Monthly Archives: September 2009

links for 2009-09-30

  • As per the title: compares download prices for artists, tracks or whole albums. A bit rusty round the edges: it didn't find one album I knew to be on iTunes, and clicking 'album only' also returns results containing individual tracks whose titles have been expanded to include the words 'album version'. But apart from that it searches Amazon, iTunes, tunetribe and others. I discovered some recordings I didn't know about by some favourite artists as a result.

No Sermon, Just A Video

I am not posting a new sermon this weekend. I’m preaching a couple of old ones tomorrow. Blogging also remains light, due to personal circumstances behind the scenes.

However, I have created a simple video of images for a harvest psalm (Psalm 67) and set it to Ian White‘s son ‘May the peoples praise you’. Facebook friends will find it on my profile, but I have also uploaded it to YouTube, so courtesy of them I thought I’d share it here. For those who like the song, it was released on his CD ‘Holy Ground‘.

links for 2009-09-23

links for 2009-09-22

Sermon: How Many Times Do I Have To Tell You?

Mark 9:30-37

“How many times do I have to tell you?”

It’s a familiar cry of exasperation from parents to their children. No matter how many times you have asked them to do something – or, more likely, not to do something – it just doesn’t sink in.

It isn’t limited to things not sinking in with children. We might lose our rag and say the same to another adult: “How many times do I have to tell you?” Did the other person not hear? Or did they not listen? Do they not care? Are they dense?

“How many times do I have to tell you?”

Jesus could have said that to his disciples. The fact that he got frustrated and said things like, “Do you still not understand?” gives me hope when I, his very imperfect follower, feel I need to repeat a theme in a sermon.

This passage falls into the “How many times do I have to tell you?” category. It is the second of three ‘passion predictions’ in Mark’s Gospel – passages where Jesus prophesies his forthcoming betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection. Last week’s Lectionary gave us the first prediction.

That first passion prediction last week was followed by the first misunderstanding of the disciples – when Peter told Jesus the Messiah shouldn’t suffer and Jesus retorted, “Get behind me, Satan.” So too this second prediction is followed by a second misunderstanding. So you see there is a similar pattern to this week’s reading, compared with last Sunday’s.

But of course the content isn’t entirely parallel. I thought we’d look at this week’s prediction and this week’s misunderstanding in a way that compares and contrasts with the first prediction and the first misunderstanding from last week. By saying ‘compare and contrast’ I do not mean this to be like an exam essay question! In fact, rather than this being a dry exercise in theoretical Bible study, I believe it will speak to us about discipleship. After all, that’s what Mark does throughout his Gospel.

Firstly, at greater length, the Prediction.
(i) The location and the journey are important factors in this prediction of Jesus’ passion:

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it (verse 30).

It’s the last reference to Galilee, the former centre of Jesus’ operations, until the Resurrection. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem now. His focus is resolutely on the Father’s will in facing the Cross. The suffering he is about to prophesy again is no accident or coincidence. He is committed to the Father’s will, whatever the cost.

Yes, a terrible struggle over this awaits him in Gethsemane, but the discipleship Jesus models for us is one far removed from that which we often see in churches today. To listen to some churchgoers you might think religion was only about what was in it for them – the blessings and the benefits. It’s like consumerism: what’s in it for me? But Jesus’ attitude is, what’s in it for the Father? He will do the right thing, whether it benefits him or not. He is determined to go the right way, whether that means popularity or pain. Not for him the courting of votes; rather, a fixation on the will of God, whatever it costs.

This is underlined by the fact that the journey is secret: ‘He did not want anyone to know it’ (verse 30b). Why? Secrets usually require good reasons. This last week we booked a secret journey for the children. They won’t know about it until we get underway. If they discover what it is, they’ll go hyper. So we have to keep it a secret.

And I’m not going to tell you either what it is!

But Jesus keeps his journey and his movements secret for a good reason:

for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ (Verse 31)

Here’s one time he doesn’t want to do crowds. He is here to spend private time with his disciples, focussing their minds on this central truth of his life and ministry, the one thing they must grasp, which they misunderstood earlier and will do so again now: “How many times must I tell you?”

And here he ups the ante in this second passion prediction. Like the first time, he tells them that he must suffer, be killed and be raised from the dead. However, he changes one important detail. In chapter 8, he concentrates on the murderous role of the Jewish leadership. He shocks the disciples not only with the news of a suffering Messiah, but with the prediction that the religious leaders themselves will be responsible for his death. He leaves a warning for later generations that those of us who count ourselves faithful may well end up as the enemies of God.

