Category Archives: Sermons

A Sermon on Sunday – James 1

Introduction                              

After the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami David Bentley Hart wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal asking, “Where was God in the Tsunami?” He received numerous responses ranging from atheists asserting that the tsunami proves that there actually is no God at all, to gratitude from others who appreciated his perspective, to severe criticism from many who argued that, on account of God’s all-encompassing providence, we must insist and conclude that God sent the tsunami for his own ultimate though hidden purposes. There is a brand of theology that sees God as “all-controlling” for his own good purposes. Everything that happens can ultimately be traced back to “God’s good plan.” How can we possibly trust a god like that?

 

James knew about the trials and troubles that can come storming into life. He knew the pain and heartache of unjust criticism, of grinding poverty, of oppressive governments and social systems. Yet in spite of it, James absolutely insists on the utter, unchanging, uncompromising goodness of God. In the first chapter of his letter he has two texts which declare his utter conviction that God is a good and generous God.

Who Was James & Why Was He Writing?

James 1:1       
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

Although we cannot be certain, it is often thought that the author of this epistle was James, the brother of Jesus. Imagine being the brother of Jesus!

James did not always believe in Jesus. The gospels say explicitly that Jesus’ family did not believe in him, and that they thought he was nuts (John 7:5; Mark 3:21).Yet here he is calling himself a servant (= slave) of Jesus—whom he calls Lord, and writing a letter in his name. What happened? The resurrection: “then he appeared to James” (1 Corinthians 15:7). James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, gained a reputation as a holy man and became known as James-the-Just, and eventually, in about 62AD, was martyred.

James is writing to “the twelve tribes of the Dispersion.” This enigmatic address indicates that James was writing for a Jewish audience amongst those who had been “scattered” or dispersed among the gentiles. We get some clues concerning his audience from accounts in Acts which tell of the Jerusalem church being dispersed as a result of persecution that arose around Stephen’s martyrdom (ch. 7; 8:1; 11:19). Was James writing to Christian refugees driven out of their homes and city, jobs, families and livelihoods? Accepted by neither gentiles nor by other Jews, these displaced Christians faced grave difficulties, and James writes to encourage and strengthen their faith.

Chapter One: An Overview

After his one line greeting James gets right down to business. Verses 1-8 deal with the trials that come crowding into our lives, trials sent not from God, but simply the circumstances of life, or even spiritual opposition. It is possible that James is thinking especially of economic trials because of the amount of attention he gives to this matter, not least in vv. 9-11.

But trials arising on the outside are not the only difficulty Christians face: temptations also arise from within. In both cases it is our faith that is being tried; these tests come not to build our faith but to destroy it—trials by discouraging us and tempting us to give up, temptations by luring us away from God, causing our faith to shrivel. Pressure from without and pressure from trouble within—we are in a right state, aren’t we! But whether from without or from within, James’s admonition is the same: stand fast! Persevere!

James finishes the chapter with further admonitions about the true nature of the new life Christians have entered into: an active life of compassion and holiness, doers of the word and doers of the work.

There is much we can speak about in this chapter—weeks of sermons! But today I want to focus especially on what James says in this chapter about God—the good and generous God.

God, the Single-Minded Giver

Right in the middle of James’s discussion of the trials we face he suggests that we ask God for wisdom—so that we might know how to conduct ourselves in the trial, perhaps even, how we might be delivered from it.

James 1:5       
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

One of the most important things we could pray for in the midst of a trial is wisdom—that spiritual/practical understanding of God’s will and purpose as it applies to everyday life. Notice that James does not say we ought to pray for deliverance from the trial, but for wisdom so that we might know how we are to conduct ourselves in the midst of the trial. It is spiritual because it comes from God and is directed towards the fulfilment of God’s purposes. But it is also practical because God’s purposes are realised in daily existence and daily life. The command to ask is present: we should continually ask God for this!

But note what James says about God in this passage:

 

1. God is the giving God – this is the kind of God that God is. God so loved the world that he gave…

2. God gives generously – the Greek word here (haplōs) is unusual but insightful: it does mean generously, but it means more than that: it means to be wholehearted, or single-minded: God is single-minded in his giving. That is, God is wholeheartedly and single-mindedly generous.

 3. God gives to all – his generosity is universal, limitless, and without restriction

James thus gives us grounds for great confidence in our prayer—as long as we ask in faith! How can we be double-minded when God is single-minded in his generous giving!

The Always-and-Only Good God

James’s second passage comes in his discussion of temptations we face. In verse thirteen James insists that

James 1:13, 16-17   
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. … Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters: Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Once more James insists on the utter goodness of God: to the very depths of his being and unto all eternity; in all his works; in his deepest purposes, intentions, will and motivations, God is good. God is goodness itself; he is transcendentally good, and there is in God nothing but goodness. God is unchangingly, single-mindedly, wholeheartedly and generously good!

How might we respond to this? By standing fast in trials and temptations, persevering and enduring. By trusting God, hoping in God, believing in God, rejoicing in God, drawing near to God, waiting on God, and loving God. 

 

Reading Karl Barth: The “Bremen” Sermon

According to Hughes Oliphant Old, Karl Barth’s “Bremen” sermon was “one of the outstanding sermons of the twentieth century” (The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 6, The Modern Age 1789-1989, 776, cited in Johanson, The Word in the World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, 25).

This sermon, from November 1934, was given when Barth was forty-eight years of age, and shortly before his expulsion from Germany by the National Socialists. The Nazis had seized control of the German nation, were interfering in the life of the church, and seeking to gain a totalitarian control over all the affairs of the nation. Although Hitler and the Nazis are never mentioned directly—Barth does not allow them to intrude into the sermon—they are in the background especially as the “Jesus of our pious imagination.” The sermon is clearly addressed to the congregation living “in these days and times” of great temptation and struggle, urging them to courageous obedience to the lordship of Jesus.

The sermon begins without fanfare, introduction, comment about context, etc.:

Jesus made his disciples—which means, Jesus compelled his disciples—to get into the boat and go before him to the other side.” He made them, he compelled them to go their own way without him, while he was somewhere else. They probably didn’t understand what he wanted of them. It probably wasn’t what they wanted. But that was of no consequence for them: they allowed what they were told to be right for them and they did it; they obeyed. And this already tells us something decisive about ourselves, who are Jesus’ disciples, his church. This tells us that the church of Jesus Christ is the place where there is a bond which regulates human activity, a bond which cannot be debated over, which we have not chosen for ourselves, and from which we cannot release ourselves, but on the other hand a bond in which we also have the security and consolation which enable us to go on our own way as we should. Disciples of Jesus are people who are answerable to Jesus, and precisely for that reason answerable to no one else, people who are entirely bound, and precisely for that reason and in that bond, free people (Johanson, 46).

