Tag Archives: faith

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.

Are you receiving me?

(There is a dialogue sketch on Mark 6:1-13 available here).

How do you communicate with God? It’s a very personal thing, and should be. But it is also important, and so worth talking about.

People vary in the ways they relate. Some are more spontaneous, some more formal and organised – I remember a story about one person, who was said to pray as if he were addressing a business meeting, but – they said – that was all right because he talked to everyone like that.

The story of Jesus going to the synagogue in his home town (Mark 6:1-13) is sad. He is known to be a wise teacher and powerful worker of good miracles – but he is offensive because of his local background. Nobody suggests he has done anything wrong, it seems just to be that he can’t be taken seriously. It’s sad, because it means he can do little there – there isn’t the open communication, or the trust we call faith, which makes it possible to teach and heal.

But then the twelve are sent out on mission. Their confidence in Jesus has grown to a point where they can take a risk and try things for themselves. It will be an important leap forward in their faith, their understanding, and their communication skills. The instructions to take no provisions increase this – can it work? Yes, apparently God can do it.

So, how do you communicate with God? Is it a “wish list” of things wanted, or an expectation of emotions flattered and soothed? Is it about what you want, or is there a relationship where you can be honest about what you want and feel, but also listen for what God is doing and saying – even when that is not what you want to hear?

Are you like the locals, who didn’t want to take Jesus seriously and found excuses not to, or like the twelve, who (probably with very mixed feelings!) went and did what they were sent to, and as a result learnt and grew and celebrated?

Is God growing on you?

{There is also a 3 part Dialogue Sketch on Mark 4:26-34, available on the Dialogue Sketches section of this website – click here, or go to http://www.andrewknight.org.uk/dialogue-sketches/index-of-dialogue-sketches/mark-426-34-parables-of-the-kingdom/ }

How much space is there in your life for God?  You’re reading – a good start. But is this a secret interest, or does God get taken home, to work, to leisure activities, to everything?

When Jesus talked about a seed growing, and then about the mustard seed, (Mark 4:26-34) he probably needed to reassure his hearers: the way to make an impact was not revolution (regularly unsuccessful then, as often since), but planting the seed of the Kingdom of God. You must be joking! some would say, yet in his disciples, being entertained moved on to tolerance, and then to commitment, and that became something to change the world.

In  the first century, the faith of just 120 became something to rock Roman empire, survive it, and become largest religion now on earth. Jesus was right (we shouldn’t be surprised!) that seed does grow. But I was asking how much space there is in your life for God. I don’t mean “church” activity should elbow out everything else.  There are churches that do that, that fill your life so that you never meet anyone outside, have time for any other interests, and don’t get much chance to meet the wrong people. It’s not a good way of organising Christian life, because it doesn’t produce mature Christians, but hothouse plants who always need protecting. (That’s why I didn’t ask how much time you had for God, but how much space.)

The thing I wanted to point out was that the seed grows. You may remember this happening. Something started you, but since then, it’s grown. You can stop it – like a plant uprooted, deprived of light or water – but you don’t have to understand how it happens. Given space, faith will grow. As it grows, it is more than “Church on Sunday”, it begins to affect family, work, the way you spend free time, the way you think about things, and about yourself. You can stop it, refuse it some places, or let it grow.

Given time and good conditions the tiny seed of the kingdom grows until birds nest in the mustard shrub. Perhaps that’s just a comment about the size or security of the tree. Or perhaps Jesus is saying that we get to a point where our whole life – everything about us – is lived in faith and for God. It doesn’t mean we get terribly “religious”, obsessed by “churchiness” – after all, Jesus wasn’t like that. It does mean nothing is out of bounds to God. And if you think that means you never have a laugh, get time off, or anything to enjoy, look again at Jesus.

Now, I started by asking how much space there is in your life for God. Perhaps I ought to sharpen up that question and ask, not how much space, but “Are you letting God grow on you?”

Judged – for what?

Sometimes it really helps to understand Jesus words when we know what he is referring to.  This week we read Matthew 25:31-46, but it may be easier to first read the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel 34:11-24, which is also a reading for this Sunday which we call Christ the King.

When Ezekiel, prophet of the exile in the 6C BC, spoke of God shepherding his people, it was a direct and forthright criticism of the leaders of the nation. Read the rest of chapter 34, and you will find no excuses for the abuse of power by the powerful.  But the prophet has more to say than to denounce the leaders of the time. First, he makes clear that God is concerned – concerned not just with punishing the abuse and removing the abusers, but with stepping in to care for his victimised people.

But there is more. In verse 17 he says “I myself will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats”.  And in verse 23,“I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them:”

Jesus clearly finds several points of contact with Ezekiel’s prophecy. Yes, like it or not, Jesus is talking about judgement, and about a judgement which divides people into just 2 groups. In the context of his day, the criticism of the leaders of the people is very clear. They have opposed him, refused to hear his message or to recognise his God given status.

