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Sunday, 26 February 2017

Listen to Him



1. Introduction

The problem with having two thousand years of Christian history behind us is that we don't always appreciate the significance of the stories about Jesus that we hear so regularly each year.
I'm thinking particularly of this story of the Transfiguration,
because it is so easy for it to slide over our heads and mean nothing to us.
It's not like Christmas, when we celebrate God's having come to earth as a human baby.
It's not like Easter,
when we celebrate Jesus' death and resurrection, with their obvious consequences for us today.
It's not even like the Ascension,
when we celebrate Jesus' going to glory,
so that the Holy Spirit can be sent upon us.

Does this story actually mean anything at all to us today?

2. The Story of the Transfiguration

Jesus had gone up the mountain,
with his three closest friends,
Peter, James and John.
And suddenly something happened to him,
and he looked quite different,
was dressed in white,
and was chatting to two figures who, we are told,
were Moses and Elijah.
What I am not at all sure is how they knew they were Moses and Elijah –
it's not, after all, very probable that they had their names printed on their T-shirts.
I suppose either they were heard to introduce themselves,
or Jesus knew who they were and said "Hullo Moses, hullo Elijah!"
Anyway, at first the three friends think they are dreaming,
because they were half-asleep anyway,
but then they realise they aren't.
And Peter, getting a bit over-excited,
as he tended to in those days, babbles on about building shelters for the three men, and so on and so forth.
He didn't really, we are told, know what he was saying;
he was just so excited that he wanted to prolong the moment,
go on being there,
keep it going.
Perhaps, too, he felt the need to say something to reassure himself that he was still there.

And then the cloud comes down;
they can't see a thing,
not Moses,
nor Elijah,
nor nothing.
And they are scared, and cold,
the way you are up a mountain when the clouds come down.
And then, the voice that comes out of the cloud:
“This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!”
And they couldn't see Moses or Elijah any more, only Jesus.

“This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!”
It wasn't Moses they were to listen to,
and it wasn't Elijah.
It was Jesus.
Now, for us, that makes a great deal of sense;
we are quite accustomed to knowing that Jesus is far greater than Elijah or Moses.
But for Peter, James and John –
and, perhaps, for Jesus Himself –
it was far otherwise.
They had grown up being taught that Moses and Elijah were the greatest historical figures there were.
Moses, in their hagiography, represented the Law,
the very foundation of their relationship with God.
And Elijah represented the prophets,
those men and women of old who had walked with God and who had told forth God's message to the world,
whether or not the world would listen.
There really could be no people greater than Moses or Elijah.
No wonder they didn't say anything to anybody until many years later, when it became clearer exactly Who Jesus is.

Because they'd been told not to listen to Moses,
not to listen to Elijah,
but to listen to Jesus.

Well, that's all very well, but we know that.
It doesn't mean anything to us today,
so why do we remember it?
Well, sometimes I actually wonder whether we do remember to listen only to Jesus.
It's not that we don't mean to, but we get distracted.
And I think sometimes we find ourselves listening to Moses, or to Elijah.

3. Not Moses

If Moses represents the Law, then I think we listen to Moses a great deal more than we mean to!
We know, in our heads, that what matters isn't how well we keep the various rules and regulations we impose upon ourselves,
but whether we are walking with Jesus.
But sometimes we act as though what we do matters more!
As if whether or not we pray, or how we do it, was more important.
As if the various restrictions we impose on ourselves were more important.
As if whether or not we read the Bible every day, were more important.
But what really matters is our walk with Jesus.
If we are walking with Jesus, then we are His people,
and that fact matters far more than the various ways we may try to express that walk.

And sometimes –
I am a bit hesitant to say this, in fear you misunderstand me –
sometimes we even put the Bible in place of Jesus.
It's an easy mistake to make, because after all,
we do sometimes call the Bible the Word of God.
But it's actually clear from the Bible that Jesus is the Word of God.
And the Bible is, if anything, words about the Word.
But it's from the Bible that we learn about Jesus,
it's from the Bible that we learn who God is,
and what sort of people we will become when we become His people.
And it's not too surprising if, sometimes, we get confused.
I have heard people say
"Oh, I do love the Bible"
with the kind of fervour you would expect them to use only of Jesus.
I always want to say,
"but surely it's Jesus who you worship, not the Bible!
Surely it is Jesus you are following, in that sense."
Of course, we do follow the Bible,
we would be very silly if we didn't.
If we didn't read our Bibles and learn from them,
we wouldn't know how to follow Jesus, and we'd go off on all sorts of tangents.
And of course, even if we do read our Bibles and learn from them, we can still go off at all sorts of tangents,
and get things tragically wrong.

Look at the Crusades –
hundreds of years ago, they genuinely believed that fighting and killing Moslems was what God wanted them to do;
they seem to have taken some of the bloodthirstier parts of the Old Testament a bit literally!