And so the sermon proceeds as a line-by-line exposition of the biblical text from Matthew 14. The text itself is front and centre, rather than various points abstracted from the text. Yet the exposition is not “historical” but applied as though the text speaks directly as “our story.” Barth provides a theological and ecclesial interpretation of the text. Thus the solitary Jesus of the story indicates that he “alone” is unique and sovereign; there can be no other sovereignty in competition with him. All other supposed sovereigns are “ghosts,”—fakes, yet still capable of being a destructive power in the world. There is no prize for guessing what Barth is saying here!

In Barth’s hands, Peter is the Confessing Church, boldly stepping out in obedience to Jesus, but fearful and faltering—and also helped! Is Peter’s request to walk on the water the result of pride (Calvin) or serious faith? Barth refuses to commit himself to an answer here, but says:

What is required—what Jesus Christ continually requires—are rocks like this who are certainly not perfectly untainted people, who are perhaps seriously objectionable in many ways and will have much to answer for, but are nevertheless ready to do something quite specific, to render obedience to a specific word by undertaking a specific service. In the church of Jesus Christ there is not only waiting, there must also be those individuals who are continually hastening, watching, rising where they are called to, with all the perils that entails. The church could not do without them, and the church cannot do without them today either. And now in this hour, the text puts this question to each and every one of us: And you, are you not also called to obey in a specific way? To be sure, we must examine ourselves to see whether we are ready to obey the orders of Jesus Christ, or whether the appeal we are now hearing might not come from some chimera within our hearts. But equally, let us examine ourselves to see whether it is not the result of our cowardice and unbelief if we not assume this specific task, this specific act of obedience to which we are summoned! (55)

It is hard to imagine a more forthright summons to the church assailed by Hitler’s regime, yet this is precisely how Barth is applying the biblical text. Just as Peter by his action was distinguished from the other disciples,

There is distinction like this in the church; people who are distinguished by what is demanded of them, distinguished by the dangers to which they expose themselves, but also distinguished by the help that comes their way. And distinction like this, a specific event like this, has always been the mystery of the great periods of the Christian church. Is it the case that distinction like this is to be granted to us too in these days and years, to us, to our evangelical church, in that from the midst of everything that bears the name of church, a crowd has dared to step out in obedience and become the confessing church? (56)

Barth finds in Peter’s example “the history of every great event in the church” (58). Peter has heard the word of Jesus but looks also at the storm, the wind, and the waves. Now it is no longer a matter simply of Jesus and his word, but of the storm, “of practical and strategic matters, of oneself and one’s desires and crises” (56). But even Peter’s little faith did not forfeit the faithfulness of God toward him. In the dark years that followed this sermon there is no doubt that many in this congregation would have been seriously confronted with the force of this dilemma: will I respond to the sole lordship of Jesus Christ—at great personal cost, or will I falter and look away, trying both to obey Jesus’ command to rise and walk, and to stay in the safety of the boat.

How, though, can we be sure that we are hearing his voice, his command, his encouragement—“is it him, or is it the illusion of our hearts?” (56). Discernment in the time of decision is often unclear and even fraught. But we must risk obedience and act. We do wait; we must hasten! And Christ is with us. How may we distinguish the command of Christ from the deceitful or frightened desire of our own hearts?

And if you say to me, “Indeed, but isn’t there always still room for error; couldn’t the voice of our own hearts always try to pass itself off as the voice of Jesus Christ?” then my reply is, “We may and must continually seek the word, the conclusive word of Jesus Christ himself, in the word to which the prophets and apostles are witnesses, the word of those who for every age have born testimony to him, to his revelation, to his work, to the love of God which has appeared in him.” And whoever hears this testimony to him knows that he himself is there, that the light is there, the truth is there, the victory is there; not a human victory but God’s victory in his church, even in such times of tribulation and division as we are now living through. We can be sure that the victory is always on the side of the Holy Scripture, and so it is today (53).

Reading Karl Barth: The “Titanic” Sermon

This sermon was delivered by Barth on April 21, 1912 to his congregation in Safenwil where he had been pastor for just over a year. The First World War was still two years away and Europe had not yet lost its modern sense of triumphal optimism. The newly minted pastor was just twenty-five years of age when he delivered this sermon.

In this sermon we see Barth the young liberal pastor at work. His text is not Scripture but a world event. Although he does use a biblical text at the head of his sermon, he does not exposit the text or discuss its meaning. Rather he uses it for an idea that he then applies to the subject matter at hand. For this Barth, God speaks to and addresses us through these events, though we must make the meaning from them.

For I believe that, just as we may not approach events such as this one out of curiosity and a thirst for sensation, nor may we disregard them in silence and indifference, however much daily newspaper reports might cause us to do so. Rather, they should speak to us. For through them God addresses us with a power and urgency that we only rarely perceive: concerning the greatness and nothingness of human beings who are so like God, and yet so unlike him, concerning the wrath and mercy of the eternal God, who reigns in and over our destinies, sometimes close at hand and tangibly, but sometimes infinitely far away and mysteriously. God speaks in this way even through a tragedy like the one which has shocked the entire civilised world this week, and we cannot fail to hear, nor may we (cited in Johanson (ed.), The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, 31-32).

Barth assumes that we can read the will and purpose of God in and through the events of the world. The “divine spirit in humanity” is equated with human progress, creativity and inventiveness. God wills this progress, this mastery over nature (36).

We see also the young socialist pastor at work:

Yesterday in the “Freier Aargauer” newspaper the sinking of the Titanic was referred to as a crime of capitalism. After everything that I have now read about it I can only agree. Indeed, this catastrophe is a crude but all-the-more clear example to us of the essential characteristics and effects of capitalism, which consists in a few individuals competing with each other at the expense of everyone else in a mad and foolish race for profits (40).

Barth even notes that the president of the shipping company “is among those who have been rescued—unfortunately, we are almost tempted to say” (40)! The system of capitalism is the real cause of the disaster, the competitive practice based on self-interest at the expense of others. This system must be replaced by a common communal system of labour.

The argument of the sermon develops in three points. First, Barth addresses the hubris of humanity which draws divine judgement from God. Second, he insists that this hubris is grounded in self-interest and leads to destruction. Finally, the way of Christ, or of mercy, is seen in the self-sacrifice of some ordinary sailors that others might live. This spirit must prevail.

