Tag Archives: faith

Kingdom Hazard

When Paul writes his second letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, [2 Thessalonians 1:1-12] two things are clear. They are having a hard time, with “persecutions and trials”. But at the same time there are good things to give thanks for. Faith and love are mentioned immediately, and perseverance.

It is in this context that the fate of those causing the trouble is mentioned. When Christ returns, they will be shut out of his presence. It is the consequence of their wilful refusal of the good news of God’s Kingdom – they are punished for not obeying the gospel, not for not knowing it.

While the fate of the wicked seems once to have been a popular theme for Christian preachers, today we seem more reluctant to judge. That is surely a good thing! God alone knows the full truth about peoples actions, and certainly their motivations. But for ourselves we might beware of ignoring what is said about the danger of ignoring or refusing the offer of Christ to enter his Kingdom, benefit from his grace, and learn a new life.

But is this the message of Jesus? It could sound a bit negative, not like the good news of grace and love. After all, we read today [Luke 19:1-10] of the party at Zacchaeus’ house, where Jesus eats with “sinners”. Perhaps we need to notice that the Kingdom welcomes Zacchaeus, and his repentance – but there is real danger for those who complain. Those who label the “sinners” at the party are in real danger of missing the eternal party!

Things were not perfect in the Thessalonian Church, but there was faith. Yes, their Christian life needed some corrections, but they were learning the ways of the Kingdom. Wherever God’s Kingdom is seen, there is the danger of missing out, with terrible consequences. We shouldn’t let a proper reluctance to judge blind us to the real danger of missing out in God’s judgement.

Faith

I wonder what “Faith” means to you? Faith is sometimes thought of as religious opinion; I’m sure you would go beyond that. We might talk vaguely of having faith in a government, school or doctor – that’s better ( it adds confidence to opinion) but does not have the idea of the trust which makes faith the basis of action.; that’s vital, as the stories we read today in Hebrews 11 and 12 show (the reading is Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2).

Faith is about what you do: it made the Israelites able to cross the Red Sea. They were pretty frightened, and it needed God’s action and Moses steadiness – but it was faith that made them listen to the instructions and then do them. They crossed the sea, and escaped the Egyptians, but they had to wait by the shore and then walk. That illustrates a point. Faith is not so much about being emotionally worked up and certain and not able to think of other possibilities. It is probably less important to have “great faith” than to be sure that the faith you have is in a great God, and is put into practice. So Abraham had to leave, travel, sacrifice Isaac. He didn’t earn favour, but learnt to look forward.

Faith is not always about doing the obvious. Moses had plenty of critics (and some mutinies). Joshua must have faced questions as he led the people in silence round the walls of Jericho. He may have shared those questions, but he had the faith to do as he was told, with dramatic results. Be careful! Faith is not following every daft idea that comes into your head. If you feel called to do something odd, check carefully and involve other people. Often the great temptation is to think we know best! Later, there are sad stories of those who thought they could improve on God’s instructions – Saul is an example, saving the “banned” cattle.

Faith is not irrational, but it is a decision, taken on the basis of what we know of God, to do what he commands, even when we don’t understand why or how it will work out. Moses had no rational chance against Pharaoh and his army; and yet, with some human co-operation and in spite of human opposition from others, his purposes succeed and the slaves go free. Human responsibility remains.

Faith can lead to uncomfortable experiences. Gideon and Barak both won important battles, but they were very uncertain, and needed a lot of persuading to take the lead. We are told that some won great victories, but others were lead by faith to suffering and death. And note that many were not “natural heroes”, faith changed them. Some we can identify. Jeremiah was mocked and imprisoned, Isaiah by tradition sawn in two, Zechariah stoned, and a number during Maccabean persecution (c66BC) tortured -2Mac6,7.

But that is not really the point. Why would we trust a God, if he might lead us into situations like that? Because its worth it. Even that sort of trouble is worthwhile if we then end up on God’s side. And we have an advantage that none of those examples did – we live after Jesus. We know what he endured, and where it lead him. We have even more reason to accept that a cross may be the way to heaven.

So faith is a belief, and a confidence, but always needing to be put into practice. These people, examples of faith, often knew less than we do of God’s plans, but they acted on what they knew; sometimes it lead them to strange and unlikely actions, but this was no madness – they were proved right by the results. Sometimes faith led them into suffering and difficulty, but again, it was not without reason in the purposes of God.

Which is all very interesting, and historical, until we realise that the time for faith is now. Don’t wait until you can see everything – you never will (on earth). If times are easy, faith will keep us from laziness. If times are hard, faith will keep us going. If times are confused, faith will steer us in the right direction. Faith, in a great God, is something to act on.

Abraham ?

