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“Redemption” ?

Luke 2:22-40 What do you make of that story? Only Luke tells it – so is it less interesting, or less relevant? It starts as a bit of ritual. Jesus was brought up as a Jew, so circumcised a week after his birth, and then at 40 days old taken with his mother to the Temple. Mary presents him in the Temple, and makes a sacrifice – the 2 pigeon option allowed for the poor – in a ceremony required by the Old Testament.

So far, not very helpful you might think. But hold on. That ceremony came from the Exodus and the Passover. You remember how the slaves in Egypt escaped after a series of plagues, and the last and worst of the plagues was – the death of the firstborn. And Exodus 13 explains how all the firstborn of the Israelites belonged in a special way to God. There is more detail, but it makes sense – Jesus belonging specially to God; a small fee paid to ransom him and return him to his family . .

Then the excitement grows again. Simeon appears. How can he tell one baby from another? Somehow the Holy Spirit makes it possible. He has been promised (and, since God keeps his promises) now understands he is seeing the promised Messiah.

He speaks of a light for the Gentiles – all the world!

And of glory for God’s people

and he warns Mary of suffering, as Jesus will bring some people down, as well as raising others up.

If you feel excited (and perhaps you should), Mary and Joseph are amazed. They haven’t forgotten the earlier messages and promises, angels, shepherds – but how does Simeon know? This Holy Spirit has something.

To reinforce the importance and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, Anna arrives – and she is a prophet. Whether she accepts Simeon’s word, or knows by her own spiritual insight – she now also give thanks to God, and talks about Jesus to all who were still looking for God to do something.

It started with a bit of Jewish ritual. It gained significance as we found a connection with the Passover (don’t forget the Last Supper was a Passover meal, and the Christian eucharist depends on it). God’s people were set free at the Exodus, as they will be again more lastingly by Jesus and his death. The idea of Redemption is interesting.

Then there is the excitement of the Holy Spirit giving revelations and warnings – the same Spirit who will be active in Jesus ministry, the same Spirit who guides and empowers Christians today. It is beginning to happen, and it is good, and we know it hasn’t stopped. Where is the Spirit active today? Who are the Simeons and Annas, praying, understanding, talking about God?

Even at 40 days old, Jesus is exciting, making things happen.

What if?

There is a story of a Nativity Play where Joseph was naughty, and was demoted to play the Innkeeper. Apparently reformed, his two words “No room” were perfect in every rehearsal, until the performance. The substitute Joseph knocked wearily on the Inn door and asked for shelter, and the Innkeeper beamed at him and said, “Of course, come right in”!

As we read Mary’s story – this week her visit to cousin Elizabeth, and the mutual recognition of the two pregnant women (Luke 1:39-45 or 1:39-55), you might wonder if it could have worked out differently. What if Mary had refused to be part of God’s plan? What if Joseph had divorced her? There are endless possibilities.

But Elizabeth is right when she says, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (or, in easier language, “The Lord has blessed you because you believed that he will keep his promise.” (CEV). Mary will make some mistakes, suffer a lot, but she is a pattern for Christian life. She accepts difficulties and risks, because she is asked to play a part in God’s work, and believes the promises she is given.

As we get to Christmas, let’s remember all those people who took the risk of believing what God promised, and took their place in the story. Not just Mary and Joseph, but the unnamed shepherds, and the kind innkeeper. They remind us that we too are called to play a part in the ongoing story, to believe that what God promises will happen, and that the ordinary people are sometimes the most extraordinary.

Rights

As last week, this reading, Matthew 20:1-16, is featured in the Giving in Grace programme sermon notes and reflections by Dr Jane Williams: http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/preaching_notes_matthew.pdf  http://www.givingingrace.org/userfiles/files/Design/reflections_matthew.pdf )

 

Beware of claiming your Rights! Why not, you might say – Health and Safety, Discrimination and other laws are meant to protect. Perhaps so, but as a state of mind it can be dangerous. If you begin to think about your relationship to God in terms of rights, it becomes ridiculous!

People are inclined to say they want justice. Believe me, you don’t. To get justice from God would be to be called to account. Are we up to God’s standards – of work, relationship, honesty . . Even one of them? No, not when you consider his standards. “I haven’t done badly” may be true, in comparison with those who did worse (we prefer to look that way) – but this judgement isn’t in comparison with them. It’s in comparison with God, and in that justice we are all guilty. We don’t want justice, we want mercy.

