Sermon: 1st Sunday of Lent, 14 February 2016

St.Alban’s Epping,14th February 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver

“HANDLING THE TEMPTATIONS OF POWER”

(Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91; Romans 10:4-13; Luke 4:1-15)

Achieving power is a different thing from using that power well. In recent years Australia seems to have had a series of political leaders of whom many people have had high hopes, but those hopes have turned to disappointment. Foolish decisions, arrogance, weakness, unwillingness to make hard decisions, and corruption: these seem to have been characteristic of so many leading politicians for far too long. And if we are disappointed here in Australia, we look overseas – whether it is the USA or the Middle East or Africa – and think that perhaps we are not too badly off!

And we look at others who wield power – CEO’s who oversee huge losses but still get paid in the millions, while ruining the lives of thousands of employees. Or sadly, far too many church leaders who have used their power to abuse children and other vulnerable people.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see Jesus about to begin his public ministry. He is a man of unique power: the Son of God, the promised Messiah. Luke in the opening part of his Gospel has told us of his birth, of his baptism or commissioning by John, and at the end of Chapter 3, his genealogy, showing him as the descendant of David, of Abraham, of Adam.

Jesus is qualified and given the nod. But how will he approach his work? And how will he handle his power? Is he truly ready?

There is one more step for him. He must be tested – or tempted! In the New Testament, there is one word which can be translated as “test” or “tempt”. We are familiar, for instance with the Lord’s Prayer. The one phrase can be translated as “lead us not into temptation”, or “save us from the time of trial, or hard testing”. Either is right. How to translate and understand this word always depends on the context and the situation. After all, when we are tempted to sin, we are also tested to give us the opportunity to do prove faithful in doing what is right, even though it may be difficult.

But Jesus doesn’t just decide to take himself into the wilderness for a silent retreat. We are told that the Holy Spirit leads him to the wilderness. This is an essential part of God’s plan. Jesus must undergo this testing as part of his preparation for ministry. He has the power. But how will he use it?

This temptation or testing will establish the direction of his ministry. And in the process Jesus is identifying himself with the people of Israel of old. They had their forty years in the wilderness. They had to depend on God’s provision for food and all their needs. They were tempted, but too often failed. Jesus also will have to look to God for food. And he too will be tempted.

Luke tells us that the devil came to tempt Jesus. Now I don’t know what you think about the devil. I suspect that not too many of us think of him as a man in a red suit with horns and a forked tail and a pitchfork: a sort of evil superhero! I remember a film of the sixties telling the story of Jesus which had Donald Pleasance as the devil sidling up to Jesus to make him a good offer or three. Certainly if you remember Donald Pleasance, you will know him as a specialist in sinister characters: but not really the devil! Or then there’s the Sunday School student who tells his friend that he has finally worked out about the devil. “It’s like Santa Claus”, he tells his friend. “It’s really your father!”

Whether you believe in a literal angelic figure who is the devil, or you see the devil as a figurative image used to express the personal reality of evil, I will leave to you. Luke has important things to tell us, and we will allow him to tell the story his way.

“So you are the Son of God!” says the devil. “And your are famished after 40 days without food. God hasn’t been very kind to you, has he? But you’ve got the power! You can turn these stones into bread. You need to eat. Get yourself something to eat! Turn this stone into bread!”

It seems reasonable, doesn’t it? But Jesus rejects the idea. He will eat in God’s time, and in God’s way. He will not use his divine power to meet his own desires and needs. He quotes the words of Moses from the Book of Deuteronomy. “One does not live by bread alone.” There are more important things than satisfying our physical hunger. Jesus will put God’s agenda ahead of his own wants and needs.

The devil comes back for round two. “You know that God claims to be ruler of the world, but you know who really is in power! People live my way, not God’s way. I’m the real boss. Worship me and I will give you real power.” There is some distorted truth in the devil’s claims, but if Jesus submits to him, it is clear that he confirms the devil in his evil power. He again quotes from Deuteronomy. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”, he replies. The devil’s proposal might be an apparently easy way for Jesus to establish his power, but it was contrary to God’s way.

