of joy. And the story, again, is linked to the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
Now, again the story would have been engaging. The ten coins would have represented the woman’s life savings, or dowry. And Jesus’s audience would have recognised the value of the loss. Consequently many would have joined in with the joy of the woman when the coin was found. And linking this story to the joy in heaven, over a repentant sinner, would have been easily understood.
However, in an audience of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and teachers of the Law, the significance of this story would not have been lost either.
The woman in the story was a peasant—the amount of money reveals that. But so too does the fact that she had to light a lamp, and grovel on the floor to find the coin. Her housing was typical peasant class—low door, no windows, and with no natural light in the house at all.
The woman in the story was poor, and not the kind of person that the Pharisees would have mixed with either.
You can imagine the scene, then, as Jesus shared the meal with tax collectors and sinners. Here was Jesus, found to be eating with so-called outcasts by the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and he was telling stories of just how important these outcasts were. Indeed he was telling stories linking the joy in the kingdom of heaven, over every sinner who repents.
At the same time, however, Jesus was pointing the finger at the Pharisees—people who should have known better—but were renowned for their lack of care and compassion.
Now it must have been quite a scene. But it’s a scene that gives us the answers to our questions.
1. Question 1
Because to our first question, “Should we as members of God’s church be involved with the outcasts of society?” the answer is very clear. Very much so. Jesus not only demonstrated his care, but taught it too.
Firstly, he mixed with outcasts; he went out of his way to be with them. And by associating himself with them he showed that he cared. Secondly, he treated them with dignity and respect. He showed this by sitting down with them, and sharing a meal. Thirdly, he showed concern for their needs. And in this particular example he encouraged them to put their past lives behind them, and become reconciled with God. Jesus’s message was one of encouragement, and included the idea that no one is too bad to be reconciled with God. And fourthly, he did all of this despite the opposition he knew he would get from the authorities.
So, should we as members of God’s church be involved with the outcasts of our own society? Very much so. Because fundamental to the Christian faith is that once we have received Jesus into our hearts, we have the responsibility to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. And Jesus’ footsteps should lead us back to spending time, and quality time, with the outcasts of our society.
2. Question 2
And this leads us, then, to question 2, “What sort of things should we be doing?”
Well, the example of Jesus should give us a few clues. Because, Jesus went out of his way to be with those who were poor: whose relationship with the law may have been a little cloudy, and whose work was looked down on by society. So, if we want to be true disciples of Jesus, then we need to go out of our way to spend time with these kinds of people too.
But Jesus didn’t just spend time with these people; he treated them with dignity and respect. In other words these people weren’t just targeted with some sort of welfare programme—a hand out here, and a handout there. Jesus treated these people as being valuable to God. And if we want to be true disciples of Jesus, then we need to see these people in exactly the same way too.
Jesus wasn’t just being sociable. He realised they had needs to be met, the same as anyone else. And the most fundamental need he recognised was their need for reconciliation. But not reconciliation with the authorities. Rather reconciliation with God.
That’s why he spent time with them; he treated them as people of worth. And he shared with them the solution to their biggest problem—which was not their social standing, their economic status or how they were seen by the authorities. Their most important need was getting their relationship with God right.
Which is why he told them that God loved them. And why he illustrated what he said, and did, with stories telling the extraordinary lengths that God was prepared to go to, to get them back on track—a message that required their response. But he did so in plain sight of the authorities who looked down their noses at such people. And because the Pharisees treated the people in the way that they did, they missed the salvation message which was just as important for them too.
So getting back to our second question, “What sort of things should we be doing?” well, we should be spending time with the outcasts of our own society. We should be treating them with dignity and respect—treating them as equals, and not just as recipients of a welfare programme. Indeed we should be actively involved in responding to their greatest need—a relationship with Jesus.
The principles of equality—where all people are treated the same—and the need to meet the spiritual needs of the people, were central focusses in Jesus’s ministry. Indeed he was determined that the masses should not be excluded from a relationship with God, because of people who considered themselves superior, and who insisted that things be done their way.
Now Jesus was well aware of the responses his approach would get. He knew that generally the outcasts would welcome him, and that the religious leaders—those who should have known better—would reject him. Despite that, what he had to do was far too important to worry about the religious leaders. And so we read the kind of scenario that we have in Luke’s Gospel, and we have a snapshot of the kind of things we should be doing.
Jesus’s example demonstrates our need to treat everyone as equals; it demonstrates the concern we should have for the spiritual welfare of others. And his example indicates that we should be actively involved with the outcasts of society, despite whatever grumbling, frowns or objections we might receive. And sadly many of those objections may well come from people within the church.
What is required in not charity, or Government handouts, but dignity and respect. And if we do that, then we will be in a position to share our faith.
In every society there will always be people who don’t fit in. We see it on the television; we read it in our papers. But we don’t have to look overseas to find such people; we need look no further than our own country, our own town, and even our own street.
As Christians we are called to follow in Jesus’s footsteps. And Jesus has shown us that part of being a true disciple is the need to be engaged with the outcasts of our own society. And, in particular, to give them dignity and respect, and to help them in their relationship with God.
So this morning, can we truly say that we go out of our way to mix with the outcasts of our society? That we treat everyone, regardless of their background, with dignity and respect? Can we say that the fundamental need of every person is to have a relationship with God? And that we willingly share our faith with the outcasts and those in need? And can we say that we do it regardless of any opposition that we might face, because of the criticism we might face that we are mixing with the wrong sort of people?
Well, I’m hoping, today, that we can all say, “Yes!” Because that is the example that Jesus set. It is also the standard he has given all of his disciples, even us modern ones, to follow.
Posted: 8th September 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis