Sermon: Advent 3, 17 December 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 17th December 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

MINISTERS AND CHURCHES

 (Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thess 5:12-28; John 1:6-8,19-28)

As some of you will have read in the bulletin or the Parish Magazine, tomorrow I celebrate 40 years since I became a priest in the Anglican Church. It’s been a great privilege, and I am thankful to God for all he has done for me, and all he has been pleased to do through me. I am particularly thankful that I have never really felt any reason to question whether this was truly the work that God wanted me to do.

As I reflected on my anniversary, I was interested to see that today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians began with Paul’s call to the people of the Thessalonian church:  “Respect those who labour among you and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you”, and “esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” In the early days of the church the leadership arrangements were much simpler than they are today in most denominations. No doubt Paul observed the members of the congregation, then chose likely people, and taught and trained them. He probably laid hands on them at a congregational gathering, as a form of ordination to pastoral ministry. He expected these people to work hard, to provide leadership, and to teach the people what they needed to understand and how they should live.

It was a ministry of leadership, teaching, guidance and sometimes correction or discipline. And the ministry was shared: it was not just one person, but a number of people who were called to this ministry of eldership. In a young church it is not surprising that people might have been tempted not to respect some of the leaders for a range of reasons: perhaps because of their background or their status in the community, perhaps jealousy, but perhaps also they could see their weaknesses and flaws. Ministers are after all not perfect people: I can certainly assure you of that! We also have our sins and failures to confess! And we certainly make our share of mistakes.

But how important it is to see ministry as just that: ministry, serving people. Being a pastoral leader does not mean that we matter more than other members of the congregation.

Authority, spiritual authority is one thing: but a quest for power, or especially the abuse of power, is a denial of what ministry is all about. It is appalling that so many clergy have used their power to abuse vulnerable people, children and others; and it is just as appalling that church leaders have been more concerned with maintaining the system than dealing in a just and godly way with this behaviour, and protecting people from those known to be abusers. And of course, the lack of compassion shown by church authorities to so many victims of clergy abuse is surely a denial of the love and righteousness of Christ himself.

Ordained ministry takes many forms: not just the rector or vicar of a parish, but being an associate or a member of a larger team, or being a chaplain in a range of settings, as well as other roles. I have experienced these varying forms of ministry myself. Our word “priest” comes from the Greek word “presbuteros”: Sydney diocese prefers to use the word “presbyter” rather than “priest” because some of its leaders believe we will read all sorts of heresy into the word “priest”. It seems to me that they have replaced a word which might sometimes be misunderstood with a word which large numbers of people will not understand at all! The word presbyter actually means an elder, an older person. Perhaps more generally it would be equivalent to our word “senior”: it might refer to age, but often it refers to a person’s position or responsibility.

Our word “bishop” is usually seen as an equivalent to the Greek word “episcopos”, which literally means “someone who looks on or who looks over”. We recognize the word in the Episcopal churches: churches which have bishops. Perhaps our best equivalent is the word “supervisor”.

John the Baptist was never a church leader: he is never described as an elder or a bishop. In our Gospel reading from John 1, he is described as a man sent from God, and a witness: someone who sees and knows, and who tells what he sees and knows.

John doesn’t suggest that he is important at all. He is not the Messiah or Elijah or the great promised prophet. He is simply the voice of someone crying in the wilderness, calling people to prepare the way of the Lord: calling people to be ready for the coming of Jesus, one who is so great that John is not worthy even to untie his sandals.

For John it is clear that his ministry is not all about him: it is all about Jesus. And that is the way it is meant to be for those called to the ministry. It is not all about me. It is not all about Ross. We are servants of Christ, and we are called to be your servants under Christ. That means that we may not always do exactly what you want, if we believe that Jesus has another plan. But we seek to be there for you, and especially to provide helpful leadership, true teaching from the scriptures, and helpful guidance along the path of discipleship.

And in the process, our desire is to foster a spiritually healthy church: a church where people find that worship is meaningful and encouraging, where people are growing in faith and understanding, where people care for one another and support each other in times of need, and where people are strengthened to follow in the way of Jesus.

Our desire is that the Parish becomes a more and more brightly shining “light on the hill”, shining the light of Christ in our community. And what does a healthy church look like? Well actually, Paul in today’s reading draws a picture for us.

It is a community where people are at peace with each other: differences and tensions are dealt with in a godly and gracious way, and people work together. It is a community where people care for each other’s well-being, practically, personally and spiritually: the faint-hearted are encouraged, the weak and struggling are helped, patience is shown in our dealing with each other, and a gracious and loving way is found to admonish the slackers, and encourage them to try to get going again. When there is a dispute or a source of tension, people do not repay evil with evil, but they seek to do good to each other.

