Saturday, 21 December 2013

Christmas Day: “You shall be led forth with peace”

“You shall be led forth with peace”

How might we understand being led forth with peace on this day as we come to celebrate Jesus birth?  What peace can we find within the story of Jesus coming among us?

So often when we think of the narrative of Jesus’ birth we think of it in childish ways but John’s account of
the Word being made flesh with its ancient and alien images confronts us with the idea that something bigger is going on here.

What sort of world does the Word come into?  What sort of world is Jesus born into?

John tells us from the outset of his gospel what sort of world it is: it is a world that does not know its maker and a world in which we find conflict.
Photo Kudaker flickr Creative commons

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

In these words we hear that live in a world where peace seems to be a pipe dream; to be something beyond us.

We are not at peace with the one who made us and we are not at peace with one another.

Last week I listened to an aid worker who been working with the hundreds of thousands of displaced people on the borders of Syria.

The outworking of our lack of peace is palpable.  The inability of people to love one another results in such tragic scenes as hear coming out of the Syrian refugee camps.

As we cover our trees in tinsel and our houses with lights, we also block the asylum seekers at our borders, billions of people long for the basic necessities of life.  Our festivities may bring us joy but peace for all who God love, no.

It is easy to distance ourselves from global affairs and the difficulties of many closer to home at Christmas until we remember those fateful words “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” 

Civil war, broken relationships, tensions, mourning, and illness all hang as spectres lurking beneath the surface of our celebrations.

How can we be led forth with peace?  Not just a personal sense of peace but a peace which encompasses all people everywhere, a peace which speaks of  bigger more wholesome hope.

The clue is in the narrative “he came”, “the Word became flesh”!  Instead of remaining aloof from the problems of the world and its opposition to God and our opposition to one another “he came”, “the Word became flesh”.

God enters into the midst of our lack peace and God shares in the experience of life.

The world did not know him but he came anyway.  Jesus came to what was his own, even though they did not know him.  Jesus was a refugee, an outcast, a political and religious troublemaker, he associated with the prostitutes and tax collectors, he searched and served among the least and the lost.

And he knew what it meant to enter into the space where peace seems a forlorn hope: he endured suffering and degradation and the cross.

If there is any sense of peace that we can find this today it is not in a Santa Clause God who simple gives us random gifts but a God who shares the fullness of life and when it is done says that the lack peace, the absence of hope is not all there is for Jesus rose again from the grave.

If we are to be led forth with peace on this day, if we have anything to say to the world, it is that God does not shun the disputes of our lives but shares in the suffering and recreates them in and through Jesus, the Word made flesh, a vulnerable and innocent and tiny child.

Whether you have a sense of peace in your own life and relationships on this day the hope of “the Word made flesh” is a hope which transcends our current lives and says there is more.

May God bless and enrich not only we who are privileged enough to be here this day but peoples everywhere this Christmas!

Christmas Eve: You shall go out with joy!

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

They went out with joy.  And this evening it would be my prayer that you too will go out with joy!

The same kind of joy experienced by the shepherds, the joy of encountering God!

This is not something I can actually give you, it is God’s business, but is my prayer that as you hear the story again you might have such an encounter.

Now the story of the shepherds has always been for me one of the quintessential Christmas stories.  For me this is a family tradition.  My dad, who was also a minister, often told the story of the shepherds in his Christmas Eve sermon because the shepherds were ordinary blokes working in the fields.  It is an image we can relate to in Australia; God coming to the average bloke at his job.  The ordinary and extraordinary collide.

Yet as we think about our theme this evening “You shall go out with joy” I want to dig a little deeper into the story of these shepherds and speculate about our own encounter with God.

In the ancient world shepherds were working boys and men and the job was filled with its dangers and hardships.  Out on that hillside so long ago the shepherds had a responsibility to protect the sheep from whatever might come along: wolves, lions, thieves, storms and so on.  They had to stay awake and keep their woolen charges safe.

It was their job and they did it day in day out, night after night, year after year.

The interruption of the angels into their existence and their journey to see a child in a manger only gives us a glimpse of their lives.  We only hear about these mere few hours, we do not even know their names.  They remain anonymous to us.

Yet they are given the privilege of an encounter with the divine after which they go out with joy “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as had been told them.”

