Jesus Redefines Ambition

Human ambition is one of those things which is given a mixed response in the New Testament. From reading today’s story in Mark 10:17-31, you may get the impression Jesus was against any ambition. What happens is that two of his disciples, the brothers James and John, make a pitch to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory might confirm this view. They are diplomatically told by Jesus that they won’t be sitting in the best seats because it has already been decided and he is not the one who makes the decision. The other ten disciples are not impressed with the naked ambition of James and John when they hear about their plans. If the two brothers had been granted their request, they would have missed out on the opportunity too.

When we think of someone having ambition, it is often associated with an ability to dominate others to achieve their goals or to control certain outcomes that suit them. Consequently, it with some justification that the word ‘ambition’ is often associated with a person acting out of self-interest.

Jesus however, redefines what ambition looks like and its place in our lives. First he asks whether they are prepared to suffer for him (‘drink the cup’ and ‘be baptised as I am baptised’). They say they are, so Jesus then highlights that his style of leadership will be different from the Gentiles who think of ambition and leadership in terms of domination and control (Mk 10:42). Instead, he reverses the order – and shocks everyone’s expectations. The greatest in the kingdom will be the one who serves; their ambition is that others will succeed. This requires humility (‘a servant of all’). He concludes by pointing to his own behaviour – and its purpose: that “. . . he came to give his life as a ransom for all.” (10:45).  Our ambition is to please God and not ourselves.

Time for a “Heart Check”

Today we remember St Edward the Confessor King after whom this church is named. He was a confessor of the faith rather than a martyr for his faith. He is perhaps best well known for building the original Westminster Abbey (later demolished and rebuilt by Henry III). He is buried in the Abbey and miracles of healing are said to have occurred near his shrine, a bit like those in the early church.

Our readings today challenge us also to be confessors: to be those whose lives are committed to living joyously in response to the mercy which God had shown us, especially in Christ. We can live confidently and boldly because we have a great High Priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses and knows what it is like to be tempted. We can live knowing that we are forgiven by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit and indwelt by God Himself!

That gives us the motivation and desire to live our lives totally committed to God, knowing that all we are and all we have belongs to God and is to be used for His purposes. This is unlike the rich young ruler in the gospel reading, who thought that he could have a foot in two camps – to be a slave to mammon and also a follower of God. He thought that by focussing on the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and being unconcerned about his heart, the part of him that God was most interested in, he would be saved. But he questioned this and asked Jesus. He went away sad because he realised that the cost of following Christ was too high. Christ had asked that his first allegiance was to be to God and he had to be prepared to give away everything he had. Jesus knew where his heart really lay and that was the problem.

Let’s do a heart check on ourselves today. May God be honoured in our response to Him today and every day.

God’s Intention for Marriage

Divorce is a deeply painful experience for all concerned and has been the experience of God’s people in both the Old and New Testament periods. When one turns to the Bible, a number of different, but related responses to divorce are made. As a consequence, Christians have formed different opinions on the matter. Some have taken a ‘narrow’ reading of the texts: no divorce is acceptable, unless the other person has committed immorality of some kind or adultery (Matt 19:9). Others have taken a wider and more permissive position, highlighting marriage is an ideal, but people fail to fulfil the ideal, so it must be permitted.

Jesus clarifies his position on the matter of divorce when the Pharisees come to him to trap him with the question: is it permissible for a husband to divorce his wife? (Mark 10:2- 12) Jesus would be aware of the two schools of Jewish rabbinical thought on the matter. If he argued for a narrow view, that it was not permissible, despite the permission given in the Law of Moses in Deut 24:1, he ran the risk of offending Herod Antipas. Herod had had John the Baptist beheaded because John had kept condemning him for his marriage to his brother’s divorced wife Herodias (Mark 6:17-20). But if Jesus was too liberal, he could offend other laws concerning adultery and not be considered ‘strict’ in his position. Instead, Jesus refers back to Gen 1:27 and 2:24, which by passes the law and gets to the intention God had for marriage. He restates the view that man and woman become one flesh, therefore divorce should never occur. The gift by God to humanity of marriage is upheld. Divorce he notes, was a concession due to the hardness of people’s hearts (Mark 10:5), but falls short of the ideal. Practically, this will mean grace must then be offered to those who divorce as it is not the unforgivable sin.

What Can We Do When We are Powerless?

The letter of James remains a popular hunting ground in the New Testament by Christians looking for something to read. Its mixture of proverbs and snippets of wisdom seemingly offer instant guidance to our lives. It is, in most people’s opinion, full of ‘practical’ instruction.

