‘The Steadfast Love of the Lord Never Ceases’ (a sermon on Genesis 24)

I want to begin this morning by making a confession; there are times when I get very annoyed at the institutional church.

Shocking, but true! I’m a priest, I work for the institutional church, but at times it irritates me intensely. I look at its structures, its more elaborate buildings, its traditions and procedures, and its tendency to get anal-retentive about things that don’t seem to appear on Jesus’ radar screen at all, and I ask myself, “How did we get from the Sermon on the Mount to here?” I suspect I’m not alone in asking that!

Actually, throughout Christian history people have often asked this question – in fact, it was the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, which is five hundred years old this year. Christians have often gotten discouraged about the state of the church. We’ve often looked back wistfully to a day when it was simpler, smaller, and less institutional. The Book of Acts has been very attractive to us: we notice that in Acts there seems to be very little structure and planning and organisation and tradition, and yet the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work, the gospel spreads around the ancient world like wildfire, and thousands of people turn to Christ.

Of course, when we actually read the Book of Acts we find that all was not rosy in that particular garden either. Christian missionaries quarreled with each other and parted company. Jewish and Gentile Christians couldn’t agree on whether or not you needed to be Jewish in order to be Christian. People pretended they’d given all their possessions to God when secretly they’d kept something back. And we haven’t even mentioned the uncomfortable fact that Christians were always getting arrested and punished because of their loyalty to Jesus!

That’s the way it is with idealism. Idealism is important to us – it inspires us not to be satisfied with the status quo – but sometimes it can present us with an overly simplistic view of reality. Genuine reality is always more messy.

I want to suggest to you this morning that the Book of Genesis is to the Old Testament as the Book of Acts is to the New Testament. Later on in the Old Testament we get the story of the nation of Israel, which becomes a mighty empire with kings, armies, and bureaucrats, and a huge expensive temple with priesthood and sacrifices and laws about who’s in and who’s out. But in Genesis, all of that is still in the future. In Genesis, God chooses a single family – the family of Abraham – and guides its development over three or four generations. There’s a promise of much larger things to come – God tells Abraham his descendants will be more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore – but none of that has happened yet. There’s no priesthood, no written law, no traditions. There’s just God speaking, God calling, and people listening and responding.

Or ‘not’. Actually, often ‘not’. The people described in the Book of Genesis are every bit as stubborn and cantankerous as we are. They refuse to listen to God, they have feuds, they take moral short-cuts, and their family arrangements are very colourful by our modern Christian standards. And I’m glad about that. I’m all for a life of simple faith in God, but let’s be clear that no-one’s ever practiced it perfectly. No one’s even come near. Not even in the Bible. And especially not in Genesis or Acts!

Today in our Old Testament reading we have a rather confusing set of excerpts from the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac. Let me quickly put them in context for you by filling you in on the rest of the story.

Isaac’s mom and dad, Abraham and Sarah, were childless. Well, Sarah was, anyway; the Book of Genesis quietly admits later on that Abraham had concubines and had children by them, but none of them counted when it came to legal descendants. And this was a problem, because God’s founding promise to Abraham was that he would make of him a great nation, and ‘in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). Later on God told him his descendants would be more than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore.

But Abraham had to wait twenty-five years, until he was nearly a hundred years old, for that promise to be fulfilled. By the time Isaac was born, Sarah was well past the years of natural child-bearing; this birth was nothing short of a biological miracle. Those twenty-five years had not been easy for Abraham and Sarah. At one point, in a moment of desperation, Sarah had given her slave girl to Abraham so he could have a child by her; in Sarah’s view, God obviously needed a bit of help!

But eventually, against all the odds, Isaac was born, and it didn’t take long for things to turn ugly. The slave-girl’s son Ishmael was now a problem to Sarah, and she made sure he was driven out of the family home; no one was going to take precedence over her boy! Sarah conveniently forgot that the whole ‘sleeping with the slave girl’ idea had been hers in the first place!