The basis of the judgement is not “Have you been nice to people?”, despite what so many seem to think. It is not even “have you been religious?”. Jesus says “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. Earlier in the gospel (chapter 12:48f) he has made it clear that his “family” are not the blood relations, but those who followed him. It seems that here he is saying that our support of, and identifying with, poor Christians is critical.

You will understand why we read this today, on the the feast of Christ the King, last Sunday before Advent. The promised King Messiah, descendant of King David, has arrived. He will assume the role of shepherding leadership of the people, and will be judge of all.

But what are we supposed to learn, and – perhaps more important – do? We know that we are not saved by being good enough – because we are never up to God’s standard. Our hope is that faith in Jesus, and the forgiveness he offers, brings us to new life now and after this life.

The punch line is that it has to be real. Christian faith is not about mental acrobatics, or sophisticated pretending. Our faith is a trust which has to work through and show in every part of our life. There is an old joke which says, “If you were arrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Would you, perhaps, be able to pass it off – I didn’t really mean it, just went along with some friends, it didn’t change the way I worked, or spent money, or who I socialised with. . . .

We won’t frighten people into heaven with talk of judgement, but as Christians we dare not be unprepared to face our Judge. Is my faith more than words and vague good intentions? Am I prepared to support and stand with Christians, even poor, vulnerable and needy Christians against their sophisticated and rich critics? Both sheep and goats seem surprised at the judgement – but neither argue the truth of it.

Readiness – and Remembrance

I’ve always had a certain sympathy for Ethelred the Unready. I know little about him – but his title suggests he was a very British king, and on the day we in Britain remember our War victims I am reminded of him. My impression – totally subjective and unrepresentative – is that whenever there is a war, the first months are spent in shock and complaint at how unprepared we are to fight. We shouldn’t be, but . .

Of course, you can understand why: there are always other things to do. The cost of a fighter plane, for instance, is huge – and there are always alternatives. We can do without a plane, say the planners, build a new school. Or think of the cost of a new warship – we could equip a hospital for that, so keep the old one going a bit longer . . So it goes on in peacetime, but when war threatens, we don’t like to admit it. Carry on as normal, we say; we don’t want to be seen as threatening, we say; to build up our forces would be seen as hostile, we say. And we go to war unprepared and underequipped. Wasn’t it the case that most of the troops who crossed the Falkland Is in record time had bought their own boots, rather than wear the army issue?

Wars, thankfully, come to an end. But sadly, we don’t seem to be much better at preparing for peace. We ought to be, but . . We’ve all heard of the hope of a “land fit for heroes” after the First War – and know of the grim reality of the Depression, the General Strike and mass unemployment. It seems that today a fair – unfair -proportion of the homeless are ex-services personnel. It also seems to be the case that many of those who engage in violent armed crime have learnt the techniques of combat from military training, but somehow have turned them to unintended use, or have not been protected from the traumas of conflict and its aftermath.

I can’t offer any easy solutions for these problems, but remember them this week as we read Matthew 25:1-13. Jesus tells a story about girls unready for the delayed arrival of the bridegroom. They shouldn’t be, but . . . Interestingly, they all sleep, but as they wake, some are found to be prepared and others not. Shouldn’t they have shared their supplies of oil, you wonder? Well, that depends what that oil represents. It may be that they are not unduly cautious, or mean, but that the oil is something which cannot be shared.

Jesus is thinking of the time when he will return; he is warning his followers to be prepared and ready. Matthew tells the story, knowing that the church can very easily get absorbed in the routine of now – church life, business life, the crises of family – they all provoke a drowsiness. They shouldn’t be like that, but . . . But what will happen when the big wake-up call comes?

Then we discover what people are made of. Faith is the key thing – and faith cannot be transferred from one person to another. Your faith can help other people, but they can’t take it over, or inherit it. When Jesus returns, he won’t only be hoping to find faith. He will look for those whose faith has made them open to grace, and in whose characters and lives the oil of grace has worked a transformation. They will have learnt love; their hope will not be easily discouraged. Humility will help them make themselves useful even in unglamorous work, and their gifts will be put to serve people wherever they are. These are the unsung heroes of wartime – and peace as well.

A crisis shows people up, and some have what it takes and others don’t. We are warned to stock up on the oil of grace while it is available – work with God now, while there is time. Today we remember the casualties of war. Many died young. We record our thanks for the opportunity they gave us to reach a normal span of years in freedom.

And the gospel asks:
have those years we are given brought us to maturity?
have we reached our potential?

Don’t talk about wealth or reputation, qualifications or family size. Talk about faith and character; about the way God’s grace has been received; the way the HS has produced fruit of character and the gifts of service. If we have got it right, we shall be ready:
ready to meet human crisis and disaster
ready for Jesus return to require an account of our stewardship

If not, we shall be selfish, offendable, fragile and proud.
“the bridegroom came, and those who were ready
went with him into the wedding banquet,
and the door was shut.” Mt 25:10