The letter to Hebrews (today we read Hebrews 11:1-3 and 11:8-16 or all of Hebrews 11:1-16) wants to explain “faith”, and so talks about Abraham. Here is a man of faith. Not faith as a dogmatic, stubborn, closed mind, living in an imaginary world. Abraham sets out on a journey because he trusts God, trusts that God has called him to travel. His faith is that trust – to go forward, take risks, (even to leave what he knows and follow God’s promise). Again, when promised a son by his wife Sarah, he trusts God, and the promise becomes a reality. It is through this faith, this trust, that he becomes such a key part of God’s story and the working out of God’s plan. He is remembered by 3 faiths: Christian, Jewish, Muslim.

Perhaps we need to look closely to see how this works, and might transfer to our lives and experience. It is not about blind obedience – Abraham doesn’t live by rules: do this, don’t do that. No, he lives close enough to God to hear, and when he hears, to have the confidence to obey, and see it work out.

That’s exciting, and a bit scary. But it seems to be where a good deal of Christian life is. Think about when you have needed God’s help, and received it. Think about what God is asking of you and of people around you now. It is not all clearly mapped out, there are risks – of getting it wrong, making mistakes, looking stupid (or worse). But there is also a chance to be a part of what God is doing!

Back to Abraham. He doesn’t see it all happen (we are talking c 1800BC!), but he sees God working, and looks forward, even beyond his lifetime. So, will you look forward and work for the future, or only back? Have you the faith to be on God’s journey, looking for the promises, and the reassurances of being on the right track? The gospel (Luke 12:32-40) paints a picture of some of the blessings given to those who travel that way. But we still have to set out, and keep going.

Most Important!

Paul writes to Colossae, a place he has never visited, with a church founded by someone else. He’s heard that things are going wrong – there is a group whose teaching is seriously different and dangerous – it has all sorts of things: a bit of Jewishness, claims to “advance” beyond apostolic Christianity, mystical teaching about angels, and an “in-club” exclusivism.

So what does Paul have to say to all this, the threat to his teaching, and the true gospel? (You might want to read Colossians 1:1-5 now, the first part of the reading Colossians 1:1-14). Paul doesn’t seem as worried, or as negative, as I was! He wants to give thanks, and picks out faith (one commentator suggests – “Christian confidence”) and love, based on the hope of heaven.

He seems to put his hope for their future in these things, rather than a careful campaign against the false teachers. He will have more to say about them and their teaching, but there’s no panic. This is more important.

When we get to verses 9 and 10, his prayer is not for victory over the others, but for knowledge of God’s will, wisdom, and understanding. Is this so that they can put other people in their place? No. It is so that they can live properly, and do good deeds.

Paul really seems to think this is most important, as if it brought some protection, some benefit. And there’s one more thing. He talks about rescue, being set free, having sins forgiven. And he says God has done that! His opponents would have said that people needed “spiritual development” or some such thing. Paul says – the important things are simple and positive: God has set us free, given forgiveness in Jesus (as Epaphras said). So they (and we, overhearing this conversation by letter) should take advantage, and hold onto that!

Faith, love, the assurance that even when it is hard to do right, its value is never lost in heaven, where all will be safe – these are the imp things. So why am I reading bits of Colossians 1? Because I too easily see the negatives, and worry about how to react. What I find here is a reminder of the simple goodness and reliability of the gospel.

Accept what God has done, and offered you by faith – be sure you accept, and have confidence! Trust God (always more than “people” or “plans”), and love one another. Of course it will sometimes go wrong, but those things are so important!

Messiah and Good Shepherd?

[There is a reflection for Good Shepherd Sunday at “The Lord is – my tour guide?“, and there follows one for the gospel for Easter 4c]

The Festival of Dedication – Hanukkah, at Christmastime, remembered the re-dedication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus after he threw the Greeks out of Jerusalem (John 10:22-30, especially verse 22). A time when thoughts of freedom, and God’s Messiah, came up. So – Was Jesus the Messiah – and why wouldn’t he say so?

I think you know. He was the Messiah, all that he had done pointed to it. But if he said so, it would just start an argument. People needed, not to argue, but to think for themselves – and follow up their conclusions by action.

That’s still true. Preachers tend not to shout at you much. Why? It doesn’t do anything useful. The stories are told, connections and suggestions offered. You have to take responsibility for weighing it up – and taking action. Is Jesus the Messiah, or something else? I think he’s the Messiah, and that’s the basis of my following Him. Make your own mind up – and act on the conclusion!

Then there is the difficult verse John 10:26 “but you will not believe, for you are not my sheep.”

Difficult because:

  • It divides the flock (who believe – with much more than a correct opinion) from those who do not; – a critical division. Seen clearly in the story of Jesus, we still fail to apply it in our own time. Are you part of the flock of God, or not? “Independent sheepishness” is not on offer.
  • It reminds us that faith is a gift. On the one hand, no one is prevented from following Jesus / joining the flock. On the other, faith is a gift. There is an undeniable truth in the doctrine of Predestination. There is a paradox, difficult to hold together logically. Faith is a gift, yet those who lack it are held responsible for the actions of their faithless life.

