Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sermon for January 30th: Matthew 5:1-12

Matthew 5:1-12 January 30th 2011

Upside-Down World

In his little book about Matthew’s gospel Tom Wright tells of a movie he saw about the first test pilots to break the sound barrier; you may have seen the movie yourself. Until 1947, no plane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound, and many people didn’t believe that you could fly faster than the speed of sound. But eventually, in the movie, various test-pilots began to take their planes over the magic figure of 735 miles per hour, and over and over again bad things happened: in some cases the planes began to vibrate, the vibrations got bigger and bigger, and eventually the planes just disintegrated. Crash after crash took place. It seemed as it the controls just refused to work properly once the plane came up to the sound barrier.

But finally one test pilot, Chuck Yeager, had a hunch about what to do. His hunch was that when the plane broke the sound barrier the controls began to work backwards, so that pulling the stick up to make the plane climb sent it downwards instead. And so Yeager flew to the same speed, and instead of pulling the stick back, he pushed it forward. Normally that would cause the plane to dive, but his hunch turned out to be correct; the nose came up, and the plane flew on without damage, faster than anyone had ever flew before.

Apparently the movie is not historically accurate. Chuck Yeager was often asked whether he’d done it the way the movie showed, and he insisted it wasn’t like that at all. However, the story from the movie illustrates what Jesus is doing in our gospel reading this morning; it’s almost as if he’s taking the controls and making them work backwards. And the only explanation for that is that he thinks he is taking God’s people somewhere they have never been before – like a test pilot breaking the sound barrier for the first time. In the previous chapter Jesus has announced the coming of the Kingdom of God, and that Kingdom has ushered in a radical new situation for the world in which the old common-sense rules we thought were so sure are no longer so certain. And so in the Beatitudes, he says things that make no sense to us at all, things that completely contradict the common-sense view of the world. But we’re on the other side of the sound barrier now, you see, and we’re face to face with a world of new possibilities.

The word ‘beatitude’ comes from the Latin word for ‘blessing’, and in these verses Jesus describes eight situations or conditions of life and pronounces a blessing on them. In all probability, there were people sitting in front of Jesus that day who fitted into these various situations or conditions of life. They didn’t have it all together in their lives; they struggled with sins and weaknesses, and they needed to know that this did not exclude them from the kingdom of God.

The situation has not changed. The average Christian congregation may look pretty good on Sunday morning, but underneath that glittering image the reality is often not quite so shiny. There are people in the pews with good long term marriages and also people whose marriages are full of pain or have failed completely. There are dedicated people who give themselves to helping the poor and disadvantaged, but many of those people struggle with secret sins and temptations and they’d be frantic with fear if their fellow Christians found out about them. There are people who stand up and say the Creed on Sundays but inside struggle with doubts: ‘Did he really rise from the dead? Does he really care about me?’ There are strong assertive people, but also people who are timid and full of fear and wouldn’t dare to speak up for themselves. There are recovering alcoholics who aren’t really recovering; there are people with financial struggles who wonder why God doesn’t seem to provide for them. This is what the average congregation is like. Where in the world would such a mixed bunch of people find a welcome, if not in the Kingdom of God?

There are two things I want to say about the message of the Beatitudes this morning. The first is this: the Beatitudes assure us that everyone is welcome in God’s Kingdom.

In this part of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has just begun his ministry in Galilee. He has announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God and has invited people to repent, believe in him and become his followers. He has chosen some people specifically, and the ones he has picked are not religious professionals but ordinary working class people, fishermen like James and John, Simon and Andrew. He has gone on a mission around the countryside, teaching, announcing the kingdom, and healing the sick. Remember that in Jesus’ day it was a common idea that if you got sick it was because you were a sinner. But Jesus didn’t condemn the sick; instead, he healed them.

Having done these things, Jesus then sat down and began to teach his disciples. As he taught, he could probably point to people in the crowd in front of him who fit into each of the categories he mentions. There are some tax collectors and prostitutes - the poor in spirit, the ones who’ve never given the godly life a second thought up ‘til now. There’s a woman whose son was murdered by Roman soldiers - she’s mourning and grieving. There’s someone whose greatest hunger is to do what God wants. There’s a meek person who never stands up for herself and is always being sat on by others. But what’s the good news? The good news is not that they have these particular characteristics. The good news is that all of these people are included in the kingdom of God anyway!