So this shipping disaster doesn’t merely point up our helplessness and our faults, our broken arrogance and our secret egoism. Nor does this [mercy] just proclaim to us our transience and its cause. It declares to us with a clarity we rarely experience that God’s purposes are advancing in the world. One senses something of how Christ is becoming an ever greater force in the world, when one reads of those who did not seek to save themselves but did their duty, who ultimately did all they could, not for themselves but for others, who silently and nobly retreated in the face of death to allow those who were weaker than them to continue on the path of life. In view of facts such as these, it takes great unbelief to keep referring to our age as evil and godless (41-42).

As a communicative exercise, it is possible to appreciate Barth’s style and rhetoric. He draws on a contemporary event that has captivated the daily press and is no doubt prominent in the thought and discussion of his parishioners. He describes in some detail the magnificence of the ship with respect to the feat of its engineering and the luxury of its appointments. The reader can sense the energy and pastoral concern with which the sermon might have been delivered.

As a sermon, however, some commentators have given Barth a great Fail. Barth himself lamented, in later life, about this sermon delivered in his “misspent youth.” Why the concern? A number of reasons might be given, but primarily, Barth later came to expect the biblical text to be the master of the sermon, something obviously not the case in this sermon, focussed as it is on a contemporary event. The sermon is more social comment than biblical exposition. More problematic, Barth does not preach Christ at all in this sermon, but uses the name of Christ—only once in the sermon—as a cypher, or as a symbol for an ideal of human and social progress.

Barth’s liberal optimism came crashing down only two years later with the onset of the war which forced a radical re-evaluation of his theology. The anthropological orientation and natural theology will give way to a more thorough-going theocentric orientation and theology of revelation. More significantly, in his search for a new theological starting point, Barth will discover the “new world in the Bible.”

Psalm 20 – A Sermon

This week we celebrate ANZAC day, remembering the Australian servicemen and service-women who have fought and served in other conflicts. Two years ago it was the centenary of the Gallipoli landing, and the year before that, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the decisive victory against a devastating and ruthless enemy. What might have happened if that victory had not occurred? One Australian survivor of D-Day was Bob Cowper from Adelaide. Cowper had been a Mosquito pilot, helping keep the skies clear above the massive landing fleet. “It was the greatest military operation in the world’s history,” he said. “To think that we fought the battle that made the world a safer place was very satisfying” (“Our Australian Witnesses to the D-Day Horror” Weekend Australian, May 31, 2014, 20). Many others, of course, were not so fortunate and the article tells some of the stories of those who did not return from the battle.

In some indefinable way, our soldiers who have gone before us represent us, whether for good or for evil. We remember this representation at ANZAC day. In some very real way, we are tied up with them, all in it together. And it remains a very real question: if they did not do what they did, could we, would we be who we are?

For Israel, too, battles were a fact and necessity of life. Psalm 20 has its genesis in the reality of battles and enemies. This brief psalm is a wonderfully positive benediction which masks, perhaps, the dire circumstances presupposed. An enemy, equipped with chariots and horses—the best military equipment of the day—has drawn near. The king and his soldiers are prepared for battle. Sacrifices have been offered, and now the people add their benediction (vv.1-5). The king responds with assurance in verse 6. Then the people declare their trust in God in vv. 7-8, and conclude with an urgent cry for victory in verse 9.

Reading the Psalm (vv. 1-5)

The Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
The name of the God of Jacob protect you!
May he send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion.
May he remember all your offerings, and regard with favour your burnt sacrifices. Selah
May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfil all your plans.
May we shout for joy over your victory, 
and in the name of our God set up our banners. 
May the Lord fulfil all your petitions.

Eleven times the word You or Your appears in the singular: these first five verses constitute a wonderful benediction of the people toward the king. They are pronouncing a blessing of divine victory upon the king before he goes to battle. And why? Because his victory is their victory; his defeat, theirs. He represents the whole nation and their destiny is intertwined: they are all in this together. Their nine blessings (or is it eleven?) all point to a comprehensive victory against their enemy.

Note these nine blessings, and also see the chiastic pattern formed by them.

1a / 5c … The Lord answer you / fulfil all your petitions
1b / 5ab … The Name of the Lord protect you / The Name of the Lord
2 / 4 … May he send you help and support you / May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfil all your plans
3 … May he remember all your offerings and regard with favour your burnt sacrifices.

The central strophe of the pattern highlights that which is central: that at the heart of this blessing is a recognition of covenant faithfulness toward God represented by a life of worship and devotion. “May he remember all your offerings.”

David comes to the present crisis with a long history of love and devotion to God. What we do day by day in times of peace prepares us for times of war. When our devotional life is a habit we are well served for battle (Williams, Psalms 1-72 Communicator’s Commentary, 160).

What does it mean to be “battle-ready?” Are you dressed for battle in the armour of God? Do you have a history of devotion with God, a history of faith and prayer, worship and love? Worship and warfare seem like the most unlikely companions, but in God’s kingdom, in spiritual warfare, they go together.

The commentators suggest that the verbs in this passage are in an unusual tense they call the prophetic perfect. That is, the words pronounce a blessing which is still in the future, still yet to happen, but so sure and certain, they speak of it as though it is already accomplished. Then in verse 9 they will cry out to God in an explicit prayer for victory, “Save, O Lord! Give victory!” But this does not contradict the faith-filled benediction of these opening verses. Faith works both ways.

Mark 11:22-25                                                         
Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’

In this text Jesus teaches two complementary operations of faith: faith by saying it, and faith by praying it. The first is an exercise of spiritual authority, a faith-filled or prophetic pronouncement. The second is simply a classic form of prayer. Sometimes faith is exercised by an authoritative declaration or command, sometimes by petition to God.

In this psalm the congregation exercise faith in both ways. I wonder how much boldness it would have taken to declare victory in the face of such a fearsome enemy, equipped with horses and chariots? This is all the more so when we remember that Israel’s king was forbidden to multiply horses and chariots (Deut 17:16). But they do declare this blessing and in so doing, look forward to God’s blessing, God’s help and salvation.

Psalm 20:6-9
Now I know that the Lord will help his anointed;
    he will answer him from his holy heaven
    with mighty victories by his right hand.
Some boast in chariots, and some in horses,
    but we will boast in the name of the Lord our God.
They will collapse and fall,
    but we shall rise and stand upright.

Give victory O Lord;
    May the King answer us in the day we call. (NASB)

Note: many versions translate verse 9: “O Lord, save the king!
May he answer us when we call” (see, e.g., ESV; NIV; NRSV)

Verse six is the king’s response to this blessing, his agreement with this blessing. Verses seven and eight return to the corporate voice, affirming their trust in God. Notice, again, the third mention of the Name of the Lord. To boast in the name of the Lord is to make mention of his name, to remember, invoke or proclaim his name.

