General
SERMON: Reconstructing the Christian Calendar (Advent to Pentecost)

1. INTRODUCTION

In Old Testament times God was very keen that his people should meet together as a community on a regular basis. They were to worship him, and encourage and build one another up. So he commanded people to meet weekly. In addition, he commanded people to celebrate certain festivals. And the purpose of those festivals was to remind the people of some of the great things that he had done for them. To remind them of the things he had promised. And to give them an opportunity to respond to him.

The festivals were to be held in a central location, to which everyone was expected to travel. Consequently people would have to travel great distances, and sometimes in very dangerous conditions, to participate. But they did (or those who were faithful did). And as the years went on, and the number of things that God did for his people increased, the number of festivals celebrated grew.

Now of course we don’t live in Old Testament times. Despite that, God still wants us to meet together on a regular basis – to worship him and to encourage and build up one another. We also have festivals reminding us of the things that God has done, and the things he has promised his people. Now, they may not be same festivals as in Old Testament times, and these days we may not need to go on a pilgrimage to a central location to celebrate them, but these festivals remain important nonetheless.

So what I would like to do, is to briefly revisit the major festivals that we celebrate; to examine the significance and importance of celebrating them.

2. CHRISTMAS

Now Christmas, despite the way that many people celebrate it today, is about the birth of a baby. A baby who is the link between ourselves and our creator. Christmas is about a creator who loves his creation very much; and it is about us, who have a nasty habit of caring more about ourselves than either him or others.

As a result, like all good parents, God needed to deal with that problem. He didn’t want his people excluded from heaven because they weren’t good enough. Consequently he provided the means by which our mistakes and failures could be blotted out; treated as though they never happened. Thus making us worthy to enter heaven and be with him.

Of course that means a baby needed to be born in the world. A baby who would grow up, live a perfect life, and take on all the punishment that we deserve. And that baby was his son, Jesus. As a consequence that is what the first Christmas was all about – the birth of a very special baby.

3. EPIPHANY

Now, for those who think that Christmas is one of the most important festivals in the Christian calendar, then I’m sorry to say you are quite wrong. Christmas may be considered important in popular culture (and the church may well have got on the bandwagon too), but in reality the way we celebrate Christmas today only really began in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the church never intended the birth of Jesus to be a major festival at all. Rather the introduction of Christmas was a means to stamp out the pagan worship of the sun god, which was very popular in Roman times.

Of far more importance in church history was the celebration of Epiphany. Originally it celebrated the baptism of Jesus, and the commencement of Jesus’s manifestation to the world; the beginning of his adult ministry. But these days it gets confused with the arrival of the Magi. Epiphany, then, should still be an important day, traditionally celebrated on 6th January. Unfortunately with the popularity of Christmas, these days it gets largely forgotten.

4. LENT

Next we move to Lent… to which some funny things have been attached over the years. It’s a time when people have given up all sorts of food and drink, as though they feel they have to abstain from particular things. Traditions have built up, like not having flowers in church. And all sorts of ideas have surfaced about what you should and shouldn’t do during Lent.

Now originally Lent lasted only two or three days. It was intended to be a time of preparation for Easter. A time to reflect on the historical events of the first Easter, and a time to reflect on the meaning and appropriate response to that event. But those two days of preparation soon became a week, to include what we now know as Holy Week. And a time of fasting became a feature of the spiritual preparation.

In very short time however that week became forty days (excluding Sundays), and a whole new purpose for Lent emerged. And the purpose of Lent? Well, it was a time of preparation for adults wanting to be baptised. Why forty days? Well, there are two reasons. Firstly, in a church open to persecution, it was important that baptismal candidates proved themselves to be genuine. And consequently 40 days of rigorous examination was considered to be a pretty good test. However, secondly, in those days the church took seriously the fact that baptism should be a response to faith. Therefore 40 days of teaching was necessary to make sure of a good solid grounding in the faith. Those who passed scrutiny would then be baptised on Easter Day in the evening.

Of course the theory was that those forty days were also expected to be a period of fasting for the congregation too. After all it was their responsibility to accept and nurture all new church members. However, that idea didn’t prove very popular, and in reality was only observed by those who were very keen in the faith.

Despite some very strange modern practices, then, the importance of Lent, as a festival, should be one where we examine our integrity and the depth of our commitment to our Lord. Particularly in response to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

5. EASTER

Now, Jesus (and his family) took seriously the importance of celebrating the major Old Testament festivals. During Jesus’ childhood, Mary and Joseph took him to Jerusalem for Passover each year (and we have the story of one such occasion in the bible, when Jesus was aged twelve). About twenty years later Jesus was still going to the festival sin Jerusalem. And it was there that he was arrested, put on trial, found not guilty, but crucified anyway.

Now Easter is the oldest of all the Christian festivals. Originally it was celebrated with Good Friday and Easter Day being treated as the one festival. But by the fourth century Good Friday was split off to make it a separate day.

Easter is the most important festival in the church’s calendar. And the reason is, that unless someone who had lived a perfect life voluntarily gave up their life for others, there would be no solution to the problem of sin. As a consequence the birth of Jesus may have been an essential step in the carrying out of God’s solution. But without the willing death of a perfect life, the solution and even Jesus’ birth would have been for nothing.

And the proof that that God’s plan had worked, we see in the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. In God bringing Jesus to new life, having completed the task that God had given him to do, and having completed it to God’s total satisfaction.

Easter, then, is a celebration at the (excuse the pun) crux of the Christian faith. It is also a challenge. Because Easter, is also about whether we want to accept God’s solution to our sins, or not. God’s solution is not automatic, it needs a response. If we respond positively, and put our faith in Jesus, then all well and good. But if we don’t respond positively, or if we simply sit on the fence and make no decision one way or another, then we are effectively tell God that we want nothing to do with his solution at all, and that we are happy to be left to our own devices.

6. ASCENSION DAY

Now forty days after Easter is Ascension Day. After Jesus’ rose from the dead, he appeared before his disciples many times. But forty days after the resurrection Jesus’s disciples saw him being taken up into heaven, as he disappeared from their sight in a cloud. Yes, from then on he would occasionally make appearances to them and other people. But nothing like with the regularity, or in the way, that they had got used to.

Now, Ascension Day is important, because without it Jesus couldn’t have sent his “other comforter” that he had promised his disciples. Which is why in the church’s early history, Ascension Day and Pentecost were celebrated as the one festival.

7. PENTECOST

Ten days after Ascension Day (seven weeks after Easter), is Pentecost. It was the day that God sent his power on the disciples. They were all huddled together in a room, when God sent his Holy Spirit to dwell in them. Then all of a sudden they were able to do many wonderful things. Instead of hiding away, they went out into the public arena. Instead of being awkward and tongue tied, they were confident and bold. They discovered abilities they didn’t know they had. And they demonstrated supernatural gifts they hadn’t had used before. They did all sorts of things that they never thought were humanly possible.

Now, like the other festivals, Pentecost has its challenges. Indeed most people do not consider it to be an important festival at all. But if Pentecost is all about the day that God sent his Holy Spirit on his disciples, and we are Jesus’ disciples too, then Pentecost is a reminder of the power that God has provided his people. As a consequence we need to be switched on to that power. Indeed we are useless to God unless we are switched on.

Pentecost, then, is about accepting God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s about growing in the faith. And it’s about sharing our faith with others. Things that we can only do when we have, and use, God’s power. And that’s why Pentecost has and continues to be considered by many to be the second most important Christian Festival (i.e. after Easter).

8. ADVENT

And that leaves our look at the Christian Festivals, with the one which actually starts the Christian year – Advent. Now beginning on the Sunday nearest to St Andrew’s Day (30th November), Advent like Lent is about a time of examination. A time to check on how genuine we are in our Christian walk.

However, unlike Lent which has the death and resurrection of Jesus as its focus, Advent, these days, has the coming of Christ at its core: Christ’s first coming as a baby, which we celebrate at Christmas, and Christ’s second coming, when he will come to judge the living and the dead.

Now, I said “these days” that is the focus of Advent. Originally, however, before Christmas was ever considered being celebrated, and for a long time afterwards, Advent was focussed well and truly on the second coming of Christ.

And its purpose… well, it was like Lent. A time of preparation for adults wanting to be baptised. It was a time of rigorous testing to make sure that the candidates for baptism were genuine. And at the time Advent continued unbroken through to Epiphany, when the baptisms took place. It was a time to reflect on the future event of Judgement Day, with all its implications (for believers and non-believers alike). In other words Advent was a festival whose focus was primarily on how prepared we are for Judgement Day, and for life after death.

Now, whichever focus we want to accept today, the festival remains a reminder of our mortality, and of our failure to meet God’s standards. It’s a reminder that one day we will be asked to account for everything that we’ve done, and everything we’ve failed to do as well.

Of course on that basis we have a problem. We’re not good enough; we don’t meet God’s standards. However, we’re told, that come Judgement Day, those who have faith in Jesus will be acquitted for all they’ve done wrong, whilst those who don’t believe will be condemned. And why will those who believe be acquitted, after all we all make mistakes? Well, it is because Jesus has already paid the punishment for their sins, on their behalf.

Advent then is a reminder that Judgement Day is very real. That it is something that we will all face.
And that unless we are people of faith in this world, come Judgement Day, eternal damnation will be our lot. And we don’t get given a second chance.

Of course the question that is so easily asked is. “Why does the church’s year begin with Advent and not Christmas?” Well for a time the church’s year did begin with Christmas. But as I’ve already suggested, as far as church history is concerned, Christmas was the last of the festivals I’ve mentioned to be added to the calendar. It has, historically, also been deemed to be the least important. Which is probably why Christmas as the beginning of the church’s year didn’t last. However, Advent, with its focus on the need for people to be reconciled with God, picks up the very theme that was so close to Jesus’ heart. And it’s the theme that should be the main focus of the church’s life and teaching too.

9. SUMMARY

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost – these are the principle festivals that the Church celebrates today. Some began to be celebrated very early in the life of the church, others were later additions. Some remain much as they were at the beginning, whist others have changed their meaning. Some have evolved to meet the needs of the church, and dare I say it, sadly, some have evolved to meet expectations of the wider community. Most have always been considered important, whilst one at least, Christmas, until the nineteenth century was never really considered important at all.

10. CONCLUSION

Meeting together for worship has always been important, not only in Old Testament and New Testament times, but today as well. In the scriptures, God continually reminded the people through his prophets and the apostles, of the need for the community of faith to meet together regularly (i.e. weekly). And, in the Old Testament in particular, of the importance of remembering specific religious festivals.

Now we don’t live in either Old Testament or New Testament times, and we no longer live with a list of required festivals to be kept. But meeting regularly for worship to express our faith, and to encourage one another, is an essential part of the expression of the Christian faith. And remembering specific Christian festivals is an important part of the building up of our faith and our Christian community too.

However I believe that it is time to do some juggling in regards to which festivals we celebrate, and why. And we certainly need to have a conversation about the importance we place on each.

Posted: 26th May 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

SERMON: Seeking Divine Guidance (Christmas Carol Service)

A Sermon for:
A Service of Nine Readings & Carols

Readings:
Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; Isaiah 40:1-2, 9; Micah 5:2-4; Matthew 1:18-22;
Luke 1:26-33, 38; Luke 2:1-7; Luke 2:8-14; Matthew 2:1-12; John 1:1-14

A. INTRODUCTION

There are some people in life who appear to have it all together. They know exactly what they want out of life, and they appear to be progressing very nicely towards their goal. In contrast, there are others who appear to live life without purpose. People who don’t know what they want to do, or where they are going. And in the middle – perhaps the majority – are people who seem to travel along the journey of life in stops and starts. Sometimes being enthused and inspired, whilst other times grinding to a complete halt.

Now wherever you are in life, I’m sure that at times a bit of guidance wouldn’t come amiss. And not just any guidance, but divine guidance that is clear and unmistakeable. Like a voice calling out from above, or a large hand appearing from the clouds pointing the way.

And if that’s you – wanting some kind of inspiration and guidance – then I would suggest that the clues on how to get it are in the all too familiar story of the first Christmas.

B. DIVINE GUIDANCE

1. Mary (Luke 1:26-38)
After all, doesn’t the nativity story start with a girl of about 12 years of age, who suddenly, without any warning, becomes faced with an angel? And what the angel did was to map out exactly what was going to happen to her next.

She was to have a baby – a baby conceived through the Holy Spirit. The baby was going to be God’s son, and king of his people. But her child was not just going to be any king. No, her son was to rule in eternity.

2. Joseph (1) (Matthew 1:18-25)
Next in the story, of course, is Joseph, Mary’s fiancé. A man probably somewhere between 19 and 30 years of age.

And Joseph, realising that Mary was unmarried and pregnant, was wrestling with the knowledge of the public shame and disgrace that that would bring. Now he too was visited by an angel. And the angel told him the place that God had for him in his plans as well.

He was told to marry Mary, regardless of her condition, and he was to name the baby Jesus. And it was very important that he did this, because Jesus’ role in life would be to save his people from their sins.

3. The Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)
Now talk about divine direction! But it doesn’t end there. Because next we find ourselves in the fields with the shepherds, who were guarding their flocks, at night, from thieves and wild animals.

And for them divine guidance was received twice over. Because, firstly they were visited by an angel, who told them to go to Bethlehem, to see the Messiah that had been born. And then secondly, by way of confirmation of what they had been told was true, they were suddenly surrounded by a heavenly host singing praises to God.

4. The Wise Men (Matthew 2: 1-2)
And meanwhile, some distance away to the east, there were some wise men – students of the stars – who had been studying a strange phenomenon in the sky. A phenomenon they believed meant a great leader had been born. So they followed the star to Judea.

Now at some stage they probably got side-tracked into going to Jerusalem (because isn’t that where an important person should be born?). But after being directed on by Herod to Bethlehem, they found the star again, and followed it until it stopped over the place where the baby lay.

5. Joseph (2) (Matthew 2:13-15)
Then once the wise men had left, Joseph received a second visit from an angel. However this time it was not good news.

Herod was out to get Jesus – to kill him. Herod was fearful that the baby Jesus was a threat to his own throne. So, as a consequence, Joseph accepted the instruction of the angel, and headed off with Mary and the baby to Egypt where they would be safe.

6. Summary
So, looking for a bit of inspiration, a bit of divine guidance in life? A voice calling out of the clouds? A large hand pointing the way? Oh wouldn’t it be lovely if things were as simple as that? As simple as the divine guidance that was given to Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men.

C. WHAT SORT OF PEOPLE?

So the question we should probably ask is, “What sort of people were Mary and the rest? What was so special about them that they received such clear and precise direction from God? Were they rich? Were they powerful? Were they influential people? Or were they ordinary people like you and me?”

1. Ordinary People
Well, for the main part, they were just ordinary people. Mary and Joseph may have had important people in their family trees, but they were not rich or important themselves. Indeed Joseph was a lowly carpenter, and Mary and Joseph had to contend with all the normal struggles of life – the same as anyone else.

The shepherds too, would not have been rich or powerful either. Indeed around that time being a shepherd was considered one of the lowliest types of jobs that you could do. So there was nothing very special about them either.

Only the wise men would have been people of wealth and influence. And their wealth and power is indicated by the presents they brought – of gold, incense and myrrh.

2. People of Faith
What made them all special though – was that that they were all people of faith, or were people who were looking for God.

a). Mary (Luke 1:26-38)
Mary was a girl who had found favour with God, presumably because of her strong faith in God. She was God’s willing servant. And that is indicated by her willingness to be used by God – to become pregnant – with all the social ramifications that that would bring. She was only too willing to be God’s instrument in history.

b). Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25 & 2:13-18)
Joseph showed his faith – by sticking with Mary – regardless of the public consequences. He was obedient to the request of the angel, despite the public disgrace of Mary’s pregnancy.

Furthermore, when told of the danger to the baby’s life by Herod, he again showed his faith, by not hesitating, but setting out immediately with wife and child, and escaping to safety in Egypt.

c). Shepherds (Luke 2:8-20)
The shepherds meanwhile – would have had a strong religious background. They would have been waiting for the Messiah. So when they heard the message of the angel that the Messiah had come, they did as they were told, and went looking for the baby.

d). The Wise Men (Matthew 2:1-2)
And the wise men? Well, we really don’t know much about them at all. But what we do know is that they were open to divine guidance. They were looking for a king, but not just any earthly king. They were looking for a divine king. A king they intended to worship – who they recognised was somehow “king of the Jews”

D. APPLICATION

Envious eyes!!! Yes, we can all look on Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men with envious eyes. They were all given clear and precise direction by God to the direction he wanted each of them to take. And wouldn’t life be so much easier if things were like that for us too?

So what can we learn about divine guidance from the Christmas story? What sort of things should we be looking at, when we are seeking divine guidance?

Well, it seems to me that there are three things about the story of the nativity that we should consider.

1. People of Faith
And the first is, as I’ve just said, that Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men, were all people of faith to some degree. All were either devout believers, or were earnestly seeking God,

As a consequence, when we are looking to God for guidance, perhaps we should ask ourselves: “Do we approach him from the perspective of faith? Or do we do so without first having made any real commitment to him at all?”

That doesn’t mean to say that God cannot and will not help people who don’t believe or give him his due – there are plenty of examples in the Bible to say that he can and does. However, asking from the perspective of faith is surely a much surer way of receiving divine guidance.

2. Pointing to the Messiah
Secondly, all the revelations – the several appearances of angels, the heavenly host, and the star – all pointed to one thing: God’s salvation work: the reconciliation of people with their creator, through God’s son who was to be born into the world.

Consequently, when we look for divine guidance, perhaps we should ask ourselves: “Do we approach God from the perspective of what he wants us to do, in pointing our lives and others towards Jesus? Or do we seek God’s guidance based on our own wants and desires?”

3. Willingness to Serve
And, thirdly all those in the story who received divine guidance had one thing in common. That is, they had an openness to accept the guidance given – and to be led by God, no matter where that would take them.

And that is in complete contrast to some of the other characters in the bible. Including two people whose stories with God begin with very rocky starts. Because Moses came up with every excuse why he shouldn’t do what God asked of him, and Jonah just ran away.

No! Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise men responded immediately to God. There were no ifs, buts, or maybes. No delaying committee meetings. They set out on their journeys, and they did what they were asked, even though none of them really knew where their journey with God would take them. They stepped out anyway. And they trusted that God would continue to encourage and guide them every step of the way.