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (v.3). I’m sure you can think of a few of them; you may feel like one of them yourself. These people weren’t raised in godly homes. They never learned the Bible stories; if you asked them to turn to the book of Acts, they wouldn’t have a clue where to look for it. I think of an alcoholic friend of mine in my last parish, a man who came to sobriety through AA. He has no standing in a church, little knowledge of the scriptures, and by his own admission did a good job of messing things up for a major portion of his life. He was ‘poor in spirit’, but today he is sober and spends his life trying to get to know God better and serve God in AA. Jesus is saying ‘There are people like that in the kingdom’.

And the kingdom also includes ‘those who mourn’ (v.4). Luke calls them ‘the weeping ones’: those who have buried their own children, or those whose spouses have deserted them for someone younger and more attractive; those who have lost friends or whose livelihood has been taken away from them. These people are going through awful griefs, but nonetheless they have turned to Jesus as their king, and in his kingdom they will be comforted.

The kingdom includes ‘the meek’ (v.5); the shy ones, the ones who are easily intimidated and never stand up for their own rights. When a mechanic does bad work on their car, they aren’t brave enough to complain. When they come down for coffee after church and everyone is talking in little groups, they aren’t brave enough to move into one of the groups; they stand off by themselves, excluded from the conversations. But nonetheless they have been drawn into the kingdom, and Jesus is not going to exclude them. Far from it; Jesus says, ‘they will inherit the earth’.

The kingdom includes ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (v.6), or, as another translation puts it, ‘those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail (REB)’. Maybe they’ve gone through a time when they hungered and thirsted for bigger houses and fatter pay cheques, but they’ve gradually come to realise that none of this satisfies. So they’ve come to the place where the thing they long for more than anything else is for God’s will to be done in the world, and in their own lives too. People like this are often laughed at and excluded in the world. People tell them to ‘lighten up’ and not take life so seriously. But Jesus does not exclude them; he takes their longing seriously, and promises them that ‘they will be filled’.

The kingdom includes ‘the merciful’ (v.7). The world’s version of this Beatitude runs “Unlucky are the merciful, for they will be taken advantage of”. Dallas Willard tells the story of how his parents went bankrupt and lost their clothing store in the 1930’s. Why? Because they would not refuse to give people clothes when they had no money to pay. That’s pretty poor business practice! People like that aren’t going to get credit from the banks unless they smarten up! But look - there they are in the circle around Jesus. They’ve turned to him, and he’s welcomed them into the kingdom. ‘They will receive mercy’.

The kingdom includes ‘the pure in heart’ (v.8). We tend to understand ‘purity’ in sexual terms, but there’s a lot more to it than that. ‘Pure’ water is water that has nothing added to it. A pure person is a person who desires one thing: God’s will for them. They long to see God and know God, and their longing will be fulfilled.

The kingdom includes ‘the peacemakers’ (v.9). They often don’t feel very blessed – in fact, the common-sense version of this saying might be ‘Woe to the peacemakers, for they will be shot at from both sides’! Ask a policeman who tries to intervene in a domestic dispute, or a mediator who tries to bring labour and management together. Often the proposed solution pleases no one, and people’s frustrations are vented on the mediator. But there are peacemakers in the kingdom. They are called ‘blessed’ because they have put their trust in the one who came to bring peace between God and people, Jesus the Son of God, and so they too are known as ‘children of God’.

The kingdom includes ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’, those who are reviled and slandered because they follow Jesus. They may be excluded by the group persecuting them, but they will be included in a much better group - the group of faithful prophets who have stood up for what is right in every age.

So this is the kingdom of God - a ragtag collection of saints and sinners, beginners and experienced disciples. The point is not that you have to be ‘poor in spirit’ for the rest of your life. The point, rather, is that being poor in spirit doesn’t disqualify you. Anyone can enter the kingdom if they are willing to give their allegiance to the King.

So everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God. But I said there were two things I wanted to say. The second seems to stand in contrast to the first: not only is everyone welcome, but also everyone is challenged in God’s kingdom.

The Sermon on the Mount is an incredibly inspiring statement about the Christian life, but the challenge of it can also reduce us to despair. And that’s why the Beatitudes are so important. Jesus started with the crowd in front of him as they were. Some of them had no knowledge of God’s law and had never been interested in living godly lives until now. Others had been hungering and thirsting for righteousness for years. There was room in the kingdom for all of them. But they weren’t blessed because of these characteristics; they were blessed because they were part of God’s Kingdom.

