On Sunday, I was privileged to be able to worship at a baptismal service where a large number of new Christians confidently articulated their faith and made their baptismal vows. One of these vows was a commitment to fight the devil. In this first Sunday of Lent we have the amazing story of how Jesus did precisely this whilst in the wilderness for 40 days. It is the most sacred of stories because it could only have been told by Jesus to his disciples who subsequently wrote it down. The wilderness was between the inhabited plateau of Judea and the Dead Sea. It was an area of over 500 square miles of barren land which was like a heat furnace during the day. The ground was not dust or sand but rather bits of limestone, shaped like loaves. Hence the devil says to Jesus, why don’t you turn these stones into bread? These are the shapes that Jesus would have seen all around him as he walked along and, in his acute hunger, his brain would have dreamed of them as being loaves of bread. The temptation for the church is to bribe people into faith by offering Christianity as a vehicle to material possessions. Christianity makes you richer, but not in material possessions. Humanity can never find fulness in material things. In this season of Lent, we give up physical pleasures to remind ourselves of this fact. Just like those new Christians who made their baptismal vows, following Jesus is fundamentally a spiritual transformation because “man does not live by bread alone.”
STEVE’S DISCIPLESHIP BLOG
How clearly do we see God’s plans? In the New Testament reading this week, the Apostle Paul uses the idea of a veil to illustrate the problems we may face in this regard. Paul suggests that his legalistic compatriots were reading the scriptures with a veil covering them. As a result, they could not see clearly what God was saying to them with regard to their salvation through Jesus Christ. What about us? Perhaps we read the Bible only to confirm our existing views rather than to be challenged by new ideas. Perhaps we only use the Bible to find what we want to find and not what is actually there. We may delight in reading about the mercy of God but ignore his call to holiness in our lives. If we persist in only reading parts of the Bible that we enjoy and are familiar with, then we run the real risk of not clearly seeing God. Like Paul’s contemporaries, we may be blind to the true meaning of salvation through Jesus Christ.
How Biblical is our prayer life? I remember attending a prayer conference run by a Christian church in the Middle East. The presenter asked how many of us pray for people other than ourselves. All of us put up our hands and then he said, you must exclude all family and friends because that, in effect, is also a prayer about you! Many hands came down at that point. The presenter went on, how many of you pray for your enemies, those who have injured you? This was a good question because only a very few hands remained up at this point. In the Bible passage this week, we come across the words of Jesus: “Pray for those who hurt you.” This is a challenge, but it is the beating heart of the Gospel, “You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate”, Jesus goes on to say. What is the rationale? We have been forgiven and blessed so that we, in turn, must forgive and bless others. Prayer and forgiveness remain two of the greatest weapons in the church’s armoury because nothing can defeat them. This is the mark of the Christian: doing good to those who hate you, praying for the happiness of those who curse you and praying for those who hurt you. That is a Biblical prayer life. Let’s practise it this week.
The Bible reading this week is the account in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus’ sermon on the plain which strongly corresponds to Jesus’ sermon on the mount – Matthew chapters 5 to 7. Of course, there are slight differences, but the message is the same: “Happy are you poor, because yours is the kingdom of God. Happy are you who are hungry now because you will be filled.” For me, these are some of the most remarkable words in the whole of the Bible if not in the whole of literature. The lessons for philosophy and political economy encapsulated in these words are breath-taking. Up to this point in history and, indeed, beyond it, there is no teaching like this – anywhere. Every worldly value says that it is good to strive after money, wealth, physical sustenance and social acceptance. Jesus turns this all on its head and points to something far greater. Jesus says, in effect, if you devote yourselves to every worldly value you will get them. But that is all you will get. If you forgo all these things for the sake of the Gospel you will endure hunger, poverty and hardship but your eternal reward will surpass any short-term discomfort. You will have lost the world but gained eternity. Once again “Happy are you poor (as a result of your sacrifice for the Gospel) because yours is the kingdom of God”. Amen.
The Bible reading this week is the account of the miraculous catch of fish as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. There are many lessons from this passage ranging from how a fisherman had the humility to listen to a carpenter telling him how to fish, all the way to a glimpse of Jesus’ authority over the whole created order. However, the lesson that sticks out for me is the words in the Bible that the disciples were ‘astonished’ at what Jesus did. I fear that in our churches today we have lost that sense of astonishment, amazement and wonder at what Jesus did, and what authority he commanded. We have heard the Bible stories so many times that we are almost immune to their message. What Jesus did was, indeed, amazing! We expect too little from God and when God makes things happen we are surprised, not overwhelmed. This was not the case for Peter. When he realises that he doubted the power of Jesus he was intensely remorseful. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” How we need to re-capture the amazement of the first disciples; and when our faith falters about God’s greatness, how we need to repent. If the church in the ‘West’ is to grow again, we have to find a way to re-discover our amazement at the power of God and deeply repent if we ever doubt it.
