Why Ash Wednesday must be remembered at least one day each year.

Ash Wednesday – 14 February 2018

Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Matt 6:1-6 (7-15), 16-21

A feature of the readings from both Joel and Matthew is they address God’s people who were religious, faithful in their religious practices like fasting, giving alms to the poor and prayer. However, their religious practices were undertaken with the intention of impressing others. They offered effusive and showy prayers which were designed to impress others watching on. They flamboyantly dispensed alms to the poor and broadcast to their friends their giving. Their public displays of repentance appeared shallow and designed only to make a statement. Their religious practices were disconnected from their hearts. They were superficial, empty and neither impressed God nor those watching on.

They may in some small degree, at least at the beginning, have sincerely repented; and they may have had some genuine intention to make rights to God. However, the major problem which Joel and Jesus identified was they thought they were good Jews, in good standing before God because of their effusive and often public displays of piety. They were blind and deceived in their thinking they were already righteous before God and they permitted themselves the luxury of doing the religious, outward things, the ‘keeping up appearances’, while their hearts were far from him.

Ash Wednesday is more than a remembrance that we are from dust, and to dust we will return (with the unspoken but obvious warning that we must be prepared to meet God our creator). Ash Wednesday is a corrective to the tendency by God’s people, of any background or in any age, to slowly lapse into a comfortable and sometimes smug position, that if they do the right things, all will be well with God, their neighbour and life.

The practice of Ash Wednesday is a dangerous practice which has been maintained by the church for many centuries. It is a dangerous practice because it challenges the well founded and established position held by those in the church itself, that they were always Christians because of their baptism, are Christians now, and will always Christians – despite what the condition of their heart might be before God. Nothing, they believe, is demanded of them than to turn up occasionally at church, do a few right things, support a few of the fundraising causes and believe that the way they treat others will result in God’s reward. This expectation of a reward is a misplaced expectation; it is accompanied with a sense of entitlement. The condition of their heart and their standing before God is not reflected upon.

The Jews of Jesus’ day claimed they were the children of Abraham. Likewise, the Christian today claims they are, by virtue of baptism, entitled to salvation, God’s favour and blessing. However, Thomas Merton puts it this way: “’Grace’, ‘mercy’ and ‘faith’ are not a permanent possession which we gain by our efforts and retain as though a right, provided we behave ourselves. They are constantly renewed gifts.” (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Practice, 85),

The place and purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind us that our heart must be given to God as a prerequisite to whatever religious practices we then participate in or express. The heart must be converted and washed by God’s Spirit for renewal before such practices have any value or place. Ash Wednesday is to help us be freed from the dead works of religiosity. As an acquaintance disillusioned with his church put it to me: “Churches are often preoccupied with the issues of maintenance, money and management.” Repentance and faith in Christ are pushed into the background of this church’s concern. It is no wonder they do not grow because they are spiritually dead and visitors are able to sniff the scent of superficiality in their religious life.

We live during a period of church history which William C. Placher understood to be like the that which several Christian leaders of the nineteen century confronted. He writes: “Even in the nineteenth century, Christians like Soren Kierkegaard in Denmark and John Henry Newman in England, were thinking about the challenge of how to introduce serious Christianity into a society that thought itself already Christian.” (William C Placher, Callings, 330-331.) Ash Wednesday is an opportunity we are given periodically to remember we are in danger of lapsing into the self-deception that we are already Christians, and can live as Christians without the fruits of repentance and a renewed heart that expresses itself in a serious expression of faith.

 

In the Beginning …

Today we look at Genesis 1:1-19. Written approximately 3,500 years before the scientific age, its interest is about the ‘why’ God created the world, rather than the ‘how’. As you read it, keep in mind the religious context in which Israel lived. The gods of Egypt and those of the Sumerian cities of Ur, Babylon and Nippur claimed to be the creators of the world and worthy to be worshipped.

Genesis ch 1, affirms the following, much of which is a polemic (critical attack), on the claims by these gods:

(1) The Creator God has made everything: the heavens above, the earth and everything in the sea. The god of Babylon, Tiamat who was the dragon of the primordial sea, did not create the land. It was God’s Spirit, who brought into being out of the formless chaos, order and land (Gen 1:2).

(2) The sun, moon and stars were made by God. They are not explicitly named in Gen 1:16-17, but are stripped of their deity. They serve God’s purpose marking the time and seasons and should not to be worshipped.  They do not control human destiny, God does – who created them. Astrology, therefore, has no basis.