Er – has anything changed much? People do seem to want to worship a bloodthirsty God, a God who is judgemental and harsh, who wants nothing more than to condemn people,
and looks for any excuse to do so,
And, sadly, they apt to find him.
You only have to look at some of the stuff coming out of the USA these days, the Biblical literalism that demands that men have control of women’s bodies, that believes it is all right to hate people of certain ethnicities,
or certain sexualities.

And similarly, if we come to it looking for a God who is loving and kind,
wanting nothing more than not to condemn people
and looking for any excuse not to do so, then that is what we are apt to find!
So while the Bible is terribly important,
we have to be careful with it.
We can't rely on the Bible without knowing that we are to rely on the One to whom the Bible points.
The Bible alone, Moses alone, cannot save us.
"This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

4. Not Elijah

And if Moses alone cannot save us, how much less can Elijah!
Elijah was on that mountain-top representing the prophets.
We are to listen, we are told, to Jesus.

That doesn't mean that prophets are not important to us.
Prophets, of course, are those people who speak forth God's word, whether as preachers –
although not all preachers are prophetic, many are –
or whether more informally,
in the sort of setting where the so-called charismata are used.
Of course if someone is telling you what he or she believes God is saying to the assembled company, that is very important,
and you would do well to listen.
But you also have to weigh it up,
to make sure that this is what God is really saying.
They do say, don't they, that one of the marks of a cult is when the leader's words are given an importance equal to, or greater than, the Bible.
Which would not, I suspect, happen if the leader's followers weren't prepared to let it!
I don't know about anybody else,
but when I come to preach, I have to remember two things.
The first is that all I have is words.
They may be very good words, or I may have written a load of –
er –
round objects,
but all they are is words.
And unless God takes those words and does something with them, we might as well all go home!
My job is to provide the words;
God's job is to do the rest.

The other thing I try to remember when I come to preach is a story I read when I was training.
Two men were coming out of church on a morning when the preacher had been more than usually dull,
and the first man had not only been bored, but had had a severe case of chapel-bottom!
And he said to his friend,
"You know, there are times I really don't know why I bother!
I have heard a sermon nearly every Sunday for the past 40 years, they have mostly been very dull, and I can hardly remember any of them!"
To which his friend, who was somewhat older, replied,
"Well yes.
I've been married for 40 years,
and my wife has cooked me dinner almost every night of those years.
I can't remember many of them, either –
but where would I be today without them?"
In other words, our sermons are to be daily bread.
They aren't supposed to last a life-time, and be life-changing –
if they are to be, that's God's job, again, not ours.

"Listen to Him".
It is Jesus that matters, not the preachers and prophets of our age.
They are at best conductors –
they bring us to Jesus.
They are not Jesus, and we are very silly if we trust them more than Him.
They cannot save us;
only Jesus can do that.

5. Conclusion

It is not Moses we must listen to,
Moses who represents the Law, or the Scriptures.
It is not Elijah,
Elijah who represents the prophets and preachers.
It is Jesus.
"This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
Of course, the Bible is important.
Of course, our prophets and preachers are important.
But they are only important in so far as they lead us to Jesus.
That is what matters.
They do not, and cannot, of themselves save us;
only Jesus can do that.

And do note that I said only Jesus –
all too often we use a form of shorthand, when we say that we are saved by faith!
Mostly we know what we mean –
but it is not our faith that saves us.
It is Jesus.
Sometimes we talk and think and act as though our faith saves us.
It doesn't.
Jesus does.
We are saved by what Jesus did on the Cross,
not by what we believe about it.
Nor by what we read about it.
Nor by what our preachers tell us about it.
Salvation is God's idea, and God's job, not ours.

And that, I think, is the message of the Transfiguration.
"This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
Amen.


Friday, 17 February 2017

Being, not doing

 This will not actually be preached, as it turns out the church I'm Planned for just has a token service - a "Parliamentary" service, if you will - to keep it open pending a new building.  I could wish I'd known this before spending two days of my life writing this, but as it has been written, I might as well publish it!

“Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”

I was reading an article the other day by an American pastor called Amy Butler, whose church, like us, follows the Revised Common Lectionary. Not all of her article is relevant to us, as she lives in the United States, and the culture there is somewhat different to ours, of course, but this first bit is, and I’m going to quote it directly:

“In these weeks after the Epiphany we are hearing parts of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ famous teachings from the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. Last Sunday in worship, instead of preaching a sermon I had written, I decided to “preach” the entire Sermon on the Mount – two full chapters with no breaks, the words of Jesus.

In coffee hour after worship, several people came up to me to tell me they really did not like or agree with some of the parts of my sermon that day. Two chapters. Read from the Bible. The words of JESUS.

Most of us really like certain parts of the Sermon on the Mount – the parts about the lilies of the field and where your treasure is there will your heart be also. But there are lots of other parts of the sermon, and frankly, many of them are quite onerous. There’s the love your enemies part, direction about not being a hypocrite, hard words about divorce, and a warning against religious leaders who smile too much. If you listen to the whole thing instead of picking and choosing the passages you like, I will guarantee you’ll feel uncomfortable …” (https://baptistnews.com/article/the-sermon-on-the-mount-is-counter-cultural-thats-the-point/)

And I don’t know about you, but the verse “Be perfect, just as our Father in heaven is perfect” really, really, really makes me feel uncomfortable!

