Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your fingers here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.' Thomas said to him, 'My Lord and my God!' John 20:27-28
Let’s talk scars. Many people seem to be happy to take up a subject like that some even like to demonstrate their talk with visual examples. I’ve known kids who wave round a scar on their finger or leg and love sharing their story of what happened, and of their recovery. Let me be clear that I’m distinguishing between scars and wounds. Usually we’re far less comfortable dealing with wounds. We don’t like talking about them or seeing them. But scars are evidence of healing, they proclaim healing. That’s why scars are worth talking about. And, of course, scars are not just physical, either. There are ones that are mental and emotional and psychological but all of them are indicators of healing.
Now the first thing I want to say fills me with surprise every time I think about it, and I don’t think I ever want that surprise to go away. It’s this: God is scarred. They appear on his Son, Jesus. There are scars on his hands and side. The book of Revelation eve n seems to indicate that these scars are eternal. It’s splendid vision of heaven gives Jesus a new title, ‘the Lamb who was slain’, and describes this lamb by saying it looked ‘as if it had been slain’. That seems to suggest that the scars of Jesus are t here forever. And as a human, perhaps he also has inner emotional scars due to what the human race did to him, did to the love that he only wanted to pour out on all of us. Maybe even our reactions today to the love we know God has for us is contributing to the existence of those inner scars. I often find myself objecting to the ways in which Jesus, and his crucifixion, has been portrayed in the paintings, carvings and statues of medieval times. They seem to glory in his wounds rather than in his scars. But maybe I’m not really sure maybe there’s a place for that, too. But God’s Son has scars. I find that astounding, amazing. And they proclaim healing, the healing he won for us and gives to us.
The first time Jesus pointed out his scars was partly for identification purposes. And scars are still useful today for that, and assist the police in their work. Thomas had difficulty believing that Jesus had risen from the dead. The claims by the rest of the disciples that they had seen him alive didn’t really help him. He wanted proof, the proof they had been given, of seeing Jesus alive. So a week later Jesus stands before him and shows him his scars. And Thomas’ doubts are gone. ‘My Lord and my God’ he exclaims. For Thomas those scars not only p roved the identity of Jesus and his resurrection, but also healed the wound of his doubt, restoring his relationship with his Saviour and God. Thank God for the scars on the body of Jesus.
Today the body of Jesus is the church. That’s how St Paul describes those who have faith in Jesus together they, we, are Christ’s body. So how do people come to faith in Jesus now, how do they know he really rose from the dead? Is it ONLY by believing without seeing? Is it ONLY by accepting the account of those who have seen, the account that has come down to us in the form of the Bible? Is it ONLY through the conviction of the Spirit that doesn’t depend on any visible proof at all? With the physical body of Jesus ascended it may sound like it.
But his church body is still here on this earth. And part of our reason for being here is to make Jesus real to those around us people can look at us to see Jesus. And this body of Jesus, the church, has scars. Scars from it’s battle with sin and satan and death. Scars from the serious blows and wounds it has received and from which it has recovered by God’s grace. Now, maybe those scars can help the Thomases of this world cry out in renewed faith, ‘my Lord and my God.’
Let me stress again that we’re talking scars he re, not the wounds. The church and individual believers sometimes have open wounds. And these wounds are probably far more obvious, and far more easily seen by the community around us, mainly because of all the hurt and pain they cause.
The body of Jesus suffers these wounds as believers refuse to live together in peace; as denominations refuse to live the unity that God imposes on the body of his Son; as tensions and arguments in congregations go on and on without the sides involved taking any steps towards resolution and peace. And maybe every congregation can look back at it’s past history, and become aware of some wounds that it has inflicted on itself.
The body of Jesus also suffers wounds as individual Christians openly flout the commands of G od and give the impression to their friends and neighbours that God’s commands really don’t matter all that much; and as individual Christians say things that are not loving or forgiving or accepting. Wounds are inflicted as individual Christians go through distressing and unfair circumstances which make them question, even deny, the love, mercy and care of God.
Individual Christians and congregations will suffer wounds. And all those wounds need to be converted into scars so they can be a positive witness to Jesus. Healing has to be prayed for and sought and applied so that the body of Jesus recovers from these wounds. Then they’re no longer a threat to the church’s life and health. Now they are a witness to the healing and life God gives.
I think of S t Paul who was plagued with what he called his ‘thorn in the flesh’. That was a painful, open wound in his life, and he earnestly asked God to remove it, to take it away. But when he heard God say to him, No, it stays ‘My grace is sufficient for you; f or my power is made perfect in weakness’ when God told him that, healing resulted. Now his thorn in the flesh is no more than a scar, reminding Paul of his weakness and leading him to boast about all his weaknesses and scars. He knew that in his weakness the grace and the power of God is revealed.
Hearing God’s healing assurances and promises is one way a wound is turned into a scar a scar which tells others about who God is and what he does in people’s lives. Or forgiveness is given and received; my rebellion against God is confessed and others support me in my resolve to die to that particular sin and a painful wound has become a scar that now witness to God’s healing. Wounds become scars as the love of Jesus overcomes my anger against God and ag ainst other people; as I realize what he’s really doing in my life; and as I see how he has worked things that I didn’t want to go through for the good of many people. That remaining scar is a constant reminder of who God is and what he has done for me an d through me.
You and I, the whole church, the body of Jesus here in this world, is scarred, painfully scarred, beautifully scarred, victoriously scarred. Those scars are the result of God stepping in, dealing with sin, raising up a dying, even dead, church, and empowering it with his eternal life. Those scars tell us we’ve been raised with Jesus.
Maybe as you see the scars on others, and they see the scars on you, those scars will witness to the life and healing God brings to this world. May they also serve to strengthen and create faith in the present, living, and life bringing God as people, seeing Jesus and his actions in those scars, are led to confess, ‘my Lord and my God.’
16 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’ 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”’ 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Mark 16:1-8
There’s something disconcerting about Mark’s account of what happened on resurrection morning. Something doesn’t read quite right. Did Mark really intend these to be the last words of his gospel? “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Is that it? Nothing is resolved. We don’t even get to meet the risen Jesus. The women are frozen in fear and can’t say anything. What kind of an outcome is that?
It's clear that there were some in the early church who didn’t know what to do with this either, because we have two additional endings to the gospel that were clearly added much later. They were an attempt to tie up the loose ends, to clarify what happened in the tomb early that morning, to smooth out the shock and increase the awe.
But what if this is exactly how Mark wanted the story to end? And yet this wasn’t the end, but a new beginning, the start of something that no one could have ever expected. And what if we write our own ending?
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, go to Jesus’ tomb to pay their last respects. They carry with them spices to anoint his body, an act of love and a way to hold back, if only briefly, the stench of death. They come early in the morning. Why wait? They can’t sleep anyway. The events of the last horrific days keep playing over and over in their heads. It was so devastating, humiliating, crushing. Then, all of a sudden, the obvious dawns on them. How are we going to get into the tomb, with the stone set in place?
