Sermon archive 2023



Sunday 24th December, 2023 - Martin Mowat

 

Advent 4 & 5 – The Candle of Love and the Christ candle.

 

Readings: Luke 2:22–38, 1 John 4:7–16

 

This is the last of our Advent messages which, as you know, have been something of a series of meditations pointing us towards the hope of Jesus. It’s a series that was published by the Christian and Missionary Alliance in the U.S. They give us time each week to sit before the King of Kings, and to do what the apostle Janes encourages us to do, Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. As I mentioned earlier, today we’re focusing on the last two topics, Love and Christ.  Let’s start with “Love”.

 

I always enjoy the story of Simeon and Anna that we heard in our first reading. They both knew.  Instinctively, at their very first sight of Jesus, a one-month-old in Mary’s arms, they knew. No angels had visited either of them. It was the Holy Spirit who, with joy and delight, had whispered into their hearts, “This is the one, this is the consolation of Israel, the Lord’s Messiah, the hope of the world. He has come.”

 

Anna and Simeon had waited all their lives to see the hope of the Messiah, and God wanted to share this moment with them, His friends. 

 

We know that they were his friends because they had spent so much time in his presence, praying, worshiping, listening to scripture, that they not only knew God intimately, but they also recognised his son instantly, and they loved what they saw. 

 

What a contrast to many of the Pharisees. They ostensibly knew everything about God and His Law yet when they looked Him in the face, they hated Him.

 

Whether He is a pillar of flame or smoke, a burning bush, an uninvited dinner guest, a wrestler, a quiet voice, a stranger on the road, or a month old infant, wouldn’t we love to be able to recognise Him instinctively, like that?

 

I can imagine Anna and Simeon in the temple that day, stroking the so] cheek of God-made-flesh with wrinkled fingers, whispering, “Shalom. I would know You anywhere.” May our love be the same.

 

Let’s read David’s beautiful Psalm 139 and thank Him for his intimate love for us.  

1   You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.

2   You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.

4   Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.

5   You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too holy for me to attain. 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!

18 Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand— when I awake, I am still with you.

23 Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.

24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

 

Let’s pray.  Lord, is my love for You deep enough that I recognise You where I’m perhaps not used to seeing You? Do I recognise Your hand at work in my life? Draw me deeper into friendship with You in this Christmas season. Help me know You more so that my hope can be assured in You. You say, “Seek My face.” May my response always be, “I am seeking it!” Amen.  

 

Let’s turn our attention now to the Christ candle.  And as we do so let’s go back in time and think of a few of the prophecies that were given and fulfilled in his birth, his life and his crucifixion.  

-   A king who exchanged a crown of holy jewels for a crown of thorns.

-   A king above all earthly kings, yet born to a simple, courageous young couple, in an obscure stable, in the middle of what amounted to a war zone.  No place for royalty.

-   A gentle cry of humility that would bring healing to the nations.

-   A witness in servanthood—a birth of submission and honour, and a testament of total obedience.

-   The fulfilment of faithful hope across generations—one that would extend beyond the grave and into eternity as His name is would be broadcast among the nations and received by those who have hearts to hear.

-   A revelation of grace made flesh, what a precious gift. A Messiah in a manger in whom we find that hope has a name.

Let’s read another of David’s most beautiful psalms, n° 23, and as we do so let’s think about who he is for us, personally, this morning.

 

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.  

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

 

Lord, we acknowledge that so much of our time and effort is spent looking toward things other than You. Thank You for continuously drawing us back, drawing us close to You. We are so very thankful for the gift of Your Son, for grace made flesh. During the year ahead of us, remind us again and again, we pray, of the fulfilment of Your Word and promises. Amen.  


Sunday 17th December 2023 - Martin Mowat

Christmas Carols and Lessons

Christmas message 2023

 

One of everybody’s favourite Christmas carols, and one that we’re going to sing later is Hark, the herald angels sing ! – And well they might! 

 

Do you believe in angels?  -  -  I do.

And I believe in God, and I believe in Jesus, and I believe in the Holy Spirit.

 

Do you?   I only ask because if you don’t, or you’re not really sure, maybe you SHOULD.

 

Everyone enjoys Christmas, or at least they would if they could. I’m particularly thinking of children in war-zones … which is why we’re giving all of our offerings this month to Unicef and Save the Children.

 

We enjoy Christmas because it makes us feel cosy and secure – wreaths, candles, trees, cards, mince pies, carols being played on loud speakers in the shops, memories of Christmases past when our children were young, you know what I’m talking about.

 

But those trappings, which are supposed to witness to the truth, often end up hiding it.

 

In October and November this church studied a number of documented teachings or messages given by a real man who claimed to be God in human form, and who talked about a kingdom whose foundation stones are freedom and love. In his day a lot of people didn’t believe him, mainly because the things he said and did disturbed their status quo, and for some it threatened their own importance.

 

But the proof that he was who he said he was, or part of the proof anyway, is that although he didn’t do anything particularly spectacular during his short life and ministry, well, apart from things like walking on water and raising some dead people to life, the entire world changed the very moment that he died, never to be the same again.

 

It did.  That’s a fact.

That’s why the world celebrates his birth. It’s done so for the last 2000 years, it does so today and it will always continue to do so. It’s not celebrating the shepherds; not the three wise men, not even that courageous young carpenter and his beautiful, tender teenage fiancé, … but JESUS, … God with us … Immanuel.  

 

And one day, one day soon, he’s coming back. That’s why we need to believe. 

 

Thank you Father, because Christmas gives us an annual opportunity to take stock of where we are in our relationship with you.  Help us to know your love, your joy, your peace and your hope in new ways this Christmas, we pray in Jesus name, Amen. 


Sunday 10th December 2023 - Martin Mowat

Advent 2 & 3 – The Candles of Peace and Joy

Readings: Luke 2: 22 – 35, Romans 5: 1 – 11

As we prepare our hearts and lives for Christmas once again, our 5 Advent candles remind us that the Light of Christ came into the world to push back the darkness. In a world that is SO full of every conceivable kind of darkness these days, and particularly the situation in Gaza which is being described as apocalyptic, Advent couldn’t be more pertinent.

These Advent messages are more a series of meditations with readings, psalms and prayers that draw us back to the hope of Jesus. They allow us, each week to sit before the King of Kings, responding to the advice of the apostle James  Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)

Because it’s our Carol Service next week, today we’re focusing on two of the Advent topics, Peace and Joy.  Let’s pray:   Lord Jesus, Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To you we say, ‘Come Lord Jesus!’   Amen.

Spirit of God, would You hover over the deep, dark places of our lives. Would you please illuminate Your word to us today?  We pray for those we know who are walking in a darkened understanding of both who they are and who You are, and we declare over them ‘let there be light!’  We pray for nations in uproar and turmoil, where it seems as if darkness is gaining an upper hand, and we declare over them also ‘let there be light!’ Amen

We’ve just heard the story of Joseph and Mary taking Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem, in accordance with the Jewish law, to “present him to the Lord” and to offer the required sacrifice of a pair of doves or two young pigeons.

When they arrives they were met by a wonderful godly man called Simeon. The Bible describes him as, “righteous and devout”. He was “waiting for the consolation of Israel”, it says, and “the Holy Spirit was upon him

Simeon was waiting for the Messiah to come, and to rescue his hurting people. They needed peace in the world, but more than that, they needed peace in their hearts.

Since the Lord promised Simeon that he wouldn’t die before he saw the Messiah, I imagine he spent a lot of time daydreaming about what Jesus would be like. Would he be a strong warrior or a conquering king? What kind of person would he need to be to make the world right again?

Then the day finally came when Simeon, guided by the Holy Spirit, saw Jesus. He took him gently from Mary’s arms and looked at Him. I imagine tears in his eyes as he said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation”. The Messiah was finally here, and Simeon could rest.  

As I said earlier, we live in a broken world and we know the pain that sin causes. It’s easy to be overcome with the feeling that this is not how life should be. And yet, in the midst of it all, we have hope. Simeon looked at Jesus, the one he had hoped to see with his own eyes. The promise was fulfilled, and he rested in God-given peace.

We can access that same peace even now. Let’s look to Jesus as Simeon did and meditate on His promises. In His loving-kindness and complete authority, He has saved us from our sin. His peace will keep us as we hope for a future of uninterrupted joy with Him.

Psalm 29. A psalm of David.

1 Ascribe to the Lord, you heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.

3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is majestic.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon leap like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning.
8 The voice of the Lord shakes the desert; the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”

10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord is enthroned as King forever.
11 The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace.

Lord Jesus, fill us with your perfect peace as we try to navigate our broken world. You who have promised are faithful. Show us what it means to rest in You. Would the fragrance of Your peaceful Spirit continuously fill us as we seek Your face. Lord, as we lean into the peace that only You can give, draw us to Yourself more and more, allowing us to come before You, humbled, grateful, and hopeful. Amen.  

With peace, comes joy.

Joy is something we often want without sacrifice, suffering, or work. We feel that, somehow, we are entitled to joy. As Christians we feel even more entitled to it simply because we follow Jesus. And yet, it’s truly following Jesus, and suffering with Him, as we endure various trials here on earth, that is often the path we must take to find the joy we seek.

This was the message of our second reading.  I love the book of Romans because Paul doesn’t pull any punches. It’s all in there: peace, access, grace, faith, glory, but also the suffering that produces perseverance; character, and hope, and that hope, Paul says, does not put us to shame.

It is the renewing of our hearts, and shifting of our gaze to focus on the light of Jesus that will lead us to the unspeakable joy we seek. The more we surrender, the more we will be able to recognize the love and light of Jesus, His redemption and healing, in ways beyond our comprehension.

The darkness of this world serves as a backdrop for His light to be seen in all its brilliance. And when we can find that light in the darkest of nights, it is there that our hearts will find true joy and hope in knowing that there is nothing that can overcome the light and love of Jesus.  

Joy is light, love, and full of the hope of what is to come. And yet, the fullness of joy would not be what it is without the existence of darkness, sin, and suffering.

Without darkness, the angel that appeared to the shepherds and the glory that shone around them would not have shone as brightly. Without darkness, the light of a star that shone so brilliantly would not have led the wise men straight to Jesus.

Jesus, thank You for the beautiful ways You redeem pain and darkness and bring joy in unexpected ways. If there are things we need to surrender that may be preventing joy in our lives, would You reveal those to us. We give all that we are to You. Allow us to experience more of Your hope and joy this Advent.

Lord of light, deliver us from darkness. Bright and Morning Star, illuminate our lives. Lord, you are our strength and our song, rejoice over us with singing. Amen.

Sunday 3rd December 2023 - Martin Mowat

Advent 1 – The Candle of Hope

Readings: Genesis 18: 1 – 15, Hebrews 11: 1 – 16

On Monday Charlotte and I went to the cinema, here in Mirepoix, to watch a documentary called “Sacerdos”, which is French for “Priesthood”. 

It was about the lives and ministries of 5 Roman Catholic priests today, and it was absolutely fascinating.  We thoroughly enjoyed it.

One of them said something which I thought was particularly pertinent. “It’s difficult to bring people to Christ today, but much easier to bring Christ to the people.”

That’s our calling and as we do that we introduce them to some good news, and with that good news comes hope.  That is our first advent subject.

Our advent messages are going to be a bit different in that they will be more meditative, punctuated by pauses to give us time to think, reflect and pray.

So hope. We use the word “hope” fairly often in our day-to-day language, “I hope the weather’s going to be nice tomorrow”; “I really hope we have time”; “We’re hoping for some good news.” We hope for all sorts of things and circumstances, and when we do that we often feel hope-less. In a world where it feels like we can’t be fully confident of anything, where nothing feels absolute, hope-less-ness is felt all too often.

This week, those of us who have been listening to Lectio have heard about Hannah’s feelings of desperation and hopelessness as she tried in vain to bear a son.  But she held on and finally gave birth to Samuel, who grew up to become one of the most famous prophets.

In both our readings we heard about Sarah who had also been desperate to bear a son, and who had effectively given up hope.  God promises things but they don’t always happen as quickly as we think they should, and we are left waiting and feeling hope-less

For 400 years, the Israelites felt all the emotions of hopelessness, they were oppressed, enslaved, exploited and disheartened, but that didn’t mean that God wasn’t there, or that he didn’t have a solution for them. 

And when he did deliver them he said to them after the exodus, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” (Exodus 19:4)


In the book of Deuteronomy there’s a beautiful passage about an eagle teaching its fledgling eaglets to fly.  First, the passage says, it “stirs up its nest”, effectively turfing them out, then it “hovers over its young” as they plummet down, hopelessly, frantically trying to get traction with their little wings, then finally it swoops down “spreads its wings to catch them on its back and carry them aloft”, back to the safety of the nest. (Deuteronomy 32)

 

It ALWAYS catches them, turning their situation from one of hopelessness to one of hope, hope of becoming big and powerful like its parents.


That’s a beautiful picture of God teaching us to be disciples.

 

Jesus, too, brought hope and light into the routine and darkness of the lives of first century Jews, living under the Roman occupation.

In the original Greek, the word for hope is elpis (ἐλπίς), and it meant “an expectation of what is sure or certain”, joyful and confident expectation of eternal salvation. In Christ, we have a hope that never fails, that is never deferred. Advent is the time when we renew that hope as He draws us to himself in love, peace, and joy.

Sometimes, we just need to be reminded where our hope lies. These Advent messages will hopefully help to draw us back to that hope as we sit before the King of Kings, open our hands and hearts in humble adoration and readiness, and as we reflect on the prompting of his Holy Spirit.

Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” –James 4:8

Let’s just sit in His presence for a moment and remember that hope has a name — Jesus. PAUSE

I found this poem but I don’t know who wrote it. It’s called “For those who wait”.

What if the seemingly endless delay
Is full of gifts you wouldn’t receive any other way?

What if walking in the wilderness IS the point,
What if waiting in the stillness IS the joy?

What if the roots need to burrow down deeper
So the fruit will be that much sweeter?

What if the waiting makes the heart grow stronger
Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder?

What if it’s less about getting to the other side
And more about the slow transformation taking place deep inside?

What if the best things don’t happen overnight
And time is actually on your side?

What if you really (truly) are not in control
And all you can do is let it unfold?

What if God hasn’t forgotten His plans for you
He’s simply inviting you to lean in and pay close attention to what He is about to do?

What if, when it seems like nothing is happening at all,
That’s right when God is saying, I Am Still Faithful?

What if it looks really different than you thought it would,
But even then, it could still be really, really good? 

Which of those “what if” questions rang true for you? How might that encourage you to wait, to hold on in hope? Let’s prayerfully ask God to remind us where we have seen His faithfulness through another season of waiting in our lives.

Let’s listen to David’s Psalm 25 as we put our hope in Him.

O Lord, I give my life to you. I trust in you, my God!
Do not let me be disgraced, or let my enemies rejoice in my defeat.
No one who trusts in you will ever be disgraced, but disgrace comes to those who try to deceive others.

Show me the right path, O Lord; point out the road for me to follow.
Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you.
Remember, O Lord, your compassion and unfailing love, which you have shown from long ages past.

Do not remember the rebellious sins of my youth. Remember me in the light of your unfailing love, for you are merciful, O Lord.

The Lord is good and does what is right; he shows the proper path to those who go astray.
He leads the humble in doing right, teaching them his way.
The Lord leads with unfailing love and faithfulness all who keep his covenant and obey his demands.

For the honor of your name, O Lord, forgive my many, many sins.
Who are those who fear the Lord? He will show them the path they should choose.
They will live in prosperity, and their children will inherit the land.
The Lord is a friend to those who fear him. He teaches them his covenant.
My eyes are always on the Lord, for he rescues me from the traps of my enemies.

….. May integrity and honesty protect me, for I put my hope in you.

 

Loving Father God, we desire more of You. There are so many “what if” questions in our lives—help us to look to You before we look to our own strength. Father, would You remind us of Your character, of Your incredible goodness. Our hope is in You, in you alone—teach us how to draw closer.

We pray for those living with the pain of unanswered prayer. Remind them that the story you are writing in their lives is not finished. Help them to put their hope in you, to trust in your great love for them today. In Jesus name, Amen.

Sunday 26th November 2023 - Martin Mowat

Jesus’ parables 10

Readings: Matthew 7: 15 - 29 & Luke11: 1 - 13

 

Last Sunday, almost as soon as we got home from church, unbeknown to us, we had a real blessing in store.  Two nuns and a novice were in our street going from door to door asking for food, so the easiest thing was just to ask them in to have lunch with us.

 

As we chatted with them we made up a simple salad with whatever we could find in the fridge.  Later in the afternoon we took them back to their monastery at Plavila, and they happily took us to walk around the extensive grounds to visit their chapels, their refectory and their incredibly basic accommodation. They sleep on bare boards, one of them explained, so as to feel closer to people who sleep in the streets.

 

The four hours that we spent with them were a real pleasure. They sang for us on three or four occasions and chatted to us amiably and enthusiastically about their life and their ministry.

Thinking about our experience subsequently, I realised that the thing that struck me about them was their total peace and contentment. Why? How? Because they were doing exactly what I had been talking about in my message that very morning, they were abiding in Christ.  Let’s pray

 

One of my all-time favourite songs is the one that Whitney Houston sang for the 1988 summer Olympics in South Korea.  “Give me one moment of time,” it says, “when I can be more than I thought I could be, when all of my dreams are a heartbeat away, and the answers are all up to me. Give me one moment in time when I'm racing with destiny, then, in that one moment of time, I will be free. 

 

It’s very emotive. Some 30 years ago Charlotte and I were very involved in a Network Marketing scheme, and when we attended training and motivation seminars that song was always played at the end, sending us out on a high, believing that we were going to be successful enough to achieve financial freedom, and that that would give us all we could possibly want in life, total fulfilment. 

 

Of course, nothing was further from the truth, either for Whitney Houston, or for us. As we’ve been seeing repeatedly throughout this series of messages about Jesus’ teaching, of which this one is the last, you may or may not be pleased to hear, personal achievement does not give us the freedom we crave.

 

So why do we crave freedom?  Because we do, don’t we? So why? …

Because that’s the way we’re wired. That’s the way our creator made us. That’s the way God always intended it to be. That’s the picture Moses painted for us when he described the Garden of Eden.  A beautiful environment, a perfect climate, no obligations, nothing to worry about, no world news, nothing to do all day but potter about and tend the garden plants.

 

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen Jesus teach about love, unbelief, repentance, final judgement, Christ’s return, salvation, and what it means to be a disciple.  Today we’re going to look at some of the things he said about discernment and about perseverance in prayer.

 

Discernment is about our need to protect ourselves, and to protect others.  We’ve heard about the Good Shepherd protecting the sheep, for example.

 

As children we will all have been told the Grimm’s Fairy Tale of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.  Quite scary for small children but our parents thought that we needed to learn, as early as possible, that all is not what it seems to be at first glance. 