There is true joy as we sing God’s praise, as we pray consistently and faithfully, as we acknowledge God’s blessings and are truly thankful for his goodness. This is the way church should be. Isn’t this the way we all want to help Epping Anglican Parish to be?

One other thing Paul mentions has to do with prophecy. In the days of the early church, before the New Testament scriptures had been brought together, the apostles were the key teachers, who trained appropriate people to be pastors and teachers. However there were also people who received special prophetic messages through the Holy Spirit.

There are still Christians who believe that they receive such messages today: they are mainly found in the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. Paul encourages his readers to pay attention to such messages, but also to test them. “Don’t despise these messages. Don’t try to put out the fire of the Spirit.” But don’t automatically assume they are to be accepted. Check them out. Do they fit in with the teaching of Jesus and the message of Jesus? Do they accord with the teaching of the apostles? That is wise advice in responding to anyone who claims they have a special message from God.

But it’s also quite appropriate to check out what Ross and I, and other preachers say. We have our blind spots and there are limits to our knowledge: when we preach, we seek to communicate the truth, and not lead you down the wrong path. But we don’t claim to be infallible! Let us know if you think we’re missing something or getting the message wrong. It’s far more helpful to let us know than simply to revive the old practice of having roast Parson for Sunday lunch!

Towards the end of these closing words of his letter, Paul comes back to a big theme of our readings over recent weeks, and indeed of this letter: he prays for his readers, and ultimately that includes us. He prays that God will make us truly holy, and that we will be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He prays that we will be ready for that great day. And for us all, our part is simply to keep on trusting and following Christ.

It is a privilege to be called to encourage you to keep doing that, and to work with you in discovering more about what it means to be members of God’s family. May God keep us all strong in faith, and full of love for our neighbour and for each other as we follow Christ. Amen.

 

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Advent 2, 10 December 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 10th December 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

PREPARING THE WAY OF THE LORD

 (Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2,8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15; Mark 1:1-8)

How do you begin the story of Jesus if you want to tell it clearly? When Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels, they began with the preparations for Jesus’ birth: pretty logical! John went back into eternity, bringing out the divine nature of Jesus the Son of God. But Mark ignored all this: he did not mention the birth of Jesus, but went straight to the beginning of his public ministry. In fact his account really begins with the ministry of John the Baptist.

In Mark’s Gospel, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ is the ministry of John. But we first need to notice what Mark tells us about Jesus in that opening verse. He describes the subject of his Gospel as “Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Jesus’ name is far from exotic. His name is in fact the same as Joshua, one of the great leaders of God’s people, a name which means “The Lord is Saviour”. For most parents, the name was an expression of faith in God , but in Jesus’ case, as we know, the name speaks of the reality of who this man is: he is the Lord, saving his people.

He is also Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, the one chosen and appointed by God for his special purposes, the promised Saviour and King. And he is the Son of God: and for Jesus this is not just a title of honour, but a description of his very being. This Gospel is about someone unique and wonderful, someone who expresses in his very being the glory of God.

And when I say that the Gospel of Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist, I am actually leaving out something important. For Mark’s description of John’s ministry really begins with the prophets of the Old Testament. He mentions by name the prophet Isaiah, but he actually quotes also from the Book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament as we know it. Malachi warns that the Lord will one day come to put things right, to cleanse and to judge his people: and he will send a messenger to prepare the way for that visit. People must be ready. John is that messenger.

In the second half of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks to the people of Judah exiled in Babylon, over 500 years before the coming of Jesus. We actually heard the introduction to his message in our first reading: “Prepare the way of the Lord”, for the Lord is coming to rescue his people out of exile, taking them across the desert back to their true home in Jerusalem.

Nothing will get in the way of the Lord’s purposes: valleys shall be raised up and mountains shall be flattened to make the path clear. It’s almost as if an expressway is being established from Babylon to Jerusalem. God’s people have received double for their sins: not that they have been punished twice as badly as they deserve, but that they have received a mirror image, the exact equivalent of what their sins deserve. But that punishment is now complete.

They can be sure of this, for the Lord has promised it, and the Lord’s word is sure and solid and eternal, quite unlike our human frailties. So this really is a message of comfort. The God of almighty power is coming like a shepherd to rescue and care for his sheep. “Be ready” is the prophet’s message, “Prepare the way for the Lord”.