The shepherds returned to their flocks on this spiritual high.  Did they really fully understand who this baby was?  Could they fully comprehend their encounter with the angels?  What was to happen next for them?

Well the reality is they still had sheep to care for the next day, and the day after that and the day after that and so on.  I have little doubt that their encounter with angels and the baby Jesus change them but life goes on.  And, in all likelihood by the time Jesus grew to be a man and taught and shared the good news and died and was raised from the dead these shepherds would have already died.

They never followed Jesus.  At best they had an inkling that they had seen the Messiah. Yet afterwards they lived out their days working the field as Jewish shepherds in an occupied country.

The mystery of the way in which the shepherds encounter God and go out with joy I believe can give us a context by which we live after our encounter or encounters with God.

For like the shepherds we go about the world in our daily tasks: we face the dangers and drudgeries of this earthly existence, we wonder what life is about as we see the difficulties of the world around us.  But, we too like the shepherds can be blessed as we encounter God.

This is God’s gift to us, moments of divine connectedness, moments when simply hearing an ancient story about an unusual birth in a manger we glimpse God’s presence coming into our lives and into our world.

I suspect in all of the ways that we seek to fabricate joy at Christmas we are revealing a deeper yearning for an encounter with that divine joy.

We hang lights on our houses, we sing carols, we erect trees and give presents, and we share in meals and times of family gathering together.  We long for joy but as we know as happy as these things might make us they do not plug us in to any kind of divine experience and often, sadly, as we go on in our celebrating countless millions suffer.

The encounter of the shepherds with God may have been momentary, but all these hundreds and thousands of years later here we are listening to their story entwined in God’s story.

It is my prayer that this night you will go out with joy rejoicing because you have encountered God and that if tonight is not the night that you glimpse the divine that if it has not already happened there will come a time for you that God’s reality invades the drudgery and dangers of your existence and you will go out with joy praising God.

May you indeed have a holy and a joyous Christmas and may God bless you all!

After Christmas: We live!

A sermon on Matthew 2:13-18

So Christmas is over what happens next?

I think to understand what happens next for us it is helpful to continue to look at the story of Jesus’ birth as it is told to us by Matthew and see what happened next for Jesus, Joseph and Mary.

Now there are stories in the Bible that I think many of us would prefer not to be there and you can tell this is the case by the way we tell them.

A good example is the story of the wise men that came travelling from the East.  Most of us know that these men turned up with their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And many may even know that they came to see Jesus via King Herod.

This morning I want to share with you what happens next in the story of the wise men as we think about the idea that Christmas is over and what happens next for us, for you and for I. 

So to set the scene the wise men have already been and visited Jesus with their gifts and then in the gospel of Matthew he tells us this:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.’

Now I don’t know about you but I find this story a particularly difficult one.  The nice manger scene disappears.  The shepherds and angels, and the wise men and their gifts disappear into the horror of this account. Joseph and Mary become refugees fleeing in terror to another land where they will seek asylum.

And as they flee a most barbaric act is reported as Herod orders the slaying of innocent children in a mad expression of vengeance and power and protectionism.

Not surprisingly none of these gritty and uncomfortable scenes make it on to the front of our Christmas cards.

We think of Christmas as a happy time: as the celebration of Jesus birth; of God becoming one of us; of pretty nativities with angels and shepherds.  The contrast with this story could not be more pronounced.  It could leave us perplexed and dumbfounded.  What is going here?

Yet this story gives me great hope because what it does is remind me that: it is precisely because of the dislocation that occurs within peoples’ lives; it is precisely because of the insane abuses of power by those who wield it; it is precisely because innocents suffer and people are left heartbroken and mourning; it is precisely because we are so often left grasping at straws to find meaning; that God enters the world in Jesus.

Our sentimentalism about the manger scene must at some point give way to the seriousness of our human predicament and Matthew makes clear as he recounts the story of the slaughter of innocents just how serious things are.

Whilst Jesus is never recorded as saying anything directly about the slaughter of these children I can only imagine the deep sorrow he felt when he grew old enough to hear about this story and understand it. 

It makes me think of the times that we are told that Jesus looked upon the crowd and had compassion – from the depths of his being, from deep within his gut, emotions well-up as Jesus saw the pain and suffering that people endure.  It is not too fanciful to think that on some of those occasions there were numbered in the crowd people who had a child killed by Herod.  

