The 4th Sunday of Advent

May it be to me as you have said

In our reading today for the 4th Sunday of Advent, we now begin to enter into the Christmas story – “this is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about” – a story which in the Gospel according to Matthew is told from Joseph’s perspective, whereas in the Gospel according to Luke it is very much told from Mary’s perspective. Another way of looking at it is that in Matthew’s account, it is androcentric – the men do the talking and the women are silent, whereas Luke’s account is gynocentric – the women are at the centre of decision-making action, and the men – in this case, Zechariah – is literally struck silent (see Luke 1:18-25)!

We are told that Jesus’ mother Mary, who we remember today especially on this 4th Sunday of Advent, was pledged to be married to Joseph. But how might we understand what this means?

  • the two families would discuss and negotiate the betrothal and if acceptable, agree to the union. This would include reaching an agreement for a price for the bride that would be paid to the bride’s father (very different to the traditional ‘dowry’ that might be brought by a bride to her husband on their marriage in our culture).
  • a public announcement would be made. At this point, the couple were “pledged” to one another. In some respects, this is similar to engagement today, except that it will have been much more binding. So, at this point, even though the couple was not officially married, their relationship could be broken only through death or dissolution of the agreement similar to divorce. Sexual relations were not yet permitted.

The second step lasted for a year. During that time, the couple would live separately, with their parents. This waiting period would demonstrate the bride’s purity and give the couple an opportunity to prepare for marriage. If she were found to be pregnant during that time, the marriage could be annulled. Otherwise, the couple would then be married and only then begin living together.

Mary was both pledged and pregnant, and Joseph knew that the child was not his own. Mary’s apparent unfaithfulness carried a severe social stigma. According to Jewish civil law, Joseph had the right to divorce her. The law also explained that the penalty for unchastity was death by stoning (Deuteronomy 22:23–24), although this was rarely carried out at this time. That Mary was “found” to be pregnant indicates that she may not have immediately told Joseph, but had waited until her condition could be seen. This probably occurred after her return from visiting her pregnant cousin Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist) with whom she had stayed for three months (see Luke 1:39–56).

It is into this context that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, the same angel that had first appeared to Mary and announced that she was chosen to be the mother of the promised Messiah. You may remember Mary asking the obvious question: “How will this be … since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). The angel’s amazing answer both surprised and reassured Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Mary humbly accepted the angel’s words, “I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). She trusted God implicitly even though Joseph marrying her would have been an admission of guilt on his part when he was not guilty. To have a public divorce would have exposed Mary to public disgrace, and apparently, Joseph’s compassion would not allow him to expose her to public humiliation. God often gives us options and choices that with our limited understanding alone we would never even think of. And the angel that appeared to Joseph outlined the culmination and fulfilment of salvation history in the coming of the promised Messiah.

The virgin birth is incredibly important to the Christian faith that we profess. Only Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, through the incarnation was free from the sinful nature passed on to all other human beings by Adam. Jesus is fully divine and fully human and was born without any trace of human sin. The infinite, unlimited God took on the limitations of humanity so he could live and die for the salvation of all who believe in him. Because Jesus lived as a man, we know that he fully understands our experiences and struggles (Hebrews 4:15–16). Because he is God, he and he alone has the power and authority to deliver us from sin (Colossians 2:13–15). We can tell Jesus all our thoughts, feelings, and needs. He has been where we are now, and he has the ability to help. We are called to obedience and faithfulness – to God and to one another. In this time of Advent, a time of waiting, expectation and hoping, we are invited once again to remember and discern God in our midst – Emmanuel – God with us and seek his guidance. That must involve us being willing to put aside and even sacrifice choices that we might make out of our own volition as together we ask God what would he like us to do? We pray may YOUR kingdom come, may YOUR will be done. Are we open to the reality of that prayer being answered? Can we like Mary say, “May it be to me as you have said?” Amen

The 3rd Sunday of Advent

Passing the baton on

Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak,

and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.

May my teaching drop as the rain,

my speech distill as the dew,

like gentle rain upon the tender grass,

and like showers upon the herb.

For I will proclaim the name of the Lord;

ascribe greatness to our God!