But they needn’t have worried. The stone has been rolled away. But this isn’t good news. It just adds insult to injury. Not only has Jesus been degraded in life, now he has also been desecrated in death. But as they peer into the tomb, they are shocked to see not a dead body, but a young man. They can hardly believe his words. “Don’t be alarmed. I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.”
Of course, they were looking for Jesus. And of course they are alarmed. And confused. And increasingly frightened. The young man continues: “He has been raised-he is not here! Look, there is the place where they laid him.” Can you picture the angel motioning his arm in the direction of the rock slab on which Jesus’ body had been laid? God has done this: the crucified body of Christ, the nail- imprinted, spear-pierced body has been given new life through God the Father's creative power. What exactly have these women stumbled on? Here, in the darkness of the earth, the light of life has shone. This is not the end, as they had thought; this is only the beginning.
And this is what comes next. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him, just as he told you” The women are confronted by the message that Jesus will meet with his faithless followers, yes, even with Peter. Where were the disciples when he hung on the cross? What about Peter, who denied him three times? It's no surprise that we don't find them at the tomb early this morning. They're too ashamed to face what they've done. Or disillusioned. Or both.
“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” This is too shocking, too unprecedented, too amazing, too much to fathom.
Where to from here? Remember the first verse of Mark’s gospel: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Could it be that his gospel doesn’t actually have an ending? Could it be that the good news continues, that the women do go and tell Jesus’ disciples exactly what they saw, no dead body, the angel, and what they heard- a future, not a message of judgement and anger at the disciples’ faithlessness. And could it be that Mark leaves the way open for the women, the disciples, and for countless other people, to be written into the story of the risen Jesus?
Jesus is one step ahead of his disciples. He makes the move toward them, even as they moved away from him, back home to Galilee. The Risen Jesus is already mapping out their future. John shares with us the touching meeting of Jesus and the twelve at the Sea of Galilee. Jesus interrupts a fishing trip. He lovingly reinstates Peter as one of his chosen messengers. He tells Peter that the course of his life of witness will be shaped by his cross.
And this is only the beginning of what God is up to through the Easter event. The good news grows through Pentecost, through the suffering witness of the early church, and through each subsequent century, as faithful disciples tell the story of the Saviour who suffered and died for the sins of the world and rose to new life.
Our lives have also been written into the ongoing story of the good news of the crucified and risen Jesus. This happened when we were baptised into Jesus’ death and resurrection. His death is our death to sin, his life is our new life. The Holy Spirit is our ghost writer, shaping our lives, guiding our words, so that they lift Jesus up, so that we live as contemporary witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection.
“He will go ahead of you,” the angel says. And Jesus says, “I am with you always...” The Risen Jesus goes ahead of us, into our Galilee, into the place we call home, with us in our work and study, in our interests and relationships. Each day is a new beginning, a new opportunity to serve and love.
Seventy- six years ago next Thursday, on April 8, 1945, the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis. It was a tragic end to a brave and uncompromising life witnessing to the love and justice of God. Englishman Payne Best, a fellow prisoner in Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, wrote of the last days of Bonheoffer’s life. “He seemed always to spread an atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive...He was one of the very few persons I met for whom God was real and always near. On the Second Sunday of Easter Pastor Bonhoeffer conducted a little service of worship and spoke to in a way that went to the heart of all of us.” The text for the sermon was Isaiah 53: 5: “by his stripes we are healed.”
After Bonhoeffer had finished conducting the service, two soldiers came in, saying, "Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us," the standard summons to a condemned prisoner. As Bonhoeffer left, he said to another prisoner, "This is the end -- but for me, the beginning -- of life."
The last year has been a difficult one globally. And while we who live in Australia have had the best of a bad situation, it’s my sense that we, too, are tired of the constant stress. And from my reading of St John’s in the last year, this is true of us too. We are more anxious than previously, and less patient too. We all want things to return to normal.
The new normal for us is not a return to pre-pandemic conditions. Instead, it’s the transformation that has taken place through Jesus’ death and resurrection. What looked like the end for Jesus, as he died on the cross, was the beginning of life-and not just for Jesus alone but for all who trust in him.
I read an article only this week entitled, ‘How do faithless people like me make sense of this past year of COVID? That author was a British journalist, a self-confessed atheist. He writes, “I have not even the flimsiest of narratives to project on to what has happened, nor any real vocabulary with which to talk about the profundities of life and death…There has been no community of like minds with whom I have talked about how I am feeling or ritualistically marked the passing of all these grinding weeks and months… For many of us, life without God has turned out to be life without fellowship and shared meaning – and in the midst of the most disorientating, debilitating crisis most of us have ever known, that social tragedy now cries out for action.”
We are Easter people. We have the good news story to tell. We confess that the death and resurrection of Jesus makes sense of a confusing and broken world. We have a narrative of hope, even in the face of death. We belong to the community of those who confess the Risen Christ. We share life with others whose lives have been transformed by the new beginning that Jesus’s resurrection begins. As Gerard Manley Hopkins writes:
“Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east, More brightening … as his reign rolls…”
May we be the Easter people through whom others can see that God is real and always near. In Jesus Christ our Lord Amen.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:5-11
Have you ever visited a stately home? It could be here in Australia. One that comes to mind immediately is Martindale Hall, in Mintaro. Tasmania also has a large number of grand homes built in the early nineteenth century. And such homes are a dime a dozen in the United Kingdom.
You may also be a fan of period dramas set in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Downton Abbey was a popular series of this genre, as was Upstairs Downstairs in the 1970’s, which I remember from my childhood. This was a world so vastly different from today. The class system placed people on different levels. People knew their place, and there was very little opportunity to move up the social ladder.
You could see this in the way that grand houses were designed. Upstairs was where the upper class lived. The engine room of the country estate was downstairs-the scullery, laundry, store and workshop. Downstairs was where the work took place, and where the many servants who kept the house running lived.
Each member of the household would have their own personal steward, who would choose their clothes, help them to dress, washes and iron their attire. The kitchen staff would prepare all their meals and wait on tables, to ensure that every last request was promptly met. Upstairs life was easy. Downstairs it was hard, dirty, physically demanding work, from sun-up to late in the evening, and not well paid at that.
Upstairs, downstairs. There’s a world of difference between the two, all the world that money can buy. We don’t think of ourselves as living in that kind of society. True, there may not be an aristocracy in this country, but there are clear divisions based on our level of income. Just compare suburb in the east of Adelaide to some in the north. Social commentators use the word ‘aspirational’ to describe our desire to keep moving upward through the income brackets. We aspire to a better job, income, suburb, and as we do so, we have the capacity to do more and buy more.
God sees this aspirational impulse for what it is: a part of our flawed humanity wanting a lot of things that we don’t already have, even if what we have is more than enough by any reasonable assessment. And this causes great problems for all of us. It means that we’re more inclined to look out for our own interests than the interests of others. It makes for competition rather than cooperation. Our planet is in trouble too, as we churn through finite resources and tip the scales against those who don’t have enough food, water, shelter.
Many people think, of course, that all this escapes God’s attention. God is upstairs, in his heaven, while all is not well in the world. And we’re downstairs, left to our own devices. However, what Holy Week tells us that this is most definitely not the case. God doesn’t want to live in splendid isolation, while downstairs things are unbearable. God decided to do something that many would think was beneath him. God decided it was time to live downstairs, with those he created, in the world he made.
