Category Archives: Comment

15th January 2017 – John 1:29-42

Over the last few weeks, our lectionary readings have contained a series of revelations about Jesus.

On Christmas Day, we heard John’s revelation of Jesus as “the Word, who from the very beginning was with God and was God but also the Word made flesh living among us.”

At Epiphany, we heard of the wise men and their gifts, showing Jesus to be a king, worthy of worship and one destined to die.

Last week, at Christ’s Baptism we heard God’s revelation: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

These revelations actually took place over a period of thirty years. But for us, heard in the space of four weeks, they are rather more intense.  Each week, learn more of Jesus’ being and purpose. Today is no different.

1Today John announces to the crowd gathered around him at the Jordan “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” A few sentences later he says that Jesus is “the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.”   And he goes on to remind everyone that Jesus is God’s son.   Then Andrew tells his brother that the Messiah, the Anointed has been found.

Jesus’ appearances seem to come thick and fast, quicker and quicker. Chapters 1 and 2 of John’s Gospel seem to emphasise this. So, in today’s reading: v29: the next day John saw Jesus coming; v35: the next day John watched Jesus walk by; then v43: the next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee; and Chapter 2 v 1: On the next day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee!

It is almost as though John, the writer of the Gospel is feeling a great deal of intensity as he writes. “I must get this across,” he says to himself, “I must.” He seems desperate to make sure that his readers know Jesus’ credentials as fully and as quickly as he can relay them.

Indeed, after the opening of the gospel it seems to markedly slow down, the intensity drops and the reader has more time to reflect on who Jesus is – through stories and accounts of Jesus’ conversations.

Next week, we return to Matthew’s gospel for a number of weeks and get chance to see how Jesus’s ministry progresses. It’s also an opportunity to see whether he actually lives up to the titles that have been revealed to us over the last few weeks.  So it is almost as though our Gospel reading is asking us to take stock of the names, and roles, that have been showered on Jesus.  We are invited to take all this information that we have been given about Jesus, make sure we understand what it means and then use this in the coming weeks to help us understand the unfolding story of the next three years of Jesus= life.

In this blog, we can only scratch the surface of what John, the Gospel writer, hopes we will understand about Jesus.

Lamb of God.”  John the Baptist expected his listeners to recall pictures from the Old Testament; the lamb provided by God for Abraham to slaughter, the lamb of Isaiah 53, led to the slaughter for the sins of God=s people; the Passover Lamb from Exodus.  The word ‘lamb’, for John’s listeners connected strongly with words like ‘sin’ or ‘atonement’ – the way in which we can be reconciled with God despite our wrongdoing.

This Lamb is given by God – a gift from him. We can’t provide for our own atonement, instead God reaches out to us to draw us back to him.

The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the whole world,” says John the Baptist. Jesus will take away all sin, everyone’s sin. There is nothing exclusive or limited. Nothing narrow. No sin too heinous, no wickedness too terrible! Listen to the words of Isaac Watts’ hymn:

    Not all the blood of beasts, on Jewish altars slain,

   Could give the guilty conscience peace

   Or wash away its stain.

   But Christ the heavenly Lamb, Takes all our sin away;

   A sacrifice of nobler name, And richer blood than they                   

   Believing, we rejoice, To see the curse remove;

   We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice, And sing his wondrous love.

Baptiser with the Spirit.”   John the Baptist baptised people into a readiness for the coming of the Messiah. In the early church, baptism initiated people into the family of God.  Jesus, however, welcomes us into God’s kingdom by giving the Holy Spirit.  Jesus gives us the same gift as he received at his baptism – God’s spirit to guide us and lead us. And this is particularly important every time we baptise someone in our churches. When we baptise we incorporate people into the same family as Jesus, they become children of God, children of the Holy Spirit.

Son of God.” Jesus’ relationship with God was made explicit at his Baptism. He is loved by God – he is ‘the beloved’.   At Jesus baptism we are shown something of the closeness and intimacy between God and Jesus. It is only the one loved by God. The one who was with God, who was God. Only that one can secure salvation – no other.