It is interesting that Jesus began to announce the presence and arrival of the kingdom precisely when John was put in prison—and the whole sweep and swathe of history that led up to John and his work was now being wound up. Not because it was a failure, but because it was a success. In God’s grace, and with patience and faith, he had accomplished that which he set out to do. If the law and the prophets were looking forward to something that was yet to come, then understandably they would step to one side when that new thing finally arrived, not because they hadn’t told the truth, but because they had. Their work, like John’s, was complete too.

Imagine John holding fast in faith to the message that he proclaimed and being a witness to seeing that message fulfilled in Jesus. Imagine John receiving the message from Jesus, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Imagine the comfort that Jesus’ affirmation, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” will have brought to him in prison.

John the Baptist had been patient and born witness to the Lord’s coming. He stood firm even in adversity, even though he ultimately went on to lose his life. John manifested incredible patience in the face of suffering. He did that without grumbling or complaining. The passage from James picks up on this, believers in the early Church were facing persecution from the outside and problems on the inside, and perhaps inevitably found themselves grumbling and criticising one another. James didn’t want them to be filled with resentment and bitterness toward each other because that would only destroy the unity they were called to live in, the unity they so desperately needed.

Refraining from grumbling is a hallmark of wisdom and patience; James makes it clear that those who engage in grumbling and complaining bring division and will be judged. That is a stark message, “Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged.” Jesus said, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36). Grumbling against one another indicates a lack of wisdom, a careless attitude of speech, and a heart that is not aligned with God and does not bring glory to God.

As Christians we are called to live in the present, looking to the future, mindful of the past. That’s what the patriarchs and the prophets did. That’s what the greatest of the prophets, John the Baptist did, one who was prepared to step down and be diminished to allow Jesus, the Messiah to step up and commence his earthly ministry. I’d like to suggest that is what we should always be prepared to do too. Anyone exercising any form of ministry should constantly have an eye on the “what comes next”, investing in those who will follow in our footsteps, and be prepared to pass on the baton knowing that their work is done and encourage the future and those that come. That is a special calling of those who have been Christians for many years; only those who have been of the faith for many years standing will have a baton to pass on and perhaps the wisdom to invest in a new generation.

That is why vision is so important. Our vision has to extend beyond the here and now. Our vision has to extend to the future. That’s why our first reading from the book of James tells us “See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” And we might bear that in mind whilst giving heed to the passage from 1 Corinthians 3:6 which tells us “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.

Wisdom comes from recognising our role and contribution that God has called us to fulfil. It might be that you have an opportunity in equipping the next generation and passing the baton on. It might be that you are seed planter. It might be that you are one who waters or nurtures that seed. It might be that you are one who prays that God might make it grow and bear fruit – all knowing that the harvest is the Lord’s.

In this time of Advent, may you then know patience and be willing to invest in the future and pass on the baton and be blessed like the farmer in your waiting, knowing that the seeds have been planted and the harvest is to come. May you be blessed with the vision and wisdom of the patriarchs and prophets, and endurance of John the Baptist. Amen

The 2nd Sunday of Advent

What happens next?

Some years ago, the following notice appeared in the window of a coat store in Nottingham: 

We have been established for over 100 years and have been pleasing and displeasing customers ever since. We have made money and lost money, suffered national disasters, rationing, government control, and bad payers. We have been cussed and discussed, messed about, lied to, held up, robbed, and swindled. The only reason we keep going is to see what happens next.

It is perhaps all too easy for us in the UK to feel a little bit like that coat store in Nottingham, especially in light of the journey we are taking at the moment in our country and the uncertainty that we face.  Our inflation rate is currently over 11%, the war in Ukraine is about to enter its tenth month, Covid has now become part of our societal experience and all communities are facing cost-of-living challenges. It’s no surprise that we might find ourselves asking the question, “What happens next?

But there’s another journey that we are on which has been one that God’s people have been travelling on for millennia.  It’s on that journey that God raises up the people that we traditionally remember today on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, and that’s the prophets.  In an age of post-truth and uncertainty, the Church arguably needs prophets more than ever before, and I think it can be really helpful for us to think about what prophets do.