Paul’s words in Philippians 2 are based on a hymn that the early Christians would have sung in their worship. It gives us such a clear sense of what was important to these first followers of Jesus. They knew first-hand what it was like to be powerless. They were mostly either Jewish or poor, indeed slaves, so they knew what it was like to be marginalised. But because of this, they were captivated by the words and actions of Jesus. Especially in this most decisive of weeks, which confirmed Jesus’ status as the king who came to serve his people.
You could say that Jesus moved from upstairs to downstairs. “He was in the form of God, [but] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” To the manor born, so the saying goes. God’s Son could have eternally luxuriated in the splendour of his Father’s presence. But that was never God’s intention.
“[He] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Despite his status as God’s beloved Son, Jesus did not trade on his reputation. He was fully God, fully human, and immersed himself fully in our human condition, in the real world of conflict, grief, violence, disappointment, anger, class. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that since we, God’s children, “have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity…”
The life of Jesus is characterised by love, in both words and actions. A prostitute rescued from being stoned, a tax collector welcomed in the fold of Jesus’ followers, a blind man’s sight restored. It’s also characterised by courage. Jesus breaks convention by questioning the authority of the religious leaders of the day. He exposes their hypocrisy. He doesn’t allow his humble position as a wandering teacher to silence him against the rich and powerful.
Today Jesus enters Jerusalem. He makes a scene as he sits on a donkey, surrounded by cheering disciples, waving leaves they had cut in the fields, and using their coats as a makeshift red carpet. They had high hopes, that’s for sure. They were hoping for nothing less than revolution. With the words of Psalm 118 on their lips, they were hoping that thus would be the beginning of Jesus’ rise to power and glory, to rule as the new king. “Hosanna!” they cry out. “Lord, save us. Help us now.” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus’ name in Hebrew, Joshua, means exactly what they’re asking for: God saves.
Jesus was a King. He made the move from upstairs to downstairs. But he wasn’t going to fight the Romans at their own violent game. He rides not a war horse but a donkey. He was pointing to the words of prophet Zechariah: “Your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey…he will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea.” A king, yes, but not as people, even his disciples were hoping for.
Jesus was on a peace mission, not a power trip. And that came with a high price indeed. Paul writes, “Being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to death-even death on a cross.” Obedience to the will of his Father meant suffering indignity upon indignity, abuse piled on abuse, not because Jesus was weak, but because he was strong. Finally, it meant the cross. Remember Jesus’ words last week: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Behold the King, reigning from his cross.
Paul writes in Second Corinthians: “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Jesus’ life was a journey from upstairs to downstair. In his innocent death he died the death of each one of us. He took to the cross all our selfishness, greed, all our sin, everything that we do that grieves God. He experiences the most abject of depths, the hell of our making. This was his servant-love for all people and all creation. God his Father raised him from the dead, giving his mission the biggest tick of approval. Jesus’ life was the riches to rags to riches story. From upstairs to downstairs, and then back upstairs again. He is forever our humble King. He lives at the Father’s right hand, upstairs, but he continues to dwell in us who live downstairs. Jesus will never forget either where he came from, or where he has been.
And nor should we. Despite all our economic advantages, we stand on the same rung of the ladder as every other human being. From downstairs in the dust, we have been lifted upstairs, out of our spiritual poverty by Jesus’ act of love alone. Grace is the primary gift we have received, but then, so are all the other things that we enjoy on this land of plenty, and in this pocket of Adelaide. And yet, we are called to continue to live downstairs, to love and serve as Jesus did, and in his strength. What a different this will make in an aspirational, fractured, tense society like ours right now. How do we live as people of peace, gentle but determined to do what is right, not what is easy or expedient?
Perhaps this word from Henri Nouwen is a good place to start. It comes from my desk calendar: “The glory of God stands in contrast to the glory of people. People seek glory by moving upward. God reveals his glory by moving downward. If we truly want to see the glory of God, we must move downward with Jesus.” Follow the one who moved downward to bring you God’s love. That’s how you bring his love to others. Amen.
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we would like to see Jesus.’ 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me. 27 ‘Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.’ 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. 30 Jesus said, ‘This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. John 12:20-33
I wonder if you have seen this logo before, or if you know what the letters stand for? CBM stands for Christian Blind Mission. It’s an international Christian development organisation, whose Australian headquarters is in Box Hill, Melbourne, where my previous parish was located. Their focus is on working to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities in the poorest communities of the world. Those living with disabilities are even more marginalised than other poor. The story of how this charity was birthed is a fascinating one and brings to life Jesus’ words today about how following Jesus means serving him in the power of his own sacrifice.
Christian Blind Mission was founded by a Lutheran pastor from Germany. His name was Ernst Christoffel. After studying theology, he went to work as a missionary in Turkey in 1904. What he saw amongst those who were living with blindness shocked him. He wrote back to his sister in Germany: “The material, moral and religious situation of the blind is terrible. A great percentage of them beg. Blind girls and women are forced into prostitution.” From that point on, he and his sister Hedwig decided to make their life work serving these people.
Christoffel went back to Germany, trying to get support for his plan, but was unsuccessful. But undeterred, he decided to set up an institution himself, in a place called Malatia. He named this care centre Bethesda, after the pool in Jerusalem where the Gospel writer John tells us “a great number of disabled people used to lie-the blind, the lame, the paralysed,” as it was believed that when the water is stirred healing would result. You may remember that Jesus healed a man there who was unable to walk and got himself into hot water because the healing took place on the Sabbath.
Christoffel had a tough path ahead of him. He was drafted into the Swiss Army during the First World War and had to fight for an exemption to return to Bethesda. Then the mission he built was seized by the Turkish government during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and turned into a military hospital. Kristoffel fought to get it back but was then expelled from Turkey because of his German background. He returned in 1924, but the government would not let him open another refuge, so he went to Persia, now Iran. There he established two further institutions to care for people who were blind, deaf, and mute.
This work continued until 1943, when the Allies captured Persia. Rather than escape, he stayed with those in his care, and was arrested, spending three years in detention. He returned to Germany for a time, to establish a similar refuge there, but returned to the country now known as Iran in 1951, establishing a school, and all this at the age of 70. He died in Iran in 1955, having spent himself fully in the care of those living with disability.
This is written on his gravestone, in the Armenian cemetery in Ishafan, Iran: “Here lies in the peace of God Pastor Ernst J Christoffel, the father of the blind, the children of nobody (literally: the children of no one), the crippled and the deaf.”
He once wrote: “I have always rejected one principle and still do so today, that is, to find out whether the person receiving help is worthy of doing so or not. As soon as I come across this principle, whether at home or elsewhere, I become angry. What does it mean to be worthy or unworthy of support? Where would we be if God were to deal with us in this way...The deed of love is the sermon that everyone understands.”
From the example of this one man’s life, CBM now reaches over 30 million people a year, and supports more than 700 partner-projects in 70 countries. What Jesus says to us today has come to life in Pastor Christoffel. “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” But first of all, Jesus brought these words to harvest in giving his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
the beginning of the decisive week in Jesus’ life. Jesus announces: “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” This is the same word Jesus uses when he casts out demons. The game is up, and the evil one is being called to account.