Messiah.” At the beginning of the first century, there was intense speculation about the Messiah, the ‘anointed one’.  In the Old Testament, anointing was used to describe the way in which people were appointed for special tasks, and given God’s spirit to enable them to carry out this task.   People were waiting for a Messiah – a kingly figure embodying God’s rule.  Andrew calls Jesus, ‘Messiah’. He recognises Jesus as the long awaited king who would fulfil the Old Testament prophecies and bring about God’s reign on earth.

Lamb of God, Baptiser with the Spirit, Son of God, Messiah – John, the Gospel writer’s names for Jesus. John wants us to carry these names with us as we read his Gospel. It is as though he says to us, “You will only understand my message fully if you realise that this is what I want to show you. Here is the one who by his life and death fulfils these roles and in doing so brings hope.”

As we read the Gospels lets use these names to inform our reading and to help us understand for ourselves just who Jesus is: Lamb of God, Baptiser with the Spirit, Son of God, Messiah.

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The Servant of the Lord – Isaiah 42:1-9 and Matthew 3:13-17

The apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 1:27 – “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Travel with me in your imagination, back to another time and place. … You might want to close your eyes. … It’s an unbelievable place. It has a sense of heavy quietness about it. You might know what I mean. I suppose, it’s like a cathedral. People are talking to each other in hushed tones. … Yet it still feels quiet.

Countless people from every nation under the sun are here. Some splendidly dressed in their finery, some carrying the tools of their trade – blacksmiths, … jewellers, … carpenters. Others, clearly with little money, have made every effort to look their best. It is the 5th Century BC and as we scan the room we can see people of authority and power; Kings of Babylon, Media, Persia and Egypt stand erect and tall with their courtiers in attendance. Other kings and queens from unknown parts of the world are also here – Incas, Aztecs, Chinese, Indian and Ceylonese – everyone is here, with their monarchs standing proud in front of them.

This is no ordinary cathedral, it’s too grand and large for that. The walls – too far away to see, the roof – higher and wider than anything we’ve ever seen. No columns hinder the view. The splendour of the room is beyond telling – it’s as though everything is covered in gold, and silver, and precious jewels. … Yet despite all this beauty everything in the room seems to point to its centre.

On a raised platform is a magnificent throne. It’s like looking at the sun –  seemingly all of the light in the room comes from that throne – … it is dazzlingly bright. It seems that wherever you are in the room the throne dominates your view.

Suddenly everyone is aware of someone on the throne – the hushed conversation draws quiet. This is the moment we’re waiting for. … As our host stands up and moves forward the brightness which had seemed to come from the throne moves too. No one needs to say anything – everyone just knows who this is. The whole room is first on its knees, and then flat on its face before GOD.

Our invitation to the heavenly court, says that GOD will be announcing his plans. Plans that mean declaring a chosen nation who will know God, and who’ll make his character known throughout the world. … All of the kings and queens are ready – jealously wondering which of them GOD will choose. …………………. One word from God and everyone is standing again; eagerly straining to see who it is. … Who has GOD chosen? ………….. From the back of the hall, somewhere behind the King of Babylon, a scruffy beggar stands and walks unsteadily forward to the throne. Some in the crowd look the other way as he passes, others try to stop him. It is only the voice of GOD which holds them still.

GOD welcomes the beggar and crowns him … ‘The Servant of the Lord‘. … It turns out that he is Israel, one of the small nations that have been conquered by Babylon. Insignificant, unimportant and of no consequence. What is God doing, choosing this non-entity, this tiny country, Israel? ….

As you think about that question, take a moment to adjust back to being here, wherever you are now, reading this blog …………….

servant-songsThis is the picture that chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah want us to see. Israel was a nation on its knees. Its people were in exile, depressed, defeated and angry; … God must have deserted them for ever – or so it seemed. A once proud nation, they were now snivelling with self-pity, full of shame and guilt. … In Isaiah 40 and 41 it is almost as though God whispers words of encouragement to this beggar Israel as he walks forward through the jealous and condemning ranks of the nations. Listen to his words:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for.

My people, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, “You are my servant”; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

In Isaiah 42, God presents Israel to the nations as his servant. God confirms his love and protection of Israel and commissions Israel to serve him again.