I wonder what image we have in our minds when we think of a prophet and the role that they fulfilled? When God’s people wandered off the path, and when they turned their backs on Him and tried to go their own way, as they so often did, God raised up a prophet to come along to pronounce challenge and judgement.  The prophet who is the easiest for us to picture is John the Baptist, dressed in camel hair with a leather belt around his waist living off locusts and wild honey!  We read in today’s Gospel that immediately prior to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, John the Baptist was proclaiming what St Luke called a ‘baptism of repentance.’  Like so many of the prophets before him, John was preparing the people for what would happen next, and Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he said to the crowds that came to be baptized by him, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” and “Prepare the way for the LORD, make straight paths for him.” (Matthew 3:2-3).

John’s message centred on repentance and preparing for the kingdom of heaven. The word repent means ‘to change one’s mind and act on that change’, there’s that turning away from sin. John was not satisfied with regret or remorse; he wanted “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). There had to be evidence of a changed mind and a changed life. We repent, prepare the way, and make ready because of what happens next.  We can be reminded of that in this season of Advent as we reflect on Jesus’ first coming in the light of his second coming.

So, it seems clear that one thing a prophet does is to help God’s people to get back on track; to get right in their relationship with God.  That might involve a nation, a group of people, or individuals being called into repentance.  We learn from the prophets that so much of our faith journey involves preparation, making ready, and inviting God to help us to put our spiritual house in order.  Some of the other things that prophets do include:

  • Speaking God’s heart
  • Challenging and encouraging us
  • Bringing a message of hope
  • Pointing us towards our eternal destination
  • Reminding us how God is in control, God knows what happens next
  • Being catalysts for change for the good in society

So, on this journey, we can be mindful of the message the prophets shared and prepare a place in our hearts for Jesus. We live in an age when people are looking for answers, though it often seems that they are looking in all the wrong places and there is restlessness, dissatisfaction and a lack of fulfilment.  But in reading about the prophets in the Bible who kept their eyes on God, those who did not waver, the true prophets, one thing seems particularly clear to me…there is a clear trajectory in the message that they bring, like a HUGE neon sign pointing to Christ.  It is a sign that points to our salvation and one that glorifies God.  It is a message of hope.  And we need people today who nurture a deep faith, people of humility and personal integrity who speak God’s truth with real prophetic insight into society and culture today.  I think in the body of Christ, the church, we are all called to be people like this and to be salt and light in our communities and not afraid or ashamed of the hope that we profess. We are in that season of Advent…that time of waiting, expectation and hope.  People and Governments may come and go, but God never fails – for His Word endures forever. So may you be filled with expectation, and in this Advent season roll out the red carpet for God and know his comfort and his peace from knowing God knows what happens next. Amen

The 1st Sunday of Advent

Watching and waiting

There is an ongoing joke with a close friend of mine about their concept of time. They will often say “I’ll call you in 10 minutes”, and sometimes half an hour, an hour, a day, or even longer will pass before they finally call me. Even though I know that their 10 minutes is rarely if ever exactly 10 minutes; I, like so many of us, don’t like to wait – especially if our expectations have been built up.  Have you ever been shopping and the person at the front of the queue seems to be having some problem and everyone is held up as that problem gets sorted?  And it always seems to happen when you are in a rush.  You can see people in the queue becoming increasingly frustrated.  People simply don’t like to wait.  Researchers tell us that the average person will spend 5 years of his or her life waiting in line, 2 years playing telephone tag, and six months sitting at red lights. That is over 7 and a half years of waiting, at best doing nothing, or at worst experiencing great aggravation!

That word “waiting” then is not a particularly attractive or inspiring word. It seems boring or frustrating, and we all know what we want, and we want it NOW!  But what if you were waiting for something that would totally change your life? How would you get ready for it? Would you be bored then?  Would you make yourself busy, filling your life with noise and distraction? Would you spend all your time doing everything… except slowing down?  When we do that, we so often miss the important things.  It is just as if we are asleep.

