Sermon: Lent 4, 11 March 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St. Aidan’s West Epping, 11th March 2018

AMAZING GRACE

(Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 103; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:16-21)

“The church is full of hypocrites!” It’s a criticism that has been around for a long time, and not without reason. Sadly the widely reported child abuse and apparent toleration of sexual abuse within the church has reinforced this impression. How do we respond to a criticism like that, especially when we have heard so much about the church to justify the accusation?

I suppose that a clever response is to say: “No, the church is not full of hypocrites. There’s always room for one more. You’re welcome to join us.” I doubt however that that would work brilliantly!

Why do people make these criticisms of the church? Why do they seem to have higher expectations of the church than other organizations and groups? One reason perhaps is that they think that Christianity and the church’s message is all about “being good”. Perhaps they get the impression that Christians see themselves as better than other people – and as we are regularly being reminded, we far too often don’t seem to measure up.

Of course, Christians ought to live good honest decent lives. Our character ought to be godly. We ought to be known as people who love their neighbour. But we Christians certainly have our faults, sometimes glaring ones. It would be nice to think that the faults of Christians are less than they might be if they were not Christians: but you can’t prove that one way or another! And you certainly can’t say that Christians are free from hypocrisy.

Most of us have sides that we try not to display too obviously, things about ourselves that we’re not too proud of. If we were totally open before people, we would sometimes show a different face. I guess you could describe that as a form of hypocrisy: play-acting, which is the literal meaning of the word. I’m certainly guilty of that. I know of nothing I’ve done that would cause a front-page scandal, but there is a certain image that I prefer people to have of me, and it feels good if people think of me as better than I really am. And my guess is that many of us would have to admit something similar.

I am well and truly imperfect, and so are the rest of us. And that is part of the essence of being a Christian. Every Christian acknowledges that he or she is definitely an imperfect person. So if you’re not perfect, church is the right place to be. In fact a significant part of this service is the confession, as we acknowledge our failures before God. We are encouraged to be honest enough to own up to our sinfulness and our disobedience to God.

For the heart of Christianity is not how good we are. And Paul makes that clear in our reading from Ephesians 2. He gets to the heart of the Christian faith as he explains what we are all like, and what God has done to help us.

Paul uses pretty graphic language to describe our human failings. Phrases like “dead through your transgressions and sins”, “following the ways of the world”, “gratifying the passions of the flesh and following its desires and thoughts”. He says that by nature, we are deserving of God’s wrath or judgement.

Very dramatic! No wonder people think that Paul got hung up on sin! But we need to understand his point. We are not too far from the truth if we think of sin as self-centredness. It is the attitude “I want what I want”, “I will do what I want”. It is setting ourselves up as the one in charge of our lives, rather than acknowledging God, our Creator and Ruler, as rightly having first place. It is doing what I want, even if it is not what God wants, even if it is not loving towards others.

Sin is going our way, rather than going God’s way. And that means that far too often our neighbour is hurt, or at least left out. It means that we keep God at a distance, so that he doesn’t get in the way. And sadly, by cutting ourselves off from God, we cut ourselves off from his life and from his kingdom.

The natural result of this is all the evil we see in the world: it is seen in the lives of people everywhere, from all nations and backgrounds, from religious and irreligious alike. We are all sinners: far too consistently we choose our way rather than God’s. That’s what Paul says we are all like. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know he’s right.

And if that were all Paul had to say on the subject, we might indeed say that he was “hung up” on sin. However, in verse 4 of our ten verses there is a very important word: the word “but”! I remember a lecturer at Moore College saying that when you see the word “but” in the Bible, look closely because something significant is being said!

And that’s certainly the case here. For having talked about the human problem of sin, Paul gets on to what God has done about it! He goes from the bad news to the good news.

What has God done? He has brought us from death to life. He has raised us from the darkness of sin and given us a seat in the kingdom of heaven. And he has done it through Jesus Christ: above all through his death and resurrection.

Despite our sin, God has forgiven us. Despite our spiritual deadness, God has raised us to life. Despite our alienation from him, God has restored us to fellowship and given us a place in his kingdom. Despite our inability to get ourselves out of the mess, God has rescued us. And he has done it in the person of Jesus Christ: God himself, coming to share our human life – living, dying and rising for our sakes.

As those famous words we heard from John’s Gospel say: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Yes, God did it because of his love, because of his great mercy, because of his amazing grace.

Today is Mothering Sunday. We know what we expect mothers to be like. We expect them to love their children. Yes, we hope than they will guide and discipline their children in a loving way. But mothers don’t stop loving their children because they have been disobedient, or haven’t done well enough at their examinations, or don’t tidy their rooms, or put on a tantrum. Many children test out their mother’s love, but it takes a lot for any real mother to actually stop loving their children. Sadly, however, for all sorts of reasons of course, it does sometimes happen.