The Name of the Lord represents his own person and presence, character and authority. To have faith in his name is to recognise our relationship with God—at his initiative—including his claim on us. Jesus authorises us to pray in his name (John 16:23-24). Proverbs 18:10 says that “the name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe.” David went out against Goliath in the name of the Lord (1 Samuel 17:45).

Is it true that God will give us whatever our heart desires, whatever we ask for “in his name”? To ask in his name is to ask in accordance with his person and character. The promise that God would grant David’s heart’s desire was made to someone whose heart was aligned with God’s in sacrifice, devotion and worship. He had a heart after God’s own.

The psalm ends with an explicit petition for victory in verse nine. Notice the interplay between the king and the King: behind the earthly ruler stands the heavenly ruler of Israel. Notice, too, that the day of trouble (v. 1) is the day we call (v. 9).

Many commentators believe this psalm represented a liturgy that was practiced regularly in the temple worship. In this liturgy, the reality of the joint destiny of the people of God was enacted.

Battle Ready

Our situation, of course, is vastly different to that of ancient Israel, and it is not likely that we will face the same kind of battle conditions they did. Nonetheless, the psalm still speaks to the reality of our lives: life is a battle. For some people it is more of a battle than for others. All of us, though, are likely to be drawn into various kinds of battles where our life or our sanity, our work or our witness, our future or our family is threatened by powers and circumstances external to us, perhaps stronger than us. Christian life and ministry is a battle, a never-ending engagement with principalities and powers and rulers of the darkness of this world (Ephesians 6:10-12). Maintaining a faithful marriage or sexual purity may prove a great battle for some. Raising our children, paying our bills, maintaining a gentle spirit in the face of provocation—these and much more can be a great battle. What are you battling? You’ve heard of Howard’s battlers; Christians can be battlers too.  How, then, does this psalm help us become “battle ready”?

  1. This psalm will remind us that we are in a spiritual battle and thus need to grow in our understanding of the various weapons of our warfare (2 Corinthians 10:3-5), the ways of faith and spiritual authority (1 Peter 5:8-9). We should develop our faith in the name of Jesus until it truly becomes for us “a high tower” of safety and refuge in times of trouble.
  2. Worship and warfare belong together. We have already mentioned the necessity and centrality of worship and devotion. If we want the Lord to answer us in the day of trouble, we must call upon his name. It is much easier to do so when we are already on speaking terms, in good relationship.
  3. We are all in this together, and we will stand or fall together. This is especially true of families and of churches. The people depended on the king and the armies; the king and the army depended on the people. We need each other because we are inter-dependent. We need each other’s faithfulness, steadfastness, devotion, faith, prayer and blessing. That this psalm was preserved, that it became part of the temple worship collection suggests that the corporate gathering, prayer and faith of the people was absolutely crucial.
  4. Behind the king is the King. God is with us – “at the heart of Hebrew theology lay the conviction that God was involved in their historical experience” (Craigie, Psalms 1-50 WBC, 188). Jesus is our king, and he has gone into battle on our behalf, and has won the decisive victory. We still face fierce battles, mopping-up battles, but he is with us; and as we go forth in his name, victory is assured – Hallelujah!

A Challenging Day in Church

Zacchaeus Stained GlassGoing to church can be a bit of a challenge, especially for those not used to the practice. The environment is unfamiliar, as are the people, and what goes on. Even those who attend regularly can find it a challenge, for a variety of reasons.

I found it a challenge last week, but in a different kind of way. After a time of congregational worship, three of the younger pastors shared their reflections on what has been the month’s preaching theme: The Table. Each of the pastors anchored their reflections in a story from the gospels. Josh spoke of Jesus and Zacchaeus having a meal together, and of its resulting in Zacchaeus’s repentance (Luke 19). Jess spoke of the rich, young ruler whose “table” was too full for Jesus to have a place, even though he was hungry for eternal life (Luke 18). Andrew referred to Jesus eating at the home of Matthew the tax-collector (Matthew 9) as the on-lookers asked, “Why does Jesus eat with such scum?” (NLT)

The short reflections circled around coming to Jesus, making space for him in our lives, and following him. I was challenged, however, arrested even, by these gospel texts. In the Zacchaeus story Jesus proclaims “Today salvation has come to this house.” What is this salvation of which Jesus speaks? For Zacchaeus, his repentance was a concrete turning from greed to give to the poor. His turning to the poor was, for Jesus, a sign of his turning to God.

So, too, the rich young ruler came to Jesus seeking eternal life. Jesus’ answer: “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” Again, the link between “salvation” and generosity to the poor is evident. Finally, Andrew’s reflection showed Jesus amongst the outcast (though these tax-collectors were not poor in the economic sense), the “sick”, the morally bankrupt, sharing the table, enjoying friendship, joining them and calling them to himself.

So what is “salvation” or “eternal life”? What does it look like? What is the nature of this salvation that Jesus came to bring? It involves more than a simple “sinner’s prayer.”

Much more could and probably needs to said to answer these questions adequately. As is often the case, however, it was not so much what the preachers were saying, but what the Holy Spirit was saying through them as they opened Scripture for the congregation. The Holy Spirit was challenging me. That’s one of the main reasons I still go to church week-after-week: to gather with the people of God in a place where the Word of God is heard and the Spirit of God is active. I don’t think I would still be a Christian without this (sometimes challenging) spiritual practice.

And so I went home challenged.

And also grateful for the ministry of Josh, Jess and Andrew—all Vose students past or present—who serve God by serving his people. As another year at Vose is about to commence, I hope that many more students and graduates will take up the humbling call to serve God in Word and Spirit and congregation—and wherever else the Lord may call.

A Sermon on Sunday

Harmony BCI am preaching again at Harmony Baptist Church today. Last week my message from Psalm 77 was centred around the devotional practice of meditating on the Scriptures. Today’s message is also focussed on the reception and use of the Bible in the Christian life, this time in terms of study rather than meditation.

*****

Introduction: What is the Bible?
The Bible is the written Word of God; Jesus is the living Word of God (John 1:1, 14; John 5:39-40).

For Christians, the Bible is an inspired text, a divine-human book requiring divine-human interpretation. As a human book it is interpreted just like any other book: we have to read it carefully seeking to understand what the human authors sought to communicate: what was Isaiah saying? What was Matthew on about? So we pay attention to their context, their choice of words, the images and literary devices they use, the themes they develop, etc. As a divine book, however, we acknowledge a hidden author and a surplus of meaning.