With hindsight, we know that Israel never lived up to its calling. As Christians we see these passages of Isaiah pointing forward to another Servant of the Lord, to Jesus. The one who through death and resurrection brings healing to the distressed, binds up the wounded and releases all sorts of captives from prison. In our Gospel reading Jesus receives the same kind of blessing from God:thisismybelovedsonlistentoh

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

But even with Jesus this passage has not been fully fulfilled. Jesus once said: “As the Father sent me so I send you.” Jesus passes on to us both the privileges and responsibilities of being the Servant of the Lord. We are called to bring justice, to be a light to the nations. Ultimately, it is us that God is speaking to in the Isaiah passage. He wants us to hear his encouragement as he picks us up, dusts us down and sets us on our way again.

God knows that we so easily see ourselves as Israel saw itself – depressed and defeated – often struggling with self-pity, and full of shame and guilt. Or at times we see ourselves as right when others are wrong, we seek to build ourselves up at others expense, we cannot hear God’s love for us because we are so busy trying to establish our own reputation against that of others.

And we are no different to Israel. Weak, mis-understood, seemingly at the end of ourselves, seemingly without answers to the problems of our day and if we are not very careful, seeing everyone else as the problems rather than ourselves. Whether it be our lack of numbers, the suffering and injustice of our world or the disregard of spiritual things by so many people, we have no overwhelmingly obvious, argument settling answers to the difficulties that life brings. Yet God speaks to us in the same way as he spoke to Israel. “You are my servants,” he says. God speaks to us in the same way that he spoke to Jesus ….

“My son, my daughter, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

God wants us to hear his words of comfort, to hold onto them as our own. To listen to his challenge to bring justice, to bring his assurance and to shed his light into the lives of those outside of the church community. God wants us to be those who show love and compassion, who because we are loved by God give space for others to flourish, God wants us to be those who because we are loved do not need to compete for affection and status, a people who build others up rather than tear them down.url

The truth is that it is our recognition of our own weakness that’ll mean that God can work through us to bring healing to our world.

I Corinthians 1:27 – But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

St. Zacchaeus – Luke 19: 1-10

Sometimes someone will say to me – I’d like to come to church but I=m really just not good enough. I don’t have enough faith. Some people think that you are not acceptable in church unless you meet some sort of list of requirements.

Any church that gives you that kind of impression, has, somewhere along the line, got something very wrong; for Jesus would have no truck with those kinds of ideas. Jesus was always to be found among those who thought they were beyond the reach of God’s love.

Jesus’ willingness to be with those rejected by society extended even to the quislings of the day, the stooges of the Roman occupying powers – the tax collectors. Our Gospel reading tells the story of Zacchaeus and his encounter with Jesus. Zacchaeus is desperate to meet with Jesus and equally Jesus is delighted to meet with Zacchaeus, very happy to risk the scorn of the crowd for the sake of a man who clearly knows his own need to be changed.

Love, in Jesus, reaches out to this outcast and love changes him completely. All Zacchaeus did was to look out for Jesus and then welcome him when he came his way. That, ultimately, is what Christianity is all about – it is not about being good, although that may well result from an encounter with Jesus – for Zacchaeus was changed completely by his encounter with Jesus. No, being a Christian is not ultimately about being good. It’s not even about attending Church religiously every Sunday, although that is a real help to many – for it is good to be among people who are just as aware of their own shortcomings and their need of God’s love. And we really do all have shortcomings and we really do need God’s love and forgiveness, and each other’s love and forgiveness too.

No, being a Christian is not about being good, not about attending Church every Sunday – being a Christian is all about being real with ourselves and about meeting with God in Jesus. Zacchaeus was befriended by Jesus. As a result he saw himself as he really was and he was changed. In our churches each week, in those who make up our congregations, there’s a group of people who just like Zacchaeus have begun to see themselves as they really are and who have begun to acknowledge that they need God’s love in their lives. And on All Saints Sunday, we remind ourselves that people like this are called Saints.