James asks his readers to remain patient until the Lord’s coming, and reminds them that the Lord’s coming is near (James 5:7-9). The phrase ‘you have hoarded wealthy in the last days’ (vs 3), adds additional weight to the possibility that we are just entering ‘the last days’ and the return of Christ. Many Christians (in the West), now view the increasingly negative view toward Christians as the ‘signs of the times’ which point to the Lord’s return. However, I think it unlikely he is referring to the physical return of Christ that is taught elsewhere in the New Testament (ie: 1 Thess 5:1-11; 2 Thess 2:1ff; Matt 16:27).

The imminent appearance of the Lord James refers to is defined by the preceding verses of our reading in 5:1-6. There we see that he is referring to their exploitation by the rich – and the Lord is going to deal with them. If the first fives verses make uncomfortable reading for the rich, verses 8- 11 will for the Christian. The Lord is going to judge them as well on the basis of their behaviour of grumbling (vs 9). James’ audience were the working poor and were being exploited by the rich (1:6), who were absentee landlords. What can we do when we are powerless, without the law’s protection and being exploited? We can worship (vs 13); pray for healing (15), confess our sins (16) and seek those who wander away (19-20). James pastoral heart wants a church which will support each member until the Judge comes. Their actions will reinforce God’s promise to be with them through this trial (1:12).

The Law of the Lord Applied to Daily Life

Occasionally when reading the Bible we must ask ourselves the question: ‘Who is this material I am reading written for and why?’ In the case of our OT reading (Prov 31:10-31), whose voice do we hear and who are they instructing? (The answer is probably a woman, perhaps King Lemuel’s mother, addressing her son (31:1-3). These two questions will clarify why the book of Proverbs ends with the description of a godly wife who is industrious, entrepreneurial, noble and a vital equal to her husband in society. Throughout the Proverbs, wisdom (ie: the LORD’s wisdom), has often been pictured as a woman and contrasted with the seductive behaviour of a wayward one (1:20; 6:20; 9:1, 13). The quiet, but firm voice of the father (1:9, 2:1, 3:1, 4:1), instructs his son to make a choice between the two and consider the outcome which will follow if he chooses the loose woman who seeks to seduce him (5:3ff).

At the conclusion of the book, another image is given of the type of woman who will be an ideal wife for any man who is ‘wise’. Her wisdom is evident in her actions – and also in her speech (vs 26). The admiration of her strength, normally showered on a man, is given her (vs 25). Israelite men, like men throughout history, were prone to demean women as ‘the weaker sex’. This hymn of praise is to correct the cultural perception by men and to refocus their attention on what ought to be valued when considering marriage or when one is already married. Thus, the Book of Proverbs is primarily addressing young men, offering them guidance about the blessings of God’s wisdom, contrasted with the destruction and death which follows those who are foolish. The book will be of course, relevant to any generation or gender because its counsel takes the Law of the LORD and applies it to daily life.

No Commentary Offered

Commentary is now offered on our televisions, radios and Internet on every conceivable issue. It is now both expected and also tolerated as part of daily life. This might be due to the era when men brought their heavy transistor radios to the football matches, with long ariels poking out the back. Commentary on sport became the norm. But I wonder, is the commentary necessary when the game is right there before your eyes? Perhaps. It does add to the atmosphere of the game and it is certainly useful when listening to a test cricket match. Some noise is needed to fill the silence when nothing much is happening on the field.

Even the commentary has continued about the recent change of prime ministers and the reasons for the change. Cooking shows serve up commentary about a contestant’s ability and renovation shows thrive on it. Sometimes it offers insights and helpful background, such as when the Olympic games are being broadcast. But most commentary is really, just an opinion being aired or someone stating the obvious and retelling it, over and over again.

When we read the Bible, particularly the book of Proverbs ch 1,and the Psalms like No. 19, there is no commentary offered on how we are to understand them or how they are to be interpreted. It couches its truths in things like ‘personification’, that is, the description of an idea is presented as a person. Psalm 19 lays down its truths in paradoxes. The heavens have no speech, yet they speak to us about their creator, God. Then after describing the creation, the Psalm abruptly shifts to the OT Law and its ability to ‘speak’ and ‘illuminate’ our eyes. The Bible respects our intelligence and wants us to think about what it is saying. It is rare for it to offer an explanation or commentary. It leaves you, if you are wise, to have the ears that hear its message (Mark 4:9, 23; 8:19).

Wisdom on how to Live

Is it possible to know how to live in a way which will be life giving to us rather than stressing us out? Where will we find the guidance and values for families that will enable them to be a blessing to their children and others? Teenagers often look confused with the subject options and career possibilities and wonder what to do? There is no shortage of opinions offered to us which claim to be ‘the way’, or ‘the truth’ to find meaning and purpose in life. Weekend newspapers, radio talkback or books circulating in our community are some of the voices we hear which offer an answer to these questions. The more cynical will point to the emptiness of materialism, but be limited in offering an alternative.