 

The parable, or rather the analogy, of the Wolves in Sheep’s clothing, that we just heard in our first reading is similar to that of the brothers Grimm. “Watch out for false prophets,” it says, “they come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  By their fruit you will recognize them." (Matthew 7:15-16a)

 

Through parables like this one, and the parable of the Unjust Steward a few chapters further on in Luke, Jesus challenges us to discern carefully, to not be deceived.  Why is this so important?

 

I had some elderly neighbours on my doorstep recently, distraught by the news that Boulanger had debited 4730€ from their bank account, but they hadn’t even been there, let alone bought anything of such value.  Wouldn’t you be distraught too? But happily, the email, although it looked to all intents and purposes absolutely genuine, was of course a complete hoax.

 

Just in the past week or so I have received several emails and SMS messages that were scams.  Such is our world today, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to steer one’s way through the mess (not to put too fine a word on it).

 

But even in the church, people, even leaders, are not always what they appear to be, or as they would like people to think them to be.  We have to be very careful.

 

Moving on to our second reading, when Jesus was teaching about prayer in the parable of the Friend at Midnight. Very different but equally important.

" Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.'" (Luke 11:5-6)

 

Interestingly, in the Middle East, hospitality is more than just the courteous thing to do; it is a moral obligation. To neglect hospitality to a guest is unthinkably insulting and rude. Notice that these two neighbours are "friends", as is the surprise visitor. So the one with the surprise visitor is obliged to feed him, and the neighbour is obliged to help out.

 

So we might be surprised that, "… the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.'" (Luke 11:7)

Let’s imagine the situation. The typical poor Israelite family lived in a one-room house, which sometimes also housed the family's few sheep, goats, and chickens. Family members would sleep in the same room, side-by-side on straw mats, sometimes on a raised platform, usually with their clothes on, covering themselves with the cloaks they had worn during the day.

 

As all parents know, getting children to bed can be a considerable undertaking, Once children are asleep, parents work hard to keep them asleep. Even more so, once the chickens are settled down, you don't want to wake them either.

 

So the door was locked or barred for the night, and all was quiet and peaceful, until that knock on the door. For the friend to get the bread to give to his neighbour, he would have to get up ever-so-quietly from the sleeping area, find the bread in the food storage area, then cross the area near the door, where the animals were, unlock the door ever so quietly, and give the bread to his neighbour. It would nigh on impossible not to wake someone, if not the entire household.

 

So, this poor man is now between a rock and a hard place. 

 

But I tell you this, continues the parable “though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence." (Luke 11:8)

 

What Jesus was saying was that it wasn’t the two neighbour’s friendship that caused him to risk waking his whole family, but it was the neighbour's "boldness" (NIV), his "impudence" (ESV), his "shameless persistence" (NLT), his "importunity" (KJV) that motivated him to take action.

 

Because of his culture the neighbour couldn’t wait until morning, so as not to disturb his sleeping friend. He went at midnight and knocked! And he shamelessly kept on on knocking until his neighbor got up and gave him everything he asked for.

 

Jesus follows up the Parable with a three-fold exhortation.

 "So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." (Luke 11:9-10)

Each of these verbs, apparently, is in the present continuous tense,

Ask -- and keep on asking!
Seek -- and keep on seeking!
Knock -- and keep on knocking!

Of course, God can answer our asking by saying "No!" or "Later!" -- and sometimes does. Paul had a "thorn in the flesh," some kind of affliction from Satan, whether physical or mental or external opposition we do not know. Paul pleads with the Lord three times to take it away, but then receives the answer, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul accepted this answer, and then began to glory in his weaknesses so that Christ's power might rest on him.

 

Jesus told this story to his disciples so that they, and we might be encouraged to persevere in prayer.

"Pray without ceasing" he exhorted the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 5:17), not to mean non-stop prayer, but that they should pray repeatedly, time and again.

Continued prayer is not a sign of little faith, but of persistent faith.

Sunday 19th November 2023 - Martin Mowat


Jesus’ parables 9 – Parable of the Vine and the Branches


Readings : John 15:1-8 and John 15:9-17

 

In the book of 1 Kings, Jeremiah tells us that “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree.(1 Kings 4:25)  The vine was apparently one of the quintessential plants of Israel, representing for them national peace and prosperity. The vineyard was often used by prophets such as Isaiah to identify Israel itself, with God referring to it in Isaiah 3:14 as "my vineyard"

 

The parable that we’ve just heard is one of the most beautiful and powerful parables, beginning, as it does with one of Jesus' seven "I AM" declarations.

"I am the true vine(John 15:1a)

It contains some of the most important and beloved passages in the Bible about the disciple's relationship with Jesus and particularly about the characteristic of abiding with, or in, Christ.

In Isaiah's Song of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7), the vineyard is the "house of Israel", but sadly it yields only bitter grapes, the bad fruits of injustice and oppression. But in the Day of the Messiah, Isaiah prophesies, this vineyard will flourish “In that day, sing about the fruitful vineyard. I, the Lord, will watch over it, watering it carefully. Day and night I will watch so no one can harm it.(Isaiah 27:2-3).

 

This is important to understand. David in the Psalms, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Micah also use the picture of Israel as the Lord's vineyard. Jesus himself carried on this identification in several of his parables.

 

So, when Jesus said, "I am the true vine," he was effectively announcing that, as the Messiah, he now became the true Israel, the place for God's people to be.

 

When you think about it, that was an astounding revelation!  Israel was to be, from then on, a spiritual place. Not a physical place, not a population, but a spiritual place.  Can I step to one side for a moment just to say that what is happening in Israel and Gaza at the moment has a lot to do with the history of the region, both ancient and modern, but personally I don’t think that it has anything to do with religion, it is purely territorial. Whether that makes it better or worse, I don’t know. Anyway I don’t approve of preaching politics, so let’s go back to see what the parable is teaching us, here, today.

 

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener." (John 15:1) 

This is the picture, the Father is the winemaker who tenderly cares for his vineyard, Jesus is the "true vine," and we are the branches.

"He (the winemaker) cuts off, Jesus said, every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." (John 15:2)

Pruning a vineyard is both an art and a science, intended to keep the vines healthy, and maximise the vineyard’s potential.

 

Jesus’ analogy is both individual, or personal, and corporate.  Individually, the Father does pruning in our lives, so that we become healthier, more focused, and more spiritually fruitful. This can be painful, sometimes, but he knows us better than we know ourselves, he knows exactly what he’s doing and so we can trust him.

 

Corporately, he isn’t cutting out those who fall into sin as much as those who profess to be believers but aren’t, those who rebel against the Messiah, those who bear no fruit because they are effectively already dead.  This helps us understand the next, rather curious verse. "You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you." (John 15:3) He’s reassuring his true believers, those who abide in him, that they are not about to be cut off and excluded. We shouldn't be afraid that God is going to cut us off for our sins. No. Jesus died for our sins.

 

As he told his disciples on another occasion. "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32). God's Word, when received, has a washing, cleansing, pruning, faith-producing effect on us.

 

Those of us who are gardeners will understand the need to take out stems that are diseased or broken by the wind so that the sap no longer flows into it.

When Jesus speaks here about withered branches being burned, he is talking about the Jewish nation, whose leaders had rejected their Messiah, the True Vine.

 

Now we get to the real meat. The English Standard Version renders verses 4 and 5 like this "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing."

Did you notice the word “abide” repeated 4 times in just those two verses? The NIV uses the word "remain". It means "stay," in the sense of "to live, to dwell or to lodge."

When you think about it, the most natural thing a "branch" can do is to continue being a branch, connected to the sap that flows from the vine. To do anything else is unnatural! To "abide" means that we "hold on to", “to remain intimately connected to” or "continue in" Jesus' teaching, - to “persevere in our faith” as the Apostle Paul put it.

 

Let’s read those two verses again, this time in the NIV. "Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."

And now for the really good news.  Jesus had said earlier in John "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him." (John 6:56)

It’s mutual !  It’s two-way.

In the same way that Jesus’ relationship with the Father's is one of mutual indwelling, so is ours with Jesus, and his with us. Doesn’t that give you goose-bumps?

It’s a constant, growing, deepening, relationship of love and of living together. That is abiding.

And what’s more, it’s nourishing.

Reading on:- "No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. ... If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned." (John 15:4-6)

Yes, we are utterly dependent upon Jesus the Vine, so we need to remain continually and intimately connected to him in order that our "sap" is not cut off. But the other side of that equation is that as we do remain connected that “sap” will feed us, cause us to grow and develop, to ripen and become like lush grapes bursting with juice.

Often this parable can be seen as a negative warning, and in a way it is, but it’s so, so much more, because if the “sap” is coming directly from the Son of God, what does it contain? EVERYTHING we could possibly need.  

And, believe it or not there’s even more.  In an earlier passage Jesus had said, “Believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father." (John 10:38)

The “sap” originates from God the Father. You can’t get better than that my friends. You just can’t.

The way of the world is self-determination. The way of a disciple is abiding, listening and obeying, of observing and following the Master. Jesus walked this path before us, doing exactly what he saw the Father do. Now he beckons us to follow him in this same way. All it requires from us a humility that fully believes that apart from him we can “do nothing”.

Do nothing? Well, of course we can do things by ourselves. God has naturally gifted us. But Jesus is talking about the things that last, that count for eternity. These we cannot do without his leading and his power.  

 

Jesus said " If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.  This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples." (John 15:7-8)

Sunday 12th November 2023 - Martin Mowat

Jesus' Parables 8

 

First reading: John 1: 1 - 14

Second Reading: Luke 14: 25 

 

As you probably know John wrote his gospel with the express purpose of explaining to his audience who Jesus really was, and why he came. The reading that we’ve just heard sounded very Christmassy, but John was setting out, in very clear terms what his gospel was going to be about, about a light shining in the darkness


"He came, John said, to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." (John 1:11).

 

Jesus ministry was a struggle, and many in ministry can easily relate to that. As we saw last week, it was a struggle because he was ushering in a kingdom where freedom and life were key, but to people who were living in a kingdom of darkness, governed by selfish ambition, and implemented by manipulation.

Matthew reported Jesus quoting from Isaiah 9, declaring “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’

 

To bring light into darkness, that was Jesus mission.  It was new, and it was different.  In general people don’t like new and different, and the people who like it least of all are those who are in control.

 

The word ‘kingdom’ is used 155 times in the New Testament, of which 77% of those are in the four gospels.  This was Jesus preoccupation and he needed people to take it on board and respond to his invitation.

 

Last week we were looking at parables that started with the words “The kingdom of heaven is like …”

 

Here are two more “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it." (Matthew 13:44-46)

 

In our day, we keep our money in the bank, but in Jesus' day, keeping it buried was an extremely common way of safeguarding it, and if it was hidden skilfully, rarely would it be detected. However, it was not uncommon for people to die without disclosing the location of their treasure-trove to anyone.

 

Today, people dream of getting rich by winning the lottery, but ancient literature is full of stories of people finding buried treasure and becoming fabulously wealthy.

 

When the man in Jesus' story found the treasure, he was understandably overcome with joy, and so he sold everything he had to purchase the land in order to make his discovery of the fortune both reasonable and legal.

 

In the second part Jesus describes a wholesale dealer who specialises in searching for, and acquiring, fine pearls to sell to retailers. He is doubtless wealthy and well used to spending and receiving large sums of money.

 

In ancient times pearls were not plentiful, so were highly valued. So much so that the word "pearl" came to be a figure of speech for something of supreme worth. Ancient literature tells of pearls worth millions of dollars. Cleopatra is said to have possessed a pearl worth some 50 million euros, so when the pearl merchant in Jesus' parable found such a pearl he liquidated all his assets in order to acquire it. 

 

The point in both of these parables is that the kingdom of God is of inestimable worth and should be acquired at all cost.

 

You’ll remember that we talked about Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler who went away sad when told that he should sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.

Being a disciple is costly.  In our second reading we heard Jesus conversing with members of the crowd that was following him as he was walking along.  You don’t build a high tower without first making sure that you have the funds to do it (always a sub-theme in TV programmes like Grand Designs). In the same way, a country doesn’t go to war unless it knows that it has the military resources necessary to win.

 

A disciple, who puts his ministry even before the needs of his family, has to count the cost, he has to “take up his cross” on a daily basis.  “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” Jesus said to them.

Let’s look at that for a moment.

 

Jesus had used the same expression earlier, when he was in Caesarea Philippi, telling his disciples that he was going to be crucified. “If anyone would come after me, he said, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it." (Luke 9:23-24)

 

In Jesus’ time the cross was a common instrument of torture and execution and as part of that torture a condemned man would be forced to carry the cross-beam of his cross, to the place of crucifixion. Most pictures show Jesus carrying his whole cross, but modern scholars believe that he only carried the crossbar. Even that would have weighed some 50 kgs or 7 ½ stone.

In modern language the expression "Carrying one's cross" is used to mean putting up with some personal problem, some health issue, a family issue, or a difficult colleague at work. But Jesus didn't mean carrying one's own burdens. This was an image of Roman execution by crucifixion. “Unless you stand willing to die for me every day,” Jesus was saying, and still says, “you can't be my disciple.”

"Survive at all costs," is the flawed philosophy of our world. Losing your life for Christ is the philosophy of a disciple.

 

On three other occasions Jesus used similar terminology.

Sending out the twelve he said "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it." (Matthew 10:39)

Teaching about the end times he said "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." (Luke 17:33)

On arriving in Jerusalem of Palm Sunday, predicting his imminent crucifixion he said "The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life."

That was John 12:25. One of John’s disciples was a man called Polycarp. He lived to the age of 86 and became the Bishop of Smyrna, modern day Izmir in Turkey. One day he found himself standing before the Roman proconsul in a stadium full of Romans chanting "Away with the atheists!" Christians were called "atheists" by the Romans because they did not believe in their Roman gods.

When the magistrate said to him 'Revile Christ, and I will release you'
Polycarp said, 'Eighty-six years have I been serving him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?'

Refusing to recant, he was bound to a stake and, after uttering a final prayer, he was burned before the eyes of the multitude. 

So, let’s be totally honest here.  This is strong stuff.  What does it mean for you and I, in Mirepoix, in 2023, and particularly in view of the fact that many of us -are retired ?

Are we being called to stand on street corners all day every day, carrying placards that say “Jesus saves!” or “Repent for the end of the world is nigh!”, in French of course?

Seriously, though, no, I don’t think it means that.  I think it means that we have to make ourselves 100% available and 100% transparent. It means that by the way we live, by the way that we do what we do, by the way that we say what we say, by the way that we interact with others, we’re not hiding behind a sort of screen that makes people think that we’re the same as they are, a persona that doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable.

We are normal people but we’re different, very different. We’ve been set apart. But that shouldn’t turn people away, it should attract them to us. As we shine the light of this kingdom that we’ve been talking about, people should be asking themselves “What have they got that we haven’t got, and how can we get it?”

This is the crossbeam that we are to carry, and if people find that repellant, well so be it, that’s their problem.

In his famous Sermon on the Mount, recounted for us in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, … blessed are the meek, … blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, … blessed are the merciful, … the pure in heart, … the peacemakers, … those who are persecuted because of righteousness,  … blessed are you when people insult you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, …  You are the salt of the earth.  …

Jesus is saying to us, here, today, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden, …  let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Sunday 5th November 2023 - Martin Mowat

Parables 7

 

First reading:  Genesis 1: 27-28,  2: 8-9 & 15-17 and 3: 1-5

Second Reading: John 10: 1-10

 

Today we’re going to look at some of Jesus parables about the Kingdom of God, which is something that Jesus talked about a lot. Why? Because it was vital that people understood what it is, and how it would affect their future.  Yesterday I saw a neon sign that proclaimed “The future is coming soon”, that being the case it’s vital that we understand too.  

 

To understand Jesus teaching let’s put it some sort of context. The whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation talks about the Kingdom of God in one way or another, as we’ve just heard in that somewhat abbreviated account of that jaw-dropping event that happened in the Garden of Eden.

 

The book of Genesis, including the account of man’s earliest days on earth, is generally credited to Moses, and whatever you think about his account of creation, and of the origins of mankind, it does tell us something very fundamental about the Kingdom of God.

We can well imagine Adam, Eve and God having those relaxed daily conversations “in the cool of the day”. What did they talk about I wonder?  Did they talk about “Life” and about “Good and Evil”?  I ask that because, right in the middle of the garden, significantly, God had planted two trees, the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Even if God wasn’t talking to them about those things, someone else certainly was, Satan, who persuaded them to take and eat the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In doing so they were not just being naively disobedient or playfully testing the waters, they were making the decision that in future they would decide for themselves what was good and what was evil, which of course, they didn’t have the wisdom to do.

 

Think about that for a moment. It’s all too easy to think about it as a nice little story for children in Sunday School, but in fact it’s so much more.

Effectively, Adam and Eve were deliberately walking out of the Kingdom of God, and establishing a different kingdom, one where they made the choices, the decisions, and the rules. 

 

Over time, as we can see today all too well, this became a kingdom governed by money and by fear, and where death is used as the ultimate weapon. .

 

God’s kingdom is about freedom and life. Man’s kingdom is about intimidation and death. So it’s easy to see why Jesus was so passionate about life, about freedom, and about what Mark and Luke referred to as the Kingdom of God. Matthew, interestingly referred to it as the Kingdom of Heaven, so as not to offend his Jewish readers who avoided uttering the name of God.

Between them they record no less than eleven parables that began with the words, "The kingdom of God is like...." and we’re going to look briefly at three of those.

 

First there is the parable of the mustard seed, recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke.  In Luke’s version Jesus asked, 'What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.' (Luke 13:18-19)

The mustard seed was considered by the Jews as the smallest of seeds. "Black mustard" apparently grows to a shrub between 4 feet and 15 feet high.   Jesus was saying that the kingdom might have seemed insignificant then, but it was destined to grow into something enormous that would sustain life within it.


Secondly there’s the parable of the leaven which makes a similar point. Again Jesus asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough." (Luke 13:20-21). In Jesus' day, a portion of leavened fermented dough from the day's baking would be set aside. The next day, after softening with water, it was mixed with the new dough, passing on the live yeast from one batch to the next. The yeast is not only pervasive, in a good sense, but it too causes exponential growth as it is used again and again.

 

And then thirdly there is the rather lesser known parable of the seed growing by itself, told only by Mark. "This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain, first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come." (Mark 4:26-29)

The key phrase is "all by itself". This is a parable about inevitability and so encourages us to be patient. Just as surely as planting seed will lead to an inevitable harvest, so the Kingdom of God is growing and maturing, and the harvest will come in due time at the End of the Age. As James tells us: "Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near." (James 5:7-8)

 

But there’s a fourth parable that I’d like us to think about today, the one that we had in our second reading.  The good shepherd, the sheep, and the sheep-gate.

 

I tell you the truth, said Jesus the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep.

We’ve talked about sheep and shepherds before.  You’ll perhaps remember that I did a couple of messages about Psalm 23, and I’ve also mentioned them on other occasions.