I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” No longer will the world be held captive to Satan’s destructive intent. The cross that Jesus will carry, and on which he will be lifted up, is God’s verdict of guilty on the sin and disobedience of a broken world. Jesus represents us before God. Jesus submits himself to the sentence that we should have served. The cross is the place where we can most clearly see the suffering love of God in action. This deed of love is the sermon that everyone understands, more than that, that frees everyone and changes our life destiny.
“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Jesus was lifted up on the cross. Jesus died and was buried. Jesus endured the hell of God’s judgement, in order to secure our future as God’s forgiven children. On the third day, the seed broke through the ground, rising to new life. This seed will produce countless seeds, people whose lives have been transformed by Jesus’ sacrificial love.
You and I are among those who have been seeded with this new life. Jesus’ cross changes the direction and focus of our lives. No longer do we view this life, this material world, as the sum total of all that there is. We have eternal life now and we live in the power of Jesus’ risen life and his Holy Spirit here and now. This reality drives everything that we do in this life. That’s why Jesus says, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
The world is truly a different place in Christ. Hating our life in this world doesn’t mean despising ourselves or the world in which we live. It is, after all, a world we are called to love. Rather, Jesus is saying, “If you hate the way life is lived in this world…. If you are ground down by the lack of love, respect, integrity, honour, virtue,” then resolve to send down your roots deeper into Jesus, your source of life, and follow Jesus.
Paul sums this up in Galatians 2: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Pastor Christoffel wrote an account of his life work. Translated into English, the title is “Between Sowing and Harvest.” He saw the work God had called him to as flowing from the seed of faith that God had planted in his life, through the life work of the Lord and Saviour he followed, Jesus Christ. He planted many seeds across the course of his life: some grew to greatness, others died, but each one was a response to the grace of God.
Your life and mine look very different to Pastor Christoffel’s. I feel more ordinary than extraordinary. I won’t be writing an autobiography, that’s for sure. Yet the arena of your service and mine is just as critical to God’s ongoing mission of love to the world. Some of us are part of the Lenten Study this year. We are looking at the book, ‘Liturgy of the Ordinary.’ These words from this week’s chapter jumped out at me: “We are fed in worship, blessed and sent out to be “hints of hope” …we are part of God’s big vision and mission, the redemption of all things-through the earthly craft of living out our vocation, hour by hour, task by task. I want to do the big work of the kingdom, but I have to learn to live it out in the small tasks before me-the missio Dei in the daily grind.”
What seeds has God called you to sow, day by day? What acts of service and love is God calling you to do in the name of Jesus? Pastor Christoffel worked among the disabled and the poor, and spent his life in their service? What God is calling you to do may very different, but there is no doubt that he calls you to bring glory to him through the seed of your service. Don’t forget Pastor Christoffel’s words: “The deed of love is the sermon that everyone understands.” Amen.
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’ 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. John 3:14-21
It’s quite a long time since my children were born, but I will never forget their births, and especially the overwhelming rush of love that came upon me, three times over as I saw them for the very first time. My heart felt like breaking, but at the same time it was expanding with love for this child, this product of human love and this beautiful creation of God. And I think the feeling must be even deeper for the one who has given birth, and not just stood by helplessly as I did.
Whether we are parents or not, we all know the joy of seeing a newborn. We all wonder about how this child’s life will unfold. We wonder what they will grow up to be, and what mark they will make on the world. The miracle of life isn’t just the beginning, but each and every day.
In today’s gospel from John 3, we listen in on the tail end of a conversation that Jesus has with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was curious about Jesus, but also cautious. He knew that Jesus was “a teacher who has come from God.” The things that Jesus is doing are evidence that God is at work through him. But he wants to know more. And he gets far more than he bargains for.
“Very truly, I tell you, “Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” Nicodemus tries to get his head around what Jesus is saying. What he knows about human birth is that it’s not reversible. But more than that, why does he, one of God’s chosen people, need new birth to qualify for God’s kingdom?
Jesus goes on: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” This statement is even more perplexing for Nicodemus. He may have heard about John’s water baptism for repentance. But what’s this talk of being born of the Spirit.
Physical birth is the beginning of our earthly life. But this birth, as amazing as it is, places us in a world in which there is pain as well as pleasure, sadness as well as joy, evil as well as good. Paul puts it starkly today: “We were by nature deserving of wrath…” We know this to be true at every level. Each day there’s bad news-about the horrible way that human beings treat one another, about war, disorder, violence, abuse. We all worry about the world into which we are bringing our children. We don’t just feel that way when our children are small, but when they grow up. Parents don’t stop caring once their child has flown out of the nest.
Every parent wants to protect their child from harm. We would do whatever we could. But we’re not always present where our children are. And not always able to stop trouble and hurt. The love of a parent is strong, and sacrificial, but it will come to an end. I know that only too well as I reflected on my mother’s love, a year this week since her funeral.
How, then, it is possible to live hopefully in this kind of a world? This isn’t just a question for parents, but for God too. Let’s go back to what Jesus says to Nicodemus. What’s behind all this talk about new birth? Well, our human condition is not the kind of thing that can just be tweaked to make it better. It’s needs radical action. From God. Not from us. We need rebirth of a spiritual kind. And this is how God makes it happen.
Paul writes: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ…it is by grace you have been saved.” And John describes the same thing in the singularly best-known verse in all of Scripture: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
Remember a time when you nursed a baby. It may have been your child. Or a nephew or niece? What did you feel as you gazed into the child’s eyes? If you were the parents, you may have been amazed at the love that flowed from you to your child, a love deeper than you thought possible. Now multiply that love countless times, and you have the kind of love that flows from the heart of God the Father toward you.
“God loved the world.” God’s love reaches far beyond individual family, beyond town or city, beyond the people of the old covenant, which was such a shock to Nicodemus and his fellow Jewish leaders, to all people, that is, to the whole world. What seems obvious to is in the hindsight of the gospel was astonishing to Jesus’ first hearers.
God loved the world so much that he gave his One and Only Son. God’s love came encapsulated in his Son, Jesus, born in Bethlehem, born of Mary. A child whose birth was celebrated by both his human and divine parents, into whom they poured their love and care. Remember the Father’s words to Jesus at his baptism: “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.”
Parents raise a child with love, and invest in their future, preparing them to be launched into the world as an independent adult. God the Father’s plan was to “show [us] the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed to us in Christ Jesus.” But this kindness to us would cause the greatest grief for our heavenly Father, as he watched his Son walk the slow and painful road to his death on the cross. This was no accident, but God’s plan from the beginning.
Jesus knows what is ahead of him: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” In our first reading today, we heard of how God commanded Moses to set up a bronze snake on a pole, and those who turned to the snake were healed. So too God calls us to look up to the one lifted up on the cross, in order to live through him. Just as in this incident, healing came in the same shape as that which brought death, a snake, so for us, healing comes in the form of a human being, God become flesh, God who bears our sin and dies our death. Jesus’ saves us, as one of us, our brother but also our Lord.
