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: Trusting in the Promises of God

Sermon preached at Leeming Uniting Church on 14 February 2021. It is both Valentine’s Day and Transfiguration Sunday. Both are, in a sense, about trusting in promises. While I do refer to the Transfiguration, mostly the reference is to Abram response to God – he trusted in God’s promise more than God’s command.

Genesis 12:1-12:9

Romans 4:1-5; 13-17

Matthew 17:1-9

Abraham was obviously the great example when it comes to faith. How did he ever develop such towering trust in God? What can we do to develop the same type of faith.

The clue, it seems, is that Abram lived by promises, not commands. 3 What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

On the day when God first spoke to Abram, God said, Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.

Listen to the promises God made to him.
I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing .
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you

God directed Abram to do only one thing-“Leave”-and in response God promised eight wonderful things to him. But it did require Abram to leave his country, his people, and his relatives-in other words, he had to get out of his comfort zone. He had to give up the land he knew best, the culture he had grown up in, the familiar sights and sounds. People who walk by faith often hear God’s voice telling them, “You need to leave now. It’s time to move on to something new.”
Sometimes that word has to do with geography, as in Abram’s case. At other times, God directs his people to leave certain work situations, sever relationships, or make other difficult changes. When you walk by faith, God never lets you settle into some area of stability. Just when you reach a certain place spiritually and decide to pitch your tent and relax for the rest of your life, God says, “Leave.” This was the story of Abram. In fact, he was never allowed to settle down permanently as long as he lived.

So, Abram left his home to live off the promises of God.
We cannot live off the commands of God, but we can live by the promises. The commands of God reveal his holy character to us, but they hold no accompanying power. Instead, the grace of God flows through the channel of his promises. God must first do for us what he promised, and only then will we be able to walk in obedience to his commands. He is God -everything must begin with him.

It is true that God’s moral commands teach us where we fall short, but it doesn’t bring a solution to our human dilemma. Only the promises bring us hope –if we respond in faith, as Abram did. This is what sustained him throughout his life. And, in fact, by the time Abram arrived in Canaan, God was already adding more promises. He said, “To your offspring I will give this land”. God’s abundance kept flowing as Abram responded to the call of the original promises.

Mostly we are command-oriented. Every day we wake up conscious of God’s moral law and try to do right so God will approve of us at the end of the day. And it is a great struggle. We would do better to wake up thinking about the promises of God and what he has said he will do for us. Then his power working in us will lead us into the way of obedience and right living.
The tender love of God toward us, as revealed in His gracious promises, is the only thing that really draws us into a closer walk with the Lord.

Abram felt so close to God that “he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD” between the towns of Bethel and Ai. Abram’s heart reached out to God in worship. God had been so good to him, so generous, so affirming. Abram had not earned any promise or blessing; it was all because of grace. He could not help lifting up his heart and hands to God in adoration. And that’s how we should be, and will be, as we walk in faith.

Abram had no master plan only the trust in the promise of God. 13 It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.
The book of Hebrews tells us that “by faith Abraham obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going”. He had no map for the journey. He simply headed west toward the Mediterranean, and that was that. God had said he would show him where to stop when he got to wherever he was going.

That would be a struggle for us, wouldn’t it? Not just in our travels, but in planning out our careers and our lives, we simply have to have a comprehensive plan. We do very few things by faith.

Abram didn’t have a clue. If you had met up with his caravan at some oasis, the conversation might have gone like this:
“Abram, where are you going?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, how will you know when you get there?”
“I don’t know that, either. God only said he would show me.”
“You have quite an entourage here. When you do arrive, who will supply all the food you’ll need? After all, if you’re going to survive in a new place, how are you going to eat”?
“I don’t know. He just said he would take care of me.”
“You don’t seem to have a security force. Who is going to protect you from the Jebusites, the Hittites, the Amorites, and all the rest of the warring tribes? “
Abram would just shake his head and wander away. Faith is happy to step out not knowing where it’s going so long as it knows that God is there. As long as God’s strong hand was holding Abram’s, everything was going to work out just fine. He simply moved ahead in faith.

We like to control the map of our life and know everything well in advance. But faith is content just knowing that God’s promise cannot fail. And that is the excitement of walking with God. When we read the book of Acts, we never quite know what’s going to happen with the next turn of the page. The Spirit is in control, and that is enough. Paul had no formula as to how he would evangelize; he was simply going by faith. God unveiled the route as he went along.

The promise at the beginning of the book of Acts is “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you”. No wonder Jesus told the disciples to “wait for the gift my Father promised”. Just as Abram and his wife Sarai had to wait with expectation for what God had promised them. Having faith in the promise is the key and the only hope for anyone.