But you still hear it said so often, “Its not fair!”:

  • – that I should have to work so hard
  • – that I should have to deal with people like that
  • – that people should die before they are really old
  • – that I should be in the situation I’m in

“Not fair”? You could say it’s not easy, even that you need help to cope. But be very careful. We have some standards to try to limit the human abuse of humans. As far as they are practical they are good, and we may support them. But don’t be mislead into thinking that life is directed by your rights. Your life is not a right, but a gift, to be given as (and as long as) God chooses.

God did not put us on earth to judge other people, but to worship and serve him. We can never know the mind of someone else, or understand their motivation. What we can know, and be responsible for, is that each of us have certain gifts and opportunities to use – or to waste.

Today’s parable (Matthew 20:1-16) talks about the master’s goodness. A Denarius a day was a living wage, so he chooses to give a living wage to those who need to live – and gets complaints! That sounds familiar! Why complain – he had dealt according to his agreement, but jealousy and greed come in.  If Jesus chooses to work with people you find difficult – rejoice (he doesn’t find you all that easy!). If he is generous to a fault – don’t complain (we are getting the benefits of his generosity).  Sadly, we find complaint easy. We never realise how absurd we are, nor how dangerous is our attitude.

Beware of claiming your rights! With God, your right to a fair trial is a short cut to a guilty verdict. We need, not our rights, but mercy – and we need to show that as well as receive it.

Evangelism Masterclass

Jesus has had a hard day.  Walking in the hot sun, he is glad to sit and rest, even without a drink.  Yet, tired and thirsty, he can find the energy for a conversation. (John 4:1-42).  His disciples will be surprised to find him talking to a Samaritan woman, and one who came to the well at midday to avoid company.  Soon she finds his perception hard – these are things she didn’t want to talk about, but still does.

People coming to new faith may face up to things otherwise forgotten by choice.  Christians coming closer to God as they turn away from all that is wrong may also find the process challenging.  Though they cannot begin again, each day brings the choice of going on, or not.

Jesus didn’t want the effort, but took the opportunity.  The woman didn’t like being so well understood, and created a distraction (the proper place to worship – the Samaritan or Jewish centre), but Jesus avoids it.  The conversation continues until the woman leaves to bring others.  They begin in curiosity, but as Jesus stays, they gain a faith of their own which no longer depends on second hand reports.

Jesus has taught us three things about being changed – converted.  First, we have to face facts, even hard ones.  Second, we need to avoid distractions.  Third, the experience has to be their own for each person; second hand won’t do.  This is true for our own conversion, but also for our going on in faith day by day, year by year.  It is equally true for evangelism, as we try, with courtesy and urgency, to share faith with others around us.

Perhaps the twinning of this story with Exodus 17:1-7 (and its echo in Psalm 95) is fortunate.  We don’t easily face up to hard facts about ourselves and our faith (or lack of it).  Evangelism, and repentance, are for many a hard place.  But when we find God there, the benefits flow like water in the desert.

Prayer (Proper 12, Pentecost 10)

Jesus prayed, and what his disciples saw made them want to pray, too.  (Was it the effect on Jesus, or the renewal of his power or creativity, or just so much part of his life?  We aren’t told.)

The instructions he gives in Luke 11:1-13 are short.  This is no “formula”, but teaching to be pondered and understood.  (Compare the account in Matthew 6, and you will find rather more words, but the same impression of an outline).

The familiarity of the words to many of us can blunt their impact.  They start, not with us, but with God.  That is important. We might be happy to dive into our problems, requests, worries – but we are told to begin with God.  (God as “Father” may cause problems to those whose parent was not much loved – but we know of good parents.  A parent remains one with power, perhaps to direct our behaviour, always to know what we are, and have been.  It is not an equal relationship).

We are to communicate, understanding that God is somehow personal, contactable, and involved with us. Luckily, as with a good Father, we are known and understood. Still, there is the effort of seeing another person’s point of view, and what plans and directions we may need to hear, and then obey.  We have to listen, as well as speak.  (Though many Psalms suggest that we can expect a sympathetic hearing when words pour out in pain or anger, with little hearing.)

After beginning with this mysterious and wonderful other, we are encouraged to ask for what we need.  The following verses (5-13) underline this.  Ask – the Father wants to give us what is good.  Good, not necessarily indulgent.  Good, for life in service of the Kingdom, and life which finds its real purpose.  The parable is about finding the means to be hospitable, not about living comfortably.

That brings us to forgiveness.  We ask for it, with a strong reminder, not only of our need for being forgiven but also of our need to forgive others, reflecting the grace we receive!  It is a demanding line, but one close to the heart of Christian living.  How can we, who hope for heaven only by being forgiven, criticise or look down on others who need forgiveness too?