God does not remain separate from the world in which these things happen but comes into in Jesus and shares in it and feels for us.

After Christmas life goes on.  Some of us may have a great life; some on the other hand find ourselves constantly wondering what it all means.  We stand on the cusp of a new year and maybe we are secretly longing for this year to be better than last.

It might be a personal cry from within our own hearts or it might be a cry that echoes our concerns for others whom we know nearby or who remain anonymous and are far away.

Maybe you are facing personal difficulties:  you are looking for a job; you are not well; you are mourning; you are down or you are depressed.

Or maybe you look upon this world disheartened and disillusioned: a world where over 6 million people in Syria need aid every day; a world in which our government incarcerates asylum seekers coming from other countries; a world in which bushfires, typhoons, droughts and floods are deeply impacting people’s lives now.

The grittiness and horror of the story of Joseph and Mary’s flight into Egypt with their newborn Son alongside the reprehensible killing of the children reminds us that God did not remain apart from the reality of the suffering in our created existence.

Such is God’s identification with us is that Jesus himself endures unimaginable suffering and a torturous death taking all of this suffering in our lives into himself as well.  God literally shares our pain.

But the good news is that Jesus suffering and death are not the last word because God raises Jesus from the dead and pours out the Holy Spirit on the creation.  In this we who live in the ambiguity of this life are given hope that the suffering and wailing and fleeing and horror that we and others experience are not ignored by God but shared by Jesus who continues to look upon us with compassion.

What do we do now that Christmas is over?  We go on living. We go on hoping in the God who lived as one of us.  We go on yearning to experience God more closely in the midst of all the joy and the suffering we might experience.  We go on celebrating God cared enough to be one of us.  We go on living.

Whatever the days and year ahead may hold for you may you to take heart in the serious business of God’s love which reaches beyond the barrier of the divine divide and promises us peace.

This is what we do now that Christmas is over, we accept the gift that God has given us: we live!

May God bless you all in the year ahead!

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Advent 4: You shall name him Emmanuel!

Sermon Isaiah 7:10-16
Peter Lockhart

Hope is an elusive thing:  it is that grasping at a future and looking for a transformation that has not been realised.  All of us hope for things: we desire for something to happen, for something to come. 

On this last Sunday of Advent we are challenged with thinking about what it is we hope for.  Too easily we could hope for the trivial, the banal and maybe even the selfish: nice weather for Christmas day; that the turkey or ham cooks well enough and tastes great; no arguments at the Christmas table; the gifts that I listed out so everyone knew what I needed; and the list goes on. 

But on this day as we set out on our pathway of hope we hear ancient words of hope which have a much deeper meaning and resonance in our lives.  They have echoed down over 2500 years to be heard again by our ears:

“Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

When Ahaz refuses God’s offer of a sign of hope the prophet Isaiah intervenes and declares the sign that God is giving anyway:

“The young woman is with child and shall name him Immanuel!”

The situation for Ahaz appeared dire as the Assyrian Empire asserted its strength and threatened Israel’s future and stability.  Isaiah’s prophecies were filled with images of darkness and destruction but they were also matched with hope.

“Before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

The future still held trepidation, turmoil was still at hand but hope was given.  Beyond the limitations of Ahaz’s vision and faith God’s promise was made tangible in a child who was to be born.

As Christians we can easily confuse this prophecy of Isaiah to be speaking of Jesus because Matthew borrows the prophet’s words in his recount of the annunciation of Jesus birth to Joseph. Yet following the ancient text it is more likely that Isaiah was referring to Hezekiah: Ahaz’s successor.

Regardless, of whether the child being referred to was Hezekiah or not, and regardless of the fact Matthew uses the prophet’s words in reference to Jesus what is at stake is found in the name.

She shall name him Immanuel, which means God us with us.

Here is the message of hope, “God is with us!”  God is not against us!  God has not deserted us! God is not our enemy! God has not turned away!

God is! And God is with us!

This was the message of Isaiah to Ahaz.  This is the message from Matthew to his community. And this is the message of hope that we hear today “God is with us”.