4. Summary
So when we are looking for divine guidance, perhaps we should ask ourselves: “Are we approaching God from the perspective of being a person of faith, or are we someone who has made no real commitment to him at all? Does the guidance we seek focus on God, and the salvation wrought by Jesus, or is centred on our wants and desires? And are we willing to carry out our part in God’s plan – whatever that might be, or do we want to be able to pick and choose, dependent upon how comfortable we are with what he wants us to do?”

E. CONCLUSION

Now without doubt the first Christmas was a very special occasion. And it should be expected that the people involved would need to have been given special direction. Consequently, it may be unrealistic for us to expect visits from angels, or heavenly hosts, or stars to follow, as we seek God’s guidance.

Nevertheless, if we want to receive guidance from God, then perhaps it shouldn’t be unreasonable to request guidance from the perspective of faith, from the perspective of how we are to be part of the continuing story of salvation, and with an attitude of willingness to carry out our part in God’s plan – whatever that might be.

So, for those whose lives seem perfect, or for those who find life a struggle, or even for those whose life’s journeys are a series of stops and starts, the story of the first Christmas should be an inspiration for us all.

Indeed, the way God intervened in history with the birth of the Messiah, with the guidance and direction for Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men is something we should all consider. And it certainly should give us something to think about for our own inspiration and guidance, well and truly after the Christmas season is over. And well after all the tinsel and trees are put away.

Posted: 19th December 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

SERMON: The Hope of Christmas (Christmas Carol Service)

Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; Micah 5:2-4; Isaiah 40: 1-2, 9; Luke 1:26-33, 38;
Matthew 1:18-22; Luke 2:1-7; Luke 2:8-14; Matthew 2:1-12;
Colossians 1:15-20

A. INTRODUCTION

Six more shopping days until Christmas; seven more sleeps. And probably, for many, still a lot of preparation to do. It seems that most of us at Christmas have a long list of things to do. And that no sooner do you cross off one item, then you think of another five to put on—a present for someone, something you’ve missed for the table… and the list goes on.

But, of course, that is only one side of Christmas. It’s what in the west we’ve been taught is expected of us—at least in the last hundred years or so. But even then, those expectations do not always relate well to reality.

After all, there are many people today who cannot afford that kind of Christmas, but yet are still actively encouraged to participate in that kind of celebration. There are people who are going through a tough time, and are finding that kind of Christmas all too much. And there are people for whom Christmas brings back bad memories—and can’t wait for the celebrations to be over.

Christmas can be a happy time, and it can be a sad time. And it isn’t always helped by the expectations that have been placed on us over the last hundred years or so.

But how about you? How are you preparations going this year? Well to put our feelings and our preparations into context, what I’d like to do is to reflect on some of the situations behind the readings that we’ve had today.

B. PROPHECIES OF THE COMING MESSIAH

1. Reading 1: Judah under attack by Israel and Aram (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7)
And I want to begin with the first reading from Isaiah.

Now it’s about 725 BC. Israel had been a divided kingdom for a little over two hundred years—there was Israel in the north centred on Samaria, and Judah in the south centred on Jerusalem. And at this point of time, Israel had allied itself with Aram (centred on Damascus) to invade Judah. In other words the background to the reading is a war.

Now Ahaz, the king of Judah, was not a faithful servant of God. He preferred worshiping other gods. But despite that, God sent his prophet Isaiah to him, to tell him that he had the situation in hand. What Ahaz had to do was to trust God. And God even gave him a sign—a child would be born—after which the conflict would come to an end. And of course that is exactly what happened. Mrs Isaiah got pregnant, gave birth to a son, the war came to an end and the captives were returned to Judah.

As a consequence, our first reading reflects part of that story. It describes the sign that King Ahaz was given—the baby that was born—the proof that God would come to the rescue of his people. Which he did. God provided hope in a very difficult situation.

However, how much understanding there was, at that time, of a deeper meaning behind that prophecy, we can only guess. What we do know is that seven hundred plus years later, those words formed part of the expectation that a Messiah was to be born.

So how about that for a background to the Christmas story? A war.

2. Reading 2: Judah under attack by Assyria (Micah 5:2-4)
But it doesn’t end there, because move forward fifteen years, to about 710 BC, and we find another war.

Now, at this particular time, the northern kingdom of Israel was no more. The Assyrians had conquered the land, and the people had been taken into exile. But Judah, centred on Jerusalem, was still there, and this time under the rule of King Hezekiah. Now unlike his father Ahaz, Hezekiah was a faithful king. But, despite that, he and his people were noted as being proud, arrogant, and self-sufficient. They had entangled themselves in an alliance with Assyria which had gone terribly wrong. So they rebelled against them, and now they faced attack from the Assyrian army.

And this time, it was the prophet Micah who delivered God’s message of hope. And because they were so proud, and self-sufficient, Micah told them that, this time, help would come from the most insignificant of places—from Bethlehem.

Now history doesn’t tell us who that person from Bethlehem was. Nevertheless the story assumes that someone from Bethlehem came, and the Assyrians returned home. Prophecy fulfilled. Except for, again, at some stage came the realisation that the prophecy had a deeper meaning. So much so that seven hundred plus years later there was an expectation that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.

Now that’s two readings we traditionally have at Christmas time, which not only prophecy about a Messiah, but also deal with the reality of war. Which may well put any struggles we have with Christmas into perspective.

3. Reading 3: Exile in Babylon (Isaiah 40: 1-2, 9)
But it doesn’t end there, either. Because move forward another one hundred and fifty years, and it’s about 560 BC. And the people of Judah are in exile in Babylon. Forty years before the Babylonians had attacked Jerusalem, and the city had been demolished. So now the people were languishing in exile—and could only dream of returning home.

So God sent another prophet to the people, with yet another message of hope. God’s people would return to Jerusalem. And of course, if we’d read the verses that we missed out, we would have read something which would be very familiar: “A voice of one calling ‘Prepare a way for YHWH in the wilderness; make straight the highway for our God in the desert.’”

In other words the prophecy not only told the people that their exile was at an end, but it showed them how they would be brought back to Jerusalem. Now we don’t know who that “voice calling in the wilderness” was, but we do know is that the people returned to Jerusalem.

But more than that, over the next five hundred and fifty plus years the understanding of the prophecy grew, so that there became an expectation that the Messiah would be preceded by a messenger who would show the people the way.

4. Summary
So two wars, and living in exile, provide the context to three very traditional Christmas readings. But I wonder how often we think of that? In each case God gave an immediate message of hope, and in each case he asked the people to trust in him. But more than that, God’s promises provided an expectation, a hope, for well into the future as well.

Which would tend to suggest, that if we are struggling, if we are going through a hard time this Christmas … Well, we may not be facing a war, we may not be languishing in exile, but we can still have hope. But if only we put our trust in our creator.

But let’s move to what may be more familiar territory.

C. THE BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH

1. Reading 4: Mary (Luke 1:26-33, 38)
Because, move to about 7 BC, the Romans occupy the land, and the expectations about a Messiah are rife. A child is to be born, he is to come from Bethlehem, and he is to be preceded by a messenger leading the way.

Now imagine the scene … Mary, a devout believer in God—a girl, of about 12 or 13 years old—is engaged to be married, and she is visited by an angel who tells her part in bringing Jesus into the world. Now that was good news, in terms of being chosen by God. But now the bad news. Becoming pregnant outside of marriage was a recipe, for being stoned to death, or at the very least, living as an outcast, with a very bleak future, or having to resort to prostitution to survive.

Life would have been far from easy. But she was a young woman who was very strong in her faith. And despite the consequences was all too willing to do her part.

2. Reading 5: Joseph (Matthew 1:18-22)
Enter Joseph. Well when he discovered that Mary was pregnant, he was faced with a dilemma. He knew he would be expected to publicly end their engagement. Mary would then be open to face ridicule and shame—or even being stoned for her crime.

But that was something that Joseph, a man of God, did not want to do. So, he thought about it, and decided it would be far better to just quietly sign the papers needed to break the engagement, and go their separate ways.

But then Joseph was visited by an angel too. This time it was in a dream. And the angel told him to abandon his traditions, to abandon all his cultural sensitivities—no matter how difficult that would be—and marry Mary anyway. And being the man of God that he was, that was exactly what he did. And God blessed them both because of it.

3. Reading 6: The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-7)
Now move on to about 6 BC (yes, someone can’t count), and all of Mary and Joseph’s nightmares come true. They were required to go to Bethlehem for a census, where suitable accommodation was not easy to find. Indeed, whatever plans they had for the birth of Jesus, and whatever preparations they had made, needed had to be set aside for their attendance in Bethlehem. And it was there that Jesus was born.

4. Reading 7: The Shepherds and Angels (Luke 2:8-14)
So finally, the expectations of the Jewish people were met. Yes, John the Baptist still had to do his job as the messenger, but being born six months earlier God’s plans were well in hand.

But for now the Messiah had been born. And the prophecies and the expectations of the people are summed up in the visit of the shepherds and the angels.

Having said that, however, I’m not sure even then, seven hundred plus years after Isaiah’s prophecy, that the people really understood what it all meant.

5. Reading 8: The Visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12)
But it was an event that even some astrologers—probably from Arabia or Persia—recognised had great significance. As a consequence they journeyed to Jerusalem, were sent on to Bethlehem, and were led by a star to the child.

6. Summary
Now Old Testament wars and exile aside, even in the New Testament Mary and Joseph did not have an easy time. The first Christmas was not an easy event. The things they were asked to do by God, in many ways went against the grain of the expectations of society. And even the delivery of the baby was not in the best of circumstances.

They had a tough time. And yet, the promises of God brought hope. They gave something to live for, something to get excited about. But like those who faced war or exile, did they even then fully understand what it was that God had promised?

D. WHO IS THE MESSIAH?

1. Expectations
After all, at the time of Jesus’s birth, the land was under Roman occupation. And many of the Old Testament prophecies, as we have seen, promised God’s help in difficult physical situations as well as providing that longer term hope for the future.

There was a common expectation, then, that the Messiah would do away with the Romans. And, whatever else he did, that he would restore sovereignty to the Jews. As consequence, when some of those expectations weren’t met, the people’s disappointment was to play a major role in his execution. What the people didn’t get, even in the early pages of the New Testament, was that the primary focus of God’s promises was not about rescuing his people from an aggressor, but on restoring his people’s relationship with him.

Time after time, the people had strayed in their relationship with him, and each time God had come to their rescue. He had rescued them from their enemies, and given them hope. But each time his main focus, was the need for his people to trust in him.

But it hadn’t worked. Because no sooner did people return to him, then they strayed again, and the whole process began all over again. So this time, he was looking for a more permanent solution to the problem of sin.

2. Reading 9: The Supremacy of Christ (Colossians 1:15-20)
Which is why I’ve chosen the poem or hymn, written or adapted, by Paul in his letter to the church at Colossae, to conclude our readings. Because in a letter written about 60AD, we find Jesus, as the Christ, summarised in two ways.

Firstly, he is described as the one through whom God created the universe (vv. 15-17). And then secondly he is described as the one rules the world, through God’s saving love. (vv. 18-20).

Now of course, there had been hints about who the Messiah was, reaching far back into history—as we’ve seen. But it probably needed Jesus to begin his ministry for some of the pieces to be properly understood. And even then, it evidently took some time for everything to click into place.

Jesus was the solution to mankind’s problem. He was promised by God, and he came to make possible our relationship with God. Indeed, Jesus is the reason we celebrate Christmas.

So in the midst of disaster, there is hope. When things go wrong there is always something to live for, and get excited about. Indeed God has gone to great lengths to come to our rescue and to give us hope.

E. IMPLICATIONS

1. Summary
So how is our Christmas going? Have we got everything that we’ve been told that we need? Or is this year a bit of a disaster, when nothing’s going right? Or is this Christmas a time when all we want to do, is to have it over and done with?

Well if it is all getting too much, think back to 725 BC. Think of the time when Israel and Aram attacked Judah. Think back to 710 BC when Assyria attacked Judah. And think back to 560 BC when the people were languishing in exile. And if that is the kind of Christmas that you’re having, then think of the prophecies of hope—of a baby being born in Bethlehem, and a messenger who will lead the way.

Think back to Mary and Joseph in 7 BC, and the issues they had to face. The problems that Mary’s pregnancy invoked, and the less than ideal circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth. And if that’s the kind of Christmas that you’re facing, then think of the fulfilment of the prophecies of hope.

2. Hope in the Christmas Story
Because in each of our readings is a message of hope.

Our first three readings reflect God’s promise to his people, who were in dire need of his help. And he responded not only to their immediate needs, but he gave them hope for the future as well.

Which means that no matter what our circumstances, and how our preparations are going for Christmas this year, we should have hope. Hope in God that he will see to our physical needs. But hope in God that he will see to our spiritual needs too. And we can only have hope if we are people of God.

3. Our Modern Society
Yes, of course, our society encourages us to go to the shops. Yes, the adverts on television provide us with the modern expectations that only the last one hundred plus years have brought. But that is not what Christmas should be all about. Christmas should be about a baby being born in Bethlehem. It is about God coming to the rescue of his people. And it is about God giving his people hope.

F. CONCLUSION

So how are your preparations going this Christmas? Is everything on track, or are you getting flustered, and everything seems to be going wrong? Or is this a time that’s just too traumatic, and all that you can think about is getting it over with?

Well, wherever you sit this year, think of the Christmas story. Think of the wars against Judah—by Israel and Aram, and then the might of the Assyrian Army. And think of the people languishing in Babylon. All situations where God provided prophecies that dealt with the current situation, but provided hope for the future as well. And then think of the traumas of Mary and Joseph. Now does that put your Christmas into perspective?

Well if it does, then think of the fulfilment of those prophecies—the birth of the Messiah. The response of God to the deep spiritual need of his people. The need of all people for God’s grace, and for a relationship with the one who rules the world. Because that is what Christmas is supposed to be about. Indeed to coin an old and commonly abused phrase, “That is the “true” meaning of Christmas.”

The challenge this year, then, is to focus our Christmas—not on presents, or food, or drink, or family—but on hope. We consequently need to put the expectations of our day into perspective. But we also need to grab that hope.

We need to approach the Messiah as the one through whom the universe was created. And we need approach him as the one who rules the world, through God’s saving love.

Posted: 16th December 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

SERMON: A Christmas Quiz (Christmas Carol Service)

One of the things we seem to be inundated with these days is trivia nights or quiz shows on television. Indeed, there are many quiz shows that seem to have been around for years (and they probably have), and there are many new shows too. And when one of those shows fails … Well, it seems like that there is always another to take its place.

So, because trivia nights and quiz shows have become so popular, what I thought I’d do today is to give you a quiz. And today it’s a quiz based on the trivia surrounding the biblical version of the Christmas story. So here goes:

Question 1: What sort of building was Jesus born in? Was it an inn, a stable, a house, or we don’t know?

Answer: We don’t know. We know it wasn’t an inn because there wasn’t any room there (Luke 2:7). And the tradition about a stable relates to the fact that Jesus was placed in an animals’ feeding trough (Luke2:7), which could just as well have been put in a room in a house for something to put the baby in. So the answer is we really don’t know. Although a cave or a room in someone’s house are considered the most likely options.

Question 2: How many types of animals are mentioned in the biblical version of the Christmas story, and what were they? Was there one type: sheep? Were there two types: sheep and donkeys? Were there three types: sheep, donkeys and camels; or are no animals mentioned in the story at all?

Answer: Only one type of animal is mentioned: sheep. There is no mention of a donkey on which Mary may have ridden to get to Bethlehem. There is no mention of any animals surrounding the actual birth of Jesus, unlike what you see in nativity scenes. And there’s no mention of any camels that the wise men may have travelled with. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any other animals there. But the only animals mentioned in the bible are sheep. And they were in the fields being looked after by the shepherds.

So, how are you doing so far?

Question 3: How many wise men were there? Were there 2, 3, 4, or we don’t know?

Answer: We don’t know. All we’re told is that there were some Magi, Wise Men or Kings depending upon the translation you’re reading (Matthew 2:1). The traditional number of three is a guess based on the fact that there were three types of gifts given—gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:12). However, in reality we really don’t know how many there were.

And one last question:

Question 4: Where did the wise men find Jesus? Was it in Bethlehem (at the place Jesus was born), Bethlehem (at a house somewhere else), Nazareth, or we don’t know?

Answer: we don’t know. What we do know is that the star that the wise men followed led them to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1), and that King Herod told them that the Messiah was expected to be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5). But even though Herod sent them off in the direction of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:8), it was the star that led them to where the child was located (Matthew 2:9). If indeed it was Bethlehem, it is an indication that, by the time the wise men appeared, Mary & Joseph may have settled in Bethlehem. But it’s very unlikely that it would have been at the same place where Jesus was born.

So, how many got all four right? How many got three right? Two? What about one? And who’s brave enough to say they got none right? Well, however many you got right in a sense it doesn’t matter, because, as I said at the beginning, these questions are all about trivia. And sometimes we can be so keen on getting the little details right, that we miss the bigger picture.

Because the real Christmas story isn’t about where the baby was born, how many types of animals there were, or the number of people who came to see the baby and where the baby was at the time. The real story of Christmas is about the fact that Jesus was born, and the reason why he needed to be born at all.

And the reason that Jesus was born? It was because God had a problem, and still has a problem, with the people he created—you and me. And the problem is that we like to go our own way. We like to put ourselves before God, and before other people. As a consequence none of us are fit to live with God when we die.

It was for this reason that Jesus was sent into the world, so a baby could be born, grow up, live a perfect life and pay the price that we should rightly pay for all the times that we ignore God, and for all the other things we do wrong, or don’t do as we should.

The crunch point of the Christmas story, then, is not whether we remember the trivia, but whether we have put our faith and trust in Jesus for what he has done. Because only by doing that are we able to have our slates wiped clean. Only then can we be treated by God as though we are perfect. And only then can we live with God in eternity. So we need to remember that that is really what the Christmas story is all about.

So, how did you go with the quiz? Good, OK, not so good? Well don’t worry, it’s not the trivia that counts. What counts is what we have done with the reason behind it all. It’s what we do with the baby that matters.

Posted: 23rd December 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

DEVOTION: Preparing for Christmas (Christmas)

Christmas can be a very confusing time. After all, we are expected to go out and buy presents, and to meet up with family and friends. We are also encouraged to get into the mood, by drinking and eating far too much. We have parades, and we sing carols. And on top of that we tell our poor that all of that is necessary—and even provide handouts to perpetuate such expectations.