Saints are people who are growing in their awareness that they need God’s love in their lives. Love that searches us out. Love that asks only that we come to him as we are, that we do not pretend that we are better than we are. Love, that by its very nature draws the best out of us. Love that transforms us. Love that chooses to call a sinner a saint, not because of some unreasonable blindness to their faults, but because that love is so strong, so overpowering, love unto death, that nothing can stand in its way.

catholic-cross-drawing-clipart-panda-free-clipart-images-x0wdhb-clipartHere is love, says the Bible, not that we first loved God but that God first loved us and sent his Son to die for us. The love of God comes to us at a cost – the death of Jesus. Come as you are, says Jesus and reaches out his arms wide on the cross. God dies at Easter so as to make reconciliation possible. We can come as we are because all that gets in the way between us and God was defeated in the death of Jesus. This is love, real vulnerable love, love which bore shame and rejection so as to bring reconciliation.

All we have to do is say, ‘Thank you, Jesus’. Jesus replies, ‘You’re welcome. You are welcome. Come as you are. Come just as you are.’

Luke 18: 9-14 – A Pharisee and a Tax Collector went to the Temple to Pray …..

Pharisees have really had bad press. To call someone a Pharisee is to suggest that they’re stuck-up, sanctimonious, hypocritical, self-righteous, unable to bend. That they think that they’re always right.

And indeed this is the impression we get from reading the Gospels. Today’s Gospel a case in point – the Pharisee seems to be hard & self-righteous, not someone we’d want to spend time with – whereas the tax collector, by his very confession of guilt, is the warm approachable character, the one that we’d like to be associated with – a character that provokes our empathy.

Elsewhere Jesus reserves some of his most vitriolic language for the Pharisees. He calls them ‘white-washed sepulchres’, ‘hypocrites’

With the benefit of 2000 years of reading the Gospel story – almost anyone, non-churchgoers included will tell you that to call someone a Pharisee is to insult them.

Because of this we lose the real impact of the Gospel story. We’ve already type cast the characters and we know what the story is about. We associate with the tax collector and we encourage ourselves to greater personal repentance and humility – or we may even allow ourselves to think we behave in the same humble, self-deprecating way. ‘Lord, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee,’ we might pray!

If we really want to hear what Jesus was talking about, we need to try to understand how Pharisees and tax collectors were seen by the people to whom Jesus was speaking. So, for a moment, lets try to do that.

The Pharisees were part of a group in Israel called the ‘Hasidaeans’, which translates as ‘God’s loyal ones’, a group that tried really hard to follow the teaching of the OT. The name Pharisee means ‘the separated ones’, separate because of their desire to follow the OT teaching as faithfully as they could. There was a period when they were the dominant political force in Israel, but by the time of Jesus they had suffered persecution under Herod and had concluded that spiritual ends could not be attained by political means.

They were a group who believed that Israel had gone into exile in OT times because it had failed to keep God’s law, the Torah. They believed strongly in the unity and holiness of God and the absolute authority of the Torah. They stressed tithing, had very high ethical standards.

When seen like this, Pharisees are not the unattractive people that we believe them to be. In fact, dare I say it, we might even feel that it would be good if the Church was like them, maintaining high ethical standards in our society, giving at a level that means that God=s work is not constrained by resources. Perhaps we have something to learn from the Pharisees!!

When it comes to tax collectors we’ve perhaps a greater understanding. We still have a sense that the tax man takes from us what is rightfully ours. The feeling against tax collectors in Jesus’ time was a bit stronger. They were the quislings, the people who aided & abetted the occupying power, often using their position for personal gain. Roman stooges, worthy of contempt.

Now if this is what Pharisees were like, if this was how tax collectors were seen, what effect might Jesus’ story have had on his listeners? It would have been difficult for Jesus to find more distinctly opposite characters. The Pharisee loyal to Israel, persecuted, at times, by the Romans, faithful to the Torah … versus the tax collector, the bogie-man.

It is unlikely that people would have seen the Pharisee’s words in the story as presumptuous. Everything he said about himself was true. People would have believed that he was the one close to God. He was the faithful church attender of his day, he was the highest Sunday giver in the Church, he had great integrity in his business dealing, he didn’t fiddle his tax, he was to be commended above anyone else as an example of a truly religious person. We might say, A ‘good Christian!’

But Jesus makes it clear that the penitent tax collector is accepted by God when the faithful Pharisee is not.  We are not supposed to see ourselves in this story, in the person of the humble tax collector, but in the Pharisee, secure in his faith.