And then it is round three. The devil invites Jesus to display his power by jumping from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem into the valley below. This time the devil himselfquotes from scripture. Words we said from Psalm 91 this morning: those who live in God’s care, trusting in him, abiding under the shadow of the Almighty, will have his protection, says the Psalmist. Angels will lift the believer up as he falls and ensure that he comes to no harm. Surely, says the devil, this is a way to demonstrate that God is truly with Jesus.

Jesus responds by again quoting scripture. Again it is words of Moses: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” For what the devil was asking him to do was to test God out, to seek to use God for his own ends. To do this was not to forward God’s purposes but to try to manipulate God. Psalm 91 was written to encourage people to trust in God in their time of need. What Jesus was being tempted to do was to artificially create a situation of need for his own glory, rather than submitting to God’s purposes and God’s way. Jesus was not going to give in to this temptation either.

But this exchange raises an interesting question. Here we have the devil using scripture to tempt Jesus, and Jesus using scripture to counter him. Why was Jesus right and the devil wrong? It is not because there is some sort of pecking order in the books of scripture: that Deuteronomy and the books of Moses outrank the Book of Psalms in some way. Rather we have the reminder that just quoting scripture doesn’t necessarily prove anything.

To do justice to scripture we must always look at the context. As I already pointed out, this Psalm is an encouragement to trust the God who cares for us: it does not give us an invitation to try him out and see what tricks we can get him to do to impress us and others.

Like so many of God’s good gifts, scripture can be abused as well as used. If you think that might be happening when someone is quoting from scripture, a good starting point is to look at the whole passage being referred to. Another thing is to consider how it relates to those fundamental truths you know which are at the heart of scripture and at the heart of our Christian faith. An honest humble and sensible use of scripture will rarely lead us up the garden path.

All the way through these encounters, the temptations are aimed at getting Jesus to put his own agenda ahead of God’s. If he weakens on this, he will never go through with God’s plan, centred on serving people, and ultimately suffering, dying and rising for them.

Some have suggested that the devil is actually suggesting how Jesus should approach his ministry: “Give them food and the things they need! Give them miracles and spectacle, and impress them so that they will love you. Take the easy way, not the hard way of service and suffering.”

While Jesus will indeed perform miracles, they will always be serving the real needs of people. He is not there to impress or to overawe people, but to serve them.

Jesus’ will is to do God’s will. He is able to recognize what God’s will is, and to reject other agendas. Here he proves himself to be the true and faithful Son of God, triumphing over temptation, and uniquely fulfilling his Father’s purposes.

Jesus rejected the easy ways, and took the hard path to the cross. We will at times fail when temptation comes to us, though the challenge is – like Jesus – to recognize it and to resist it. We can trust him because he did and does measure up. We can truly follow him along the path of loving service. He is not only the unique Son of God, but he is the perfect Servant of God, who brings us forgiveness through his suffering and death for us, and who leads us along the path of life, the path to fullness of life. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 24 January 2016

Third Sunday After Epiphany – Series C

Rev. Ross Weaver

St Albans, Epping – 7.00am

St Aidans West Epping & Baptism

24th January, 2016

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10;

Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Luke 4:14-21

As we gather today no doubt we are aware of the importance of this weekend. Tomorrow we celebrate Australia Day and there is much we can celebrate. 228 years ago a very unpromising group of British refugees arrived on these shores. The English regarded them as the worst of the worst. By putting these people on ships it was hoped they would never be heard of again. Yet from this dubious beginning has arisen one of the most successful nations in the world.

Australia possesses great wealth and yet we have been more successful than most in developing a fair distribution of that wealth. We have developed a sophisticated social security system so that there is nurture for the weak. For reasons beyond my understanding, Australia has consistently lurched in the direction that fosters an open and fair society, where hard work is rewarded and we have been better than most in tackling a corruption that has warped many other societies. There is plenty we can feel good about on this Australia Day weekend.