This analogy relates to the sheep-pen in the middle of the countryside where the sheep are kept at night. Jesus has in mind a walled enclosure, open to the sky, that would protect the sheep both from straying at night and from attack by wild animals.

It had a single entrance through which the sheep could go in and out, and while it might have had a gate made from wood, more often it didn’t and the shepherd himself would sleep lying across the entrance so that no person or animal could get in or out except by climbing over his body. This is a beautiful picture of Jesus protecting his flock.

Sometimes the flocks of more than one shepherd would use the same enclosure.  If that was the case the shepherds would take it in turn to lie across the gateway, and the one doing that was called the “watchman”. 

 

In the morning, the parable tells us, the watchman, listen to this part, opens the gate for each shepherd. Meanwhile the sheep are listening for their own shepherd’s voice. The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in other words the wrong shepherd, in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice."

 

Notice that the shepherd in the parable knows each sheep by name. Notice too that the sheep do three things, they listen, they recognise, and they follow.  The kingdom of God is comprised of those who listen out for the shepherd’s voice, who recognise it and who follow him.

 

As disciples, we need to learn to discern Jesus' voice. We hear many voices; the media, the social media which brings with it the pressures of our society's expectations, the voices of our family, of our friends and colleagues, and perhaps most of all our own inner voices.

It is possible to hear Jesus' voice and distinguish it from those others, but we have to learn which is which.  Once we learn to discern Jesus' voice and the leading of the Spirit, then he can guide us, teach us, and use us effectively. That’s perhaps a subject for another day.

 

The passage that we just heard from John 10 is followed by Jesus saying twice “I am the good shepherd”. In those days, rulers and leaders were often spoken of as "shepherds" of their people. For example, Ezekiel criticises Israel's shepherds, both their political and spiritual leaders, for caring only for themselves, for not caring properly for the sheep for whom they were responsible.  In John 9, Jesus had just dealt with the spiritual blindness of Jerusalem's ‘shepherds’, the scribes and Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin. They weren't really interested in the sheep, they were more concerned with getting rid of Jesus, the true Shepherd who did care about them.

 

The Kingdom of God is different from earthly kingdoms.  Earthly kingdoms exist for the whims of those with the power, the money, and the control. In God's Kingdom, the Shepherd King actually cares about his subjects and lays down his life to save them.

 

Finally, in a conversation between Elon Musk and Rishi Sunak on Thursday, Elon Musk said “One of the challenges of the future will be how do we find meaning in life”. He was talking about the meaningless of life when all our thinking is done by AI, and all our work is done by robots. Jesus’ response to him, I think, would be that despite man’s tragic decision to, quite literally, take the law into his own hands, and to suffer the consequences so dreadfully, he, Jesus, came to usher in a new era, in which God’s kingdom will grow and flourish, bringing with It that meaning and new hope for millions.

 

The good news is that we can choose to abandon the kingdom that Adam and Eve chose to initiate, in favour of the Kingdom of God. 

Sunday 29th October 2023 - Jess Jephcott

KING DAVID

 

(c 1040 BC to 970 BC)

 

Today, I want to talk to you about King David. I have previously spoken about various characters from the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, singling out two particular judges of note, Gideon and Sampson. That took us up to around 1079 BC, with the death of Samson. By 1052 BC, Saul had become the first king of Israel.

 

The subject of this talk today, David, was born around 12 years later. As you will know, this was a time of prolific biblical writing and we are presented, through the Bible, with much information. Understandably, I will have to be selective here, if we aren’t to be weighed down with details of this period of great unrest in the Holy Land.

 

So, can I start with a prayer, brought to us through a Psalm of David, Psalm 18 verse 2.

 

Thank You Father, that You are my faithful and dependable God and heavenly Father, in Whom I place my trust. Use me I pray, as a witness of Your dependable faithfulness in my life today. Open the eyes of those that have been blinded to the glorious truth of Your saving grace, through the tactics of the enemy. This I ask in Jesus’ name, AMEN.

 

According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and the Hebrew Bible, David followed Saul and was the 2nd king of Israel. He was a righteous king, a poet, musician and an acclaimed warrior. King David is also famous for composing many psalms contained in the Bible’s Book of Psalms.

 

He was the youngest son of Jesse and spent most of his early years as a shepherd. He was born in the land of Judah, in Bethlehem. At around the age of 30, David became King of Judah, a reign that lasted 7½ years. Then, the kingdom was re-united, after its temporary division and David ruled the united kingdom of Israel with Judah, for another 33 years. He was succeeded by his son Solomon.

 

This introduction to David gives us a timeline, but David’s story-proper starts in his early years, with a familiar story of perhaps the most iconic and celebrated tale from the Old Testament.


Our first reading will be read by Neil. 

 

FIRST READING

 

1 Samuel 17, v 1 to 15 - NIV

 

David and Goliath

 

Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Sokoh in Judah. They pitched camp at Ephes Dammim, between Sokoh and Azekah. 2 Saul and the Israelites assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines. 3 The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.

 

4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was six cubits and a span.[a] 5 He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels[b]; 6 on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. 7 His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels.[c] His shield bearer went ahead of him.

 

8 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” 10 Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” 11 On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

 

12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul’s time he was very old. 13 Jesse’s three oldest sons had followed Saul to the war: The firstborn was Eliab; the second, Abinadab; and the third, Shammah. 14 David was the youngest. The three oldest followed Saul, 15 but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.

 

THIS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD

 

  

As we heard during our teachings from the Book of Judges, the Philistines were a constant enemy of the Israelites, just as the Palestinians are the constant enemy of the Israelis today. God had commanded Moses to take his people out of Egypt and to re-settle them in the Promised Land, later to be known as Judea or Israel. We understand that the Philistines were one of the many tribes in the region that lived in the region that we know today as the Middle East, all of them, seemingly, in a state of constant tribal war with each other.

 

Our first reading, read to us by Neil, is just another example of how God’s punishment of the Israelites had played out, as we have seen throughout the Book of Judges that we have studied before, where the Israelites had regularly abandoned God and taken up sinful ways. Again, the Philistines were back, with vengeance. What would God do?

 

So, Goliath has thrown down his challenge, something he continued to do, every day, for 40 days. As a result of this, as we read on, the Bible tells us that a shepherd boy named David, was sent by his father, Jesse, to take food to his brothers, who were with King Saul at the battle front, and to bring back news of what was happening.

 

Verse 23 tells us that, after David had arrived and was meeting with his brothers, ‘As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. Verse 24 tells us that, ‘Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear.’

 

David enquired as to what the reward would be for the man who kills this giant. “Who was this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” He was reproached by his brothers for leaving his sheep and coming only to watch the battle. What David had said was overheard and was reported to King Saul, and Saul sent for him.

 

Verse 32 tells us that David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.” With the reply from Saul being, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”

 

We will continue the story with our second reading, read by Philip.

 

 

SECOND READING

 

1 Samuel 17, v 34 to 50 - NIV

 

34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

 

Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”

 

38 Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armour on him and a bronze helmet on his head. 39 David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.

 

“I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.

 

41 Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. 42 He looked David over and saw that he was little more than a boy, glowing with health and handsome, and he despised him. 43 He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals!”

 

45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

 

48 As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49 Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

 

50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.

 

THIS IS THE WORD OF THE LORD

 

  

So, here we have a boy, clearly skilful with a slingshot, bringing down a mighty and fearsome warrior, a giant of a man, skilled with sword, spear and javelin. Now, my brother is a skilled English longbow archer, able to hit targets from different distances and in different environments, his judgement of the target being paramount. Then we have our modern day petanque players, the best having incredible accuracy in being able to knock an opponent’s boule out of the ring. The skills that some have possessed and possess today, throughout the ages of war and during sporting pursuits in peaceful times, can be truly awesome. David was clearly one of these people, his skill with the slingshot evident in the story. Where others judged his task to be hopeless, he confounded them all.

 

Following David’s triumph over the Philistines, King Saul demanded to know who David was, this young shepherd-boy who had accepted Goliath’s challenge, stepping out to face Goliath armed only with his staff, a sling, and five smooth stones (he only needed one) he had taken from the nearby brook, placing them in his shepherd’s bag. The king asked who he was, and David answered, ‘I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.’

 

As a result of this victory over the Philistines, David was rewarded with a place at Saul’s court. Indeed, David had been born in Bethlehem, he was an Israelite from the tribe of Judah and he had grown up under the reign of Israel’s first king, Saul.

 

Of course, this was just the beginning for David. Today, we allegorise him, seeing him as a people’s champion, giving us one of the most iconic and celebrated tales from the Old Testament, a national hero, a role model, as we have allegorised other worthies that history has recorded. Just look at the statues that have been erected in our British cities, to the likes of Boadicea, Robin Hood, Wellington, Nelson, Winston Churchill, etc. Marianne, of course, perhaps Joan of Arc, Charles de Gaulle, etc. here in France. The list is endless.

 

David became the second king of Israel, following King Saul, and God promised him: “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before Me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel ch 7 v 16).

 

The royal line of David brought forth many kings. Indeed, his descendants reigned until the people of Israel were sent into exile in the 6th century BC, and again in the 1st century AD when their temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, a second time, only to return as recently as 1948, still at war with the Philistines – or the Palestinians as they are called today.

 

David is mentioned often in the Bible, mostly in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament. His life is described in the books 1 and 2 Samuel, and David himself wrote a lot of songs that are included in the book of Psalms. These psalms, or songs, have proven to be very precious to many believers, including present day Christians worldwide. They verbalise emotions of fear, despair, and confusion, but also of hope, trust, and praise.

 

However, `David was far from perfect. He had an adulterous affair with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his generals, whom he then had killed. He married Bathsheba, the widow of Uriah. The description of this whole sordid story ends with a clear comment: “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Samuel ch 11 v 27).

 

David received God’s forgiveness and his relationship with God was restored. But he had to bear the consequences of his sin for the rest of his life. Although he was a sinner, he always repented and returned to God. He trusted the Lord and tried to follow his commandments. An example of this would be as he expressed in Psalm 139:23-24:

 

“Search me, O God, and know my heart!

Try me and know my thoughts!

And see if there be any grievous way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting!”

 

As I draw to the end of this lesson, what do we draw from this story of David’s life? When the Philistines saw their champion defeated, they fled for their lives. But David had showed that, ‘with God nothing shall be impossible’ (Luke 1:37). With God's help, you can stand your ground with faith and be triumphant. You might challenge a goliath of a developer that's threatening to cut down the oldest tree in your town — and, like David, you just might win. Today, the phrase ‘David and Goliath’ has taken on a more popular meaning, denoting an underdog situation, a contest wherein a smaller, weaker opponent faces a much bigger, stronger adversary.

 

So, let us end here with a prayer for the present day troubled times in the Israeli Gaza conflict.

 

Father, there is so much pain and conflict across the Middle East, grant wisdom to those seeking peaceful ways to resolve age old conflicts. We pray for the leaders throughout the region and ask you to turn their hearts towards a peaceful resolution. As our leaders, and those around the world, consider how to respond, please grant them wisdom and insight. Lord Jesus, you are the Prince of Peace. AMEN.

Sunday 22nd October 2023 - Martin Mowat

Jesus’ parables 6 – Salvation part 2.

Readings Luke 18: 18 - 27 & John 3: 22 - 30 & 36

 

This is a series on Jesus’ parables and last week our theme was spiritual freedom.

 

This freedom is what separates believers from unbelievers. Another thing that separates them is the knowledge that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” That’s Romans 8:28.

As you will have gathered from our readings, today we’re going to continue on this same theme. Salvation and freedom.


Rather like Nicodemus, the ‘rich young ruler’ that we heard about in our first reading, although younger, was a man who would also have been well dressed, well-educated, serious and well respected, but who was nevertheless spiritually hungry. Somehow his Jewish religion just didn’t tick all the boxes.  Could it be, just perhaps, that this man Jesus could help him do that.

 

In Luke’s account we see him asking Jesus what he had to do to get to heaven.  When he heard Jesus’ answer he “went away sad”. Was that because he wasn’t going to sell all his possessions, and therefore wouldn’t get to heaven, or was it because he would sell all his possessions, but he wasn’t looking forward to it.  We don’t know, and I like to think that it was actually the latter.

Jesus must have seen the expression on his face, and said to him sympathetically “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!  Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”

The disciples were shocked. If a wealthy man who was serious about keeping the law couldn't be saved, who could? In Judaism's eyes, a wealthy, young pious Jew was exactly the kind of person who, because he could afford to keep all the laws, could enter the Kingdom of God,. That was what everyone thought, so hence the question. “If he can't be saved, who then can be saved?

 

The misconception in the Judaism of Jesus' time was that a person could become righteous enough to be saved by doing good deeds. This is what a lot of people think today, because in a world that exalts human effort and minimizes the need for God's working, the cross seems to be irrelevant.

Jesus used a camel and a needle to illustrate what he meant.

Camels were a curiosity to Israelites. For over 1,000 years they had been used by foreigners for long-distance transport along the Silk Road from China and along the Incense Route from south Arabia. These routes came though Palestine and Syria to the coast, where their precious cargos were loaded onto ships and taken on to Rome.

 

So camels were not unfamiliar to the Galileans, but they were something of a wonder, the largest animals they ever saw.

 

Of course they were also familiar with sewing needles, which were used to make clothing and tents. Archaeologists have found copper, iron, bone and ivory needles that date back tens of thousands of years.

 

Some rabbinical writings have a similar expression: "Draw an elephant through the eye of a needle." The point is that both if these proverbs are about impossibility.

 

Some people like to think that Jesus was in fact talking about a little pedestrian gate through the wall of Jerusalem that was called "the needle's eye".  It was so small that a laden camel couldn't get through it, unless it knelt down and was completely unloaded. Preachers and tour guides love this picturesque story, but it has absolutely no support in fact. It also distorts what Jesus had said from "What is impossible with man is possible with God" to "anything is possible with man if he tries hard enough and uses his ingenuity."

 

Jesus was saying that salvation is not man's work, but God's. He can open the most distracted heart, cleanse the most polluted person, and flood the soul with his life-giving Holy Spirit, setting people free.

*******

As well as parables Jesus used all sorts of analogies to illustrate to people who he was.

 

He used water for example. Very apt at the end of such a dry summer, because a plant can’t germinate and thrive without water, without moisture, it can’t grow, mature and be fruitful. 

Human beings simply can’t survive without it. In the same way the spiritual being cannot survive, let alone germinate, grow, mature and become fruitful without Jesus. 

He also used the analogy of living water, but more to talk about God the Holy Spirit, than about himself, God the son.

And famously he used bread. “I am the bread of life”, he said three times in John chapter 6, while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, just after he had fed the 5000 and then walked on the water. I am the bread of life.” he declared. “Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. …. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But … I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

…. “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 

That was John, but interestingly his is the only one of the four gospels that doesn’t mention what Jesus said at the last supper.  Mathew, Mark and Luke all do, and we hear those three on a rotational basis, and today we will hear Luke’s account; And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” But strangely John doesn’t mention it.

As you probably know Protestants and Catholics disagree on what is called the transubstantiation.  Catholics believe that when an ordained priest blesses the bread and wine, they literally become Jesus’ body and blood.  Protestants don’t believe that, but rather that they are just reminders, symbols.

The bread not only reminds us of Jesus physical body, that he literally gave for us so that we would not have to meet the same fate, it reminds us of his body the church.  As we take the bread we are physically recognising that we are part of that body, that we are living stones, and that is why we need to share the peace before we take communion.

 

In our second reading we heard a discussion about Baptism. This is relevant to what we’re talking about because it is intended to remind us both of cleansing from sin and rising to a new life.  It is, if you like, an acted parable about salvation, a symbol of cleansing from sin.

 

John the Baptist, his disciples, and Jesus’ disciples all practiced baptism, but did you know that they were not the first people to do so?  For centuries, the Jews had practiced ritual washings. They would build a mikvah in their synagogues, and still do, a sort of bath for ritual purification by self-immersion. Proselytes to Judaism were also baptised by immersion as an initiation, so John's baptism was probably understood by the Jews of his time against this background, as a ritual that signified a change of faith.

 

Interestingly, Jesus himself, who was sin-less, was baptised by John, but sadly we don't have any of his teaching about it.  That would be VERY interesting but it’s probably safe to assume that it was similar to that of his cousin, that’s to say a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4-5).

 

When Paul described the circumstances of his own baptism, he also linked baptism with cleansing. And later he said to Ananias "And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name." (Acts 22)

Thus, baptism is for believers and is a metaphor of spiritual cleansing, a public declaration of faith in Jesus, and therefore of salvation from sin. We go down into the water to symbolize the death of the “old self”, and we come back out as a symbol of our “new birth”. This is why Baptists and many evangelicals don’t practice infant baptism.

I tell you the truth, Jesus said in John 12, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life."

We think of parables as being something spoken, but maybe it’s wider than that, and maybe Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, and the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism are, in a sense, parables too. 

Sunday 15th October 2023 - Martin Mowat

Jesus’ parables 6 – Salvation part 1.

Readings John 3:1-16 and Galatians 5:1,& 13-23

 

I have just finished reading a book by John Briley with the title “Cry Freedom”.  It’s about the unlikely relationship between the South African freedom fighter Steve Biko, and an English newspaper editor called Donald Woods. John Briley also wrote the screenplay for the award winning 1987 film by the same name, described as “an epic apartheid drama”.

 

Cry Freedom.  Freedom has to be on most people’s top 3 list of priorities.

It certainly is for the French people with their “Liberté, égalité et fraternité”. Or at least it used to be at the time of the Revolution.

 

There are all sorts of freedom, freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from ill health, freedom from war and oppression, freedom from debt, freedom of thought, political freedom, sexual freedom, the list is endless.

Freedom, for Jesus, although the Jewish people were NOT free, far from it, wasn’t about release from the oppressive Roman rule, it was about release from “sin”, or more precisely, release from “the consequences of sin”. 

 

Why? Because sin separates us from God. It separates us from the God who loves each of us more than our mothers did, more than our spouses do, more then we love ourselves.  Could such a thing be possible?  Absolutely it could!

That’s why freedom from sin was one of his favourite topics.  Setting people free from sin was his passion and when he was asked to do the reading in the synagogue in Nazareth one Sabbath, a small town of some 500 people, where he had grown up and where his father was the local carpenter, he chose Isaiah 61:1 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4:18)

 

Jesus passion for freedom is also why he told a number of parables and analogies to help clarify for his disciples and his followers what salvation is and what it is not.

 

Many of these are found in the Gospel of John, as is the famous story about Nicodemus that we just heard, who John described as a Pharisee and member of the ruling group of Great Sanhedrin leaders in Jerusalem.

 

Interestingly he came to Jesus at night, so we can only presume that he didn’t want any of his colleagues on the Great Sanhedrin to know what he was doing.  We talked about the Great Sanhedrin and what it was a couple of weeks ago.

 

I can imagine this man, can’t you? Well dressed, well educated, well respected, but nevertheless spiritually hungry. Somehow he knew that in all his learning, all his studying, all his religious service, something was missing.  Could it be, just perhaps, that this man Jesus could help him fill the gaps. Something inside him drove him to take the risk and go and find him.