Just as Jesus warns the committed religious people of his day against complacency, so he challenges us, the faithful ones, the ones who go to church on a cold Sunday morning.

There’s no room, Jesus says, for sitting on our laurels, believing that we have got life sorted, believing that there is no more we need to do. For if we do this, the shocking challenge of the Gospel is that we may well watch the drug addict, the prostitute, the alcoholic, the gambler, the thief, … even a modern day tax collector, show evidence of real repentance and be accepted by God when we are left out in the cold.

Faith or Faithfulness? Luke 17: 5-10

What does it mean to ‘have faith’?

Jesus says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this tree, ‘Be uprooted and plated in the sea’, and it would obey you.”

Jesus seems to be saying: “If you can screw up enough faith, if you pray hard enough, if you really believe, then you’ll be able to do powerful things. You’ll be in control of life and God will be able to work through you! If you are just prepared to leap across that chasm believing that I will miraculously get you to the other side, then you are my disciple!  ”

But is he really? ……  Or is it rather the case that we hear him saying what we think he is saying rather than listen to him properly. After all, what do we say when things go wrong for us? …… “What have I done to deserve this?” “Why is this illness happening to me?” … It is as though we do really believe that we have the power to make our circumstances right, just be being better people, by having more faith?

And so, when we hear the word ‘faith’ we so often think of something rather like the flexing of spiritual muscles, or determinedly screwing ourselves up to believe. “If only I had more faith,” we say. “If only I really believed.” … And so many of us fail to achieve this … and as a result so many turn their back on ‘faith’: “It does not work,” they say.

And so when we hear those verses in Luke 17 we hear Jesus saying something, perhaps quite sarcastic: “Faith, don’t talk to me about your faith, you have not even got enough to fill a mustard seed, if you had you’d be doing all sorts of marvellous things in my name.”

But when we do so, we miss the point.

called_chosen_-faithful_part3-680x300What Jesus is actually saying is something much more like this: “Faith is about trusting in an all powerful God, it is about living faithfully to what you believe, it is about faithful service. Just a tiny little bit of that kind of faithful living will change the world.”

Where is the evidence for reading the Gospel this way?

Firstly, there is the whole of the reading above. In the first two verses Jesus talks about faith – but then he goes on to talk about masters and slaves. He could be talking about the way in which the physical world should obey its masters, those masters being his followers who have faith. But I don’t think he is. Let’s just focus on Luke 17:10 which tells us so much about ‘faith’ …

Jesus says: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

‘Faith’  is all about being ‘faithful’. We are slaves, servants of our master, and the greatest and the best thing that we can say of ourselves is that we have lived faithful to that calling – we have served our master, we have lived faith-fully.

Second, there is that word ‘faith’; ‘pisteo‘ in the Greek. It is used consistently through the Greek version of the bible for being faithful, trustworthy, sure and true. Just here in Luke:

Luke 12:42                faithful and prudentfruitosp_faithfulness

Luke 16:10-12          faithful, faithful, faithful

Luke 19:17                trustworthy

In each of these cases, and throughout the New testament, it is the same root word,  ‘pisteo‘. So when Jesus uses the word ‘faith’, he is not asking us to screw ourselves up to believe, but he is asking us to live faithfully to what we believe, to be his trustworthy followers. To be faithful and prudent. “Those who live this way,” says Jesus, “Are people of faith. … And, (in the figurative language that he is using) it won’t just be a mulberry tree that is uprooted, even the gates of hell will not prevail against them.”gar-19

The Dishonest Steward – Luke 16:1-13

I find it almost impossible to talk to people when the TV is on. Somehow the television just grabs my attention. Perhaps more amusing is what happens to me at the cinema. I’m one of those people who get completely engrossed in the film, so completely drawn into the story that I’m oblivious to anything else.

I once went with some friends to watch Braveheart (Mel Gibson) – if you’ve seen it you’ll remember that there were lots of graphic battle scenes. I’m told that every time anyone got hit by an axe or a spear my body convulsed in sympathy. After one particularly grusome bit I glanced along the row and was embarrassed to find all my friends watching me rather than the screen. … As we were leaving the cinema a friend grabbed my arm and said that it was almost as entertaining watching me as watching the film itself.

