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The Coming Kingdom

Getting through the morning routine for another day - cajoling the kids through their list of ‘getting ready for school’, placating a cranky toddler, trying to organise ourselves – the thought pops into my mind, “It is so easy to get caught up in the everyday ‘stuff’ of living that we forget there is a bigger reality - Jesus is coming back.” Luke 17:20-37 doesn’t hold back. It’s like Jesus is grabbing us by the shoulders and giving us a little shake before looking us in the eyes and asking… ‘Are you ready? Or are you wandering down the path of distraction?’ And having pondered this passage at length last week, written on it, then preached about these urgent realities… it’s still easy to move on and simply ‘get on with life’.
I know that being ready and waiting for Jesus to return and usher in God’s Kingdom doesn’t mean NOT getting the kids ready for preschool. It doesn’t mean not engaging my heart and mind in work, family, home and social activities. This is the life that God has created us for. But of course, he’s created us to engage in it conscious of him - his authority, his wisdom, his grace. And as Jesus labours in this passage, conscious that this form of life - this world - is transitory and fading before a coming eternity. And that’s really the challenge isn’t it - not to withdraw, which is the mistake of the ascetics and monks, but neither to live as if this is all there is. 
I personally find it hard to tread the middle road faithfully. Enjoying this world and this life as the good world God has made and given to us, and yet recognising that it is under judgment - judgement that could come at any moment. I guess the key is that next passage, the parable of the persistent widow. We tread this faithful middle path by lifting our eyes and hearts to God day after day, in the midst of all the striving, the pain, the pleasures and joys of this life, and praying, “Come Lord Jesus, and bring your Kingdom.” I know I could be praying this much more than I currently am, and I’m guessing you could too...

Listening to Jesus' teaching (even when it's difficult!)

My intentions came unstuck in week 4. No reflection on the sermon last week. I blame having to oversee the air-conditioning installation… and myself. However, I think I will reflect on both the last two Sunday’s passages today, because I don’t want to overlook ‘Lazarus the poor man’.
Whilst I didn’t get around to writing anything last week, I did reflect. And I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that Jesus just keeps talking about wealth! You can’t read through the travel narrative of Luke’s gospel (Chapters 9-19) and not be challenged about your attitudes and practices regarding money. Nothing is said in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus about the faith or godliness of either man, except for one thing - the rich man lived in luxury every day. This was his crime, and for it he is spending eternity in agony, cut off from God’s blessing. Jesus seems almost to be saying, “If you’re rich in this life, you’ll suffering in the next; and if you’re poor in this life, you’ll be blessed in the next.”
Now of course, there’s more to it than that. The rich man and his brothers are finally presented as having ignored the word of God through Moses and the Prophets. Their life of luxury is not incidental to their morality - it is an outworking of disbelief in God’s word and proud exaltation of themselves. In the context of Luke’s gospel, the rich man is presented as one of those out of step with the values of God’s kingdom. He has clearly been ignoring the plight of poor Lazarus, begging at his gate.
But although the core issues are pride, lack of faith in God’s word and lack of love, the expression of sin - the sin that sees him condemned to ‘Hades’ – is living in luxury every day whilst others around him go hungry. This should make every one of us sit up and pay attention! The rich man is me! Surely at least to some extent. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I am, and you are, one of the five brothers. Those still alive, in danger of living in luxury while we cut our hearts off from the plight of others around us. Those in danger of failing to heed the word of God, and live by faith in his coming kingdom. Those in danger of investing in and exploiting this life as if it was all there is.
This is not ‘justification by works’, as if giving to the poor is a righteous act that can earn our place in heaven. It’s about faith in God’s word. Jesus himself makes that very clear - the rich man and the brothers have failed to listen to Moses and the prophets. Again and again, Jesus makes it clear that genuine faith in him - genuine discipleship of him - will involve a different set of attitudes and practices regarding wealth than the ‘normal’ attitude of those around us. Turning away from ‘living in luxury every day’ is part of biblical repentance. Turning our eyes and hearts towards those in need is part of biblical faith. It’s a life of repentance and faith that we are seeking to spur each other on in, not necessarily something we are all living out perfectly. But it’s a calling we must surely take seriously.
And equally serious is the call to forgiveness. Just as genuine repentance and faith directly affects our wallet (or purse!), so it affects our relationships. There’s no room in faithful discipleship of Jesus for holding grudges - for withholding forgiveness - when those who have wronged us come in repentance, seeking our forgiveness. As Philip pointed out on Sunday, to deny someone our forgiveness is to imply that they are not worthy of God’s forgiveness. Of course, it doesn’t mean pretending there is no offense, or even that the relationship can return to ‘the way things were’. It means simply what Jesus says: ‘if they repent, forgive them.’ 
And if proactively stepping out of our cultures attitudes towards luxury or forgiving a brother or sister for the 77th time seems too difficult, it is good to know that God is ready and waiting to act according to his purposes with even a tiny seed of faith. As Philip explained, the promise of Luke 17:6 is not so much about flying mulberry trees as it is about an encouragement to embrace Jesus’ challenging teaching with the tiny seed of faith we have, rather than sigh in despair at our inability to change. I’ll pray for myself and for anyone who might read this that rather than letting Jesus' words bounce off us, we can listen carefully to the challenging teaching of Jesus, and respond in faith - that is, in faithful, grateful service in his strength.