The benefits of being in the flock are real, but not always romantic. The sheep who know the shepherd are themselves known. Those who follow the shepherd are led to food, water, and safe rest. That does not mean a selfish life – everything you want and nothing else; nor does it avoid the robust realities of getting on with the other sheep. But the difference between that, and life outside, without guidance and protection, or even hope of forgiveness and escaping the consequences of failure, are breathtaking.

The image of the Good Shepherd may be romanticised by some, but not by Jesus. He understands the division between the flock and those not included as key to the future.

Perspective

[for a comment on Luke 15:11-32, Lent 4c gospel, see this.]

How do you weigh up somebody new? The way they speak, dress, spend their leisure time? Perhaps their work, and the amount of money they seem to have and spend?

Yet Paul challenges all this, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view” 2 Cor 5:16. (Part of this week’s epistle – 2 Corinthians 5:16-21). We need to look for faith, holiness of life and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit – because these are the things that matter in eternity. It seems that the Corinthians are rather keen on classical rhetoric, and find Paul less impressive than some competitors.

Paul will not allow us to make such purely human judgements. Anyone in Christ is a new creation, transformed, reconciled to God – and given the vital job of bringing others to reconciliation with God.

Education would be more valuable if it was about godly wisdom. Sometimes it does encourage the pursuit of truth, but too often it is the competitive grasping of qualifications. If you educate a thief, you get a clever thief. For years, education was seen as the way out of poverty, the ticket out of the coalpit – but now we need to ask – ticket to where?

Culture covers everything from fine art and classical music to table manners, the habit of saving, and polite conversation. Not many that I would like to lose, yet they are about a way of doing things, not much about deciding what is right or motivating us to obey God. Wealth, in terms of the gospel, is a great responsibility, not a sign of having arrived.

Christians will spend eternity with those who never went to school (but weren’t stupid), who knew nothing of our literature, music, clothing, or food, and owned nothing worth £10. – remember that most Christians have not been European, let alone privileged. They will be the heavenly and eternal family.

On the other hand, many of those who have been closest to us – family members, colleagues, friends made through sport or leisure activities, will have no part in that. Ignorant of Christian faith, or dismissive of it, they risk losing out, unless we can provide the vital connection. “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us, we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” verse 20

We are reminded today, not just that there are many people to pray for, and that God is kind to the prodigal, but of weightier and more urgent matters. Our need is not to behave a bit better and pray a bit more, but to be sure that we are indeed reconciled to God, transformed by what he alone can do. Our whole outlook must change from that of our culture to that of our God. As we recognise a strange family, we take on also the responsibility of adding to it while there is time.

Faith

After 3 years of weekly comments on the gospel readings, I am moving on to comments on readings from the New Testament letters, while also referring you to earlier posts on gospel readings.

For Luke 4:1-13, see http://www.andrewknight.org.uk/lent/

In Paul’s letter to Rome, we read 10:9 “If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from death, you will be saved.” Romans 10:8-13

It is very simple. Our attempts at “being good” are never enough to win us God’s approval or get us out of trouble. We need something else – belief / faith / trust in Jesus. (We need several words because they get cliched). Just as a skier doesn’t walk up the hill – they take a cable car or ski lift. So in Christian faith, we don’t expect to get there by our own effort. It is the doctrine historically called “justification by faith”

So, all you have to do is say the words, and that’s it? No. “ For it is by our faith that we are put right with God; it is by our confession that we are saved”. Rom 10:11 The scripture says, “Whoever believes in him will not be disappointed.”
To say “Jesus is Lord” was dangerous – Caesar was Lord, in Roman terms. To “believe that God raised him [Jesus] from death” verse 9 was not a matter of opinion; it was to recognise his significance, power, and authority. This faith that saves is a basic direction in life, more significant than adoption or marriage.

Does it matter what we do, then? Of course. You can help or hurt, be a blessing or a curse. Look at Jesus in the wilderness – he is trying to get it right, working out his trust in God the Father. [Or, if you are reading Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Look at the man bringing his produce to a Harvest festival, using words to recognise God’s gift of land and food].

If you are marking the season of Lent by some special or extra activity, it should be something that removes obstacles to God’s work in and through you. If you weren’t at all bothered to let Jesus control you, your faith would be in question – “Who are you kidding! “ we would say, “you don’t trust God, you keep preventing him doing anything!”.
But you can’t work it backwards, “I’m good, so I must be Christian”, not even “I’m good, and I believe in God, so I must be OK”. Not true – Jesus and the New Testament don’t say that.. Romans 10:9 “If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from death, you will be saved.”