Now I don’t know whether I am too cynical, but it seems to me, that we have it all wrong. Christmas should not be about presents or food, or parades. And it shouldn’t necessarily be about meeting up with family and friends—although that is good to do at any time of the year. Christmas should be about the birth of Jesus, and about responding to God’s gift of grace.

If we have a parade, then, it shouldn’t be Santa who everyone has come to see, but Jesus. We shouldn’t be singing carols about Santa, mistletoe or ivy, but about God’s son. Our poor may indeed need our help, but they may also need relief from the expectations that are placed on them. And they, like us, need to be told the story of Jesus’s birth, and have it explained why it was all necessary.

As Christmas approaches, then, on what is our focus? Is our focus on food and drink, and even spending time with family and friends? Or is it on an encounter with Jesus? Christmas may well be a confusing time, but to which “true” meaning of Christmas are we preparing to celebrate this year?

Posted: 8th December 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

DEVOTION: The Seven Words of the Cross (Good Friday)

1. THE FIRST WORD:
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

a). The Issue of Forgiveness
Forgiving others is not always an easy thing to do. Nevertheless it is a vital part of the Christian faith. We need to forgive others, just as we depend upon God to forgive us. And the importance of our need to forgive is reflected in the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us” (Mathew 6). And the example of Jesus, is a very good illustration on how that should work.

b). The Example of Jesus
After all, sometimes the people were with him, and other times they were against. Sometimes there were huge crowds, and other times even his own friends wanted nothing to do with him. As a consequence, after three years of public ministry, Jesus had many people to forgive.

Indeed when he finally got to be too big of a nuisance for the religious authorities, because he upset the status quo, Jesus was finally arrested, tried, flogged, abused, and crucified. But did Jesus’ own words of the Lord’s Prayer come back and haunt him, because in the end he found he just couldn’t forgive? No! Because no matter what was dished up to him Jesus took it. No matter what any individual had done to him, no matter how horrible they had been, Jesus was able to forgive all those involved.

c). The Problem Of Forgiveness
Now one of the things that we hear from time to time, is some people referring to others as people they just can’t forgive. They could be family members, old friends, or even people responsible for war crimes like Hitler, Sadam Hussein and members of Islamic State. And yet Jesus quite clearly not only taught that we need to forgive, but he demonstrated it too. And for very good reason. Because in our case no matter what others have done to us, that’s nothing in comparison in what we have done to God. And if we expect God to forgive our greater sin, then we should at least play our part in forgiving others their lesser sin.

So, yes, some people in this world may have done some terrible things. And, yes, some of those things may have been done to us personally. But one of the things we need to remember, is that we need the forgiveness of God. After all, we ignore him, we put our own preferences first, we relegate him to second place, and we don’t do the things that he asks us to do. And if we need God’s forgiveness, shouldn’t we forgive others, all others, for the things that they have done to us?

d). The Challenge Of Forgiveness
Jesus on the cross had borne many things, and he was about to go through a very agonizing death. And yet despite that, he was able to forgive all those who had been involved, all who had ever done him wrong.
So the question that these first words on the cross should bring, then, is: Are we prepared to forgive others no matter what they’ve done? Are we prepared to do the same?

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2. THE SECOND WORD:
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

a). The Issue of the Afterlife
The idea of an afterlife is a very contentious issue in today’s world. Some believe that you live this life, and when you die that’s it, that’s the end, there is no more. Others believe that when you die you are reincarnated. You come back as an animal or as another person and given another go. And only when you’ve lived a perfect life, will the cycle be broken and you’ll reach Nirvana. And of course there are many other variations on the theme too.

Of course some of the interest on this subject, in more recent times, has been influenced by people who have had near-death experiences. Where they have seen images of the afterlife, or felt themselves going down a tunnel and entering a kind of Nirvana. But the reality is that the concept of life after death has occupied the minds of people for tens of thousands of years. And was even one of the hot topics of debate in Jesus’ time. Particularly between the Pharisees (who believed in the afterlife) and the Sadducees (who didn’t).

b). The Example of Jesus
Of particular interest in the debate about the afterlife, then, are Jesus’ second words on the cross. Words of Jesus spoken directly to one of the criminal’s crucified with him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Now, for those people who think that after death there is nothing, that once you have lived your life that’s it, then these words of Jesus show that that is nothing further from the truth. And for those who believe that you have to keep being reincarnated until you reach perfection. Well, that certainly wasn’t what Jesus was saying either. Rather the point behind Jesus’s words was that the criminal, even in his last hour, was able to admit his mistakes and put his total trust in Jesus. And because of that, that very day he was rewarded with a place in Paradise.

The repentant criminal’s sins were forgiven by God. His slate was wiped clean. And, consequently, this made him eligible for a place in heaven. This wasn’t the end, and it wasn’t a reincarnation. It wasn’t even a second chance. This was a resurrection. And because his sins were forgiven, this was a resurrection to eternal life. And importantly this resurrection to eternal life was not given to the other criminal who remained unrepentant.

c). The Problem of the Afterlife
Now one of things that should concern every believer, Is the number of people who live their lives as though God, Jesus, and eternal life just don’t exist. Yes, some may pay lip service to God, but God and godly ways are not the things that they live for. Instead they enjoy life, with the pleasures that it brings, without making any provision for their eternal wellbeing.

Now, obviously, a last minute change of heart can work, because it worked for one of the criminals. But the reality is, that very few people will know when their time is up, in order to correct their standing with God.

d). The Challenge of the Afterlife
When those criminals were nailed to their crosses, they knew what they had done in life. And chances are they knew what to expect in the afterlife too – eternal damnation. Neither had prepared for or were ready for what happened next.

So, the next question we need to ask ourselves is: Are we ready? Have we made our peace with God? Or are we living our lives, planning to make a last minute change of heart too?

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3. THE THIRD WORD:
“Woman, behold, your son.” “Behold, your mother” (John 19:26-27)

a). The Issue of a New Family
“Family” is a very important aspect of most people’s lives. Friends are important too. However, what the Christian faith introduces is a whole new dynamic to family life.

b). The Example of Jesus
Because when Jesus was on the cross, he looked down to the ground, and he saw two people in particular. He saw his mother Mary, and he saw his disciple John. And, at that time, two things would have been going through his mind.

Firstly, in the absence of his father, as the eldest son of Mary, he would have had the responsibility to care for his mother. (And by the time of the crucifixion Joseph’s absence from the family is notable). In the normal course of events the responsibility to look after Mary was his. Except for the fact that he was no longer in any position to care for her. And so he had to make alternative arrangements.

And, secondly, in his ministry, Jesus had taught his followers about family life. And that being followers, they were now members of a new family, a family of believers. And they had responsibilities to care for each other, just as if they were blood relatives.

Consequently, when Jesus was on the cross, what we see in Jesus’ third words, is a mixture of those two ideas: Jesus, as the eldest son, was making sure that there was someone to look after his mother after his death. Whilst at the same time linking two people (who were not related to each other) but who were part of a “new family”, because they shared a common faith.

c). The Problem of a New Family
Now, sadly, in these times, the need to care for one another (in the Christian family) is one that often gets overlooked. The aspect of coming together on a regular basis to worship, but with the particular intention of supporting and encouraging one another, frequently falls by the wayside for other priorities, including the excuse of needing to spend time with our blood relatives.

Indeed, ministry itself, including visiting the lonely, the sick and those in hospital, is often something which is relegated to a paid minister. Rather than being seen as every members responsibility, as part of their “new family” life. The consequent result, of course, is that people in the church feel uncared for. People drop out, and fade away, because of that lack of support and encouragement, that one would normally hope to receive from normal everyday family life.

d). The Challenge of a New Family
Despite that, however, we are still faced with Jesus, and his third words from the cross. Because they show that even in his desperate hour, and even with all the agonies that he was going through,
he still had time to care for his family, And he still had time to care for his Christian family too.
Indeed he knew that his responsibilities to his “new family” were just as important, and maybe more important, than his old.

So, the third question is: How important is our own church family to us? And do we really care for the people who minister up front, and those who sit with us on these pews?

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4. THE FOURTH WORD:
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46)

a). The Issue Of Sin
Sometimes, as we go through life, we can have moments where we seem to be all alone. We can feel deserted by family and friends, and we can feel as though God isn’t listening either. Of course sometimes we might wonder why God has apparently abandoned us. But others times we may feel as though we don’t deserve God’s attention anyway. Nevertheless that feeling of abandonment can be very devastating.

b). The Example Of Jesus
Of course something of this nature occurred to Jesus on the cross. And although in Jesus’ case he had done nothing to deserve being abandoned by God, nevertheless for a moment as he hung there taking in all the sin of the world, he felt the righteous judgment of God, judging him as though he had committed all of those sins. And as a result Jesus hung there, not only abandoned by his friends and followers, but abandoned by his Father too.

c). The Problem Of Sin
Now there are three things that this particular part of the story illustrates well.

The first thing is the seriousness to which God takes sin. Because it shows that sin really is a block between us and God. And yet in our world, how often do we find sin trivialized? When we slip, it can be easy to dismiss our fault in terms of, “It really doesn’t matter, not this once,” “What does it matter if I put myself first for a change?” or “It was only a little thing, it’s not as if it really matters?”

The second thing, of course, is that Jesus took on our sins for a reason: so that God could take away our eternal punishment from us. Consequently, we have the choice of whether to accept what Jesus has done, or to face up to God on our own. If we accept what Jesus has done, then we will not be punished in the afterlife for the things that we’ve done wrong, because our sins have already been dealt with. However, if we want to face God on our own terms, then we won’t have Jesus’ sacrifice in our favour at all. And we’ve just seen how seriously God judges sin.

And the third thing is, that once God judged Jesus as an innocent man, who had paid the penalty for others, God was able to lift off that dark cloud, and give Jesus the joy that his work was finished. And consequently when we are going through a rough time, we can be confident that, providing we have put our lives in the hands of Jesus, God will help us out. And he will return us to joy too.

d). The Challenge of Sin
Now, Jesus went to the cross knowing what he needed to do. And for a moment he felt the abandonment by God whilst all the sins that he carried were being dealt with. But in the end God was with him, and rewarded him for his faith. Consequently, when we feel abandoned by God, we can be assured that, if we are people of faith, we too can know that feeling of abandonment will not last either.

So the next question this morning is: Have we really accepted the seriousness of sin, and what Jesus has done for us on the cross? Have we really given ourselves to Jesus, knowing that he has dealt with all our sins?

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5. THE FIFTH WORD:
“I am thirsty” (John 19:28)

a). The Issue of Spiritual Thirst
When we exert ourselves by doing physical exercise, or when we suffer, we get thirsty. And we get thirsty because that’s the way our bodies are made.. Indeed the medical profession seems to constantly tell us that we need to keep our fluids up. And that we need to drink X amount of fluids a day. Now, when we are thirsty the simple solution is to have a drink. Except for the fact that, for some of us, we don’t always do it. We don’t always look after ourselves properly at all. And just as that’s true of physical thirst, so is it also true of spiritual thirst too.

b). The Example of Jesus
Now, as part of the story, as Jesus hung there on the cross, Jesus was thirsty, physically thirsty. And he was probably thirsty because of all the suffering that he had been going through. But then in the previous 12 hours he had been betrayed, arrested, tried, flogged, and forced (at least part of the way) to carry the cross beam of his cross. And now he was dying a very painful death, hanging on the cross.

However whilst he was physically thirsty, Jesus at this point, showed no signs of being spiritually thirsty at all. But then in his ministry years he had spent much time alone with God, much time in the temple and the synagogues, and much time debating the religious leaders too. Throughout his life, therefore, and by the time he had got to the cross, he had showed all the signs of being very much in touch with God, and keen to pursue his relationship even further. He wanted to do God’s will, not his own.

So, as he hung there on the cross Jesus couldn’t do anything about his physical thirst, except tell others of his need. But his spiritual thirst had been well and truly satisfied, because of his very healthy relationship with God.

c). The Problem of Spiritual Thirst
And, you know, I wonder with us, how much the problem is the other way around. Because the temptation is to put more store in our physical wellbeing than in our spiritual wellbeing.

Now, probably, for all of us here, fulfilling our spiritual thirst would, in some ways, not be a difficult thing for any of us to do. Bibles are relatively cheap, and come in all sorts of styles and languages. There’s something to suit everyone. And bible teaching is readily available too. Meeting together isn’t a crime here, and encouraging and building up one another in the faith, is a major part of what the church should be all about. And because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we all have direct access to the Father too.

And yet, how often do we hear those words: “I don’t need to do that. I can be a Christian without that,” “I haven’t got time,” “I can’t be bothered,” and “I’ve got more important things to do.”
Looking after our spiritual thirst, may be more involved than looking after our physical thirst, but generally, in the here and now, we have all the resources available for us to use. We just need to be willing to use them.

d). The Challenge of Spiritual Thirst
Jesus, hanging on the cross, at this point, was physically thirsty. And there was nothing he could do about it, except to call for help. But he wasn’t spiritually thirsty at all. In fact his relationship with God was perfect, just right.

So, the fifth question this morning is: Do we care as much about our spiritual thirst, as we do about our physical thirst? Or have we got it all the wrong way around?

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6. THE SIXTH WORD:
“It is finished” (John 19:30)

a). The Issue of Unfinished Work
One of the great satisfactions in life, I believe, is to be able to finish a task, put it aside, and know that that it was a job well done. And the reason I say that, is because it can often seem that there are half a dozen jobs on the go at any one time. And there is always something holding each of them up. And that can be very frustrating. It can also often seem that the only solution to getting things completed is to make compromises and cut corners. With the end result being far less than satisfactory.

b). The Example of Jesus
Consequently, what is interesting in the story of Jesus, is that despite the fact that people had opposed him, people had turned against him, and despite all that he’d been through, Jesus was still able to make that wonderful statement “It is finished.” There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes through in those three words. Jesus hadn’t been diverted from his task. He’d seen it through to the end, and it was a job well done.

Of course the question we should ask is: What was finished? Was it just his suffering? Or was it the whole reason for him being sent here in the first place. The whole package: birth, ministry, death, and the whole reason rolled into one.

Well, I think the answer is obvious. Jesus had done what the Father had asked him to do. He hadn’t compromised, or deviated from God’s plan one iota. He’d come to earth to be born as a baby, and he’d seen his task through to the end. And in all that time, he hadn’t been distracted from his task.

He had even endured the crucifixion too. All the things that God had asked him to do, he’d completed. And consequently he could feel satisfied with the completion of the whole task that he had been called on to perform.

c). The Problem of Unfinished Work
Now we might sometimes look with envy upon that kind of completion. Particularly when we consider the normal every day jobs that we do. With some of them seeming to get held up, and others needing compromise to get them completed.

However, there is one task that we have been given by God too. And that job is for all believers to tell others through words and deeds about the love of God and about God’s rescue plan.

Now this is a job that lasts a lifetime, and it will never be completed whilst we have breath. However we need to make sure that it’s a task that doesn’t get held up. And we need to make sure that it’s a task where we don’t cut any corners either. In other words, we need to put the same life and soul into the task that Jesus did. And we are not to get distracted, or change the task to suit our own purposes either.

d). The Challenge of Unfinished Work
Jesus, on the cross, was able quite confidently to make the statement “It is finished”, knowing that he hadn’t rounded any corners, and that he hadn’t adapted the gospel to suit himself. He’d completed faithfully the task that God had set.

So, the next question for us, this morning, is: Where are we with the task that God has given us? And are we confident that when it comes our time to face our maker, we too will be able to say with confidence “it is finished”?

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7. THE SEVENTH WORD:
“Father, I place my spirit into your hands” (Luke 23:46)

a). The Issue of Trust
Now, trust is one of those things that may be very difficult to do these days. There are people who are unreliable. There are people who simply say things that they think we want to hear. There are people who will say anything to get what they want. And, there are people who don’t do things the way that we would like. Consequently, there is a temptation to be as self-sufficient as one can possibly be, so we don’t have to rely on others.

Unfortunately for people who like to be self-reliant there are elements of life in which we are all dependent upon others. After all, we can’t all grow all our own food, build houses, provide medical care, etc. etc. without relying on someone else.

b). The Example of Jesus
Now Jesus’ last words reflect the fact that even he (the Son of God) could not be totally self-sufficient. Hanging on the cross Jesus was helpless, not only in what he could physically do, but in terms of his reliance on God for the next step in life. Yet despite that, Jesus’ words are full of confidence.

He knew above all else that the one person he could still trust in, even at his darkest hour, was his Father and his God. Yes the public had deserted him. Yes the religious leaders had finally got their way. And yes even his disciples had deserted him. But despite that he could still have total confidence in God the Father.

c). The Problem of Trust
And yet, how many people today have trouble trusting in God for anything?

Some people think if they work hard, or are reasonably good in life, or help others, then they can earn their place in heaven. And yet quite clearly that wasn’t what happened on the cross. Because Jesus’ words weren’t words of “I deserve eternal life,” but rather “I depend on you Father God, even for eternal life.” Some people may think that they can buy a place in heaven by giving money to charity, or by giving money or time to the church itself, and yet that wasn’t what happened on the cross either.

What happened on the cross was that even Jesus the Son of God needed to entrust his whole future into the hands of God. And indeed nothing that he had done, or could do, could possibly change his dependence upon God.

And the same is true for us today, too. If we have faith, then faith means the need for a total trust in God for our eternal welfare. Not “some” trust, with us doing a few extra on the side, as a bit of insurance added on. But total trust, which then should be reflected in the way we live.

d). The Challenge of Trust
Jesus on the cross, at the moment of his death, had to trust in God totally, for what would happen to him after his final breath.

So, the seventh question, today, is: Do we have that kind of trust? Because insurance policies, like good works, are never going to be enough.