How on earth are we going to be perfect? No matter how hard we try, no matter how fiercely we discipline ourselves, we are never going to be totally perfect.

Look at the Pharisees, for instance – they really wanted to be God’s people, and thought that they could succeed by doing. The trouble was, that they were so busy trying to act correctly that they forgot all about what God had said about looking after people, things like we heard in our first reading this morning:

“When you cut your crops at harvest time, don’t cut all the way to the corners of your fields. And if grain falls on the ground, you must not gather up that grain. Don’t pick all the grapes in your vineyards or pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. You must leave those things for your poor people and for people travelling through your country. I am the Lord your God.”

The Pharisees were so busy trying to tithe everything, even the product of their herb garden, that they forgot to look after their elderly parents or the travellers. They didn’t mean to be unkind; they just got rather self-righteous about things. They were too engrossed in how holy they were being that they didn’t have any spare energy to help their neighbours. And Jesus picked them up on it, pointing out, as I’m sure you remember, that it didn’t really matter how you washed your hands, or what you ate – what mattered was what you thought and felt inside, and how that expressed itself in practice.

Being perfect, in Jesus’ terms, appears to be more about who you are than what you do. We are told in John’s gospel that if we believe in him we are not condemned, but have passed from death to life. ­The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we can enter God’s presence with boldness because of what Jesus has done. The whole thrust of Paul’s letters is that we should rely on grace, not on the law. Jesus has taken the law to a whole new level; it’s not just about what you do, it’s about who you are.

Of course, who you are is going to inform what you do. Jesus reminds us that his people will love their enemies, as well as their friends; they won’t fight back when they are abused; they will pray for those who treat them badly, and in return, treat them as they would wish to be treated.

That’s not to say that God’s people are going to be doormats, letting others walk all over them. And it’s certainly not to say that you never pull up someone you see doing wrong. Remember our first reading?

“You must be fair in judgement. You must not show special favour to the poor. And you must not show special favour to important people. You must be fair when you judge your neighbour. You must not go around spreading false stories against other people. Don’t do anything that would put your neighbour's life in danger. I am the Lord.
“Don’t secretly hate any of your neighbours. But tell them openly what they have done wrong so that you will not be just as guilty of sin as they are. Forget about the wrong things people do to you. Don’t try to get even. Love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”

“Tell them openly what they have done wrong”.

Of course, like any of these things, it can be misused. We all know those people who like to “tell you the truth in love”, which invariably means they are going to be incredibly rude about something that’s none of their business.

But, by and large, it is not incompatible with loving our neighbours, of course. Look how we discipline our children, and remind them of the standards of behaviour we expect from them. Look at the demonstrations, the petitions, the upsurge in popular feeling that’s taking place in America at the moment, and to a lesser extent here. Many people feel that the attitudes and actions of Donald Trump and his government are not those that they can condone, and feel the need to stand firm against what they perceive is wrong. Many of us feel that our own government’s refusal to receive immigrant children who have lost touch with their families is very wrong indeed.

And, of course, there are others, equally sincere Christians, who hold just the opposite view to us. Especially, it seems, in the USA, where Christianity is very often allied to extreme right-wing views, extraordinary though we may find this. And, sadly, the extreme right seems to want God to be judgemental, harsh, unloving – the kind of God who says “You must be perfect” and condemns you for not being.

Well, I don’t believe God is like that. If God says “You must be perfect”, there must be a way of being perfect. The Pharisees thought it was about hundreds of very detailed rules and regulations which, if you kept them perfectly, would keep you right with God, but Jesus said it wasn’t that. Jesus said, so often, that it was who you are, not what you do, that matters.

John Wesley very much believed Christian perfection was a thing. He didn’t think he’d attained it, but he reckoned it was possible in this life. He preached on it and it’s one of the sermons we local preachers are supposed to have read – you can find it on-line easily enough. Anyway, he said about perfection was that it wasn’t about being ignorant, or mistaken, or ill or disabled, or not being tempted – you could be any or all of those things and still be perfect. Wesley reckons – he goes into all sorts of arguments here, mostly putting up straw men and demolishing them, but by and large he reckons that the closer we continue with Jesus, the less likely we are to sin. I believe he didn’t reckon that he’d got there himself, but he did know people who had. He said even a baby Christian has been cleansed from sin, and mature Christians who walk with Jesus will be freed from it, both outwardly and inwardly. I hope he’s right....

But the point is, we simply can’t be perfect in our own strength. You know that, and I know that. Trying to be will only wear us out and make us either give up in despair or become one of those harsh, unloving Christians who worships out of fear rather than out of love. We become Biblical literalists, and try to dominate women and feel it’s all right to hate people who are not like us.

No, the only way to become perfect is to allow God the Holy Spirit to make us so. To allow God to fill us with his Holy Spirit right up to overflowing. To let go, and let God, as they say. Amen.