Friday, 20 December 2013

Sermon December 15, 2013 Advent 3

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

John poses this question for his disciples to ask Jesus.  Now this may strike you as a bit strange.  John seemed to have no question that Jesus was the Messiah when he baptised him in the Jordan River.  He even states that Jesus should be the one who baptises John.  Immediately after Jesus comes up out of the waters of the Jordan we have what should have been proof positive that Jesus is the Messiah.  The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove and there is a voice from heaven saying “This is my Son the Beloved” with whom I am well pleased. What more proof could John require?  But now he seems to be having doubts.  

Well we have to consider the circumstances.  Here John is in prison.  He probably realizes that he is not going to survive the current situation.  He will lose his head over a pretty woman literally.  He will end up being beheaded at the demand of Salome – the step daughter of King Herod.  He is having doubts about whether the long foretold Messiah is actually Jesus. 
He is probably wondering if the kingdom is actually going to come while he is still in this world or has he placed his hope and dreams on the wrong person.  After all there were many false Messiahs around in that time.  They were doing miraculous deeds just as Jesus had done.  It is really not surprizing that he might have had some doubts and wanted assurances.

That is what Jesus gives him.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Jesus tells him that he can discern who Jesus is from the results of his acts.  By his fruits we shall know him.  In effect, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  

John is posing for us the question we need to consider at any time but perhaps even more so at this time of the year.   We are in Advent - a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child.  We are preparing again for the birth of God in our lives.  How then do we know in what form God is going to be born in us again?  Jesus tells us that we will know God is working in our lives by what is accomplished.  John knew that there could be signs of miracles and wonders but that wasn’t necessarily proof. 
There were many miracle workers in those days who proclaimed that they were the Messiah.    One we know about from the book of Acts is Simon the magician. 
Now a certain man named Simon had previously practised magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’ 11And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic.
The question that we have is how do we determine the true work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in the church and in the world?  There certainly are miracles and wonder galore today.  When I was younger the TV evangelists were popular.  Do any of you remember Katherine Kuhlman?  She was probably the first TV faith healer of note.  There were many faith healers before them.  There has been a long line of them since Katherine – people like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.   We have amazing events which are pictured on You Tube and other places on the internet.  Can we simply look at results?  People seem to be healed at one of these mass events and later it has been shown that it is simply the power of suggestion by the faith healer.  Do we look at the number of people attending a church to determine if they are truly doing the work of the Holy Spirit?  If it is simple numbers of bums in the pews that count – everyone in this Diocese should attend North Park Church in London or a similar church.  

If we look at our own lives, how do we know that we are living as God intends us and doing what God intends us to do?   We are faced with a mindboggling number of choices in our lives.  How do we know what is right for us and if the choices are the right ones?   I believe that we need to exercise one of gifts that God gives to us - one of the gifts that is often neglected these days.  We need to use our gift of discernment.  The early church knew the need for discernment.  They were living in times that were to a surprizing extent similar to ours.  They knew that many miraculous things which occurred in the world were not the result of the Holy Spirit.  The question for them was how to tell the work of the Holy Spirit from things that were not of God.  That is the question that we need to consider today in this season of Advent.  

I am currently reading a book by Morton Kelsey appropriately titled Discernment.  He notes that the New Testament tells us that discernment is “the ability to tell the difference between gifts that come from the Spirit and those which do not.”  In the book he gives us helpful guidelines in discerning whether things are of the Holy Spirit of not.  

He lists some things to consider if a charismatic leader has gifts that are from the Holy Spirit.
1.   Does he or she use the gifts for personal prestige?
2.   Is the gift used in a way that hurts others
3.   Does person uses deceit or fraud to enhance the gift
4.   Encouraging spiritual experience for the experience itself rather than because it leads to a deeper Christian life
5.   Using the gifts to put yourself in a superior position and lord it over others

The book of Acts reports how Simon misused his gifts by trying to bribe Peter and John:
Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19saying, ‘Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’
True discernment is not easy.  The Anglican Church is struggling to discern where the Holy Spirit is moving in the church today.  We face many challenges and questions in our Diocese about how we should be church and what that should look like.  Right here at St. Anne’s we have one example of discernment.  There was discernment by our leaders that there was a renewed call to be church in this place.  It will require continued discernment on the part of all of you here - not just your ordained and lay leaders - to discern how you all are called to be the church.  Each of you have gifts and it is my hope that each of you will work to discern how God is calling you to be part of this community – this part of the Body of Christ.  May God continue to bless you this Advent and in the coming year.  Amen. 

Friday, 6 December 2013

Reading the Bible 36 Genesis 42: 26-36 – A Father’s Love

The brothers have returned from Egypt with the food they sought.  However, Joseph has held Simeon in Egypt as surety for the brothers return with Benjamin.  Here we have the question of fatherly love.  What will Jacob do when faced with the possibility of losing the one remaining son of his true love Rachel and the supposed certainty of never seeing another son – the second born of the unloved Leah?  There is no question in Jacob’s mind.  He vows that Benjamin will never go to Egypt for if he lost Benjamin it would “bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol”; he would die from sorrow.

As a subplot to this inquiry into fatherly love, we have the declaration by Ruben that if he allows Benjamin to return with them and Benjamin does not come back, Jacob may kill Ruben’s two sons.  This amazing declaration by Ruben seems an incredible disregard for his own progeny and his own future as his sons were indeed his future in that time.  Perhaps he hoped that if the worst happens Jacob would never carry out the sentence and kill his own grandchildren.  However, it does illustrate the question about where a father’s loyalty and love resides.  Ruben held his duty to his father and to his brother Simeon ahead of the lives of his own sons.  Jacob certainly held his love for Benjamin above the life of his son Simeon.