But there is a twist in this second prediction. No longer is the blame placed merely on the Jewish authorities, it is placed on the whole human race:

‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ (Verse 31b)

You can’t pin later Christian anti-Semitism on Jesus. Everyone – ‘human hands’ – is responsible for his execution. Whatever the savage truth of religious guilt is, the bottom line Jesus gives us is that his death is due to the sins of the whole world.

But more than that, he is ‘betrayed into human hands’. We probably associate that word ‘betrayed’ with Judas Iscariot, but it means ‘handed over’. In a sense, that is what Judas did. But you could also say that God handed Jesus over. Biblical writers sometimes used a form of Greek grammar to allude to God doing something without actually naming him[1]. If so, then although human beings are not absolved from their responsibility for executing Jesus, it stresses the idea that Jesus died not only because of the sins of the world, he died for the sins of the world. It is in God’s plan. It is the fulfilment of Isaiah 53, the prophecy of the Suffering Servant.

And that’s remarkable when you factor in who Mark’s first readers probably were. The likeliest theory is that they were Roman Christians facing persecution under the Emperor Nero. Mark is telling them that their Jesus was not only crucified by sinful human beings – that would make sense to them, given the suffering they were undergoing – but also for those same sinners. Not only does the Gospel bring the good news of sins forgiven for us, it brings the challenge that if Jesus forgives us, he offers the same to our enemies, and that must change the way we regard those who cause trouble for us.

Jesus, then, in this prophecy of his Passion, is showing how committed he is to the painful but necessary plan of the Father that will lead him to the Cross. He is doing so, because that path will take him not only into the firing line of all sinners where he will die as a consequence of their sins, he will also die for their (and our) sins. It is the message at the heart of the Good News. It took some establishing with his disciples. It still does with us, at times. But once we know this is true, then it can come out of its secret lair and be unleashed on the world with a message of forgiveness and forgiving for all.

Secondly, more briefly, the Misunderstanding. And again, we’re back to “How many times must I tell you?” Wouldn’t you think that just after Jesus has been talking about humiliation and suffering the last thing his disciples should be talking about is, ‘Who is the greatest?’? And this will be something the disciples again find incredibly hard to accept. For when it comes to the third passion prediction (10:35-45), the context is James and John eyeing up the best seats at the top table in the kingdom of God! Maybe the call to humility is something we find hard to grasp, too. We might prefer our place in the limelight.

What we can’t doubt is that Mark portrays this as highly important teaching by Jesus. It takes place in ‘the house’ (Peter’s house, possibly) in Capernaum. When Jesus teaches the insiders from among his following in a private location in Mark’s Gospel, it’s usually something significant. The call to humility certainly isn’t a passing minor aspect of Jesus’ doctrines. It’s a central one in response to the way of the Cross.

So no wonder Jesus shames the disciples into a silence of guilt and shame when he asks them what they were talking about on the road, and they keep quiet (verses 33-34). They are in the same boat as the Pharisees when faced with the truth of God. Hard hearts, and the silent shame of guilt.

Yet in terms of their culture, the disciples’ attitude is hardly surprising:

Rabbinic writings frequently comment on the seating order in Paradise, for example, and argue that the just would sit nearer to the throne of God than even the angels. Earthly orders of seating at worship and meals, or authority within the community, or dealings with inferiors or superiors were seen as preparation for the eternal order to come.[2]

It’s not so very far from our obsessions with class and status, is it? But Jesus says, “How many times must I tell you?”

So that’s what he does. He tells them again – and not for the last time. Put yourselves last, not first, he says (verse 35). Be the servant of all, he continues (verse 35). And as someone once said, it’s all right being a servant until you are treated like one. With sentiments some of us might guiltily recognise, the Greek philosopher Plato said,

“How can a man be happy when he has to serve someone?”[3]

A relative of mine told his children, “Work hard so that you are the one giving the orders, not taking the orders.” In a sense, I know what he meant, because he wanted his children to fulfil their potential and do well in their careers. He didn’t want them to end up failing to meet their potential as a result of laziness. But – Jesus says, put yourself last in the queue (which isn’t a British ‘After you – no, after you, I insist’) and be a servant.

To drive home his point, he enacts his message, drawing a small child to himself (verse 36). He doesn’t call his disciples here to behave in childlike ways, he calls them to welcome one like a child.