(3) The pinnacle of God’s creation is humanity, whereas the Sumerian gods claimed humans were made to serve them as their slaves. In contrast, Genesis teaches that all humanity, and both men and women, are created in God’s image (1:26-27). In Egypt, their supreme god Ra, whose son, the Pharaoh, was the incarnation of Ra, boldly claimed to be the only person to bear his god’s image.

(4) The 6 days of creation are divided into 3 days of preparation, then 3 days of fulfilment. And it is declared very good by God (1:31), not evil.

Standing Between Two Eras

Today marks the end of one year and with tomorrow, the commencement of a new one. As one era is ending, another is opening up. For many, they will have a sense of expectancy or anticipation about what the coming year may bring.

One man who stood between two eras was the elderly priest Simeon. He is described as righteous and devout, an exemplary figure of piety in whom the Holy Spirit is at work (Lk 2:25-26). He recognises the infant Jesus as the ‘consolation of Israel’ when he is brought by his parents to the temple to be consecrated to God (Luke 2:25). His aging eyes could look back on the periods of Israelite history when God’s acts of salvation had occurred, but he had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he saw the Lord’s Messiah – the beginning of a new era (Luke 2:26).

Holding the infant Jesus in his arms, Simeon stands on the threshold between two eras. In the past lies the promise which has prepared Israel for this event. Now the future beckons and the fulfilment of that promise with the arrival of Jesus in the temple. Simeon’s eyes see not just an infant, but in this infant, the very means by which God will bring his salvation. However – and here is the tremendous thing – this salvation will be a light for the nations, the Gentiles, not just for Israel (Luke 2:31-32). The salvation brought through Jesus will enable the Gentiles to be brought into God’s purpose and plan which began with Israel. This is what is sometimes termed, the ‘universality’ of salvation. Jesus is not just for the few, or ethnic Israel, but for all people from all the nations – including those in Blackburn Sth.

Mary’s Faith, and Our Fears

As I write this, many are preoccupied with the preparations surrounding Christmas. There is a sense of anticipation, especially among children, of what gifts they may receive. Celebrations are being held, loosely connected to the birth of Jesus the Messiah King and the Son of God. It is also the time of year when I turn my attention to Mary herself and the role she played in God’s plan of salvation. In the light of the events which would follow the birth of her first-born, her responsibilities were great and her influence on her son, our Lord Jesus, profound.

The response by Mary to the angel’s announcement that, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, so the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God,” is simply amazing.

She replies, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be  fulfilled.” (Luke 1:35, 38). She offers herself as a willing servant to God’s purpose. She demonstrates a quiet, but firm faith, that expresses itself in obedience to God’s bigger purpose which will provide the way by God to reconcile humanity to himself through the death of his Son.

Faith, in response to God’s calling, is a characteristic not just of Mary, but of all those who know God personally through Christ. It is a defining characteristic of the Christian’s walk with God (2 Cor 5:7; Hebrews ch 11). The same Holy Spirit who worked within Mary, is the same Person who works within us, producing the fruit of God’s works and his character in our lives – and also faith in God’s bigger plan for this world.

The faith of Mary and indeed every Christian, looks beyond the circumstances of the present time, but it is not ‘positive thinking’. It is to look to God, to recognise his power, his promises, and his desire to bring all people to know the Son he sent that we celebrate at this time of the year. Faith is to see what God’s plan and purposes are which lie beyond the current obstacles which preoccupy us.  Jesus himself said, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.” (Mark 11:22-23).

The opposite of faith is not doubt though. It is fear. Doubt is an uncertainty, an unsettled state of mind, whereas fear denies God’s ability to fulfil in our lives and this world, the purpose he has, as God, for it. Fear occurs when we shift our attention away from God’s character (what he is like), and his promises, onto our desire to keep something that is holding us back from going further with him. We prefer the known, what is cherished, and what provides stability and peace in our lives.

Mary had every reason to fear what God was asking of her. For a start there was her reputation. She ran a real risk of being known as a woman with loose morals. How would she explain to Joseph the cause of her swelling body? Her cherished marriage would be unlikely – as indeed it was when he discovered her pregnancy and considered annulling their engagement (Matt 1:18-23). Where would she live? The course of events she was being invited to participate in would not necessarily provide the stability to raise a family. And there would be all the normal questions an expectant, young woman would want to know about the birth process that created uncertainty. Her sense of peace would be unsettled by the words of the angel. Everything in her world was about to turned upside down if she responded to what God was inviting her to participate in. Yet, she lays these fears and questions aside, and gives her assent to God’s bigger purpose, trusting in God for the outcome.