Of course for those of us who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the eternal Word made flesh, there is a true and new sense of God being with us in and through the incarnation.  But even for Isaiah and Ahaz the name Immanuel carries an eternal, if not incarnated, truth.  “God is with us!”

This is the hope to which Ahaz was to cling.  This was the hope that Matthew gave to his community as he retold the story of the incarnation.  And this is the message that I would continue to declare to you “God is with us!”

This hope, this faith, is a hope we can cling to regardless of our situation in life.

Ahaz was facing the possibility of war and destruction and we know the Israelites went through a time of desolation and despair.

The word of hope and promise comes in the naming of a child “God is with us”!

Matthew’s community was facing persecution coming from the conflict within the early Christian community as it broke away from being a Jewish sect.  Probably largely believers of Jewish origins Matthew’s community sat between traditional Jews and gentile Christians.  There would have been a sense of confusion as they sought their identity as followers of Christ

In addition to these internal ructions Matthew’s community was also confronted by the might of Rome with its so called divine Emperors.

The word of hope and promise comes in the naming of a child “God is with us”!

This is the message that breaks into our reality as well.  A message that goes back long before Isaiah prophesied to Ahaz and a message that rolls beyond the incarnation and into the future not yet come: God is with us!

This is the eternity of God’s life breaking in and making it known. 

It is this hope in God’s continued and constant presence which serves those hopes which lie deeper in our
existence: hope in a future for our children; hope for good health and well-being; hope for those who suffer in the world; hope for the meeting of basic needs; hope for understanding and meaning and purpose in life.

These larger and more universal hopes are met with the declaration of the constancy and care of God’s love “God is with us!”

Even when things seem dire, even when things seem bad:

God is with us!

God is not against us!  God has not deserted us! God is not our enemy! God has not turned away!

This is the hope to which we can cling and this is the hope we declare to the world this advent and each and every day. 

When Isaiah declared the child’s name would be Immanuel Isaiah was providing a tangible sign of what always remains true.  When Matthew used Isaiah’s words to rightly describe the incarnation of God in Jesus, he too was pointing at an ongoing eternal reality. 

To say “God is with us” is not simply to affirm the incarnation and momentary entry into the world by God, as monumental as this event was, but is to say something which maybe sounds even more confronting in reverse, if you will excuse the double negative:

“God is never not with us!”

This is our hope whether we experience it in the full or walk through life not feeling God’s closeness as others seem to “God is with us!”

All of our hopes and fears are met in this and we cling to this good news as we approach the celebration of Jesus birth.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Advent 3: Questions upon questions

Jesus asked the crowd, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” 

And not just look at, but what did you go to hear, to feel, to experience?  That is Jesus question.  It is a question of the gap that lies between expectation and experience.

And so I ask you, “What did you come to church to look at this morning?”

What were you hoping to see, to feel, to hear? Why did you come?
Now when Jesus confronted the crowd with this question about what the people went to look at he also threw a couple of rhetorical questions at them as well, which also challenge and help us think about the issue of why we are here.

He asked “Did you go to see a reed shaken by the wind?”

This strange image of a reed blowing in the wind mirrors Paul’s writing when he warns about being blown about by the winds of doctrine.  So Jesus is asking the people whether they expected to go and hear someone speaking about the so-called ‘relevant’ issues.  The image of the shaken reed is the image of a preacher who goes with flow, who goes with what people want to hear.  And those who go to hear such a prophet are not really going to listen for a new message but to have their particular slant on things confirmed.

This is a confronting image for me as a minister and you as a congregation.  Do I simply preach to what I think you want to hear?  Do I go with the flow?  And how can I tell the difference?  And for you do you come to listen for God’s message? Or do you have a message already prepared, even though you may not realise it, and hope that your ideas will be confirmed by what I say?

What did the people go to look at if not a shaken reed?  Jesus implies John’s message, his prophecy, is not blown about by the winds of doctrine and change but is a message that stands firm because John speaks God’s message.  Regardless of how well I think I do it, it is my prayer that the power of the Holy Spirit is at work in our midst, even in spite of me, opening our eyes and ears, opening our hearts and minds to the good news of Jesus Christ.