The point is that children held a very low status in first century Palestinian society:

We are mistaken if we imagine that Greek and Jewish society extolled the virtues of childhood as do modern societies in general. Societies with high infant mortality rates and great demand for human labour cannot afford to be sentimental about infants and youth. In Judaism, children and women were largely auxiliary members of society whose connection to the social mainstream depended on men (either as fathers or husbands). Children, in particular, were thought of as “not having arrived.” They were good illustrations of “the very last” (v. 35).[4]

So the call is not to be like the child but like Jesus. Be like Jesus, who embraces the last and the least of society. If we walk the way to the Cross with Jesus who dies due to the sin of the world and for the sin of the world, if we have received his forgiveness and are forgiving others, then we shall also reject worldly obsessions with status and position.  Our priority will be to put ourselves with those who matter least in our society. It’s neither attractive nor glamorous to our normal instincts and preferences. But it’s where the Jesus of the Cross calls us.

The question is, how many times will he have to tell us?

[1] The ‘divine passive’ voice.

[2] James R Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, p286.

[3] Op. cit., p287.

[4] Op. cit., p287f.

links for 2009-09-19

links for 2009-09-14

Sermon: The Identity Of Jesus And His Disciples

Mark 8:27-38

Just the other day I came across a spoof news report from two years ago which claimed that the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith wanted people to use their loyalty cards more, and for stores which didn’t have them to introduce them. This was to combat terrorism, in the light of the Glasgow bombers having bought their supplies from B & Q, which didn’t at the time have a loyalty card. According to the article, she wanted loyalty cards to replace the unpopular idea of identity cards, and for the data collected by loyalty cards to be used in intelligence gathering operations. In the article, these words are put into Jacqui Smith’s mouth:

“The plan is not just for the ID cards, but to outsource the whole of MI5 to Tesco,” said the Home Secretary. “Frankly they seem to know more about what people in this country are doing than we do.”

Identity. It’s a big theme today. Identity cards and identity theft are but two major areas of concern and controversy about the identity of individuals in our society.

And identity is a central theme of our Gospel reading. It’s about the identity of Jesus, and the consequent identity of his disciples. I see this revelation of identity coming in three phases.

Firstly, we have a confession.

If you like reading stories, I wonder what kinds you prefer. Thrillers, romance, epics? If you enjoy whodunits or mysteries, you will be somewhat disappointed by Mark’s Gospel. In the very first verse, he tells us it is the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is both the Christ (or Messiah) and the Son of God. At the Cross, the Roman centurion confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, and here, Peter says ‘You are the Messiah’ (verse 29), when Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, as opposed to the opinions of people they know.

This, then, is one of the high water marks of Mark’s Gospel. Here, after all the build-up, with Jesus’ popularity among ordinary people and the opposition starting to rise from those who feel threatened by him, is a decisive confession by Peter. ‘You are the Messiah.’ Lesser options, like the ones proposed by others, will not do. Jesus is more than ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets’ (verse 28).

And it’s similar today. Lesser confessions will not do. Around the time I first became seriously interested in faith for myself, musicals like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar had been popular. Both contain elements that are worthy of appreciation by Christians, and it’s interesting to see how people without a clear Christian faith perceive Jesus, but both fall short. Godspell is ambivalent about the Resurrection. Jesus is dead at the end, and you simply have the ambiguous song ‘Long live God.’ And Jesus Christ is more than a superstar. Indeed, his whole approach to life would critique attitudes to stardom and popularity.

Do we run the danger of making a lesser confession in the Church sometimes? Possibly. Might liberal Christians be so enamoured by the social justice implications of Jesus’ teachings that they forget the importance of salvation from our own sins? Might catholic Christians be so entranced by the power of the sacraments in remembering Jesus that they overlook the personal responsibility we have in embracing faith? Might evangelical Christians be so caught up with the personal blessings of salvation that they pass over the social implications of his message and ministry?

These are all over-simplifications, I know, but I hope I make this simple point. Encounter with Jesus leads to a full-blooded confession of him as Messiah. It involves the blessings of forgiveness, new life and salvation for us. It starts with God’s initiative towards us, and we need to respond. And it isn’t merely for our own benefit, but for sake of God’s love for the world. All these things are implied in confessing Jesus as Messiah.

So let’s make sure our confession of Jesus is not a truncated one, not restricted by the vision of the world or by our church tradition. Let’s accept that confessing Jesus as Messiah leads us to a big, inspiring vision of who he is, what he does, who he blesses and what he calls us to do.

Secondly, there is confusion. Early in my ministry, I asked a congregation how they might have imagined their new minister before I arrived. Perhaps I was married with children, with brown eyes and right-handed. At the time, I was single (without children!). My eyes are blue (please don’t say ‘red’ after the service!) and I’ve always been part of that elite minority of people who are left-handed.

Similarly, when I moved from that appointment, I obtained a profile from one circuit I was interested in, only to find buried in it a description of their ideal minister as being married with children. At the time, I was still single (and still without children!). I found it sobering to talk the other morning with our Chair of District about our move from this circuit when she said I would be a more attractive option to some circuits because I was married with kids.