At Christmas time, we not only see the angel appearing to Mary, to shepherds watching over their flocks, to Joseph who is confused and wrestling with what he is to do with his pregnant betrothed, we hear the angel’s voice. Each time we hear God’s voice, inviting us to participate in his bigger plan, it creates faith. Our hearts are settled. Peace floods us. The impossible is possible. The obstructions can be overcome and the challenges broken down into their various parts and dealt with. Mary’s faith enabled her to look at the possibility, to re-imagine a future which we are still talking about today. The questions she might have had and possibly did have after the event, were dissolved.

I heard once, when I was still a boy, a conversation between my father and a former English Spitfire pilot of the Second World War. They shared in common an interest in building boats and crayfish. Cray fisherman were often in financial difficulties or in legal difficulties, appearing before the magistrate for drunk driving or disorderly behaviour at the pub. So knowing my father with his legal skills as a solicitor was to one’s advantage; a little bit of time nattering about the fishing season or the work on his boat was time well spent and would often result in a discount.

He had, like many of his generation, heard the call, not considered the cost and trained as a fighter pilot for the RAF. One thing he said about the pilots was that they preferred to select and train the young men – those in their late teens and early twenties because their reflexes, their reaction to responding to a dog fight in the air were quicker than an older man. Younger men were open to learning; they did not question everything. Once however they had been shot down, they were often given other duties because they became more hesitant, conservative in their decision making slower and unable to maintain a ‘gung ho’ attitude of ‘we can do it’. As we get older, we become slower, more conservative, less inclined to be a risk taker, less likely to expect God to do new things and more likely to be resistant to change. Young men are not. They ask ‘how’, not ‘why’. Mary, being young, was like those young Spitfire pilots in that she had a ‘we can do it’, attitude; she was willing to be risk taker for God’s plan to be accomplished.

Whatever our age, we need to allow the story of Mary’s encounter with the angel and her faith filled response of acceptance, to be one which renews our youthful willingness to be risk takers again, in faith, to live in anticipation that we are giving ourselves to God’s bigger purpose which began at Bethlehem and continues to all the nations.

The often quoted verse, “God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16), highlights God’s interest and love was not just for the sheep in the fold, like Israel, but those outside, beyond it – the nations. This is surely then, the meaning of the Christmas message and explains why the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is not just a celebration for us, but for others as well. They too have been given the opportunity to share in the blessings and privilege of a deep and meaningful relationship with God, through the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

Not a Pet for Pale Curates

The well-known English crime writer and poet of the 1930s, Dorothy L. Sayers, describes Jesus Christ as the man who

“cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property…”.

“We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild’, and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand. True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; he referred to King Herod as ‘that fox’; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a ‘gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners’ … when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either.”

Extract taken from, “Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine.”

John the Baptist – No Cheap Grace

Christianity does not begin with a book that became a best seller. It does not really even begin with Jesus, although obviously, it is dependent on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the religious movement which followed. Rather, it begins with a slightly eccentric figure: John the baptiser, who creates a storm of interest when he begins preaching in the wilderness. It was time, he announced to his countrymen, that they must repent of their sins, be baptised and get ready for the coming of the Messiah who will be far greater than John himself (Mk 1:7).

Mark, who wrote this gospel, notes that John’s role is like that of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3). His prophetic preaching is presented as the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1 which warned that Elijah would come again just before God judged Israel. Even his eccentric appearance (a coat of camel’s hair and his eating locusts and honey), is a reference to how John is the fulfillment of that eerie figure Elijah. Mark’s point is simple: John, who baptizes, is the fulfillment of OT expectations and his arrival marks the commencement of the long waited age of the Messiah. Although John baptizes with water, this Messianic figure who comes after him will baptize them with the Holy Spirit, and this will mark the beginning of a new age: the age of the Messiah. But what does John demand of the crowd? Repentance: they need to confess their sins before they are baptized. John’s message, like Jesus (Mk 1: 14-15), makes demands before baptism is administered. Otherwise, it would be merely ‘cheap grace’ as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say later.

Not Just Waiting

Watching for the return of the master, Jesus, the Son of Man, is not the same as waiting. Wheat and barley farmers watch the weather and their crops with the eyes of an eagle. Are they doing nothing while they watch for the best time to harvest? Certainly not. A sense of expectancy builds in the farming community; plans are put on hold as the season moves forward to the anticipated harvest day, which remains undetermined and subject to the local conditions. Storms are eyed warily, prayers are offered, the machinery is readied and checked, the talk down the main street inevitably turns to the DAY and how this will work in with the so and so’s family wedding. Watching, whether for the farmer or the disciple of Jesus, is doing something; it’s anticipating and getting prepared. Watching (for the return of Jesus), shapes what we do from day to day.