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8. CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Today we’ve looked at the crucifixion of Jesus in terms of his seven last words. And each of them should remind us of something about what it means to live the Christian faith

a). “Father, Forgive Them, For They Don’t Know What They Are Doing”
Forgiveness was something that Jesus, even on the cross, was able to give to his detractors. And it is something that we need, and something we need to show too. We need God’s forgiveness. And the appropriate response to receiving God’s greater forgiveness, is that we should be prepared to forgive others too.

b). “Truly I Tell You, Today You Will Be With Me In Paradise”
Being prepared for the afterlife was something that neither thief had taken into account in their lives. But it is something that we need to face up to. Reconciliation with God needs to be at the forefront of everything that we do.

c). “Woman, Behold, Your Son.” “Behold, Your Mother.”
Jesus taught that when people become Christians they become members of a new family. And a family that has the responsibility to care for one another. Meeting and encouraging, and caring for our fellow believers then is an essential part of any believer’s life.

d). “My God, My God, Why Have You Abandoned Me?”
The abandonment of Jesus by God, demonstrates the seriousness of sin. God has to deal with it, and has given anyone who will believe the ability to have their slates wiped clean. Consequently, we need to decide whether to allow Jesus to remove our burden. Or whether we want to face God alone.

e). “I Am Thirsty”
Jesus was physically thirsty, but his spiritual thirst was quenched. But then during his lifetime he had pursued a lifestyle of obedience and communication with his Father. Now, we may be good at getting a drink when we are physically thirsty. But can we say the same regard to our spiritual thirst for God?

f). “It Is Finished”
Jesus on the cross could quite happily confirm that he had completed the task that his Father had set. And that he was proud of the job that he had done. He hadn’t rounded any corners, changed the message, or done anything to compromise his mission. Now it’s our task to do the same thing.

g). “Father, I Place My Spirit Into Your Hands”
Even Jesus had to trust his Father for what lay ahead of him after the cross. He knew that what was to happen next was totally out of even his control. He had to trust in his father. And like it or not, we need to have the same trust too.

The seven last words of Jesus are a challenge to believers and non-believers alike. Because in those seven words are some very important principles and lessons. Indeed, ones we would do well to apply to our own lives today.

Posted: 4th April 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

SERMON: The Face of the Enemy (Holy Week)

A. INTRODUCTION

1. Our Enemies
Who here has enemies? Who here has ever had enemies?

You know it seems in life, that at some time or another we have all had enemies. We may have had enemies at school, at work, in our families, or at any number of other situations. It may have been someone who didn’t like something we had said or done. Or it could have been someone who just didn’t like us or what we stood for.

Nevertheless the reality is that at some time we probably have all had enemies. But have we always known what they look like? And have we always come face-to-face with them?

2. Jesus’s Enemies
Now someone who had plenty of enemies was Jesus. And if we follow his story, some of them are very obvious. But the one thing he doesn’t do is hide away from them. On the contrary, he faced up to them on a number of occasions. And no more so than in his last few days of his life on earth.

Because as we approach this week before Easter, and as we recall Jesus’s return to the city of Jerusalem, one last time, we are faced with the part of the story of Jesus, as he faces up to his enemies in a very intense way.

3. Holy Week
Let’s review the week at hand . . . And to do so we need to merge the four Gospels together, to get a complete list of the events in Jesus’s last days of life. And this is what we find . . .

B. THE EVENTS OF HOLY WEEK

1. Friday or Saturday
Starting on the Friday or Saturday, six days before the Passover, we find Jesus and his disciples arriving at Bethany—at the house of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Now Jesus had been on the road for a while, headed to Jerusalem, knowing full well what was ahead. But here they are, Jesus and the disciples, only 3 kilometres from the city, setting up a home base—so they could go into Jerusalem during the day, and return to Bethany at night.

All innocent enough, except we’re told that the chief priest and Pharisees were expecting Jesus, and even then were looking for an opportunity to arrest him.

2. Sunday
Come Sunday, then, we see Jesus at Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, on his way to Jerusalem, preparing a grand entrance into the city. A huge crowd turns up and cheers Jesus on—which is good. But we’re told the Pharisees are there too—but just a little too afraid of the crowd to arrest him. We then see Jesus riding into the city on a donkey.

3. Monday
The next day, Monday, Jesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem, and on the way Jesus inexplicably curses a fig tree. He then goes into the Temple, where for a second time Jesus challenges those profiteering from people wanting to make sacrifices to God. So he overturns the tables—further exasperating the chief priests and the teachers of the law, let alone the owners of the tables.

Some Greeks come to Philip requesting to see Jesus. Then Jesus talks to the crowd about what it means to be the Messiah. He gets a mixed response, even from those who had witnessed his past miracles—suggesting that some of the crowd were already beginning to move away. And some of the leaders believe, but are too frightened of the Pharisees to express their faith.

4. Tuesday
Come Tuesday, and Jesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem. On the way they see the fig tree—now withered from the roots. And it is now that the disciples find out why Jesus cursed it. It is a teaching tool—to teach his disciples about the need to remain fruitful, to be constantly active in the faith. A commentary, if you like, against the religious leaders. They then continue on to the Temple.

But this time the chief priests and the teachers of the law challenge Jesus face-to-face. They try to trick him, so that he would lose popular support. In response Jesus challenges them about their own beliefs and behaviour. And he prophesies that their authority will be taken from them. Which, of course, then leads to more challenges and trick questions from the Pharisees, the Herodian’s and the Sadducees—each trying to undermine Jesus’s authority in the eyes of the crowd.

5. Wednesday
And this intensity of attack and response probably then continues in and around the Temple on the Wednesday too. But whether it does or not, each time the authorities ask him questions, Jesus comes up with some challenges of his own—mostly about their authority which Jesus claims is self-imposed. And he challenges them about how they have become stumbling blocks to normal everyday people, having a relationship with God.

Later we find Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. Then in a rare moment of quiet he watches as a poor widow puts two small copper coins into the Temple treasury.

Then on the way back to Bethany, they stop at the Mount of Olives. And there at the Mount Jesus has some time alone with his disciples. He talks about his death, his second coming, and the destruction of Jerusalem.

Whilst they are there, we learn that the chief priests and elders are now in earnest to get rid of Jesus. But they have to get their timing right. They need to totally discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people, and they have to avoid his arrest and death clashing with the celebration of Passover.

Jesus and the disciples, then move off back to Bethany, where Mary anoints Jesus’s body for burial. And in apparent disgust at the waste of money, Judas Iscariot goes off to the chief priests to help them in their plot.

6. Thursday
Thursday arrives, and Jesus gives instructions on where he wants to eat the Passover —at a certain man’s house in Jerusalem. Now there are no indications that on Thursday he went to Temple at all, and it is likely that Jesus may have remained in Bethany, using the time preparing for what lay ahead.

However come the evening Jesus and the disciples recline around the table; he washes the disciples’ feet: they start the meal; Judas leaves the room to prepare for his part of the betrayal; Jesus predicts Peter’s denial; and they conclude the meal—which includes the institution of the Last Supper. Jesus then spends a long time teaching the disciples, and praying, before going to the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.

There Jesus prays some more, the disciples go to asleep, and Judas returns with a crowd—which includes people armed with swords and clubs, a detachment of soldiers, and officials from the chief priests and Pharisees.

C. THE ENEMIES OF JESUS

Now the rest of the story I hope is familiar to you all. I certainly don’t intend to talk about it today. Because we all should know that Jesus returned to Jerusalem so that he could be arrested and crucified, so that he could save the world of their sins.

But what we can so easily gloss over, in his final days on earth, was his need to come face-to-face with his enemies—and his need to confront the enemies of God. And in such an intense way too.

So who were Jesus’s enemies, and why did they show such an intense hatred of him?

Well firstly there were the chief priests, the teachers of the law—the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. And their claim to fame was that they were supposed to be steeped in the teaching of the Old Testament, and could be trusted to portray God’s word. Unfortunately they were far more interested in the positions they held in society, and they enjoyed all the extra bits and man-made traditions they had added to God’s word. As a consequence they were advocates of the status quo. And they didn’t care that they were stumbling blocks to others having faith in God.

Jesus’s lifestyle and teaching challenged their position. Jesus showed them up to be the phoneys that they were. He threatened their position in society—and so he had to go.

Secondly, there were the Herodians—a Jewish party who favoured the Herodian dynasty to the Roman occupation. They were probably very disappointed in a Messiah that had not come to dispose of the Roman invaders. And at the time they sided with the Pharisees.

Thirdly, there’s Judas Iscariot, one of the 12 disciples, who for some reason decided either that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that he wanted him to be, or that Jesus needed to be forced to act in a different way.

Fourthly, there was the crowd, some of whom who had been very vocal in supporting Jesus on the Sunday, as he rode into the city on a donkey. But who even on the Tuesday at the Temple, had started to melt away.

And if we were to include the events on the Thursday night, when Jesus was arrested, we would probably include the rest of the disciples as well, who by that stage had abandoned Jesus too. Indeed the words of Jesus “Whoever is not with me, is against me” (Matthew 12:30) may well have come back to haunt them.

Now there’s a common theme amongst Jesus’ enemies: The religious leaders were part of the religious establishment. And Judas Iscariot, the rest of the disciples, the crowd, and even the Herodians would have been looking for the Messiah, and been steeped in the knowledge of Jewish faith.

Jesus’s enemies were not people outside of the Jewish faith, but people who claimed to be within. The faces of Jesus’s enemy were not complete strangers to the beliefs of the Jewish people, but rather were people who more naturally attended the Temple and the synagogues, or at least had a nodding acquaintance with the faith.

His enemies were people who should have given him support; they should have been able to be relied upon. But in the end they didn’t. The religious leaders saw him as a threat to the things that they loved. And so he had to go.

D. APPLICATION

Enemies! We all have them. But I’m not sure that any of us would want to face the number or intensity of the enemies that Jesus faced in his last week on earth.

But what does all this mean for us? Well it seems to me that there are two distinct lessons we can learn from Jesus’s story.

1. Identifying our Enemies
And the first is the need to identify who our real enemies are. Now in saying that, I think we need to take who our enemies really are seriously. Jesus’s enemies were not people he had made a table for, which had wobbly legs. No they were people who claimed to be on God’s side; they were people within the faith, but whose hearts were elsewhere. They were people who liked to be leaders, who behaved in such ways that they were stumbling blocks to others. And they were people who claimed to uphold God’s laws, but who were in love with the man-made rules with which they had replaced them.

And don’t we get in a tangle these days between faith, and the add-on’s that people love?

After all, does it really matter which candle is lit first? Does it matter if we have candles at all? Does it matter if the pews face a particular way, or even the style of the building in which we worship? Does it matter if the leaders wear robes? Does it even matter if we use a book for worship at all?

Now finding something that is helpful is fine, but when that “helpful” becomes a “must do”—that is when the gospel is changed, That is when we’ve lost the plot, and that is when we’ve become no different to the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’s time.

Jesus’s enemies today remain those who begin with the gospel and add to it. Now what is added may seem quite innocuous—at least at first. But there is a tendency for these little things to be added to, and added to, until you get to the point where the gospel is unrecognisable. The moment something changes from something that is “helpful” to something that is a “must do” the gospel has been changed. And those who insist that the new tradition be upheld—the new Pharisees—effectively become the face of the enemy.

So who are our enemies? They are the same enemies that Jesus faced in his final week on earth. They are people who claim to be believers, but have added to the faith. They are the leaders, who by their behaviour place obstacles in the way of others. And they are people who claim to have faith, but then wander away.

2. Equipping ourselves to Face the Enemy
The second thing we can learn from the story, then, is the need to equip ourselves for a time when we may need to face or confront our enemies too. And how we can do this, is to look at the example of Jesus.

Because throughout Jesus’s life he did many things. He prayed; he participated in the life of the Temple and the various synagogues he visited on his journeys; he familiarised himself with the bible; he surrounded himself with supporters; and he practiced sharing his faith with those he met on his journeys.

Prayer, teaching, mixing with others, supporting and getting support from one another. Does that sound familiar? Well it should do, because that’s the whole point of God’s church.

And the trap is, if we fail to do those things, if we fail to prepare ourselves against our enemies, then we will be the ones responsible for letting God’s enemies in, because we won’t really know who they are. And we will be the ones standing idly by—letting things drift—when we should be standing up and being counted.

E. CONCLUSION

So do you have enemies? Have you ever had enemies? Well my hope is that if you said no to those questions at the start, that maybe by now you will have changed your mind. Because if Jesus had enemies, and had to face his enemies in his last week of life, then if we are followers of Jesus, then we will have enemies too. Indeed the same kind of enemies.

So, two questions:

Question one—do we know who our enemies really are? Do we recognise the same problems in the church today, as what Jesus faced in his last week on earth?

And question two—are we preparing ourselves for a confrontation? Because, like Jesus, one of the things we need to do is to be prepared to fight and confront our enemies too.

Posted: 19h March 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

DEVOTION: Enemies (Holy Week)

One of the things that many people like about Easter is the opportunity to meet up with family and friends. And that can be a good thing—it’s important to keep in touch. But as I’ve been thinking about Easter this year, my focus has not been so much on friendship, but rather the reverse.

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
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

SERMON: Heroes of the Bible - John the Baptist

A. INTRODUCTION

Every now again someone special comes along, and grabs our attention. It might be someone with a bright personality. It might be someone whose character is a little bit quirky. It might be someone who is particularly good at sport. It might be someone with good leadership skills. It might be someone that has been motivated by a particular issue, and has decided that they need to make a stand. Or it might be someone who has worked tirelessly for the community for many years, without fuss, who doesn’t want to be the limelight, and would prefer to simply carry on doing what they enjoy and do best – helping others. But whoever that person may be, whatever the attraction, it’s someone who comes across as genuine, and just that little bit special.

Now, of course, some we might class as heroes. Others… well they might not have reached hero status, but they are people we can look up to and admire. Some may have received public recognition, whether through a pat on the back, a certificate of appreciation or even a nomination for the citizen of the year award, or other such honour. And some… well, we may just wish that they had.

Now as I sat and thought about these kind of people, I couldn’t help think, “just who are my heroes?” Is there any one I could think of that I could really say that I admire?

And I came up with someone. Someone who was not involved in Australian history. He wasn’t even born in the last 500 years. But he is someone for whom I have the utmost respect. Because his courage to stand up for what he believed in, in the face of adversity, I believe, is something to be admired. And he is of course, a character from the bible.

B. JOHN THE BAPTIST

1. Who Am I?
Now the person I thought of had his life mapped out before him before he was even born. He was born a little over 2000 years ago. And his birth was a miracle in itself. He was surrounded by disciples in later life, and some continued on well after his death. And he was put to death when he was probably little more than 30 years old.

He spoke out against corruption in the world. He got up the noses of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and even a king. And he called people to repent of their old ways, and return to a relationship with God.

Worked out who it is yet? Because I’m not talking about Jesus. I’m talking about John the Baptist.

2. John’s Birth Foretold (Luke 1:5-25)
Now John’s story began, as I’ve indicated, before his birth. His parents Zechariah and Elizabeth were both of the priestly line, and they were godly people. However, they were getting on in years, and had not been blessed with any children. Indeed, in one sense they had given up on the idea.

The stigma on them, at the time, for not having any children, would have been tremendous. Not having any children was seen as a sign of divine displeasure, and a public disgrace. And it may have been because of that stigma that Zechariah was motivated to pray earnestly to God for a child.

Can you imagine his shock, then, when an angel appeared to him, whilst he was at work serving in the temple, and declaring that his prayers were about to be answered. That Elizabeth would have the son that they had desperately desired.

Now Zechariah might have thought at that point that everything was done. Mission accomplished. But, as it happens, that was not the end of the story. Because the angel then proceeded to map out John’s future. Zechariah was told what his son’s name was to be. He was told the kind of upbringing to provide, including special dietary requirements. And the angel even told him what John’s task was to do (and remember John hadn’t even been conceived at this point).

John’s task was to prepare the people for the Messiah. He was to function like an Old Testament preacher – calling the people to repentance, in the same way that Elijah had. And he was to be filled with Holy Spirit (like Elijah) to carry out the task.

John was going to be someone very special. Very special indeed. And sure enough after the angel’s visit, a miracle occurred: Elizabeth became pregnant.

3. Mary Visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45)
Now we are not told much about John’s upbringing – what he was like, the sort of things that he did, or even how his parents actually brought him up. However, we do have two cameos which give us insights into the background of his early childhood.

And the first, was before he was even born. Because when Elizabeth was visited by one of her relatives – the young Mary (who at the time herself was carrying the baby Jesus), we’re told that as soon as the unborn John heard Mary’s voice, John leapt for joy in the womb. The unborn John recognised just how important Jesus was, and the role that Mary had to play.

4. Birth of John (Luke 1:57-66)
And the second was, seven days after John was born, at the ceremony of circumcision, when there were all sorts of pressures on Zechariah and Elizabeth by neighbours and relatives to name the baby after his father, Zechariah and Elizabeth stuck to their guns, and insisted on calling him John.

This was indeed an indication of the joy that Zechariah and Elizabeth had of the birth of their son, and their determination to bring him up according to the instructions that they had been given.

5. John’s Ministry (Mt 3:1-12)
And every indication is that they did a good job. Because the next time we see John, he is fully grown, about 30 years of age, and is preaching in the wilderness in Judea. And looking every bit the part that was mapped out for him.

He was doing his odd quirky things – wearing clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt. And his diet? Locusts and wild honey. Perhaps all intended to be a visual protest against self-indulgence.

And the role that he was playing? Well he was doing exactly the task he had been called to do. Being an Old Testament style preacher, calling people to repentance, and preparing the people for the coming Messiah.

And using his upbringing, with his father working in the temple, he called on the people to repent of their old ways, and to be baptised. He called the Pharisees and the Sadducees to account. And as we find out later in his story, he also upset at a king in the process.

6. The Baptism of Jesus (Mt 3:13-17)
And when the Messiah approached him… when Jesus came up to him as he ministered to the people in the wilderness…. Well, for the second time he recognised him straight away. And even though he knew that Jesus was the one person who did not need to be baptised. On Jesus’ insistence he baptised him anyway.

And what a baptism it was – as evidenced by the divine signs: the Spirit of God descended like a dove on Jesus, and God’s voice calling out from heaven expressing his pleasure at his son.

7. Arrest (Matthew 4:12, 14:3-5)
Of course, shortly after that, John was arrested and thrown into prison. He’d upset just one too many people. He’d upset King Herod, by telling him that it wasn’t kosher to be living with his brother’s wife. Well, not whilst his brother was still alive, anyway.

8. A Moment of Doubt (Matthew 11:1-6)
And as he languished in prison, he had what most of us have from time to time – a moment of doubt. Was Jesus really the Messiah?

You see like others, Jesus had not turned out to be the kind of Messiah that he had expected. His disappointment was natural. And I guess being locked up for several months, his doubt lay heavily on his mind. But he had his disciples, and he wanted reassurance. So he sent some to Jesus to check. And what he got back was not just reassurance of who Jesus was, but confirmation by Jesus of his own role in the salvation of the world.

9. Execution (Mt 14:6-12)
Now whilst John was reassured, he was never released from that prison. He was executed by King Herod on the prompting of Salome and Herodias, and his head was delivered on a platter.