John the Baptist has his unique ministry of preparation. He calls people to be baptized, seeking God’s cleansing as they are plunged into the waters of the Jordan: they are to repent – to confess their sins and to turn from their evil ways. But John not only calls them to spiritual readiness, but to be on the watch for the one sent by God. This man is clearly powerful: so great that John is not even worthy to untie his sandals – something normally only done by the lowest of servants.

This unique person will not continue John’s baptism with water, valuable and meaningful though that be. This man will baptize with the Holy Spirit: he will pour out the very Spirit of God on those who are truly ready, those who are willing to live as God’s people. This man has unique divine authority. This man is surely the long-awaited Messiah or Christ, the promised King and Saviour of God’s people.

Yes, Jesus is the one John is talking about: the Son of God, with authority to forgive sins, to lead God’s people, to pour out God’s Holy Spirit on his people. Jesus is the one to whom John the Baptist is pointing his listeners. John knows that he himself is merely the warm-up act, telling his stories, and getting people ready to greet the real star of the show. He is indeed preparing the way of the Lord!

And as we read in Mark and the other Gospels, the Lord indeed came 2000 years ago. But he also promised to return. And like those exiled people so long ago, we too long for something to happen. Jesus promised to return in glory, and he still hasn’t come. We too are waiting. How much longer, O Lord?

The issue has been a theme of a number of our readings over the past few weeks. And the problem is that, as our reading from Peter’s Second Letter puts it, with the Lord, one day is as a thousand years. And that is difficult not because God doesn’t understand us, but because we don’t understand God! We see the small picture, but not the big picture as God truly sees it. In fact, Peter explains that the delay of Jesus’ return is an expression of God’s patience. The delay gives more people the opportunity to repent and to find forgiveness and salvation.

It gives us time to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus, and to point people to God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s invitation, God’s promises. Faithful witness is not lecturing or harassing people: that is far more likely to push people away from Jesus. Faithful witness is about being real and open about our faith, and about why we are followers of Christ. It is not about having every answer to every possible question, but pointing people to the one who has the answers. It is not about criticizing or condemning or correcting people, but inviting people to visit our family here or in another church, and to see whether they might like to join the family. It is not Bible-bashing, but encouraging people to have a look at the story and the message of Jesus for themselves.

And we have the privilege of humbly and gently bearing witness in this interim period, before the time comes for Jesus to return as Judge of all, and as Saviour of his people.

When Jesus comes, the world as we know it will come to an end: there will be a transformed creation, a new creation. There will need to be: Peter points out that everything on the earth will be disclosed, and of course so much that is disclosed deserves to be destroyed! Sin and injustice and evil must be done away with.

And Peter gives a lovely picture: he says that in the new creation “righteousness will be at home”. We read the papers or watch the news, and time and time again, we are reminded that righteousness is not at home here! But just as the Book of Revelation tells us that in the new creation there will be no death or mourning or tears or pain, Peter tells us that in the new creation, righteousness will indeed be at home. Evil will be gone for eternity.

So what sort of people should we be, if this is what God has in mind? We are to live lives of holiness and godliness. We are to live at peace with the Lord, seeking to be without spot or blemish until we meet him face to face.

That’s a big ask, and we of course will continue to need to confess our sins and seek God’s ongoing forgiveness in Christ. Nevertheless this is the direction our lives need to be taking.

God is working his purposes out. He kept his promise to bring his ancient people back from exile. He kept his promise to send Jesus as Saviour and King.  And we can be sure that, at the right time, his Son will return in glory to gather all his people together for eternity, to judge all people with wisdom and righteousness, to assure his people of their forgiveness, and to bring about his wondrous, perfect and eternal new creation.

No we don’t know the time, and really it shouldn’t make a difference. We will all be part of these great events whether they come within the next few days or years, or whether we have died when the great day comes. So let us seek to bear witness to the love of God as we have opportunity. And let us seek to live as Christ’s followers, as people who reflect the love and the righteousness of God in our daily lives. Let us live as those who are always ready for that great day. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Advent 1, 3 December 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 3rd December 2017

Rev. Paul Weaver

CHRIST’S RETURN: PUT AWAY THE DIARY!

 (Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7,17-19; 1 Cor. 1:1-9; Mark 13:24-37)

Here we are on what is traditionally called the first day of the new church year: Advent Sunday. Most of our Gospel readings over the past year came from Matthew, but the coming year is the year of Mark. However in many ways, the subject of our Gospel readings is not changing yet. Our last few Gospels have presented parables of Jesus: these parables have warned us that we need to be ready for that day when Jesus shall return in glory, when we ourselves shall see him and be called to give an account of ourselves, and when all Christ’s people shall be gathered to share with him in the ultimate blessings of his kingdom.