God gave his Son, “that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life”. This life is deep, lasting, not just life the other side of heaven, but right here, right now. This is how Paul puts it in Ephesians 2: “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” This new life of Jesus has become ours through the new birth of baptism. We are now children of God, “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” We received human life as gift, through the act of conception, through our mothers carrying us to birth. We are born into the gift of relationship with our human parents, which we did nothing to deserve.
This is true, far more so, for us spiritually. Eternal life, life in all its fullness, the new birth through which we can be the people that God created us in his image to be, comes through the safety and security that comes from being born in God our Father, by water and the Spirit. As a result of the grace in which we have been saved, the sheer gift of God that none of us deserved, this is who we now are, “God’s handiwork, God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” There’s a world of possibility, of love and service in front of us now, as we bear the cross of Jesus each and every day.
In the earliest days, the images of our parents’ faces are imprinted into our brains. We can only grow to maturity because of this sense of security and deep love. In the cross of Jesus, we know that we are secure in the love of our heavenly Father. Through his death and resurrection, God gives us new birth in our baptism, the gift of his love, and a relationship that promises fullness of life, now and forever. God, help us to believe this, treasure this, live this. Amen.
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ 18 The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’ 19 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ 20 They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. John 2:13-22
I wonder how many of you are familiar with this painting? It’s by the American artist, Walter Sallmann. By one estimate this image has been reproduced over 500 million times. What kind of impression of Jesus does this picture give? One person wrote: “This is the Jesus of flowing blond hair and saccharine blue eyes. He is clean, passive, and effeminate, which is perhaps why Christians have plastered this image into many a child’s Sunday School room.”
Certainly, there’s a gentleness, a sense of security and warmth in this picture of Jesus. It’s much like the words of the children’s hymn, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild:
“Lamb of God I look to You Be with me in all I do You are gentle meek and mild You were once a little child.”
Of course, Jesus is gentle, and his meekness is exemplified in his servant heart. He does promise comfort and support when we are going through hard times: “Come to you, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” And there are many times where we, in our brokenness and hurt, need exactly this. But this picture only tells part of the story, and in isolation this can lead to a false understanding of what Jesus is like and how he reveals the passionate love of God to us.
In their challenging book Untamed, Alan and Debra Hirsch write: “In much of our image making, we have sought to domesticate Jesus and make him a much more manageable lowercase- “l” lord that comfortably legitimates our lifestyle. Let’s be honest: for many Christians, Jesus has come to look and behave like a regular, high-conformity, somewhat-morally uptight/upright churchgoer? Is this really the wild Messiah we encounter in the Gospels?”
Have we been guilty of making Jesus in our own image, to fit our thinking, to justify our take on God? Is our picture of Jesus like Sallmann’s picture, Jesus gentle, meek and mild, or is he like the wild Messiah we encounter today? Is he full of deep and disturbing passion for his Father, or is he happy with the status quo, barely disturbing the comfortable?
Today we find Jesus where would expect, in his Father’s house. After all, what did Jesus say to his parents when they found him in the temple, after searching for him for three days: “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house.” This is where God promised to be present in glory for his people. Here, and only here, could God’s people could offer ritual sacrifices for their sins, and so receive God’s forgiveness.
The Passover was the most important celebration in the Jewish religious calendar. Here God’s people celebrated their rescue from Egypt. Many pilgrims made the trip up to Jerusalem for this high festival. The scene that greeted Jesus would have been one of barely controlled chaos. The temple courts were full of people selling animals, cattle, sheep and pigeons, and people changing money for the payment of the temple tax. And there was money to be made.
Without any explanation, and with no warning, Jesus “made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle, he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” This was a provocative and dangerous act. It could have got Jesus arrested, or worse, resulted in the stall holders attacking him. No gentle Jesus, meek and mild to be seen here. “Stop turning my Father’s house into a market,” he yells out, as people disperse left and right.
Was this frustration boiling over into anger? Was it shock at the commercial chaos in God’s house? I think it’s something deeper than that. This is Jesus’ Father’s house, but the meaning of the temple has been trashed. Where is the respect for God? But there’s something even deeper. Jesus’ heart boils over with what he is here to do: to be the living sacrifice that brings people back to God. To be the bringer of grace that animal sacrifices can no longer bring.
Reflecting on this incident, the disciples remember a snippet of Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The word zeal can also mean ‘jealousy’ in the sense of a love that wants God alone and wants God to be honoured above all. This is why Jesus taught his disciples to pray:
“Hallowed be your name.” Jesus wants God’s people to keep his name holy through words and actions that reflect their identity as his covenant people. That they don’t grieves him, but he dedicates his life to changing the hearts of God’s people. That’s because his Father is also jealous for his people. In giving the Ten Commandments to Israel, God says, “I am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Jesus’ passion for his Father would lead to his passion, that is, his suffering at the hands of others. Zeal for his Father would consume Jesus completely. That’s what Jesus was pointing to when the religious authorities asked him to justify his extreme actions. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” It had taken 46 years to construct the second temple, and still it wasn’t finished. But standing in front of them was the “new temple.” John writes in his first chapter: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us...” No longer would people have to travel to Jerusalem to come into God’s presence. God is fully present in Jesus.
But this would cost Jesus his life. People would react badly to the pure love of God. It challenged everything they lived for: power, control, money. They would throw every weapon they had against Jesus: they would argue against him, trying to tear down his reputation, and when that failed, they would turn to the power of the state to kill him. But even then, passionate love would win out. God would let his Son suffer and die in silence. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He was like a lamb led to the slaughter...” Was this gentle Jesus, meek and mild, or the strongest, deepest, toughest, most passionate love we will ever see?
Only after Jesus rose from the dead would the penny drop for the disciples. Only now could they make sense of the horror of the cross. Here the love of God, so jealous for all people to share in his divine life, took matters into his own hands and made a way for this to happen. In his body Jesus endured the holy anger of God against our rebellion. Zeal for God and his honour did consume Jesus, even to death, but God then announced that Jesus was indeed his Son, and that now God’s presence was available to us who trusted in Jesus’ words and his sacrificial death and resurrection.
The picture that encapsulates all that Jesus said and did comes in the shape of a cross. The cross that stands at the front of our church, on the altar, the paraments. This is what the church is on about, as Paul reminds us today: “We preach Christ crucified...the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
This is a big, powerful, audacious claim. But then, Jesus’ love is more powerful, more raw, more passionate than anything we can muster. God’s love will never, ever, settle on the compromise position. God’s love is tough, sacrificial, and ultimately victorious. That’s the robust love God has shared with us through our baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s the love that drives the church’s mission in the world.
Some seventeen years ago, when I was working in child, youth, tertiary and family ministry for the Victorian District, I read the most challenging book I had come across in quite some time. This was its title: Practising Passion: Youth and the Quest for the Passionate Church. Its thesis was that for too long that church has been practising passionless Christianity and that it was no wonder that young people were leaving the church in droves. The author wrote, “Passionless Christianity has nothing to die for: it practices assimilation, not oddity. Passionless Christians lead sensible lives; we are benignly nice instead of dangerously loving...” This kind of church offers nothing to people who want to believe in something worth dying for, and who want to make a difference in the world.