Many Voices, Multiple Meanings
One of the confusing things for many Christians, one of the things we seem to know intuitively, is that the Bible is capable of many meanings. Perhaps we have heard some weird teachings in our time, or met some weird Christians with wacky interpretations of Scripture. As a result we might get anxious: what does the Bible mean? What is the right meaning?

The assumption here is that there is only one possible interpretation to the various passages in the Bible. Is this a legitimate assumption? Without succumbing to postmodern relativism it is possible to understand the Bible as a book with many voices and multiple meanings. This is not to suggest that the Bible can mean anything we want it to mean, that we can use the Bible to justify beliefs or behaviours we are already committed to, whether capitalism or socialism, militarism or pacifism. Nonetheless there is already an apparent plurality of interpretation in the Bible itself: two creation narratives, two infancy narratives, four gospels, five resurrection accounts, two accounts of Israel’s monarchy. Add to this the multiplicity of metaphors and symbols used to describe the character and work of God, the person of Christ, the achievement of the cross, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the Christian life: is it any wonder different interpretations, different emphases arise from our study of Scripture? The Holy Spirit has given a surplus, even an excess of meaning in his inspired Word. Why? In the awesome wisdom of God he knew that multitudes of believers in multitudes of different times and climes, would need a word that addresses them.

Some Helpful Lenses When Reading Scripture

Read: Genesis 16:1-16

What do we do with a passage like this? What does the passage mean?

  1. A historian might be intrigued by the cultural practices of the day
  2. A doctoral student might focus on the origin of the Arabs in Ishmael
  3. Some might suggest that the passage teaches that the God of Islam and the God of the Jews are one and the same—and so then also, the Father of Jesus Christ
  4. A mildly feminist scholar might be concerned about the social structures that oppress powerless women
  5. A radical feminist might see further evidence of the irredeemably patriarchal nature of the biblical narratives, and argue for a wholesale reappraisal of Christian faith and practice
  6. An existentialist evangelist or a therapeutic preacher might see it as a call to authentic existence based on ‘where have you come from and where are you going?’
  7. Perhaps a Mormon would find legitimisation of the practice of polygamy

All these and more might be seen as the ‘meaning’ of the passage. When we add devotional ‘meanings’ possibilities are exponential.

  1. One person might be challenged to support a young woman with an unexpected pregnancy
  2. A male reader might find himself questioning why he persists in being a ‘wild donkey’ of a man
  3. A married woman might find herself convicted for being a grumpy wife!
  4. Another person might be encouraged to reach out to their Muslim neighbour or colleague
  5. Someone else might wonder whether the troublesome youth at work has had a rough ride
  6. A person in difficult straits may find comfort and hope in the knowledge that God cares

Lens #1: The Historical Meaning

The question to ask here is, “What did this text mean for its original audience?” Try to understand the passage in its original context: why has the biblical author included it? Before God’s Word is his Word to us it was his Word to another generation. Understanding something of what his Word meant for them will help us understand how to interpret it in our time and place. Accepting the tradition that Moses wrote the early books of the Bible, it would be an encouragement to the people of Israel not to go back to Egypt. Their future is not in Ishmael (an Egyptian mother and wife); their inheritance is in Isaac. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture: this seems to be the meaning Paul saw in the passage when he interprets Sarah and Hagar as two covenants. We are the children of the free woman, not the slave woman!

Lens #2: The Doctrinal Meaning

We can ask further: what doctrinal content is found in this text? What does it teach us about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the church, humanity, Christian life, etc? This passage teaches us some rich things about God:

  1. he is a God who hears the affliction of those who suffer,
  2. who sees us, especially in our need
  3. God cares about the lowly, the disenfranchised, poor, outcast, etc
  4. God comes, God speaks, God promises;

We also see a challenging pattern about God and his activity: he sees Hagar and comes to her, asks her a leading question, commands her with a difficult command, and makes a promise of blessing. His command is part of his grace, even though it is so difficult. This is a paradigm for the work of grace.

Lens #3: The Cultural-Redemptive Lens

The question to ask here is, “How does this passage challenge the way we see the world? What better vision of the world does it present?” This passage could challenge us to consider the way traditional social attitudes and structures impact others. It might challenge us to think about actual people we know in impossible or vulnerable circumstances. We might question the assumptions we have about those in minority cultures.

Lens #4: The Missional Lens

What does this passage call us to, in light of the overall story of God, his purpose, and his people? How does this passage call us to act in light of who God is and what God does? As individuals and congregations take seriously the challenge of reflecting on Holy Scripture we become a people who may be ‘caught up’ into the story that God is continuing to write in the church and in the world.

Conclusion: All the World is a Stage

Interpreting Scripture can hard work, but it is necessary work and even joyful work. God has given us his Word, not simply to help us find a comforting life verse every now and then, but to renew our minds, to shape our vision, to stir our will, and so to transform our lives (Romans 12:2).

Imagine … you are a Shakespearean specialist and come across an original unfinished manuscript. How incredibly excited you are. You begin poring over it and find it incomplete – several initial acts, but the final climactic act remains unfinished. What will you do? You gather other specialists, actors, etc and begin to think through how you would write and perform the missing act. You study the existing text until you know its inner coherence, its trajectories, its emphases and problems so well that you can begin to anticipate how the action of the missing segment will proceed. You improvise…

This is the situation of the contemporary Christian. In the bible we have an incredible five-act drama, stretching across millennia, with hundreds of characters. It is an immense epic which will come to completion in a sudden burst – sixth act when everything will come to resolution. The problem, however, is that the fifth act is incomplete: the story is still being written, the actors—you and I—are still on the set, the director—the Holy Spirit—is still orchestrating the drama. We have the script—the Bible as Torah—to form and inform us. True meaning is that which we enact on the stage of history, guided by the story that has so far been written, looking for the ultimate resolution and consummation yet to come.

A Sermon on Sunday

IWOK_widescreenToday I am speaking at Lesmurdie Baptist Church—my old stomping ground… The church and congregation hold a special place in my life; I was pastor of the church for five years, and an ordinary member for another two years, and in that time grew to love the people and the pastoral team with whom I worked. It is always a privilege and a joy to return. My topic for today is: “If We Only Knew: From Academia to Application.” My brief is to bring something from the world of academia which might otherwise take years to filter down into congregational awareness and life. I love the fact that senior minister, Karen Siggins, wants her congregation to be informed concerning important developments and trends in contemporary theology: may her tribe increase! She and the pastoral team have devoted the whole month to this series.