For the Christian, however, there is a surprising resource already available which provides wisdom on how to live. It is the book of Proverbs in the OT. It guides those seeking life in God with a confident voice, teaching them the meaning of life and the values which will provide a deep and meaningful lifestyle. How does it do this?

It achieves this by making a practical application of the OT Law to daily life so that we might love both God and our neighbour. It provides the principles on how to live out God’s laws in daily living, and by doing this, we find life (in God), and meaning to our existence. It offers insights into the value of adhering to God’s standards and the consequences of ignoring them. Often they are memorable with no part of daily life escaping comment, be it a whinging wife, the stupidity of a man pursuing an adulterous affair or the blessing of honesty in business dealings. Even ants, an author notes, can teach us something we find, if you look at this world through the eyes of God. And for those seeking to know God’s will – look no further!

God’s desire to dwell among his people

Throughout our long history as God’s people, we have periodically seen and heard God affirming that he is with us. Think of Christmas time when we often hear the words (referring to Jesus): ‘Emmanuel: God with us’ (Matt 1:23). John’s Gospel begins with the tremendous affirmation that ‘the Word dwelt among us and we have seen his glory’ (Jn 1:14). As the people of God wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before entering the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they were guided by the presence of God revealed in the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. The Ark of the Covenant which was housed in the tabernacle, accompanied Israel and into the promised land where it was the focus of national religious life. Eventually David brought the Ark of the Covenant into his new capital, Jerusalem. Despite his desire to build a temple, a more permanent structure, he was prevented by the LORD. David had shed blood. It would be his successor Solomon who would build it. Today’s reading in 1 Kings 8, this achievement and affirms God’s desire to dwell among his people. But Solomon’s temple eventually misled Israel into thinking that its mere presence would protect them against disaster or conquest by their enemies (Jeremiah 7:3-14). Trust in God had shifted to trust in the building and it became in effect, an idol. Another problem was that it reduced God to a particular locality and they lost sight that he was a universal God, who more than filled heaven and earth. This is why it had to be destroyed. But something better replaced it: God’s indwelling Spirit, not in a temple of stone, but in the Church and also our bodies (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19). See also Acts

Prayer and Wisdom

In 1 Kings 2 we meet Solomon for the first time, famous now for his wealth and glory (“surely Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed …”), for his 700 wives, for his meeting with the Queen of Sheba and for building the first temple to God.  But he is renowned most for his wisdom.  He is the second son born to David and Bathsheba, and the first born in wedlock.  He has just become King on the death of David.

God appears to the young King in a dream and says: “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”  If God appeared to us in this way, how would we respond?  We are used to asking God for many things in our prayers, but with confidence that he will lovingly sift our supplications and grant only what is truly beneficial.  This seems like quite a different proposition, and one that needs careful thought.

Solomon is thankfully free of the hubris of youth and deeply aware of the daunting job he has inherited, so he asks for wisdom and discernment so that he will govern well.  God is so pleased with this answer that he also grants Solomon what he did not ask for – wealth and honour.

Wisdom is not just intelligence or knowledge.  We all know many clever people who are not wise.  Wisdom is not a quality we seem to value any more in our culture, so it is not surprising that it seems in short supply.  If we look back through the world leaders we have known, are there any we could call wise?  Abraham Lincoln perhaps.

The paradox of this story is that Solomon must have been wise enough already, in order to ask God for the gift of wisdom.

Faith, Bread and Wine

Christians have never enjoyed a happy relationship with the material world. Influenced by Greek views that matter was negative, sexuality and the physical world, including daily life, were viewed in a negative light. The world of ideas and the mind were elevated and valued above  the materiality of this world. As Westerners, we live with the residual influence of this position. Yet we are people who use everyday material things, bread, wine and water, in worship to convey something of God himself to the person receiving it. Jesus himself says: ‘I am the bread of life . . .’

Anglicans have tended to make two responses to Holy Communion. (I run the risk of oversimplifying this view, but hear me out.) The first, by the Anglo-Catholic, tends to elevate the liturgy and sacrament, above the simple encounter with the risen Christ given in the bread and wine. Evangelicals, in contrast, seem uncomfortable with Holy Communion, not wanting too much fuss made and tending to consider it of less importance than the ministry of the word. Both views engage with the question of how does our faith relate to what is symbolised in the materiality of bread and wine? For the Evangelical, it is faith in God’s Word and faith in Christ particularly, without the prop of other things, which is important.  That’s good Reformational teaching, I agree. But something is lost and not necessarily reclaimed with a simple view that Christ’s life, presence and love are given in the sacrament. And how does this occur? Merely saying it is a metaphor or sign leaves much unsaid and leaves us poorer for entering into this profound gift by Christ to his Church, his body.