People can imagine all they like what someone is like, only for reality to deal a shock to them. that’s certainly what happened to Peter when Jesus explained that as Messiah he would have to suffer and die (verse 31). You’ll remember that Peter was shocked and began to rebuke Jesus (verse 32), only to earn the response

‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Verse 33)

Peter’s fantasies about the Messiah have to be exploded. No warmongering conqueror of the Roman occupying forces, but the suffering conqueror of occupying sin. We think of other Gospel stories, like James and John getting mad when a village doesn’t respond to the message of Jesus. They ask him whether calling down fire from heaven would be a good response, and Jesus declines their suggestion. No wonder they were nicknamed the Sons of Thunder.

All this is obvious to us with hindsight. We know that Jesus came as a suffering Messiah, not a military general or a freedom fighter. We know the way of the Messiah is the journey to the Cross. So you might think it would be easy for us to live without the confusion of Peter and the first disciples.

I am not so sure. We may know in our heads that the path of Jesus would take him to Calvary, but there are times when we want to call on a warlike Messiah, just like his first followers. Think about how we pray sometimes about evil. We may want God to sort it with a quick fix. We may ask God to zap evildoers, whether they are tyrants inflicting injustice on their people or folk we know who have treated us unfairly or even cruelly.

I wonder whether those are the kinds of prayers to which God answers, ‘No.’ I wonder whether heaven even says, ‘Get behind me, Satan’ to us when we pray like that. I wonder whether the way we need guiding out of our confusion about Jesus is to focus our thoughts and devotions much more solidly on the Cross. Having seen some churches ripped apart by bitterness and lack of forgiveness, I do suspect we have our fair share of Peters and Sons of Thunder in today’s church. But here, especially, and as always, the Cross is what unscrambles our confusion about Jesus.

Thirdly and finally, this passage presents us with a challenge. Many of us may find the world of the prosperity gospel preachers baffling and bizarre. If you’ve caught sight of any on satellite TV, you’ll know what I mean.

But it’s easy to understand their appeal. ‘God wants you rich’ is an attractive message in a materialistic society. ‘Jesus suffered so that you don’t have to’ plays well in a culture that spends all its time trying to avoid suffering. And while we might see through the ‘God wants you rich’ approach, I think a lot of us don’t so much think about suffering as attempt to avoid it.

But think about it we must, because the challenge of Jesus here is that just as he was to go to the Cross, so too his followers would have to face suffering because they are his disciples. ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,’ he says (verse 34).

It’s not that Jesus thinks we should go looking for suffering, but he calls us all to such an abandonment to his ways that it will bring us in the firing line of evil, just as happened to him. If that happens, then self-preservation is not an option. If I want to save my life, I will lose it, but if I surrender it for Jesus and the Gospel I will save it (verse 35).

Now that thought is one we need to apply not only to ourselves as individuals, but also to churches. How often I hear churches in these days of aging and declining congregations talk about how they are going to survive and keep open. ‘How are we going to keep our church going?’ people ask. I suggest that it is a question based on self-preservation rather than a concern for the Gospel. It’s about how we are going to save our lives, rather than a passion for other people to know the love of God in Christ. Maybe churches that talk like that are the very ones that will lose their lives.

Few people like the idea of embracing suffering head on – I certainly don’t! However, we need to remember that Jesus offers us hope with these challenging words: if we are willing to lose our lives for his sake, we will save our lives. That might be in this life, it might be in the life of the world to come. But Jesus keeps his promises. I recently read this story:

Bernard Gilpin (1517-1583) was a preacher who was taken into custody for preaching the gospel during the time when Queen Mary Tudor was persecuting Protestants. He was being taken to London to certain death, but to the amusement of the guards accompanying him he kept saying, ‘Everything is for the best.’ On the way he fell off his horse and was hurt, so they could not travel for a few days. He told the amused guards, ‘I have no doubt that even this painful accident will prove to be a blessing.’ Finally he was able to resume his journey. As they were nearing London, later than expected, they heard the church bells ringing. They asked someone why this was so. They were told, ‘Queen Mary is dead, and there will be no more burning of Protestants.’ Gilpin looked at the guards and said, ‘Ah, you see, it is all for the best.’[1]

So let us embrace the challenge, knowing Jesus will give us life everlasting, whatever we lay down now.

[1] Ajith Fernando, The Call to Joy and Pain, p36, citing Tom Carter (editor), Spurgeon at his Best, pp323ff.

links for 2009-09-10

links for 2009-09-05