I have chosen as my theme a topic completely out of my comfort zone: the relation between science and theology, and exploring the particular issue presently experiencing vigorous debate in Evangelical theology—the historicity or otherwise of Adam. Here is the outline…

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My own awareness of these issues has been stimulated by a BBC production The Incredible Human Journey and by the work of the Human Genome project. I recognised almost immediately that both these scientific projects would issue a great challenge to Evangelical Christianity. I was right. In the next few years a debate arose in evangelicalism around the historicity of Adam and Eve: did Adam and Eve really exist? Two books from evangelical biblical scholars spotlight the issue: C. J. Collins’ Did Adam and Eve Really Exist and Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam. As you can guess, the two books took opposing positions with respect to this question.

Of course, serious theological questions arise around this issue: not least the issues raised by common interpretation of Romans 5:12-21.

Lost WorldHuman Origins: How did we come to be here?
In the modern era many answer that question with the word evolution. Some Christians accept evolution as fact. Others reject it out of hand, and insist on a literal six-day creation by divine fiat. Still others adopt a position of theistic evolution. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, is not comfortable with the term theistic evolution and prefers simply to speak of evolution by itself. Yet, as a committed Christian, Collins believes that God being almighty and all-knowing pre-loaded the evolutionary process so that it would result in his intended purpose.

Science and Faith: Must the relation be conflictual?
This issue raises the perennial question of the relation between science and faith. On the one hand, in the modern west science has achieved a kind of cultural status as the arbiter and final authority of truth and wisdom. That which is not ‘scientific’ is intellectually and possibly, morally, suspect. Yet Christians—and not only Christians—claim that there are other sources of truth and wisdom, the Bible in particular. How, then, are Christians to respond when it seems that science and faith come into conflict?

The response of liberal theology to that question was simply to re-interpret or even jettison those parts of the Bible which conflicted with scientific discoveries; they gave science the priority. Other Christians adopted a defensive posture, ignoring or attacking the science, or else developing their own supposedly ‘scientific’ programmes to insist that the Bible teaches precise and actual scientific knowledge, with the result that ‘true science’ agrees with the Bible. If it does not agree with the Bible it is not ‘true’ science.

A major part of the issue, however, concerns the question of biblical interpretation. Sometimes Christians fail to recognise that what we think is the teaching of the Bible is in fact our interpretation of the Bible, and the reality that the Bible can be and is interpreted in different ways by believers who are equally committed to a high-view of Scripture. And so the question comes to us: Can we be open to new ways of interpreting familiar
passages? And can we look for ways of interpretation that maximise the possibility of finding common ground between science and faith without compromising what we consider to be essential theological convictions? Note, here, Augustine’s wisdom:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it (cited in Collins, “The Language of God,” in Metaxas, Socrates in the City, 317).

Two Interpretive Moves
I want to suggest two interpretative moves that will assist us as we think about this particular issue. First, Millard Erickson’s view of progressive creationism. Erickson argues that God uses both the processive mechanism of micro-evolution—evolution within a particular species, and de novo creative events. There may well have been ‘pre-human’ creatures prior to the creation of Adam and Eve, but Adam and Eve were a fresh creative work of God (Erickson, Christian Theology 3rd ed., 446).

I note also, that Francis Collins, despite his insistence that God pre-loaded the evolutionary mechanism, also speaks of God ‘gifting’ humanity with ‘the knowledge of good and evil (that’s the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul. And Homo sapiens became Homo divinus’ (Collins, in Metaxas, 315). This sounds very much like a direct intervention to me.

The second interpretative move involves ‘re-thinking’ of Genesis 1:31: must God’s ‘very Time Cover God vs Sciencegood’ be understood in terms of some kind of metaphysical perfection, or might it be understood in terms of the value God the Creator places upon his work? English theologian Colin Gunton suggested that, “Rather like a work of art, creation is a project, something God wills for its own sake and not because he has need of it” (Colin E. Gunton, “The Doctrine of Creation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 142). Such an interpretation suggests that God’s work of creation was not the end of his purpose, but the beginning of a project playing out across history and moving toward a divine purpose and climax. In this view, the immanent God accompanies his creation, at times doing new things, providentially guiding the creation toward his appointed goals.

These two interpretive moves may help us find a place of common ground between contemporary science and biblical faith. The fact that we share 96%+ of our DNA with chimpanzees, the fossil record of pre-modern humanoids creatures, the idea that the complexity of the human genome requires a beginning population of not two but many thousands—all these and more may be addressed within this interpretive framework. Nor does this require the story of Adam & Eve to be a fictional story. Christians may still argue that God ‘instilled’ this distinctively human nature and spirit into an original couple so they were not simply pre-modern humanoids but ‘new creatures.’

But what about death? Does not this interpretation undermine the biblical teaching that sin entered the world through one man and death through sin? Not necessarily. It may be permissible to interpret death strictly as spiritual death, both in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 5:12. Adam & Eve died when they ate the fruit—but not physically. Prior to this special creation physical death was in the world but not spiritual death for God had not created the earlier creatures as spiritual beings in the same way as modern humans have been created.

Further benefits of ‘re-thinking’ our interpretation of Scripture include a greater awareness of our natural solidarity with other creatures, especially the animal kingdom, and so of our responsibility for their care. If God’s creation is God’s project, and God has created us in the divine image, it speaks to God’s intent that we participate in this project, that we ‘play’ and ‘paint’ with him, as it were, actively taking our place and playing our part in building the kind of world that God always intended, aiming always at the festivity and shalom of the Sabbath rest which is the climax of the first creation narrative.

A Sermon on Sunday

Bubble-bursts-at-the-right-moment-resizecrop--Today I am preaching for the first time at my own church, where we have been attending for about the last two years. The theme this month is Seek, and intends to explore what it means to live a Spirit-directed life. Here is an outline of my message which intends to (a) lay a biblical foundation for being led by the Spirit, and (b) to illustrate this biblical truth with stories from my own life and that of others. My hope is that the congregation will be encouraged to reflect on their own experiences in order to identify how they have experienced the Spirit’s leading in times past, and so with greater confidence, be open and responsive to the Spirit’s continued work in their lives. In the end I ran out of time before I ran out of examples. But hopefully, the message will bear fruit in the people’s lives. Inglewood Church have put the sermon up online if you want to listen to it.

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Three Key Texts

John 10:1-5, 27         
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” …

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

One of the most precious promises the believer has, is that the Good Shepherd not only finds and saves us, but calls us by name, knows us and leads us. The blessing of divine guidance is not about experiences, but about knowing the Guide. My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me. This is one of the ways in which God draws close to us, and draws us close to himself. It is one of the ways in which he draws the Christian to participate in his own life and work.

Proverbs 20:27
The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every innermost part.

