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: The Christmas Jigsaw Puzzle (Luke 2:1-7)
Unfortunately by the time I got it home there were more pieces missing—I lost a few on the way. But I wasn’t too upset. Indeed, I thought that that would make even less pieces to put together. But then, when I finally opened the box, I found there were only four pieces left.
So out of a box of five hundred pieces (less the five that were missing to start with) I’ve got four pieces of a jigsaw puzzle left. Four pieces which tell “The Story of Christmas. There’s a piece with what looks like a piece of roast turkey on it. There’s a piece which looks like an unopened present on it. There’s a piece with a bit of mistletoe on it. And of course, there’s a bit of sky.
Now, I know that it’s unlikely that these pieces will fit together. Nevertheless, I am still confident that with these four pieces I can get an idea of what “The Story of Christmas” is all about.
Now I can see/imagine that some of you are shaking your heads. You’re thinking I’ve lost it. You’re thinking I’ve gone mad, “How can he have the (whole) Story of Christmas, when he’s only got four pieces left? He’s got no picture, and no two pieces fit together.” And you’re right. I can’t possible have the whole story. But isn’t that the reality for most people at Christmas?
Indeed, the reality is that most people celebrate Christmas with only a few pieces of the puzzle. They might know a few of the pieces around the edge, but they may be totally ignorant of the big story in the middle. People will have and enjoy the trappings of Christmas—the turkey, the presents and the mistletoe—and whatever else is their custom. But how many will join in and celebrate the purpose that we celebrate Christmas?
What is missing from many people’s celebrations is the reason for the birth of God’s son—God’s intervention in the world to save us from ourselves. The baby Jesus, born to grow up to face life as we face it, but with the deliberate intention of sacrificing himself so that we can have a full and proper relationship with our creator. An act that surely demands a response, and not just by celebrating a few pieces of the Christmas puzzle each year.
Jigsaw puzzles aside, then, have we got only part of the puzzle? Or do we have all the pieces? And, if we do have some pieces missing, which ones are they? Are they pieces around the outside or even the corners, or are they the main pieces in the middle? This Christmas, let’s make sure we have all the pieces.
Posted: 23rd November 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Emotions of Christmas (Luke 2:1-20)
The preparation time for Christmas can be a very emotional time.
There can be feelings of great excitement, as families and friends plan for that special day—to make that special effort to be in the one place at the one time. There can be feelings of great joy, as cards or letters are received from old friends—people not heard from very often or people who live just that little bit too far away. And there can be feelings of intrigue: “Just what is in that parcel that has my name on it?”
But for others it can also be a time of dread: “How am I going to buy those presents?” or “Family life has never been that good, I wish Christmas would go away.” It can also be a time of terrible sadness, being unable to share it with loved ones, who are not around anymore—people who have moved away or have died.
And of course, there can be the roller coaster ride of preparations, with the feelings of satisfaction when all the plans come right, and the feelings of frustration and anger when things don’t.
Now if you’re here today, and you’ve managed to avoid all the emotional pitfalls of Christmas (so far), then I congratulate you. However, for most people, Christmas does not usually go totally smoothly. And for some, the whole “Christmas thing” is such a traumatic experience, that they can’t wait for it to be all over—or, wish that it had never come around in the first place.
So have I hit a nerve? Do any of these emotions describe how you have felt this Christmas so far? I’m sure they do. But if this is the range of emotions that we go through, have you ever considered what Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds and the angels felt? What sorts of emotions that they went through?
Well, let’s have a look at the story.
B. THE BIRTH OF JESUS
1. Mary & Joseph (1-7)
And we begin with the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, with Mary in a very advanced state of pregnancy.
Now knowing that they had to travel 140 kilometres—a three-day journey on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the purpose of a local census—would have been hard. And what’s worse, much of the journey would have been uphill.
Imagine the scene. Joseph we’re told was a law-abiding citizen. And apart from the consequences of disobeying the edict, he would have felt a sense of obligation to fulfil the requirements of the law. And we can assume that Mary did too.
And at the other end of the journey, we’re not told how either of them felt. But we can imagine how Mary felt on arrival in Bethlehem. She would have been hot, tired and extremely uncomfortable. And, I wouldn’t be surprised if she hadn’t been a little bit irritable too.