But more than that, we can take it even further. Our love of justice drives us on to re-examine the sins of the past, to right wrongs no matter how old. This is why we have Royal Commissions into unions and Church and institutional misconduct. This is why we continue to re-visit Aboriginal issues. We don’t seem content to live with the failures, and forget those who suffer. Compare that to Northern Ireland where peace has only been achieved by the building of walls in some places so that people of either side never meet and never work out their differences. They can live their whole lives just meters from each other but never meet – such is their hatred and their bitternessntowards each other.

But Australia seems to have a vision of what it might be. And so strong is that vision that John Howard wanted to write it into the preamble of our Constitution. He was defeated but not on the idea but on the wording that might be used. But everyone understood what he was trying to do. The debate was simply about how to say it. As Australians, the values of justice and fairness go deep. We know Australia is rich and we believe everyone should have their fair share. These values make sense to us. Whenever a new Prime Minister is chosen, though we do that far too often, (worse than Italy at the moment) we usually have a speech that rehearses these core values.

And here in Luke 4 we have Jesus at the beginning of his ministry announcing what he stands for, what are his core values, what his ministry will be about. No doubt the people of Nazareth had heard of Jesus’ reputation. They would want to know what he had been saying. Jesus needs something to sum up his message. So he chose Isaiah 61. Isaiah had preached to Israel when they had been invaded by the Babylonians. He preached to a people who had lost everything during that invasion. He preached to a people who had lost all hope, who had lost any reason to hope for a better day.

We have seen the same images over the past few weeks. We have seen people wandering through the devastation of the bush fires, to see where they once lived. We’ve seen homes completely destroyed and razed to the ground where ironically the only surviving structure is the fireplace. We’ve seen the look of horror on the faces of people who have lost everything, who stare down the camera lens at us and say, “At least we’re still alive.” And then they burst into tears at the prospect of having to start all over again. What can you say to a people who have lost everything? What can you say to a people who have lost all hope, where everything around them is loss and destruction?

And yet Isaiah preached a message of good news, good news to those going into captivity, good news that their release date was drawing near.

And so again in Jesus’ day, with Israel under Roman rule, where heavey taxes were extracted and the wealth of the country was shipped off to another land, where the ruling authorities had the power of life and death over each individual, Jesus came with his message. He came to Nazareth to preach good news, he came to proclaim a message of freedom to Israel. He read the great promises contained in the book of Isaiah and then he sat down to speak. They all wondered what he would say. Then he said those amazing words, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

But what did he mean by that? When you look at those promises to Israel they are amazing, release of the prisoners, sight to the blind, comfort to those who mourn, and joy to those in despair. It sounds like the start of a golden age. It sounds like the beginning of a new world order. But we know how the story ends, shortly after this the congregation rose up and attempted to throw Jesus off a clifff.

Three years later the Romans were more sucessful with death by crucifixion. And we can wonder where have all the promises of Jesus gone, where is the message of hope now? Did he really mean we will see these goo things only in heaven? Or did he mean something else? We can feel like John the Baptist in prison, facing execution, who asks the question, “Are you really the Lord, the one who was to come or should we look for someone else?”

Jesus had come to Israel under Roman rule and had proclaimed a new Kingdom, a new way of living. But when people asked where this Kindom was, Jesus said, “This Kingdom is within us.” This new Kingdom begins with us being transformed, it begins with us sharing in the resurrection life of Jesus, it begins with us as we live as citizens of this new Kingdom. If we want to see a new world, if we want a world that is different then it must begin with us. We need to be different. If we want a world that is more compassionate, more loving, more generous, more just, more welcoming to those in need, This new world begins when we are compassionate and loving, and generous, and just and welcoming.