It’s been well said that ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are - but he loves us too much to leave us there’. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives us the balance between the two halves of that statement. You may have lived a life of notorious wickedness - or just an ordinary life of mild inoffensive selfishness - or you may have tried hard to be godly all your life. Which ever is true of you and me, we are welcome in the Kingdom. But that doesn’t mean we’re welcome to stay the way we are. The invitation is to ‘follow Jesus’ - and you can be sure that if we follow him he will lead us into a new way of life. That’s the challenge.

The Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. The good news in today’s passage is that there are no prerequisites to entering the school. You don’t need to have studied Old Testament Law 301 or Sinlessness 401 to enter - although those who have done so are also welcome. The only requirement is to register, and we do that in a very simple way laid out for us by Jesus: repent, to believe in the Good News, begin to follow Jesus and, if we’re not already baptized, to get baptized as a concrete sign of our commitment to him. If you’ve taken those steps, then you’re in; you are ‘blessed’ even now, in the midst of your struggles and weaknesses, and in the kingdom of God you will begin to find the answer to your deepest needs.

(Next week we’ll go on to consider some of the ‘lessons in the school of Jesus’ as we continue with Matthew 5:13-20).

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Spaghetti Church, January 29th 2011

We had our first Spaghetti Church Saturday January 29th. Here are a few of the pictures.

Our bulletin for the day (with last minute changes!):


Decorating cupcakes.



Making party hats (our theme was 'God invites us to a party in his home').




Singing 'Who made the twinkling stars?'


Praying in a circle together.


It was Ben's third birthday today!





Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sermon for January 16th: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

What is a Church?

Imagine a daily newspaper with the following article in its religion section:

The Bishop of Marshland recently wrote a strongly worded letter to the people of St. Swithun’s in the Swamp after serious issues in the life of their congregation were brought to his attention. St. Swithun’s has recently been splitting up into several factions, each uniting around the personality of a charismatic leader, and the various groups have been loudly criticizing each other. Several people in the congregation are involved in lawsuits against one another, and illicit sexual behaviour between various members of the congregation has also caused a few raised eyebrows in the community at large. At the communion services, those who arrive first often eat all the bread and get drunk on the wine, and leave nothing for those who come after them. Services are also very rowdy, with members all getting up to say prayers and share words they believe God has given to them, without even the courtesy of waiting for the person who was speaking before them to finish. The congregation seems to be characterized more by pride and self-display than love and gentleness.

No, this is not an Anglican congregation having a fight about the issue of same-sex blessings. It’s a New Testament congregation, the church in the Greek city of Corinth, and the Bishop in question is Paul himself, who first took the good news of Jesus to Corinth and now found himself having to deal with a mess! The New Testament, you see, was not a golden age of the church. Throughout our history, we Christians have been confronted over and over again with the uncomfortable fact that, when a person becomes a Christian, they do not immediately cease being a sinner. There are no perfect churches, because churches are made up of sinful people like you and me. And so, where there are churches there will always be problems; that’s just business as usual.

How does Paul deal with the problems at Corinth? He doesn’t come right out and confront the Corinthians with the issues right from the beginning of his letter. No, in today’s reading he first of all starts by reminding them of what a church is meant to be. Why did God look down on Corinth - or on South Edmonton, for that matter - and say, “I know what that place needs: it needs a community called the Church of Jesus Christ?” What did he have in mind when he called this community into being? 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 gives us some clues about that.

First of all, the church is a gathered community. In verse 2 Paul addresses the letter ‘to the church of God that is in Corinth’. The word that he uses in the original language of the Bible is the Greek word ‘ekklesia’. This word was used in secular Greek for what we might call nowadays a ‘town hall meeting’. Someone in authority called the citizens of the community to gather together to discuss an important issue and to reach a decision about it: that’s an ‘ekklesia’. You’re not a member of the ekklesia just by virtue of living in the city; unless you actually come out to the meeting, you’re just a citizen. The ekklesia is those who gather; as they say on West Wing, ‘Decisions are made by those who show up!’