But that’s only the half of it. Because when they arrived, there was no private room available. So Mary was probably presented with some totally inappropriate place to stay—most likely a cave—in which she was supposed to give birth to her baby. What’s more she had to make do with an animal’s feeding trough for a cot.
Now you can imagine, that when they arrived in Bethlehem, she may not have been in the best of moods, and Joseph may not have been feeling so happy either. But then the safe birth of the baby may well have done something to change their mood.
2. The Shepherds (8-12)
But let’s leave the happy family for a moment and check out the shepherds.
It was night and they were on watch to guard their sheep against thieves and wild animals. When all of a sudden, an angel appeared, and they found themselves surrounded by a very bright light.
Their first reaction was of course fear—they were scared out of their minds. They knew by the bright light that they were in the presence of God. They were awestruck—and I mean that in the true meaning of the word.
However, they then probably got a second feeling—that of being honoured. Shepherds in those days were people held in very low regard. Their job was one of the lowest of the low. And to be visited by an angel of God would have been a very great honour indeed.
The shepherds were then told not to fear, for the angel had come to bring good news. This was a time for joy. A birth had taken place which would benefit not only them, but everyone who was willing to receive the news. The Messiah had been born, and they were told to visit him.
Now for the shepherds this would have been absolutely amazing. The Jewish people had been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to be born. Indeed some people had even (falsely) claimed to have been the Messiah. So for the shepherds to be told—and to be told directly by an angel—that the event their people had been waiting for, for so long, had actually arrived, would have been quite an occasion.
3. The Angels (13-14)
And if they had any feelings of doubt, they would have been quickly dispelled. Because, all of a sudden, a second thing happened to them. They became surrounded by other angels, and a whole heavenly host (and that may have included some very strange and wonderful looking creatures). And what they were doing, was praising God and proclaiming a new era of peace between God and man—a new era of blessings on those God chose to favour and save.
Well, you can imagine the feelings of the shepherds after all that. They were probably not only excited, but also emotionally drained.
4. Three reactions (15-20)
But then the heavenly host returned to heaven, and not without a little curiosity, the shepherds rushed off to see the baby for themselves.
But it doesn’t end there either, because we’re told that they were so excited at what they saw they couldn’t keep it to themselves. They had to tell everyone what they had found.
And as the story ends, three final reactions are described.
Firstly, we are told that those who listened to the shepherd’s story were filled with wonder. They were astonished and amazed.
Secondly, Mary, was deeply affected by the visit of the shepherds. She’d had the advantage of prior knowledge of the child’s destiny, but now she was more pensive as she began to think more seriously of the meaning behind it all.
And thirdly, the shepherds themselves . . . Well they went off glorifying God. What they had witnessed matched perfectly what they angel had predicted. They were convinced that, indeed, the baby Jesus was the Messiah, the promised saviour of the world.
The original Christmas story . . . what a wonderful mixture of emotions.
Joseph would have felt obligation and duty. Mary would have too. But Mary would have also felt the agony of the journey, and who knows what she thought of the accommodation. But after the visit of the shepherds she was relaxed and thoughtful, contemplating what it all could possibly mean.
The shepherds on the other hand, had moved from fear to curiosity, to extreme excitement. Indeed only the angels remained consistent throughout.
But no matter how it started, no matter what feelings were felt on the way, in the end, Mary, the shepherds, the angels, the neighbours, (& probably even Joseph) were all at one. They were amazed and glorified God, full of wonder and praise.
Now can you imagine the different scenes? Can you imagine the events as they unfurled? Can you imagine the emotions that were felt?
Well if you can, what does this time—this feast of Christmas—really mean to you?
After all, how do our emotions this Christmas compare with those who were actually there on the first Christmas Day? And do our feelings pale into insignificance in comparison with the emotions that were felt then? Because regardless of what we are going through, when did we last feel the same excitement and joy over the birth of Jesus that they did then?
You know, these days, many people know the story, but they have never felt the emotions. They can recite the series of events, but there’s no feeling behind the story. To some it’s just a story and that’s all it is. And that’s sad, because if they feel that way then the whole point of the story has been lost. Because the story should evoke a lot of feeling; it should evoke a lot of meaning too.