Too often we are too quick to point out the failings in the other person. But that can be a never-ending story. We can always pick the error in our neighbour, our friend, even our spouse! But we need to turn the harsh light of our intro-specto-scope upon ourselves and ask ourselves the difficult question of who do I need to be, what errors do I need to correct, where do I need to change? What behaviour do I need to adopt that would make me more Christ-like. How often have we seen faults in others and we can be amazed that they never change, never correct their error, never choose a wiser or more godly path. The real challenge is, dare we ask the same questions of ourselves. In Nazareth, on that day Jesus announced the fulfillment of a new Kingdom, a new world order. The question for us is, do we want to be a part of it or not?

Sermon: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 7 February 2016

St.Aidan’s West Epping,7th February 2016

 Rev. Paul Weaver

“GUILTY AS SIN?”

(Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11)

Many people have said that Christianity is hung up on sin and guilt; that Christians are obsessed with sin; that the Christian message is an attack on healthy human self-esteem.

And as I was thinking about the readings set for today, one thing which struck me was how the key characters were overwhelmed by their sense of sin. They are surely prime examples of this apparent Christian obsession, this fixation with sin and guilt. It seems to be that to be a Christian you need to regard yourself as hopeless and worthless. Why, whenever you come to church, one of the main things you have to do is to confess your sins! How healthy can that be for anyone?

Isaiah in the temple has an awesome vision of the Lord in all his glory. And what is his reaction? “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” He is devastated, terrified in the presence of the Lord because of his sin.

And then there is Paul the great apostle in 1 Corinthians. “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Surely after many years of sacrificial service, he could get over that!

Or Peter the fisherman. After a wasted night trying to catch at least some fish, Peter is directed by Jesus the carpenter to the wrong part of the Sea of Galilee, at the wrong time of day, and he gets what can only be called a miraculous haul of fish. Peter concludes that with Jesus he is surely in the presence of God. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Peter’s sense of sin makes him unfit to be in the presence of the holy God, even when it is revealed in the humanity of Jesus.

It’s pretty heavy, isn’t it? Sin makes us unworthy of God, unworthy to be in his presence, unworthy to be his servant. That seems to be the message of these readings.

Of course, that is only part of the picture. These people are intensely aware of their sinfulness and unworthiness.

What follows from this? Isaiah is assured of forgiveness and cleansing, and accepts God’s call to be his messenger. Paul has his dark past, but even so has been an extraordinarily effective witness to the Gospel and leader of the church, by the grace of God. And Peter is not only assured that he is accepted in Christ’s presence: he is also commissioned to be a fisher of men – and of course women as well!

None of these people were corrected for their sense of sinfulness, or told that they weren’t sinners, or that their sin didn’t matter.

What did happen was that they were assured of God’s forgiveness and acceptance, and as forgiven people they were called to serve God in their different but responsible ways.

And that is how it works for us too. If a sense of sin and failure dominates our life, and we believe that nothing can be done about it, then we really are in an unhealthy place. But if we realize that we are sinners, and that God’s has forgiven us at immense cost through Jesus Christ, and that he is calling us to serve him in a positive way, that is a very different thing. In fact, I would see it as a healthy outlook on life!

As a Christian, I believe that it is important for us to take sin seriously. We recognize it as a reality in our lives, and we accept the challenge to resist our sinful side and to turn away from the sin which is always lurking there. But we don’t need to become obsessed with it, because we know that we are forgiven through God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and we know that the Holy Spirit is with us as we seek to live lives that please the Lord.

Of course, sin takes many forms. There are what we might call active sins: sins of violence, dishonesty, criminal acts, and so on. There are sins of weakness: they might be linked to addictions, or the pressures of life, or the quick reactions we have in particular situations. There are sins of omission: when we fail to do that helpful thing that we should have done.

And there are sins of ignorance: we make what seems a reasonable decision, but in retrospect it is clear that the decision was morally wrong.

We have seen church leaders having to confess these real sins in recent times for their failures to respond adequately to clergy and others guilty of child abuse. And so it goes. The unkind words we say, the grudges we hold, the thoughtless way we treat people, the selfish things we do. Most of our sins are not gross, but they are real enough.