Not grasping too tightly (Reflections on Luke 16:1-15)

I almost didn’t write this reflection as I’m away on a youth training conference all week, and have heard 6 more sermons since Sunday! But I’m not quite ready to give up on my plan to write a reflection on the sermon each week. Although it didn’t help I was looking after children during both morning and evening church last week - hats off to those of you trying to look after kids every week and focus on the sermon at the same time!
Anyway, enough excuses. Despite all that I was really struck in Philip’s talk on Luke 16: 1-15 by the account of Charles Wesley (or was it his brother??) and his 'personal awakening’. After starting a job that finally gave him some disposable income, he had been spending it on things that gave him pleasure and comfort - as we all tend to do. Then came a moment where he saw a poor woman, shivering in clothing far too thin for the weather. He went to get some money to give her to buy better clothing only to discover that he didn’t have enough - he had spent it all on himself, on things he didn’t really need. From that day began a mindset of seeking to save more of his income, not to store it up for himself, but so that he could give it to those really in need. And what really struck me from this story was what he managed to do in the years following. As his income doubled and tripled, instead of his personal spending doubling or tripling, he essentially lived off the same amount and had more and more to give away. 
This is so alien to our own thinking and practice isn’t it? We look forward to a new job, or a pay rise, because of what we hope to spend it on. As our income increases, so does our expectations of the size of our house, the kind of car we drive, the kind of holidays we go on. Who of us would dream of disconnecting our income from our own living standards? But of course, that’s at the heart of Luke 16:1-15. Don’t think of what we have in this world as ‘ours’. No, the money flowing into our bank accounts, the buildings we rent, buy and renovate, the stuff we accumulate… it’s not ours. It’s God’s. It’s put into our hands so that we might be good stewards of it, to use it for good - particularly the eternal good of those around us. 
Now as I pondered the inspirational example of Wesley, I could see that there is certainly a legitimate aspect of increasing our personal spending as our income increases. We go through stages of life not quite earning enough to provide for ourselves, or a family, or what our family might become. We live in a time and place where housing prices are simply ridiculous. Some of us may well feel like there is basically no limit to how much our income needs to go to paying off a crippling mortgage, no matter how many promotions we might get. It’s important to appreciate the reality of our situation. 
But as we appreciate the reality of our situation, we will almost certainly see that we go way beyond responsible spending on our basic needs. We view our wealth as ours, for our security, comfort and happiness. We save it and spend it for our security, comfort and happiness. I know I need to (re)consider our budget. I need to reconsider the nature of this money and what it’s for, as well as the detail of where it’s going.
As Philip pointed out, the parable of the unrighteous manager is confusing. It’s hard to see how such a dishonest man can be held up as a good example. But it’s not his ethics that are held up, it’s his clarity of vision - his perspective. He knows what’s important, and he takes necessary action. And Jesus makes it clear that the real pinch for us is whether we will ultimately set our eyes, our hearts, on money and our material possessions, or on God himself. We cannot serve both God and money. Will we see ourselves as faithful stewards of the resources God has placed in our care? Will we appreciate their limited value here and now, using them to bless others as we set our hearts and minds on heaven? Or will we make the sad mistake of thinking that life consists of this stuff? Will we make the mistake of thinking it is ours, meant for our pleasure, comfort and security? 