When the Bible was first put into English there was considerable debate as to how this word should be translated. William Tyndale’s translation of 1527 says ‘to the congregation of God which is at Corinth’. Tyndale argued that when an English-speaking person heard the word ‘church’, the image it conjured up in his mind was bishops dressed in gorgeous robes and acting as government officials, and grand cathedrals and splendid liturgies and so on and so on. In his mind, this was far removed from an ‘ekklesia’ – the town hall meeting called to decide how much to pay the snow-plough operators! But when King James’ men began their work in 1604 they wanted to emphasise the fact that the institutional Church of England in the 17th century was in continuity with the folks at Corinth in the 1st century; hence their use of ‘church’ rather than ‘congregation’. Most translators since then have taken their point of view, but personally I think Tyndale had a point; whatever institutional structures we have imposed on the body of Christ – bishops and dioceses and synods and pension plans and prayer books and so on – we must never lose sight of the essential character of an ekklesia – a group of Christians, gathered together to worship God, to listen to his word, and to make decisions about their life together.

So the church is first of all a gathered community, an ekklesia. Secondly, it’s a community under authority. Who calls the town hall meeting? Who gathers the community together? The answer is clear from these verses: the Lord Jesus Christ.

Do you notice in these verses how Paul emphasizes the authority of Jesus by the way he names him? You don’t see the simple name ‘Jesus’ at all, and ‘Christ’, by itself, appears only once. But we have ‘Christ Jesus’ three times, and ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ and variations on it five times. Remember that the Greek word ‘Christ’ is a title more than a name; it means ‘the anointed one’, ‘the Messiah’, ‘God’s chosen King’. When Paul says ‘Christ Jesus (rather than ‘Jesus Christ’) he is emphasizing this; if you hear ‘Christ Jesus’ as being like ‘King Jesus’, you’ll get the sense of what he was communicating. And of course ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ carries a similar meaning; the Greek word for ‘Lord’, kyrios, was one of the official titles of the Roman emperor.

So Paul starts out by underlining in an unmistakable way the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the one who called the Corinthian ekklesia together, and he had a purpose in mind when he did so. He is the lord of his Church, and we, its members, are not at liberty to set aside his purpose and substitute something that is more to our taste. So, for instance, if Jesus has decided that one of the purposes of the Church is to go to people who are not yet followers of Jesus, share the gospel with them and invite them to become Christians, we are not at liberty to say, “Sorry, we’re Anglicans and we’re too shy to do that!” If he has told us to settle lawsuits between Christians before they reach court, we’re not at liberty to set that aside and say, “Sorry, I didn’t get a big enough settlement that way, so I’m taking you to court because it’s more effective”. Jesus knew what he had in mind when he called this ekklesia together; he’s the one who has the authority to decide the agenda and set the rules of order. Our business is to find out what his will is, and then to learn to put it into practice.

And this leads directly to the third thing. If the church is a gathered community and a community under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, then the third characteristic we see is that it is meant to be a holy community. Paul says in verse 2, ‘To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’. In the original language the words ‘sanctified’, ‘saints’, and ‘holy’ are all based on the same word, and what it essentially means is ‘belonging to God, set apart by him from ordinary use for a special purpose’.

Nowadays of course this meaning is obscured by the way the word ‘saint’ is used in popular culture for ‘an especially good and holy person’. A Christian might even feel that he or she was being humble by saying, “I’m no saint’. What they mean by that is “I’m not a very good person”. To which Paul would respond, “Goodness is not what a saint is; goodness is one of the ways a saint behaves”. To put it in a nutshell, we might say, “I’m not very good, so I can’t call myself a saint”. Paul’s approach, on the other hand, is to say, “God says that you are a saint, so now it’s time to start living like a saint”. And that involves what has traditionally been referred to as ‘a holy life’.

Consider this picture: imagine an Olympic runner arriving at the starting blocks for the final of the 100-metre sprint, dressed not in shorts and running shoes, but in a thick winter coat and carrying two suitcases. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a winter coat and suitcases – in some situations they might be entirely appropriate – but they definitely are not appropriate for a runner whose purpose is to win the 100-metre sprint!

In the same way, there are ways of living that might be entirely appropriate for people who have a different purpose in mind, but are completely inappropriate for people who have been called to be God’s people, set aside for his purposes. It might be entirely appropriate for a person who believes that money and possessions are the secret of happiness to do all they can to get rich, but it is not appropriate for us who follow a Lord who told us not to store up for ourselves treasures on earth. It might be entirely appropriate for people who believe that their individual rights are the most important thing in the world to engage in lawsuits against others when they feel those rights have been infringed, but it is not appropriate for people who follow a Lord who told them to settle disputes among themselves before going to court. We who belong to Jesus have been set aside by God from the ways of the world so that we can learn a different way of living, a way that’s appropriate for saints. It’s no good us saying, “Well, I’m no saint, so it’s no use me trying to learn that way”. In the New Testament ‘saints’ is exactly what we’re called; it’s up to us to learn to live up to the name God gives us.