Let’s not forget the last line, that we are not lead into the time of trial – or temptation.  No, of course our heavenly Father is not making trouble for us.  Remember Jesus words to the sleepy disciples in Gethsemane – Luke 22:39-47.  Twice Jesus uses this phrase (v40,46), and the meaning is clear.  Temptation may come in many forms, all dangerous.  We ask the Father’s help to come through the hard times with faith.

So, what’s the problem?  It is not that prayer is complicated, rather that we all find good relationships hard, and honest communication demanding.  God is as close as a good parent, but the stakes are high, the distractions pressing.  But the disciples wanted to learn; it must have been something important for Jesus, and for them.

Good Friday with Luke 23

Reading Luke’s account of Jesus death suggests several points of contact with life today.

Luke 23:1-5
Jesus is brought to Pilate, Roman governor, and we notice that truth is the first casualty in the campaign to get rid of him. ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ 23:2 Yet Jesus had answered differently on taxes – “ give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” 20:25 and he had been careful not to claim Kingship, knowing that it would be misunderstood – Messiah was a different kind of king.
We might think about truth. How the truth about ourselves and those around us is important in an age of PR, spin, and confrontational presentations. Pilate was cynical “What is truth?” John 18:38, but Jesus had earlier suggested ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ John 8:31,32

Are we ready to see the world, and ourselves, as God sees?

“Father, help us to care about the truth, the reality you see. Show us the world from your perspective, and help us to understand Jesus, ourselves, and your priorities.”

Luke 23:6-12

Herod had his own agenda, and Jesus didn’t fit. He is not going to make the effort to listen or understand – it is much easier to mock. The soldiers join in. Like so many people, they realise that Jesus is dangerous – taken seriously he might challenge their assumptions and prejudices, might make them want something different and better. Don’t listen, poke fun, victimise.
We wouldn’t do that – would we? In theory all Christians are followers of Jesus, bound to obey and serve him above all. Yet service has not always been our main reputation, and obedience is difficult.
Put it another way, many of us, just like Herod, have our own agendas. I don’t mind being church as long as . . but I must keep time for . . I’ll do that, but don’t ask me to . . The mockery of Jesus comes because he doesn’t fit in their list of priorities.

Are we ready to change our priorities to fit in with Jesus?

“Lord, forgive all those things which mock your direction of my life. My own agenda of what I want, my laziness, my pride. Remembering a Lord who gave all for me, help me to learn his way in everything.”

Luke 23:13-25

Pilate as governor has the responsibility of administering justice. The Roman occupation was not always popular, but if it was fair, it would win acceptance, and if not, opposition would grow.
He knows what is happening – he says Jesus is not guilty, but is too weak to find a way not to listen to the crowd (no doubt carefully manipulated). Is he stupid, not up to the job? He must know that his credibility, as well as Jesus life, is at stake. But he is driven by the mob voice.
We would think someone who claimed “the voices made me do it” was a case for psychiatric help. But how often do we say, “It’s not right, but it’s how you have to do it at work”; “None of my friends would think twice about that”; “it’s how things are”. And how often do we deliberately support someone trying to do right when it is criticised or unpopular?

“Father, help us to practise justice. Not rules and judgements, but standing out for right, supporting those who take the way of caring, not cheating, not causing pain and wrong. Let our voices be those that speak what is good, true, right, pure, lovely and honourable. (cp Phil 4:8)”

Luke 23:26-46

So they take Jesus and crucify him with a batch of criminals, and that’s – not the end of it at all. There are all sorts of consequences, and that’s why we read and ponder.
Some of them are quite minor – a visitor is conscripted to carry the cross, the soldiers share some clothing. Some are strange and unexpected – darkness, a curtain torn and opened.
But the most important go two ways. Jesus warns the weeping women of greater loss of life to come. Jerusalem will suffer siege and defeat – it happened in AD70, after the rebellion. Is this the inevitable consequence of rejecting the opportunity Jesus offered? Will taking the way he does not lead always carry great danger?
Jesus is not looking for revenge. He asks forgiveness for those who crucify him. He makes a promise of hope to the penitent thief. One consequence of his death is the way of forgiveness, reconciliation, service and peace.
But the choice is not forced. We have to make it, and go on making it. Words are easy, but faith has to show in daily life, truth telling, agendas, justice. The consequences of Jesus death were not at all what his enemies expected. They bring hope, and perhaps also danger. What do they bring you?

“Lord, as we have spent a little time reading again the story of Jesus’ death, let us go to take full advantage of its consequences. Teach us to accept forgiveness, and to offer it. Give us the hope he won, and the readiness to explain it to any who ask, as we live as his disciples.”  (cp 1 Pet 3:15)