To the people of the first Christmas, Jesus was not only expected, but he was an answer to prayer. So come the birth of Jesus, all were united in their excitement and their joy.
But they weren’t excited because he was a cute baby. It wasn’t because he was some part of a fairy tale kind of story. It was more than that. It was because they recognised that God had reached out, giving his creation—us—the opportunity to be rescued from our sins. He had reached out so that those who believed could be rewarded with life after death with God. A complete reverse of life after death without God, for those who do not believe and for those who simply sit on the fence.
It’s God’s rescue, that Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the angels were so excited about. Jesus was the solution to the world’s biggest problem—the need for reconciliation with God. And so Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the angels, and all the surrounding people were responding to the fact that without Jesus that just wasn’t possible. And despite all the feelings leading up to the event—all the highs and lows—that was the reason they got so excited.
And that’s the reason why, this Christmas, we should be excited too.
So how are things going for you this Christmas? In the past few weeks, running up to Christmas, what sort of emotions have you felt? Have your preparations for today put you through the roller coaster of emotions? Have you felt excitement, joy, intrigue, dread, sadness, expectation, satisfaction, frustration, or even anger? Or have you somehow remained remarkably even and controlled?
For those who’ve had it steady, I congratulate you. For those who’ve had it rough, I can only hope that things improve. But whatever your emotions up to this point, I do hope that in all the busyness of the season, we can all take time to think of the emotions of that first Christmas. And that we can reflect on the joy and excitement that the birth of Jesus brought.
I also hope that that joy and excitement will be ours too. And it can be, but only if we embrace the reconciliation with God that Jesus was brought into this world to bring.
Posted 21st December 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Practicing the Christian Faith (Luke 4:38-44)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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: The Two Great Commandments (Luke 10:25-37)
One of the great traditions of the church—and amongst Anglican’s in particular—has been the reciting of the commandments. Indeed, in the Book of Common Prayer, the Ten Commandments were required to be recited at every single communion service.
Now in the early years, communion was not a weekly service. But come the twentieth century, things changed, and more regular communion services became the norm. But, despite that, the idea of including the commandments in communion services didn’t change. Although, perhaps for brevity, a preference for the Two Great Commandments was included instead.
Now the Two Great Commandments are significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, each commandment is a quotation from the Old Testament. Indeed, in Deuteronomy (6:5) we read: “You are to love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” And in Leviticus (19:18b): “You are to love your neighbour as yourself”. Secondly, they are recorded in three gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke. And thirdly, whilst two of those gospels were written by Jews—Matthew and Mark—and in each case the story ends there, Luke is quite different. Indeed, not only was Luke a gentile, but his version is then followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan.
When we come to Luke’s version, then, we have a unique view of the practice of the Jewish faith, from a gentile perspective. And whilst in some ways we could say, “So what? What’s that got to do with us?” If we listen carefully to Luke’s view point—of an outsider looking in—there is much in this passage that we can learn, not only about our own faith, but about how we put that faith into practice.
B. THE TWO GREAT COMMANDMENTS
1. The Lawyer’s Question (25-28)
Now the story begins with Jesus being confronted by a lawyer. He’d been in the crowd listening to Jesus, and he wanted to test Jesus to see whether he was genuine or not. So, the lawyer stood up, and raised a question of Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” However, instead of answering the question directly, Jesus replied by a counter question. He wanted to get the man to answer his own question. Jesus asked him. “What is the law that you recite?” “What do you say as part of your regular worship?” To which the lawyer replied, by firstly quoting the verse from Deuteronomy about loving God, and then following this up with the verse from Leviticus about loving one’s neighbour.
Now, at the time, the command to love God was rightly regarded as forming the heart of the Jewish faith. It put the love of God at the centre of Jewish religion. It emphasised the need for undivided loyalty to him; it emphasised the totality of mind and will that were to be brought to the worship of God. And, as a consequence to that, it recognised that the love of God—the total commitment to the creator—was to be reflected in one’s attitude towards others as well.
So, the lawyer got it right—all well and good. The lawyer was word perfect. And Jesus was able to accept the lawyer’s statement. He knew his stuff—he knew what he was supposed to do. And as a consequence, Jesus commended him for his answer. Indeed, he said that if he truly loved God and truly loved his fellow man, then he would inherit eternal life.