This leaves us with the question about how we love our children.  Can it be equal?  We say of course it has to be.  However, some children are easier to love than others.  Modern parenting says that we should treat all our children equally but most, if not every parent of more than one child, knows that this is often not possible.  Some children, as with people in general are easier than others to like and love.  As children we have probably agreed at some point with the eternal cry of Tommy Smothers, ‘mom always liked you best’.   We believe that God loves all His children equally but secretly we hope that He likes/loves us more than the difficult neighbour we have trouble liking much less loving.  That is the challenge of both being a parent and a Christian – to do what seems at times to be impossible – to love one another and ourselves as Jesus loves us.  We are told that with God all things are possible but thank God we can be forgiven our shortcomings and our sins. 

Monday, 25 November 2013

Reading the Bible 35 Genesis 42: 1-25 – The Intricacies of Forgiveness

The events that had been foretold in Joseph’s dreams of stars and moons and sheaves of wheat are now coming to fruition.  The prophecy is not yet complete as only his ten brothers are there to bow down to him.  This fulfills the prophecy of the first dream in which the wheat sheaves of his brothers bow to his.  However, the dream of the sun and moon and eleven stars bow down to him remains to be fulfilled.

In reading this account I wonder if Joseph might not have shown compassion to his brothers and immediately revealed himself to them.  After all their actions in selling him into slavery lead to his ultimate triumph that was foretold in the dreams.  He might have realized that their actions were part of God’s plan for not only Joseph but all of his chosen people.  However, we can hardly blame him for wanting some payback and make his brothers suffer for their evil deeds.  But were his actions just the acting out of his natural desire for revenge or did he have a greater purpose in his actions?

First, Joseph must have known the distress his action in demanding Benjamin be brought to Egypt would have caused his father.  So why did he take this action?  I believe that his actions were necessary for there to be true reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers and his father.  If Joseph had immediately identified himself and welcomed them with open arms there would have always been a barrier between the brother and him and perhaps the brothers and their father.  They would have always wondered if Joseph had truly forgiven them and human nature being what it is they might eventually have secretly or not so secretly resented his good fortune in Egypt just as they had resented the dreams that foretold these events.  

True forgiveness and reconciliation for even minor offenses much less major injury done to a person’s body and spirit is a process which cannot be taken lightly or avoided.  It is very easy to say that you forgive someone – even if you believe it in your head but to find forgiveness for others and for yourself in your heart does not come easily.  It is not a questions of just saying I forgive which can come early in the process for the sake of wanting to move on.  However, the resentment can and does remain on a deeper level and can come bubbling to the surface when we least expect it.  If we are truly to forgive it requires a conversion of the heart which comes from God and not from our will.  Through the grace of God true forgiveness is possible.  Thanks be to God.

Reading the Bible 34 Genesis 41: 37-57 – The Stuff of Dreams

And it came to pass (as will be said later in this same book) that Joseph’s interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dreams were realized.  The seven years of plenty were followed by the seven years of famine.  The Pharaoh’s discernment that Joseph was the one to lead the country through this time of trial was confirmed.   All seemed to be well – at least in Egypt.  However, there are two points which are almost throw away lines at the end of the chapter that should not be overlooked.  

First we are told that Joseph sold to the Egyptians the wheat that had been stored up in the good years.  Apparently there was no free lunch in Egypt in those days.  The wheat that had I’m sure been taken by the Pharaoh was not given back to the people.  They had to buy it back from their ruler through the auspices of Joseph.  There does not seem to be any question that this is just how things were.  It is not a case of the welfare state.  Joseph, the man who had been looked on with favour because of the gifts that God had given him was quite willing to participate in this act of government control which could be interpreted as being ordained by God.  I’m not sure how this would be viewed by those Christians – usually of the fundamentalist bent al la the Tea Party – who call for less government and fewer taxes.  Would they hold that this was necessary for God’s plan to be fulfilled for the Israelites – God chosen people - at least until the United States was established?  Therefore this inconvenient biblical passage can be overlooked.  Of course I am using historical relativism to judge the situation and of course we have to see that God truth is not the same for all people in all times.  God’s truth is being revealed in new ways in an ongoing revelation.  

The second point is that famine was severe throughout the world. Here we have a chicken and egg situation.  God foretold the coming famine through dreams sent to the Pharaoh.  He also gave Joseph the gift of the interpretation of that message.  Was the famine part of God’s plan?  Was it necessary for God to send a famine on the world to enable His plan for Joseph and the Israelites to unfold?  Or did God just use his omniscience to use the events that were destines to happen?  Was the suffering that was inevitable with a world-wide famine necessary for God to fulfil His intention?  It is easy to read into events our understanding of God’s will when they fit our understanding of how God works in the world and how people who we believe deserve God’s punishment receive it with natural events – AIDS as punishment for Gays comes to mind and even the reaction by some to the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina as punishment for the wickedness of that sinful city a la Sodom and Gomorrah.  It is very easy for people of all stripes to relish when bad things happen to those who we consider bad people.  It is always dangerous to believe that God is on our side and should meet out punishment to those we believe deserve it.  We don’t like to leave punishment in the hands of God as God says elsewhere.