"I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" Jesus said to him.  Well, I bet that Nicodemus wasn’t expecting THAT!

 

What on earth was Jesus trying to say. He didn’t understand. Being "born again" was physically impossible. This was man was talking nonsense!

 

So Jesus patiently and lovingly explained that what he was talking about was a spiritual birth. "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again."

Spirit gives birth to spirit.  Spiritual birth is quite distinct and it is not automatic. It happens when we come to faith, when we submit our lives to God, the moment from which we become a disciple (John 7:50; 19:39).

Jesus was talking about a new dimension of life and understanding that is entirely beyond man's control. It is a birth and a new life that God, the Holy Spirit gives. This "new birth”, "second birth" or "regeneration" is necessary for us in order to be able to "see" and "enter" the Kingdom of God that Jesus was talking about.

 

It is what sets us free, what gives us the freedom that I was talking about earlier.  As Paul put it in the first verse of our second reading, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”  I love that statement.  But Paul goes on to tell us to “stand firm”, and not to “let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

 

There are two schools of thought about whether or not a person can lose his or her, or their, salvation. 

 

Some people say, and I’m probably one of them, “Once saved, always saved”.

But, for example, if I give my life to Jesus and then I murder someone, where does that leave me? Will I go to heaven or to hell? But if I murder someone, had I really, fully, unreservedly given my life to Christ is the first place?

It’s a valid question. It’s what Paul was talking about in Galatians 5 when he talked about “the acts of the flesh …: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  They will not experience the freedom they long for.

Paul says that you can tell whether someone has truly given their life to Jesus. When they have really been born again of the Spirit, he says that their lives are transformed, and they display “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”, what we call “the fruit of the Spirit”.

You, my brothers and sisters”, he says, “were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out ...

No, Paul says, “if we live by the Spirit, if we keep in step with the Spirit we will not gratify the desires of the flesh. … Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” 

We’ll continue on this theme next week but, in the immortal words of Monty Python, “Now for something completely different.”

 

You will have noticed, I’m sure, that over the last few weeks we’ve been making changes to our order of service.  I have been mentioning this in dribs and drabs but I feel that I owe you a fuller explanation of why we are mucking about with something that was carefully and thoughtfully crafted, that has worked perfectly well for years, and that is much loved by many.

However, you will agree with me, I hope, that it does no harm, from time to time, to give thought to what we do, why we do it, how we do it and when we do it.

 

May I suggest that the most important part of our service is Communion? It’s the moment when we’re closest to God. It’s the high point, the climax if you like.  The ultimate sacrifice that Jesus paid for his church should be what propels us out of the relative safety of our service into the needy and uncomfortable world to which we have been told to represent Jesus, to which we have been sent to minister, to which we are called to proclaim the freedom that I’ve just been talking about.

As our service leads us towards that pinnacle, there are certain things we have to do before it, such as to confess our sin and seek forgiveness, thereby making our peace with God, such as making peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and such as praying for them, for those around us, and for the world that we see in such excruciating torment.

These intercessions used to follow communion, and maybe for very good reasons. I don’t think that was necessarily wrong or bad, but we have brought them forward, before communion, and that is why.

 

We have also brought forward the peace, which used to follow the sermon, so that it now follows the confession and absolution which seems a more logical place for it, and where it seems to sit very comfortably.

 

There’s a new prayer now, after communion, on the back page, the one that starts “Father, as we have received these gifts …” in which we say “thankyou”.

The last thing is that we, or more correctly I should say “I”, have been giving thought to is the number of hymns.  I just wonder, quite simply, whether given that we have very few strong singers, varied musicians, and sometimes no musician at all, whether 4 might be better than 5. Not everyone agrees with me on that, I know, and I’m not saying I’m right. We’re just giving it a go.

 

We want to hear your comments.  We’ve had several already and they’ve been generally positive and constructive. I understand that for some of us this is an uncomfortable process, but let’s work together so that our time of worshiping God is as meaningful and fulfilling as it can possibly be.    

Sunday 8th October 2023 - Martin Mowat

Jesus’ parables 5

Readings. Mark 13: 1 - 13 & 28 - 37

 

I said last week that it’s not very fashionable in Christian circles these days to talk about judgement, hell and damnation, although Jesus did quite a bit.

Another thing that we don’t talk about very much, although perhaps for different reasons, is Jesus’ return and what we call the “end times”.  That’s partly because there are different schools of thought, particularly about the order of events.  Personally I don’t think that dwelling on such hypothetical theories and differences of opinion is helpful, but we should be aware that Jesus will come back and that he told us very clearly that we should be ready. 

 

On the subject of Jesus’ return, our statement of faith, which you can find on our church website, says this. “The return of the Lord Jesus Christ is near and will be personal, visible and glorious (Mat. 25:31; Acts 1:11; Heb. 10:37). It will precede the Millennium (Luke 21:27-31; Revelation 19:11-16; Revelation 20:4). It is a vital truth that constitutes a stimulus for a holy life and faithful service, as well as the blessed hope of the believer (Matthew 24:14: Titus 2:11-14; 1 John 3:2-3).”

 

It’s the belief that “it will precede (rather than follow) the Millennium” that is not universally held. What’s the millennium?, you might ask.  It’s a period of 1,000 years, as its name implies, during which Christ will reign personally upon the earth and which will therefore be a time of righteousness and peace.

 

However, as I’ve said, the order of events is a discussion that I have no intention of getting into, partly because it’s complicated and partly because I have never studied it inn detail and so I don’t feel anywhere near qualified.

 

Interestingly, the Alliance World Fellowship, a group of 22 000 protestant evangelical churches in over 50 countries around the globe, including France, has recently decided to omit that particular mention of the Millennium from their Statement of Faith simply because they don’t regard it being sufficiently fundamental, and I suspect that we should probably follow suit. But that’s a bit of a red herring.

One thing is for certain, however, believing that Jesus WILL come back, everyone wants to know WHEN it will be. So did the disciples as we just heard in our reading of Mark 13. “Tell us, when will these things happen?” they said, “And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?

No one knows, Jesus told them not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, only the Father” but then he added Be on guard! Be alert!

 

Jesus told a number of parables about his return. We’ve just heard the parable of the fig tree, and I’m sure you know the famous parable of the wise and foolish virgins, bridesmaids waiting through the night for the arrival of the groom. Some had had the forethought to bring extra oil for their lamps, others hadn’t.

The one I want to highlight this morning is the parable of the watching servants that we’ve also just heard.  It’s recorded twice in the gospels, both by Mark and by Luke. They are two distinct versions of the same parable, a parable that Jesus probably told on numerous occasions.


One of the main points Jesus was making in all of these parables is that we don't know when Christ will come. It is fascinating that when Jesus was in the flesh, even he didn't know the "day or hour" and some people use that as an argument that Jesus wasn’t really divine. But one commentary I read said that this limiting of his omniscience was part of him "emptying himself" to become a man (Philippians 2:6-7). I’m sure that in his present state at the right hand of the Father, he now knows the time of his coming.


Mark's version doesn't tell us where the master went while he was out, but Luke says that he was at a wedding feast nearby. Such events often extended into the small hours of the morning which is why the servants didn't know what time he would return.

 

If the master was wealthy, he’d leave his front door firmly locked, and expect someone to be ready to unlock it immediately and let him in, and for all the lights in the house to be on. These would probably be hanging lamps with multiple wicks, and also small clay hand lamps with a single wick that you would carry around with you. To keep them burning meant that they had to be refilled periodically with olive oil, and the wicks trimmed occasionally. They also had to be regularly checked in case a drought had blown one out. The servants would therefore have had to keep tending them so that they were all alight when the master returned from the party. Not to do so might result in a very grumpy master. His coming home was their most important priority; their own weariness must not be allowed to take over.

 

That’s all very well and good but in Luke version, the parable takes an unexpected twist, and a complete role reversal happens. "I tell you the truth, Jesus told them, the master will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them." (Luke 12:37b) 

 

This wasn't what would have been expected from any master, Jewish or Roman. Far from it!

 

Jesus was now talking about himself, the Servant Leader, from whom all of us learn to take on a servant mentality, he was Suffering Servant of Isaiah who poured out his life unto death and was numbered with the transgressors in Isaiah 52 and 53,  the Humble Servant who washed the dirty feet of his disciples in John 13, the Son of Man who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many in Mark 10:45.


Jesus upends the world system by making the last first and the first last, the poor rich and the rich poor, the servants the ones served, the meek to inherit, and the mournful to leap for joy.


And so, in Jesus' remarkable twist to the parable, the servants, who wait up till all hours to welcome their master with style, are rewarded to a meal he serves to them himself -- a banquet! What a wonderful and unexpected blessing! Clearly this is intended to remind us of the feast at the End of the Age!


What this chapter clearly teaches us is that, contrary to what some Bible teachers might think, we don't have a precise timeline and we don’t need one, but we must nevertheless be ready for his arrival.


Another thing this chapter teaches, and that you may have noticed, is that Jesus said “And the gospel must first be preached to all nations.”  In Matthews’s version he is reported as having said “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

 

The Greek word for “nation” can also be interpreted is “ethnicities” or “people groups” and at the moment it is far from being the case that they have all heard the gospel.  According to websites such as the Joshua Project, a Christian organisation based in Colorado Springs and which, as well as coordinating the work of missionary organisations, seeks to track the spread of evangelical Christianity. According to them, 7,400 “people groups” have not yet heard the gospel of Jesus, and can therefore be considered as “unreached.” 

 

Such missionary organisations believe that it is the job of God’s corporate church to teach, train, equip, and send disciples on daily mission to accomplish the great commission. 

 

That great commission is found in Matthew 28 where Jesus said to his disciples “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

 

Author Sue Arnold says that these people groups are typically in areas where the church is persecuted, or they are geographically isolated, often high in the mountains, in the middle of the desert, hidden in jungles, lost in urban slums, living a nomadic lifestyle, or living on small islands in the middle of vast oceans.

 

Reaching them requires courage, dedication and funding. That’s why it is important for us, as a church, to actively support missions organisations such as Mission Possible, that we were talking about earlier, and the Church Mission Society.

 

The Alliance World Fellowship, that I was talking about earlier, is another such organisation that sends out over 1700 missionaries around the globe. In today’s political and cultural climate here in France being totally independent isn’t really very wise, and that’s perhaps the sort of organisation that we might well consider becoming affiliated with in the future. But that’s another matter altogether.

Sunday 1st October 2023 - Martin Mowat

Harvest Service - Jesus parables 4

Readings: Isaiah 35: 1 - 10 & Matthew 13: 24 - 30

The classic parable for Harvest Festival is The Parable of the Sower, and that is the one that we looked at last year. The farmer sows his seed, some falls on stony ground, gets burned in the sun, withers and dies, some falls on mediocre ground, survives, but doesn’t do very well, but some falls on good ground, flourishes, and bears fruit a hundred-fold.  That’s obviously a highly ‘potted version’, but the point of that parable was that it was all the same seed, it was the ground that was different.

It caused the disciples to ask Jesus, ‘Why do you speak to them (meaning the Jewish leaders) in parables?’.  They perhaps thought that he should tell it to them like it was.

In his response Jesus quoted from Isaiah. Listen carefully and see whether it doesn’t also speak of what’s going on in our world today. Isaiah said: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; It is, isn’t it? But he goes on, … so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.  Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

Then he immediately went on to tell them the parable that we heard a few moments ago.  

Before we get into that, though, let’s take a brief look at the interesting passage from Isaiah, our first reading.  Not a parable, obviously, but a prophecy. At the risk of being repetitive, let me read again just a few verses.


Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way.


The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there.


But only the redeemed will walk there, and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.


Beautiful words that are clearly a prophecy about heaven, about who will go there, and who won’t.

 

So in that context, let’s look at our parable which also talks about sowing seed, but in this case the seed wasn’t all good. Somehow it had become mixed with bad seed, and instead of talking about the harvest in terms of quantity, it talks about it in terms of quality, and the inevitable sorting that had to happen so that the resulting product was suitable for both animal and human consumption.

 

To help us understand this parable, which I’m sure that you’ve all heard before, perhaps on multiple occasions, it helps to know that the weed that Jesus was referring to is zizaniov’, a kind of darnel, or ryegrass, that usually grows in the same production zones as wheat. The similarity between these two plants, and their seeds, is so great that in some regions, that it is referred to as "false wheat".

 

If the grain from these weeds is not separated from the wheat grain, the flour can be infected with a mold called ergot, which can produce vomiting, illness, and in severe cases it can even cause death.

 

So it used to be a serious problem, that is until the advent of modern sorting machinery which can efficiently separate out bad seed.

 

In the story, the workers offered to go and pull out all the weeds, but the farmer told them not to. 

 

A few years ago, Charlotte and I decided to plant part of the field below our house with wild flowers.  We hoped to be able to look down on it for years to come and enjoy the glorious mix of colours, while at the same time knowing that the birds and the bees were benefiting too.

 

We ploughed, we harrowed, we sowed our precious seed, and we watered it copiously.

 

What we had failed to do, however, was to eliminate the roots and the seeds of the weeds that had been there previously.  The first year we did get a magnificent show of colour, but we also got a stack of strong, sticky yellow weeds with fluffy seed heads, and over time those weeds, and others, have more or less taken over again.

 

In my enthusiasm I made another mistake, too. I spent hours and hours, on my hands and knees, pulling out the weeds, but in the process, I must have trampled on some of the flower plants, and maybe pulled some of them out with the weeds.

 

Some wild carrot, a few cosmos, and some marigolds are all that are left.

 

In Jesus’ parable the farmer told them not to do that, and now I understand why. Waiting and separating the wheat from the weeds at the end of the growing season was the best course of action. Then they would have been able to burn all the zizaniov plants so that their seeds wouldn't escape and contaminate future crops.

 

Matthew goes on to tell us that after Jesus had told this parable, and the parable of the Mustard Seed and the parable of the Yeast, both of which you also know, I’m sure, Jesus “left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.  The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin, and all who do evil.  They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.'"

 

Like Isaiah’s prophecy, the parable of the wheat and the tares is referring to the last judgement which is not an easy subject, and in many Christian circles it is not fashionable, the argument being that we want to draw people to Christ by love, rather than by fear.

 

That’s good, but the fact of the matter is that Jesus taught about judgment at some length, and if we want to be his true disciples, we can’t just ignore this area of his teaching, even if we don’t major on it. It is part of the gospel, and whether we like it or not, fear is a powerful motivator that helps people find salvation.

In conclusion then, the two parables that we’ve been talking about, the parable of the sower, and the parable of the weeds, talk about the SAME HARVEST, but look at it from very different angles.

 

While Harvest Festival is traditionally the moment when we thank God for his provision, it is also a moment to remember that there is an enemy, and that judgment will come to everyone. That challenges us not only to think about where we stand personally, but also to share the truth with those around us.

 

As Jesus famously said when he sent out the 72 disciples to preach and to heal the sick, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.

Sunday 24th September 2023 - Martin Mowat

Jesus parables 3

Readings: Psalm 111 & Luke 6: 46 - 49

 

A number of us enjoy the Lectio 365 prayer app. This last week it has been reflecting on how we can practice creativity as we seek to share the good news of the gospel. “We often think about creativity in artistic terms,” it said, “but at its heart creativity is about communication, seeking imaginative ways to forge connections, and bring ideas to life.

It struck me that this is exactly what Jesus was doing when he told parables, and today’s subject is his parables about repentance.

 

"The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" This was Jesus’ message, and directly or indirectly the subject of many of his parables.

Repentwhat does that actually mean.  Google thinks that it just means “to show sincere regret or remorse”.  Interestingly it gives a Biblical example, and quotes "each person who turns to God in genuine repentance and faith will be saved". I haven’t been able to pin down the exact reference because I don’t know which version it’s quoted from, I must have tried at least 30 without success, but the message is clear enough.

 

But rather like its definition of peace last week, I find this one rather passive. To repent means to turn - to turn away from one thing and towards another. It means to change course, to change the way we think and behave. That’s very active, but that’s not my point.

 

Wikipedia, who sent me some beautiful photos this week, says that it is “the act of leaving what God has prohibited and returning to what he has commanded”, and that “it denotes the act of being repentant for one's misdeeds, atoning for those misdeeds, and having a strong determination to forsake those misdeeds.”

 

In the Jewish tradition it means to rearrange your entire way of thinking and feeling, and to forsake that which is wrong. A good example would be when Judah and his brothers, when they were trying to scrounge food from Pharaoh’s prime minister, they discovered that he was their long-lost brother. They showed not only remorse, but more importantly, transformation.  (Genesis 44:14)

 

So let’s look at what Jesus taught about repentance.

 

We saw two weeks ago that the Jewish leaders were more concerned with their position, and what the people thought of them, than they were with what God thought of them.  They were more concerned with people obeying what they called “the tradition of the elders” than they were about obeying God’s law themselves. I was amused to see that in Matthew 23 alone, he describes them several times as hypocrites, but also as blind guides, whitewashed tombs, snakes, blind fools, and a brood of vipers.  It ends with him saying “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate.  For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’

 

“… as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” what a beautiful analogy, and how it shows Jesus’ heart, his love, not just for that brood of vipers, but also for you and I.

So then, getting back to our subject, it won’t surprise us that some of the parables about repentance were addressed, not only at Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the teachers of the law that we talked about last week, but to ordinary Jews too.  They all needed to repent.

Tess read to us the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, also called the Parable of the House on the Rock, which Jesus told towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount, recorded famously by Matthew. But it was also recorded by Luke, and it was this version which Tess read.


It reminds us, I’m sure, of the Grimm’s Fairytale “The Three Little Pigs”, and the big bad wolf who threatened to blow down their houses.

To understand it, the parable I mean, not the fable, we need to remember that Jesus was constantly surrounded by people listening to his teachings, and many of them would have come up to him and told him that they wanted to be his followers. But how many of these hearers would actually put into practice his teachings? This is what prompted him to ask "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?” (v.46)

Even today, many people call themselves Jesus’ disciples and followers, but are they really following?   So he says "I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice." (v.47) and he tells the parable to describe them. 

How many times have we seen video footage, on the news, of houses being washed away by floods, and blown away by gale-force winds? All too often they are the homes of poor people that have been made of pallets and whatever they can find. Often they just have no foundations whatsoever.

But today we know that good foundations are vital, and building codes and regulations are put into place to make sure that houses are built properly. The wise thing to do is follow the codes, the foolish thing to do is to ignore them and do your own thing.

This is the point that Jesus is making. The person who follows the codes, "is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock." (v.48a)

On a different occasion, when Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, and Simon replied You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”, Jesus told him “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

 

Peter wasn’t the rock, and Jesus, you might be surprised to hear, is not the rock either. The rock is the understanding of who he really is. That’s the rock, the rock on which he would build his church, the rock on which it can stand firm against the wind and the rain, against floods and against anything that the world wants to throw at it. The rock on which WE should build our lives.