So this Church of Jesus Christ that we belong to is a gathered community, a community under the authority of Jesus, and a community called to be holy, to live in a way appropriate for saints. A fourth thing we see here is that it’s a gifted community. Paul says in verses 4-7:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and in knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

God has asked his Church to do a job for him: the job of being a signpost pointing people toward his kingdom. In order to do this job properly we need spiritual gifts from God, and Paul says here that God has not been stingy about giving those gifts. As we look further on in this letter, we see that the Corinthian Christians were very excited about supernatural gifts. They especially loved the gift of speaking in tongues – praying and praising God in a language they didn’t understand, in words given directly by the Holy Spirit. They seemed to think that anyone who could do that was right at the top of the spiritual mountain, and in their services there were apparently times when they all did it at the same time in a kind of holy babble! Paul wasn’t against speaking in tongues – in fact, he told them that he did it too, maybe more than they did – but he didn’t want to emphasize it over other gifts. And so he mentions what we might today think of as supernatural gifts – healing the sick, for instance, and other kinds of miracles – along with less spectacular things like teaching and administration and the gift of being helpful to others and so on. All of those gifts, he says, are essential, and the Holy Spirit decides who should exercise each gift. No one gift is more important than any other, and every gift needs to be exercised out of love for others and not out of pride or self-display.

So here are four essential characteristics of the church of Jesus Christ. It’s an ekklesia, a gathered community. It’s a community under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a community called to live a holy life. And it’s a community gifted by the Holy Spirit to do the work God has called it to do.

How do we fit into that community? How do you fit in? Let’s close by applying each of these characteristics to our own lives.

First, the church is an ekklesia, a gathered community. That means that the way you fit in is by showing up for the gathering. You’re not a church member because you’re on a parish list somewhere, even if you never go. You participate in a town hall meeting by coming to it; ‘decisions are made by those who show up’. And you take your place in the body of Christ by coming together with your fellow Christians to worship God, to hear his Word, and to make decisions about our common life. In the New Testament, a Christian who doesn’t participate in church is a contradiction in terms. The body of Christ is an ekklesia, a gathered community; to be a part of it, you have to gather.

Secondly, the church is a community under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. That means that my business as a member of the community is to figure out what it means to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice, and then to learn to do it. One of the things we Christians are called in the New Testament is ‘disciples of Jesus’; that’s what it means to be a disciple, pure and simple.

Notice, by the way, how these characteristics build on each other. Yes, it’s important to gather with the church as we worship week by week, but it’s also important not to stop there. It’s possible to come to church every week but not to let it effect your life; you can close your ears to what’s said in the scriptures and in the sermon, go through the motions of worship, and go away completely unchanged. But if you make it your business to take Jesus as your Lord and King and submit to his authority, then you can’t do that. Once you’re clear about what it is he wants you to do, you have to apply yourself to learning how to do it.

And this leads to the third thing: the church is a holy community, and its members are called to be holy. That will mean that there are some ways of living that I will have to turn away from, because they are not appropriate for someone who is a follower of Jesus. Sometimes those things are not what we would normally think of as spectacular sins. In Ephesians 4 Paul says, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (4:31-5:2).

Finally, the church is a gifted community, and that means that I need to be praying that the Holy Spirit will show me what gift or gifts he has given me, and give me the courage to use them. Is it the gift of hospitality, the gift of being a good listener, the gift of praying for the sick, or the gift of teaching adults or children? Is it the gift of being a good bookkeeper or the gift of listening carefully to God and passing on his message to others? In every case, to step out in faith and exercise my gift takes effort and it takes risk; it’s much easier to stay at home and do nothing. But that doesn’t help the gathered community fulfil its mission for Christ.

The Church in Corinth had many problems; every church does, including ours. In order to solve our problems, we need to come back again and again to what God has called our church to be: a community that gathers, a community that obeys its Lord, a community that lives as saints of God, a community whose members willingly offer their gifts in service to God and one another. If we get these things right, it will be easer for us to address any other problems and issues that we face. May God grant us all together the grace to do that. Amen.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sermon for January 9th (the Baptism of the Lord): Matthew 3:13-17

A New Beginning

How many of you here today have actually read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings? I don’t mean ‘how many of you have watched the movies?’ – I mean actually read the book – all three volumes of it?

