Sunday, March 9, 2014

Turning the World Upside Down

In the first part of our service we read from Matthew 18:1-5

 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, asking, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?”2 So Jesus called a child, made him stand in front of them,3 and said, “I assure you that unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.4 The greatest in the Kingdom of heaven is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this child.5 And whoever welcomes in my name one such child as this, welcomes me.

I reflected on how slow the disciples were to get it ... but in the end they did, to such an extent that in Acts 16 they were accused of turning the world upside down.

I then re-told the story of the Rich Fool from Luke 12:13ff

 A man in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide with me the property our father left us.”14 Jesus answered him, “My friend, who gave me the right to judge or to divide the property between you two?”15 And he went on to say to them all, “Watch out and guard yourselves from every kind of greed; because a person's true life is not made up of the things he owns, no matter how rich he may be.”16 Then Jesus told them this parable: “There was once a rich man who had land which bore good crops.17 He began to think to himself, ‘I haven't anywhere to keep all my crops. What can I do?18 This is what I will do,’ he told himself; ‘I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, where I will store my corn and all my other goods.19 Then I will say to myself, Lucky man! You have all the good things you need for many years. Take life easy, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself!’20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night you will have to give up your life; then who will get all these things you have kept for yourself?’ ”21 And Jesus concluded, “This is how it is with those who pile up riches for themselves but are not rich in God's sight.”

We then sang Patrick Appleford's hymn about turning the world upside down.  I made links with the current series of Call the Midwife set in the East End of London with a story line involving a romantic involvement between a curate and one of the midwives.  As it happens, Patrick Appleford had at one time been a curate in Poplar in the East End of London - he had been the inspiration behind a movement in the 60's to write hymns with popular, light musical accompaniments.

O Lord, all the world belongs to you
and you are always making all things new.
What is wrong you forgive,
and the new life you give
is what's turning the world upside-down.

The world's only loving to its friends,
but your way of loving never ends,
loving enemies too;
and this loving with you
is what's turning the world upside-down.

The world lives divided and apart,
you draw us together, and we start
in our friendship to see
that in harmony we
can be turning the world upside-down.

The world wants the wealth to live in state,
but you show a new way to be great:
like a servant you came,
and if we do the same,
we'll be turning the world upside-down.

O Lord, all the world belongs to you
and you are always making all things new.
What is wrong you forgive,
and the new life you give
is what's turning the world upside-down.

Patrick Robert Norman Appleford (born 1925) and at one time a Curate at Poplar
Then came a reflection on the challenge of those words.

Turning the world upside down is quite some challenge.

And in some ways that can be the problem with religion.

It places upon us such a heavy burden that we cannot live up to the expectations we are all too conscious of.

And that gives rise to despair or disillusion.  What’s the point?

We cannot live up to those expectations, try as we might.

But at the heart of our religion is not simply laying down the law.

There’s something that has to go along with that.

And that is the realisation that at the heart of our faith is actually the wonderful love God has for us that reaches out to us before ever we have done anything to deserve it.

It’s that love we are going to be celebrating and exploring and delighting in as our focus turns towards building up our faith, strengthening our prayer.

As we were dreaming our dreams and re-envisioning our church the first of our priorities was Renewal and Gifts – and that’s exactly what we have been about in renewing the structures of our church in order to release people’s gifts more effectively.

Now that we have put in place our new structures we are going to focus first of all on the next of the things we identified as of prime importance.  The need we each have to grow in our faith and to strengthen our prayer life.

We have appointed someone to join our ministry team that next week we will be commissioning: Karen Haden as our Discipleship ministry leader.  Karen has been putting together thoughts she is going to share with us on Sundays after that commissioning and also a course that will focus on growing in faith and prayer.  Click here to find out more about Karen's plans.

We were joined a while back by someone visiting his sister-in-law who lived locally.  On the way out he was talking about the Methodist church he belonged to somewhere up in the North East.

He described a course he had really valued.  I passed on word to Karen.  Karen has been looking into it and is going to be sharing with us her excitement about the course.

It is called ‘Prodigal God’.  Click here to find out more about our course

And it starts with the wonderful insight that God is massively generous in his love – he is prodigal with his love and his grace.

So often we can think of religion and our faith as a burden of expectation.  How vital it is to turn that on its head and realise that faith begins with the wonderful good news of the free gift of God’s love – an incredible, amazing, enormous, prodigal love that reaches out to us.

That love can be a strengthening for us no matter the circumstances we  are in.

There is a wonderful challenge about the Christian faith.

It does involve turning the world upside down.

But that can be burdensome, it can weigh you down … it can lead to disillusion.

We are pressed in by the expectations of religion.

There’s a wonderful insight to celebrate as Lent begins and we turn our thoughts towards the temptations Jesus faced.

Jesus was just as we are.  He shared our humanity and lived it to the full.  And he faced just the same kind of temptations, the same kind of testing we do.  The wonderful thing about his story is that he didn’t succumb.

But as we look at him we know he has been there before us …

The words from Hebrews 4 are wonderful words to take to heart …

They thrust us towards something that is wonderful.