Well, this is what we can all too easily do every year. The bottom line is that even in our fast-paced world, with postmodern conveniences, we are all waiting for something. However, as strange as it sounds, during the Advent season, we might discover a purpose to our waiting.  Each year as we enter into the Advent season, we have an opportunity to dramatically change our lives and become spiritually awake, to wake from our slumber, and be receptive to the coming of Christ.  But most of the time we miss the opportunity.  You see, we have a choice – we can either carry on regardless, blissfully unaware or we can engage with the season with intentionality. We can spend our time running around, trying to get everything done in time for Christmas when what most of us forget is to get the most important thing ready…where we are in our hearts.  It is a time when we need to fill our hearts with hope; a time when we need to be surprised by hope. That’s why I always try and carve out some time in the busyness of the season to engage with the season, through Bible reading, prayer and reflection.

This is what Advent is all about. During the Advent season, we symbolically participate in the waiting of the patriarchs, kings, prophets, and priests, as we await and watch for Christ’s final and glorious return.  It is a time to slow down and wait, a time of inward reflection and preparation. It is an opportunity to get our hearts ready and to bring the light of Christ and the hope that He brings into our life…a bit more fully, than before.  As Christians, we stand in the darkness of this world with our faces lit by the coming dawn.  As Paul says “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.

God reveals enough about the future to give us hope, but not so much that we do not have to live and walk by faith day after day. “Faith is being sure of what we HOPE for and certain of what we do not see.”  If we knew exactly what was going to happen, we may well do all sorts of things out of character because we then have that firm deadline before us and we may throw caution to the wind, and we would have nothing to hope for.  We are safe in our unknowing and secure in our faith…sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  I don’t think words alone can ever communicate how important hope is.

We are called to be a people of hope.  When we lose hope, we are diminished.  In a world of change and challenge we need narratives of hope.  We need to invite the light of Christ to come shine in the darkness. Advent is a season of expectation and preparation, watching and waiting, as the Church prepares to celebrate the coming (adventus) of Christ in his incarnation, and also looks ahead to his final advent as judge at the end of time. Future in an Advent sense is the future that comes not from the realm of what is or what was, but from the realm of what is not yet, “from outside”, from God.  As Christians we always live in that place and space between the now and the not yet. And one way in which we grasp that truth for ourselves is to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. The Christian life is a daily practice, a continual exercise, of our baptism until the day we die.  We should seek to live as though the final consummation were just around the corner, in the certainty of it, a certainty so strong that already the light of the coming King is casting its ray upon our present existence.  We should seek at all times to keep watch, to be ready, to be prepared. We must stay vigilant and awake, knowing that Christ will return, though the timing remains unknown.  “The Son of Man will come at an hour when we do not expect him.” Advent then is a time of waiting, a time of watching, a time of preparation, a time of expectancy, a time of hoping.  May you be blessed with a patient faith, surprised by hope and filled with Godly expectancy.  Amen

The Kingly Authority of Christ

Our Advent course this year which we are doing as a Church is a course called the Character course (see In the sessions, we are exploring together aspects of Christian character from a psychological and theological perspective. In an age where all too often we see an absence of good and virtuous character of some in public office, and arguably in pockets of society in general, our need for guidance about the qualities and values that make a good character is evident. Few are likely to put forward an argument against the benefits and merits of those who possess such a character. As Christians, we seek to look to Christ as the source and centre of our faith and a basis of understanding of what a good character might look like, and arguably should look like.

Jesus, the Son of God, God incarnate took upon himself the sin and brokenness of the world on the cross and through his death, resurrection and exaltation conquered sin and death once and for all. He did this even though he was brutally killed and humiliated, he did this even though he was mocked, taunted and insulted. Even on the cross, he declared “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” If you look across all the Gospel accounts the two criminals who were crucified on either side of Jesus at first both mocked Jesus and hurled insults at him, but then one of them even in the greatest pain and duress saw something different about Jesus. He said, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” The criminal acknowledged Christ’s kingdom and therefore His Kingship even as they hung on a cross.

So, what does the Bible tell us about Christ? We discover that by turning to our first reading. “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Only Christ, God incarnate, the Son of God could accomplish that through his love, amazing grace and Sovereign power and authority.