 

So hold onto that for a moment or two while we look at another parable, also from the sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s version this time.

" Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13-14)

Some of us had a real struggle with God carrying out his death sentence on the idolatrous Canaanites in the book of Joshua.  Why was that necessary?, we asked. I don’t want to get into that again, but isn’t Jesus saying something very similar?

What happens to those of us who chose the broad road rather than the narrow gate? Hell happens. I’m sorry to put it so bluntly, but it’s not complicated.  Hell happens.  And that’s why Jesus told lots of parables about the importance of getting things right before it’s too late.

For example, there was one about a man who got himself into debt, and was being taken to court by his creditor.

Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.  Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matt 5:25-26).

 

We’re talking about building our lives on the rock of understanding that Jesus is the Messiah, he is the son of God, he is God incarnate, and he’s a hen who wants to gather her chicks under her wings, before it’s too late.  We’re talking about making right choices, and we’re saying that that the right choice is repentance, without which there is no salvation.

 

It involves five steps:

·         Step 1: Confession, acknowledging where we go wrong, asking for forgiveness

·         Step 2:. Expressing regret.

·         Step 3: Receiving forgiveness

·         Step ‘: Committing to change

·         And then Step 5: Becoming a real committed follower

 

In the same way that knowing a lot about medicine doesn’t make someone a doctor, or knowing a lot about the law doesn’t make them a solicitor, knowing a lot about the Bible and Christianity, and going to church regularly doesn’t make someone a Christian.  They have to do what I’ve just described. There has to be a relationship. If you’ve never done that, may I suggest you think about digging some deeper foundations, about building your spiritual house on the rock of a personal relationship with Jesus.

In conclusion.  Talking about “repentance”, our psalm earlier provided some GOOD NEWS. He provided redemption for his people it said (that’s us if we will accept it);- he ordained his covenant forever— holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.  To him belongs eternal praise.” (Psalm 111:9)

Sunday 17th September 2023 - Martin Mowat

Peace

Readings : Psalm 29 and Galatians 5: 1 & 13 - 18

 

Last week, when we were talking about the parable of the fig tree, that Jesus told to illustrate the fact that Jewish leaders of his day were not bearing the spiritual fruit that he expected them to. Fruit such as love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. That’s the famous list that Paul suggested to the Galatians (Ga 5:22).

 

Today we’re going to take a one week break from our new series on Jesus’ parables, just to talk about “peace”.

If you were with us last week you’ll know that the Church Organising Group has been discussing our order of service and decided to try adding a post-communion prayer. Here it is:

Father, as we have received these gifts of bread and wine, you have fed us with the spiritual food of the body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ. Thank you for assuring us of your goodness and love. Renew us by your Holy Spirit, unite us in the body of your son, and bring us with all your people into the joy of your eternal kingdom, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

At the same time, we wondered whether or not to change the moment in our service when we share the peace, and we decided to experiment with having it, after communion and before the intercessions, instead of after the sermon and inviting you to give us your comments.

 

One of the comments we received prompted me to think seriously about what we’re doing when we share the peace, why we do it, and from there what would be the most appropriate moment in our order of service.  I want to share with you some of those thoughts, and once again, I’d be very happy to hear any comments you may have.

 

What is peace?  Google thinks that it’s “a stress-free state of security and calmness that comes when there's no fighting or war, everything coexisting in perfect harmony and freedom.”  But that, it seems to me, though not incorrect, is a very passive definition.  Is that, I wondered, the peace that Paul sandwiched so demurely between joy and forbearance in his list?

 

Let’s look at his list again. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I think that these things are not in any way passive, but very active, take love for example, that’s active, take faithfulness, active, take kindness, active. If we can make love, and make war, maybe we can also “make peace”.  Perhaps that’s why Jesus said in his sermon on the mount “Blessed are the peacemakers”, and do you remember what they will be called? They will be called the children of God.

 

So what is active peace, the peace that Paul described to the Philippians as “the peace of God that passes all understanding”? What is this inner peace that Jesus was referring to when he said to his disciples Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”?

 

The clue there is that it’s the peace of God, the peace of the Lord.  It’s something that he endows us with when we walk alongside him; when we allow him to lead us, to share our burdens, to solve our problems, to become the centre of our very existence, and to fill us with his spirit.

 

What, then, do we do with this active peace? Dare I suggest four things? 

-          We live at peace with God,

-          we live at peace with our brothers in sisters in Christ,

-          we make peace with, and love, our enemies,

-          and we live at peace with the world.  That’s how we “proclaim the kingdom until he comes”. Jesus calls us to be his hands and feet, to live in such a way that the world can see him in us, so that his church becomes attractive, a place people want to go and to stay. A people who represent a king who rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, not on a horse, a symbol of war, but on a donkey, which was a symbol of peace.

 

What are we doing, then, when we “share the peace” in church? We are making peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ. In the Lord’s prayer Jesus taught us to ask God to “forgive us our sins (or our trespasses), as we forgive each other”. Not forgiving each other is therefore in itself a sin, but that’s another matter.

 

Strangely forgiveness wasn’t in Paul’s list but I’m sure that’s because it’s part of “making peace”.

 

What “sharing the peace” is not is a convenient moment in the service to greet those we didn’t see on the way in and ask them how they are, although there’s nothing wrong in that per se.

 

When, then, should we do it?  It seems to me logical that once we have made our peace with God by confessing our sins, and being forgiven those sins, some of which MIGHT just be not living at peace with another person in the congregation, and before we share the body and blood of Jesus with those people, we should make our peace with them too. 

 

To put it another way, having made peace with God in the confession and absolution, we also need to reconcile with each other so that when we take communion together, we are in a state of mutual peace. 

 

This being the case, where we’ve always had it isn’t too bad, but where we tried it last week, AFTER communion, maybe wasn’t so logical, and that’s partly my fault for not having thought this through sufficiently beforehand.

 

But doing it immediately after the message doesn’t feel that comfortable to me.  Somehow it just doesn’t quite flow.

I’m wondering, therefore, whether a better moment might be immediately after our prayer of forgiveness and before we get into the reading of scripture and the sermon.

 

I also asked our good friend David for any thoughts he might have on the subject. He agrees that sharing the peace should be before communion but interestingly he also said that “we need to have cleared the decks of all obstacles so we are in the best frame of mind and emotional and spiritual space to respond to the act of communion.  This, he suggests, includes the unburdening of ourselves, through the Intercessions, of those things which weigh on our mind and which could be distractions. So this would put the intercessions before communion as well.


This might mean, for example, that we have the confession which is at the bottom of the first page, then the prayer for forgiveness at the top of the next page, then share the peace, then perhaps the second hymn with the collection as we all go back to our places, then the readings and the sermon without a break, followed by the third hymn, and then, at that point, the intercessions which would lead us into the creed.

 

Now we would have have cleared the decks, as it were. We would have prepared ourselves for the most important moment of our service, communion.  That would then be followed by the Lord’s prayer and the rest of what we have on the last page.

Might I make a suggestion?  Can we try that for a couple of weeks, and see how it feels? I understand that there are some who don’t like change. I know that some will say, or think at least, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But let’s just try it.  At the very least it’ll help us to think about what we do and why.

 

What we also need to think about, while we’re at it, is HOW we share the peace. Pre-Covid it was a bit of a free-for-all, with everyone greeting everyone. It was good fun but it could be very intimidating for visitors, for those of a shy disposition, and for those with health issues. We had to stop doing that when Covid came along, for obvious reasons, just turning to our immediate neighbours and muttering the peace through our masks. 

 

Charlotte found an article on line about an Anglican church that during Covid, instead of hugs, kisses and handshakes, made the sign of the cross with their index fingers, while at the same time making the eye contact with one another, and that, they said, worked really well.

 

Covid is still around, and some health experts are worried about another wave of it this winter. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem to pose quite the same threat that once it did, so maybe the rule about staying in our pews can now be relaxed a little.

 

But let’s be sensitive to each other. Whether you decide to make the sign of the cross with your index fingers, or to shake hands or to fist-bump is entirely up to you, but let’s remember that some people do still feel vulnerable.

 

So, if you offer your hand to someone and they only offer a fist in return, then fist-bump. If you offer the sign of the cross and the other person wants to shake your hand, if you’re OK with that, then shake hands.  Remember that what we’re doing is sharing the active peace of God. Hugging and kissing probably isn’t a great idea, and for the time being, let’s stay close to our pews unless there is someone in particular with whom you need to share the peace for whatever reason.

 

In conclusion then, I’d like to quote from an article that I read which said that because the Table of the Lord is a meal eaten among family and friends, the sharing of the peace is not a nicety or passive moment; it is a bold act of declaring our reconciliation as children of God. And this is not easy. Healing wounds, hurts and broken relationships is a difficult task, but it was the task of the Cross. Each time we make peace with each other, we point to that triumph of love. Not only have we been reconciled to God; we have been reconciled to each other.

Sunday 10th September 2023 - Martin Mowat

Jesus Parables 2

Readings:  Luke 13: 1 - 9   Matthew 22: 1 - 14

 

Here’s a piece of useless information for you.  If you bought a packet of cigarettes in England today, you’d find that half of one side of the pack bears the words “Smoking Kills - Quit now”, and half of the opposite side says "Tobacco smoke contains over 70 substances known to cause cancer". As of August 1st this year, each individual cigarette must be printed with a warnings that say thigs like "Cigarettes cause cancer" and, believe it or not "Poison in every puff".

 

Last week we started a new series about Jesus’ parables and the topic was God’s love, his forgiveness, and how he seeks out and saves the lost.  Today isn’t going to be quite so easy, hence a health warning. It’s not Smoking Kills - Quit now”, but as the passage heading of our first reading says, in the NIV at least, “Repent or perish”.


The parables that you’ve just heard are among those that Jesus told to help his disciples understand the spiritually perilous place of the Jewish nation in their day, as well as the blindness and deceit of its leaders.

….  In Jesus' day Palestine was part of the Roman Province of Judea. After Pompey the Great had brutally conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC, Rome ruled this area through puppet kings like Herod the Great, and through Roman prefects such as Pontius Pilate.

In order to keep good order, these kings and prefects allowed the Jewish religious leaders to administer many of the laws, which they did both through the “Great Sanhedrin” in Jerusalem, and through local “Sanhedrins” in the various towns. The High Priest, Caiaphas in Jesus' day, was therefore more of a political leader than a spiritual one.

The members if these Sanhedrins were made up of Sadducees and Pharisees, who were different. The Sadducees, who included both the high priest and many other priests, didn't believe in angels, in spirits, or in the resurrection on the Last Day.  Sadducees - “sad you see”.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, did believe in these things, and taught strict observance of the law. In fact they added man-made rules, an oral law, that extended the written Biblical law.  The idea was that if people observed this "oral law," they would be in less danger of violating the actual laws in the Torah, the Mosaic law.

These Pharisees liked to flaunt their piety by praying loud, long, pious prayers in the synagogues and on the street corners. They cultivated a reputation for ‘righteousness’ and loved to be publicly honoured, although in reality, on the inside, they were anything but holy. Jesus knew it and wanted to warn his disciples against their hypocrisy, which he called ‘the leaven of the Pharisees’ or ‘the yeast of the Pharisees’ because of its subtle and invasive nature.

Another group of leaders are referred to as the ‘lawyers’, the ‘teachers of the law’, or the ‘scribes’. These were trained to be the nation's recognized experts in the scriptures, which were just the O.T. of course.

The point is that with few exceptions, all these Jewish leaders saw Jesus as a threat to their position of authority. Jesus, of course, knew what they were thinking and plotting, so it’s not surprising that he didn't have much good to say about them, calling them names like “a brood of vipers”, and describing their sale of animals for sacrifice and their money changing in the temple as "a den of thieves".

So knowing all that helps us understand the parable of the barren fig tree that Philip just read to us.

Jesus had just been told about some Galileans who seem to have been killed by Pilate, and their blood mixed with blood used for some sacrifices.  He’d also been asked, it seems, why God had not saved the lives of 18 people when a tower fell on them and killed them.  It was this that prompted his “health warning”, which he repeated twice, "Unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:5), and then this little parable about the fig tree that wasn’t fruiting as it should, in the same way that the religious leaders were not bearing spiritual fruit as they should.

What spiritual fruit did he expect them to bear?  Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Personal integrity too perhaps. Against such things, Paul told the Galatians, there is no law.

The punchline of the parable was that if the poor fig tree, having been given the chance to do better, changed its ways, it would be spared. But if it decided not to do so, just continue to do its own thing, then it was to be cut down. It would ‘perish’.

John the Baptist's message was similar. Unless people began "to bear fruit in keeping with repentance," he warned, judgment would come. "The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:9)

This was tough stuff.  Moral of the story for the Jewish leaders: - DON’T be so hypocritical.

In his next chapter Luke records the Parable of the Great Banquet.  Matthew also recorded a similar, but slightly different, version of the parable, told on a different occasion, but in his case it was a wedding banquet, and this is the one that we just heard from Tess, and it’s one of the parables that starts “The kingdom of heaven is like”, a phrase I mentioned last week.

Again, we perhaps need to understand the cultural background, and the social rules that applied when one was invited to such an event.

In both parables the host prepares what is called a huge banquet with large numbers guests invited.

While it may seem strange in the light of invitation practices in the twenty-first century, in the first century world, the invitation would be two-fold: (1) the initial invitation some days or weeks ahead of time, and (2) the actual summons to the meal when it was ready.9

Once the host found out how many guests had accepted his initial invitation, he was able to determine how many animals were to be killed and cooked.

This was a society where one's social standing was determined by peer approval, so not to appear at a banquet to which one had previously agreed to attend was both a grave breach of social etiquette, and an insult to the host. For a whole group of guests to reject the final summons could be seen as a conspiracy to discredit the host entirely.

In Luke’s version of the story the invitees made all sorts of implausible excuses. The first claimed to have just bought a field that he must inspect. What? He bought it sight unseen? The second had just purchased five pairs of oxen and had to try them out. Unlikely, no-one buys a second-hand tractor or a car without test driving it first.  The third excuse, that the guest had just been married, was also fake. When he accepted the invitation, he would have known of his wedding plans. That would have been the time to politely decline. But to back out at the last minute could only have been an act of calculated rudeness.

These people had deliberately rejected the host’s invitation, and so no wonder that he said “Not one not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet”. The meaning of the parable is fairly simple.  Evildoers and unbelievers, those who effectively reject Jesus offer of salvation, no matter how nice, how helpful, how generous, how popular they are, will not set foot in God’s kingdom.

In Matthews’s version the host said to his servants, The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But surprisingly it ends with one poor man, who’d been called in off the street at a moment’s notice, being tied up and thrown out bodily into the street, all because he wasn’t wearing the right clothes, clothes which he probably didn’t have, and couldn’t possibly afford even to hire.

WHAT on earth was that all about?

Maybe the text means that some did quickly dress up, or fix themselves as best they could. They’d at least made an effort.

But this particular individual didn't even bother to do that. Rather, he came dirty, smelly, unkempt, and dishevelled, almost as an insult to both the king and his son, perhaps because he despised both them and their offer of hospitality.

The king demands an explanation but the man has no excuse. He is speechless. So the king orders him to be thrown out of the well-lit banqueting hall into the darkness of the night outside. 

We need to understand that this was a King’s banquet. In Jesus' day there were no democracies. The king's word was law, and you insulted him on pain of death. Jesus' hearers understood well enough; they didn't quibble about the king's constitutional authority to punish evildoers, with no right of appeal.

Jesus certainly intended this darkness to be interpreted as hell, for he adds that "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Hell is something we don’t like to talk about these days. But Jesus wasn’t mincing his words. …. "For many are invited, but few are chosen" was his closing statement.

Earlier I talked about a health warning, “Repent or perish”. As it just so happens, repentance is what next week’s parables are all about, too, so we’ll look at what it means then.

Sunday 3rd September 2023 - Martin Mowat

Jesus’ Parables 1

Readings : Luke 5 :17-20 & 27-32 and Luke 15:1-10

 

A couple of years ago we asked ourselves the question “What was Jesus' primary objective?”

 

We said that what it wasn’t, was to prove God’s existence, although he did.  The world already knew that God existed, and deep down, whatever people might say, it still does.

 

Nor was it to heal sick people, although he did, to preach and tell parables, although he did.

He came into the world both to die and to show us how to live. He came into the world to bring the good news of salvation and to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

This is a new series and it’s about Jesus’ parables, of which the 4 gospels give us at least 100, because parables, in their widest form, include stories, similes, metaphors, analogies, and various other figures of speech that he used to illustrate kingdom truths, and to change lives.

 

Although it’s perhaps something of an overstatement, Mark says that "he did’t say anything to his followers without using a parable." So before we go any further let’s ask ourselves why that might have been?

 

It is thought that it was partly to make his teaching more memorable, things for his disciples to ponder and then pass on to others. May I, right at the outset, encourage each and every one of us to “ponder” as we work through this series.  Jesus’ words are as relevant to us today as they were to those who heard them with their own ears.  They are not just part of an historical account of the man who changed the world for ever, but they convey timeless truths for us, truths that we would do well to “ponder” too.

 

Many of Jesus parables were probably told on multiple occasions, in different villages and to different audiences.  They were designed to teach people about the nature of the Kingdom of God. Let’s remember that the Jews had been expecting their Messiah to come, to overthrow the Roman oppressors, and to restore David's kingdom on earth. So, in order to set them straight, Jesus needed explain a number of things about the spiritual nature of the Kingdom. That’s why many parables begin, "The kingdom of God is like ...." or “The Kingdom of heaven is like ….".

 

On the other hand, speaking in parables was also a way of obscuring the truth from those who were not spiritually hungry, and particularly from those who were looking for ways to oppose Jesus.

 

At the beginning of his ministry, the religious leaders listened to him with curiosity. But after a while, they listened in the hope of finding an way to trick him, to trip him up, and then to formulate charges against him so they could have him arrested.  That’s why Mark says that Jesus' preached in parables so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding…”

 

So where shall we begin?  Let’s begin where we left off last week when we were talking about the God of both the Old and New Testaments, the God who loves us, and who wants to save us from ourselves.

 

Sheep.  Sheep had been an integral part of Israelite existence for generations, and in Jesus’ day they still were. They bred sheep for their wool, for their meat, and to use for their sacrifices so they needed lots of them. Everybody understood sheep and knew that they are woolly-headed and easily confused. Generally, sheep stick together in groups but occasionally one gets distracted, wonders off and gets lost. It’s not uncommon, I know because I grew up on a farm where we had 30 or 40 of them. So you have to count them regularly, and when the shepherd in the parable counted his 100 and realised he only had 99, there was only one thing to do.

 

You heard the story, and you heard the story of the poor lady who lost one of her precious coins. It was probably worth at least a day’s wages and she could ill afford to lose it. There was only one thing for her to do too.