So here we are in Mark Chapter 13, a long chapter from which we have heard the last section. But Jesus is not using parables this time. His teaching is more direct, and it brings a series of warnings. But we won’t really get the message of today’s passage unless we have a sense of what leads up to it.

At the beginning of Chapter 13, Jesus is with his disciples, looking at the magnificent temple of Jerusalem. This time their interest is not in Jesus’ condemnation of the trading and extortion that is going on inside. They are, after all, like tourists from the provinces, and this is one of the great buildings of its time.

“Lord,” they say, “what large stones and what large buildings!” They are rightly impressed. In Jerusalem all you can see nowadays is some of the foundations of Herod’s temple, and the stone blocks are indeed massive. It is hard to imagine how they were set in place, but the Romans knew how to do these things!

Jesus’ response to the admiring comments of the disciples does not suggest that he shared their enthusiasm. “You see these great buildings? They will all be thrown down: not one stone will be left upon another.” Yes, he was saying, this great temple will be destroyed. It will be left as just a heap of ruins.

For this to happen, surely Jerusalem itself must also be destroyed! What an awful thing to contemplate! The disciples are taken aback. It sounds terrible! When is this going to happen? And if it is going to happen, how will we know when we need to escape? What will be the signs to warn us?

And so Jesus takes the disciples through a series of signs. He speaks of false teachers and fake Messiahs; of wars and violence; of natural disasters: earthquakes and famines. He warns his followers that they will face persecution, and that even families will be divided for and against Jesus. He also assures them that his Gospel will, despite all this, be taken to all nations.

Most of this is pretty worrying. Yes, the message of Christ will spread, but following Jesus will not be easy or popular: indeed it could well be dangerous. But most of what he describes is very familiar to us: wars and natural disaster are the stuff of history, and religious division and persecution are as real today as they were 2000 years ago.

But then Jesus brings out another element. He talks about the temple being desecrated, and clearly warns of terrible suffering for the people of Jerusalem. The day is coming when it will be vital to escape the city as fast as you can, for the suffering will be terrible indeed. And indeed that suffering and destruction of Jerusalem happened in 70AD, within a generation of Jesus’ ministry. By then the Romans had had enough of Jewish resistance against their rule: many Jews escaped because they saw the signs, but large numbers were massacred – and the temple was indeed desecrated and destroyed.

Jesus is warning his followers ahead of time. “Be alert!” he tells the disciples. “Terrible things will happen. Be prepared.” And so we come to the section of the chapter that we read this morning. It certainly was a dramatic way to jump into the Gospel of Mark! “The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.” Now the prophets sometimes used language like this to describe God’s judgement against evil nations, or even against Israel. God’s judgement will be so overwhelming that it will seem that the whole world has been turned upside down.

But this time there seems to be something more happening. For people will see “the Son of Man coming in the clouds” with great power and glory, and gathering his people together from wherever they may be. Once again Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament prophets, but this time it is the Book of Daniel, which tells of God’s ultimate victory over the nations who seek to stand up against him and his rule. In Chapter 7, one like a Son of Man comes to the eternal Lord and is given eternal authority over all people. The prophet is told that this authority will in fact be shared by God’s holy people.

So when Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man in the Gospels, he is saying that he is the one referred to in that prophecy, and that one day all people will see him as the true Lord of all, and his own people will share with him in his glorious kingdom.

But back to the original question. When is this all going to happen? Jesus points to the fig tree: watch its leaves developing and you will know that summer is getting close. Jesus reminds the disciples of the signs he has already mentioned, climaxing in the destruction of the temple. These events are signs that the time is near. But they don’t give the exact timing. As Jesus emphasized, neither the angels, nor Jesus himself knew the actual day. We’ve heard that before, haven’t we? Paul was saying that to the Thessalonians in last week’s reading, and we’ve heard it at other times.

Trying to predict the date of Jesus’ return is a futile exercise, and in fact it is really an act of disobedience. It is not for us to try to predict the date, or to devise detailed schemes describing what we think is going to happen. We are not told the date, because Jesus wants us to live as those who are always ready.

But we are told that it will be soon. But soon means different things in different circumstances. The timescale involved in telling you that this sermon will end soon is quite different from that involved in saying that Christmas is coming soon. That’s probably something of a relief.

It’s different again from the timescale envisaged by the climate experts who are telling us that some Pacific Islands will soon be uninhabitable because of climate change. These people are saying that it is likely to come within a generation or two, and something needs to be done now, not just in a few decades!