And when we carefully, prayerfully and reverentially embrace the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, we begin to see the fruit of our hope and aspiration in following Christ unconditionally and unreservedly, that we might be transformed by the renewing of our minds and know a life worthy of the Lord that pleases him in every way.  If we follow Christ, and learn from his teaching and example, we too might bear fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that we may have great endurance and patience. As receivers of his love, grace and mercy we too might express our joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light. God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. As we continue our journey of faith may we too have a revelation of Christ in which we recognise and acknowledge his Kingly authority and sovereign power. May we too throw ourselves at his mercy and invite him to be Lord of our lives. Amen

Serving the King

In our first reading today from the book of Revelation, we read about the vision given to John of Patmos depicting God holding a scroll which contained all that would happen to the world. This passage may well contain language that seems strange and unfamiliar to us, but nevertheless it can bring us reassurance even today because we are presented with a vision that shows God in complete control. Just take a moment to think about that. Despite all the uncertainty that we are currently living with, God is in complete control. He knows everything that has happened, is currently happening and will happen. God is the one with authority over all things – all rulers, historical events, and hostile forces – through Christ, victory has been assured. If we trust in God’s power and love and follow him unconditionally and unreservedly we have nothing to fear in the future. People may well let us down, but God never will when we trust in Him to guide us, and when we acknowledge and respond to His love. I know I sometimes need to be reminded of that. I am sure you do too.

We are told that John wept bitterly that no one could be found who was worthy to open or look into the scroll. It is strong language – John “wept and wept”. It depicts one who was inconsolable. He wept because he knew that the unopened scroll would mean that the closing scene of history, its final events, could not begin; thus, evil would continue unabated on the earth, and there would be no realised future for God’s people. I know at times I genuinely weep when I encounter the brokenness of this world, and especially people with hardened, stubborn, and unrepentant hearts. At such times I yearn for Jesus’ Second Coming, and I pray that the hearts of these people may be softened.

Our Gospel reading tells us that Jesus also wept, and for very similar reasons to John and also to me. Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem. A city filled with people who should have known better, who should have recognised him as the promised Messiah and Prince of Peace. The irony is that the name Jerusalem has “peace” as part of its meaning, but the city of peace was blind to the Prince of Peace. The Jewish leaders had rejected their Messiah; they had refused God’s offer of salvation in Jesus Christ even when God himself, God incarnate visited them. And Jesus knew that the nation would suffer as a result. Jesus said, “The days will come on you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” There are consequences associated with the rejection of Christ.

The people of God had every opportunity to acknowledge Christ. Jesus’ first coming had been predicted for centuries. They had all the time they could possibly need and the responsibility that comes with such knowledge to prepare and to make ready, and despite that, they failed to acknowledge Him when he arrived. We cannot afford to do the same. We need to accept Jesus as our Lord and Saviour now. We need to repent and get our hearts right with God and with each other. If you are rebellious and unrepentant, perhaps even blind to what God might be saying to you today, I invite you to open your heart to God and allow His grace and mercy to soften your heart so that the eyes of your heart might be enlightened. Perhaps our prayer might be “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” That is a great prayer, and one I pray often.

In the passage from the book of Revelation, we are reminded of the sovereignty of Christ, our Paschal Lamb. Jesus is the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Although no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could be found who had the authority and purity to open the scroll or even look inside it, Christ alone was able to open the scroll. We may have reason to doubt the integrity and worthiness of Kings, rulers and authorities but we can trust in Christ’s sovereignty and worthiness. We can trust Christ with our future and all future event as well as in the here and now.

We are invited to remember the significance and efficacy of what Christ accomplished on the cross once and for all. He conquered sin and death once and for all. We are invited to respond by acknowledging him as our Lord, our King, our Saviour and Redeemer, putting him first in our life and worshipping him in all ways.


Refreshing the Heart

If you were to ask me what I pray for Church and our experience of Church to be like, I would immediately answer one in which love is apparent like a bright shining star. In Paul’s letter to Philemon, Apphia and Archippuss and their Church, Paul speaks about and acknowledges their love for all God’s people and their faith in Jesus. Paul also speaks about the impact of that love and the joy and the encouragement that it brings, and how it refreshes the hearts of the Lord’s people. I think that’s lovely. Just take a moment to think about that. Love refreshes the hearts of the Lord’s people. We may be known as His disciples by the love we have for one another.