 

Searching for the lost was, and still is, Jesus’ passion. People get distracted, they wonder off and get lost, just like sheep. Lectio this morning talked about how we get consumed with an all-consuming quest for personal wellbeing. People fall to the ground, roll under a piece of furniture, or get stuck in a place where they can’t be seen. They feel lost and don’t know where to turn. That may have happened to you once or twice.

 

But Jesus seeks them out, and when he finds them he has a party to celebrate.

 

Levi, the tax collecter, had been lost too. He was distracted by his mission to get rich by exploiting tax payers. Depicted as being shy and introverted, he was hated by his fellow Jews. But Jesus found him, picked him up, and helped him become Matthew the apostle and the writer of the first book in the New Testament.

 

Luke 15, the chapter Charlotte was just reading, goes on to record another parable about someone else who was lost, the prodigal son.  You’ve all heard it several times I’m sure, and heard sermons and messages preached on the subject.

 

Inheritance laws in Israel were designed to favour the older son, giving him a double share of his father’s property, probably with the purpose of keeping a family's land holdings together and preserving the family farm intact.

 

Dividing up a father's estate before his death wasn’t unheard of, but it was frowned upon.

 

Also, as long as a father was alive, his sons had the responsibility of supporting him, each with his share of the family wealth, but this younger son ignored that completely, he demanded his share and then squandered it. His focus was on "wild living", wine, women, and song. The money only lasted for a few years, and when it ran out, when he was broke, he found that he was a destitute foreigner in a strange land.

 

His new found friends deserted him, his bright red sports car was repossessed, he was evicted from his penthouse apartment. He was out on the street.

 

Coincidentally there was a prolonged famine that put everyone, even the best farmers, on the edge of survival. Our friend eventually found a job feeding pigs, but pigs of course were considered unclean and were abhorrent to the Jews.

 

He had hit rock bottom and had no alternative but to go home and scrounge on the father that he had rejected and abandoned.

 

Meanwhile, the father had been longing for his son's return for many years. His eyes had often turned to the road that led to the farm, but on this particular afternoon, when he glanced up to the road as he had thousands of times before, in the distance was the figure of a man coming towards the house.

 

The old man immediately recognized his son's characteristic walk, even though he was still far off. He got up and began to run towards him, his robes blowing behind him as he hurried to greet the son that he had been hoping against hope to see again.

This was no stiff, awkward meeting. The father threw his arms around his son in a happy embrace and kissed him as a sign of welcome and love. The son began his rehearsed speech about sin and lack of worthiness, but the father stopped him.

Instead of being chastised, as perhaps we might think he should have been, he was dressed in the best robe, a ring was placed on his finger as a sign of his love and wealth. Sandals were placed on his feet, the sign of a freeman as opposed to a slave. And most amazingly of all the fatted calf was killed, and a huge celebration feast was hastily organised. The elder brother was jealous but that’s another story.

A hug, a kiss, a robe, a ring, sandals, a feast, doubtless many more hugs and kisses.  It’s such a beautiful, tear-jerking story

Love, forgiveness, this is what the kingdom of heaven is all about.

One commentary that I read said that how we view these three parables has a lot to do with how we view the Church's mission. Is it our job, it asked, to take care of the needs of the righteous who have gathered into our congregations?

 

Yes, of course. But, what about the lost who seldom or never attend? What about the husband of the faithful wife who stays at home to watch sports? What about those in our churches who seem to drop out of regular attendance? Who goes and searches for them until they find them and discover the reason for their absence?

 

What about the people who live in our communities? Who will seek after them? What about the Muslims? The Hindus? The agnostics? The younger generation that has fallen away? What about their spiritual welfare? What about their children?    What about the lost?

 

These three parables reveal God as a Searching Father, actively seeking for the lost, and rejoicing when he finds them. 

 

The last verse of our second reading said "There is rejoicing in the presence of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:10).  These three parables talk about God, and show us his character of grace, extending favour and mercy to the undeserving. In Jesus, we see an active programme of seeking out the hurting and oppressed, the blind and the imprisoned. This is the message of the cross, the message of grace, the message of love and forgiveness, the message of the kingdom.  Let’s ponder that this week.

Sunday 27th August 2023 - Martin Mowat


Joshua 9

Readings: Psalm 121 & Joshua 14: 6 - 12


You may have been listening to Lectio 365 this week. If so, on Thursday you will have heard Brian Heasley referring to the account of Jacob who, in Genesis 28, while he was on his way from Beersheba to the house of his uncle Laban, to find a wife for himself from among the Laban’s daughters, when he reached a certain place,  he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.  He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.  Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.  I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

That was the promise that was now being fulfilled in the book of Joshua. 

For the last couple of months we’ve been studying the book of Joshua and last week we found ourselves at the beginning of chapter 13 which starts by saying "When Joshua was old and well advanced in years, the LORD said to him, 'You are very old, and there are still very large areas of land to be taken over.'" (13:1).

Poor Joshua, he was already at least 80 when Moses died, but nevertheless he drove the wedge between the north and the south by crossing the Jordan and taking Jericho and Ai, then beat up the five kings of the south, and then quite soon after that attacked the kings of the north in the way that we saw last week, and then there had been long methodical business of consolidating their victories.  Joshua was old, well advanced in years, the Bible says and maybe he felt weary.  I think I would J 

Strangely though, the LORD said to him, 'You are very old’. Well, gee; thanks, how encouraging is that? But perhaps it was actually meant as a compliment. I mean it was quite an accolade, only one other person in the whole people was as old as he was.

And that, of course, was Caleb.

Joshua and Caleb went back a long way together. Joshua was the leader of the tribe of Ephraim, Caleb the leader of the tribe of Judah, the tribe of which King David was a member, as was Jesus. As leaders of their respective tribes they had been two of the 12 spies. They had walked hundreds of miles together up to the northernmost part of Canaan and back again.

But that was now some 45 years ago.

These two champions were now 85, no less. By this time the conquest had been going on for a number of years, even though the way it is described in the book of Joshua makes it sound quite quick. But Caleb was indefatigable and claimed he was still fighting fit.

The name Caleb apparently means "whole-hearted" or "single-minded" or even perhaps "fanatical", adjectives which seem to perfectly match his personality.  It was Caleb, remember, rather than Joshua, who insisted to Moses that the Israelites, with God’s help, would have been able to take the land all those years earlier.

According to Wikipedia, traditional Jewish sources record a number of stories about Caleb which aren’t in the Bible.

One says that while Caleb wanted to bring produce from the land, as Moses had asked them to, the other spies didn’t want to, in order to avoid giving the Israelites a positive impression of Canaan. They only agreed to carry that huge cluster of grapes, apparently, after Caleb brandished his sword and threatened to fight over the matter. 

Another says that while spying out the land Caleb split off from the other spies to visit Hebron on his own, in order to see the Cave of Machpelah, where Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Leah, Isaac and Rebecca are buried, which today is called the tomb of the Patriarchs and is covered by a huge mosque. This will become significant in a moment.

It is also believed that Caleb's voice was so loud that he succeeded in saving the other spies by frightening away the giants, just by shouting at them.

His feet had trod on the whole country. Now, with that same bullish attitude, and unwavering faith, he pleads with Joshua to let him and the tribe of Judah, go and recapture Hebron, a strongly fortified city, and rid its region of the giants that had escaped the initial battles. They were the Anakim, the incredible hulks of the land of Canaan, the big bruisers, and in Israel’s dictionary Anakim spelled terror.

 

But not to Caleb and of all the places in Palestine that could have been his for the asking, he wanted Hebron.  Why?


And what accounts for such vigour and expectancy in this senior citizen of Israel? 

 

His vivid recollection of Yahweh's goodness and mercy in the past is certainly part of the answer. 

 

But verse 12 itself suggests two facts that shot the adrenalin into Caleb's faith.

“Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the Lord helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.”

 

It was as if Caleb said to Joshua: You remember the sneers you and I heard that day when the other ten spies brought the majority report? Remember all that whimpering about large, fortified cities and large, swaggering Anakim?  And how all they could say for days was, "We are not able, we can’t do it." Well, that's exactly why I want this inheritance, because there are fortified cities and there are real, live Anakim.

 

So one was the shear difficulty of the task. Precisely what caused Israel to shrink from the task in Numbers 13 is what gave Caleb the passion to take on the challenge of it.

 

And did you notice how Caleb reminds Joshua, " The LORD promised. ” Here is a man who has learned to trust in the promises of God and stake his whole future on them. He believes wholeheartedly that the LORD will help him as he has before.

 

Long story short, Caleb did conquer Hebron and his son-in-law conquered next door Debir, about 13 kms away.

 

In conclusion, according to Numbers 32:12, Deuteronomy 1:36, and Joshua 14:14, Caleb followed the LORD "wholeheartedly", as his name implies. What a testimony!

So often we follow the Lord “most of the time”, or “some of the time”, or when it suits us. But when things get tough, and we must lean on faith rather than sight, we balk. Doubt and fear sets in, and we follow our fears instead of our faith. 

The question for each of us, this week, is how do we match up to Caleb’s example, and what might we need to change in ourselves in order to do so better?

Joshua and Caleb weren’t done yet, though. Amazingly they had at least another 25 years to go. Jumping forward, out of the book of Joshua, into the next book, Judges 2:8 tells us that Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of a hundred and ten, and it appears that when he did, Caleb was still going strong.


Some of you are now saying “Phew, Joshua dead, thank goodness for that!” Maybe he’ll give us a break and take us back into the New Testament. 

 

Well, yes, that’s the plan, but let’s not forget that, as the little rhyme goes:

       The New Testament is in the Old concealed

       The Old Testament is in the New revealed.

They are BOTH part of the same Bible, and of equal value and importance to us as Christians today, but more than that, the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament too.  They are one and the same.  God has never changed, and never will.  We cannot mold him according to our private preferences. We are the ones who need to allow him to mold us.

He loves each and every one of us.  He has a plan and a purpose for us even when we’re 80 or 85. Let us embrace everything he has for us.

Sunday 20th August 2023 - Martin Mowat


Joshua 8

Readings - Psalm 24 & Joshua 10: 1 - 8

 

For the last couple of months, we’ve been studying the life and leadership of Joshua, and the Israelite invasion of the Promised land. It hasn’t been entirely comfortable and a number of us have struggled with all the violence and bloodshed. So far, two cities, Jericho and Ai, have been completely destroyed and their inhabitants disposed of, one city, Gibeon, has been left untouched but its inhabitants have been subjugated to permanent servitude as wood cutters and water carriers.

 

Last week we heard how, despite the need to exploit their military advantage, the Israelites had taken time out to hold a crucial consecration ceremony on the very spot at which God had promised Abraham, and later Jacob, to give them a land “flowing with milk and honey”, where they had been promised that everywhere that they set their feet, they would possess, promises that were being realised in real time. So they took time out to read the law, and to reflect on who they were.   Special.   As are we.

 

But now it was time to knuckle down and get the job done. They had already split the land in two, so the big question was which half to tackle first, the north or the south. 

 

In the event, the choice was made for them.

 

Last week we also heard how the people of nearby Gibeon had deceived the Israelite leaders into believing that they were from a long way away, and had succeeded in making a peace treaty with them. This had saved their lives, but at the cost of their freedom. But when they heard about it, the kings of the south were livid with the Gibeonites for seemingly siding with the enemy, so, at the instigation of the king of Jerusalem, they ganged up and launched a joint attack on them.

 

“HELP!” the Gibeonites cried to Joshua.  “You made a contract with us, now come and protect us.” So, with God again exhorting Joshua to be ‘strong and courageous’, he marched his army through the night, taking the enemy totally by surprise in the small hours of the morning.  Chapter 10 gives us a graphic account of what transpired, but I’ll save you the gory details. 

 

There are, however, a couple of details that we shouldn’t miss. The first is that Joshua asked God to stop the sun and the moon, in order to give him more time to affect his defeat. 

 

There are two schools of thought as to whether Joshua wanted to prolong the darkness and the relative cool of the early morning, or to prolong the daylight and delay the failing light of the evening.  Either way, the text expressly says that God did indeed answer Joshua’s prayer.  “There has never been a day like it before or since,” the Bible tells us “surely the Lord was fighting for Israel.” The clear lesson for us is that God does answer prayer.

 

Something else extra-ordinary happened that day. God physically joined in the battle, hurling huge hailstones down on the Amorites. Could it be, do you think, that God is not only able to answer our prayers, but to fight with us, alongside us, in our battles and our struggles?  We’ll see that again in a minute.

 

The attack on Israel had been led by five kings. In general, kings rarely took part in battles personally, but would watch from some vantage point at a safe distance. When these five realised that things were not going their way, they all hid in a cave. But someone saw them and reported the fact to Joshua who ordered the mouth of the cave to be closed with stones so that he could deal with them later. Again, more gory details that we won’t go into.

 

After the battle Joshua made the most of his situation and immediately went around and dealt with the individual cities one at a time.  The chapter finishes like this “So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. …. All these kings and their lands Joshua conquered in one campaign, because the Lord, the God of Israel, fought for Israel.  Then Joshua returned with all Israel to the camp at Gilgal.

 

Chapter 11 sounds very similar to chapter 10, and ends on a very similar note. 

 

What happened was that when the kings of the north heard what had been going on in the south they united their respective armies and formed what the author describes as a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore.  Not only did they probably have the numerical supremacy, but they certainly had the technological edge too, because they had horses and chariots which the Israelites didn’t have.

 

Once again God told Joshua not to be afraid and that by the same time the next day he would have handed them all over to him.  Doubtless he remembered that God had told Moses “When you go to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots, and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God … will be with you.” God hasn’t changed, nor have his promises.

 

So Joshua did as he was told and took the initiative, attacking them ‘suddenly’, perhaps even at night, or at dawn, but we don’t know that. 

 

When I was training in the army, the infantry to be precise, we often practiced moving around at night and doing dawn attacks.  Usually they would be airborne, in helicopters that would speed up to the objective at very low altitude, just a few metres off the ground, drop you off and shoot away as quickly as they had come. Except that in practice our helicopters were usually in the form of four-ton trucks that were more readily available and much cheaper to run.  On one particular occasion, however, while we were training in Bavaria with the American army, to our surprise and delight, we did use real helicopters. 

 

The helicopters dropped us off just short of our objective and then disappeared. Once we had won our little imaginary battle, we called them back to pick us up.  It was amazing, one moment the sky was empty, and all we could hear were the birds, the next, literally, there were the helicopters, hovering one foot from the ground for us to climb back in.

 

All that to say that what struck me that day was the power of the element of surprise, and the fear that it engenders. That is what Joshua and the Israelite army were exploiting.  Who would have expected them to appear as if out of nowhere, and in the middle of the night, when they were all in their sleeping bags?

 

I’m guessing, too, that the Canaanites hadn’t had the time to get themselves properly organised, and it’s thought that where they were might have been suitable as an assembly point, for getting the armies together, but not for fighting and using the chariots, which needed space and flat ground to manoeuvre, and to charge.  Either way, God was on Joshua’s side and verse 7 says “So Joshua and his whole army came against them suddenly at the Waters of Merom and attacked them, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Israel.”

The remainder of chapter 11 and all of chapter 12 tell us that in all Joshua conquered no less than thirty-one kings and their ‘royal’ cities. When you read the list carefully, however, you find that though the land was largely subdued, Joshua didn't completely remove all the inhabitants from the land in that initial campaign.

A study of the Hebrew text, but not by me, you understand, shows that three words describe what was now happening. Take - divide - possess.

The first one is to take.  This is in the military sense I suppose, and this is what we have now seen.  Joshua and the children of Israel are in complete control of the land that God had promised to give them.

The second one is to divide, not in the sense of “divide and rule” but in the sense of to “share out” or to “allocate”.  You may or not remember that there were two and a half tribes, the Reubenites, the Gadites and half the tribe of Manasseh, that had become so enamoured by the countryside on the east side of the Jordan, back when Moses was still alive, that they had asked him if they could settle there.  “A bird in the hand”, perhaps.

Moses agreed to their request but only on the condition that they participate in the conquest first.  This they did, and in fact they had even been the first to cross the Jordan when God stopped it flowing not long previously.

Now they did have to split the land up in such a way as to accommodate all the various tribes.

The third word is “to possess”, which brings us to the beginning of chapter 13, but we don’t really have time to get into that this morning ….

Sunday 13th August 2023 - David Matthews

Readings: Jeremiah 7: 9 - 15. 1 Corinthians 12: 1 - 11

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord

Jeremiah was a failure. Or so he may well have believed. By the time of his death, in all likelihood as an exile in Egypt, Jerusalem had been sacked twice, thousands of his compatriots had been forcibly relocated by the invading Babylonians and the southern kingdom of Judah had collapsed into anarchy with rival warlords taking advantage of the chaos. He had spent his entire adult life trying to prevent this catastrophe but all his warnings, the harangueings, and heart-felt desperation had been fruitless. Political, moral and spiritual deterioration had become endemic.

From a political perspective, the kingdom of Judah was ripe for conquest. From a spiritual perspective, here was a nation that had abandoned its God; ceasing to live within its centuries old traditions, the people had simply lost their way and, as a result, they were vulnerable to any predatory force. What they got was Nebuchanezzar and the full force of the Babylonian Empire rolling over them.

Jerusalem fell for the second time in 587BC. Not everyone was dragged off into enforced exile. The Babylonians installed a Jew to govern Judah on their terms, a man called Gedaliah. Jeremiah knew him and stayed on in Jerusalem to support him. This was the Jews’ last chance to hold things together. But then, five years later, Gedaliah was assassinated by a rogue member of the Royal house, angry that he had been passed over for the governorship. The Babylonians were not having that. They soon quashed this latest rebellion and that marked the end of any coherent Jewish society. Those who could, fled to Egypt to escape the chaos. This was probably what Jeremiah did. The cruel irony would not have been lost on him: the exodus under Moses, when God redeemed his people, was now turned inside out, as if it had never happened. Egypt was now a place of refuge.

This slice of Jewish history feels incredibly familiar, doesn’t it? Across the world, there are many countries, so riven by warfare or civil turmoil, that their people have no option but to flee. The numbers of refugees seeking security anywhere other than their homeland appears to be growing year on year.

Perhaps we have to accept that human beings lack the collective talent to hold onto stable government. We can now see that, when Francis Fukuyama predicted in ‘The End of History (published in 1992) that the nations of the world were moving inexorably towards Liberal Democracy and that the bitter rivalries which had beset the 20th century were over, he was utterly mistaken. The first quarter of the 21st century has opened an era of new tensions. Old certainties now count for little.

Once again, we can see the rise of the idol, manifest as an autocrat. Strong men surface in times of upheaval and then seek to consolidate their power. Checks and balances are rendered impotent. In countries where democracy has been long established, a ‘Populist’ approach, revolving around the cult of an individual, has emerged, celebrating the dogmatic and spurning the nuanced. Intolerance becomes fashionable. Reasoned argument is replaced by bellowed assertion. Anyone holding contrary views is cancelled. These Populist movements seem to gather momentum around individuals on whom all hope is projected. It is so easy for these leaders to morph into heroes, and the hero to become an idol who is immune to criticism.

