Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Hand to the plough!

Peter Lockhart

‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

You will hear within my preaching again and again that there is an emphasis on God’s unconditional grace. You will hear that it is by grace alone through faith that we are saved. You will hear me say that we cannot earn our salvation but only accept what has been offered to us as a free gift and in this I believe you will hear the good news.

However, in Jesus words to his followers and Paul’s admonition to the Galatians we also hear the challenge for us to live appropriately in response to this good news.

In the reading from Luke we hear Jesus rattling off a list of challenging sayings, ‘the Son of Man has no where to lay his head’ ‘Let the dead bury the dead’ and ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ These should be heard for what they are - uncomfortable words. And whilst this response is not about saving ourselves by following Jesus it is about being a part of what Jesus is about. It is about living a kingdom life, a life that witness to the grace that we find in Jesus Christ and so living in the coming kingdom of God now.

These give us a sense of looking forward, of moving ahead. These words confront us with leaving everything that we might hold dear possession and relationships as secondary to being a part of Jesus work.

The image of the hand on the plough is an extremely powerful one and an extremely helpful one. To plough
effectively and keep the furrow straight means fixing our sight on a point in the distance, a goal, and moving forward towards that goal. As Christians we are moving forward towards the goal of the fullness of the coming kingdom. Our focus is ahead, we see our goal as we look through Jesus, through the cross, through the resurrection and ascension to our destination with the Father in the Son and through the Spirit.

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If we look back, which is O so tempting, the furrow will deviate and the work will be wasted. Those of you who drive know that you cannot drive in a straight line if you are turned away from the way that you are going. It’s just downright dangerous. Jesus calls us to be committed as his followers to looking ahead and working the plough. It is his field, his work, and it will be his harvest, but we are invited to share in his work, his mission and his ministry.

Sure we do not always do this perfectly but ours is to concentrate on the goal - the freedom of life in union with the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit.

Paul’s admonition further elucidates for us something of what this might mean. It is important for us to understand that part of what Paul was addressing was an inappropriate attitude of liberty within the early Christian community. There were those who believed that because Christ had already set them free it did not matter how they behaved. To them the law no longer applied and they could do anything they wished.

Paul certainly agreed that they had been set free by Christ but he believed that such behaviour enslaved people once again to sin and all its consequences. The freedom won for us in Christ is a freedom to live in the light of who God is. It is not an invitation to self indulgence and self gratification.

‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Alongside the commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind this is the primary commandment. Through love become slaves to one another. Just as God has given graciously to each one of us being a Christian, working the plough, is about what we do for others not just we get out of it ourselves.

Paul exhorts the Galatians to live by the Spirit and he presents to them two list one negative, one positive. These will be signs that you are being lead by the Spirit.

The negative list includes a range of issues fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and things like these.

Now the truth of my life is that as I read that list I have to tick a few off. It is easy to distract others and ourselves by concentrating on those we perceive as more severe, but all of us get angry, all of us are part of factions, most of us are jealous at times and we quarrel. We are not perfect and these things remind us of this truth and thus our need of God’s grace.

Yet within us and among us we also see the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

These fruits are the ones we should nurture that we should open ourselves to. These are the fruits that we should seek to live by to the glory of God.

Love, not mushy stuff, but the self-giving sacrificial kind of love that God shares with us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Love that does not expect to be loved back but goes on giving unconditionally, even in the face of being nailed to a cross.

Joy, deep within our souls radiating out to warms our hearts so that we might live in thanks and praise.

Peace, reconciliation with God and each other. Peace celebrated in worship, in sharing in communion and in our care for one another and the whole creation.

Patience, so difficult in an instant society when we want what we want and we want it now. Channels flicked, burgers as soon as we order them, information online at the press of a button. Patience, stillness before God and before the rush and hurry and necessity we feel that we have to be doing things.

Generosity, giving not simply tithing but giving of all that we are and all that we have for the glory of God. Generosity, giving abundantly of our time our talents our money, serving God and this world for which Christ died.

Faithfulness, being in the relationship regardless of how we are feeling. Faithfulness, committed to and drawn into the covenant promises of God through Jesus Christ.

Gentleness, tenderness and caring for each other. Gentleness, the soft word of encouragement and the embrace of love.

And self-control, putting self in the service of God and others and disciplining ourselves to stay on track.