The first time I tried to read The Lord of the Rings I was about fourteen; a lot of people were talking about it at the time, and I decided to try it out. I went to the local library to look for it, but the first volume, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, was out, so I just borrowed the second volume, ‘The Two Towers’. Now, there was a very short summary of the plot of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ at the beginning of this second volume, but even with that help, it was very difficult to get into the flow of the story, and in fact I think I gave up after about fifty pages. It wasn’t until a few years later that I read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ all the way through, and then the story made sense to me, because I started at the beginning.

I want to suggest to you that a lot of people who are interested in the Christian faith get into trouble for this very same reason – they don’t start at the beginning. Where do they start? Well, the most obvious thing that Christians do these days seems to be ‘going to church’, so people who are interested in learning about Christianity start coming to church. After a while people notice them, and they get added to a parish list and get a set of envelopes. Someone finds out that they’re good at a particular job that needs doing around the church, and before you know it they’re on a list of volunteers. They get involved in all the activities, but deep down inside there’s this nagging doubt, “Where’s God? I wasn’t really looking for more social activities or more work to do – I was looking for God? How can I find him?”

The problem is that they haven’t started at the beginning, and so their Christian story isn’t making any sense. Not that there’s anything wrong with going to church, but churchgoing is meant to take us right back to the heart of the Gospel and to the central truths that give us a good start in the Christian life. And we find these truths in our gospel reading for today which tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. What does Jesus’ baptism have to say to us about our own baptism and how we start out in the Christian life?

Let’s think about baptism for a minute and what John the Baptist was doing here by baptizing people. In the ancient world a number of religions baptized people. Jews did it to Gentiles who wanted to become Jews; they baptized them all as a sign of the washing away of uncleanness before God, and then the men were circumcised, which was the covenant sign God had given to Abraham. But before John the Baptist, no one had suggested that Jews needed to be baptized; they were seen as being clean enough already! But now John came, preaching that the Kingdom of God was near; people were excited about that, and thousands of them flocked to hear him. If they wanted to sign up for the new kingdom, he told them to repent – to turn away from their old way of life – and to be baptized as a sign of this. Baptism was an obvious sign for repentance; sin has often been seen as making us dirty in some way, and repentance and forgiveness are a sort of cleansing.

But now Jesus comes to the river to be baptized, and if you look in our gospel reading, you’ll see that John is a bit confused about this. “I need to be baptized by you”, he says to Jesus, “and do you come to me?” (v.14). Baptism is about repenting from sin, but Jesus has nothing he needs to repent of, so why does he need to be baptized? Makes perfect sense to me! But in fact Jesus disagrees: “Let it be so now”, he says to John, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”(v.15).

But in fact baptism is about more than washing from sin. There are whole layers of meaning in the act of baptism in the New Testament, and the baptism of Jesus has a lot to teach us about this. Let’s take a closer look.

One thing we see in the baptism of Jesus is a declaration that he is God’s Son. We read in verse 17 that when Jesus was baptized ‘a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”’.

What a wonderful thing for a son to hear from his father! I suspect that there are many adult children today who are walking around with a big empty space inside, because they just aren’t sure whether or not their parents are pleased with them. But here we have God the Father, right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, before he had healed anyone, or told any parables, or done anything out of the ordinary at all, saying, “This is my beloved son and I’m very pleased with him”.

Baptism speaks to us about becoming God’s children. And just as Jesus received the affirmation of his sonship before he had done anything spectacular to earn it, so too God declares that we are his children as a free gift - what Christians call an act of pure grace - which we don’t have to earn.

Here’s the way it works. In that act of grace, Jesus gave his life for you and me and everyone else, so that our sins could be forgiven and we could be brought back into God’s family. That’s God’s great rescue operation for the world. That great rescue operation is applied to your life in the act of baptism. Through your baptism God’s forgiveness and adoption are offered to you, like a hand of rescue reaching out to a drowning person. You respond to that free gift by faith, which means trust. “Ah!” you say; “There is something I can do!” Yes, there is - but let’s be clear about what it is. If you’re drowning and a person reaches out their hand to save you, you don’t save yourself by clasping their hand; you simply take advantage of their strength and skill. Faith is our hand reaching up to take the hand of God and receive the gift he gives us in our baptism. Or if you like, in your baptism God says to you “You are my son or daughter” and in faith you reply “Yes: I am God’s son or daughter”.