And so we come to today’s story. Isaac has grown up and he needs a wife. Abraham’s family aren’t originally from Canaan; they’re from Ur of the Chaldees, near modern Iraq, and they came to Canaan by way of Haran, where Abraham’s brother and other members of his extended family still live. Abraham wants his son to marry someone in the family, not one of the local girls. And so he sends his servant back to Haran; he’s confident God will guide him to the girl he has in mind for Isaac.

It’s a long journey in the ancient world; four hundred miles by camel. On the way we can imagine Abraham’s servant doing a lot of praying. He prayed when he got to Haran, too:

“O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink’, and who will say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).

And that’s exactly how it worked out. The girl who came down to the spring was actually Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel. Just as the servant had prayed, she offered to water his camels, and when he asked her about her family he discovered she was his master’s grandniece. She took him to meet the family, he explained his mission, and they agreed that she should go back with him and marry Isaac – marriage to a first cousin once removed being quite acceptable in those days. None of this nonsense about falling in love first, of course – in the ancient world, that expectation was frowned on!

If we carry the story on a bit, we discover that the basic family weirdness continues into the next generation. Like her mother in law Sarah, Rebekah has difficulty conceiving a child. Eventually Isaac prays for her, and she gives birth to twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Esau’s a few minutes older, and when he grows up he becomes his dad’s favourite, because he’s a great hunter and Isaac enjoys the wild meat he brings home. But Rebekah has a soft spot for the younger one, Jacob, and eventually she manipulates her husband and deceives him into mistakenly giving his parental blessing to the younger son, not the older. This leads to anger and the threat of violence, and Jacob has to run away from home and go back to Haran for twenty years, where he can be safe from his brother. But more about that in the next few weeks.

What’s this got to do with us today?

Well, let’s go back to what I said a few minutes ago: Genesis is the Book of Acts of the Old Testament. Those were the days before Israel became a nation or an empire, just like Acts describes the days when the church was a movement and a community rather than an organization. Those were the days when the fire of personal faith burned hot and pure. Or so it seems to us, anyway.

We actually have no idea how Abraham heard the voice of the one true God, Yahweh, speaking to him. We don’t even know whether Abraham believed that there was only one true god; it seems unlikely, given that most people in his day believed in many gods. But we do know that Abraham and his family would have been a minority in worshipping Yahweh, and especially in not using idols in their worship. In the same way, the people in Acts would have been a minority; this message about Jesus was new, and most people didn’t believe it. The church consisted of small house fellowships scattered around the cities of the Mediterranean world. It wasn’t the majority world religion, like it is today. It was a lot more fragile than that.

And perhaps that fragility is where we can connect. Just in the stories I’ve told you this morning we’ve seen two instances where the community almost died. It was necessary for both Sarah and Rebekah to have children, so that the community of faith could continue. But it proved impossible, humanly speaking, for them to give birth to those kids. They needed a miracle to help them do it. The entire continuing existence of this tiny community of faith was a miracle from God. Without God, it could not have happened.

When he arrived in Haran Abraham’s servant prayed “O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham” (24:12). That phrase ‘steadfast love’ translates the Hebrew word ‘chesed’; the King James Version has ‘loving kindness’, but ‘loyalty’ would also be a good translation. It’s not just that God loves Abraham and his family; it’s that he has committed himself to loving them, through thick and thin, whether they’re lovable or not. That’s what this little community of faith is based on: not human fertility or wisdom or achievement or organization or skill, but God’s steadfast love.

And that’s true of us as well. There are times when our community of faith feels very fragile. Lots of churches seem to be closing down these days, especially in small rural communities. Only two or three generations ago, that would have been unthinkable; we were building solid buildings to last for a century or more. No one expected that within a few years, barely anyone would be attending them any more. And even in our church, which is younger than most, when we look around on Sunday morning we oldsters seem to be rather better represented that you youngsters!