Jeremiah knew what he was talking about when he stated over and over again that the problems besetting Judah were because the people were failing to pay heed to God. God was no longer the corner-stone of their political, social and moral structures. They had created their own, alternative idols. Jeremiah understood that disaster would inevitably follow. He couched his warnings as threats, emanating from a jealous God but we have the benefit of living in The Last Days, that period of human existence following the final revelation of God: his incarnation as Jesus.

We can see that devotion to anything or anyone other than Jesus carries enormous risk because, if we do not graft ourselves on Jesus, drawing on his strength, we leave ourselves terribly vulnerable to whatever manifestation of human frailty is prevalent. Not only that, we are left so unreceptive to God’s active agency that the gifts he wishes to bestow upon humankind are rendered impotent.

Humankind has enormous potential – unsurprisingly, as we were created in God’s image. But humankind also has the capacity to fall into extraordinary error if our unbridled impulses are not properly constrained. Two sides of the same coin, we might say.

I have a sense that the idolization of stars (which perhaps began in the middle of the 20th century with the rise of mass media), the rise of the influencer on social media and extreme political movements and ideologies, which are built around iconic figures, occur because the need to worship is built into our DNA. Because we are created beings, we long to know our creator. If that knowledge eludes us, we are in danger of satisfying this primaeval urge to worship by focussing on a human figure instead of God. No man or woman can survive the weight of cult status. Can you name any such leader who has not become monstrous? Distorted by their own ego, tortured by a neurotic, precarious belief that their invincibility is under constant threat, they retreat into their own fastness, companioned by their own reflection, emerging only to order another act of repression.

The sacking of Jerusalem and the dispersal of the Jewish people were actual events, rooted in history. But they are also metaphors for all time as are other passages where he records the Lord saying that Jerusalem will be rebuilt and that there will be a new covenant, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more (Jer 30.33-34).”

This passage and others like it are a different sort of  prophecy: not a warning of disaster, unless there is a radical change of heart and behaviour, but a glimpse of a new era where the relationship between God and his creatures is of a wholly different nature, when falling under the spell of an idol will be impossible because God would have ‘written on our hearts’; we will – quite simply – know God.

Paul, speaking to the congregation in Corinth, echoes Jeremiah by reminding them that the days of idolatry must pass. With the Corinthians, we have entered a chapter of the human story where the special status conferred on the Children of Israel has been stretched to include all peoples. What matters now is not whether one is a member of the Chosen Race but whether one has the new law written upon one’s heart. What matters now is not adhering to the old, prescriptive law, the list of ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ and the rituals of Jewish living but responding to the simple stark commandment to Love: to love God first and then to love our fellow human beings. We have to love God first because he is the source of l0ve and without drawing on that source, our capacity to love is likely to shrivel and become barren.

Paul makes it clear that when God’s spirit is made manifest through gifts, this is for the common good. When we look at the gifts Paul lists, we can see how some are obviously manifestations of the love for others. Wisdom, knowledge, discernment and healing count for little when they are not distributed. Faith too, if recognized as a deep-rooted optimism, is a social benefit.

The other gifts are more difficult for 21st century people to relate to. We understand far more of how the world works than Paul’s contemporaries. Our understanding of physics and physiology means that we have more answers to the seemingly inexplicable than were available to the first Christians. What we do share with them, however, is the same need to see God’s agency at work in our lives.

What Paul’s other gifts – miracles, prophecy and glossolalia – have in common is that they defy neat explanations. They remind us that there is a dimension beyond our ready comprehension which nevertheless touches our lives.

I have a feeling that, if Paul were writing to the Christian community in 21st century Mirepoix, he would list other spiritual gifts: one more pertinent to the time and place we inhabit. The key thing is that they would a;; emanate from the same spiritual source and would all be there for the common good. I think it is worth asking ourselves what spiritual gifts are most needed in the 21st century.

Top of my list would be empathy: that heightened expression of consideration that enable us to put ourselves in another’s situation. Empathy acts as a brake on selfishness. It stops us behaving in a way that impinges inappropriately on someone else. It broadens our appreciation of the difficulties and pressures that others experience. Loving our neighbour as ourselves becomes more accessible if we can identify wholly with that neighbour.

I would also elevate the ability to generate Art to a spiritual gift. For so many people in our secular age, the closest they come to a spiritual experience is a profound aesthetic one. To be moved by a powerful piece of music or literature, to be taken out of oneself in that way, can be a significant step towards grasping a sense of the divine. I would not argue that a worthy artist needs to be a Christian. Exploring the human condition – including our unique capacity to appreciate beauty – is, in itself, of spiritual value. Indeed, art which allows itself to be constrained by dogma, is often inferior. What we realise, in fact, is that God can speak to us through the medium of sound, or pigment or words, just as surely as he can through glossolalia, the talking in tongues.

To my mind, the work of scientists and their revelation of the chemistry of the universe, if not in itself a miracle, brings home what is amazingly ‘miraculous’. The mind-blowing, inter-connected complexity of the world is an ongoing miracle. To be able to elucidate this is surely a spiritual gift.

And the human capacity to innovate, to think ‘outside the box’ and invent new, improved ways to support the way we live and the way we interact with the natural world, is surely a spiritual gift as well.

When the motivation is rooted in the common good, these human skills become spiritual gifts. And the capacity to marvel and experience awe is also a gift that draws each of us closer to God.

Those of us who are not great artists, cutting-edge scientists or major innovators should recognise the attributes we do have, including facts of our personality and character, as nevertheless emanating from God: ours to use for the common good. It ought to be be our daily prayer that all we do and all we say should be in alignment with God’s purpose.

This is hard. It involves a hefty dose of humility: not a fashionable quality.

The thing is, we cannot always tell the direction of travel Gods wants us to take. Sometimes, when we pursue, with relentless, unswerving zeal what we consider to be a righteous path – doing God a favour – we have to be nudged (and sometimes knocked) back to where he actually wants us to be. So it is for us to pray every day the gethsemane prayer, “Nevertheless not my will but thine be done”.

In this way, I believe, we can steer clear of the current trend towards idolatry, finding substitute gods, and remain open to the only God there is, allowing him to translate our skills and talents and personal characteristics into spiritual gifts, for which he is the source and the common good is the focus.

It may also help to remember the words ascribed to St Theresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours.

No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but ours.


For we are living in that period in the human story when we blessed with knowledge of Christ and commissioned, quite simply, to live with God’s new law written on our hearts.

 

David Matthews


Sunday 6th August - Martin Mowat


Joshua 7

Readings - Deuteronomy 27: 1 - 8 & John 18: 28 - 40.

 

When you look at the Israelite invasion of the Promised Land from a geographical and from a military point of view, you can see that they had two major options. Either they could have gone in from the south and simply worked their way northwards up the country, or they could have done what they did do, which was to circle round and go in from the east.

 

This latter approach had one major down side and one huge upside.  The downside was that the Jordan river had to be crossed.  That would be a major consideration even in warfare today, and we’ve talked about how impossible it would have been, in spring, the river in full flood, without a miracle of some kind. But even given the sheer number of people, men, women, children and animals, it would probably have been difficult at any time of the year.

 

But the advantage, one that significantly outweighed all the disadvantages, was that by attacking Jericho and Ai first, they effectively drove a wedge between the kings of the north and the kings of the south, splitting the country into two halves, each of which could then be dealt with separately and more easily, in their own time.

 

BRILLIANT. But before we get into any of that we need to look at what we heard about in our two readings.

 

Before I go any further, can I just say something about the book of Joshua.  The fact that it’s about a military invasion inevitably means that there is going to be some blood and guts that as civilians, we’re going to find uncomfortable.  Several people have told me that they’re finding it difficult to hear, that the slaughter is hard to understand and difficult to accept, all of which I understand.


However, the fact is that there are lots of other passages in the Bible that are uncomfortable, and that we might prefer not to think about. My personal conviction, though, rightly or wrongly, is that, as Paul said to Timothy “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” …… “all Scripture”. That means that we need to see the Bible as a whole, not as an assortment of stories from which we can pick and choose, as the mood takes us.

 

There’s something else.  As we just heard in our second reading, Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. ….. my kingdom is from another place.” In other words, it’s a kingdom where the values, the standards and the code of conduct are not just different, they are, for want of a better expression, on another level.

 

That kingdom, the one that Jesus was talking about to Pilate, is the one of which we have been invited to be members, and the kingdom that, like it or not, we now represent to the world around us. In order to understand that kingdom we need to understand, as best we can, the Bible.

 

So, back to the last section of Joshua chapter 8 which tells us that after the battle of Ai the people now had to build alters, consecrate themselves, and listen to a reading of the law.  It would be easy for us to just accept that that was something that they had to do, and move ahead with the more dramatic stuff, but I think we need just to pause for a moment and look at the significance of it.

 

From a military point of view, although they had effectively split the country in two, they could ill afford any delay, because that would give the kings a chance to club together, make military alliances, and even take the initiative to attack them unexpectedly, rather than just wait to be attacked.  And indeed, as we will see next week, that was already happening.

 

But no.  Despite the need to keep up the impetus, there was something that needed to be done first, because it was even more important. WHY?

 

Was it just because Moses had told them to do it, as we heard in our first reading? Yes, in a sense it was, but why had Moses said that? why had he made Joshua promise to do it. Why did they now move from Ai to Shechem, some 50 kms, to do what might be glibly described as a Bible study on the 10 commandments?  It’s not a stupid question, in fact far from it.


I’ve said it already a couple of times but it’s important for us to remember that only one generation ago these people had been slaves, indeed they had been slaves for hundreds of years.  Totally displaced, they had lost much of their identity, their culture, and probably much of their religion at the same time.  So perhaps part of the answer to our question is that it was intended to help a virtually rootless people get back, or at least nearer to their roots.

 

We need to realise that God wasn’t worried about the delay from a military point of view, he could deal with that, but he was worried about them rediscovering who they really were, and understanding why they had to be so different from the idolatrous people currently occupying the space that he was giving them.

 

We’ll hear more about this but for the moment it’s important for us to realise that one of the things that they had to learn, as do we, is that the spiritual and the physical (in this case their military campaign) were inseparable. As one commentary I read said “there can be no conquest without a covenant, heeding God's word” it said “is more crucial than fighting God's war”.

 

Can I say that again in a slightly different way? Heeding God's word is more crucial than struggling with our circumstances.

 

Incidentally, the climax of their ceremony came with Joshua's reading “all the words of the law”. In the passage in Joshua chapter 8, which we didn’t read because it sounds much like a repeat of Deuteronomy 27 that Briget just read to us, the word ‘all' was used no less than five times. All the word was applicable to all the people, regardless of rank or role, regardless of gender or age, it even applied to non-Israelite camp followers like Rahab. What we heard Paul say to Timothy earlier, was very similar.

 

It is also significant that this covenant consecration ceremony was held at Shechem, the exact place where Abram (Abraham) had first received the promise of the land (Gen 12:6-7). Here Jacob had returned safely after a long exile from the land he had received the same promise (Gen. 33:18-20; 28:13). And now, here is Joshua, Abraham's seed, Jacob's descendant, at that very same spot on the map, experiencing the fulfilment of that amazing promise. It’s enough to give you goose bumps.

 

And now to conclude today’s episode, you may remember that I said a few weeks ago that there was one exception to the slaughter of all the inhabitants. 

 

I mentioned a few minutes ago that we will soon see the kings of the region, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, setting aside their differences and power struggles to form military alliances in the hope that working together they would be strong enough to put an end to this foreign incursion. 

 

One king, however, had a different idea.  Somehow, he knew that the Israelites had been told that they could spare the people that were “very far” from them (Deut. 20) 

So this king sent a delegation to Joshua pretending that they had come on a long journey to get there. As proof they produced moldy bread and cracked wineskins, they wore tattered clothes and worn-out sandals. They lied about their identity and requested a treaty, covenant of peace. Joshua and the Israelite leaders were utterly taken in and so didn’t bother to consult the Lord (9:14b). So they made a peace covenant with them, and ratified it by an oath in the name of the Yahweh.

A mere 3 days later, however, they discovered their mistake. The mysterious long-distance travelers had actually been from just next door, the Gibeonites. When the people heard that their leaders had been fooled, they were furious with them, and demanded that they break the covenant, but Joshua refused to do so because it had been made in the Lord’s name.


"We have given them our oath by the LORD, the God of Israel,” Joshua said “and we cannot touch them now. … We will let them live, so that wrath will not fall on us for breaking the oath we swore to them. … And that day Joshua made them woodcutters and water carriers for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord.

Once again Joshua had failed to consult the Lord. Once again he took a blow to his reputation.

The moral of the story is quite simple really. Not only do we need the power of God to overwhelm our obvious enemies, but we also need the wisdom of God to detect our less obvious ones.

So what’s ahead in this series about Joshua – quite a lot – 3 or 4 more messages perhaps. We’ll hear about:

·         The military conquest in 2 phases, first in the south, then in the north.

·         The distribution of the land to the 12 tribes and the actual possession of those lands

·         The allocation of ‘cities of refuge’ and of towns for the Levites

·         Caleb’s request for a special inheritance

·         Joshua’s final instructions to the people

  

And a few other bits and bobs besides, with plenty of lessons for us.

 

Then we’ll perhaps have a complete change and look at some of Jesus’ parables.  


Sunday 23rd July 2023 - Martin Mowat


Joshua 6

Readings: Joshua 8: 1 - 8  &  Joshua 8: 24 - 29

 

In our second reading last Sunday, the one that Jess read, from Joshua chapter 7, we heard that “the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.” … So when they attacked Ai “The men of Ai chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck down about thirty-six of them.

 

Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads.

 

The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.”

 

This was news to Joshua, it was the first that he had heard about it.  Someone had stolen, others must have seen him do it, even more must have heard about it but said nothing. Net result in God’s book “Israel had sinned.”

 

Ouch ! 

 

Corporate guilt. Difficult for us to understand because unlike in some other cultures, we are more inclined to look for an individual to blame, a scapegoat, so that the rest of us can drift away, claiming innocence and acting holier than thou.

 

Not so in God’s thinking, it would seem. Not so for a sovereign God whose ultimate plan was to send his innocent son to appropriate the sins of you and I.

 

We talked last week about the rights and wrongs of God instructing Joshua to eradicate ALL the existing inhabitants of the Promised Land, and with them their “detestable” idolatrous practices. But we didn’t really have time to think about this specific event which was different because now it was one of his own people who has had the gall to steal from him, who had behaved as if God couldn’t see, as if he wouldn’t know.

 

Achan’s actions had not only implicated his immediate circle, but he had also effectively caused the death of 36 of his fellow soldiers, as well as the despair of Joshua and the whole fighting force.  No wonder God was so extraordinarily angry that he turned his back on Joshua’s strike force when they attacked Ai.  Achan’s greed had taken a terrible toll on the whole nation!

 

As we just heard in our reading today, the Israelites attacked Ai a second time, this time with an ingenious plan that God had devised.  We’ll talk about that in a few minutes but first there are several questions that have to be answered about what Achan did.

 

1.                 Was it realistic to expect that amongst 600 000 soldiers there would not be one who would disobey orders?
Well actually yes, because when you’re fighting a battle, one man’s actions can compromise the whole plan. In a time of war, for example, if one soldier fires prematurely it can alert the enemy and destroy the whole army. One person who shares a secret can expose an entire nation to defeat. Real life demonstrates that all can suffer for the sins of a single person.
In the British army people who do such things are court marshalled and punished VERY severely, to make an example of them, to discourage others from making the same mistake.  Achan’s punishment was severe, too, an example to everyone that would have made them fearful, and rightly so.


2.                 Why were the WHOLE people held accountable?
Partly because sin is contagious. We underestimate its consequences both physically and spiritually, both personally and corporately. Different cultures understand this differently. In Japan, for example, the importance of the group is instilled into them from early childhood, so they wouldn’t have such a hard time understanding this. It also illustrates God’s sovereignty that we talked about last week.

 

3.                 What do we need to learn from this today?

Joshua hit the nail on the head in verse 9 when he was complaining to God about letting them lose the battle. He said “The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this … What then will you do for your own great name?”

 

The actions of one person affect the reputation of the group.  We see examples of this this all the time, the BBC, the British government to name but two, even the church when it’s leaders do shocking things.

 

Talking of the church, people long to see something clean and wholesome where they feel safe and can receive ministry. They want to see a church populated by humble, Christ-loving people who have repented from their sin and now doing their best to live free. Let us not be amongst those who bring God’s great name into disrepute, or worse still cause God to angrily turn his back on us in our hour of need.

 

Individually, sin hampers our spiritual lives, like hobbling a horse so that it can’t run when it needs to.  It dulls our spiritual edge and hampers our faith.

 

We cannot afford to settle for its bondage and then call it "normal" Christianity!

 

Everything that we have and that we are, we owe to Jesus. We either surrender fully to him, or we reserve some things for ourselves, as Achan did.

 

Jesus taught his disciples in Luke chapter 9: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it."

Taking up your cross here means being ready to die to self, and to live for Christ each day.

 

Paul continues the metaphor when he talks in Romans about being crucified, with regards to sin.

"For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin." And in Galatians he says "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

 

OK, enough said. I’m sure we’ve all got the message.

Let’s get back to what was going on in Canaan. Joshua had learnt his lesson about taking the initiative without consulting God, and as he sought the Lord now about how to take Ai, God gave him a new strategy. Joshua was told to hide 30,000 elite troops out of sight behind Ai. Another 5,000 troops were to be hidden elsewhere. Then, with his main force he was to march up towards the city gates and then feign a retreat when its troops came out against them.

 

As we heard, Ai's troops took the bait and chased them away, leaving their fortified city both open and unguarded. When Joshua lifted his javelin, the 30,000 troops rushed in, took the city, and set it on fire. Meanwhile the 5,000 attacked the soldiers from behind. They were trapped between the two groups of Israelite forces and totally destroyed. This time, however, the Israelites were permitted to plunder the city and its livestock, and to keep the proceeds. Swash-buckling stuff!

 

So, to conclude, what do we see?

- If only Achan had been more patient, more trusting, he would have saved himself, and a lot of other people, a lot of grief!

- This time, having done what he needed to do with Achan, God was once more with Joshua and his army, once more he had a plan of action, once more it worked like a dream, once more the inhabitants of the city were annihilated.  We need God on our side.

Incidentally, you might think that the detail about the king of the city being impaled on a pole (or hung on a tree according to the KJV) and left there until evening a bit gruesome and unnecessary, but it’s not the last time we’ll hear that happen.  It’s likely that he wasn’t killed by the impaling or the hanging, but that that happened subsequently to his having been killed. It was a sign to any passersby that the Israelites were a conquering force, and it was a warning to any other kings not to mess with them.

 

So now the Israelite’s honour and reputation was restored, they’re back on track, and we’ll see what happens next in a couple of week’s time.