So ‘starting at the very beginning’ is all about grace, which means God’s love for us that we don’t have to deserve. Some of us here were baptized as children when we’d done absolutely nothing to deserve it. Some of us were baptized as adults after we’d done lots of things not to deserve it! Whenever we were baptized, in our baptism we were made the children of God, and when we came to Jesus in faith and welcomed him into our hearts we accepted that for ourselves; we began to enjoy the special relationship with the Father that he’s given us.

The second thing we notice about the baptism of Jesus is that it was the beginning of a new life for him. Up until that time, he’d lived quietly in Nazareth with his family. But now, at the age of thirty, he came to the Jordan and was baptized by John. From that point on, he left his old way of life and plunged into three years of public ministry, in which he announced that God’s kingdom was coming, and showed by his actions what God’s kingdom was all about.

When we look at the pictures that are used for baptism in the New Testament, they all include this idea of a new beginning. We’re told that being baptized is like being born again; it’s like dying and rising again with Jesus; it’s like being adopted into a family. And at the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing 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” (Matthew 28:19-20). To be baptized, Jesus tells us here, is to begin a new life as his disciple.

So you’re not only a child of God, adopted into his family by a gift of his grace; you’re also a disciple of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus have taken a long hard look at the world around them and concluded that, even though it’s full of voices wanting to give us advice, no other voice seems to get it exactly right. Disciples of Jesus realize that in the life and teaching of Jesus they can see God more clearly than they can see him anywhere else in all of creation. And so they’ve come to Jesus with this attitude: “Lord, will you help me to see life as you see it and live life as you taught it?”

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Baptism is the beginning of this life of discipleship. The true Christian idea of infant baptism is that Christian parents who are themselves following Jesus want their children to follow him too, so they have them baptized because they believe it’s never too early to start learning to follow Jesus. Adults who are baptized are putting their faith in Jesus, leaving the old way of life behind and starting a new life as followers of Jesus.

So when we were baptized we were set down at the beginning of a new way of life. And as we try to learn this new way of life we aren’t left to our own resources either. Let’s look at the third thing Jesus’ baptism teaches us about ‘starting at the very beginning’. In his baptism Jesus had a special experience of God’s presence and power as the Holy Spirit came down on him. In today’s gospel we read, ‘And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him’ (v.16).

If you had been a Jewish person hearing these words in the first century just after Matthew wrote them, you’d immediately have been reminded of Isaiah chapter 64. In chapter 63 the prophet was talking about how the people felt abandoned by God because of all their sins; they were going through the suffering of exile from their land and longed for a sense of God’s presence with them. Then in chapter 64 he goes on to say to God:

“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (vv.1-3).

This is what we need, isn’t it? We need the sense that we aren’t alone, that God is with us, walking with us through the difficult times in our lives, giving us the strength we need to do the things he asks of us. “Show me a sign, God?” we ask; “Please let me know that you’re near! Tear open the heavens and come down!” And now in Jesus’ baptism God answers that prayer: ‘The heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him’ (Matthew 3:16b).

This experience of the Holy Spirit shines through the pages of the New Testament. Paul could even appeal to it to make a theological point. He was having an argument with the Christians in Galatia about whether they were saved by following Jewish rituals or by their faith in Christ. “Tell me”, he asked them, “did you receive the Holy Spirit by following rituals or by putting your faith in Christ?” He obviously expected them to look back on their own experience and say, “Oh yeah – he’s right, you know – it was when we put our faith in Christ that we first experienced the Holy Spirit”. But the argument would have been meaningless if they had never experienced the Holy Spirit; they would have shaken their heads in confusion and said, “Paul, what are you talking about?”

Sadly, I think many people today would do just that. Yes, the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to us in our baptism, but many of us have never turned to Jesus in faith and asked him to fill us with the Holy Spirit. You see, this is a gift we grow in. When we are baptized God lights the pilot light of his Holy Spirit in us, but you can’t heat a house with the pilot light; you need to turn up the thermostat so that the whole furnace lights up. And so it is with the Holy Spirit: we’re told in the New Testament to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit, so that we can truly be in tune with God’s presence and experience God’s power for the tasks he’s called us to do.

