Sermon: The Joy to Come

Sermon preached at Wesley Chapel Guildford on 28 March 2021. Palm Sunday

John 12:1-8

At that time, it was …

Six days before the Passover.

Six days to the Cross

Six days to death

And then a few more to resurrection …. AND LIFE!

In our time it is just before our remembrance of the Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem and time to brace ourselves for Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Our readings point us towards that time and they are hopeful.

ISAIAH 43

18 Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

The prophet and the psalmist are, in their context, pointing to a time beyond the Babylonian captivity. You will remember that the people of God had been taken into exile and were separated from their homeland for 70 years before they were allowed to return. He reminds them of their exile in Egypt, of their miraculous escape through the waters.

Isaiah who had stayed behind when the people were taken to Babylon wrote several letters to them, promising that God would restore them, and that they were not to worry – plant fields, he said, marry, have children. That must have been hard – imagine waiting 70 years for a promise to materialise. (Prince Charles waiting to be king!)

BUT … when the release came … we have those words from Psalm 126

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed. 
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.

Imagine the abounding joy! Psalm 126 is one of the Songs of Ascent … the songs that Jewish pilgrims sang as they ascended the hills to the Holy City and the Temple of the Lord.

I remember going up those hills from Jericho in a tour bus and the guide switched on Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus at full volume as we wound our way over the hill to the city. It gave me goosebumps … I can imagine the thrill of joy as the exiles returned from Babylon and sang this song for the first time … laughing, bubbling, full of joy.

In our Philippians reading, Paul shared his testimony. He tells of all the good things he has done, of his qualifications and his accomplishments but when he came to faith in Jesus he counted all those things as loss for the sake of Christ …

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

There is such a hopefulness in our faith. Whatever may have happened, whatever dangers or disappointments we might have faced, whatever risks lie in wait for us, there is always hope. 

The words of Kennon Callahan (Twelve Keys to an Effective Church) have been with me for years … we are not only the people of the Cross, we are also the people of the Empty Tomb.

And as we have journeyed our weary way through Lent, reminiscent of the 40 years in the desert on the way to the Promised Land and Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness before he began his ministry, we are reminded in these readings that ahead of us lies the full satisfaction of our hope in God.

But what about the reading in John’s Gospel … surely it doesn’t fit this message. What does a dinner party, an extravagant wasting of perfume, talk of a burial and the poor always being with us have to do with hopefulness?

Let’s set the scene.

There is a dinner party in the village of Bethany. Jesus is the honoured guest at the table, he is surrounded by his most intimate friends 

  • Lazarus, the friend who died and over whom he wept. The one whom he raised from the dead.
  • Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and her sister Mary, with whom Jesus seemed to stay whenever he visited Jerusalem
  • And, of course, the disciples.

Martha is serving the food, and Lazarus’ is there at the table.

Mary takes a pint of pure nard and pours it on Jesus’ feet, the room is filled with a wonderful fragrance but Judas is upset at this extravagant waste.

This story of the woman who pours perfume over Jesus’ feet appears also in each of the other gospels but she is only named in John. In Luke’s gospel she is identified as a sinner – “that sort of woman!”

Some have suggested that this Mary could well be Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Migdol (a little village near Galilee on the main road to Nazareth). Mary of Migdol was the former prostitute from whom Jesus had cast out seven devils.

Here she comes and pours out a pint of pure nard, worth nearly a years’ wages, on the feet of Jesus. In those days prostitutes invested in perfume as a saving for their retirement. The alabaster perfume bottle worn around their neck was a symbol of their profession.  

Mary comes to Jesus – and she had no doubt been with Him many days – and pours out this perfume (all her savings for the future) at the feet of the Lord. It is powerfully symbolic – she is surrendering her past, as a sinner, and giving her future as a gift to Jesus. 

Judas is angry! What a waste, he says, but really he was only interested in helping himself to this valuable perfume.

Jesus is pleased! This gift is for my burial … it is only six days to go. Six days to the Passover, six days to the Cross, Six days to death…

In Jesus’ mind, the hope for mankind is nearly here. He will die for the sake of sinners. In the giving of his life he will give new life and new hope for all those who put their faith and trust in him. 

Perhaps Mary Magdalene knew this too … She was no longer the prostitute who served travellers on the road between Jerusalem and Galilee. That life was gone – dead, finished. She had found a new life in following Jesus, and perhaps, of all his followers, including the disciples, she understood the good news of his message.

She gave up her old life, she gave up her perfume – her saved-up hope for the future, to put all her trust and hope in him.