But here comes the twist … Here comes the difference between the versions. Because Matthew and Mark stop their stories there. The point had been made. As far as they were concerned, what one had to do was to love God and love one’s fellow man—that was it, short and to the point.
But Luke wasn’t content to leave the story there. He believed there was more to tell. And why? Well as an outsider he could plainly see that there was a big difference between knowing the words and actually putting them into practice.
Indeed, like Jesus, Luke could clearly see behind those wonderful words of the lawyer. The lawyer’s intention was to test Jesus. He didn’t truly love God, and he didn’t truly love his neighbour either. The lawyer was only paying lip service. Which is why we have the story by Jesus that illustrates what it truly means to love God and to love one’s neighbour. In other words, the need to put those words into practice.
3. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (29-37)
Now the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a story that is so familiar I don’t want to get involved in the detail right now. Except to say that the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans was not good. In fact they hated one another. And that is one of the reasons why, by Jesus’s time, the Jews had re-interpreted what it means to love one’s neighbour to suit themselves. As far as they were concerned, they only needed to care for those who were either fellow Jews or were members of their religious community. And the Pharisees tended to exclude ordinary people from their definition of “neighbour” altogether.
The story of a Samaritan coming to the rescue of a Jew, after he had been passed by a priest and a Levite, then, would have been a very pointed story on the customs and practices of the day. Jesus’s call to the lawyer, therefore, was not only the need to know the commandments, but to put them into practice too. And to do so, by putting aside all personal and cultural prejudices.
As far as Jesus was concerned, we cannot keep God’s commandments by limiting them to what we are comfortable with. We either keep them or we don’t. Which is why, even though Jesus was able to compliment the lawyer for being word perfect, he was still needed to challenge him into putting into practice the things that he said he believed.
The Two Great Commandments, then, incorporate some very high ideals. They are words that have a rich history of being used in Jewish worship dating back several thousand years. And yet, the implications in those words, are just as relevant even for us today.
1. The Value of Learning/Regular Worship
Because, firstly, the example of the lawyer demonstrates the value of having knowledge of the scriptures, and the value of regular worship.
Indeed, the fact that the lawyer knew the Two Great Commandments through his learning and through his practice of regular worship, and that he was able to call upon his own resources to answer his own question, says much for the value of reading the scriptures and the practice of regular worship.
“What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” was the lawyer’s question to Jesus. But in actual fact, he had the answer within him all the time.
If he’d never read, never learnt, never met with other believers, he wouldn’t have known the answer. But he had done those things. So when Jesus turned the question back on him, he was able to answer the question—and answer it correctly.
Of course, that’s not the only reason for the importance of reading God’s word. And that’s not the only reason for the value of regular worship. But if we genuinely want to know God, if we genuinely want to know ourselves, and if we genuinely want to know what God expects of us, then those two things—the need to learn and the need to meet for worship—provide a solid foundation for any serious believer.
2. Knowing and Doing
Secondly, the example of the lawyer, demonstrates that there can be a great gulf between knowing what to do and putting it into action.
Indeed, the lawyer knew all the right words. He was word perfect. But did his “love” go beyond that to actually live a life where loving God and loving one’s neighbour, became the motivation for everything he did? I don’t think so. The lawyer knew what he had to do. But he needed Jesus to challenge him to go out, and to put his knowledge and beliefs into practice.
Now, even today, there can seem a great gulf between words and practice. After all, how many times have you talked some business or other over the phone, and the person on the other end has promised you faithfully that they will do what you ask? And yet experience tells you, not to get your hopes up and to be ready to be disappointed.
And that means that if we know the right words, and if we know what we’re supposed to do, we need to actually put the things that we believe into practice. Because if we don’t, we will be just as guilty as those about whom we complain. Indeed, we may be more guilty, because the words we are paying lip service to are none other than the words of God himself.
3. Interpretation and Emphasis
And thirdly, the example of the re-interpretation of love that was evident in the lawyer’s time, demonstrates that whilst at times we may believe that we are expressing “love” to God and to our neighbour, the reality may be far from the truth.