In being here on this day you are declaring that you want to follow Jesus. In being here this day you are declaring at least a passing interest in what it means to be a disciple. On being here this day you are the church. Are you ready with your hand on the plough? Are you looking toward the goal? Do you see signs of the coming kingdom ahead? Are you listening for the guiding of the Spirit?

We are here, because God has called us to be here so let us follow where he leads not in competition or envy of one another but in service and as slaves of one another in freedom to glory of God.

In the next few moments of silence listen for God’s word to you this day. Ask yourself what you are focussed on? Ask yourself what is holding you back from being totally committed to celebrating the grace of God in your life family? Work commitments? Boredom? Sport? Entertainment? Institutions and traditions?

Hear the voice of Jesus as he invites and challenges us to be work in his field, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Consider are you looking back or are you looking forward?

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Silence of God

by Peter Lockhart on Psalm 42

“As a deer longs for flowing streams,

So my soul longs for you, O God.”

The silence of God in our era, as with many other eras in history, is palpable. The longing words of Psalm 42 are words that could be cried out as much by an agnostic as man or a woman of faith.

Where is God?
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

These are words of confusion and of lament, words that many of us in our faith are reticent to articulate for fear others might judge us as somehow inadequate in our walk with God. If I admit I do not hear God’s voice to other Christians, let alone people who have a different or no faith, what will they think of me?

Yet I would argue that direct revelation whether they come in dreams or audible voices are the exception not the rule. Certainly this is the case in the Biblical narratives. Whilst there are people who have such miraculous moments of connection, those whose hearts are strangely warmed and those who see visions, so many others have only silence.

Where is God?
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

In the storm of life there are people who cry out to God all the time.

The cry of those born in poverty who die as yet another statistic in a roll call far too great for our hearts to bear.

The cry of those without work and whose dignity is lost and whose lives so often spiral into despair.

The cry of those who live with constant pain as age and infirmity eat away at their lives.

The cry of those who suffer from a terminal illness as they long for a miracle.

The cry of our own lives as we look for a glimpse of the divine in the midst of our joys and sorrows.

I often think that those who sit in the mysterious silence of our God are in some way are especially blessed if maintain any faith at all. Jesus said to Thomas, blessed are those who believe without seeing, and might I add hearing.

For it is not simply the silence of God which confronts us it is the loud doubt and scorn of the world that surrounds us. The Psalmist laments:

My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

We live in a country and a time where and when less people are involved in the church and the church is subject to judgement and to ridicule. The mob’s voices fill the silence with a raging torrent of words offering other options and other hopes and other despairs.

Whilst the voices clamour around us as people of faith as we are questioned in our confused silence and misconceptions about God’s revelation we argue amongst ourselves.

Where can we find hope?

In the Old Testament we read of the prophet Elijah in the midst of despair on the run from Ahab and Jezebel and in the midst of his trials God comes in this way:

9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

The storm may rage around us, the storm that is life and we might think that God is absent as we cry when God is silent but let us not forget Elijah’s experience that it was in the sheer silence that God was present.

Maybe the silence that we experience is simply that moment which rests on the cusp of God’s speaking and maybe like the Psalmist we will remember that whatever we may be feeling or thinking, that:

By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.

For the silence of God that we experience is the silence that Jesus experienced in his sense of abandonment on the cross. The silence we experience is the still of Saturday when Jesus descended into the dead. But the silence we experience is also the sheer quiet in the empty tomb from which Christ has risen. God is never absent from the silence and if God is silent it never means that God is absent, and maybe it even means that God is listening, deeply listening to our lives an dour vocies. Let us find hope and heart in the silence of God that we are not alone.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Two widows, two windows into grace!

Rev Peter Lockhart

The readings today from 1 Kings and from Luke 7 lead us into hearing about 2 nameless widows who
encounter God’s grace. Widows in ancient societies often are numbered among the poorest of the poor because in male dominated societies they had no male to provide for and protect them. This morning I want to revisit each of these stories to consider the lessons which God might be giving to us on this day.

To begin with we travel back long before Jesus to the time of the prophet Elijah and we encounter a widow gathering sticks outside the town of Zarephath. Now Zarephath we are told belongs to Sidon and it is probable that she was a Phoenician woman. She is in desperate need in a time of drought.