The love of God, the grace of God, the forgiveness – the empowering of that simple grace.

Since, then, we have a great high priest – a bridgebuilder who brings God down to earth and lifts us up into God’s presence.

Since, then we have a great high priest, a bridge-builder, who has passed through the heavens … into the very presence of God

Since then we have a great high priest, a bridge-builder who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession, to the faith that is so very precious to us.

 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

When we realise all that Jesus has gone through, all that he shares, the burdens placed upon him … then that is wonderfully liberating.

It means we can approach

 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

I think it is a wonderful image.

Something simply to pause over, to reflect on and to take very much to heart.

Yes, the challenge is there.

But then the realisation we can approach the very presence of God and know the extent of God’s love, his grace reaching out to us in all our weaknesses …

Grace to help

He’s been there  before us
He knows what it’s like
He’s been there before us
He knows what it takes
He’s been there before us
He knows what it is to be tested
He’s been there before us
He knows what it is to be tempted
He’s been there before us
He knows our every weakness
And so we come to him,
To him and to no other
So that we may receive mercy
And find grace to help in time of need.

Song – Only by grace can we enter by Graham Kendrick

Only by grace can we enter
Only by grace can we stand
Not by our human endeavour
But by the blood of the Lamb

Into Your presence You call us
You call us to come
Into Your presence You draw us
And now by Your grace we come
Now by Your grace we come

Lord if You mark our transgressions
Who would stand
Thanks to Your grace we are cleansed
By the blood of the Lamb
This is the love to look for our faith.

But so often we look for something else in our religion.

If God is worth believing in he should be able to change everything.

I encountered just that sentiment again this week in conversation.

What is the point of believing in a God who allows such awful things to happen in his world?

This is the world of God’s creation.

This is what the world is like.

It is in the temptation stories that Jesus rejects the kind of religion that zaps all that is wrong with the world and dramatically changes it all.  That’s not what our faith is about.

Reading:  Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
   and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

The kind of love that makes all the difference in the God we look to who is love is the kind of love that comes alongside us in a suffering world,  shows how we can play our part in alleviating that suffering … but then opens up for us a way through that suffering.

The temptations are to change the order of things dramatically – turn stones into bread, call on God to rescue you from every situation, exercise power over the whole world.

But Jesus opens up a very different way … his is the way of being vulnerable, of taking suffering upon himself, of going to the cross.

It is not insignificant that as we come to the end of Matthew’s gospel we find an echo of these three temptations.

Twicethe tempter says to Jesus in Matthew 4 If you are the son of God … and the third temptation echoes the same sentiment.

And twice at the foot of the cross comes the very same temptation – If you are the Son of God …

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’

38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ 41In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.” ’ 44The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.
The Death of Jesus

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 47When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ 48At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’ 50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’

Jeus has to go through his suffering – go to his death … and then as breathes his last comes a glimpse of glory … and the Centurion who recognises actually this is a faith that is different.

It is not one that claims power over everything.

It is one that comes alongside humanity at its most vulnerable and shares those depths …

As Jesus resists that temptation and goes to his death the Centurion it is who recognises

Truly, this man was God’s Son!

This is the heart of our faith as Matthew opens it up for us.

A faith rooted in the God of grace – who comes alongside us at our worst, stays with us through the worst … and draws us into the presence of God.

This is the mystery … this is the glory of a faith that draws us to a God whose grace, whose love is beyond our imagining.

That Christ is one with us.

At first an Orthodox Christian, then he turned his back on faith and followed every …ism under the son.

Until he encountered Jesus, the Jesus who makes a difference in people’s lives.

What made the diffeence was the story of one of those scholars who had opened up the Quest for the Historical Jesus at the start of the 20th century … and then given up the world of academia to train as a doctor and live among leprosy sufferers in Africa – living out the faith he found rooted in Jesus.

Inspired by the likes of Albert Schweitzer Nikos Kazantzakis came to faith once again.

A novelist he came back time and again to the story of Jesus.

In the Last Temptation of Christ, made into a controversial film by Martin Scorsese, he imagines the reality of that last temptation.

Two thirds of the way through the novel you arrive at the cross – and Jesus is tempted – and he, so it would seem from the novel, succumbs.  He comes down from the cross.  And he lives an ordinary life.  He marries.  He has children.   He grows to old age.

And strangely, he makes no difference to people.

His erstwhile followers pass him by.

Then on the last but one page of the novel something happens.  We are brought back to the reality that all of this has been as it were a flash forward – the shape of that last temptation.

And in fact, Jesus resists that last temptation.

He comes to his senses.

He is still on the cross.

He uttered a triumphant cry:  IT IS ACCOMPLISHED!

And it was as though he had said:  Everything has just begun.

The most wonderful end to a novel.

For it was the start not of another religion with all its unrealistic expectations, but instead the opening up of a presence, the presence of the God whose love is prodigal, whose grace knows no bounds, the God who is with us through the world and all its sufferings, and all its problems and opens up for us a way through that world in his very presence.

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