10. Summary
What an amazing man. John – a man who had had his future mapped out for him, even before he was born. A man who was faithful to his calling. He was a man of courage who spoke out against the abuses of power. But he was a man too with an active concern for the spiritual welfare of his people. For sure he had a moment of doubt – but that only shows that he was human. Despite that John was truly an amazing man.

11. Compared To Elijah (Mt 11:7-18)
And indeed, Jesus agreed. Because Jesus compared him to the prophet Elijah. John was a messenger, and not just any messenger, but one who was to prepare the way for the Messiah. And in a culture steeped in expectation that Elijah would come again for that very purpose, Jesus indicated that indeed John was that man. And he fulfilled his role, even down to the dietary requirements. Exactly as God had planned.

C. APPLICATION

John, an amazing man? Yes! A hero? Well in a sense, yes! But one of a kind? No! And do you know why I say no? Because I believe, in many ways, the story of John the Baptist, is the story of everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. And I’d like to pick out five things about John that can be equally applied to anyone who is a Christian.

And the first relates to God’s knowledge of us before we were born: Because just as God knew John right from the start, so too did he know all of us. Indeed we can read in Psalm 139 how God searches us and knows us; he even knows how we think (Psalm 139:1-2). But more than that, he created us in our mother’s wombs as well (Psalm 139:13-14).

The second relates to us being chosen by God. Because just as John who was chosen to serve God, so all of Jesus’s disciples have been chosen – us too. Jesus told his disciples (as recorded in John 15, that we did not choose him, but he chose us (John 15:16a). Further, that we do not belong to this world, but have been chosen out of the world…” (John 15:19b).

Thirdly, we haven’t just been chosen, but we’re part of God’s plan. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus telling them that he have not only been chosen, but we have been predestined to take part in God’s plan for the world (Ephesians 1:11).

Fourthly, just as John was filled with the Holy Spirit, so too are all believers. Indeed John, himself, told his converts that whilst he baptised them with water, the one who followed him would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Matthew 3:11)

And fifthly, just as John was called to be an evangelist, so too are we. Jesus said to his disciples. Indeed Jesus charged his disciples to go everywhere in the world, with the purpose of making disciples, baptising them, and teaching them as he had taught them (Matthew 28:19-20a).

So in a sense, what’s the difference between us and John the Baptist? Absolutely nothing. Now doesn’t that make you feel humble? We are no different from one of the great heroes of the Bible – John the Baptist himself.

D. CONCLUSION

Now, we started off thinking of people we admire. Some who are bright, some who are a bit quirky, some who are good at sport, others leadership. And others… well their claim to fame is that they just quietly work away, making no fuss, just getting on with the job.

Now some of these have received recognition, and others… well maybe we wish they had. Some are heroes, and others … well we can’t help but admire them.

John the Baptist was created by God. He was chosen by God. He was part of God’s predetermined plan. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. And he was charged with the role of an evangelist. And that’s exactly the same for all Christians who have ever lived, or are still living today.

Now, we may not all be heroes in other people’s eyes, We may not all be about to receive a reward – whether as a pat on the back, or a recommendation for an honour. But in the end it doesn’t matter. What matter is that we are faithful to God.

For each and every one of us, our roles were set out before we were born. What we have to do, then, is identify the tasks that God has given us to do. And to live our roles no matter where they may lead.

Posted: 25th July 2015
© 2015, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

SERMON: The Problem of Sin

PART 1: OPENING THOUGHT

From time to time we all face difficulties in life. Some of our own making—or to which we have made a contribution—and others apparently totally beyond our control. Sometimes those difficulties may seem to relate to the one big event, and other times it’s just one thing after another. Sometimes there can appear to be a reason for what we are going through, and other times . . . it’s like we don’t deserve it, or it just doesn’t make sense.

Now, what I want to do this morning is to go through the main issue involved—the main cause of our struggles. After all, it helps to know where things are going wrong. And, after that, I want to examine the resource—the help that is available to us all.

And to illustrate what I want to talk about today, I’m going to use some visual illustrations—some water, a few containers, and a bit of food colouring.

PART 2: THE PROBLEM OF SIN

A. INTRODUCTION
Now one of the things I’m going to tell you right from the outset is that it is normal to have troubles in life. It’s not normal to go through life smoothly, with absolutely no hiccups on the way. So one of the things that can give us comfort as we struggle though life, then, is the knowledge that we are not alone. That every single person who has ever lived, lives now, or will live in the future will face difficulties in life.

And even the bible confirms that. Because one of the things about the bible is that it is particularly blunt about people and about their relationship with God. The bible tells it like it is, warts and all. And one of the things it tells us is that no matter who we are, no matter what we do, we will all face struggles in life—Christians and non-Christians alike. It’s part of what life has become. It’s not how God created the world, but it has become part of the world to which we belong.

So, if we all have to face life’s struggles—and none of us are exempt—what is the cause? Well the short answer is: every single one of us. And I’m going to use these things I have in front of me to show you why.

B. THE PROBLEM OF SIN (Deut 31:14-18)
Now one of the things that you often hear are the words “I’ve done nothing wrong” or “I didn’t deserve that” or “Why did God allow that to happen?” So what I’m going to do is to demonstrate how wrong all of those statements are, why we all have struggles, and why we all suffer.

1. No One Is Innocent
[Two beakers with water in them]
Now, I want you to imagine that these containers with water in them are two different people. And I’ll leave it up to you decided if they are good people, bad people or something in between.

[Food colouring]
I also have here some food colouring—and I want you to imagine that the yellow represents the minor things that we do wrong; the blue for when we do major things wrong; and the red for all things in between. And I’m going to show what happens to each of these people every time they do something wrong:

 

a). Container One – A Good Person
Now the first person has been noted for doing three things in the last week that were wrong.

The first thing is that he brought a pencil home from work the other day—but it was a genuine mistake. But rather than take it back he decided to keep it instead. After all he needed a pencil at home.

Now we need to put a dob of colour in the water to represent his mistake. But which one?
[Yellow – a minor thing, blue – a major, red – in-between]The second thing is that the other day this same person became aware of someone who was in need. He had the means to be able to help them, but decided that he wanted to keep what he had for himself. And so he did nothing.
[Yellow – a minor thing, blue – a major, red – in-between]And the third thing is that last Sunday it was a bit cold. And when he woke up he decided it was far too cold to go to church. So he decided to stay in the warm and stay at home.
[Yellow – a minor thing, blue – a major, red – in-between]b). Container Two – A Bad Person
Now this second person has been noted for doing three things in the last week that were wrong too. The first thing is that on Monday he was involved in a bank robbery—a robbery in which he stole a lot of money.
[Yellow – a minor thing, blue – a major, red – in-between]The second thing is that the robbery on Monday was an armed robbery, and someone was killed.
[Yellow – a minor thing, blue – a major, red – in-between]3. And the third thing is that as he was running away from the bank, he was heard to swear. He was heard to take God’s name in vain.
[Yellow – a minor thing, blue – a major, red – in-between]c). Summary
Now the interesting thing is that these two containers are two different colours. And yet both stole what wasn’t theirs, both showed a lack of care for human life, and both didn’t give God his proper due.

Now we may treat different mistakes with different degrees of seriousness, but what we should realise is that we call good, bad or indifferent isn’t necessarily what God calls good, bad or indifferent. After all, remember both stole what wasn’t theirs, both showed a lack of care for human life, and both didn’t give God his proper due.

Of course making a mistake isn’t just a one-off event, it has ongoing consequences. Not least of which is the danger of getting into the habit of making mistakes. But making mistakes have other consequences too. And the worst of these is that each time we make a mistake we effectively put a wedge between ourselves and God. So if we think that we are good or even believe ourselves to be innocent, nothing could be further from the truth.

2. Corporate Sin
But you know that’s only the first part of the story—that only explains the problem from an individual point of view. But the situation is far worse than that, as we are about to find out. Because we don’t just live lives on our own, we also live in a community—in fact we belong to many communities. We have our family group, our group of friends, our colleagues, etc., but we’re also part of groups who live in the same town, the same state, the same country, and the same world.

[Big bowl]
So, as an example, I want you to imagine that this bowl represents the local community in which we live. Now in our community are people—some of whom we might call “good” and some we might call “bad”. And there would be some who would be in-between as well. And what happens is that just as individuals are coloured by the things they do themselves. So is the community coloured by what it does (and doesn’t do) too.

 

So in our community are some apparently “good” people [pour half of the contents of beaker one]. And mixed with them there are some “apparently” bad people [pour half of the contents of beaker two]. And obviously there are some in-between people as well.

Now in this bowl can you tell the good from the bad? No!

But what happens on a community level is interesting too. Because in the last week three things happened regarding the community too:

And the first thing is that the local council received some money to upgrade their roads. However the council realised it was a mistake—that the money actually belonged to another council. But instead of giving the money back, the council decided that they needed the money for their own roads. So they decided to keep quiet about receiving the money in the hope that the mistake wouldn’t be picked up.
[Yellow – a minor thing, blue – a major, red – in-between]The second thing is that within the community it became clear that there were people living in poverty—people who just didn’t have enough to live on. But as a community, were people trying to do something about it? No! People just didn’t want to seem to know. All turned a blind eye to what was going on.
[Yellow – a minor thing, blue – a major, red – in-between]And the third thing is that despite it being a Sunday there was a group of people—sponsored by the local council—who put on all sorts of activities, at a time that would compete with Sunday worship—effectively discouraging people from worshipping God.
[Yellow – a minor thing, blue – a major, red – in-between]Now one of the interesting things is that just as our individuals make three mistakes, so did the community of which we they were apart. The community stole what wasn’t theirs, they showed a lack of care for human life, and they didn’t give God his proper due either. And we are all part of communities just like that.

3. Summary
Now each of those things that required a drop of colour has a name. And it’s a word we don’t seem to like to use much these days—sins. And each of those drops shows us not only that we have done wrong, but it indicates a wedge we have placed between us and God.

And that is a real problem. Because the problem is that in order for us to be acceptable to God we need to be this colour. [show beaker with clean water in it]. But in reality as individuals we are this colour [show half full beakers]. And as members of a community we are this colour [show community bowl].

You can see the problem.

C. CONCLUSION
So let’s get back to the question of why do people suffer? Well it’s principally because of what we do and don’t do as individuals. It is also principally because of what we do and don’t do as members of the various communities to which we belong. And the implications and flow on effects of what we do and don’t do have far reaching consequences.

So who is innocent? No-one! No-one meets God’s standards. So when you hear someone say “I’ve done nothing wrong” you should know that just isn’t true. And when you hear someone say “why do the innocent suffer, when bad people seem to be exempt?” Well you should know that that isn’t true either. Because no-one is innocent.

Furthermore, the distinctions we make between good and bad are not the distinctions that God makes. After all, in all three scenarios each person and the community to which they belonged broke the same principles that God has set. It’s only us human beings who have come up with a system of differentiating between sins—between sins that are more acceptable and sins which are not.

So we have a dilemma—a dilemma that needs a solution. But fortunately there is an answer to our dilemma.

PART 3: HELP IS AT HAND

A. INTRODUCTION
Of course the reality of the struggles of life is that we need help. It’s not something we can resolve on our own. We need someone to rescue us—someone who can deal with the situation, someone who can restore our relationship with God. And fortunately that’s exactly what we have.

Because throughout the bible God promised his people, that he wanted to be with them in the difficulties of life, as well as in the good times. And underlying that was God’s promise of a permanent solution to the problem of sin. And it’s a very simple solution, which can be very easily demonstrated using our containers, water and food colouring.

B. THE SOLUTION TO SIN
Because if this is you and me [show counter with half coloured water], and somehow our contaminated water could be substituted for clean [show beaker with clean water], then the consequences of sin can be solved.

And you know that’s exactly what God’s solution is. Because God’s solution to sin is about God substituting the things we’ve done wrong, by effectively making us totally innocent all over again. However, for this solution to work it required a person who had done nothing wrong to take on our mistakes, with all the consequences that entailed.

And that person was Jesus [show beaker with clean water]. And what Jesus did was to take on all the muck and gunk which is ours [show beaker with coloured water], and substitute his life for ours [switch containers]. God, then, dealt with all our sin, by sacrificing his son, Jesus, on our behalf.

C. OUR CHOICES (Matthew 6:25-34)
1. Free Will
Now it has to be said that just because God provided a solution to the problem of “sin”, doesn’t mean to say that everyone has accepted it—or will accept it. It’s not automatic. Consequently even if we accept God’s solution, we will still have to live in the “murky mess”, because of others who don’t want to get clean.

And although we might like God to interfere—to automatically put things right—he can’t do that. He created us with a free will—a will to choose for him, and a will to choose against him—and we wouldn’t be human beings without that.

Consequently just because he has provided a solution to “sin”, he can’t impose that solution on anyone—he can’t take away our freewill. Because to do so, we would cease to be human, and become mere puppets. So God’s solution is not automatic—but is a matter of choice.

2. Two Alternative Choices (Matthew 6:25-34)
And what are the choices?

Well we can carry on as we are—be as “bad” as we like, or as “good” as we like—and leave God’s solution out of the equation. And it’s business as usual. We will then continue to sin, and continue to suffer. And that will have repercussions for us in this world, and in the afterlife too.

Alternatively, we can accept God’s solution, and have our sins forgiven (even the ones we haven’t done yet). Now this won’t exempt us from the problems of this world. But with God walking beside us and helping us through, life should be much more bearable. And, when the world comes to an end, we will have life in eternity with God.

3. Ongoing Effects
Having said that, however, simply accepting God’s solution doesn’t mean we will stop making mistakes. Indeed we will continue to make mistakes as long as we live. And we will not be exempt from the repercussions of what we have done, or will do, in this life.

So we may be forgiven by God for what we have done, but we may still have to face up to the consequences of our actions in the communities in which we live.

D. CONCLUSION
Now with the two alternatives in mind—carrying on as usual, or accepting God’s solution—the reality is that many (if not most) people still want to hold on to life—as is [show coloured water jars]. Many, if not most, people want to hold on to the world, and are not willing to let go. Very few people choose for God [show clear water beaker].

When life gets tough, then: We should always remember the cause of most if not all of our troubles—sin. We should remember that no one is innocent—that no one can really say “what have I done to deserve this?” We should remember there are repercussions for our actions (and inactions), both as individuals and as being part of a community. And, most importantly, we need to remember that there is a solution. But one that requires us to give up our old ways, and accept God’s solution to our sins.

PART 4: CONCLUDING THOUGHT

From time to time we all face difficulties in life. Sometimes we might think: “I haven’t done anything”, “I’m innocent”, “What have I done to deserve this?” Or even “why has God allowed this to happen?”

The reality is, however, that what we face is invariably the result of our own actions, or the result of the actions of the community to which we belong—and the repercussions may be the result of something that has developed over time.

Now whilst things may seem at times to be very unfair, none of us can genuinely claim to be totally innocent. We all make mistakes—we all sin—and we are all part and parcel of communities that sin too.

The problems and traumas of life, then, are the repercussions of sin, to which none of us are exempt.

However, God has provided a solution—a way to deal with the cause of the problem. His solution is to take away our sin, and treat us as though we have never sinned.

[show beaker with coloured water]
[show beaker with clean water]
[switch containers]It is a way that he can walk with us in the troubles of this life, whilst we wait, and are guaranteed, a trouble free existence in the next. However, it’s a solution that is not automatic. And it is one which we are free to decline.

So we can accept God’s solution or we can reject it. The decision is up to us.

PROPS:
apron, food colouring x 3, 3 jars, 1 bowl, water, card table, tea towel

Posted: 16th February 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

SERMON: Introduction to the Old Testament

A. INTRODUCTION

I have found that people often have difficulty reading the Old Testament. It’s either too disjointed, or too hard to understand. It raises concepts that are foreign to our culture, and issues which in modern thinking seem to be totally disagreeable. As a consequence the Old Testament often gets neglected, or relegated to being irrelevant.

The problem is, though, if you dispense with the Old Testament then you totally undermine the New, because the New Testament relies heavily on the concepts that were the basis of Old Testament faith.

What I’d like to do today, then, is to raise some of the difficulties—some of the issues and practices of the Old Testament that many people find difficult or unpalatable today—and I want to examine briefly the principles behind each.

B. FAMILY TREES

1. The Purpose of Genealogies
And the first stumbling block to reading the Old Testament, that many people face, is the constant lists of names which seem to interrupt the flow of the narrative.

Now in Hebrew times remembering one’s family tree was a very important thing to do—it has also become a very popular pastime today. Consequently what we find scattered throughout the Bible’s pages are lists of names. But why are they there for us to read?

Well in the bible the list of names are not just recorded because someone wanted to record their family tree. No, they have quite another purpose. And the purpose is: as a means to trigger off memories of events involving God and his people.

So, for example, as the family met around the dinner table, or the camp fire, they would recall their family genealogy. They would retell their family history in terms of its faithfulness (or unfaithfulness) to God. And in this way they passed down from generation to generation the story of their family’s or their nation’s relationship with God.

2. Skeletons in the Cupboard
Now accepting the purpose of biblical genealogies is one thing. The problem, today, though is that these genealogies throw up aspects of Hebrew culture with which some may not be totally comfortable.

a). Abram and Sarai
For example, we’re told that Abram’s father had three sons: Abram, Nahor and Haran. He also had at least one daughter, Sarai. Now we don’t know who the mother of Terah’s three sons was. But what we do know is that Abram and Sarai did not share the same mother.

We also know that Abram married Sarai, who apparently was very beautiful, and on at least two occasions, for his own safety, tried to pass her off as his sister rather than as his wife.

Now marrying your half-sister was quite acceptable in those days. That kind of relationship was only banned during the time of the Exodus from Egypt. However Sarai (or Sarah) was unable to have children. So instead she gave Abram (or Abraham) her Egyptian servant, Hagar, as a concubine, so Sarah could give Abraham children through Hagar.

b). Isaac
Eventually Sarah gave birth to a son—Isaac. But when Isaac was forty, Abraham was concerned that he hadn’t married. But he didn’t want him to marry a local girl, so he sent his servant to his brother Nahor, to get a wife for him. Isaac then married Rebekah (who was effectively Isaac’s second cousin).

c). Jacob
In time Rebekah gave birth to twins—Esau and Jacob. Esau married two local girls—in order to get up his parents’ noses. Then he married Ishmael’s daughter to appease his parents. Jacob however was sent away, and he married two of his cousins (third cousins through Abraham, but first cousins through Rebekah.) He then had twelve sons through his two wives and two concubines.