Spiritual guidance is spiritually received. We err if we seek to ‘hear God’ by means of the physical senses—seeing something, hearing something, etc. Through the senses we contact the physical world. The world of the Holy Spirit is discerned spiritually. One way in which God  enlightens us is via the spiritual dimension of our life, and so it is necessary that we become spiritually attuned to ‘the still, small voice; the gentle whisper.’

Romans 8:12-16; 9:1 
 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons and daughters, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. …

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit…

In this text we gain some specific insight into how the ‘still, small voice’ comes to us, and so how we might recognise and name it in our experience. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit. … My conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.

My contention: if Christians can learn to recognise the promptings and intuitions—the ‘voice’—of their own conscience, they can learn to be led by the Holy Spirit.

  • This is not for a moment to identify the divine and human spirit, but to insist that somehow, the Holy Spirit touches the human spirit and a communication takes place whereby we know what we previously had no way of knowing. Image: a fragment is transferred from the hard-drive to the floppy drive.

This ‘inner witness’ might be likened to a hunch, an intuition, an inner prompting or urging, an awareness, a perception or premonition. Further, verse 13 shows that one of the primary ways in which we can begin to learn this way of the Spirit is via the common experience of conviction: “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body…”

Learning the Way of the Spirit

In the second part of the sermon I simply tell a range of stories from my own life and that of others which illustrate a variety of ways in which the ‘inner witness’ might be experienced, so that listeners can begin to identify in their own experience how and when the Spirit may have spoken to them. Some of these ways include:

  1. A text of Scripture coming to mind at just the right time
  2. An inner conviction, prompting or urging
  3. A ‘burden’ and strong sense of urging, especially to do with prayer
  4. A movement of compassion towards others
  5. An inner unease or restlessness concerning something specific
  6. A picture, image or impression
  7. An inner ‘voice’ in which specific words are heard

A Sermon on Sunday – James 1: 19-27

JamesMy studies in James over the last year and more are beginning to bear some homiletical fruit. For the last month I have been preaching out of James 1, one sermon at Mt Hawthorn Baptist Church on James 1:2-8, and three sermons covering the whole chapter at Harmony Baptist Church in Mosman Park. Today is part three of this little series.

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Introduction
Roof story – looked okay but was not. When I stepped on it, it started to give beneath my feet. The roof structure lacked integrity, being flawed, internally compromised. Integrity refers the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition. What you see is what you get: it is honest, it is true.

James, too, is concerned with that which is true. He is very concerned with true Christianity, genuine religion, authentic spirituality, a faith which has integrity, a theme which comes to the fore in the climax of chapter one.

Before launching into today’s text, however, let’s retrace some of the ground we have already covered in the last two weeks:

  • When Troubles Come – Pressure from the outside intended to destroy our faith. Our response: Stand fast! Persevere! We persevere in praise and thanksgiving, in prayer and faith, and we stand fast together; and all this because God is the generous God, single-minded in his goodness.
  • When Temptations Come – Pressure on the inside which threatens to lure us away from God, his blessing and his purpose. Our response: Stand fast! Persevere! We persevere in love for God first and foremost, and in the new life God has given us, participating in God’s mission in the world, and looking forward to “the crown of life” in the world to come; and all this because God is only, ever and always good.

In our text today, James continues this theme addressing, as it were, two big questions:

  1. What is the character of this new life? What is it like?
  2. How do we live this new life?

James 1:19-25                           
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues (perseveres!) in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. (Or, “not forgetting what they have heard, but being a doer of the work…”)

Receive the Implanted Word
How do we live this new life that God has given? By the same means by which it began—the Word of God who “has given us birth through the Word of truth” (v. 18). Thus James says, “Get rid of all moral filth, and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you which is able to save you” (v. 21).

  • The word implanted is designed to grow and bring forth a harvest of righteousness in our lives.
  • KJV: the “engrafted” Word. Fruit-tree analogy – grafting the new life of God into our lives. How? Through reading, hearing and meditation of the Scriptures.

But be “doers of the Word, not hearers only!” Meditation in the Scriptures leads to action. Those who only hear the Word without obeying it deceive themselves: their spirituality is not authentic.

James’ teaching here is an echo of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Matthew 4:4: “One shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” According to Jesus, believers are to live by the Word of God, allowing God’s Word to speak to us, counsel us and guide us, direct us and shape us, as we orient our lives toward the presence, the purpose and promises of God. God calls us to lives shaped and moulded and trained by Scripture. The “forgetful hearer” simply “goes his way,” the word having no enduring impact or effect on his daily life. This forgetful hearer is headed for trouble—Matthew 7:24-27.

And so we come again to verse 25: “But the one who looks into the perfect law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts (or, a doer of the work), he shall be blessed in his doing.” James, in this verse, shifts his language from Word to “law,” and from being “doers of the Word” to “doers of the work.” What do these shifts mean? Quite simply, James emphasises the call and the demand of the gospel. In chapter two he will bring this out with great clarity: “faith without works is dead.” The gospel is not simply the promise of salvation in and through Jesus, but also the call to follow him. Many commentators believe that James considers that Jesus’ teaching constituted the law made new, that the “law” here refers to Jesus’ ethical teaching. It is clear that for James, real religion, authentic spirituality, is a matter of obedience to the Word of truth, the gospel, the teaching of Jesus, the Word of God, and that such obedience is crowned with blessing, both now “in the doing,” and with a crown of life in the age to come (v. 12).

What Is This New Life Like?
What “work” does James have in mind? What does it mean to be “a doer of the Word/work?” At this point James gets very specific and says very clearly what this “work” is:

James 1:26-27
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Here James identifies three characteristics of “real religion, authentic spirituality, and genuine faith”—the kind which goes beyond the performance of a few religious practices that do not have any enduring impact on our daily existence. These three characteristics are his major concerns and will be picked up in the rest of the letter.

  1. A New Community

Watch your words—tame your tongue! The most seemingly spiritual person in the world is not spiritual at all if they do not keep a tight rein on their tongue! How easily words slip out: words of frustration and anger, words of criticism, demeaning, shaming words. Perhaps James has in mind especially angry words:

James 1:19-20                                  
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 

Importantly, however, James does not have an abstract interest in the tongue: one scholar has noted that there are 29 commands in this letter directly addressing speech ethics. This is a primary concern of James,’ and will occupy the main part of chapter 3, as well as re-appearing in chapters 4 and 5. But again, James’ interest is not abstract; he is concerned about the use of the tongue because of power to destroy the community of God’s people. Verses 19-20 are not just Readers Digest good advice! They are directed against those in the community who are at war with one another, expressing anger and malice toward one another, quarrelling and fighting with one another, and as St Paul says, biting and devouring one another. Sins of the mouth tear down the people of God. Failure to bridle the tongue, to speak wisely and with respect and care undermines genuine spirituality. Thus, for James, authentic spirituality involves being a genuine and loving community. Notice how many times James refers to his listeners using the term “brothers and sisters” (vv. 2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14, etc.). The church is a new family, intimately related as siblings, and called to care for and respect one another. What a tragedy when families fight and hurt and desert one another!