I’m always amazed at the account of the Transfiguration. These men had walked with Jesus, they had seen miracles, they had seen the trust which Jesus placed in His Father –but there on the mountain, when the Father declared His pleasure in the Son and instructed them to listen to Him, they fell down terrified. And their first reaction – “Lets do something! Lets build a house. Lets stay here forever.”
It was a faith building exercise, a revelation of the true nature of Jesus and of His mission, and all they wanted to do was build a shrine.
Faith is so much more than the physical, it is a call to follow the promises of God.
On the Mount of Transfiguration Peter wanted to build three shrines –one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. He could probably have organized them quite well, but that wasn’t the point of the Transfiguration. Its intention was to confirm the promise of God in Jesus as revealed in the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). They didn’t see that, because they were still caught up in the motives and comforts of the flesh rather than the promises of God.
And perhaps the reason why Jesus told them not to tell anyone was because they had failed the test. They had to wait until after the resurrection before they could talk about it, once they had grasped the enormity of this revelation and its consequences for a life of faith.

Too often the search for leaders is for people who are sharp and clever at getting things done, or who know the Scriptures without understanding their intent as the revelation of God’s promise. We don’t look for leaders with the faith of Abram who are willing to trust God wherever he leads.
We forget that the Church was founded in a prayer meeting. Simple men full of faith and the Holy Spirit led it in its earliest and most successful years. They concentrated not on the secret of church growth, but on the secret of receiving the power God has promised. Because of their faith, the Lord gave them both power and growth.

Even Paul was humble enough to admit to the church at Corinth that, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:1, 4-5). We need this kind of approach to ministry and stimulation of faith in the Church today.

In fact, God has a wonderful plan for all his people. And while He doesn’t necessarily reveal everything to us He does ask that we take his hand and walk along in faith. He will show us soon enough what should be done.

Faith deals with the invisible things of God. It refuses to be ruled by the physical senses. Faith is able to say, “You can do what you like, because I know God is going to take care of me. He has promised to bless me wherever he leads me.” Remember that even when everything stands against us, the God of Abraham remains faithful to all his promises. Jesus can do anything but fail the people who trust in him.

God calls us to faith and in faith. When everything around us is confusing and doesn’t seem to be going according to plan we can still trust implicitly in the promises of God.
So today I’m inviting you to follow in the footsteps of Abraham. Begin carefully and prayerfully to search the Scriptures, asking the Holy Spirit to make God’s promises come alive to the point where they direct you and where you can live off them, even as Abraham did.

God’s plans are universal –from the beginning of time He has set in place a plan of salvation and the promise of eternal life to all who believe “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”. And He desires us all to listen to the Son He loves, with whom He is well pleased.
The first step is to trust the word of God.
God’s plans are however also quite specific, In Jeremiah 29:11, He says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

God has a plan for YOU. Don’t be afraid when you don’t know exactly what it is; how God will lead and supply for you. Rather, just hold firmly to His word, to His hand and walk in faith. There is no need to worry about what any other person might be doing or how God might be calling them. “What is that to you”, said Jesus in response to Peter’s question about John. It really doesn’t matter, because God has promised to uphold and defend you. And He will lead you in the way that you should go. Listen to Him and follow Him.

Faith and Hope

Morning Devotions November 24, 2009 1 Peter 1:13-25

“Therefore” the text begins … a preacher once said that whenever you see the word “therefore” you should ask what it is “there” “for”.

Peter calls us to prepare our minds for action (minds? For action?), to be self-controlled and to set our hope fully on the grace to be given when Jesus is revealed. Wow, that’s a mouthful. Let’s dissect it …

First, what is it “there” “for”. Going back in the chapter we see references to new birth, living hope, an inheritance which can never perish, spoil or fade. We are also warned about trials which will come to temper our faith, and we are told about the prophets who spoke of the grace that was to come who, even though they did not actually see it, were able to rejoice that it was to come anyway.

Because of all that … therefore … we must prepare our minds for action. We must get our minds right and our thinking on track. We are not dealing with passing things nor forlorn hopes. This is Real! Get your thinking right and plan what you are going to do about your new birth, the living hope, the eternal inheritance. Be ready to face trials and psych yourself up to endure through them by faith. Hold fast to that which you do not see because it is real.

And then … be self-controlled. Control your selfish desires and the things that drive you in every direction but to the life of faith and hope. In Galatians, Paul writes about the Fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience etc … the last of these is self-control. A friend once said to me that all of these other things are the fruit but it is the self-control which is the root which allows it all to grow. Unless you have “self” under control you will not bear the fruit. Oh yes, you can stick plastic apples and peaches on the tree but they are not real. Real fruit only grows on the Tree of the Spirit when the root of self is under control.

And finally, set your hope fully on the grace to be given when Jesus comes. Does this refer to the Second Advent, or the First (which we are now celebrating? Why not both? God is outside of time, He is not limited by time. The Kingdom has already come but it is not yet in its fullness. The grace is revealed in Incarnation and at the Cross and it will be fully revealed at the Parousia. Set you hope on what you have now and look forward to even more.

There is so much more in this reading but I will leave you now to ponder the rest of Peter’s words on your own. Dwell on them and see what he is saying to YOU!