But what about God? God loves us humans even when we reject his love. God loves us even though we don’t deserve it. Paul refers to God’s grace and that’s what grace is all about: God’s kindness, which reaches out to us even though we don’t deserve it. God doesn’t love us because we’re good or moral or religious: he loves us because that’s the sort of God he is. He is a God of love. We can never earn God’s grace. We can’t pay for God’s grace. It is a gift, an infinitely generous gift, an expression of his infinite love.

And how do we respond when a gift is offered to us? Surely the best thing is to accept it with thankfulness. Not to ignore it. Not to refuse it. Certainly not to try to pay for it!

We simply and thankfully accept God’s gift. And that is what faith is all about. Opening up to God’s grace: accepting God’s forgiveness, God’s gift of salvation.

Paul in our passage is saying that in our sinfulness we are spiritually lost and blind. But through Christ we find God’s welcome and see God’s light.

In faith we open up to God’s wonderful love, his amazing grace. We place ourselves in his loving hands with all our faults and failings and weaknesses, and we open up to his Spirit to lead us through life.

Faith then is opening up to God and his amazing grace. And it’s the heart of being a Christian. Not being good or moral or kind or religious. But simply trusting the God who loves and welcomes us through Christ.

And that’s is why true Christianity can set us free from hypocrisy. We don’t have to pretend to be better than we are. We don’t pretend that we’re perfect. Certainly not that we’re better than other people. We take sin seriously but we don’t need to be obsessed by it, for God has graciously dealt with it through Christ.

But remember that God’s grace reaches out with a purpose in mind. Paul says that we are created, created anew, in Christ Jesus, “to do good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life”. God has good things for us to do: acts of kindness and love, deeds of generosity and service, decisions based on wisdom and honesty and righteousness and generosity, words and actions that bear witness to the love and goodness of God. Our faith doesn’t make us superior, but if it is for real, it certainly makes a difference in our lives.

Christians certainly aren’t perfect. But by God’s grace we accept in faith his gift of forgiveness and salvation, and we seek to consistently follow Jesus who shows us the way to life, and the way of life. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Lent 3, 4 March 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 4th March 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

RESPONDING TO THE VOICE OF GOD

 (Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22)

Many of us will have looked at a breathtaking view, perhaps a beautiful scene of natural beauty, perhaps taking in the night sky away from the city lights; and we have thought, “Isn’t God’s creation wonderful!” If we have done that, we are following in the footsteps of the writer of Psalm 19, which we joined in this morning.

“The heavens declare the glory of God”, proclaims the Psalmist, and he goes on to describe in pictorial terms the passage of the sun across the sky day by day. Its light and heat are wonderful, and it, along with everything else, was made by God the Creator of all things. How great indeed is God!

Of course not everyone came to that conclusion then, and not all come to that conclusion now. In the days of the Old Testament, there were many gods worshipped by different nations. Large numbers of people were not aware of the one great Creator: they might worship gods of the hills and mountains, gods of the winds, gods of the rain, and so on. These people could not recognize the wonderful reality the Psalmist was describing.

And today so many people still scoff at the idea of a Creator. Of course, it is not the role of science to answer the question of whether the world was created: it can certainly investigate questions of how and when and what, but it cannot answer questions about who made it happen or why. And it was sad for me to hear the comment from two well-known atheists in a TV discussion when they agreed that “even if there is a God, he must be pretty stingy!” I guess you can look at all the problems in the world and come to that conclusion. However when you look at all the wonderful things in the world, and consider how many of the problems in the world are result of human failings, I think it makes sense to join the Psalmist and praise our Creator!

But the Psalmist doesn’t leave it there. There is more to God than we can discover just by looking at the world. God speaks in other ways. And in the following verses our Psalmist begins to focus on what we would call the scriptures.

“The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul,” he says. He began by using the general term God, but now he talks about the Lord, using the name by which God revealed himself to Moses. The Torah of the Lord is perfect, or complete: it says all that it needs to say.

The Hebrew word Torah is usually translated as “Law”, but more accurately it means “instruction”: the Torah, those first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, provides teaching or instruction for God’s people about the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who brought his people out of bondage in Egypt, who made a wonderful covenant with them, and who brought them into the promised land.

This Psalm was written in a time before most of the books of the Old Testament were written: the books of prophecy were yet to come, and of course the Psalms and Proverbs and the other books were not yet compiled. When the Psalmist wrote these words he was thinking about the scriptures that he knew. He says that the message of the scriptures gives life to the soul, our inner being. The scriptures, with their commands and precepts and instructions, show us the way to live. We are blessed if we take in their message: we are even more blessed if we put into practice what we learn. And so it is not surprising to find that the Psalmist continues with a prayer that the Lord will protect him from serious sin, and bring him spiritual cleansing and forgiveness. The Psalm concludes with that famous prayer used by so many preachers over the years, which I used myself this morning.

That prayer was probably familiar to many of you, and you may have memories of clergy who regularly used it. But there is another piece of scripture we heard this morning which many of you will remember hearing much more often than we do nowadays. In the old Book of Common Prayer, the service of Holy Communion began with two prayers and then we had the Ten Commandments. After each of the commandments, there was a response we became very familiar with: “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” Sometimes the longer commandments would be abbreviated, and sometimes the two great commandments would be read instead of the ten. And that was fair enough, for those words from Jesus sum up the message of the Ten Commandments.

But how appropriate that response was! “Lord have mercy”, recognizing

our need of forgiveness, and then a plea for God to help us obey his commandments.

Of course once upon a time, part of our Confirmation preparation was learning those Ten Commandments: I promise not to test you on the way up to communion this morning!

And those commandments are still so powerful and relevant today: I remember preaching a series working through the Ten Commandments, about one a month, when I was at the Cathedral. There is still much to be learned from them, and they still present us with plenty of challenges.

Today let me just make a few brief observations on the Ten Commandments. Firstly the commandments make clear that our response to God is demonstrated not only by our religious activity, but also by the way we treat our neighbour. Loving God and loving our neighbour go together.

Secondly, they are not as negative as they may seem. Yes, they may have lots of  “thou shalt nots”, but these set vital boundaries: they are like the fence that is put up to stop people falling over the dangerous cliff-face. There is still plenty of freedom for people to admire the view, to take a walk, to have a picnic, to play games, to enjoy the place. But no human freedom is absolute, despite what the American gun lobby would have people believe. Yes, those “thou shalt nots” set the boundaries, but they still give us all plenty of freedom to live positive lives.

Thirdly, the commandments remind us that God is interested in all of our lives: seven days and not just one day a week, and he is concerned not just for what we might call the spiritual side of life, but all that makes it up.

And the fourth thing these commandments remind us is that God is concerned not just about our actions, but about our thoughts and attitudes: we are reminded of this by that tenth commandment which forbids the unhealthy attitude of covetousness. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount brings this out even more strongly where he warns not just against murder and adultery, but against those harmful attitudes like hatred and lust.

There is one other thing I want to point out about the commandments. They were given to God’s people when he had rescued them from bondage and made them his people. They were given to explain how to live as God’s people. They are not a stepladder we have to climb in order to reach God; they are not an HSC examination we have to pass before God will care about us. We don’t try to obey the commandments in order to get God to love us: we seek to obey them in response to God’s great love for us. They express the practical side of our privileged relationship with the God who loves us and graciously welcomes us through Christ.

So God reveals himself to us through his wonderful creation, and through the written scriptures. But above all he has revealed himself to us in his son Jesus Christ. Jesus revealed his divine authority in different ways: through the healing of suffering people, through his unique teaching about God and about life, and in today’s Gospel, by cleansing the temple which had been turned into a place of commerce and chaos instead of a true place of worship. The problem with Jesus was that he didn’t overwhelm people with his power, and force people to believe in him. And people were looking for a different kind of Saviour, a military and political Saviour, not a suffering Servant of God, and so they rejected Jesus and his message. How could anyone crucified by the Romans could be taken seriously as a Saviour? Despite his resurrection, which was attested to by hundreds of people, Jews regarded the claims of Jesus as offensive, while educated Greeks and other Gentiles regarded them as nonsense. And even now, many people find it hard to come to terms with the claims of a crucified and risen Lord. In Jesus, God takes us by surprise: but what a wonderful surprise! God’s foolishness is indeed wiser than human wisdom!

Today then, let’s remember that God doesn’t force himself on us. He reveals himself if we are ready to take notice. If some of you can’t get out to enjoy the beauty of creation any longer, perhaps those beautiful TV documentaries might remind you again of the wonders of God’s creation. And all of us can reflect regularly on the message of the scriptures, not only the books of the Old Testament, but the grace revealed in Jesus Christ and the message of the New Testament. Let us read and learn and live it out with the help of God’s Holy Spirit. And let us above all keep learning about Jesus our Saviour, and trust and follow him throughout our lives. Amen.                                                                                                 Paul Weaver