Sunday 16th July 2023 - Martin Mowat

Readings: Joshua 6: 15 - 21  &  Joshua 7: 1 - 9

 

As you either know, or as you will have gathered, we’re moving with the Israelites into the Promised Land. Once they had got themselves across the Jordan river while it was in full flood, or rather I should say once God had got them across, and the men had been through the ordeal of getting themselves circumcised, it was time to move on, they had an invasion to do.

 

That crossing had struck a significant psychological blow on their enemies, and they couldn’t hang about. Their first objective was staring them in the face.

 

But as for Joshua, someone else was staring him in the face and brandishing a sword. Whoever it was, he wasn’t human and he wasn’t an angel, he was God himself, declaring himself to be the commander of heaven’s armies, the Lord of Hosts, come to take command.  This didn’t mean that Joshua wasn’t fit for the job, far from it.  It meant that something history changing was about to happen. God had promised Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses that he was going to do this, and now was his moment. God always makes good on His promises.  

 

Some of us heard Sue talk about the battle of Jericho last week, thank you Sue, very much indeed.  The rest of us have certainly heard about it at Sunday school and/or from preachers and teachers at some time in the past.

 

It was a seven-day affair (interestingly, 7 is the Biblical number for fullness and completeness) and from a military standpoint, or any other standpoint for that matter, it took a most unlikely form.  Once round the outside blowing trumpets for six days, then seven times on one day, again blowing trumpets, then a huge shout and the walls crumbled.

 

Sue sent me a fascinating commentary that asked a very interesting question. Would we be willing to do something so illogical because we truly believe in God’s promises and God’s faithfulness? Would we trust in God enough to just walk in circles in a dangerous situation like that?

 

Sue’s commentary points out that Hebrews 11:30 tells us that it was by faith that the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven daysDo you and I, in all honesty, have that sort of faith?

 

It went on to say that God does not want us to think that we can deliver ourselves, but rather to rely on him. God uses illogical things and insignificant things to try to teach us this. Why? So that he gets the honour and praise. This, it said, is the same lesson that we learn from the cross.

When the walls fell the army rushed in and killed every living thing in the city, “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys”. It was merciless.  Any articles of silver, gold, bronze and iron were confiscated and put in the Lord’s treasury, and then everything else was burned.  Done and dusted as easily as that.  No-one would have thought it could go so smoothly.

 

The Israelites were learning some important lessons though, lessons that we would do well to learn too. For instance they were learning that when they put their full trust and hope in Him, that was when the impossible happened.

 

No matter how much we may like to think otherwise, we need God to win our battles too, to enable us to overcome obstacles, to empower us to love others, and to make a lasting impact in the world. We need God in our friendships, our careers, our marriages, and our families.

 

Secondly, they were learning the importance of making the space to hear from God, of stopping and taking the time to listen – for us that’s reading our Bibles, spending time in prayer, and something I’m not very good at, just being still.

 

Thirdly, they were learning that God is purposeful, not random. He had the plan, no matter how crazy it seemed, they just had to follow.

 

And fourthly, that sometimes things happen in God’s good time, not ours.  We live in an age where we expect everything to be instant, but the Israelites had to wait 7 days to see those walls tumble.

 

So back to the plot.  Things were going well. Jericho, their single largest strategic military challenge, had been raised to the ground by no more than one huge shout. Their blood was up and coloured, their hopes were high, their confidence as at maximum level. They were on a new diet of milk and honey, God himself had personally taken control, and Joshua had become everyone’s huge hero.  This invasion was going to be a doddle!

 

And well it might have been, if it weren’t for one greedy person.

 

In our second lesson, Joshua followed a similar pattern to the one he’d used for Jericho, he sent a couple of spies, got a feeling for what he was up against, and then he attacked.  No faffing around the walls for seven days this time though, no trumpets, no shouts, just straight in with a sudden strike force of 3000 men, but you heard what happened.

 

Joshua was beyond distraught.  What in the world had gone wrong?

 

What went wrong was that this time the Commander of heaven’s armies hadn’t been on parade.

 

Why wasn’t he on parade, because he was angry.  Very angry in fact, because someone had disobeyed his express orders not to touch the silver and gold earmarked for the Lord’s treasury.  He had taken an estimated 25 000 € worth of it and hidden it in his own tent.  That was a fortune when you consider the standard of living in those days.  The sin of greed … , but that’s another matter.

 

We didn’t read the whole story but the culprit was found, he and his family were stoned to death and all his possessions were burned. Only then “the Lord turned from his fierce anger(Joshua 7:26).

 

Let’s take time out here because this is all getting rather bloody and it wasn’t just at Jericho that they slaughtered all the people, it was EVERYWHERE, with only one exception.

 

Let’s ask ourselves whether such massacres and executions were really necessary, and were they in any way justifiable?  What about loving your neighbour and what about “forgive us our sins as we forgive others”?

 

I don’t want to get too bogged down with this, but nor do I want to dodge the issue because already a couple of people have expressed concern. It might take us slightly over time this morning, but bear with me because its important.

 

The issue is multifaceted.  Should God kill people, or have them killed, especially in such a cavalier, indiscriminate and undiscerning manner? Were these really God’s instructions, or was it man’s false interpretation? Was it a bad example for future generations, a licence for anyone to kill if it’s in the name of God? What about the crusades? What about killings done in the name of religion more recently, and not just the Christian religion?  The questions go on and on.

 

Can I say that I do not even pretend to have all the answers, but here are a few things that might help us better understand and accept, even if we will still find it difficult.  Can I say too that I find myself in an awkward spot, because whatever I say may not sit well with one person or another, so can we just keep an open mind and keep loving each other anyway?

 

I could of course just say, quite callously, that these idolatrous Canaanites and Amorites were going to hell anyway, so what did it change? That might have been true, but had they been given a chance to repent? If not, should they have? Would they have? The Bible doesn’t give us that information. In Achan’s case, he doesn’t even seem to have been given that option, and what about his poor family who were stoned with him? Where’s the justice in that?

 

First and foremost, we must remember that God is sovereign.  It’s difficult to give you an example, because it’s something quite unique, especially in the west where our royals seem to have been stripped of their sovereignty.

 

We might think of a farmer being sovereign over his animals, sending them for slaughter, as he alone sees fit.

 

Or we might think of a judge in court, especially the supreme court, doling out death sentences or lifetime prison sentences.

 

Man, be he or she good, bad, or ugly, male, female, young or old, rich or poor, is subject to that sort of sovereignty, it’s a fact of life.

 

The Old Testament makes that perfectly clear that God does judge and he does punish.  Think of Adam and Eve, think of Noah and the flood.  Whether or not those stories are historical or mythical isn’t the point, they teach us that our Sovereign God judges, justly and righteously, and punishes wrong according to HIS standards, according to HIS ideas of right and wrong, according to HIS law.

 

BUT, God also forgives the repentant. That’s the New Testament message but is not exclusive to the New Testament. There are lots of examples in the Old Testament too, David being one of the most famous, despite breaking several of the 10 commandments, covetousness, adultery and murder to name but three.

 

We also said, if you remember, that this was the late bronze age, and that we should make our judgements of that generation on that basis. We should be careful when trying to apply our modern western values because, let’s admit it, they are NO better, and have proven to be even LESS effective. 

 

Then there is the matter of fairness.  Was it fair that these poor people not only be turfed out their homes but lose their lives as well?

 

The word ‘fair’, or ‘fairly’, occurs only 16 times in the whole bible, 12 in the Old Testament and 4 in the New.  On 5 of those occasions it’s talking about shades of colour, so we’re down to 11 of which 1 is about exchanging goods and 1 about providing for slaves.  That leaves us with 9 and they all talk about how men should judge men, but not, interestingly about how God should judge men.

 

This leads me to tend towards thinking that maybe the concept of what’s “fair” is more human than divine, with the divine tending more towards what is “right”. You might say that that is just splitting hairs, but I don’t think so.  There is a difference. I don’t want to get into a long debate about this, but I offer it for your consideration.

 

Two more thoughts that relate to our story, while we’re on the subject, and then we need to finish for today.

1. God had prophesied that this would happen. Look up Genesis 15:16, Leviticus 18:24-25 and Deuteronomy.20:17-18.  But why?  Spiritually speaking these peoples had gone about as low as it was possible to go. What was going on in that country is described as being “detestable in God’s eyes”.  That’s a very strong word. It was necessary for the land to be completely sanitized so that God’s people didn’t fall into temptation and idol worship. When you make a new vintage of wine, for example, last year’s dregs have to be poured away, vats have to be scrubbed, the grape handling machines and pumps have to be squeaky clean, or the whole vintage could be lost.

 

It was vitally important that the Israelites be separated from sin so they might continue to worship and live before Yahweh with purity.  The same is true for us, of course.

 

2. It proved conclusively to BOTH the Canaanites AND to the Israelites that that “foreign gods” were powerless to protect them.


Sunday 9th July 2023 - Susan Cross

Joshua 5:13-6:5

 

Last Sunday we heard how having crossed the Jordan river by God’s hand, the Israelites were “good to go”!

They were ready to take possession of their Promised Land – ready to “get

this thing done”.

God made good on his promise and the Israelites understood who they were in his eyes.

And it was also one of the most significant events in Joshua’s long life too,

because it sealed his credibility as far as his people were concerned.

There was no doubt that he was hearing from God and being used by him to fulfil his purposes

 

Let’s pray – Father God We ask that You open our ears so that we may hear your voice. Open our minds so that we may receive Your eternal wisdom. Open our spirits so that we may know Your leading and guidance. Open our hearts so that we may receive Your wonderful love.

Amen

 

The book of Joshua is a book about having the faith to trust God, its teaching us about having the faith that God requires to enjoy our promised land, it’s about having the faith to be strong and courageous to do what God asks us to do.

 

From the reading Philip shared with us, Joshua suddenly became aware of someone standing in front of him.  He looked up, and couldn’t have been more surprised because what he saw was a man brandishing a sword.

 

He asked him the question “Are you for us or for our enemies?” but he didn’t get an obvious answer. 

14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

15 The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.

Basically, Joshua wants to know whose side this man is fighting for. The man answers, “Neither; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come” (5:14). This seems like a strange answer because it does not really seem to answer the question. How can this man with a drawn sword not be on either side? But Joshua understands what this person is saying. This man is the commander of the Lord’s army. Joshua falls down to the ground and worships.

Bowing before this commander of the Lord’s army, Joshua asks what message he has for him and the man said “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” 

When things are difficult, we sometimes wonder, "Is God on my side?" But perhaps that’s not the question we should be asking. Maybe we would be better to ask "Am I on God's side?"

We’re reminded of Exodus chapter 3, when Moses saw the burning bush, God said to him “Do not come any closer, take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”  Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

 

The commander of the Lord’s army has arrived to go ahead of Israel and give victory to the people.

Are you on God’s side?

God will fight for you, not because he is on your side, but because you are on his side. The commander is asking Joshua, “Are you with me?”

Too often we want God to be on our side - we want God to validate our direction, our wisdom, and our desires.

We want God to be on our side and we mean that we want God to support all that we do.

But that is not how God operates with people. He is God and we are his creation. We must want to be on God’s side. It is not about God being on our side but about us getting ourselves on God’s side.

God is leading the way. Are we following him or are we trying to get God to follow us?

 

The One who went before Joshua and led them to conquer the promised land was the Lord himself. He was Emmanuel, the God with Us.

 

God had taken them out of Egypt and had been with them as they crossed the Red Sea. God had been with them in the desert, providing food and water.  God had been with them when the priests put their feet into the water and it stopped flowing.  God was with them as they were learning obedience as they were circumcised, God himself was to be with them now as they attacked Jericho and launched their invasion. 

 

So Joshua reacted in the same way that Moses had, and he fell on his face.  Suddenly he understood that this foolish idea of walking around Jericho every day for a week, and lamely blowing their trumpets wasn’t foolish at all. They were about to see something beyond what they could imagine, beyond what they could believe possible, beyond anything they could do in their own strength.

When Joshua got up from the ground, the Commander had gone, disappeared. But Joshua could now go into battle assured, because he knew that the God who had told him, "Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged”, would not only be with him wherever he would go, but would be one step ahead of him.

God has made that same promise to us in Hebrews 13:5: "I will never leave you, I will never forsake you"

 

According to archeologists the massive stone walls surrounding Jericho were built about 8000 BC. They were at least 13 feet in height and included a watchtower some 28 feet tall, and were intended to protect the settlement and its water supply from human intruders. I imagine that they were also very thick!

When the moment came it would be the Commander of heaven’s armies who, though unseen, would crumble those walls, destroy the city, and crush its army, leaving Joshua's soldiers to finish it off. That same commander is with us, too.

As for the people of Jericho, to watch 600,000 troops, march around their city each day, must have increased their sense of impending doom. “When will they attack?  What is that God of theirs going to do? Are we all going to die?”

And this begs an interesting question. Was it fair, or right, for God to kill all those “innocent people”?

This is a good, simple question, but the answer is not at all simple.  Martin will talk about it next week, but for now suffice it to remember that they were far from innocent.  Their idol worship and all the abhorrent practices that went with it knew no bounds.  But God is sovereign. He does punish unrepented sin. 

The Battle of Jericho is a story that many of us may have heard as children in Sunday School, but let’s close now by briefly looking at what we can learn from it as adults?

 

Firstly, it reminds us how crucial it is to lean on God and put our trust in Him. Naturally, the walls of Jericho were impenetrable, but when the Israelites put their full trust and hope in God’s promise, and his faithfulness that He would indeed fight for them, to claim the land that was promised to them, that is when the impossible happened.

 

Secondly, it reminds us of the importance of making the space to hear from God, of stopping and taking the time to listen – reading our Bibles, spending time in prayer, being still, and worshipping him.

 

Thirdly, we see that God is purposeful, not random. He had a plan, they just had to follow! Romans 8:28 says that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

 

Next, we see that sometimes, things happen in God’s good time, not ours.  We live in an age where we expect everything to be instant, but the Israelites had to wait 7 days to see the walls tumble. According to Isaiah, “those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” (40:31). Waiting on the Lord deepens our faith, increases our trust in Him. While we wait with faith, God transforms and renews us

 

Another thing we see is that in the same way that the Israelites needed God to bring down the walls, no matter how much we may like to think otherwise, we need God to win our battles, to empower us to love others, to overcome obstacles, and to make a lasting impact in the world. We need God in our friendships, our careers, our marriages, and our families.

 

There’s also a big lesson about obedience. If the Israelites had resisted the instructions given by God to Joshua, the walls of Jericho would not have come down. Jesus said in Luke 11:28 “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.

 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly we see that what God promises, he WILL fulfil. He promised Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses that he was going to do this, and he did. God will always make good on His promises.

 

Let’s pray.

Father God – 2 Corinthians 10 tells us that the weapons of our warfare are not worldly and of the flesh - we are battling for the Lord.

Help us to remember that our weapons include prayer, love, sacrifice, blessing others, doing good, self-control. Help us to have the faith to respond with these spiritual weapons rather than the way the world would respond.

Help us to Trust in You Lord for the victory and not to rely on our own understanding or wisdom.

Help us to remember that what gives You delight and honour, is that we would have complete faith in You

Amen

Sunday 2nd July 2023 - Martin Mowat

Joshua 3

Readings: Joshua 3: 9 - 17 and Joshua 4: 1 - 9 (concurrently).

 

In our current series about Joshua we’ve looked at how he succeeded Moses as the leader of the children of Israel, and how both God and his colleagues encouraged him to be “strong and courageous”.  Last Sunday we heard how Rahab protected the two spies that he sent to Jericho, and in so doing earned herself a place in the list of “faith heroes” of Hebrews chapter 11.

 

Today we’re looking at an event that is among the most unusual and significant in Israel’s history.

 

As we know, the Israelites had been encamped some 16 kms from the Jordan river for some time. We don’t know exactly how many weeks and months. Were they going, finally, to enter the land that God had said he would give them?  This must have been the question on everyone’s lips.

 

Then suddenly, wonderfully, worryingly, God gives them the command to move out. Spies had been to the city and reported that the people of Jericho were shaking in their boots.

 

“OK”, said God to Joshua. “OK” said Joshua to the people, “let’s go. Follow the Ark”, and with a mixture of fear, expectation, and excitement they move out towards the river, which, as we’ve heard, was in full flood.

 

Why on earth did God chose this precise moment, in April, when the river was always in flood and the fords always impassable? Why not a few months earlier or a few months later. I mean, it had been 40 years, what difference would a few months make, either way?

 

A lot. First of all, it was Passover, 40 years exactly from their walking out on their slave masters in Egypt, and secondly, this new generation needed their own Red Sea experience, it needed to see God do something powerful, something awesome, something out of the ordinary, and we’ve heard much of the story from Vaughan and Barbara, but let’s go back a step or two.

 

The first thing that happened was the move from Shittim to the bank of the river. That would save time on the day of the crossing, certainly, but it also had to do with their state of readiness, both physically and attitudinally.  At Shittim they were settled, they were going about their everyday lives, nothing ever changed.  Our lives can be a bit like that, can’t they? But now they were all packed up, ready, alert. 

 

Next they were told to consecrate themselves which involved washing, abstaining, and other rituals, again, why? Didn’t they have more important things to be getting on with? No, because what was about to happen wasn’t just the physical crossing of the river. GOD himself was about to intervene in their history and they needed to be prepared spiritually too.

 

Then they were told to keep 2000 cubits back from the Ark as it headed for the river.  That’s at least 900 meters, quite a distance if this was just because of it’s holiness.  But I don’t think it was.  I think it was because while they were still on slightly higher ground, everyone would be able to see what was going to happen.  This was going to be a sight worth seeing.

 

The priests carrying the Ark set off, but it wasn’t until they got their feet wet that the river stopped flowing. Sometimes our Christian walk, particularly for those in ministry, God requires us to get our feet wet, metaphorically of course. He wants us to walk with him, in faith, rather than wait for him to act first.

 

How God made the river stop is the subject of much discussion and speculation. It runs along a geological fault and over the years land shifts and landslides slides have caused that to happen. An Arab historian reported that landslides dammed the river for several hours in 1267, for example, and we know that a similar thing happened in 1927.

 

We can easily be dismissive of this event. The crossing of the Red Sea some 40 years previously must have been far more difficult for God to orchestrate, and much more impressive to watch. So this was just more of the same, right? 

 

Wrong!  For three reasons.

 

Firstly, the moment the last people arrived on the Canaan side of the river, it started flowing again. This was no geological coincidence. However he did it, God had effectively opened the door for them, and then closed it behind them. It was as if they had moved from one room to another, from one life to another, from one period of their history to a new future, from being dead in the sins of their desert life, to being born again into a whole new world of promise.

 

Secondly, a whole new generation, none of whom, except Joshua and Caleb, had experienced the Red Sea crossing, had now seen first-hand just how powerful God really is.

 

And this is why God told then told them to take twelve stones from the middle of the river bed and to erect them as a permanent reminder.  It was critical that they never forg