Jesus goes on to ask whether the people went out to see someone in soft robes.  The soft robes here are a sign of power and authority displayed in wealth and the symbols of status like the palaces.  Jesus is disconnecting the images of power and authority from wealth.  The kings and their palaces and all their displays of wealth pale in comparison with what is at work through John.

So the question is raised for us what did we come to look at?  Did we come to have Jesus lordship confirmed by the beauty of a building, or the woodwork, or the worldly signs and symbols of power and authority, so often displayed through wealth?  This is a confronting question for all Christians as we see the immense resources that have gone into building the great churches of the world.  How do these churches and the displays of wealth that the churches have reflect the rags that John the Baptist wore for it was he through whom God spoke?  What questions might this raise for us in the use of our resources? 

This brings me to Jesus third question; did you go out to see a prophet?  Yes, but Jesus declares that John is more than a prophet.  Why is John more than a prophet?  John is the hinge on which the dawn of the new age swings as he announces Jesus the Christ’s presence in the world.  John stands as the last prophet before the Messiah and announces the coming of the Messiah into the world.  John prepares the way for Jesus in whom the kingdom of heaven comes near.

John as the last prophet points away from himself and at the coming one who will bring the salvation of God with him.  Looking at John, hearing his message, is to look away from John and to look at Jesus Christ.

This is the good news and when John heard of what Jesus was doing he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one.  That was the opening of our reading this morning and Jesus response is to echo the words of Isaiah.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

These words confirm Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and so when people hear John’s message they look to Jesus.  That is what the people went into the wilderness to look at, to look at the message of the coming Christ and find hope in that, and the Messiah was coming. 

So what do we look at?  We too look beyond ourselves and beyond me and my words and we look at Jesus: Jesus the Christ who has come and will come again.  This is what our worship revolves around looking beyond the limits our experiences and encounters to the promise and the hope of the coming kingdom and celebrating our hope in this coming kingdom with joy.

Our prayers reflect this hope, our reading of the scriptures, our fellowship with one another and our sharing at the table all point beyond themselves to Jesus who points us to our promised home with the Father.  Jesus entry into human life, his death for our sake, his resurrection and his ascension are the completion of our salvation and through the Holy Spirit we are made one with him and each other and our eyes are lifted glistening with hope in the promise that he will come again.

So we have spoken of what we came to look at? We have discussed what we might have actually seen?  And now having looked again at the promise of God in Jesus Christ, seeing the straight path as it were, the question is how will you and I live in the light of this message?

You see our hope doesn’t end at 9:15 or thereabouts when the service concludes.  As we go from this place we enter God’s world having encountered and experienced the presence of the coming kingdom in Jesus Christ.  We have been remind of our hope in the Lord.  How does that change how you will live this week with other people?  How will it change the daily grind?  Will it alter the words you speak and the thoughts that you have?  How will God be at work in you through the power of the Holy Spirit?

As we continue our advent journey as we wait with hope, peace and joy consider the week ahead and what it might mean for you that you have seen the coming of the Lord.
What did you actually see; what did you experience; what did you feel?

What are you going to do in response to what you have seen?

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Advent 2: The ax lies ready!

“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire.”

As I read the readings for this day I wondered whether of all the phrases this one was the one that echoed most strongly for you. 

The axe lying at the base of the tree sounds a warning of impending doom and it is!  It is for the Sadducees and the Pharisees and it is for us.

We need to look realistically at ourselves a small group of people who gather most Sundays in this place: many of you have a strong sense of your own mortality.  On a personal level and as community it would easy to hear John’s words to our little community “the ax is lying at the root of the tree.”

In fact given the size and age of our congregation you could almost feel that the ax has already been wielded and that all that is left here in this place is a remnant: a stump.  But is this really the way we are to think?  I would like to say not.

The metaphor that John used in reference to the Pharisees and Sadducees is a metaphor that traces its way back into the prophecy from Isaiah: the prophecy that we heard this morning.

God decimates the people of Israel; he wields the axe so to speak.  Listen to the words of the last two verses of Isaiah 10.

33      Look, the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts,
          will lop the boughs with terrifying power;
          the tallest trees will be cut down,
          and the lofty will be brought low.
34      He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe,
          and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.

Israel’s fall was prophesied by Isaiah.  Israel would be reduced from a mighty nation, from a mighty forest, but in the midst of this destruction – hope!