So the baptism of Jesus tells us about our baptism – about what it means and what it says about us. In the world today there are many voices wanting to tell you who you are, and what you should be doing. But the most important truth about you is what God says about you, and in your baptism God says to you, “You are my beloved child; I am pleased with you”. In your baptism God tells you that the most important thing you have to do in your life is to learn to follow Jesus. And God puts the Holy Spirit into you to give you a sense of his presence and power. This is where we have to start if we are to understand the Christian life. These are the things we need to be sure about before we go on to the next stage in our Christian journey.

You and I are God’s children. We are disciples of Jesus. God the Holy Spirit lives in us. We don’t have to earn any of that; God has given it to us as a gift. All we have to do is believe it. Like a little child learning to walk, we just have to hold up our hand in faith, grab onto the hand of our heavenly Father and let him show us the way. This is the gift God has given to you and me and all his children. And it all belongs to us, because we belong to God.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

January 2011

Monday January 10th, 2011

Tim’s day off

Office is closed

Tuesday January 11, 2011

11:15 am Holy Communion @ St.Joseph’s

Thursday January 13th, 2011

7:00 am Men’s and Women’s Bible Studies at Bogani

2:00 pm Women’s Bible Study @ Marg Rys’s house

January 2011

Jan 2nd – Christmas 2 – Morning Worship

Coffee between services

Greeter/Sidespeople: D&E Mitty

Counter: D.Mitty/C. Aasen

Reader: T. Cromarty

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm:72:1-7,10-14, Ephesians3:1-12

Lay Administrants: B. Popp/D. MacNeill

Intercessor: M. Rys

Lay Reader: Matthew 2:1-12 B. Popp

Altar Guild (White): MW

Nursery Supervisor: E. McDougall

Sunday School (School Age): P. Rayment

Sunday School (Preschool): M. Eriksen

Kitchen: - 9:45 Martens

Jan 9th – Baptism of the Lord - Holy Communion

Greeter/Sidespeople: G&K Hughes

Counter: G. Hughes/

Reader: M. Rys

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Act 10: 32-43

Lay Administrants: D.Schindel/C.Aasen

Intercessor: C. Aasen

Lay Reader: Matthew 3: 13-17 D. MacNeill

Altar Guild (White): J. Mill/L. Pyra

Prayer Team: L. Sanderson/M. Rys

Nursery Supervisor: M. Aasen

Sunday School (School Age): C. Ripley

Sunday School (Preschool): M. Horn

Kitchen: M. Chesterton

Jan 16th – 2nd after Epiphany – Holy Communion

Greeter/Sidespeople: D&L Schindel

Counter: D. Schindel/ B. Rice

Reader: T. Wittkopf

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-12, 1Corinthians 1:1-9,

Lay Administrants: B. Popp/V. Haase

Intercessor: T. Chesterson

Lay Reader: John 1:29-42 B. Popp

Altar Guild (Green) M. Lobreau/T. Wittkopf

Prayer Team: M. Chesterton/M. Rys

Nursery: E. McDougall

Sunday School (School Age): B. Rice

Sunday School (Preschool): M. Horn

Kitchen: V. Haase

Jan 23rd – 3rd after Epiphany – Holy Communion

Greeter/Sidespeople: T. Cromarty/B. Cavey

Counter: T. Cromarty/D. Schindel

Reader: B. Popp

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 5-13, 1Corinthians 1:10-18

Lay Administrants: G. Hughes/D. MacNeill

Intercessor: M. Rys

Lay Reader: Matthew 4: 12-23 D. MacNeill

Altar Guild (Green): M. Woytkiw/K. Hughes

Prayer Team: E. Gerber/S. Jayakaran

Nursery: K. Hughes

Sunday School (School Age): M. Cromarty

Sunday School (Preschool): E. McDougall

Kitchen: B & M Mirtle

Jan 30th – 4th after Epiphany - Morning Worship

Greeter/Sidespeople: B&L Popp

Counter: B. Popp/T. Willacy

Reader: S. Doyle

Michah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1Corinthians 1:18-31

Intercessor: C. Aasen

Lay Reader: Matthew 5:1-12 L. Thompson

Altar Guild (Green): 9:00 J. Mill/10:30 Morning Worship

Nursery Supervisor: M. Aasen

Sunday School (School Age): C. Ripley

Sunday School (Preschool): M. Horn

Kitchen: University Students