3. The Point of the Story
Now I may have lost some of you with the relationships. Despite that when you look at the early genealogies of people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the Patriarchs) there’s an obvious pattern. And the pattern is that each successive generation was encouraged to marry within the family. Indeed any marriage relationship outside of the family (excluding concubines) was distinctly frowned upon—as Esau found out to his cost.

Now if anyone came up with a family history like that today, many might think that the relationships within the family were all a bit too close, and that fresh blood was needed in the family. And maybe that kind of genealogy would not be one that many people would want to publish. But we need to remember, that in regards to the Old Testament, this is a story of the relationship of God with his people. And there was one thing above all else that would have been in the mind of Abraham’s family, and that was the need to maintain their relationship with their God. And that is the point behind their selective breeding.

Living in Canaan, amongst the Canaanites with their devotion to their Canaanite gods, was a very risky thing for Abraham and his family to do. At the time household gods were a very important aspect of many peoples’ lives. As a consequence, Abraham’s family were very keen to avoid contaminating their faith in God; they were keen to keep out other deities from their way of life.

Yes, these were the days when large families, and many sons, were a sign of wealth. And these were the days when servants willingly became concubines—because it provided security, and because their sons were treated as equals with the other male heirs in the family. But as far as Abraham and his line were concerned, the need for their sons to marry into a family where their God held centre stage was paramount. As a consequence they were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the faith pure.

C. GOD’S LAWS

1. God’s Instructions
Now many people who try to read the Old Testament often begin with Genesis chapter one verse one, skip over the genealogies, struggle with the relationships, get two-thirds of the way through the book of Exodus, and then come to a grinding halt. Because the next stumbling block to reading the Old Testament is the laws. And after the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, there are: lists and lists of laws which the people were expected to keep; there are specific rules about the building of a Tabernacle; there are regulations in regards to Sabbath laws and the annual festivals to be kept; and there are strict ordinances regarding various sacrifices required to be made.

Now, yes, there are short passages of narrative mixed up with all those details, but it is God’s laws and commands that dominate the remainder of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—many of which just don’t seem relevant or make sense today. In other words they act as a huge barrier for the modern reader from progressing through the Old Testament. As a consequence they block a good understanding of the Old Testament, on which the New Testament depends.

Now I’m not going to go through all the different things that are mentioned. But I do want to mention some typical examples, and try to make some sense of why they are there.

2. Some Typical Rules
a). The Need to Keep Species Pure
There’s the rule: “You are not to plant a vineyard with two different kinds of seed. For you would defile the seed crops that you planted and the fruit of the vineyard. You are not to plough with an ox and donkey yoked together. You are not to wear clothing woven from different kinds of material (e.g., wool and linen woven together).” (Deuteronomy 22:9-11)

Now as we’ve just discovered, through looking at Abraham’s family tree, Abraham’s family went to extraordinary lengths to keep the faith pure. So there are religious reasons behind the need to keep each species pure too. These rules serve as enacted reminders of the need to keep the faith pure.

So just as unnatural combinations violate the purity of a species—whether seeds for sowing, beasts for ploughing or fibres for weaving cloth—the practice of keeping things separate in one’s day to day life, was a constant reminder of the danger of what would happen if one’s faith in God was contaminated from other sources.

b). The Need to Avoid Magic Rituals
Similarly, the rule “You are not to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19b), stands as a reminder to be unique.

Now there has been many an expert puzzle over the purpose of this particular rule, particularly as there seems to be no practical purpose behind it. However, the fact is that the Canaanites practised cooking young goats in their mother’s milk as a magic spell—probably as part of their fertility rites. As a consequence, the prohibition of this practice—as well as the prohibition from eating donkey and pork, which the Canaanites used for similar purposes—begins to make sense.

c). Health Considerations
Now no doubt there were also health considerations in these rules that I’ve mentioned. For example the need to wear appropriate clothing whilst travelling in a desert, which can be extremely hot and extremely cold, should have dictated the kind of materials that were worn. And keeping pigs (which are prone to disease in hot climates) just doesn’t make sense. But by far the most important aspect of all of these laws was the need to keep the faith pure. God’s laws were unique to the Israelites. No other nation practiced such a devotion to keep things pure.

d). The Sacrificial Rules
And as a consequence the sacrificial rules met the same criteria too. Yes, all the surrounding nations made sacrifices to their gods, but the rules that God gave the Israelites to practice were unique to them.

Consequently whilst others included using yeast and honey in their sacrifices (honey being the favourite food of the gods in some heathen cults), this wasn’t a practice that was acceptable for the Hebrews. Indeed, “All Grain Offerings presented to the LORD are to be made without yeast. No yeast or honey is to be burnt as an offering made by fire to the LORD.” (Leviticus 2:11)

And why? Because there was the danger that if the people started to incorporate anything related to other religious practices in their worship, then it wouldn’t be long before more and more elements of those other religions would begin to be incorporated in the worship of the Hebrew God too.

3. Conclusion
Now without the covenant (the laws of God) of the Old Testament, and without the sacrificial system, we would have no Messiah. Indeed the death and resurrection of Jesus would be meaningless, and we would have no reconciliation with God.

The Old Testament covenant and sacrificial system, then, are vital to a New Testament faith. Is it any wonder then that the Old Testament is so strong on keeping the faith pure?

D. THE CONQUEST OF CANAAN

1. The Book of Joshua
Now I’m going to end our short journey in the book of Joshua. And I do that because having skipped through the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, that is where we find ourselves. In the book of Joshua the narrative beings again with a vengeance. It is also where many of those who have stuck with the story so far, finally give up.

Why? Because Joshua is about the conquest of Canaan; it’s about God’s people fulfilling the demands of God.

2. The Command to Kill
Because this is what God instructed his people to do: “As for the cities that belong to the nations that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you are not to leave anything that breathes alive. Indeed the LORD has commanded you to utterly destroy the cities of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)

Now these days some people look back at the Old Testament—look at all the bloodshed—even liken it to what’s going on in the name of Islam today, and say, “I don’t want anything to do with a God like that.” Some people even try to make a distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. The problem is, if we dismiss the God of the Old Testament, we effectively dismiss the God of the New Testament too. The two are the same. So rather than dismiss the wars and the killing, it’s perhaps better to understand what was going on. And the first thing we should note is why God wanted to eliminate the Canaanites.

Moses’ words to the Israelites on the east bank of the Jordan: “You are not going over to inherit the land because of your righteousness or virtue, but because of the wickedness of these nations. The LORD your God will drive them out before you, and in this way fulfil what he promised to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 9:5)

In other words the Canaanites had become so bad, so evil, that God was forced to act. And he was going to use the Israelites to deal with the problem of the Canaanites.

And what was so bad about the Canaanites? Well there’s a specific example buried in the laws that often get ignored: “No one among you is be found practicing the following: divination or sorcery, interpreting omens, witchcraft, casting spells, being a medium or spiritists, or consulting the dead. Anyone who practices these things is detestable to the LORD. It is because the nations engage in these detestable practices that the LORD is going to drive them out before you.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)

The second aspect, however, was the need to keep his own people safe and pure. Because if they didn’t eradicate the Canaanites “. . . they will teach you all the detestable things that they practice in the worship of their gods and you will sin against the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 20:18)

God’s instruction may seem to us to be severe, but if the people had not eliminated the people, and the things that would contaminate their faith, God’s people would have become contaminated too. And if God’s people had become contaminated, it would not have been long before there would be no God’s people at all.

What was at stake was the relationship of God and his people. And God was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to keep that pure.

What happened of course, is that yes, the Israelites did fight—indeed they eliminated many of the Canaanites that were living in the land. However they also made some fundamental mistakes. They ignored God’s instructions; they made a treaty with one of the local Canaanite tribes; and many adopted Canaanite religious practices. As a consequence, they never fully took over the land, and they left themselves open for their faith to become contaminated, by doing the very things that God was at pains to tell them not to do.

E. CONCLUSION

1. Summary of the Old Testament
Now as you can see the Old Testament may not be the easiest book to read. But even the things that interrupt the narrative have their place—if only we can examine the culture and understand the purpose behind it all.

Now I’m not saying that understanding what is going, will necessarily mean that everything will suddenly make sense, or that the Old Testament will suddenly become an easy book to read. But it certainly should help us to make more sense of it, and recognise its value in our own Christian journeys.

The major aspects of the Old Testament all point in the same direction. And that is the need to have faith in God; and the need to go to extreme lengths to keep the faith (and our faith) pure. Then others can depend upon faith in God for their salvation.

2. Today
Now, today, the line between faith, tradition and culture has become very blurred. But it shouldn’t be like that, because we should be as keen today to keep the faith pure, as they were back in Old Testament times.

That’s why we should be pursuing a good understanding of the Old Testament (with all its difficulties). Because without a good understanding of the Old Testament, our understanding of the New Testament is on very shaky grounds indeed.

Posted: 17th April 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

DEVOTION: Jesus Fully Human

There are many puzzles in the Bible for the believer to grapple with—the concept of the Trinity being one. But what about the idea that Jesus was fully human?

And yet we read in the Bible that Jesus being in nature God, made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2:6-7); that he was born (Luke 2:1-7); that he grew up (Luke 2:40); that he had a family (Matthew 12:46); and that as the eldest son he took responsibility for the care of his mother (John 19:27). Furthermore he was tempted (Matthew 4:1-11); rejected (Matthew 13:53-58) and persecuted (Luke 20:20-26). And even on the cross was totally dependent upon God the Father to come to his rescue (Luke 23:46).

Yes, the miracles show that he was special. But even Moses parted the sea (Exodus 14:21-22); Elijah raised the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24); and Elisha fed 100 men with enough bread to a feed only a few people (2 Kings 4:42-44). However, there is one miracle that was distinct, that only the Messiah was expected to do—and that was to heal the blind. It was something anticipated by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 35:5), and one for which Jesus was noted (Matthew 11:1-6).

Of course we can ask, “Why is it so important that Jesus was fully human?” But the answer is, “If he was only pretending to be human, or even half human, his sacrifice would have been for nothing.” The sacrificial system required the sinner to pay for their sins, with something that was costly, with their own lives. But an animal without defect was substituted for the sinner. The sacrificial system looked forward to a time when someone who was fully human would make the perfect sacrifice. And only Jesus, fully human, but in total harmony with the Father, could do that.

Posted: 16th June 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

DEVOTION: Let Us Be Mature in Christ

If anyone should tell me that I am immature, and that I need milk not solid food, I know what my first reaction will be. I will take offence and become very defensive. I might not necessarily say anything, but I will put myself in denial mode and immediately block off any thought of being wrong. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Now what I am describing is probably a natural reaction of us all. Despite that, it’s probably what happens next, that is the most important. That is, do we then continue to deny any possibility of our immaturity, or do we see it as an opportunity to re-evaluate ourselves? After all, none of us can possibly know everything. And no matter how mature we think we are, we can’t always be right. Indeed, from time to time we can all wander from the path, and need someone to put us back on track.

Which is why I appreciate people like the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:2), and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 5:12). Because despite knowing how people were likely to react, they were brave enough to confront their readers’ anyway. But they didn’t do it to show they were superior; they did it because they cared. And what was at stake was their readers’ spiritual well-being.

So, should people call us immature, needing milk and not solid food, particularly in regards to our faith, we have a choice. We may immediately become defensive, and take offence. But what do we do then? Do we continue to be defensive, and not even consider there may be an element of truth in what they say? Or do we use the opportunity provided to reassess the path we are taking, and even, dare I say, change our ways?

Posted: 23rd July 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

SERMON: Christian Faith, Christian Tradition or Inherited Culture?

A. INTRODUCTION

Every now and again it is good to stop and reflect on one’s progress in the Christian faith. It’s also good to take a step back and to check the things that we believe, to make sure that they are actually part of the faith that we believe in, and not something we have adopted from elsewhere.

As a consequence, today, I thought I would raise nine issues – all of which relate to things that many people assume to be a normal part of the Christian faith. And I’m going to give you a few minutes to look at them, and ask you to decide which of three classifications they fit best with.

And the three options are:
1. Is this an issue which is basic to the Christian Faith?
2. Is this an issue which is part of Christian Tradition?
3. Or is this an issue which is neither, but rather part of our Inherited Culture?

B. QUESTIONAIRRE

****************************************************

Christian Faith, Christian Tradition or Inherited Culture?

Questionnaire

For each issue listed below, please indicate whether you think that belief or practice has its origins in either: our Christian Faith: our Christian Tradition; or is part of our Inherited Culture.

(please circle one only)

1. Monogamy
Monogamy (the marriage of one man and one woman) as the basis of the family unit

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

2. Democracy
Democracy (government by the mass of people or by their duly elected representatives) as a system of government

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

3. Discipleship
Discipleship as the basis of the Christian faith

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

4. Holy Communion
The practice of having Holy Communion as part of a church service

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

5. Regular Worship
Regular weekly worship and attendance at all major festivals

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

6. Weddings and Funerals
The conducting of Weddings and Funerals by the Church

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

7. The Baptism of Children
The baptism of children

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

8. Good Works
The belief that doing good deeds is sufficient to earn one’s salvation

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

9. The Beginning of Life
The belief that human life begins at (or before) conception

Christian Faith/Christian Tradition/Inherited Culture

****************************************************

So, nine questions to which you need to decided which is the best option. Is it basic to the Christian Faith? Is it part of Christian Tradition? Or is simply part of our Inherited Culture?

Now you are not going to be asked to share answers. The completed questionnaires are not to be handed in. But please hold on to the pens to mark the correct answers.

Any questions?

[Give a few minutes for people to mark their responses]

C. ISSUES AND ANSWERS

1. Monogamy
Issue: Monogamy (the marriage of one man and one woman) as the basis of the family unit
Answer: Inherited Culture

In the Old Testament it was not unheard of for polygamy – a man marrying more than one woman – to be practiced. Sarah, for example, gave Abraham her servant Hagar as a means for them to have children (Genesis 16:1-2a), and in one passage Hagar is actually called Abraham’s wife. Jacob married two sisters, Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29:14b-30). Although it must be said he only intended to marry Rachel.

Whilst it may have been more normal for poorer people to have only one wife, King David had eight wives of whom we know their names, plus several other wives and concubines. And King Solomon had at least 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).

By New Testament times it had become normal for monogamy to be practiced. However even then polygamy was not unheard of or forbidden. For example, Paul himself alludes to polygamy in his comments to Timothy about Christian Leadership. Paul had a personal preference for all leaders in the church to be single. However in his first letter to Timothy he suggested a compromise – that at the very most leaders must be the husband of only one wife. (1 Tim 3:12a).

Now today around the world monogamy has become the generally accepted norm. However there are places where Christians practice polygamy, in terms of one husband with several wives – or one wife with several husbands.

2. Democracy
Issue: Democracy (government by the mass of people or by their duly elected representatives) as a system of government
Answer: Inherited Culture (i.e. Western (and increasingly) other cultures

In the bible the standard is not democracy, but rather theocracy: Government by God or by his representatives.

This was the standard that God set from the beginning. It was the way that God governed his people throughout the time of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, through the period of Moses and the Exodus, through the conquering of the Promised Land, and as the people were settling in the Promised Land.

However the people became dissatisfied with the judges. They wanted more consistent and continuous leadership. So they looked around at the surrounding nations, and demanded a king. Hence the adoption of a monarchy (1 Samuel 8:1-21).

As time progressed the idea of a future ideal Davidic king blossomed. So come New Testament times what the people were looking for in the Messiah was a king to lead them forward.

As a consequence, over the centuries the church has often been favourable to some form of constitutional aristocracy (or monarchy). However with some of the authoritarian regimes with which some churches had to learn to live with, today there is a tendency to accept democracy as a better alternative.

Nevertheless the ideal remains that theocracy – the rule by God – is the system that all Christians should be seeking.

3. Discipleship
Issue: Discipleship as the basis of the Christian faith
Answer: Christian Faith

Discipleship has always been the basic response to the Christian faith. In the Old Testament, and the New, the emphasis is on being believers – not just having some intellectual acquaintance.

For example, in the Old Testament Covenant, the contract was that if people obeyed God’s laws then they would be blessed by him. And the covenant was a typical covenant of the period. If you do this – then expect blessings. But if you don’t do this – then expect disaster (Deuteronomy 28:1-68). However, the point is that the response to God was not just an intellectual exercise, but the need to be active in the faith.

Consequently, when we get to the New Testament, one of the first things we see is Jesus going around the countryside calling people not just to believe, but to follow him. In addition, after his resurrection Jesus’s instruction to his disciples was to make more disciples, and to baptise them. Whoever responded in a positive manner would be saved, and whoever did not would be condemned (Matthew 16:16-20)

Now the term “disciple” normally means a “pupil” or “learner”. However in terms of Jesus’s expectations the commitment to being a disciple also includes the need to be willing to abandon one’s home, business ties and possessions, and the willingness to go to any lengths to fulfil his claims on one’s life.

Consequently it is discipleship which is the basis of the Christian faith.

4. Holy Communion
Issue: The practice of having Holy Communion as part of a church service
Answer: Christian Tradition

For this one we need to go back to where Communion started on the night before Jesus was put to death. Because Jesus was in an upper room with at least his 12 disciples (although there may have been others with him too) (Matthew 26:17-29).

Now at the time Jesus was having a meal with his disciples. In fact a very special meal – a meal to remember the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt. Now at this special meal dishes of food would have been provided, there would have been the breaking of bread, and there would have been four cups of wine at different points in the meal. And the Last Supper was probably instituted at the breaking of bread and the third cup.

However, whatever the details, the important thing to remember is that the Last Supper was a meal. And Jesus’s instructions to the disciples were “to do this in remembrance of me”.

Now the earliest recording of the Last Supper being practiced by the church is recorded in the writings of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. And it relates to the abuse of the Lord’s Supper in which some people drank too much or over ate. Paul’s experience of Communion, then, is in the context of people sharing a meal, not simply including the symbols in some kind of worship service.

It was not until the second Century that the practice of using the symbols in the context of worship became well known.

Despite that, the importance of sharing a meal together cannot be over stated. In biblical times meal times was the one time of the day that people got together and shared what was going on in their lives. And that is an aspect of communion that can be so easily lost, when we reduce the fellowship meal to one or two symbols.

5. Regular Worship
Issue: Regular weekly worship and attendance at all major festivals
Answer: Christian Faith

The fourth Commandment reads: “Remember to keep the Sabbath Day holy. 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…” (Exodus 20:8-11). If the Ten Commandments were an essential part of the Old Testament covenant, then this one would have to be the one that is the most repeated.