What shapes the church? What passion shapes St John’s? It is comfort, security, reputation, good management? Or is it sacrifice, servanthood, zeal for God, and love for his world? This may not be common-sense. It may not even be sensible. It will certainly not be playing it safe. The cross of Jesus certainly wasn’t any of these things. The world may call us foolish. But this is the way Jesus lived. And it’s his passionate life and powerful love that lives in us, his people, today. This Lent, take another look at Jesus and see what drove him. Read through or listen to the Gospel of Mark. See who Jesus is, and how he lived for you. And then remember who you are: a child of God, recreated in the image of Jesus, called to live by the power and the passion of his cross and resurrection. Amen.
15 Jesus was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:15-21
In recent years I’ve come to see that one of the most confronting words for an LCA congregation is the word “mission”. Mere mention of it has the power to lower people’s gaze and have them stare at their shoelaces with the kind of intensity you’d expect when viewing a piece of prized artwork. It conjures up all sorts of apprehension and fear, as well as guilt and shame. And before we allow this word to take hold and lead us in any way, many of us scramble back to the central teaching of the Lutheran faith – that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone and not by works – and we breathe a sigh of relief as we recall that everything is ok, we don’t HAVE to do anything.
Of course, I am being deliberately provocative here. I hope you know as well as I do that mission is so much a part of the DNA of the LCA that you cannot tell our history without bumping into wonderful mission endeavours again and again. And yet, there is some truth in the notion that this word – mission – fills a goodly number of us with apprehension and fear, and more troubling, with a sense of guilt and shame.
The apprehension and fear usually arise out of concern over how we might be perceived if we personally engage in mission. It used to be that we’d just be worried about what people might think of us if we tried to talk with them about Jesus. But these days there are well founded fears about the implications such conversations might have on your career prospects, your social standing and even the viability of your business. As the world becomes more hostile to the message of the cross, this will only get worse. But the message is one of such glorious beauty and hope that I pray the Holy Spirit would grant you such boldness and joy in God’s saving love, that you don’t give these repercussions a second thought.
The guilt and shame that the word mission can evoke is another matter entirely. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about firsthand. Over the years I’ve met parents of children who have rejected the forgiveness and life Jesus’ offers. So many of these parents carry an almost unbearable sense of guilt, and in some cases, shame, over how they have failed to pass on the faith. I’ve spoken with others who feel guilty for every opportunity to bear witness to God’s love for all in Christ that they’ve neglected – sometimes unintentionally, and other times quite deliberately. Even stories about what others have done to share the gospel that are meant to inspire, can drive us to despair as we sit at home and feel nothing but guilt about what we haven’t done.
My job is not to analyse whether or not you have a reason for such guilt and shame. Rather my job is to proclaim Good News to you who are poor in spirit due to the burden this brings upon you. To declare that Jesus has released you from captivity to this sin, along with its guilt. That He has covered your shame as He endured the world’s scorn on the cross. And He has freed you as His own through the forgiveness that is yours in Christ. My job is to send you who have been broken by the burden of mission away from here today, released from all sin and shame in the name of Jesus and to live your life in the Lord’s favour. However you have failed in the Lord’s call to mission – you are forgiven. Whenever you have neglected the opportunities he has placed in front of you– His blood covers your sins. And wherever you feel you are responsible for another failing to believe, the Lord offers you freedom from your sins in the name of Christ.
As Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the hearing of his hometown family and friends, he declares that God’s mission to bring just this kind of release and freedom and recovery has been fulfilled in him. Nothing more is to be done. No more waiting and worrying. No more anticipation and doubt. Right there in the person of Christ, God has sent salvation to the world and finally brought freedom from sin, death and the devil. Such is the essence of the church’s mission. To continue to proclaim this same freedom to the world day in and day out.
To point believers and unbelievers alike to Jesus’ cross and declare that right there we are released from bondage to sin, granted freedom from the grave and given the gift of eternal life that we may live every day in the Lord’s favour.
The picture Jesus uses is one of release from captivity and affliction and freedom from all work and toil. A picture that harks back to the 50-year Jubilee commanded in the Old Testament. A time when all slaves were set free, debts were forgiven, people returned to their homes and the paddocks lay fallow as they too rested for the year. The Jubilee was a prophetic sign of what was to come with the long-awaited Saviour and a foretaste of the freedom that would be for all people as He ushered in the eternal year of the Lord’s favour.
One of the reasons, I suspect, that this message of release from bondage is shunned by so many in a place like Australia, is that we don’t readily recognise that we are captive to sin and death. Like the Israelites of old, we tend to think of ourselves as having never been slaves of anyone and so we don’t need freeing.
When I travel on your behalf to visit the missions the LCA supports among our partner churches, the response is quite different. For people who live under the shadow of other religions such as Buddhism, Islam, animism and Hinduism, the sense of being held captive is very real and produces a longing for release. Far from turning their nose up at the suggestion we might have a message that will bring freedom and hope, they are so desperate for these things we tend to take for granted.
One of the most striking examples of this is captured in the story of a Lutheran evangelist who is now serving among his people in the mountains of northern Thailand. Min was born into a large family who continued the tradition of their ancestors and worshipped all kinds of spirits that surrounded them. Each home had their own spirit, and the family was dependent on that spirit for all they needed – when things went well they offered sacrifices of thanksgiving, when things went badly, they had to offer more and more sacrifices to appease the spirit to get their lives back on track.
As a teenager Min noticed that something was not right with his siblings. They seemed disturbed and troubled. Following the accidental death of his father, Min’s brother appeared deranged and committed suicide. Shortly after the family noticed one of his sisters was possessed by some evil spirit and ultimately hung herself as well. Another of Min’s brothers became violent and with super-human strength tore houses to pieces with his bare hands, swearing that he was assisted by 7 other men when witnesses saw him acting along. The village spirit doctor told the family their house spirit was bad and needed to be replaced. They sacrificed animal after animal to appease the spirits and placed a new idol in their home, but even that didn’t work. Min became convinced he was at risk and ran away, spending days living in a tree and only coming down when he became convinced it was full of snakes that were trying to kill him. Witnesses could not see the snakes that were bothering him, but Min was tormented by these ‘invisible’ snakes for weeks to come.
This story of a family being held captive by spirits and driven to death and despair, sounds far-fetched to our ears and yet is a story that is repeated again and again among the people you serve through LCA International Mission. Thanks be to God that a Christian evangelist came to Min and his family and proclaimed the very freedom, liberty, release and healing that Jesus spoke of as having been fulfilled in him all those years ago in the synagogue at Nazareth. As they were brought to faith in Jesus and received the gift of forgiveness of sins and release from demonic oppression, the family were finally at peace and the torment ceased. It was a battle that the spirits did not surrender to easily, but ultimately Min’s family entered into that Jubilee year of the Lord’s favour, being forgiven all debt and freed from all slavery, they now live in peace.