Now if we had have read the preceding passages we would know that this drought was been sent by God and proclaimed by the prophet Elijah because the Israelite King Ahab had married the Phoenician Princess Jezebel and Ahab had begun to worship Baal with her. This helps us to understand not only the reason for the drought but that the widow that Elijah is sent to by God could be classed as God’s enemy.

So here we have this widow of Zarephath collecting sticks for her fire when Elijah the prophet appears asking for water. Now Elijah had been sent by God to this widow and trusting in God’s word he approaches her for help. The woman responds to his initial request with grace and goes to get water but before she gets fare Elijah asks for bread as well.

It is at this point the true depths of her situation are revealed as she informs Elijah that not only does she not have bread but that she had been collecting would to prepare the last her food for a final meal for her and her son after which she expected to die. Elijah reassures her that the Lord would provide and that neither the jar of meal or of oil would be emptied but would not fail until the rains came again.

Regardless of what the woman believed she obeyed the prophet’s words and used what she probably thought was the last of her food to make a meal for Elijah. The woman’s jars do not empty and do not fail and this is undoubtedly a miracle. God provides.

If we were to keep reading we would find out that despite God’s provision the woman’s son dies. She questions the prophet as to what she has done to deserve this at which time Elijah takes the boy and prays “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” God responds by raising her son from the dead at which point the woman goes on to declare that she now knows that Elijah is truly a prophet and the word of the Lord in his mouth is truth.

As I thought about this tale of the widow from Zarephath there were a number of lessons that came through that I believed were worthy of note.

First, that God’s gracious acts extend beyond the community of faith, the Israelites, to include even those who might be identified as God’s enemies.

Second, that God’s grace can be enacted by such outsiders and even those who have the least to offer.

And third, that both Elijah and the widow show some level of trust in the word of the Lord that comes to them even though they have every reason to doubt.

This brings me to say something about the widow from Nain. We have jumped ahead in history to Jesus time. And we hear about this widow as she accompanies the funeral board of her son. This woman is in a dire predicament not only has she lost her husband but now her son is dead as well. Her son no doubt represented the promise of a future for her.

There are two processions occurring: the funeral procession leaving the town; and the procession of Jesus and his followers entering the town. Jesus followers would have been on a high. He had just healed a centurion’s slave. This was another demonstration of God’s concern for those outside the community of faith. So those following Jesus would have had a sense of expectation and even joy.

As the two processions come together the centre of the story is punctuated by Jesus response, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.” Here is the heart of the story Jesus compassion, our Lord’s compassion - God’s compassion for those who suffer.

The woman did not seek Jesus’ help; she did pray or beg; nothing is said of her faith. Jesus responds to her because he has compassion for her - his heart goes out to her. This is the essence of God’s grace as Jesus heart goes out to the one who is suffering. Jesus raises the son from the dead not so that he can have eternal life but for the sake of the woman.

Once again there are clear lessons from the story but at the heart of the story is God’s heart, Jesus compassion for those in need. God’s grace comes in times of need without conditions and expectations but with love.

The two widows find themselves as recipients of God’s grace, non identities by the lack of their naming their place in scripture is elevated to being people who are cared for by God and moreover in the case of the woman from Zarephath can be agents of God’s grace.

These two stories should challenge any sense of piety or security in self righteousness that we have as they remind us that God’s grace is truly an unconditional thing and that whilst we might celebrate as God’s community of faith God’s love extend far beyond the bounds that we may wish to draw around things. For example if we were to think of whom we might consider outsiders and even enemies the notion that God is at work in them and through them might come as something as a surprise to us.

Or, if we were to consider those who suffer in the world making conditions on our aid of others may in fact be counter to the gospel.

I want to give you the opportunity to reflect a little more on what God might be saying to you this morning about grace and our response to God’s love.

Faith in Action

A. Grace is often encountered in surprising places; amidst people who we might consider strangers and even enemies or in moments of tumultuous moments of life, like a funeral procession.
Where or when have you encountered a glimpse of God’s grace in place or time that was unexpected?

B. God’s grace is at work in people who are not part of the community of faith.
Where do you see God’s grace at work in peoples who are not Christian?

C. God’s grace is worked through people who are not necessarily part of the community of faith.
Who outside the church has challenged you to grow in your faith?

D. God’s compassion for those who are suffering comes without condition.
Who is God calling you to help without condition?

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