The problem in Jesus’s time was that it was normal to reinterpret God’s demand to love him and to love one’s neighbour, to make it mean something more palatable—something easier to digest, and something that would be easier to stand up and confidently claim to have kept. But the lawyer hadn’t fooled God, whose laws he was supposedly keeping. He hadn’t fooled Jesus, who had to challenge him to a real commitment. And he hadn’t fooled Luke, the outsider looking in, either.
And what that should tell us, is the value of periodically assessing our actions. To regularly analyse whether our actions do in fact add up to our stated beliefs—whether our beliefs and the things that we know are reflected in the things that we say and do.
Because, even today, some people see God as someone they want to keep private to themselves; or someone who they can allow in, but only to certain aspects of their lives; or someone who can be picked up—and left—as it suits. And yet the words of the commandment of God from Deuteronomy are quite clear: “You are to love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Furthermore, some people, today, define their neighbours as only those people who live next door or in the same street; or only people who fit into the kind of lifestyle that they live and enjoy. And that they only need to help people with what is left over, after they have looked after themselves. And yet the words from Leviticus are quite clear: “You are to love your neighbour as yourself.”
These words of God, then, together with the story of the Good Samaritan, suggest that there’s far more than that. And indeed, that we too may need to take a step back, and to objectively see if there are differences between what we say and what we do, with a view to fixing up any differences that we might find.
Now, the lawyer obviously hadn’t done that. Which is why, having asked him what he believed, Jesus then told the story of the Good Samaritan. Indeed, he challenged the lawyer in the process. Which is why it can be a very valuable exercise for us to to do the same too.
The value of reading the bible, and the value of meeting together for regular worship, cannot be overstated. The lawyer may have set out to trick Jesus, but when Jesus turned the tables on him, the lawyer had a wealth of knowledge on which he could find his answer. Unfortunately, despite that, the lawyer was found to be wanting, because there was a big gap between his knowledge and his deeds.
The Two Great Commandments, then, should remind us of the importance of reading the Bible and the importance of regular worship—from the point of view of learning and being reminded of what the Christian faith is all about. It should also remind us of the need to put our learning and beliefs into practice—making sure that our practice doesn’t just fit our interpretation of God’s lessons, with which we are comfortable.
Luke, the outsider looking in, has, I believe, done us a great service, by not only giving us the words of the Two Great Commandments—that are also recorded in Mathew and Mark—but by continuing the story to include the parable of the Good Samaritan. Because by doing so, he has reminded us that knowing the words is one thing, but actually doing what they mean is another matter altogether.
Posted 20th March 2019
© 2019, 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
DEVOTION: The Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24)
As a consequence, we shouldn’t be surprised, that Jesus made a habit of sharing meals, and with all sorts of people—tax collectors, sinners, outcasts, disciples, etc. And, in this particular case, with a group of Pharisees.
Now the background to this passage is, that after a service at a local synagogue, Jesus was invited by a Pharisee to join him in a meal. Now, the Pharisee’s motive was probably highly questionable, because at that time the Pharisees were suspicious of Jesus and were looking for evidence against him. But Jesus went anyway. And, Jesus took the opportunity that mealtime discussions brought to talk about the kingdom of God.
Indeed, firstly, he provided what appears to be a bit of worldly advice: He recommended that the guests at the meal not to sit themselves at the highest places at the table—lest they run the risk of being humiliated by being asked to move down the table. Instead they should take a lower place and then enjoy the ‘glory’ of being asked to take a higher place. Good worldly advice. Although, what he was really saying was that we should not seek positions of glory with God.
Then, secondly, he gave some advice to other potential hosts on their choice of guests for a meal. That is, the host should not invite his friends, lest the only reward that he gets is to be invited back. Rather the host should invite the poor and needy—people who could not repay him. Now this may not have seemed to have been good worldly advice, but his point was that one should seek to do good to those who are needy who cannot do anything in return, and that they should leave the whole question of recompense to God.
Now, whilst for most part, the spiritual meaning of Jesus’s words appears to have been lost on the guests, one did pick up what Jesus was on about (15). He saw through the worldly advice to the spiritual truth behind it. And he expressed his hope of looking forward to participation in the heavenly banquet—the great supper—the reward for the faithful. And it is to this that Jesus’s third remark was pointed.
Because Jesus then described a great banquet where many guests were invited (16). Then, when the meal was ready, the master sent his servant out to let his invited guests know it was time to come (17). But no one came. They all made excuses, and they used love, possessions or domestic ties (18-20) to excuse their non-attendance.