Why was Jesus so rejected in his hometown of Nazareth? One reason is that he preached a Gospel which included the Gentiles. The Jews were so sure that they were God’s people that they utterly despised all others. Many genuinely believed that God had only created Gentiles to be fuel for the fires of hell. In the Bible reading this week, Jesus points out that no prophet is accepted in his own hometown and then he draws the link with the Jews not accepting God. He points out that God therefore had blessings for the Gentiles as well. This incensed the Jewish people. Indeed, in Jesus’ day there were many divisions between Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles and even Jews in Jerusalem and Jews in Nazareth. Before we judge their behaviour, we need to reflect that we too have many divisions: young; old; north; south; remain; leave and others as well. In proclaiming that the downtrodden will be freed from their oppressors, Jesus is preaching about the need for unity. Diversity is good but dis-unity is not. Disunity can tear nations apart. God’s love spans all people and our love for others should do the same.
Following the preaching of John the Baptist which is a call to repent, Jesus begins his ministry with the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has appointed me to preach Good News to the poor.” The Bible passage this week is Luke 4 verses 14 to 30, which is well-worth reading. The scene is the synagogue in Nazareth, his boyhood home. No doubt there were aspects of synagogue worship with which Jesus disagreed but, nonetheless, he always went. When Jesus said these words, the Jewish listeners felt aggrieved in two ways. First, Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah himself and secondly, and more importantly, he was proclaiming God’s blessings on the Gentiles and not the Jews. Yet I think there is more. All of us, Jew and Gentile are captives. We are captive to our weaknesses and temptations which bind and torment us. We are blind to truth through our ignorance and arrogance. Finally, we are downtrodden by broken and corrupt economic, political and social structures working across the world. Yes, John the Baptist is right: we need to repent but after God’s mercy comes God’s grace. In Christ we are set free, we are released from all forms of bondage and torment; we can see the beautiful truth and we are no longer downtrodden economically or socially for the Lord’s favour has indeed come.
The Bible reading for this week is the account of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana in Galilee. Like all of John’s Gospel this story contains layers of meaning. On the surface we come across Jesus as a man who was both keen to enable people to enjoy themselves, and also to do what his mother asked, so that she, and everyone else, would not be let down. However, there are also deeper meanings contained in this passage. John, writing almost 70 years after the event, probably as an eye-witness, was able to reflect on its spiritual significance. Notice there were six stone water-pots. To the Jew, seven was the perfect number and six represented imperfection and incompleteness. It was Jesus who took this imperfection and through grace transformed it into perfection – wine for the body, heart and soul. But there is more! Have you ever thought of the amount of wine Jesus created? Six stone water-pots each containing up to thirty gallons; this represents a total of 180 gallons of wine. No wedding feast is ever going to need that much wine. What Jesus brings is an abundance of grace more than we can ever need. Yes, this passage shows the importance of family, of home and of a young couple from humble circumstances but it also shows more. This passage shows us a God who makes things perfect and complete with a glorious super-abundance of provision and grace.
Do we speak the truth when there are great dangers involved? Th Bible reading this week is the account of the arrest of John the Baptist for criticising the marriage of Herod Antipas to Herodias, his brother’s wife. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great. Herod the Great had many wives and many children (some of whom he ordered to be killed!). The royal dynasty was therefore large and highly inter-related. Not only was Herodias, Herod Antipas’s sister in law, but she was also his niece. The whole set-up was abhorrent to the Jews. Nonetheless, to speak out against a tyrant like Herod Antipas was almost certain to risk imprisonment, or worse. Yet John the Baptist spoke out against Herod Antipas, and he was imprisoned for it and ultimately beheaded. Do we speak the truth when dangers are involved? Throughout history many brave men and women have been punished, exiled or even killed for speaking the truth. Jesus, Himself, was crucified for it. Yet the reality is that you cannot banish, kill or crucify the truth. Plato once said that the wise man would always choose to suffer wrong than to do wrong. What about us? Would we rather be remembered as someone like John the Baptist, or someone like Herod Antipas?
The Bible passage assigned to this week is the story of the visit of the Magi to the new-born baby, as recorded in Matthew chapter 2. What is the main point of this story? Is it about a star? Astronomers have thought deeply about what the ‘star’ might have been. We know that Halley’s comet appeared in 12-11 BC or, it could have been some kind of supernova. More likely is the fact that the planets Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction with each other in 7BC. However, perhaps none of this is the main point of Matthew re-telling this story. What are the other possibilities? Is it that Jesus, the true King of Israel, is juxtaposed with Herod, the autocratic and cruel king put in place by a pagan empire? Is it that the Magi, who were Gentiles, were the first to respond by giving gifts and realising Jesus’ kingship? The answer is possibly all three but something else as well. Perhaps the greatest purpose of Matthew re-telling this story is to encourage each of us simply to come to Jesus as the real king – no matter what our background, no matter where we have come from. To come to Jesus, at this time, with the best gifts we can possibly bring.