Faith, as trust in Jesus and letting him control – that’s what matters. Being Good, or less good – that doesn’t work with God, it’s just something we deal with later. Understand these words from Romans properly, and they bring great relief. What God asks of us is not that we reach a standard, but that we trust him, and let him do the work.

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.

Useless?

Why does Jesus need John the Baptist? There’s not much competition between them; Jesus outshines John from the moment his ministry gets into its swing. So why? Is it an accident, some sort of political gesture – or have we missed something?

The first thing that comes out of these readings (Luke 3:1-6, and Malachi 3:1-4) is that John fills the role of the forerunner, the “messenger preparing the way” foretold by Malachi (and indeed Isaiah 40:3). It is part of God’s plan that those who knew the writings of the prophets should have had several chances to recognise and understand what was happening, as John revived the long-dead tradition of prophecy, and Jesus came with his teaching.

That would mean John was needed to explain the significance of Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament – and I am sure that is true. But, even so, isn’t that just a detail? Will Jesus not be heard, because he is Jesus, or because of the delightful message he gives?

Look again. Malachi 3:2 “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;” burning and caustic – that is not quite the gentle message we expect. But John has heard the same tone, for he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” Luke 3:3

Why? John’s message is not an optional icing on the cake. The coming he speaks of is dangerous; there is the possibility of catastrophic failure. Those who would not repent were heading for disaster. The reality of judgement, even in the ministry of Jesus and not only at his second coming to judge the world and – us; is something we like to leave out, but should not. John’s ministry, even in its ferocious and forthright denunciations, was an act of merciful warning – of a real danger. A danger that is not past.

It would be nice to say that John gets through to those who need shouting at, and Jesus speaks with love. Nice, – but not true. Jesus is quite capable of speaking sharply and directly, of judgement and hell, as well as of God’s love and forgiveness. We may have trouble fitting them together, but he didn’t and we need to learn.

In the same way, John offered people a way of escape and salvation. Repentance and baptism were freely available, and clearly popular as well. John the Baptist is part of God’s plan, and in that sense Jesus needs him. He

  • makes clear the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus
  • shows us that new life doesn’t happen without leaving the old; repentance, commitment, faith are not “options” but the necessary route to heaven
  • he announces the demands of a holy God, who requires holiness in his people.

John the Baptist is a forceful antidote to a sentimentalised Christmas which does little more than excuse a conventional holiday. He won’t have that. The arrival of Jesus is the turning point of world history, an opportunity for every human – but one which could be missed, with eternal consequence.

Is Jesus doing it right?

It is always important to ask the right questions. But I might not ask the questions other people would. They might hear Mark 7:24-37 and ask, “Is Jesus doing it right?” – and think not. Jesus seems reluctant to help – well he has tried to get away for a break with the disciples (in this part of the gospel he is spending more time teaching and preparing them for the cross to come). The idea that he ought to be healing people because that is what he does fails to understand that Jesus is much more than a miracle worker.

What is going on with the Syro-Phoenician woman? The clue is in the name. She doesn’t have the Jewish background that would help her see Jesus’ actions as the fulfillment of God’s promises (like those we read about in Isaiah). How can she see healing as a sign of God’s Kingdom? The answer seems to be, by Faith. Her dialogue with Jesus, far from taking offence and going away, shows that she is not only willing to engage with him, but to trust him. He sees that she has that gift, and it opens the way for her daughter to be cured. (Faith of the sort James would approve – very practical, not just words).

As through the Old Testament and into Jesus ministry, God dealt with his chosen people, who were prepared and taught for his plans to be put into effect, so there were always exceptions of those willing to join that hope and movement. This nameless woman adds to the list.

The second part of the reading is another story, about a deaf man who also had difficulty speaking. Notice how Jesus takes him away from the crowd. It seems to be concern for his understanding of what is happening, and that he not be assaulted by the noise of the crowd. He is healed (Isaiah 35 fulfilled!) He orders people not to speak of it – but that fails, for there is talk, and celebration. Jesus might worry that people will think he is building a celebrity reputation to run for power; or simply that people will not understand his Ministry and purpose.

The question “Was Jesus doing it right?” is not my question. I assume that the way Jesus chose was the one set by God. I suppose to begin with we have to be sure that Jesus is worth paying attention to – that he is doing things we think worthwhile. But after that, don’t we get to a point of wanting to learn how he does things – to imitate it? He’s not just about “doing good”, but very much “doing God” -as in bringing God’s Kingdom, fulfilling his promises. So, if in this or other passages, you find yourself asking Why? Or What’s going on? Please go on asking till you find answers. Jesus doesn’t always do things the way we would – but that may be because we need to learn His ways, as well as because we haven’t understood.

At the beginning of this reading, He was trying to get away and spend time with the disciples. Perhaps they learnt through these events. Perhaps we can too.