Films are meant to take a hold of us. Good films draw us into the plot. The skill of a film director is measured by how well s/he is able to draw us into the story. Gifted preachers and story tellers are just the same; they draw us into the plot of their sermon or story.

Do you remember the story in the Old Testament of the prophet Nathan confronting King David after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba. He told him a story about a poor man with only one lamb whose rich neighbour took the lamb to feed a guest. David was indig nant when he heard the story and shouted, “The man who did this deserves to die”. … And after a long pause, Nathan replied, “You are that man”. … He had trapped David. His skilled storytelling brought David to the point where he couldn’t but admit his guilt.

Jesus was the best story teller of all. His stories interested, gripped and intrigued people. People were drawn to listen and to make judgements on what he said. In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells one of these stories. A story which seems to condone dish onesty. Perhaps you can imagine the possible responses of those who h eard the story:

Some might have said, “There you are, I told you there was nothing wrong with the way that I am running the business. If Jesus says its alright that’s good enough for me”.

Others might have sat in the corner shaking their heads and tutting.

Perhaps others wanted to write in and complain about standards. “This Jesus is teaching things that will corrupt our children”.

Some might just have been confused, … “Why is Jesus condoning something that we know is wrong?”

Others, who are well aware of the moral complexities of life might feel something of the strength of the dilemma the steward in the story faced. For decisions that many people face in their working lives are not black and white issues but are made up of many shades of grey. Perhaps Jesus is letting us know that he understands the difficulty of such decisions.

Whatever response it provoked, J esus’ story would have had everyone gripped and intrigued. Wondering what to make of it.

We are told, specifically, of two groups of people listening to the parable:

•     his disciples – who seemed to be the main audience;

•     and in the verse immediately after our reading we are told that the Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. The response of the two groups and the message they heard was completely different:

Τhe disciples may have been confused by the story but they listened to the lessons that Jesus had for them.

In the Gospel reading, we heard Jesus challenging his first disciples about their attitude to wealth and responsibility. The same challenges apply to us! ……

First, Jesus challenges us to use what God gives us here on earth (wealth, gifts & time) for his eternal purposes, for the work of his kingdom.

Secondly, Jesus says that God gives us smaller responsibilities through which we can learn faithfulness to him, before he places heavier or bigger burdens on us (at church or first in the world).

Thirdly, (in v13 ), he reminds us that if money & material things become too important to us we’ll lose sight of the God that we worship. In fact we’ll become worshippers of money and possessions.

Τhe Pharisees, on the other hand, sneered at Jesus. They heard the same as the disciples but they chose not to listen. We know from the rest of the NT that the disciples continued to struggle to follow Jesus but that the Pharisees saw themselves as superior to him. They rejected him and his teaching.

These questions or lessons about money and responsibilities are important ones. Many people in business struggle with just the same kind of issues as the steward or manager in the parable. It is so hard to decide where the narrow dividing line falls between dishonesty or sharp practice and a healthy competition for work. It is sometimes difficult to know when we have crossed that fine line. Ultimately, Jesus seems to be making it clear that money and wealth, jobs and security are all intended to be our servants and not our masters.

Don’t worry if you struggle to understand what Jesus is saying. Keep struggling, for in many ways that is the point of the parable. Let the parable worry away at you. For honest doubt, tentative faith and belief are all part of growing as a Christian.

14042-12697-man_fog_walking_edited-1200w-tn-1-1200w-tnWhen God speaks we always have a choice – we can respond with faith (struggling faith) like the disciples, honesty admitting our doubts, or we can sneer at what Jesus is saying to us, like the Pharisees did. We can turn away from Jesus. There is always a choice. God draws us into the story and brings us to the point of decision, but the choice is always ours. As disciples, we can trust him, struggling to work out our faith in the midst of a confusing world, or like the Pharisees we can reject him, turn our back on him and walk away.

Just telling a joke! – Luke 15:1-10

How do you recognize a joke? What are the signals you look out for?

There’s: ‘Did you hear the one about…’ or ‘A man goes into a pub …’ or ‘A man goes to see his doctor …’

The introduction tells you that there is a funny story coming and you set yourself up for it, you’re ready to laugh!