Philemon had opened his home to believers, but Paul’s primary concern was a recognition of the loving spirit by which Philemon served. It is a model to all of us and perhaps we are encouraged to examine our hearts, our motivations and ask ourselves what our motives are behind how we act, what we say and what we do. Are we a refreshing influence on others, or does our attitude and temperament add to the burden they carry, betraying a critical spirit? Instead of draining others’ energy and motivation with complaints and issues, we should seek to be like Philemon, replenishing their spirits by encouragement, love, and a helpful attitude, working in partnership to the glory of God.  It seems clear that Philemon’s Church members were receptive and responded to that love. That’s the thing about love, and especially God’s love. It always invites a response. And it can’t be love on our terms. It must be love on God’s terms.

You see love can sometimes be tough and love in action is not always recognised – you only need to look at Jesus’ ministry to see and know that. Jesus always responded firmly and fairly to the people who drained energy and motivation with their complaints and issues, people who were unreceptive to his invitation and failed to recognise his authority. Was God himself who is the source of all love being unloving? No. He was inviting and imploring people to embrace a better way. Christianity must be more than a practical, functional experience. At times it is painful, but believers must develop relationships that are warm, genuine, deep with feeling and Christ-centred. You can’t hope to do that if you have a lack of integrity or a critical spirit.

In Paul’s letter to Philemon, he was inviting him to do something incredibly difficult – to receive back his runaway slave Onesimus who had become a new believer, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. In Onesimus we see a life transformed. It can’t have been easy for Philemon. Philemon had probably been angered that his slave had disappeared (in Roman times, it was like losing a piece of valuable property). But Paul invites him to do that with humility, tact and in love, describing Onesimus as “his very heart”. If we appeal to someone on the basis of love to choose a better way and they reject it, then it is tragic indeed and there may well be consequences. However, Philemon responded and welcomed Onesimus back and at all times showed respect for Paul’s age, wisdom and authority, and as a partner in grace. Yes, he had lost a slave, but he had gained a brother in Christ!

There may be times when we face painful separations or difficult times in relationships with loved ones, but we must trust in God’s loving care and in his wisdom and power over all events. God may be using the difficulty to bring people to himself, to develop character, and to help us grow. Can we trust God enough to leave the situation in his hands?

May God raise up people to be partners in Christ, in the Gospel, who live lives transformed by his love, grace and mercy. Amen

Rise and go; your faith has made you well.

If we pay close attention to this account of Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers, some interesting facts emerge:

  • Jesus had this encounter on the border between Samaria and Galilee.  This will have been like no man’s land, an in-between place for those rejected and disenfranchised by society, neither Jewish nor Gentile. Galilee was Jewish; Samaria was occupied by Samaritans, who were despised by the Jews
  • He encountered these ten lepers who cried out to him from a distance. People who had leprosy were required to try to stay away from other people and to announce their presence if they had to come near.
  • They called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” It is interesting that they didn’t ask to be healed, but they clearly recognised Jesus’ authority. They knew who he was and what he might do for them.
  • And as they went, their leprosy disappeared. Sometimes leprosy would go into remission. If a leper thought his leprosy had gone away, the leper was supposed to present himself to a priest, who could declare him clean (Leviticus 14). Jesus sent the ten lepers to the priest before they were healed, for as they went, their leprosy disappeared. Jesus did not touch these men or even speak words of healing as he had done for most of his healings. This time Jesus simply instructed them to show themselves to the priests.  That would require an act of faith on their part.
  • Ten lepers were healed, but only one leper—a Samaritan—returned to thank Jesus.  We see the genuine faith of a foreigner in Israel. It is possible to receive God’s incredible gifts with an ungrateful spirit and even a lack of faith—nine of the ten men did so. Only the thankful man, however, showed a humble and grateful heart. That Samaritan received a double blessing:
    • The blessing of being healed from leprosy
    • The blessing of coming to know Jesus with a grateful heart and throwing himself at the feet of Jesus in an act of worship with a genuine faith.
    • Only grateful Christians grow in an understanding God’s grace and like a flower in sunlight respond and grow to that grace. God’s grace knows no limit, not by race, colour or creed. Yes, all ten lepers had been healed and freed from leprosy but only one embraced salvation. Jesus said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.
  • Although many of the Jewish religious leaders rejected Jesus, a number of foreigners wholeheartedly placed their trust in him (7:1-10).