Now, understandably, the master was livid. Indeed, at the end of the story, we’re told that none of the invited guests were able to share in the meal (24). But there were others who could share it. So, with the meal being ready, the servant was sent out into the town (21), and then into the country (22-23) to gather other people in.
Now, of course, whether Jesus’s audience, in general, understood the meaning of the story, is doubtful. Indeed, we’re given no indication that they responded in any meaningful way. The one man who had picked up the original spiritual significance of Jesus’s words, may well have done, but if he had, he was probably alone, as the meaning of the story went over everyone else’s head. They certainly didn’t respond to the deeper meaning of his words, but they would have understood that he had effectively insulted them three times.
He insulted them with the advice about places of honour, as he accused them of picking the greatest places of honour. He insulted them with the advice about who to invite to a meal, as he accused them of only ever inviting each other and not caring for others. And he insulted them by accusing them of having been invited to participate in God’s great banquet, only for them to turn the invitation down.
Now, that’s quite an insult to the Pharisees, and is it any wonder that they were out to get Jesus?
But, if the spiritual meaning was lost on the Pharisees, it should not be lost on us today. So, today, three things:
Firstly, do we seek places of honour, or are we content with sitting down the table? Do we go for the pat on the back, encouraging others to tell us what a great job we are doing? Or do we simply go about our business, and if we are rewarded, accept it with grace?
Secondly, do we only invite people who are able to reciprocate to our invitation? Do we care only for those with the capacity to care for us back? Or do we go out of our way to help others, regardless of their ability to return the favour?
And thirdly, have we accepted Jesus’s invitation to the great banquet? Have we accepted his gift of salvation? Or do we keep coming up with excuses why we cannot participate?
Meal times are great things, and the family meal is and should be something that should be guarded very highly indeed. But sadly that isn’t always so today. Nevertheless, many great things have been discussed around the meal table. Not least of which have been today’s challenges from Jesus.
So, today, how do we respond to the challenges of Jesus? Do we see the spiritual truths behind his messages? Or, like the Pharisees, do we simply seek honour for ourselves? Do we simply care for those who can care back? And, have we found better things to do that to go to the great banquet?
Posted 25th January 2019
© 2019, 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
SERMON: God’s Kind of People (Luke 18:1-14)
1. Acceptable People: Society’s View
When we look around at the world today, there are a number of people who are looked up to, who are given respect and places of honour, and who are held in high esteem. Some have done great things. Some, by their education, have achieved greatness. And some have had greatness thrust upon them.
Now, of course, for some, the esteem in which they are held is well deserved. But for others… well, it may not be deserved at all. And we may wonder, sometimes, about how such people came to such prominence—how they came to be in such places of honour.
2. Acceptable People: God’s View
However, rather than consider the world’s view of greatness, and how it can be achieved, we would, perhaps, be better off to view the world through God’s eyes. After all, how does God view the respect and honour given to those held in high esteem? And if we were to do that, then we would, perhaps, have no better starting point that this passage from Luke’s Gospel.
Because this passage gives us cameos of four different people. And it makes judgements on which of them God finds acceptable and which ones he doesn’t. And with that, the inevitable conclusion is that the people that the world looks up to and desire—that are usually deemed acceptable and honoured—are not the kind of people that God finds acceptable at all.
B. THE GOSPEL
Now, the story comes in two parts. And each part contrasts two people who seem to be exact opposites of each other.
1: The Judge and the Widow (Luke 18:1-8)
And the first part is a contrast between a judge and a widow.
a). The Judge
Now the judge wasn’t like a judge that we would know today. This was a small middle-eastern town. And the practice of the day was to appoint local people of prominence, as required, to mete out justice. (And there is nothing wrong with that.)
However, in this particular case, the judge was corrupt. And Jesus said he was corrupt in two ways. Firstly, he was corrupt because he had no time for God. And secondly, he was corrupt because he didn’t really care about other people either. His sole aim was to maintain his position in society, and he was prepared to go to any lengths to do that.
b). The Widow
The widow on the other hand was a typically needy and helpless person. She’d been wronged—probably diddled out of money that she couldn’t afford to lose. But she didn’t want whoever had wronged her to be punished, she simply wanted restitution. She only wanted what was taken to be restored.