Have you noticed as well that often when we tell jokes, even though we’re telling a story about the past we use the present tense.

Someone once told me that much as English comedians tell jokes about Irish people. (Although, of course, we don’t do it so often now because we have recognized that it causes offence.) Much as we tell jokes about the Irish, people in Jesus day used to tell jokes about shepherds. They were considered to be country bumpkins of relatively low intelligence. Now I really don’t know how true that statement was. But there is one story in the Bible that really does seem to me to be a case of Jesus telling a joke, or at least a funny story to make a point. And that is the first half of our Gospel reading this morning.

I can almost imagine Jesus starting his parable with the words. ‘Did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep …’ And how does the story run? ‘Did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep – he left 99 out in the open field and went searching for the one that had gone missing.’

And I can imagine the sniggers, the knowing looks, perhaps even the ribald laughter. ‘How foolish, how stupid, typical of a shepherd,’ some of Jesus listeners might say.

And can you imagine the increased laughter when Jesus goes on to say that the shepherd goes home when he finds the lost sheep and has a party. Not a thought anymore for the 99!! As far as this shepherd is concerned they can look after themselves.
It is manifestly stupid. It is a silly story. No sensible shepherd would do anything like this. The loss would be too great. Better to leave the one who is lost and look after the 99 that are still fine. That makes economic sense. And Jesus audience fall around laughing, all their prejudices confirmed.

But laughter has softened them up for the punch-line. … Says Jesus, ‘This is what God is like, this is what it is like in heaven. God is more concerned for the lost than those who are OK.’

God is more concerned for the sinner who needs to repent than he is for the Pharisee who believes that he is righteous. God is more concerned for the backslider than for the good upstanding Christian. God seeks out the lost and rejoices when they are found again – even if in the doing of it, he seems foolish and ludicrous – even if everyone else thinks that he=s on a wild goose chase. God chases after the lost, longing to show them his love, longing to draw them back into relationship with him.

This means that if we, in our wisdom, feel sure enough of ourselves to say what is right and what is wrong; if we, in our wisdom, define someone as a sinner. Then, rather than putting them beyond the reach of God’s love, we place them at the centre of God’s love. … Our parable suggests that God is happy to leave us to fend for ourselves as he focusses on them, as he turns his love towards them. The joke is on us!

And if we were to go on to read the story of the Prodigal Son later in this chapter 15 of Luke, it would be little different. In that story the Father is prepared to make a mockery of himself all for the sake of a worthless good for nothing son. A fine upstanding Jewish father is prepared to suffer the shame of his village seeing him running through the streets to greet his wayward Son. And the story tells us that the Father places the lost Son ahead of the faithful but self-righteous Son! … We’ve got to be fools to miss the point of these parables. God cares nothing for what people think of him. God’s eyes are focussed on those who are lost, spiritually and physically. God’s eyes are fixed on those in need.
This is what God is like. God seeks out those who are lost, who feel unloved and abandoned. God doesn’t mind looking foolish, if only God manages to draw one lost human being back from the brink, back into his arms. And God is so taken up with joy when one of us hears of his love and responds to that love, that everything else for that moment fades completely into insignificance.

God’s love centres on the cross where Jesus died. It is consummated as Jesus rises from the dead. Just like the sheep that was lost allowed the shepherd to pick it up and take it in his arms, so God encourages us all to have that kind of trusting faith. To allow God to throw his arms around us in love. ‘Yes, Lord, I want that kind of love, please be my shepherd, now and always.’

And God calls us to have this same self-negating, self-deprecating, foolish, silly love, that goes after the lost with complete abandon. Nothing sensible, nothing thought out. Just a headlong rush to share God’s love with those who need him. To love and not to count the cost. To seek out those in need and commit ourselves to their welfare.

imagesJohn in one of his epistles says, ‘This is love – not that we loved God, but that God loved us and gave his Son to die for us.’ This is the measure by which we judge our love for our partners, for our family for our friends, for our neighbours and for others who are in need. Love that reaches out unconditionally, foolishly, ridiculously without thought for the cost. That is love like God’s love. This is no joke, it’s the gist of Jesus parable set for today!