That worries us. And we certainly need to think about it and work to change it and make good and wise plans to address it. But let’s remind ourselves of this one fact: the continuing existence of the church is ultimately based on God’s steadfast love, not any human plan or wisdom or strength. God had to make it possible for wrinkled old Sarah to have a baby. God had to give supernatural guidance to Abraham’s servant so that he would meet the right girl at the right time. Yes, God’s people have to be faithful, but we also have to be full of faith – faith in the steadfast love of God!

And that love is steadfast, even when we’re not! The church is not made up of super-spiritual types – it never has been. Genesis tells us that when Abraham was afraid that the folks around him would kill him to steal his wife, he asked her to pretend she was his sister. Later on Sarah suggested her husband sleep with her slave girl to raise up children for her – and then when her own son was born, she drove out the slave girl’s son. Rebekah favoured her son Jacob, but Isaac favoured Esau. And Jacob didn’t learn; when he grew up and had kids, he had a favourite too, Joseph – with the result that his family was split apart by the resentment of Joseph’s siblings.

These are the kind of people God works with: flawed, imperfect people. He has no choice; there are no other kinds of people. God doesn’t only work with traditional families with two opposite-sex parents and 2.1 kids. He works with families like Abraham’s and Isaac’s and Jacob’s. He works with blended families and single parent families, and single people, and gay couples, and those whose marriages are in trouble and who don’t dare admit it to their church friends. It’s perfectly possible to be full of faith and struggling with weaknesses and sins and failings at the same time. We all do it. But God is patient and steadfast, and he never abandons us.

Brendan Manning calls this ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ – the idea that we’re all ragamuffins, but God loves us anyway. But Genesis goes further: God loves ragamuffins, and uses them to build his church. The community of faith is made up of ragamuffins. I’m one of them. So are you. And that’s why we need to be gentle with one another. As Paul says, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). One translation says, ‘Blessed are those who know their need of God’. That’s what Abraham and Isaac, in all their flawed humanity, can teach us. They did all kinds of things wrong – they made plenty of mistakes – but they knew without a shadow of doubt that they needed God. They could not exist without God. Without God, the people of Israel would have died out after one generation. And without God, the Church of Jesus Christ will die from the inside out, even if for a while it still looks like a prosperous institution.

Fortunately for us, we never need to be without God, because the God we need has promised never to abandon us. Let me close with this wonderful promise from the book of Lamentations, written at a time when the city of Jerusalem had just been destroyed by its enemies, and many of its people taken away into exile. It was certainly not a time of great hope, and yet the author of Lamentations isn’t ready to give up on God just yet. Here’s what he says:

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:22-23).

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

He Was Raised and We Can Meet Him (a sermon for Easter Sunday)

This morning we gather together to celebrate an extraordinary, and astonishing, and overwhelming, and totally unexpected event.

It’s hard for us to think ourselves back into the situation of the first disciples of Jesus on that Sunday morning so long ago. We’ve heard the stories of the resurrection so many times that they’ve become commonplace to us. And we’ve seen pictures and movie depictions that make Jesus into some sort of resurrected therapist who comes to his early followers with the perfect bedside manner, speaking to them in hushed tones and telling them ‘Don’t be afraid’. It never seems to occur to us that there was a reason he told them not to be afraid!

Just think for a moment about what it would be like if you met a person you knew to be dead. Imagine this person was your friend, and you had seen him executed in a way that left absolutely no doubt that he was dead, and you had seen the place where he was buried. Imagine you went to visit the grave two days later, and found it empty, and then, on the way back, you met your friend again, obviously alive and perfectly healthy. Would you believe it? Would you think you were going crazy? How would you respond to your friend? Would you touch him, or would you be afraid to touch him? And what would you think it all meant?

This is the situation of the women in our gospel reading for today. These women have a very special place in the New Testament witness to the resurrection of Jesus; they are the very first evangelists – a New Testament word that means ‘those who pass on good news’. The fact that the gospel writers all record that women were the very first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection is quite surprising in the culture of that day. In those days, women were not considered to be reliable witnesses, and their testimony was not admissible in court. If the early Christians had been making up the stories of Jesus’ resurrection and wanting to convince people it had actually happened, they certainly would not have included women as the first witnesses. To me, this is a very strong indicator that their stories are true.

