Are we our biggest critic? For many of us, we get annoyed with ourselves for getting things wrong. We may often say to ourselves, “why did I do that?” Or even, “how could I be so stupid?” But is this the way that God looks at us? In the Bible reading this week, we have the account of Jesus’ baptism where a voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son, with Him I am well pleased.” What is interesting is that, in Mark’s Gospel, we have the words “with YOU I am well pleased.” It is not unreasonable to think that God is well pleased with us. After all, he created us and, elsewhere in the Bible we read, He sings over us. We are adopted into his family. We are his children. He has promised us eternity with Him. Perhaps it is time to re-orientate our thinking. Perhaps we should not be too hard on ourselves but rather bask in His love. This love was demonstrated by the cross.
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.