One of the most important ways we might respond to the love and grace of God is with a humble and grateful heart, with an attitude of gratitude. There is much that might be said about practising such an attitude. Do we acknowledge with gratitude all that God has done for us, is doing for us and will do for us?

The leper that was healed and returned came to a place of thankful faith. He was physically healed and spiritually healed. For that man, the truth in those words we heard from Titus becomes apparent: “When the kindness and love of God his Saviour appeared, he saved him, not because of righteous things he had done, but because of his mercy. He saved him through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on him generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, he might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” May we in all our ways acknowledge the love and grace of God with humble and grateful hearts and know lives transformed and the privilege of being heirs with the hope of eternal life. Amen

Who are we for?

A pastor in a mega-church in America, T D Jakes, stated a few years ago that we will find in life there are three basic types of people we will typically interact with:

  • The first group are Confidantes.

We tend to have very few such people in our lives. Confidantes are those people in our life who love us unconditionally. They are into us, whether we’re up or down, right or wrong. They are ‘in’ for the long haul. If we get into trouble, they get into trouble with us. They are with us through thick and thin. We can open up and share anything with them. They always speak the truth in love to us. Confidantes can be mentors who spur us on to good deeds and help guide us along the path.

  • The second group are Constituents.

Constituents are not into us; they are into what we are for. They are for what we are for. And as long as we are for what they are for, they will walk with us and work with us and labour with us – but they are never for us. If they meet somebody else that will better further their agenda, they will leave us and hook up with them instead, because they were never for us.  We can easily mistake our constituents for our confidantes.

  • The third group are Comrades

These people are not for us, nor are they for what we are for. They are simply against what we are against. And comrades make strange bedfellows. This will cause people to come together who are not for us and not for what we are for, but instead against what we are against. They will team up with us to help fight a greater enemy, but they will only be with us until the victory is accomplished. These people are like scaffolding. They come into our life to fulfil a purpose and when the purpose is complete the scaffolding is removed. But don’t be upset when they are removed, because the building always remains when the scaffolding is removed.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees were comrades because they came together to take a stand against Jesus when usually they would be vehemently opposed to each other and vying for power. The Pharisees had previously tried to question Jesus on the grounds of religious authority and civil authority. In our Gospel reading today, we learn how the Sadducees decided to challenge Jesus on the ground of Scriptural authority. Neither group recognised Jesus’ authority at any level. The Sadducees presented Jesus with an absurd scenario in which they tried to twist and distort Scripture.

In his response Jesus makes the following points:

  • They did not understand the difference between “this age” and “the age to come”, the difference between the here and now of earth and future coming together of the new heaven and the new earth.
  • They did not understand the resurrection.

When we come to the Bible, do we fail to recognise its authority? Is it merely a book of historical narrative, poems, and debatable doctrines which we seek to twist and distort or even ignore? Or does it appear to us as a book of power containing all things necessary for salvation because it comes from the mouth of God himself?

We must learn to apply the Bible and its wisdom in our lives. We must write its truth on the tablets of our hearts so that we might stand firm and hold fast to the teachings that have been passed on to us. If we want to get to know God the Father, we should get to know Jesus, God the Son, by reading the Gospels. And we do that prayerfully and as we are guided by the Holy Spirit. We come before God through Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are called to become ever more Christ-like, to be his disciples, to be faithful and true to his teaching. In that we might recognise how we journey from a being a comrade – someone who at first is only prepared to be against what Jesus is against, to being a constituent – someone who is for what Jesus is for, and if we really get Jesus and his teaching, to journey from constituent to confidante – someone who is unreservedly and unconditionally for Jesus. In that we should never be against Jesus himself.