Now, it appears that she had been unable to get a satisfactory response from the court system. Or that she had realised the pointlessness of even trying to pursue her case through the courts. But she was desperate enough to go to the only possible person who could help her—the judge.
c) The Story
And the judge should have given precedence to the widow’s case. That’s what he had been appointed judge to do—to help people like the widow. But, perhaps through laziness, or more likely because he didn’t want to upset her powerful opponent, he refused to take on her case or even listen to her.
However, the judge did budge, and justice was done. But only because of the persistent nagging of the woman. Even then, his motives for helping the woman were not pure. He only helped her because he was concerned for himself. He was concerned that her nagging would wear him out or give him such a bad name, and that he would lose respect in the community.
The first story then gives us a contrast between a judge and a widow. The judge… the man with position in society, albeit given to him. But nevertheless, a man who was so wrapped up in himself, that he had no time for God, and no time for the welfare of the needy. And the widow… a woman who had been terribly wronged, and who had great difficulty in getting justice. And it was only because of her persistence, that she received any justice at all.
2. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)
The second part of the story is a contrast between a Pharisee and a Tax Collector.
a). The Pharisee
Now the Pharisee was confident—a man of position—he knew where he was going, and he knew the respect that his position in life held. However, again, like the judge, he didn’t have much time for anyone else. He was proud of who he was—and wasn’t frightened of advertising it to the world. He also demonstrated a contempt for others who were not of the same social standing. He thought he was superior to others and wasn’t frightened of telling the world how much better he was than anyone else.
b). The Tax Collector
In contrast, the tax collector was not confident at all. He knew his position in society. He was a social outcast—not only for working for the Roman authorities, but because he lined his own pockets, by cheating his fellow Jews. Rather than pride, the tax collector felt despair.
However, he was prepared to admit his mistakes and to compensate others for his cheating ways. Despite that, he didn’t believe he wasn’t worthy of any honour. Indeed, he believed, he wasn’t fit to be acceptable to God at all.
c). The Story
Now as this story goes, both the Pharisee and the tax collector were at the Temple one day. The Pharisee stood proudly with his head held high, telling God what a wonderful person he was, and that he was nothing like the miserable tax collector. Meanwhile, the tax collector stood at a distance, mourning his predicament and his unworthiness in the sight of God.
d). The Application
The second story, then, giving a contrast between a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee… someone else who had an important position in society and didn’t mind advertising what a wonderful person he was. And the tax collector… a man who was not afraid to admit his failings and didn’t consider himself worthy of God at all.
Now, it would be easy to take both of Jesus’s stories and conclude that the four characters described weren’t real people. That they were made up by Jesus, so that he could make his point. And to a certain extent that is probably true.
However, the reality is that Jesus’ stories were based on real life situations, so that people could easily understand them. And whilst Jesus was quite happy to use exaggeration to emphasis his point, the pictures that he drew from life, including the four cameos I’ve just described, were pretty accurate of life at the time.
At the time, both the judge and the Pharisee were, generally, looked up to in society. The judge… someone with authority, and the Pharisee… a leader of the faith. In reality, however, it was not the judge or the Pharisee that were seen to have worth in God’s eyes, but rather they the widow and the tax collector.
And that is typical of the upside-down challenges that the Christian faith repeatedly produces. So much so, that it should get us thinking about the kind of people our own society holds in high esteem, and the kind of people that we are, and the people who we think are important too.
1. A Judge or a Widow?
After all, how many judges, and how many widows do we know in our society today? And which category do we fit into the best?
Are we a judge? A person who has been given a position of authority and power. A person who is looked up to in the community (which isn’t a problem in itself). But, are we a person who is more concerned with our own position, that God hardly gets a look in, and people (outside our circle of friends) generally get ignored?
Symptomatic of being a judge is: Doing only those things that would give us an advantage. Refusing to help or consider those in need where there is a risk of upsetting someone in authority. And generally trying to keep things the same—trying to maintain the status quo.
So, are we a judge, or are we a widow? A person who has nothing—no money, no authority, and no power. Someone who is usually ignored or overlooked as being totally unimportant.