In God’s timetable, the return of Jesus is just around the corner: it is the next major event in his diary. But we don’t know how long the corner is, and we have to remember that God’s outlook on time is different from ours, for with him “one day is as a thousand years”. Again the point is that we need to live as people who are always ready, for it could happen at any time.

A worker who is given the job of being on watch overnight must be always awake and alert. That is his job; that is his responsibility. And our responsibility as Jesus’ followers is to live as people who are always ready for that overwhelming and terrible and wonderful day. Jesus longs not only to tell us that we are forgiven and to welcome us into his kingdom: he wants to be able to say to us on that day “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Living in readiness means that we maintain our faith in Jesus who died for us, and who brings us forgiveness and life. Living in readiness means also that we seek to live day by day as Jesus’ followers: serving him, loving one another and loving our neighbour.

As we live by faith, and as we seek to live faithful lives, we will indeed be ready for that day – whether it comes during our earthly life, or whether Jesus comes some time after we have died. We will be part of it. Let us then live each day as those who will be known as Jesus’ friends, Jesus’ people, Jesus’ servants, on that great day. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Christ The King, 26 November 2017, Rev. Jane Chapman, St Aidan’s

Christ, the King: Last Sunday after Pentecost

Rev. Jane Chapman

Ez: 34.11-16, 20-24;

Ps 100 or 45.1-7

Eph 1.15-23

Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost…and our Gospel is that for Christ the King.

And, indeed, there is so very much in today’s readings about He whom we call Jesus: Redeemer, Master of our hearts, the New Testament Shepherd, our God who leads us out of sinfulness and is willing, with exquisite and loving patience, to bring us to an understanding of his role in relationship to us, and our role in relationship to Him.

Ezekiel tells us that, as a race, we were scattered, that we had no shepherd, that we were, in essence, mindless sheep.  Our psalm also tells us that we had no shepherd and we were in dire need of being rescued…and that we can and will be rescued by the One who draws us gently into His flock.

Thus, we become the people of God’s pasture.  Let’s for a few moments think about what it is like to be the people of God’s pasture:

  • we are not alone
  • we are always and everywhere well held: think for  a moment of just how very important it is for us, as human beings, to know that we are indeed well held;
  • we are not “scattered sheep”: we have an ever-open call and invitation to be accompanied in our life journey by He who holds the universe and lights the “stars”;
  • we are bidden to “come into God’s presence with surety and gladness”: it is an ever-present invitation from a God who wants for us to be willing to  belong to him,  and to know the beauty of his ever-holding, ever-readiness to reassure us that we are loved.

Our underlying need to be truly known and truly held is not only a need, but a gift…and an exceedingly rare one at that.  This Man- God expresses for us his own transcendent willingness to hold us, each and every one, as his own separate and specific person.  Though many, we are not lost in a competitive crowd.  Only God, only Jesus, the specifically human and divine master, shares this astounding gift with us.

We are of the same nature…God and you and me, by virtue of Jesus’ willingness to don forever our shared humanity and open the possibility to us to be drawn into that loving actuality that is both his and ours.

No wonder we are bidden to call him ‘King’.  His gentle power is all pervasive.  In today’s terms this King of ours is a walking “open door”!  No hurt of ours is unable to be held in his loving hands.  No hope is disregarded.  Not even our own sinfulness, such as it is, is denied the annealing of his gentle understanding and his willingness to stay by us in the hour of our daily struggles.

Human history is full of stories about kings…good kings, good queens, good followers of humanity and its inherent laws; and of ‘bad’ kings who trample further the down-trodden and grab what little they have and who consume the lives and the actualities of their subjects…

…and, in the wings of the world, there waits One whose capacity to love outshines the more pallid possibilities of our earth-only monarchs.

Ths is the One whose crown was once fashioned by thorns…the One whose footsteps stumbled under the burden of a crudely-fashioned Cross…the One who hung pierced and still, in all aloneness and pain, still cared for others, for all of us in our fragile humanity.

Within us, there lives a need to be joined to this King.  We are fashioned in His likeness and He calls down from Heaven, from his Father, from His Spirit, the nature and task to which he bequests a measure of his Kingliness, for us to take up willingly and follow in his footsteps.

Can we learn enough to love in the way this King loves?  Can we hear Him calling us, firstly to know that we are beloved by Him, to draw us out of our own preoccupations and open for us the doors of a willingness to serve?

For here-in lies the core of Jesus kingliness: the will to love without with-holding; the knowing of love to be a knowing of his call to service; the call both for self and others that keeps our focus on our own humanity and its capabilities; the constantly sought awareness of each other’s company, as gift, not  burden.

Together we acknowledge his kingdom of loving… and by his very grace allow ourselves to be captured by that love.