Our attention at this time of year naturally shifts to one of anticipation: the Lord is coming again – and also to his first coming, the Incarnation, which has in these last days, become one overtaken with associations of commercialism and the necessity of spending big in order for it to be meaningful. Our readings for the next four Sundays of Advent will focus on his coming again (both first and second) and getting ready, a message which is quite out of step with our current culture.

The Sheep and the Goats

I grew up in country Victoria where sheep are obviously different from the goats. But in Palestine, the sheep are not white with ears that point out (like ours), but black faced with ears which hang down and look like goats until a closer examination shows the difference. Why the need by the shepherd to be separated? They are often grazed together and the sheep are prone to diseases which the goats are not; the sheep are shorn whereas the goats are milked.

At the end of time, Christ as King will come. He is called the ‘Son of Man’ – an image taken from Daniel 7:13-14 of a heavenly being who is given the authority from God’s throne. The text highlights that just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, he will separate people into two groups. The basis of the division is whether a person has cared for the poor and vulnerable person. The righteous are surprised when they are separated from the goats and called, ‘blessed by my Father’, inherit the kingdom’. (vs 34)

It is often assumed (in error), that this passage grounds our eternal salvation on our works of kindness to all in need; that is, to merely minister to anyone is ‘to do it to Jesus’. However, a careful reading of the text would suggest otherwise. The particular group which is ministered to is none other than the brothers and sisters of Christ – in other words, fellow disciples or Christians! We see this also in verse 40. In Matthew 10:40-42, Jesus highlights that offering even a cup of water in his name to one of his “little ones” who is a disciple will not lose their reward.

In the remainder of the NT, in Gal 6:10; 1 Jn 3:17; & Jas 2:14-17 it is the care of our fellow disciples of Christ who are emphasised – and this care demonstrates whether we belong to Christ’s flock or not. Once again, well intentioned religious practice must be informed by the biblical text. It does not mean we ignore the needs of people generally, but that caring for our brothers and sisters takes priority and will be the demonstration to Christ that we genuinely belong to him.

God’s Purpose Will Prevail

The result of the plebiscite was not a surprise for me when 61.6% voted in favour and 38.4% against ‘same sex marriage’. All participants for and against did so for a variety of reasons which will be for them valid ones. For Christians however, the bigger issue (and long term one), will be to come grips with the reality that the opinion of Christians is no longer valued by the society we are part of and that it will not necessarily support our aspirations or values. We are often viewed in a negative light and find ourselves on the margins of society. We now live in what is termed ‘a post-Christendom era’ and have much in common with the Church of the first four centuries and in particular, the situation which the 1st letter by Peter addresses.
However, this week’s ‘Prayer of the Week’ follows and is quite apt given the result of the plebiscite. It reminds us that God’s sovereign purpose will ultimately prevail and this encourages us to shift our attention to the calling the church has been given to preach the gospel, make disciples, mentor and train leaders, and to teach and encourage congregations so they can intelligently engage with their neighbours and express in practical ways, the love of Christ so they are seen and heard as ‘good news’. The Prayer of the Week follows:
Almighty God, whose sovereign purpose none can make void: give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world, knowing that your kingdom shall come and your will be done, to your eternal glory: through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(A Prayer Book for Australia: Prayer of the Week, Sunday between 13-19 November, p. 603)

Genuine Hope, when Hope is in Short Supply

What happens to Christians when they die? This question disturbed the Christians at Thessalonica. It is possible they understood all believers would live to see the coming of Christ (the Parousia), before they died (Matt 16:26; Mk 9:1). So Paul writes to them out of pastoral concern, not theological one, although theology must undergird the pastoral counsel or it’s merely wishful thinking. His reply is very simple. He does not want his readers, the Thessalonians (or us for that matter), to grieve like the rest of humanity. The non-Christian may not have any hope, especially if they believed in the classical Greek and Roman gods – but the Christian does. The Christian’s hope rests on the death and resurrection of Christ (vs 14), which has the power to transform and raise believers from the dead. Yes, many people have a belief in the after-life but it is more like the Vikings – an image of banquets and celebration. So Paul writes: those who have died will be brought back with Jesus when he returns. Those alive at the time of his coming (vs 15), will not be resurrected first, but will wait until his resurrection and will go out to greet him by being swept up into the clouds. There is an order (vss 16-17). The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, a trumpet call of God. Much of this imagery is taken from the OT which is not surprising where in Exodus ch 19, Zeph1:14 and Is 27:13, these signs are associated with the End; and the cloud is the presence of God. Matt 24:31 and 1 Cor 15:52 also highlight these signs. Yes, Christians have a reason to be genuinely hopeful about their future in an age when hope is in short supply.