Sunday, 30 October 2016

Is God really Our God?

Sermon GMC 30/10/2016

I guess at first glance it might seem a bit odd placing a gospel parable about the evil tenants that we heard in Luke with the celebration of a baptism, a time when the church praises alongside the Angels and Archangels in Heaven when a soul reaches out to accept God’s love and forgiveness.

However; and in scripture there is always a however.  Baptism is more than a feel good day and a time of celebration.  It is that of course, but it is also a public demonstration of an individual’s decision to follow Jesus; and it’s more than that.  It is a reminder to all of us who have passed through the waters of baptism of the promises we have made before God and before our fellow people.  A reminder too, perhaps, of where we all are on our own  journey of pilgrimage.  A time perhaps for reflection.  Are we making progress?  Are we growing?  Have we taken a wrong turning?  Do we need to seek out again the author of our faith?  Do we need to reach out and to hold on to Jesus if we have thought we could walk on water by ourselves and then find ourselves sinking fast, in a life of tumult and storms?  Of such is Baptism.

And then we have this parable given by Jesus towards the beginning of Easter week.  Let’s set the scene for a moment.  Jesus has entered Jerusalem the day before, riding on a donkey.  A deliberately symbolic challenge to those in power.  It is a reminder from Zechariah 9:9.  This is the messiah riding in to his chosen people.  It is of course even more than that.  It is God coming back to his people as their King, and he is going to take over; just not in the way everyone was expecting.  Then there has been a skirmish of sorts in the temple.

Some people think this is what got Jesus killed, but it seems that it happened at the beginning of the week and the decision to kill him had been already taken anyway.  Probably initiated for the Saduccees in the temple leadership by the raising of Lazarus, dd to this the facts that neither the Temple guards or Roman guards, who would have been overlooking the Temple areas, on the look out for potential unrest at such an important and tension filled festival, got involved makes me less than sure.  However the temple leadership are definitely out to discredit Jesus in order to isolate him from his security base – his crowd of followers.  So they send people out to embarrass him in front of the crowds, to undermine his natural authority.  So they challenge him, “By what authority do you do this?”  You know, in the vernacular – who gives you permission to Waltz around raising the dead and causing trouble.  Just who do you think you are?  Jesus, following a tradition of Jewish rabbinical training, asks his questioners a question in turn.  It works like this, if you can answer my question then I will answer yours.  If you can’t then wait until you can.  “Where did they think that John the Baptizer get his authority from?”  If they can answer this then he will answer their question.  The sadducees are outmanoeuvred, they can’t risk offending John as he is still such an icon to the crowd, even if they felt themselves that John was just mildly off his rocker.

And so Jesus speaks the parable that we heard.  Not a nice story at all– Definitely a chocolate coated chilli pepper- without the chocolate. 

He talks in imagery that First Century Jews would immediately understand.  It is as if I were to speak of MPs and duck houses, you would immediately have in mind a rampant abuse of expenses. ` So Jesus talks about a vineyard, which is the standard image for Israel.  The King then, the owner of the vineyard, can only be God.  He had gifted Israel to the people.  When God sends Prophets to the vineyard to see what is happening they are rebuffed, when he sends them to remind them that they are getting lost they get beaten up or killed.  The people have stopped listening because they have forgotten that God is King, they have actually come to think that they are.

So the King (God) sends his son (Jesus) who Jesus says will be killed by the vineyard owners, by the leaders of Israel.  Jesus here is explicitly talking about himself.  He is telling the Sadducees, “I know you want to kill me”.  Jesus associates himself with the rejected cornerstone, he is the friend of sinners, the ultimate outsider, and the warning is paramount. 

You are going to kill me and throw me away, but Judgement is coming here and now, everything will be taken away from you and the vineyard, Israel will be taken away and given to others.

It’s a powerful parable, and the Temple authorities know it is directed at them and they are not happy, in the slightest.  Even more they are out to get Jesus if only they can get him away from the crowds. 

Following Jesus therefore is not without risk.  Life won’t be easy or easier than it was for declaring our allegiance to him, but know this: God has come and has become King of this world, which on a daily basis is being re-integrated with Heaven.  The breach that occurred with sin, is being mended.  You can be certain of victory, you can have full confidence that the powers of darkness have tried their best, they have done their worst on that dark Friday, and they failed.  Jesus’ resurrection is the living proof.  We may yet, like the early disciples, have to suffer our own crosses, but like Jesus we will experience our resurrection.