And can you think of any judges or widows? Because I can. I can actually think of lots of people who could fit in either category.
But what about us? What about me? Well, in terms of the Christian faith we should all identify with being “widows”. Because, no matter what our circumstances in life, in terms of our place before God, in a sense, we are all people who are worth nothing, not even his pity or care.
But, despite that, we are of value in God’s eyes. Not because of what we have done, but because of what he has done. And consequently we can live with God’s promise of care for us, which far exceeds what the judge did reluctantly, and eventually for the widow.
2. A Pharisee or a Tax Collector?
And when it comes to Pharisees and tax collectors, how many of these do we know in our society? And where do fit in too?
Are we a Pharisee? A person who feels superior, who looks down their nose at those considered inferior. Who has no time for others, except in their own little circle. Who is full of pride, and snobbery abounds. And who parades up and down showing themselves to be important and showing nothing but contempt for those considered less than themselves.
b). Tax Collectors
Or are we a tax collector? Someone who has made many mistakes, and who in the past has put their own interests first. But someone who is prepared to admit it, whilst not feeling feel worthy of anyone’s affection, let alone God’s. Someone, who feels bad about the past, but is determined to turn their lives around, and make a fresh start.
So, can you think of any Pharisees or tax collectors? Because I can. I can think of lots of people who would fit into either of these categories too.
But what about us? What about me? Well, in terms of the Christian faith, we should all identify with being “tax collectors”. Because in God’s eyes we have all done terrible things, not least of which is not giving God his due. We are all deserving of death in terms of our relationship with God.
Now, in a sense, we are people who have nothing to offer God at all. And yet, again, we do have hope. The attitude of the tax collector was that he was repentant, and in his predicament, he admitted his total dependence upon God. As a consequence, even Jesus could conclude that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, was justified in God’s eyes.
In his life time, Jesus went out of his way to help and be with the poor, the underprivileged, and the outcast—people who struggled in life, People with which no-one else in authority wanted anything to do. He also had the habit of illustrating his teaching by using examples of everyday life. And in doing both of these things he fought against corruption, and injustice at the highest levels.
The life of Jesus in general, and today’s passage from scripture, in particular, teach us that the pursuit of pride, honour, snobbery, and the like, have no place in the Christian faith. And that’s because they relegate God to be an optional extra, and they do nothing to help our fellow man.
Indeed, having a position of authority, or power, actually increases the responsibility to use that authority and power to help those far less well off than oneself.—to point others to God, and to help people in physical, mental and spiritual ways.
Being respectable, and having qualifications, and even appearing to do the right thing may be acceptable in this world as deserving honour, but without the love of God and the care and compassion for others, as far as God is concerned, they count for nothing. What might be considered important in this world, does not necessarily translate as preparation for the next.
So today, we may know some judges and widows, we may also know some Pharisees and tax collectors. But which ones do we identify with the most ourselves? And I don’t mean in just a nominal way. Which one’s really describe who we are?
Indeed, are we only interested in maintaining our positions like the judge and the Pharisee? Or do we identify fully with the downtrodden, like the widow and the tax collector. Because it’s all very well to look around and point the finger at others. But which one or ones are we?
Posted 26th April 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Enemies (Luke 19:28-22:62)
After all, if Palm Sunday was about Jesus positioning himself for the week ahead, then what we can see, as Holy Week progressed, was a focus away from his friends, and onto his enemies. Now that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have time for his friends—he did. But from the Sunday to the Thursday, the day of his arrest, he spent a lot of time being plotted against, and being confronted by those who had fallen away from God.
Now we probably don’t like to think about having enemies. However most, if not all, of us can acknowledge that we have had some from time to time. Indeed King David felt surrounded by them—they are a common theme of the seventy-three psalms which are marked “of David.”
But for Jesus, in Holy Week, his enemies (or in Hebrew: those who were hostile to him) were everywhere. And as the week progressed the confrontations with them became more intense. It was a situation he knew he had to face—there was a lot at stake. Not least of which was the need to challenge the enemies of God, and bring the message of salvation to the world.
Holy week, amongst other things, then, is a time to reflect on the enemies of the cross. It is also a time to reflect on our own response to those who are hostile to Christianity, as we walk the journey of faith to the New Jerusalem.
Posted: 12th March 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis