Monday, 17 February 2014

What brought me to Christ

As a typical adolescent, I was aware of two things about myself, though doubtless I could not have articulated them in these terms then. First, if there was a God, I was estranged from him. I tried to find him, but he seemed to be enveloped in a fog I could not penetrate. Secondly, I was defeated. I knew the kind of person I was, and also the kind of person I longed to be. Between the ideal and the reality there was a great gulf fixed. I had high ideals but a weak will. . . . [W]hat brought me to Christ was this sense of defeat and of estrangement, and the astonishing news that the historic Christ offered to meet the very needs of which I was conscious.
John Stott

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple


I love preaching, not that that necessarily means that I am good at it, I just love it. I get really excited about the message I am preaching and although it can sometimes be hard work putting something together, I get a real kick studying and then constructing a sermon around an idea. Sadly, however, this does not guarantee that the end result is good or beneficial or that it readily communicates with the congregation. But I believe in what I am doing and so I include this Sunday's sermon in the hope that those who read it will believe in it too. I can't say it was a success, in fact my wife said it was a little too long and she lost the thread of it - wives are so honest  aren't they - but it puts into words an argument I have been trying to build in a series of meetings I have been having with a devout Muslim. I have been trying to to explain why I believe Christ's claims are not only authentic but that his life and teachings
show us God like no other person or religion has done before or since. So here it is. hope it makes sense:

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

When I was Vicar in Hirwaun I was invited to join the Labour Party by a member of my congregation who was a member of a trade union. I didn't like the Conservatives then because I blamed them for the problems I saw amongst the people there. But I wasn’t too sure about Labour either. Who was the leader? If I was going to join any party and follow and trust any leader, it was important that I knew  who he was, what he was like. Could I trust him to rescue us from the mess we were in?

That’s the question we will be asking as we look at the baby Jesus presented in the Temple by Joseph and Mary. What does Luke tell us about him?

There are two important things Luke wants us to see.

FIRST he wants us to see that Jesus is a real person like you and I. He is human.  That comes across in the three religious ceremonies that every Jewish boy of his age had to undergo.

The first was circumcision which occurred on the eighth day after birth. This usually took place at home and was considered so sacred that unlike almost every other act, it could be carried out on the Sabbath. It was a sign of the covenant between God and his people.

The second was the redemption of the first born. According to the Law of Moses every first born male was, as Luke tells us,  “holy to the Lord” - and this was acknowledged in a simple ceremony in the Temple where a sum of money was paid in order to buy back the son from God.

The third was purification after childbirth. When a woman gave birth to a child she was considered unclean for 40 days—80 if it was a girl—and therefore could not enter the temple or share in any
religious ceremony until she had offered a sacrifice, usually a lamb or—as in Mary and Joseph’s case— the less expensive offering of two pigeons. Only after that considered clean.

So by telling us of these ceremonies Luke is saying that Jesus was in every way like any other Jewish boy born in Israel at that time. He was very much human.

But Luke wants us to recognise that as well as being the son of Mary, hidden somehow beneath this outward humanity, or co-existing alongside it is his divinity. That he is Jesus the Son of man but also the Son God. And Simeon is the one who sees that and draws that out.

And to underline his credentials—that he can be relied on—Luke describes him as a “righteous and devout” man whom he says was “looking for the consolation of Israel.” He was praying that God would rescue his people.

And in addition—to further underline Simeon’s trustworthiness—Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit was very active in his life:

In verse 25 he says “the Holy Spirit rested on him.”  That is something the Holy Spirit did on the Old Testament prophets enabling them to speak the words of God. Then in verse 26 Luke says that the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that “he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah”. And finally in verse 27 he tells us that Simeon was there because he was “moved or led by the Holy Spirit.”

So this righteous and devout man was chosen and anointed by God, led by the Spirit, to meet Jesus in the Temple. And there are three things here about Jesus that make us think of him as being more than just human, and underline his claim and the church’s claim to be divine and therefore worthy of worship:

First, he is the consolation or the hope of Israel. Simeon we are told, was waiting and praying and looking for this. Some tried to make it happen through revolt and war and violence. Others like Simeon—known as the quiet in the Land” - fasted and prayed and waited on God’s promises. They knew the prophesies in the Old Testament which promised this. e.g. Isaiah 40:1:

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for…”

Then a little later it says?

“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”

Simeon was one of those who heard those words and waited and prayed and hoped in the one whose word he knew he could trust.

You can’t live without hope. None of us can. That is what the Russian writer Dostoevsky wrote: ”to live without hope is to cease to live.”  Who do you hope in? Some put their hope in humanity. Others in
political leaders or political systems like Marxism or capitalism. Some put their hope in themselves, their own abilities or strength. But the Bible warns us

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal man, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.”     Psalm 146:3-4

When you die what good is your hope in these things then?  Who is your hope in to give you eternal life? Who is the one who can raise you up from the dead?

Simeon saw his hope and the hope of his people in the promises of God. And those promises took on physical shape and form in Jesus. Led by the Holy Spirit, he comes across the baby Jesus, and taking him in his arms he praises God, saying Lord, now I can die in peace because I have seen your promises come true.

Now bear in mind Jesus was only a baby—40 days old—but because the Holy Spirit was upon him, it was revealed to Simeon who Jesus was. Here in his arms was the answer to his prayers and the fulfilment of the Lord’s promises.  Here his hope was realised in Jesus.

And that’s another thing. Without the help of the Holy Spirit you and I will never be able to understand or acknowledge who Jesus is any more than Simeon could without the help of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit resting upon Simeon that enabled him to see, with spiritual insight, that this baby was more than just any other baby. And it is only with the Holy Spirit’s help that our eyes can be opened to see that truth too.

Second, Jesus is God’s salvation. Holding the baby Simeon praises God and thanks him that his “eyes have seen your salvation.”

I can’t speak for other religions but salvation is a central theme of the Christian faith. The simplest way of explaining it as “rescue from danger” and we see it pictured in many different ways in the Bible. God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt. He saved Jonah from the belly of the whale. He intervened and saved Daniel from the mouth of a lion and the three Jewish men from the burning, fiery, furnace. All these are pictures of God saving people. When God chose Israel to be his

people, he did not choose them because they were good, he chose them to show the world how salvation works. Because as you look at the history of Israel throughout the Bible, it is about one disaster after another. God lavishes his love on them yet they disobey him, run after false gods, break his commandments, fail time and time again to learn the lessons he patiently teaches them, killing prophet after prophet. But God never gives up. Finally he comes to them in his Son, and in Jesus shows them the full extent of his love, allowing himself to be crucified on a cross—the most painful and shameful of deaths—in order to save all those who come to realise what he has done for them.

Simeon may not have seen all this when he held the baby in his arms. But he does say an odd thing. As he blesses Jesus he says to Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, & to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

The crucifixion of Jesus divides people. Some see it as God’s curse. Other’s will not be able to understand the mystery that God has somehow and in some way died upon the cross. Other’s will see in it the most wonderful expression of God’s love and identification with his people. Some will push God away because of it. But others will be drawn near and be saved. “My eyes have seen your salvation” says Simeon to God. And that salvation comes to us in Jesus. So what do you think of Jesus? Who is he to you? It’s the difference between accepting God’s hand of healing and salvation or rejecting it.

And thirdly, and quickly, Simeon describes Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”. This underlines what we have said before. God is fully revealed in Jesus, so much so that on the night of the last
supper when he tells his disciples not to worry, he is going away but will return and take them to the father because he is the way, the truth and the life, Phillip asks him: “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Here is what Jesus replies: “Don’t you know me Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’  Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?’  The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 

Now here is the thing. Salvation hinges around who we see and and understand Jesus to be. But this revelation from God has to come through Jesus because then we will see the fullness of God and be sure to follow him and not a construct of our own fallen humanity.

Words can get misinterpreted and used to fulfil the purposes of the people who speak and wield them. But character can’t be misunderstood or misconstrued.

For example some people use religion to fulfil their own selfish ambitions or as means of exploiting others. But if you look at the character of Jesus—his love, compassion, his willingness to forgive his enemies, and the fact that his teaching is born out by his actions, his willingness to suffer and die for others—there is no way that can be misunderstood, misinterpreted or misused. That is why to see Jesus is to truly and fully see God. That is why he said “I am the light of the world. Those who follow me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

That is why we interpret the Old Testament through Jesus so that there is no misunderstanding about who God is. If he and the Father are one, then when we use his light to shine on the Old Testament we will see more fully the character of God. And this light we are to shine onto the world—the “gentiles” - so that seeing Jesus we may all see God more clearly and learn to live in peace.

So here is Jesus—fully human and yet fully God—he is the consolation or the hope of Israel and therefore the world—he is salvation to all who accept and embrace him. And he is the light that shines through his words and character and show us what God is like. Amen.

Boldness in prayer

Reading Luke 11:1-11, especially the following verses: 5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midn...