Grumbling at Grace - Reflections on Luke 15

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the best known and most loved passages of the bible. I partially avoided splitting Luke 14 into two passages just so that I got to preach it! The whole chapter is so clearly and engagingly focused on the passionate love of God for all people, regardless of their past, and his sheer joy over their repentance - their ‘humble return home’. There’s a lot to like. But of course, as much as this chapter of the bible is meant to send a clear, affirming message to repentant sinners, it is primarily intended to send a warning, a loving rebuke, an invitation really, to ‘the righteous’. The beauty of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 15 is the way it draws the connections between our attitudes towards other people and our own relationship with God. The Pharisees grumbled at Jesus welcoming ‘sinners and tax collectors’ because they could not see how God would welcome such people, which of course reveals their convictions regarding the basis of their own acceptance with God. Jesus expresses it as ‘earning acceptance through slavish obedience’ in the dialogue between the older son and the father. 
The overarching concept that is common to this passage and many others in the gospel is ‘the more we appreciate how much grace we have been shown, the more readily we show that grace to others.’ And of course, the less we have experienced grace, or appreciated it, the less inclined we are to extend it to others - or to rejoice in God’s display of grace to others. Especially if we deem them particularly undeserving of such kindness from God. And that’s really the heart of it. None of us ‘deserve’ grace. Otherwise it wouldn’t be grace! What the Pharisees needed to understand, and what we always need to keep coming back to, is that none of us earn or deserve acceptance with God - each of us receives it because of his underserving kindness, his grace, towards us, on the basis of humble repentance and faith alone. We are all in the same boat.
Now I don’t mean to say ‘we are all as bad as each other’. I think it’s perfectly reasonable and biblical even to acknowledge that some people’s lives express sin, greed and selfishness to a greater extent. Some people give themselves over more wholeheartedly to patterns of behaviour that are destructive and exploitative. God sees all this, and he takes note. He is a God of justice. But the complementary biblical truth is that the sin that takes fuller expression in these people has darkened all of our hearts and leaves all of us on an essentially equal footing when it comes to seeking God’s acceptance. And the only pathway is humble repentance and faith, and this is of course only possible because of the gracious and merciful death of Christ on our behalf, which opens the way for our free reconciliation with God.
So I think the way this passage will continue to challenge and speak to me is to draw my attention to those times when I might look down on others, when I might catch myself considering others ‘less worthy’ than myself of God’s acceptance and welcome. And in those moments to recognise that I myself need to repent and remember the only real basis of my acceptance with God, and to look again at these people through the eyes of the compassionate father, the concerned shepherd, and the desperate old woman - those who rejoice at finding what was lost.