At his death, she was there at the Cross with his mother, At his resurrection, she was there at the dawn of the new day to bear witness to the empty tomb and the risen Christ.

As we approach the remembrance of those momentous events 2000 years ago, Palm Sunday on the way into Jerusalem, Good Friday on Golgotha and Easter Sunday at the Garden Tomb … let us also know that putting our sin behind us is not a loss … that putting our trust in Jesus is a good investment and that there is great joy beyond the trials and the suffering.

Let us be like those who dreamed. Let our mouths be filled with laughter, and our tongues with songs of joy.

To God be the glory, in Christ Jesus, both now and forever!


Sermon: The Path of our Faith

Sermon preached at Toodyay, Western Australia on 7 March 2021 at a combined Anglican/Uniting Church service. Lectionary based: 3rd Sunday in Lent

Exodus 20:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

Do you remember playing “snakes and ladders” as a child, or perhaps still today with your children or grandchildren. The principle is that you move along a path on the board and if you land on a snake you slide backwards. If you land on a ladder you climb up along the path.

It makes me think about the path of our Christian walk. Sometimes there are events in life (sin, temptation, troublesome situations) which seem to knock us backwards – these are the snakes. 

And sometimes there are really great God moments when we surge ahead in our faith: when we are climbing ladders. Times when we are absolutely sure that God is able to do so much more than we could ever ask or imagine.

In the testimony of your faith, what is it that brings you near to God: Obedience to the Law, Signs and wonders, convincing argument, something else? Is it the spectacular experience, or the provocative speech?

In my own journey, all of these have been significant milestones. I have sought to be obedient to the Ten Commandments, I have heard the voice of God in the night, I have seen people miraculously healed, prophecies fulfilled and the exercising of the gifts of the Spirit. And I have  been motivated by stirring sermons and wise words.

But, as I look back on the four decades which I have walked with the Lord, I see that while these have been important, even essential for the journey, there is another factor at work. 

Indeed, I see this other factor as the very path upon which I have placed my feet, the path of my faith – the other things have been simply the scenery as the Lord has given me glimpses of the Kingdom to which He is leading me. 

And, of course, there have been times when sin and temptation and the worries of this world have caused me to fall.

There have been some marvelous vistas in my life with God and I will, no doubt, see more of them, but the essential is the path, not the scenery. It is the path which leads us to the goal, not the scenery. The scenery is pleasant, magnificent, scary sometimes, but it takes us nowhere. 

It is the path which is important.

In our reading from Corinthians, Paul writes, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified”. 

The signs and the wisdom are good – but more important is Christ crucified and raised from the dead. Here is the essence, the truth, the path. And as we walk THIS path, we will see the spectacular views: the miraculous signs and the defining wisdom. 

We cannot, without faith, understand anything of this otherworldly dimension which the Cross brings into this world. And we cannot, without faith, see that the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is to bring the world of the Father into our world. 

The Kingdom from above is declared in our world through the death and resurrection of Christ and we discern it by faith in the Lordship of Christ.

It’s an incomprehensible idea that God should enter His creation, take on human flesh and then pay it down to redeem us. It is incomprehensible that Jesus, whipped, crucified, certified as dead should rise from the dead. It is a mystery, a paradox.  

It is in this mystery of Cross and Resurrection, where the new world of the Holy Spirit touches the old world of the flesh. But it touches it, as Karl Barth explains, as a tangent touches a circle – without actually touching it. And precisely because it touches without touching, it creates a new frontier for our journey of faith – we have a paradigm shift in which the “ladder” in the board game of our life suddenly takes us right off the board – into another dimension, a dimension which is known, yet not known, for it is of faith and of the Spirit. It is a leap of faith!

And that brings us to the incident in the Temple where Jesus cleared out the sellers of the sacrificial animals and the money-changers. 

In trying to understand this event, scholars have presented three basic reasons to explain why Jesus did it. I will briefly outline these but I really want to make the point that this incident was much more than these reasons – it is a challenge to us to make the leap of faith from the mundane of the world into the glory of Christ’s Kingdom.

First, they said that Jesus was angered because worship in the Temple was no longer reverent. Second, they said that the sacrifices were no longer relevant and third, that the market traders had closed off the Gentile Court to non-Jewish worshippers ie it was no longer a house of prayer for all nations. (Mark 11:17)

All of these are quite valid but I think there is more, and we find this in the response of the disciples and in the response of Jesus.