Min now proclaims the same gift of forgiveness and freedom in Jesus’ name to those who are still held captive by darkness and fear. Not all believe. Some are threatened by the message and so fearful of the old spirits that they dare not listen to the message of the gospel. But Minh’s life is living testimony to Jesus having fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah as he declared, and in the remote mountains of Thailand continues to bear witness to the freedom we have in Christ.
I haven’t heard of too many people in the LCA who experienced Jesus’ mission in quite the same way as Min, but the impact of his mission on our lives is no less spectacular. In the west the devil lulls us into a false sense of security as he seeks to possess us with a whole range of spirits who look anything but spiritual. We bow down at the altar of prosperity, good health, family relationships, a good name, a comfortable instead of faithful life in the church and so on, and act as though these things will bring us ultimate freedom and happiness in life. It’s the same lie as Min fell for in the mountains – that something other than Jesus can make us free – but it is just clothed a little differently.
In the face of all these spirits and our willing participation in their lies, Jesus proclaims victory through His death and resurrection, and declares with all authority in heaven and earth, that we are now free from such deathly captivity as he forgives our sins and covers our shame. This is what mission is all about. Bringing freedom, life, salvation and God’s favour into the lives of those who are just as much prisoners of the devil as Minh and his family surely were.
The next time you feel fearful or apprehensive about telling friends and family about Jesus, stop for a moment and think of Jesus’ declaration of release in the words of our text. These are words that are not just for those in remote Thailand. They are words for you and me and all who surround us, and who are far more burdened and imprisoned than they dare admit. In these words, the mission of the church is fulfilled as God releases sinners from shame and death, and brings them into his everlasting favour. And yes, it’s true, some won’t believe. Some may ridicule you. But then again, some will grasp this gift as Min did, desperate for the freedom and hope that Jesus’ offers and that you have. May God grant you such joy in his gift of freedom and life in Jesus’ name, that you embrace every opportunity to declare God’s favour to those in need. Amen.
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness for forty days, being temptednby Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. Jesus announces the good news. 14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ Mark 1:9-15
If you’ve ever been to my office, you might have seen this little cartoon on my door. It shows an inoffensive man of the cloth tootling along in his sensible little clergy vehicle. That’s what it’s like most of the time for me, as I drive around Adelaide in my mild Mazda 3.
But deep within me there lurks a desire to drive much faster in something much more powerful. And, some seven years ago, that wish was fulfilled. A member of the St Paul’s Box Hill congregation had a son was a V-8 Supercar driver. His racing team was having a drive day, at Sandown Racecourse, and someone had pulled out. Would I be interested? Would I what. It was a day that I will never forget. First, I spent two laps as a passenger in the V-8 Supercar. I thought I was going to black out after the initial burst of acceleration out of the pits, but that was only the start. It is difficult to describe how quickly these cars accelerate, how they carve up corners, and how savagely they brake.
But that wasn’t the most fun I had that day. I also got to drive the track. I only knew the track from watching races on TV. How would I know how fast to go, when to brake and turn, when to accelerate? What if I messed it up, overcooked it in a corner, and spun off the track?
That’s where my driving instructor came in. He had driven hundreds of laps around Sandown, and his task was to teach me how to do it. He didn’t drive the car for me, but drove ahead of me, all the while giving me instructions via a 2- way radio. All I had to do was follow him, brake when he braked and mimic the line he took through each corner. Choose my own lines and there would be trouble. Another driver decided he was the expert. He didn’t listen and ended up ploughing backwards into the concrete barrier at Term 4. He was OK physically, but he destroyed the car.
The whole experience taught me a few things. One, I didn’t have the talent to be a racing driver. And two, how critical it was to follow the leader, especially as an adult. And this is a lesson that I need to learn over and over again in the life of faith.
Today we make a detour back to the beginning of Mark’s gospel today. Jesus has come to be baptised by John the Baptist. That’s certainly a surprise to John, and perhaps to us. Why is the holy one coming to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?” Yet as we follow Jesus throughout his ministry, we understand that his baptism is totally in character with his whole life. He walks our path: beginning with his birth as a human being, his dependence on his earthly parents, his growing into maturity. He is baptised as the signal that he understands our need for repentance and grace.
As Jesus is baptised, he is also commissioned to serve. He sees the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, and he hears his Father’s affirming voice” You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”
When we were baptised, we were enveloped by the grace of God. God said. “You are my son...you are my daughter, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit made his dwelling place in us, and we were made part of the body of Christ-the eyes, ears, arms and legs of our Lord and Saviour Jesus in the world.
So what does Jesus do now that he has received God’s imprimatur on his mission? It’s not so much what he does, but where he goes, and why. The Holy Spirit thrusts Jesus into a time of testing in the desert. We all like the idea of getting away for a time of rest and replenishment, but that’s not what happens here. Jesus faces testing- Is he up to the task of being God’s faithful Son? Is he so intimately connected to his Father, through the Holy Spirit, that the evil one cannot drive a wedge between them? Can he trust in his Father’s love when he faces hunger, silence, even fear? Will he be diverted from the ministry of proclaiming God’s new deal with humanity?
As the leader, so the people, as the saying goes. In Baptism we are signed up for a life of following in Jesus’ footsteps. Our baptism was our commissioning to be God’s light in the world, a kingdom and priests to serve our God and Father. Our lives intertwined with Jesus, drafted in by God to follow Jesus’ lead. This will mean times of great joy, seasons of the most wonderful peace, delight in the closest of relationship that we have with Jesus and his Father, and a deep consciousness of the uplifting presence of the Holy Spirit.
But not all the time. The shadow of the cross falls across our lives. We all know times of suffering, when we wonder if God is with us or not. Many of us have experienced a personal loss so deep that we wonder if there is a way back. We’ve had failures personally or professionally that have been very hard to stomach. Other times we are conscious of Satan, the tempter, trying his best to tear down our trust in God.
Mark doesn’t spend any more time that is needed telling us what took place. He doesn’t dwell on what the temptations consisted of. He does note that “angels ministered to Jesus.” Jesus doesn’t face this challenge alone. God’s messengers bring words of comfort and strength to him. The Holy Spirit, our comforter, comforted him. Recollecting and praying the word of God strengthened him We are never alone in our suffering. Jesus, the one “who suffered when he was tempted, who is able to help those who are being tempted,” watches over us. And while we may be unaware of angels coming to serve us, we know that our brothers and sisters in Christ have our back.
40 days later, Jesus ministry begins, as John the Baptist’s comes to an end when he is arrested. Jesus goes back to Galilee, where he came from. His message is good news. “The kingdom of God has come near.” God is not an absent father, he is up close and personal in his Son, Jesus. And this is the core of the good news: “Repent, and believe the good news,” he says.
Why does Jesus begin with word ‘repent?’ Repentance means a change of heart, a change of direction, the right line. Ask anyone if they are above average driver, and they will say yes. We are afflicted with the same over-inflated sense of our spiritual capacities. We all like the idea that we are in charge, alone in the driver’s seat. Yet we have so much trouble steering ourselves around the track which is our lives. Corners come upon us one after another. We often arrive at them far too fast. We haven’t given enough thought to the choices in front of us. Other times we know the direction that we should steer if we want to continue on course with God, but we lose traction. We start to slide, and before we know we’re on the grass, bogged in the sand-trap, or worse, we’ve clouted the wall. There’s plenty of damage: to us, our pride, our relationships.