What then does this mean for us in our comfortable 21st century churches.  Do we sound like the outsider or part of the ownership?  Have we thought that the vineyard is ours to do with as we please?  Are we in danger of making the same mistakes as the Temple leadership?  We sometimes create so called Gurus or thought leaders.  People we like to follow.  St Augustine, Thomas Merton, The Desert Fathers, Paul, John, The Wesleys, A fellowship, A guild, a certain denomination, a style of worship.  We sometimes mistake the reflection for the real thing.  Let us then not forget the cornerstone, the one we pledged to follow at our baptism.  God isn’t our to fashion to our own wims.  We are God’s

In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit

Amen


Saturday, 15 October 2016

The New Covenant

Today I want to discuss the New Covenant and what Scripture may or may not say about it. 

In our first reading today, the Prophet Jeremiah speaks of a new beginning and also in a line often forgotten in the reading talks about individual responsibility, vv29-30;  In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
 But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.  In other words, no longer will children have to pay for the sins of their forebears.  Jeremiah was likely saying here that the new Israel will not pay for the failings of the old Nation state.  Rather it is the one who rebels who will face the consequencies. 

Some theologians argue that vv31-34, a very well known piece of scripture does not speak of the new covenant in Jesus but speaks contextually to a renewal of God’s covenant with Israel.  There are of course conflicting views with an equally strong validity by others that this is indeed a prophecy looking forward to the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus at the Last Supper.  The arguments appear compelling on both sides.  Of course, Why wouldn’t Jeremiah be writing about his own time? 

Like all scripture of course, it doesn’t quite say what it says on the tin.  In other words it is just downright dangerous to read things absolutely and limited to the literal meaning.  It could of course be that this was indeed a direct message to the Jews in exile, struggling to find meaning for their suffering, a nation without a home.  The writing you see is set in the 5-6th Century BC, and some of the difficulty in interpretation arises from the apparent complexity of the way it was written which includes biography, prose and poetry, 3 styles of writing which in fact are believed to be derived from different sources.  In conclusion, the Jeremiah we read today is a piece of literature that has undergone a high number of revisions over many centuries making it all the harder to discern the original meaning.  Even more reason when reading Holy Scripture to allow time for reflection – that is thinking – all allow God to speak to us.  We can certainly hear in vv 31-34 a message and promise that sounds particularly relevant to Christianity and the outcome of a new Covenant, a new way of being in relationship with God.

That new way of thinking about God is highlighted in Luke’s Gospel.  Too often we may well think of God as being a fearful judge.  How many people have been put off a relationship with God by the overkeen evangelist warning them of God’s coming wrath if they don’t change their ways.  Ask yourself, would you run to the arms of a God who has the seeming attitude of a heartless tax collector.  Would you run towards a God who would turn on you saying, You weren’t good enough, you still need to pay your dues, go away!  Is that God? What emotions would a God like that engender in you?  And yet, so often when we preach Hellfire and Damnation, why are we surprised that people see God as exactly that, as Hellfire and Damnation.  Someone to be run from at all costs.

But what does Jesus say?  He compares the heartless judge who really can’t be bothered with the complaints from one who he views to be the dross of society, with the one true God who will not hesitate to come to us and like the father in the parable of the prodigal son will in fact run towards us with open arms, breaking down our barriers and embracing us with love, if we only left him.

The new covenant, announced by Jesus during his life, inaugurated at the Last Supper and completed in the crucifixion and resurrection ushers in the new age, the Kingdom of God.  This is the world, the age we are living in today.  We are living in the Kingdom of God, it is just that the Kingdom is still growing like that great mustard tree illusion that Jesus used in another story he gave.  It is still overcoming the false Kingdom that we have created.  The false Kingdom where we worship false idols such as money, celebrity, infamy, power, status, and perhaps worst of all spirituality, worse because if we don’t have God at the centre of our spirituality then who is at the centre?  If it is not God then it is false. 

How do we live in the Kingdom? 

Well we start by finding peace with those in our community.  This might be our own family or church, town or country.  Let us hear what Jesus had to say at the Last Supper,  John 13:35 ; “ By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another”. 

So let us love one another, and then remember that God’s community is not limited to this place but extends to the whole of his creation.  So we are called to love all whom we meet irrespective of creed, race gender or sexual orientation.  Don’t forget the words of Archbishop Tutu, “God is not a Christian”

We need to constantly bear in mind that the church is God’s, God is not the Church’s.  God is bigger than any one denomination or faith.  Our calling or purpose is simple really.  We are to be the image bearers of God to the world, we are to be the means by which the Kingdom of God is completed on earth as it is in Heaven. 

So love is the commandment of the New Covenant.  Come and receive the Holy Spirit and go forth in love, being Jesus.