The disciples, witnessing this incident, remembered the words from Psalm 69 – “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” They saw a zeal in Jesus which had turned into anger, an anger at the flippancy with which the people of God were dealing with the things of God. It was an anger of centuries, not just the moment. It called into question the extent of reverence which the people accorded to the Almighty, it challenged the relevance of their sacrifices and it showered doubt on their understanding of the mission of God.

And more … that prophetic word – “Zeal for Your house will consume me” pointed to the Cross, the death of Jesus, the purpose for which He came. 

These things, lack of reverence, irrelevant sacrifices and the selfish clinging to the promise of God for themselves only were about to be blown out of the water in the death of Jesus. In His obedience to the Father He was to show what true reverence is; in His death, the true meaning of sacrifice and in His invitation to the repentant sinner beside Him on the Cross, He was to reveal the true recipients of God’s promise.

And then!

At the request from the Jews for a sign (or evidence) for His authority to act in this way Jesus responds quite dramatically – “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They thought he was speaking of Herod’s Temple. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our Lord was not interested in bricks and mortar, or even marble and polished limestone.

No! He was speaking about His own body. He was speaking about death and resurrection. 

He was not going to break down and rebuild the scenery – for that’s all that the Temple really was. It was a means of faith. It was a help, a metaphor of what is to be. No, He was not going to erase that ladder from the board game of life, only to replace it with another one.

This was a big time change. This was a paradigm shift that He was offering. This was a new dimension to our relationship with God. This was a new frontier – He was about to take the world into a place it had never been before.

He was taking us to the Cross. He was showing us the way to new life. He was pointing us to resurrection and a new hope. He was setting a new path before us – the scenery would be the same. There would still be laws and signs and wisdom – they were needed to encourage us on the journey. But Jesus was focusing us into a new dimension. He was showing us that it was the path which mattered, not the scenery – not signs and wonders, not wisdom but simple faith in Christ crucified. 

The Methodist Communion Liturgy has a simple statement of faith included in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. It goes like this:

Christ has come

Christ has died

Christ has risen

Christ will come again

Our search for the meaning of life is often sought in the signs which we see around us, the events, the miracles, the understanding but this is the path, this is our faith – Christ crucified gives the real meaning to our life.

We do often want to focus on the signs, what we can see – the scenery but the faith dimension requires us “to be sure of what we hope for, certain of that which we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1) 

Faith is to step out of the realm of the created world and to begin to see the signs of the world to come – the destroyed Temple, the crucified Christ, the empty tomb, the Risen Christ, the ascended Lord. It is to experience the sovereign reign of God now, as we wait for the return of Christ.

To the Philippian jailer, Paul said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” It was a call to understand the sign of the Cross and the significance of the Resurrection.

And that is my call to you this morning – enjoy the ride, appreciate the scenery but most of all “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Understand the sign of the Cross and the significance of the Resurrection.


Sermon: Burning Bridges

Sermon preached at Merredin Uniting Church on 28 February 2021. A challenge to find our freedom in following Jesus.

1 Kings 19:19-21

Luke 9:18-24

When I was in 2nd year of university … and really struggling to get to grips with what I needed to do with my life … I had made a real mess of it by that time … I went to see a movie called “Kelly’s Heroes”.

I don’t remember much about the movie – Donald Sutherland starred and it was something about a crazy tank battalion who had a plan to rob a bank or something. But something stayed with me from that movie – it helped me make up my mind then about my life and it has often been a help in shaping my life since then.

It was a song by The Mike Curb Congregation called “Burning Bridges”. It tells of how we are often confused by our own thoughts and by the advice of well meaning friends. The singer – convinced of the rightness of what must be done, decides that the only way to still the confusion is to burn the bridges … to press on forward, in conviction.

We see something of this in Elijah’s call to Elisha and we see it always in the challenge to Christian discipleship. Elisha was a wealthy farmer. He plowed his fields with twelve pairs of oxen. One day, while he is plowing, the prophet Elijah comes up to him and throws his cloak about him. To us this might seem a strange action but it was in fact part of the ancient covenant-making ritual. Elijah gives Elisha his outer garment – he is calling Elisha into a covenant relationship with him. He is calling Elisha to follow him.

Elisha understands this – he says, “first let me go and kiss my father and mother goodbye.”

But the call that Elijah makes is also a call to discipleship.  And that is about leaving all and following, no matter the cost.