Isaiah 11 begins with those words of hope:

1        A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
          and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

Even though God destroys the glory of Israel God does not abandon it totally.  In fact God declares a time of peace and restoration that will be brought about in the coming of this righteous branch: Jesus.

These pictures from Isaiah that John draws upon give hope to us who feel as if the axe is ready to be wielded or even already had been.  Even though God might tear down what is, new life will come forth from the old, a shoot from the stump of Jesse.

John’s word to the Sadducees and Pharisees was a word of hope as much as it was a dire warning for them to repent.  It is a warning that we hear as the invitation to baptism and life in Christ, to follow him.

As individuals and as a community we are constantly being called to account, to face up to who we are. We are people who are limited in our response to what God wills for us and through our inadequacy we limit each other from the response that God desires of them.  Baptism is an act that admits our failure in this and binds us to the new future of peace and righteousness promised by Jesus.

The Scriptures clearly indicate that baptism does not turn us into perfect people who no longer get it wrong.  What baptism does is celebrate and join us to the new direction that Jesus takes for our sake.  It is a pathway that leads to God not away from him.

The guidance for how we might live as people of God’s promise is drawn from the Scriptures as we reflect on the dynamics of what it means to be in this new relationship with God.  Faith is a growing thing, a journey and the landscape in which we live our faith is constantly changing.  

Holding on to old ways of doing and believing, as the Sadducees and Pharisees, puts as in line to meet with the axe but the Spirit draws us on into the new.  The new hope that we are given as we live in Christ and are constantly transformed by him to understand that each of us is tied to the other and to God.

This is why Paul wrote to the Romans exhorting them with the words:

5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And earlier in the chapter:

1We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour. 3For Christ did not please himself.

If there are any words that I would say lie central to how we live our faith these last ones seem to be the most important but the least lived.  “Christ did not please himself”. 

Being a Christian is not meant to be about the benefits we receive, even though there may be benefits.  Our faith leads us into a deeper sense of others and of God: living in harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ.

Again and again we hear this theme of life in harmony with other people, with God and with the creation in the world around us.  It is the theme of discussion about politics, the environment and religion. 

Yet how do we live in the harmony that God calls us to in this place.  How do we focus on pleasing our neighbour and building them up?

I want to invite you to take a moment and look at each other.  In what ways do you build up the people you sit beside week by week?  What have you done for him or her?  What are you being called to do?  Who irritates you here?  And why?  How can you see beyond your differences into the harmony we are called to?

Living with others means being accepting and understanding and loving and when you feel disappointed or hurt remembering Paul’s words that there times we need to put up with the failings of the weak and I would add to Paul the recognition that we are all weak sometimes.

Doing this takes great spiritual maturity and the honesty to deal with our problems with one another appropriately, not speaking behind each other’s backs, or whinging whilst not addressing the issue but seeking to listen and learn and love one another as we make room for each other and live in harmony.

If you have issues with something I say to speak to me about it; if there is an issue with rosters to talk to those who look after the rosters; if you would like more involvement or less involvement in the activities of the congregation to tell someone; if you are feeling lost or lonely or discriminated against to speak to someone so that healing can occur.

If we put each other first then we would not guard jealously the positions or roles that we have been given nor resent others for doing things that we would like to do.  We would speak openly and lovingly about our desires and our concern for others and as we grow in love and maturity in faith the shoot from Jesse’s stump, Jesus himself, would become better witnessed to in our midst. 

This is what it means to repent – not simply thinking that I have turned back to God, but knowing that in turning to God we also urn towards one another.

Paul’s exhortations are so that ‘together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’.  Our faith does not remove our individuality but honours it as we are drawn into a community of knowing and being known so that with one voice we can glorify God. 

I began with suggesting that we can think of ourselves as people living as if the axe lies ready, or has already been wielded.  For me what makes the difference is not the size and age of our congregation but what will be in our hearts.  If we bicker and hurt and gossip and compete then maybe the axe will lie ready but if we build each other up, if we live in harmony, if we love and do no put our own needs first then maybe we are living as people joined to the new shoot of Jesse’s stump: Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. 

Take a moment to consider what God’s word to you this day might be.

1        A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
          and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2        The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
          the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
          the spirit of counsel and might,
          the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

3        His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.