And if we are willing to make that journey, we might begin to realise what the family of the Church is called to look like. United, together, for Christ. May we realise that we are not called to be comrades – joining together like the Pharisees and the Sadducees because of what are against. We are not called to be constituents, conditionally being for what Jesus is for and for what our brothers and sisters in Christ are for. We are called to be confidantes – to go deeper and realise how we are called to be. So, “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

Seek out confidantes in your life. Be wary of comrades and constituents. May you find confidantes in your life. May you cherish them, nurture them, pray for them and encourage them and may your greatest confidante be Jesus Christ, your friend, your brother, your Lord, Saviour and Redeemer. Amen

I have come to call sinners to repentance

It is interesting that our Gospel reading today begins by telling us which people were gathering around to hear Jesus – the tax collectors and sinners. It is also interesting to learn of the people who criticised him for doing this – the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. From early on in Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law complained about Jesus’ ministry and sought to bring him down. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we are told, “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”” (Luke 5:30-32)

If the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had a mind to understand, a heart to welcome and receive, and a spiritual awareness of God’s leading and prompting then not only would they not have criticised Jesus, but they themselves would have reached out to the people that needed hope and salvation most of all. Their hearts were hardened. In stark contrast, tax collectors were considered traitors and so were outcasts from Jewish society. The other notorious sinners were probably people whose lifestyles were less than pristine and who thus also had become outcasts. This reminds us that a Church does not exist simply for the sake of its members. We must engage in mission and outreach and seek to save the lost and come alongside the people who really need God in their life.

Jesus then presents the Pharisees and the teachers of the law with 2 parables – the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. In Jesus’ time and culture, shepherds counted their sheep every night knowing how easy it was for sheep to stray away and get lost. In the parable, one of the sheep is missing. Jesus used the shepherd’s concern for each sheep to set up the question: “Doesn’t he leave … and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” The answer is obvious to us and was obvious to his listeners—any caring shepherd would do so. He would search, find the lost sheep, carry it back to the flock, and rejoice. We might find it foolish for the shepherd to leave ninety-nine sheep to go search for just one. But the shepherd knew that the ninety-nine were safe, whereas the lost sheep was in danger. God’s love for each individual is so great that he seeks each one out and rejoices when he or she is “found.” Jesus associated with sinners because he wanted to bring the lost sheep—people considered beyond hope—the good news of God’s kingdom. This speaks into God’s love and grace, how we are called to search out for sinners and the lost and bring them home. This speaks into the way in which our efforts in ministry must be prioritised and focussed. We might consider who are the 99 and who is the lost sheep that we need to seek out and find?

When the shepherd found his lost sheep, we are told he rejoiced – but he did not rejoice alone – instead, he called his friends and neighbours together and invited them to celebrate with him. Jesus wanted to stress his kingdom’s reality and the value of one lost person. I know I rejoice when anyone I speak with understands the good news of God and the message that I believe he has laid on my heart that I faithfully seek to share. God rejoices when “lost” sinners are “found” and brought into the kingdom. He rejoices over you! When a sinner repents—turning from sin and accepting the forgiveness Jesus offers—heaven rejoices.

When we look at the second parable, it’s helpful to realise that Palestinian women would often receive ten silver coins as a wedding gift. Besides their monetary value, these coins held tremendous sentimental value like that of a wedding ring; so to lose one would be extremely distressing. Each coin was also of great value. The ten coins could have been this woman’s life savings, meant to support her in a time of need. One coin would have been a tenth of that nest egg. So upon discovering that one of the coins was missing, the woman would light a lamp in order to see into the dark corners, and sweep every part of the dirt-packed floor in hope of finding it. Although the woman still had nine coins, she would not rest until the tenth was retrieved. Her search was rewarded—she finds the coin. Like the shepherd, she shared her joy with her friends and neighbours so they could rejoice with her.

Just as a shepherd would rejoice over finding a lost sheep and a woman would rejoice at finding her lost coin, so all heaven rejoices over a repentant sinner. Each individual is precious to God. God rejoices whenever one of his children is found and brought into the kingdom. He actively seeks those lost ones, and when they are found, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God.

We must also consider the extent to which God must lament when any sinner manifests a stubborn, unrepentant heart and by their actions and behaviours blaze a trail of destruction, in their lives and the lives of others refusing to listen and “come home”. Let us pray for hearts to be softened, for the lost to be found, for the sinners to come home. Amen