Of course we are not going to reach perfection in this world, but nevertheless we need not to accept our sins as normal: we are still to recognize temptation for what it is, and to resist the temptations that come to us.

So why is it so important to take sin seriously?

Because we are being real. Of course we are guilty of sin. In our liturgy, I don’t need to say that if you are perfect, you don’t need to take part in the confession. We mightn’t have committed a criminal act – indeed I hope none of us has! – but we know that our actions, our words, our attitudes, have not been all they could or should have been. We all fall short before God.

Of course that description of sin as “falling short of the glory of God” comes from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I think it is a helpful image. One of the ideas I often point out to people is that we are not worthy before God. We fall short. We do not measure up to what we could be or should be.

But I point out that there is a big difference between being unworthy and being worthless. People do not always see the difference. Sadly these confused people often distort the message of Christianity. We are anything but worthless. We are created by God in his very image. Yes, the image is distorted. We might say that the mirror is cracked. But the image of God is still a reality. God still values us. He loves us utterly: the best of us and the worst of us. As sinners, we fall short, we are unworthy of God’s approval. But we are not worthless, and we must never treat any human being as worthless. Let us be real about sin, but be real in a healthy way.

Being serious about sin also helps us to be humble. Humble before God, so that we don’t take him for granted and don’t take his call lightly. But also humble in our attitudes and our relationships. We are often tempted to compare ourselves with others, to compete rather than to co-operate, and sometimes to become judgemental. That was the Pharisees’ problem.

By taking our sin seriously, we remind ourselves that all humans are essentially in the same boat. Perhaps some fall short by a bit less than others, but so what? We all need God’s grace and forgiveness. We have no grounds for seeing ourselves as superior to others whose sins might be different from ours. Recognizing our sin should keep us humble.

Being serious about sin should also open us up to forgiveness. Not only God’s forgiveness of us, but also our willingness to forgive others who hurt or offend us. So often I see people who are at loggerheads with each other, or family members who have cut themselves off from each other. Something has happened to cause hurt or offence. Perhaps nothing has been done to heal the hurt, perhaps neither side has said anything, and what might have been a molehill has been allowed to grow into a mountain. Each person now feels hurt, but neither side seems able to take that step to begin to sort out the problem.

Openness and forgiveness are so often what people need. Knowing that our sin is forgiven gives us reason to be ready to forgive others who have hurt us. Jesus teaches the importance of this, and the Lord’s Prayer itself makes clear how important it is to forgive others. Our sin is forgiven: let us be ready to forgive as we have been forgiven. And in a humble way, to encourage others to do so.

But a healthy attitude to sin also gives us a challenge. Firstly the challenge to recognize temptation, to seek the Spirit’s help, and to go God’s way and not the wrong way. But there is also the challenge to serve Christ and his people. Taking sin seriously doesn’t mean that we are disqualified from Christian service. Isaiah the sinner became Isaiah the powerful prophet. Paul the enemy of Christ’s people became Paul the apostle, the preacher of the Gospel and the great teacher of Christ’s church. Peter the sinful man became Peter the apostle, who would fail Christ again, but would still be central in God’s plan to gather his church.

Yes, all sins can be forgiven, but there are some sins which might disqualify people from particular kinds of service. That is what many church leaders have failed to acknowledge as they dealt inadequately with clergy who used their position to abuse the young and the vulnerable. A church leader who uses his position to abuse people should not continue in a position of trust, even though he may be forgiven. Let us take our failings seriously, but they are no excuse for failing to serve God’s people.

So let us be real about the sin which is still in our lives. Let us be thankful for God’s forgiveness and ready to forgive others as forgiven people. Let us be humble, seeking to understand rather than to condemn or put down others who like us are less than perfect.

We do not have to hang on to our guilt, but we are called to keep following Christ, serving him and his people, as we tread the path to the kingdom with its glory and perfection. Amen.                                         Paul Weaver