Indeed not only is it repeated again and again throughout the pages of the Old Testament, but other tags are added to it as well, including: “Anyone who works on the Sabbath is to be cut off from among his people,” and “Anyone who defies the Sabbath is to be put to death.”

In addition attending three specific major festivals a year was compulsory (Exodus 23:14-17).

Come New Testament times, then, what we see is Jesus on the Sabbath in a synagogue or temple; Paul also was either in a synagogue, engaging with devout Jews somewhere, or was participating in worship in one of the newly formed house churches. In addition the writer of the letter to the Hebrews provided a stern warning to those who were not meeting together as they should (Hebrews 10:25).

Now, it may not be the habit anymore of the church to disassociate itself from those who are not as regular as they should be. But we do need to hear the warning behind the Old Testament instruction. That is, a casual response to worship undermines not just the person’s faith, but it can also be instrumental in destroying other people’s faith, and all that the church stands for too. Hence the need for all believers to take seriously the fourth commandment.

6. Weddings and Funerals
Issue: The Conducting of Weddings and Funerals by the Church
Answer: Christian Tradition

Now there are no recorded Weddings or Funerals conducted in the Temple, in a synagogue, or a in church in either the Old or New Testaments. Perhaps the first recorded wedding reception is that of Jacob who believed he was marrying Rachel (Genesis 29:23). However any ceremony (if indeed they had one) was not recorded. And in this case, the reception preceded the marriage, and was probably intended to get Jacob so drunk that he couldn’t see which daughter he was marrying.

Similarly, in the New Testament, the wedding at Cana does not deal with any marriage ceremony, but rather only with the reception (John 2:1-11). And indeed the story is more concerned with the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine, rather than the details of the reception itself.

Perhaps, only Jesus’ parable of the 10 virgins gives us the clearest view of what used to go on with the preparation for a wedding. But still no evidence that it was conducted by a minister of religion of any kind (Matthew 25:1-13).

What we do know is that in some places during the latter part of the first century AD, betrothals needed a bishop’s approval, and that it wasn’t until the third century AD that there is any record of the church being involved in any wedding ceremony. Even in England in the Middle Ages the common people did not get married in church. Yes, they may have had to knock on the vestry door and ask the church for permission to marry. But marriage itself was most likely simply the matter of the two people concerned beginning to live together.

The history of funerals is similar. There are two burials recorded in Acts – of Ananias and Saphira. However again there is no evidence of any ceremony. Simply a comment about a few young men, wrapping the bodies up, carry them out and disposing of the bodies – which was common practice in the Middle East at the time.

Weddings and funerals by the church has more to do with the acceptance of the church’s place in society, than it has about the purpose and function of the church. Consequently the reason that we continue to do them today has very little to do with the Christian faith, but rather with traditions that have been handed down.

7. The Baptism of Children
Issue: The baptism of children
Answer: Christian Tradition

Well it must be stated from the outset that the baptism of children (on their own) is quite foreign to the bible. Indeed, the instructions of Jesus are quite clear: the church is to go out and make disciples of all people, and it is those who have become disciples who are to be baptized.

Having said that, however, the tradition in the New Testament was that when the master of the house was baptized, then his whole family: wife, servants and children were baptised with him (Acts 16:13-15).

Of course, what happened to babies born after the master of the household was baptized, brings us to the issue of the baptism of infants today. The issue was not raised in the New Testament. As a consequence different denominations have different responses.

However, for those churches who practice infant baptism, it has been on the basis of Jesus’s words about letting children come to him, because the kingdom belongs to such as them (Matthew 19:14).

In the Anglican church, the baptism of infants is based on on two grounds: firstly, that the parents are disciples of Christ, and active members of the church; and secondly, that Jesus commanded that children be brought to him. Consequently those ideas are reflected in the baptism service.

Having said that, sadly, the practice of baptising children of parents who show no allegiance to the faith or the church has become common practice. This has been a major sticking point creating division in the church universal. It also denies Jesus’s basic demand for the need for discipleship.

8. Good Works
Issue: The belief that doing good deeds is sufficient to earn one’s own salvation
Answer: Inherited Culture

Indeed not just western culture, but many other cultures. Despite that the bible is quite clear: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

In other words it doesn’t matter what we do, none of us are good enough to be in God’s presence. We cannot undo the mistakes we have made, and there is a price we have to pay for our mistakes. No matter what we do, no matter how good we are from now on, we will continue to make mistakes, and we are required to pay the penalty for them.

Except for the fact that those who believe – who have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their saviour – “are justified freely through the grace of Christ Jesus, by his redemption” (Romans 3:24).

So the first part of the answer is that no matter what we do, on our own, we will never be good enough. We will never be able to earn salvation on our own.

The other aspect to this issue, however, is that as a result of having faith, we are expected to do good works. James, the brother of Jesus quite clearly illustrates that by saying “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” (James 2: 26).

In other words faith comes first, and deeds follow as a result of faith. But it doesn’t work the other way around.

9. The Beginning of Life
Issue: The belief that human life begins at (or before) conception
Answer: Christian Faith

Throughout the bible are scattered images of the creation of individual human beings. In the book of Psalms we read: “Yes, you indeed created my kidneys and my inwards parts; you wove them together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13). And that is a concept that is repeated time after time in the pages of the Old Testament.

Indeed the Old Testament also talks about God knowing individuals before they were born. Regarding the Messiah, there are many things detailed about him before his birth; like the circumstances of his birth; where he was to be born; what kind of death he would face etc etc.. And the words of God to Jeremiah were: “I knew you before I formed you in the womb; I set you apart before you were born; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5).

These days many people want to redefine the commencement of human life to be so many days or weeks after conception. And the reason for doing so, is so that then allows a time frame in which an embryo can be claimed not to be a human being, and can, therefore, be legitimately experimented on. And regarding things like stem cell research you can understand some people’s desperation to do so. But the bible puts no such limitations on human life. Indeed it makes no distinction between the undeveloped life in the womb, and the more developed life after birth. So from a Christian point of view, the sixth commandment: “You shall not kill” still stands.

D. SUMMARY

So, how did you go? How many got all the questions right? Nine out of nine? What do your answers say about where you are in the Christian faith?

Now, the point of the exercise is to demonstrate that there are often things we take for granted, believing them to be part of our faith. And consequently we pass them on openly or inadvertently to others by either words or example, when they may have nothing to do with the faith at all.

1. Faith
In all the questions for which there were three alternative answers. Only three of them related to the Christian faith: question 3 about Discipleship; question 5 about Regular Worship; and Question 9 about The Beginning of Life.

Only those three I’ve raised today are issues on which Christians should base their faith.

2. Culture
Meanwhile the three questions which relate to our inherited culture, we should simply accept as cultural issues: question 1 about Monogamy; question 2 about Democracy; and Question 8 about Good Works.

As a consequence we shouldn’t be accepting them as part of the Christian faith, and we shouldn’t be trying to impose them on anyone else either.

3. Christian Tradition
But in regard to Christian Tradition we have to be careful. Thai is: question 4 about Communion; question 6 about Weddings and Funerals; and question 7 about The Baptism of Children.

Because whilst some of these practices may reflect good intentions in the beginning, we need to be aware of the traps that are inherent in each. We also need to be aware of their use and misuse over the centuries.

E. CONCLUSION

Faith, tradition or inherited culture?. So, how did you go? Well if you got nine out of nine. Well done. But regardless of your score, an exercise like this demonstrates – how easy it is to confuse Christian Tradition and Inherited Culture, with the Christian Faith. And after all, isn’t that a major reason the church is in the mess that’s in?

The reality is that we all need to keep on our toes, and we all need to use every opportunity to steep ourselves in the beliefs of our faith.

Because if we don’t then the lines between faith, tradition and culture get increasingly blurred. And when that happens not only will we find it hard to know what the difference is, but the people we mix with will have increasing difficulty in being able to distinguish between them as well.

Hand Out:
Questionnaires and Pens

Posted: 2nd January 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

SERMON: Mothers

Exodus 1 & 2; 1 Samuel 1 & 2; 1 Kings 17; Matthew 1 & 2

A. INTRODUCTION

The importance of the place of women in the church cannot be overstated. Indeed, over the centuries, and even in the pages of the Old Testament, women have had a very important part to play in the life of the worshiping community. Furthermore, in many churches today, where men are conspicuous by their absence, it is only because of women that some of our churches have remained open.

With that in mind, what I’d like to do, today, is to look at four cameos of some of the important women in the bible. And because it’s Mother’s Day, this Sunday, I thought I’d pick four women, all of whom were mothers.

Now some mothers will tell you that it’s not easy bringing up children. After all, there are so many things over which they have no control. And some mothers would suggest that it’s much harder bringing up children now than it’s ever been. But I’m going to suggest, today, that life and motherhood has never been easy. And I think the stories that I’ve chosen demonstrate that all too well.

B. FOUR MOTHERS

1. Jochebed (Exodus 1 & 2)
Now the first mother, is a mother who feared for the life of her new born son. Her name was Jochebed. She lived about three and a half thousand years ago in Egypt. And she not only came from the priestly side of the Jewish race, but she was a devout believer in God too.

Jochebed’s dilemma was that the Israelite population had grown so large, that the Pharaoh at the time considered her race a threat to the existence of the Egyptians. As a consequence, he ordered that all Israelite baby boys be thrown into the River Nile and be drowned.

Now you can imagine what effect that would have had on Jochebed, particularly when her baby was born, and it was a boy. Jochebed would have been frantic. She would have been desperate to preserve the life of her baby in any way she could. And that was precisely what she did.

For three months she kept her baby hidden. She built a papyrus basket and coated it with pitch and tar, and placed it among the reeds of the river. And she gave her daughter, Miriam, the job of keeping watch over her brother—but from a discrete distance.

However, the thing that Jochebed feared most, happened. The baby was spotted, and by Pharaoh’s daughter. But here the story has a twist. Because the princess decided not to have the baby drowned, but to keep it for herself. So the princess named the baby Moses, and sought out among the Israelites someone who would make a suitable nanny. Then, through the devious manipulation of Miriam, Jochebed was summoned to the princess and was asked to nurse the child.

Jochebed, then, a mother who feared for the life of her child, and went to extraordinary lengths in order that her baby could survive. And she was finally blessed with caring for her own child. And, may I add, was paid for the privilege.

2. Hannah (1 Samuel 1 & 2)
The second example is about a mother, who nearly wasn’t a mother at all. She was a woman who was desperate to have a child, but was simply unable to conceive. Her name was Hannah.

Now Hannah lived a little over three thousand years ago, in the hill country of Ephraim. She was one of two wives to a man named Elkanah. And whereas the other wife had produced him children, Hannah was quite barren. A point her rival was only to eager to rub in.

However, Hannah was a woman who was devoted to God, and each year journeyed to Shiloh for the annual sacrifices. One year, however, her rival had provoked her so much, that when she went up to Shiloh, she made a vow to God: “Almighty LORD, if only you would look upon the misery of your handmaid and remember me. Do not forget your handmaid, but give her a son. I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life. No razor will come near his head.” A quite extraordinary, and desperate plea. And yet, as the story goes, God honoured her prayer, and Samuel was born.

Now, after Samuel’s birth, Hannah stayed home and nursed the boy. But when he was three or four years old, she took him to Eli the priest at Shiloh, where he began his service to God, just as she had promised. Then each year, at the time of the annual sacrifices, she went up to Shiloh, having made him some clothing, and visited her son.

Now you may think, with me, that with Samuel being born it would have been hard to give up her son. It would have been very easy to renege on her vow. And maybe it was. But the record shows that Hannah not only willingly gave up her son to Eli, but she rejoiced in God for the privilege. And, what’s more, this Hannah, who was unable to have children, was then blessed by God with another five children—three sons and two daughters.

3. The Widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17)
The third example is a mother who struggled with poverty, particularly regarding having enough food to eat. The woman’s name, we don’t know, but she was not an Israelite, and she lived in what we would now call Lebanon. What we do know, is that she was a widow, and that she lived in a coastal town called Zarephath some three thousand years ago. We also know she had one child—a son—and that she had great faith in God.

Now she faced a great predicament in life. Her larder was almost empty, and she had only enough flour and water left for one more meal for herself and her son. After which she expected that they would both starve to death. On top of that, however, she’d been told by God to expect a visitor—Elijah—and that she was to provide a meal for him.

Well, you can imagine her dilemma. She didn’t have enough food for herself and her son, let alone any visitor. And, so when Elijah arrived she told him of her dilemma. But Elijah told her not to worry about her food supply, but to have faith. He told her that if she obeyed God, then her jar of flour would not run out, and her jar of water would not run dry.

Now, that seems to me, to be a pretty hard test. Because it was not just her own welfare she had to consider, she also had that of her son’s. But she was a woman of faith. And having been told by God what was expected of her, and having been reassured by Elijah of the outcome, she did as she’d been asked. And as had been promised, she was blessed with two jars—one of flour and the other of water—that did not run out. Plenty of food for her, her son, and whatever visitors would come their way.

However, if the widow thought her troubles were over, she was very much mistaken. Her son became ill and died. Well, you can imagine the widow was distraught, She’d already lost her husband, and now she had lost her only child. Her son was the only thing she had in life. However, even though we don’t know why he died, a second miracle occurred. Because using Elijah as his instrument, God restored her precious son to life.

The widow then, even in dire poverty, was blessed by God with an abundance of food, and the restoration of her son back to life.

4. Mary (Matthew 1 & 2)
And the final mother, I want to mention today, is someone who seemed to face it all. If anything was going to happen, it would happen to her. Of course, this mother will be the most familiar. Because. it’s Mary the mother of Jesus. But a woman of great faith too.

Now imagine a girl as young as twelve or thirteen being told she was about to become pregnant. Now she wasn’t married, and in the culture of her day she should have been treated as an outcast. It may be surprising, then, that at the news of her pregnancy she rejoiced. She praised God.

Imagine too a very young mother with child—a child who would have been two years old at the most—fleeing to Egypt for the child’s safety, because Herod thought he was a threat to his throne.

Imagine a mother, on the way home from a visit to Jerusalem, realising that her twelve-year-old boy was missing (Luke 2:41-42), only to find that Jesus had been left behind in Jerusalem.

Imagine too, the mother of (a now) grown up son, who couldn’t get near him, let alone talk to him, because of the crowds around him (Luke 8:19-20).

And imagine a mother, standing at the foot of a cross, whilst her own son—her own flesh and blood—was being crucified in front of her very eyes (John 19:25).

Imagine it. Yet Mary was a woman who had been blessed by God. Indeed, she had been only too willing to be used by God as part of his salvation plan. Yes, over the years, she may have wondered precisely what all that meant, and whether she was mistaken. But at the resurrection of her own son she would have been blessed, not only in the salvation that Jesus brought, but in knowing that she had allowed God to use her to bring salvation to the world.

5. Summary
Four cameos, then, of four mothers. Four mothers who would, and did anything for their children. And four mothers who have shown that being a mother, indeed, has not always been easy.

C. IMPLICATIONS

Having said that, however, it seems to me that there at least three common denominators in our four stories today. And common denominators that go outside the norm of being a woman, a mother and raising children.

1. The Importance of Faith
And the first is that each of our cameos was a woman of faith. Each relied on God for guidance and help in their daily struggles. And to be honest I don’t know how any of them would have coped without that.

Without God’s intervention: Moses would have been drowned, Hannah would have remained childless, the widow and her son would have starved to death, and Mary would not have given birth to the saviour of the world. Having faith, then, does make a difference.

Now not all of us are going to be asked by God to do such great things. Nevertheless, leaving aside the importance of faith regarding salvation itself, these four women show us the importance of having faith in a God we can depend on, and who can help us through the traumas of life.

2. Obedience to God
Secondly, each of our cameos shows what it means to live a life of obedience. And just as life in this world, may not always be easy, neither is the life of obedience to God.

When God calls us to a life of obedience, he doesn’t tell us it will be an easy road. Indeed, it may involve much hardship as well.

Jochebed had to go to great pains to make sure her baby was safe. And she had to live with the consequences of being found out. Hannah committed her son to a life of devotion to God—a life which would take him as a very young child away from her constant presence. The widow of Zarephath had to decide who she was going to feed—whether to feed her visitor, or to look after her own, and her son’s, needs. And Mary faced with the prospect of being a single mother—in a culture very hostile to such situations—had to decide whether to obey God, or to take the easier path.

The Christian walk, then, contrary to what some believe, is not always easy. And it certainly doesn’t guarantee a trouble free life. On the contrary, the things God asks us to do can be very challenging. And they will test us, to whom we truly belong.

3. Rewards of God
And thirdly, each of our cameos demonstrates that not only is God about salvation in the next life, but he is into rewarding the faithful in this life too.

Jochebed was rewarded with a boy who was not drowned like all the others. Indeed she was given him back to care for and bring up. Hannah was rewarded, not only with the birth of Samuel, but with five other children as well. The widow, was given plenty of food for both herself and her son, to cover their future needs. And when the son died, he was returned to her—restored to life. And Mary was rewarded by becoming one of the most important players in God’s salvation plan.

4. Summary
Three things then which reflect that life isn’t easy, that motherhood isn’t easy, and that the life of faith isn’t easy either. But they also reflect the idea that the faith does make a difference. And not only did it make a difference to the lives of our four cameos, but it would then go on and make a difference to other people’s lives too.

As you can see, then, the place of women, including mothers, is very important in the context of a community of faith. And let no one tell you otherwise.

D. CONCLUSION

Now, today, we’ve seen four mothers, who in their own ways were all put through the wringer. But four mothers, who came out the other side stronger and better equipped than ever before. And the reason they came out stronger and better equipped was that they were all women of faith. They all had God on their side, leading and encouraging in some of the most difficult of circumstances. And they were all rewarded for their faith.

Whether you’re a mother or not, then, faith in God does make a difference. It may not mean that we’re immune to the things of this world, and all the things that it throws at us. But it does mean that we don’t have to face those things alone.

It also means that we can all make a difference, just like Jochebed, Hannah, the widow of Zarephath, Mary the mother of Jesus … and the many other women of faith, past and present who are too numerous for me to mention now.

Posted: 2nd May 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
www.21stcenturybible.com.au

SERMON: A Spiritual Checklist

INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS

Whenever we read the bible, we are faced with a number of situations closely related to our own. Within the history, stories, songs, poems, wisdom, letters, apocalyptic, etc., we can see people going through the same things that we face.