But James takes his vision of community even further, in verses in this chapter we have not yet read:

James 1:9-11                                        
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation – since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.

The poor and lowly can rejoice in their new position in Christ! They have been exalted by God into the highest place. Though their earthly circumstances have not yet changed, they may hope for the future when the “great reversal” takes place, when the lowly are exalted and the mighty are brought low (cf. Luke 1:51-53; 6:20-26).

Arguably much more difficult, the rich are also commanded to “take pride in” or boast in—their humiliation! In James’ day, the church was mainly composed of the poor. But if a rich man or woman became a Christian and a member of the Christian community, there was a real humiliation involved. Now they were identified with a socially despised and dishonoured group of people. Now they associated with the poor and the outcast, the disreputable and the unclean. Becoming a Christian involved real social downward mobility—and James tells them to rejoice!

Here James’ words take on a new twist: a social reversal has occurred – in the church. Although the great reversal in itself still lies in the future, it issues here and now in a radical transformation of one’s own perception of oneself, and in the community. Here and now there is a re-ordering of expectation, of desire, of value, and of relationships on account of the new reality which has arrived in Jesus, and which will be enacted in the eschatological judgement. Here and now the poor are welcomed as honoured, indeed, primary members of the kingdom community. Here and now the rich embrace humiliation, precisely by entering into solidarity with the poor and despised Jesus followers. The Christian community enacts on the historical level the hope to be realised in the kingdom of God. It is becoming a community in which one’s identity is founded, not on one’s socio-economic status, but on one’s status in Christ. A revaluation has occurred with the values and priorities of the earthly city giving way to the values and priorities of the heavenly city. James has a vision of the eschatological kingdom which exists not only in the future, but impinges upon the present and presses toward expression in the community of God’s people, here and now.

  1. A Community of Care and Compassion

James’ second characteristic of real religion is compassion—love in action, hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up care for the vulnerable in our midst. Just as God visited his old covenant people in order to rescue them, so God’s people are to visit and care for those in need. Widows and orphans were amongst the most powerless groups in the ancient world. It is, of course, legitimate to extend the metaphor in our age and location to those who are in need, though they may not be widows and orphans. I have been greatly challenged by Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this verse:

Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.

The vulnerable in our society include the homeless and loveless. They may also be the mentally ill, the elderly, the physically disabled, the indigenous, the abandoned, the unemployed, the refugee or recent arrival. To be a “doer of the work” involves caring for those in our networks and our neighbourhood who are vulnerable.

  1. A “Clean” Community

Finally James zeroes in on our own moral purity and personal holiness. He calls his listeners to keep themselves “unstained from the world.” James is not a dualist; he believes that this is God’s world because God is the universal Creator and Father of Lights. Nevertheless, the “world” is here seen in its fallenness, in its organisation against the will, the ways and the wisdom of God.

It is clear that James envisaged a decisive turning away from sin, sinful patterns of life, and concrete sinful practices: Make no mistake! (v. 16). Put away all evil! (v.21). What kind of sins does James have in mind?  No doubt all kinds of sin. But his emphasis in this letter focusses on interpersonal sins, especially those of the tongue, selfish ambition in the community, and those which oppress or fail to give due heed to the poor. There is a real engagement in the world and yet at the same time a genuine separation from its values, commitments and practices.

There is need for mature wisdom here (v. 5), because sometimes there is tension between the first two characteristics of authentic spirituality, and the third. Can a community welcome and care for those who are not “clean”? Perhaps a way forward here, is to apply Jesus’ wisdom from Mark 9:50: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” We can be strict on ourselves and gentle and kind toward others. Too often churches have this the wrong way around.

Conclusion
Two big questions:

  1. How do we live this new (Christian) life? By receiving (and doing) the Word. By being doers of the Word and of the Work.
  2. What is the nature of this new life? A life in welcoming, caring community in which we seek to love, trust and serve God together, and become vessels of his goodness in the world.

A Sermon on Sunday – John Chrysostom

johnchrysostomJohn Chrysostom (c. 349-407) was a celebrated preacher and archbishop of Constantinople in the ancient church. Chrysostom is a nick-name meaning “golden-mouth,” given to him on account of his eloquence. In this excerpt from a Christmas sermon we catch a glimpse of his oratory, but even more of his vision of Christ: his miraculous and marvellous birth, his deity and his humanity, his humility and exaltation, the victory of the cross and deliverance and exaltation of humanity: God is on earth and humanity in heaven!

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Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests” (Luke 2:13-14)

I behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the shepherds’ song, piping no soft melody, but chanting forth a heavenly hymn. The angels sing. The archangels blend their voice in harmony. The cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The seraphim exalt his glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and humanity in heaven. He who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised up…

And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For he willed, he had the power, he descended, he redeemed; all things move in obedience to God. This day he who is, is born; and he who is, becomes what he was not. For when he was God, he became human; yet not departing from the Godhead that is his. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became he human, nor through increase became he God from being human; but being the Word he became flesh, his nature remaining unchanged…

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a mother who has brought forth new life; I see a child come to this light by birth. The manner of his conception I cannot comprehend. Nature here is overcome, the boundaries of the established order set aside, where God so wills. For not according to nature has this thing come to pass. Nature here has rested, while the will of God laboured. O, ineffable grace! The only begotten One, who is before all ages, who cannot be touched or perceived, who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, which is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that we mortals cannot see…

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He who sits upon the sublime and heavenly throne now lies in a manger. And he who cannot be touched, who is without complexity, incorporeal, now lies subject to human hands. He who has broken the bonds of sinners is now bound by an infant’s bands. But he has decreed that ignominy shall become honour, infamy be clothed with glory, and abject humiliation the measure of his goodness. For this he assumed my body, that I may become capable of his word; taking my flesh, he gives me his spirit; and so he bestowing and I receiving, he prepares for me the treasure of life. He takes my flesh to sanctify me; he gives me his Spirit, that he may save me.

Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take flight, the power of death is broken. For this day paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused and spread on every side—a heavenly way of life implanted on the earth, angels communicate with people without fear, and now we hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and humanity in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He has come on earth, while being fully in heaven; and while complete in heaven, he is without diminution on eaerth. Though he was God, he became human, not denying himself to be God. Though being the unchanging Word, he became flesh that he might dwell amongst us…