Luke tells a similar story about some whom Jesus called to follow – one man wanted first to bury his father, another wanted to go back and say goodbye to his family. Jesus makes it plain – if I call you to follow me, then you follow – you cannot also have things on your own terms – even to wait the burial of your father, or to say farewell to your family. Once you have set your hand to the plow there is no turning back.

Elijah’s response is that if you must first go and kiss your father and mother goodbye, then forget it – go back, for I can then do nothing with you.

Elisha does go back – but he goes to slaughter the oxen and to use his plows as fuel to cook the meat which he then gives to all the people. Then he goes with Elijah.

And we know from the subsequent story that he never leaves Elijah again … he follows him everywhere, even when Elijah sends him away.

Elisha is convinced of the rightness of his conviction to follow Elijah. He burns his plows and slaughters his cattle. There is no more turning back. He leaves himself no option, he is committed. He can now only follow because there is nowhere else to go.

When Jesus calls us, it is the same thing. Exactly the same thing, although we would prefer it not to be. We would prefer to have most of the stuff of our life carry on unchanged. We would prefer to put the things that might inconvenience our following of Jesus on hold, so that we can get back to it if needs be. We would rather hire out our plows and cattle – it makes much more sense.

But following Jesus is not about making sense. It is about a conviction that allows no option to turn back. Discipleship understands that things will not always be quite so clear  as when we are first called and so it cuts out the option to go back to plowing.

Following Jesus is about understanding who He is. He is not just an option in life. He is not just one of the choices to follow – He is the only choice. 

Dammit though, we don’t like to be so restricted … 

we want options! 

But Jesus doesn’t give us any.

And yet He understands our preference for options. He knows we want them. He knows we want choices. But He also knows that every choice we have will dilute our relationship with Him and keep us from the full potential of who we are as His disciples.

So He asks His disciples …

“Who do the crowds say that I am?

What choices have they made?”

They answer …

“Some say John the Baptist, others that you are Elijah, still others say that you are one of the prophets of long ago come back to life”.

The crowds made their choices ….

But you, says Jesus …

“Who do you say that I am?

What choices have you made?”

“You are the Christ of God.” says Peter …

And Jesus wants him to clearly understand what that means … that means that I, the Christ of God must suffer, be rejected and die so that I may rise again on the third day.

It also means that you must follow me – that you must deny yourself and take up your cross daily. 

The world doesn’t know much about discipleship anymore. We live by choices and personal preferences. Absolute commitment is unknown. In marriage, in faith, in life.

But the Bible calls us to follow the Lord with everything

Burn the bridges, burn the plows – there’s no turning back anymore! 

If you want to keep any other options open you will lose your life because every other option leads to death.

And you, here in this church in Merredin, Western Australia … who do you say that Jesus is?

Would you prefer to have some other options?

Your job, your farm, your children, your money, your wife, your husband, your security ….

Would you rather just hire yourself out to Jesus, as required, and simply keep on with the rest of your life as usual? 

Indeed, what good would it be for your family if you were living only for Jesus?

BUT, you see, to make Jesus Lord of your life is to FIND your life. It is to find your job, your marriage, your children and all those other things. As they find second place, so your life becomes truly fulfilled.

Whoever loses his life for my sake will surely save it, says Jesus.

The best life comes when you follow Jesus. Your job, marriage, life, and relationships will all be the best possible when you have chosen to follow Jesus with all your heart and soul and body. Following Jesus is not a constrained, boring life. It does not tie you up in laws and stop your fun.

The life in Christ is a life that has no compromise in faith and trust in God and so to ensure that those other options are closed, it seems to burn the bridges and plows of the alternative life.

Until we burn the bridges of this boring alternative life, we will not fully be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Until we take up that cross at every compromise, we will always be creating soft options .. and will always be taking them.

And we will never know Jesus as the Christ of God. And our lives will be just one day after another until we die.

Jesus will always then just be a useful choice and a fairly suitable model for life.

But He is so more than that!

And He wants so much more for us.

PRAY WITH ME

Lord God, You call us all to follow you.

But this is really hard for me.

I have so many commitments, and so much depends on me.

I am not sure that I can do it.

I can give it a go but I already know that out of my own strength, weakness and preferences, that I will surely fail.

So I turn to you ..

As you call me to follow. So give me strength to go.

As you lead me, help me keep my eyes fixed on you.

When I stumble, hold me up.

If I fail, forgive me and call me again.

You are the Lord of life ..

You do not call me to difficulty but to freedom

The difficulty comes from my resistance. I know that.

Help me to be free in you, to follow you and so to find my true life in you.

Amen