Oh yes, over the years, time has moved on. And over the years the context has changed. But the everyday issues of our struggle to find purpose and meaning in life—our search for God closely tied with our search to find ourselves and our relationships with other people and the struggles of life—hasn’t changed much at all.

As a consequence, the bible is just as relevant to us today as it was in the days that it was written. Or even before that, when it was passed down by word of mouth from one generation to another.

When we read the pages of the bible we find words of comfort. But we also find challenges. And the two most import challenges are: firstly, to accept God as our lord and saviour; and, secondly, to constantly review our position as we travel along faith’s journey.

Unfortunately, because of the nature of the bible—being a hodgepodge of different documents accumulated over the years—it doesn’t necessarily provide us with an easy scheme we can work through to check how we are going. So, what I thought I’d do is to put some kind of checklist together—but based on biblical principles—as a means for us to see just how we are progressing.

So, however inadequate, I’ve come up with fifteen questions. Five questions each regarding our relationship with God, our relationship with other believers, and our relationship with people in general. And I thought we’d see how we go.

[Get people to fill in questionnaire]

A Spiritual Check List

Please indicate a, b or c, as appropriate

A. My Relationship with God

1. Where does God fit into my life?
a). He always comes first
b). It depends upon the occasion
c). He fits in, when I remember

2. How often do I pray to God?
a). Daily
b). Every now and again
c). Only when something goes wrong and I need help

3. How often do I read the bible?
a). Daily
b). Every now and again
c). Rarely

4. How often do I go to God’s church?
a). At least weekly
b). When it suits me
c). Only when I feel the need

5. How much do I give to the work of God’s church?
a). More than I can afford
b). Only what I can afford
c). A small amount only

B. My Relationship with Other Believers

6. Why do I go to church?
a). To worship God, to learn, and to encourage one another in the faith
b). To worship God and to learn
c). For some other reason

7. When I go to church, how much time do I spend with the people?
a). I always make time to talk to others
b). Very little. I usually get to church on time, and leave when the service finishes
c). None. I’m usually late, and leave early

8. How often do I meet with other Christians (apart from church services)?
a). I attend a regular weekly Bible Study/Small Group
b). I meet with others periodically
c). I don’t belong to any small group

9. How do I use my gifts to build up the church?
a). I am very active in using my God given gifts
b). I occasionally use the gifts that God has given
c). I don’t have any gifts to use

10. How much time per week do I spend with other Christians?
a). A lot of time
b). Very little
c). Hardly any

C. My Relationship with People in General

11. Is it obvious to others that I am a Christian?
a). Yes, because of the way I behave
b). Yes, but only because I tell people
c). No

12. What kind of people do I care about?
a). Everyone, without exception
b). Some people
c). My family and friends

13. When I give someone material and emotional support, do I give them spiritual support too?
a). Yes
b). Sometimes
c). No

14. Does my behaviour reflect Christian values?
a). I try to live according to Christian principles
b). I try to live in accordance with the laws of Australia
c). I sometimes stretch the rules, to see what I can get away with

15. Is there anyone I haven’t forgiven?
a). No
b). Yes, but for good reasons
c). Yes, and I refuse to forgive them

A. MY RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

1. Where does God fit into my life?
a). He always comes first
b). It depends upon the occasion
c). He fits in, when I remember

The most important commandment for Jesus was: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30). In other words, God should be in everything we do—every aspect of our lives.

When we are working out our programme for the week, God comes first—not other people, but God. God should have our priority. When we have to make decisions, either the big decisions like: “who do I marry, buying a home, what kind of lifestyle should I adopt” or even the small decisions, God should be part of all the decisions we make. The emphasis in Jesus’s words about loving God is on the “All.” All our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength. With every part of our being we are to love God, and to include him in everything we think and do.

God isn’t an optional extra. He’s not there only for when we need him. We should include him as the person we love in absolutely everything we do. Indeed, not only should we include him, but what should accept that what he says goes.

2. How often do I pray to God?
a). Daily
b). Every now and again
c). Only when something goes wrong and I need help

Prayer is the act of communicating with God. And how often should we talk to the person we most love? But every day.

When Jesus taught the disciples to pray – he taught them to pray daily. The Lord’s Prayer includes this line: “Give us today our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11). Jesus didn’t say talk to God occasionally and ask for help only when you need it. Rather his emphasis was on daily prayer.

And the ingredients of this daily Lord’s Prayer include: Acknowledging who God is; praising God; looking forward to the resurrection of all believers; asking God to supply our needs for the day; asking God for forgiveness for the things we have done wrong; and confirming that we have forgiven others who have wronged us.

Now the importance of prayer—communicating with God—can’t be understated. After all, prayer is not just about us talking to God, it is also about God talking to us. So much so, that the Apostle Paul urged in his letters many times the need to be devoted to prayer (Colossians 4:2).

3. How often do I read the bible?
a). Daily
b). Every now and again
c). Rarely

The words of Paul to Timothy: “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting and instructing in righteousness, in order that the man of God may be equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Of course, in olden days when literacy rates were low, it was one of the responsibilities of the priests or clergy to read the bible for the benefit of their congregations. When that didn’t happen, disaster struck.

Several times in the Old Testament the scriptures were hidden away or lost, and were obviously no longer read to the people. And on one such occasion when the scriptures were found after some years absence, and subsequently read (2 Kings 22), it became obvious that the people had strayed from God’s ways. People had stopped worshipping God, they had stopped meeting together, they had adopted behaviour and practices totally inappropriate, and they had replaced God with other idols.

Of course, these days with high literacy rates, and easy access to bibles, we have no such excuse. Because if we want to know more about the God we love, if we want to know more about ourselves and what God expects, and if we want to know what exactly it is that God wants us to share with others, why wouldn’t we take the study of the bible very seriously indeed.

4. How often do I go to God’s church?
a). At least weekly
b). When it suits me
c). Only when I feel the need

The fourth of the 10 commandments states: “Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. You are to labour for six days, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You are not to do any work—you, your son or daughter, your manservant or maidservant, your animals or any alien living with you. For the LORD created the heavens, the earth, the sea and all that is in them, in six days. But on the seventh day he rested. For this reason, the LORD has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11).

Having worked in a number of rural communities, I think it’s one of the ironies of life that God gave this command to a group of people who herded sheep, goats and cattle, but had no gates or fences either. There’s an element of trust tied up in this command. The command to stop work one day each week, and to set it aside for the public worship of God.

This is God’s church, not mans, and regular weekly worship is therefore important in our relationship with God. We need to worship the person who should be number one in our lives, and we need to trust in God the things that we leave behind in order to join in worship together.

5. How much do I give to the work of God’s church?
a). More than I can afford
b). Only what I can afford
c). A small amount only

The Old Testament practice of giving was to tithe—to give a tenth of one’s income to the service of God. Of course, in those days you gave a tenth of your crop or a tenth of the new born animals. Nevertheless, from Leviticus we read: “All the tithes of the land, whether from the seed of the land or from the fruit of the trees, belongs to the LORD. It is holy to the LORD.” (Leviticus 27:30)

Now the important thing here isn’t the amount (the tenth). Rather, what is important, is to whom the money was given—to God. The money wasn’t given to maintain a building, or a congregation, or to be used with certain limitations. The money was to be given to God, to be used as he directed.

The amount we give to God’s church then, reflects our attitude to God. And in particular, it signifies the value we place on our relationship with him. And that’s why I have a problem with fundraising. Because fundraising is about getting others to contribute to the costs of running a church, which is not what giving is about at all.

Now the Old Testament example was a tithe—a tenth. Or if you wanted to pay your share in cash rather than in animals and crops, then you had to add a fifth on top of that. But in the New Testament Jesus raised the bar even further. Because as he stood at the temple and watched people bring in their tithes and gifts, he saw some rich men give what they could afford, and he saw a poor widow give what she couldn’t.

And this is what he said to his disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than any of the others. They all gave from their abundance, but she, from her poverty, put in everything that she had live on.” (Mark 12:43-44).

The Christian model for giving then is for our gift to reflect our love of God.

Scoring
OK so those are the 5 questions about God.

For each letter you can score the following points:
a = 10 – which means you’re well on track
b = 2 – which means you’ve started to progress, but you have some rather large hurdles to jump
c = 0 – which means you’ve got a long way to go in your Christian journey

There’s a maximum score of 50. And depending where you are between the range of 0 and 50, will give some indication of where you are in your relationship with God.

B. MY RELATIONSHIP WITH OTHER BELIEVERS

6. Why do I go to church?
a). To worship God, to learn, and to encourage one another in the faith
b). To worship God and to learn
c). For some other reason

We have already covered the need to meet together in terms of worshipping God. We have also covered the need to learn, so we can grow in the faith. The third aspect of corporate worship however includes the need to meet together to build up and encourage one another. And this is spelt out in the letter to the Hebrews, but as a response to people ceasing to meet. I quote: “Do not stop meeting together, as some have become accustomed to doing. But let us continue to encourage one another—and more so, as you see Judgement Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25).

For many people church is something they can take and leave. And theologically we are saved by faith, not saved because we go to church. For other people church is still a very private matter. It’s about what they can get out of it for themselves, rather than what they can contribute. And that can be reflected in the following attitudes: Faith is private; communion is something that is done as a private devotion; and there is no need to be actively involved in the spiritual life of the church.

However, church is as much about meeting and encouraging one another. As it is about worshipping God and learning.

7. When I go to church, how much time do I spend with the people?
a). I always make time to talk to others
b). Very little. I usually get to church on time, and leave when the service finishes
c). None. I’m usually late, and leave early

Now this question relates to question 6, in terms of the appropriate times to meet with the people in the congregation to which we belong. After all, we can meet some people at other times. But apart from worship services, when do we get to see the people we worship with, to encourage them as they progress along their spiritual journey, to thank them for their participation in the life of ourselves and others, to hear their concerns—the things they are going through, to hear their needs in terms of both practical help and prayer needs, and to know if they need help in their spiritual growth, or to help them back on track?

Time before the service begins, and time after the service ends, are appropriate times that can be used for such purposes. And the added advantage for those who arrive early is that people can be warmly welcomed as they arrive. And that makes a major difference to how friendly or otherwise a congregation is to visitors and newcomers.

8. How often do I meet with other Christians (apart from church services)?
a). I attend a regular weekly Bible Study/Small Group
b). I meet with others periodically
c). I don’t belong to any small group

The practice of the early church was not only to meet in the synagogue daily, but to meet outside the worship services themselves. Their habit was to meet together in small groups in people’s homes. In fact, they more than met, they shared meals together. From the Acts of the Apostles: “Day after day they continued to meet together in the temple, and broke bread in their homes. They ate together with glad and generous hearts, praising God, and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to those who were being saved, daily.” (Acts 2:46-47).

One of the features of all healthy churches—and a feature of all churches that are growing that I know of—is that they are based around the idea of small groups that meet regularly on a weekly basis. Now that doesn’t stop all the people coming together to worship on a Sunday, but it’s in the small groups that growth takes place.

Small groups are more intimate and create the right environment for people to care. Small groups are places where nurturing in the faith best takes place. And small groups are places where it is easier to introduce people who are not Christians. On the other hand, churches without small groups tend to struggle, because they have poor networks in regard to caring, nurturing and growth.

9. How do I use my gifts to build up the church?
a). I am very active in using my God given gifts
b). I occasionally use the gifts that God has given
c). I don’t have any gifts to use

Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of ministry, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all things in all men. But to each person the manifestation of the Spirit is for the common good. To one person the word of wisdom is given through the Spirit. To another the same Spirit gives the word of knowledge. To another is given faith by the same Spirit. To another the one Spirit gives gifts of healing. To another they are given mighty powers, to another prophecy, to another discernment between spirits, to another speaking in different tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives to each one, as he sees fit.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

According to Paul, we all have gifts, and they have been given not just for our own edification but for the benefit of the whole church. (And incidentally that doesn’t just mean the local congregation.)

To start with, we may not be sure what that gift is—and we may need others to help us in recognising what that gift is—but we each have been given something special to help in the life, and the growth of the Christian church.

10. How much time per week do I spend with other Christians?
a). A lot of time
b). Very little
c). Hardly any

This question is more a summary of the previous four, but it goes a little further. Because we’ve dealt with how much time we spend with others before, after, and during worship services, we’ve dealt with meeting together in small groups, and we’ve dealt with using our gifts to build up and encourage others.

But apart from that how much time do we spend with other Christians? Caring. Looking after their needs. Or simply just being with them, like-minded people together.

Scoring
OK so those are the 5 questions about our relationship with other believers

For each letter you can score the following points:
a = 5 – which means you’re well on track
b = 1 – which means you’ve started to progress, but you have some rather large hurdles to jump
c = 0 – which means you’ve got a long way to go in your Christian journey

There’s a maximum score of 25. And depending where you are between the range of 0 and 50, will give some indication of where you are in your relationship with other believers.

C. MY RELATIONSHIP WITH PEOPLE IN GENERAL

11. Is it obvious to others that I’m a Christian?
a). Yes, because of the way I behave
b). Yes, but only because I tell people
c). No

Jesus’s words: “A new commandment I give you: You are to love one another. You are to love one another, as I have loved you. If you love one another, then all men will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35).

The way we behave will tell people—Christians and non-Christians alike—whether we are Christians or not. What we say we are—what we profess to believe—is one thing. But the only thing that really counts are our actions. And the only way people can know whether we truly are Christians, is not on the basis of whether we say we are Christians, it’s not on the basis of whether we go to church, and it’s not on the basis of our generosity to the church or other people, but it’s on the basis of whether people can really see that we love one another, in the religious sense of what it means to love.

There is a difference in the way that we use the term love today. Many people may go about doing good deeds—and in a modern sense are seen to “love” others. But that doesn’t make them loving in the biblical sense, and it doesn’t make them believers either. What Jesus is talking about is the need to exude the kind of love that only God can give. And if we do that, then it will be obvious that we are Christians.

12. What kind of people do I care about?
a). Everyone, without exception
b). Some people
c). My family and friends

It is very difficult sometimes to care for certain people. There are people who are very difficult to cope with; there are people who have unsavoury characters; there are people who have a very chequered past; there are people who are the product of an environment totally different to our own. And in all of this we may have been taught to be careful, to steer clear of certain people, or certain types of people. And it must be said, it’s often more comfortable dealing with those who seem to be on our level.

So much so that it’s easier to restrict the definition of the people that we should care for, in order to ease our consciences.

Unfortunately, this is the same background that the Teachers of the Law used in Jesus’s time to restrict who they should care for. Nevertheless, Jesus’s response was to tell a story—the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). And the conclusion of which is to do away with all the barriers and conditions, and to simply care for those in need—those who are worse off than we are.

And that’s certainly the example that Jesus was. As he cared for the prostitutes, the tax collectors, and the outcasts of his society.

13. When I give someone material and emotional support, do I give them spiritual support too?
a). Yes
b). Sometimes
c). No

This, of course, is the common trap that most charitable organisations fall into. And church organisations that are funded by governments fall into this trap too. Because material and emotional support can only help a person so far. And from a Christian point of view it ignores the more important, and fundamental spiritual needs of a person as well.

That’s why when Jesus was at Capernaum. And when the friends of the paralytic lowered their friend through the roof of the house, as the only way to get him to Jesus, Jesus didn’t just say: “Get up, pick up your bed and walk?” (Mark 2:11). But he began with the words, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:5).

From a Christian point of view, people need healing or help which is holistic. Giving people food and clothing is one thing. But if that is all, then there is something very deficient in our care.

Of course, which way around the help is provided will depend upon the occasion. Because someone who is hungry will not be receptive to spiritual healing while he remains hungry. Nevertheless, a spiritual component still needs to be included for it to be Christian care.

14. Does my behaviour reflect Christian values?
a). I try to live according to Christian principles
b). I try to live in accordance with the laws of Australia
c). I sometimes stretch the rules, to see what I can get away with

Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus: “Although you lived in darkness, you now live in the light in the Lord. So, live as children of light (for the fruit of light is present in all goodness, righteousness, and truth). Learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Do not be involved in the fruitless deeds of darkness. Instead, expose them. For even to speak of the things that are done in secret is shameful. And when the light shines on them, all these things will be exposed. (Ephesians 5:8-13).

There’s a difference between God’s way and man’s way. There’s also a myth that we live in a Christian country, and that Australia embraces Christian values.

Since the very beginning, people have been picking and choosing aspects of the faith they can accept, reinterpreting other bits they feel will be OK if only given a bit of a tweak, and discarding the bits that they feel uncomfortable with. And the history of the laws and people of Australia are no different.

God has set us standards to live by—his standards. We are supposed to live them and be shining examples to others of what it means to be a people of faith. That means they are not to be changed to suit ourselves, reinterpreted to give the meaning we are more comfortable with, or ignored where we find them too difficult.

15. Is there anyone I haven’t forgiven?
a). No
b). Yes, but for good reasons
c). Yes, and I refuse to forgive them too

This is a serious issue. And one that brings us full circle. Because it not only says something about us and our willingness to forgive, but it has implications on the depth of forgiveness we can expect from God.

More words of Jesus from the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we have indeed forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12). In other words, we ask for God’s forgiveness on the basis of how much we forgive others.

Forgiveness is at the crux of our relationship with God. So too should it be at the crux of our relationship with others, no matter whether they are family, former friends, or anyone who has done us, or others harm in any way at all.

Scoring
OK so those are the 5 questions about our relationship with people in general. For each letter you can score the following points:
a = 5 – which means you’re well on track
b = 1 – which means you’ve started to progress, but you have some rather large hurdles to jump
c = 0 – which means you’ve got a long way to go in your Christian journey

There’s a maximum score of 25. And depending where you are between the range of 0 and 50, will give some indication of where you are in your relationship with people in general.

CLOSING COMMENTS

Now as I said at the beginning, there is no check list recorded in the bible we can use to assess our spiritual health. So, whatever your score, it is not accurate indication of your spiritual life. Nevertheless, having used biblical principles, it should give us some indication of where we are in the faith.

If you add the three scores together you will get a score out of 100.

75-100 – should mean you’ve made real progress on your spiritual journey. (But bear in mind even a perfect score of 100 doesn’t mean you’ve come to the end of the journey—only that you are on the right track).

51-75 – means you’ve come some way, but that there are still major hurdles to be jumped. There are still elements of the faith you need to come to grips with.

26-50 – you may have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, but there remains much work to be done. Indeed, there may be a need to get back to the basics.

However, whatever your score, what happens next is up to you. After all, what does your spiritual life look like today?

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Posted: 30th May 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
www.brianacurtis.com.au

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