Dinner Parties with Jesus - Some reflections on Luke 14

I’ve never been one for new year’s resolutions, but this new year coincides with another process of setting new resolutions (personal application of principles from the vine project). And one of my more ambitious thoughts was that I should write a short reflection at the beginning of each week on the sermon from Sunday, whether or not I was the preacher. I’ve never had a blog or done any regular writing other than sermons or assignments, so I’m not going to be naive about the chances of doing this 52 times in 2018… but I may as well at least try!
So, first Sunday of the year was Luke 14, and I was preaching. The passage largely revolved around a dinner party at a  high ranking religious leader's house (a 'prominent Pharisee’), where Jesus challenges the attitudes and social practices of his host and guests regarding hospitality, social status and ambition. As I read back over the sermon this morning, it was this paragraph, summarising the meaning of Jesus’ parable about the wealthy host, that stood out to me:
The main character of Jesus’ story started out as someone his fellow dinner guests could all relate to, but has ended up reacting and behaving in a way they would find completely alien – totally out of step with their values, attitudes and patterns of behaviour. And the point is that Jesus is challenging them to undergo a similar transformation. He’s trying to help them understand that those who embrace God’s good news and belong to his Kingdom are those who actually repent of sinful, self-seeking practices, even if they are considered normal and acceptable by the surrounding culture. They are those who deliberately pull back from exploiting people and social events for their own benefit, and instead seek to bless others regardless of material or social reward for themselves. They are people who act with uncalculating generosity.
The challenge for those who wish to follow Christ faithfully in every generation is to discern those social practices and norms that are actually sinful and exploitative, and yet have somehow been accepted as normal and ‘fine’ by the majority here and now. Although of course it’s not just ‘discerning them’, it is repenting of them - no longer engaging in such practices ourselves, even if it leaves us feeling out of place and disadvantaged in ‘getting on with life’.
The form that Jesus suggests this should take for his original audience is inviting 'the poor, the lame, and the blind’ to their banquets, rather than their social equals or relatives. There are a number of important differences between our situation and that of Jesus’ first audience that mean the application to us will not necessarily be inviting ‘the poor and lame’ to our ‘banquets'. As I emphasised in the sermon, the key idea is not beginning with an attitude of “What can I get out of this?”, but rather “How can I bless others?" when it comes to our relationships, expressions of hospitality and really all of the social interactions and opportunities we are faced with in life. I really do think one of the simple and straightforward applications for us is to invite 'all sorts’ of people into our homes and to our meals, rather than always focusing on those we enjoy spending time with.
But it would surely be missing the pointy end of Jesus’…point, if we didn’t wrestle with what it looked like for us to bless the poor, the disadvantaged and the marginalised in our community. I find this hard. My experience of Chatswood is mostly being surrounded by people who earn and spend a lot of money on themselves. And my only real experience of the poor and disadvantaged is a few individuals and couples who’ve come to the church office asking for money. I’m quite certain (due to the repeat visits and stories) that these particular people are not telling me the truth and that simply giving them money is not wise or even really blessing them. My concerns always seem to be validated by the fact that whenever I go with them to buy something like food or a train ticket (I never want to just give cash), there are always lots of reasons along the way why it would be much better to just give them money. I think one of the problems for many of us in this part of the world is that our normal day/week essentially just puts us in contact with relatively wealthy people, and the only poor and disadvantaged that we encounter are those who seek us out in a targeted way, asking for money. People we suspect are not going to be ultimately helped by receiving more cash handouts. And yet I know there are many struggling, even in this part of the world; they’re just not knocking on my door asking for money. And I know there are many people, perhaps you!, who somehow manage to get on with family and work life amidst all this wealth, busyness and materialism, and still proactively engage with those in real need and bless them relationally and economically. There are churches who seem to do a better job of cultivating this and facilitating it. Of course, there are some concrete ways that we have personally sought to be proactive in blessing those in need, largely through overseas child sponsorship or disaster relief, but in a way it just reinforces the issue - those we are helping and being generous to are totally cut off and separate from our context and community. It’s carried out via an organisation, and we have money Direct Debited, just like our gas bill. In terms of personally engaging with those in real need, it’s just so easy to go another week without really considering the issue... but that doesn’t strike me as an excuse Jesus would smile and nod at.
So… I’m nearing the end of my word and time limit for this reflection, having only really identified some sad problems in my own ‘routine of life’ (and presumably one or two of you reading this might identify to some extent!), but not offering much in the way of ‘helpful tips’ for applying Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14. Maybe you can help me?? Love to hear your thoughts...

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