God is not blind to our situation. He comes in, not with a word of recrimination but of rescue. “Repent and believe the good news,” The good news is that I forgive you, for the sake of my Son, Jesus Christ. You may have messed up over and over again. You may be close to broken by your continued failures. You may feel unworthy of God’s love. But there is a way back, the only way back, and it means returning to your baptism, remembering the covenant of love that God made with you, a covenant written in the blood of his Son, Jesus. Everything that Jesus has accomplished in his life, death and resurrection is yours: new life, new direction, new oversight, new purpose, new creation.
Living as a disciple has its twists and turns. The road of life can be slippery and dangerous. It can push us to, or beyond our limits. But remember that you are never alone in the driver’s seat. In Jesus you have a Lord and Saviour who knows the course and who knows you intimately. It’s not your skill that matters; it’s his love and grace that finds a way around each and every corner to the finish line.
We didn’t receive ashes at our service on Ash Wednesday. Instead, we handed out these cards: “Remember that you dust, and it dust you shall return.” This is the bad news which we wrestle with all lifelong. But then we hear Jesus’ word, “Repent and believe the good news.” This is not a truth we need to hear only once, but time and again, lap after lap in life. I encouraged those who attended to carry these words with them this Lent. I encourage you to do the same. This Lent listen to Jesus’ word of love and forgiveness. Follow him as he walks to the cross. Learn from his love. Live in his grace. Amen.
17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 4 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6)
I’ve got a good memory for faces, but I’m not so good with names. When I’m greeting people after a service is finished, I often have to say to new people at St John’s: “I know your face, but I can’t remember your name.” People are mostly gracious, thankfully.
When I meet someone for the first time, their name seems to evaporate from my memory the moment it has come from their lips. I have a visual memory, so the best thing I could do is write their name down, but’s not always possible. What I have to do is consciously link their name with something else in order to remember it. It’s only as I meet the person a number of times that their name lodges in my memory. But their face will always stay with me, from the very start.
Names are important, and often have an interesting history to them, but it’s people’s faces that tell the most fascinating story: their age, their mood, a glimpse into their history. Eyes, and faces too, are windows into a person’s soul. Not many of us are inscrutable. Our faces can be read like a book. They speak of the deep things within.
Today the church celebrates the festival of the Transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him, up to a high mountain, where his true reality became apparent as Jesus was transfigured, transformed before them. Mark tells us that “Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” And Luke notes that “the appearance of Jesus’ face changed.”
Staring into the face of Jesus, the disciples were shocked. It was the same Jesus, yet he wasn’t the same. The glory of God radiated from his face, his clothes. God’s voice confirmed their suspicions, and their fears too: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” They were stunned, but then, as soon as it began, it was all over. “Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.”
It took the disciples a long time to work out what had happened on that day. If, as they suspected, they had been face to face with God on that mountain top, why then did Jesus take the dead-end journey to Jerusalem, and then to the cross? The glory came and went so quickly, so fleetingly. The hard slog never ended, and in fact, it only got worse. That dark day at Golgotha put paid to any hopes that they might have had about Jesus.
But they were wrong. The face of Jesus, on which was etched the pain of the world, was also the face of God. It was this face, on this dark day, which shone in the darkness with the suffering love of God, even more brightly than it did on the day of Transfiguration. In the light of the resurrection, Jesus disciples saw behind the agony spread across Jesus’ face and understood that this was the fullness of the good news that Jesus had come to proclaim. What looked like meaningless suffering, and abject failure, was the greatest comfort and hope for all people. God wasn’t just to be found on mountaintops, resplendent in glorious white, or in beautiful sunsets, glorious mountain ranges, happy, smiling people enjoying the good things of life. God was also present with those who suffered, who struggled, who ached for the touch of another, who longed for a kind voice or a gesture of love.
In the face of Jesus, the disciples saw that God’s face wasn’t turned away from us in disgust at the mess that we human beings have got ourselves into. Rather, the face of Jesus shows us that God has embraced the totality of our humanity, sin and all, and in doing so, he injected our lives with renewed meaning and hope.
This, Paul says, is the core message that Christians like him have been charged with telling others about. The gospel is the “light that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Paul never talks about God in generic terms. God is the “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is a challenge in a world that doesn’t mind “god” talk but gets distinctly uncomfortable when people get specific about the fact that Jesus is God with a face, God with skin on, God in human form.
I understand why this is confronting. It’s easier to keep God at arms’ length when you picture God as someone remote and disconnected from our lives. That’s how many people in our world today think about God, if they think about God at all. Paul reminds us that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of God.” This was true also of God’s covenant people in the Old Testament. “Even to this day when Moses is read,” that is, when they hear God’s law and its demands, “a veil covers their hearts.”
The good news is that we’re not forever groping around in the murky darkness. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” The Holy Spirit is the Great Revealer. What does Martin Luther say in his Small Catechism? “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith” The true faith means seeing God’s heart clearly. The Holy Spirit takes the veil away from God’s face. When we expected to see a face set in anger against us for the way we disappoint God, instead we see the face of the Son who God loves, and to whom God calls us to listen.
And this is the grace-filled outcome: “We, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with every increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
We’re no longer in the dark. We know exactly what God is like because we know Jesus: his words and actions, his cross and resurrection, his life within us because we’ve baptised and made part of his body, his constant prayer for us. We know, as Robin Mann wrote in his Christmas blessing that “the eye of God rests on [us], and his ear hears [our] cry.”
Our lives are not only full of God’s presence, but day by day, week by week, God is working on us. It is true, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, that now “we see only a reflection as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face.” People don’t always see the face of Christ through us. Sometimes they see our own self-will, our anger, our dark desires. What can we do then but to look again at the face of Jesus, and see in it the mercy of God?
Maturing Christians look more and more like Jesus, act more and more like him, reflect his face of love, of suffering pain for the sake of the world. Like long-married couples who have come to resemble one another, so too are we being transformed into the image of Christ. We look in the spiritual mirror, and we see Jesus, not our sin and our shame. life purpose was recast. God called him to preach Jesus Christ as Lord. His particular calling continues to shine down through the centuries, as we dwell on Paul’s message about Jesus even today. And his words today confirm God’s call on our lives today. Paul says, “For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”
Think of a regular day in your life. How many faces do you see? What do you observe in the faces of friend and stranger, spouse, child, and workmate? You may see joy, pain, confusion, hurt, questioning, relief, suffering? Each one of those faces are treasured by the God of heaven of earth, loved by Jesus, God’s transfigured, crucified and risen Son. The call God has placed on us, his people is to reflect his love through faces the care, through eyes that really look and see where others pass by, hands that serve and hearts that are filled with compassion.
The English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, captures what it means to live as the face of Christ:
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
Almost every week as God sends us out from worship, we hear these words: “The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favour and give you peace.” God’s face shines on you. When he looks at your face, he sees the reflection of the face of his Son your Saviour, Jesus Christ. Christ lovely in your limbs, eyes, your face, your words and actions. Amen.