So these very first Christian evangelists are given a commission, first by an angel at the tomb, and then by Jesus himself. Look at verses 5-7:

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly, and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him’. This is my message for you”.

And again in verse 10, the risen Jesus says to these same women,

“Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me”.

These commissions contain three things: first, a reassurance – “Do not be afraid” – second, an announcement – “He has been raised…come, see the place where he lay” – and third, an invitation – “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me”.

We’ve already talked about the reassurance – ‘Don’t be afraid’. Let’s go on to the announcement: Jesus has been raised from the dead.

This is the reason why the New Testament was written in the first place. It’s the reason why there’s a Christian Church today. A Jesus who had been crucified on Good Friday and stayed dead would never have inspired a joyful and dynamic movement that swept across the ancient world like the early church did. The Messiah was meant to save God’s people from their enemies. He wasn’t meant to be killed by them. To the early disciples, his death would have been conclusive proof that they had been wrong about him: he was not the Messiah after all. Do you think they would have gone on to start a preaching mission to go all over the world and tell everyone they had been wrong, and Jesus wasn’t the Messiah? I don’t think so.

No, it was only the resurrection of Jesus that got the Christian movement started on its amazing journey across the ancient world. It was these incredible eyewitness stories of people who said, over and over again, “We have seen the Lord!”

We have to admit right away that these stories don’t agree on every detail, and some of them are quite confusing to try to fit together. That shouldn’t surprise us; that’s often the way with eyewitness stories, especially stories of an amazing and unprecedented event, written down after the fact. Not surprisingly, some confusion about details creeps in.

But fortunately for us, all four gospel writers agree on the basic outline. They all agree that the burial of Jesus on Friday afternoon was rushed, and that various women agreed to come back to the tomb on Sunday morning to finish the job. All agree that when they arrived, they found the stone rolled away and the body gone. All agree that there was a messenger, or messengers, at the tomb, who told the women that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Matthew and John add the detail that Jesus himself appeared to Mary Magdalene, or to Mary and another woman, on their way back to the upper room, although the chronology is a bit unclear. When the male disciples heard the story, Peter and John went to the tomb to investigate for themselves, and they found it just as the women had said. Other meetings took place in the afternoon: a meeting with Peter, and with two others on the road to Emmaus. Then in the evening there was a meeting in the Upper Room described by Luke and John, at which all the disciples were present (although according to John, Thomas was absent).

So began a series of encounters that lasted for about six weeks, some in Galilee and some in Jerusalem. Some of them happened to individuals and some to groups. Paul tells us that at one time Jesus appeared to a group of five hundred of his followers at once, most of whom were still alive when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians twenty years later. Some of the encounters were short, and some were long.

It’s worth noting that none of the early Christians claimed to have actually seen the moment of resurrection. In some of the fictional accounts that were written later, they did, but the four canonical gospels don’t make this claim. What they do claim is that they knew Jesus was alive, because they had met him. And these were not just meetings with a ghost; some of the gospels mention that they touched his body, and that they watched him eat a piece of broiled fish.

And this leads us to the final part of this commission that was given to the first evangelists, the women at the tomb. They not only passed on the announcement that Jesus had been raised from the dead; they also passed on an invitation: they told the other disciples where they could go to meet with Jesus. The angel said to them:

“Go quickly, and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him’” (v.7).

And Jesus repeated this message:

“Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (v.10).

Do you sometimes feel a little twinge of envy here? I know I do! Wouldn’t it have been amazing if we could have been part of that little group of first century Christians who actually went to Galilee and met the risen Lord there? Surely that would answer all our doubts, wouldn’t it?

Well, maybe, although I note that later in this chapter, when the disciples met the risen Lord in Galilee, even though they were staring right at him it still says that ‘some doubted’ (Matthew 28:17). So seeing doesn’t necessarily make believing easier – sometimes you hardly dare to trust your eyes!

But it’s also clear that the people who wrote the New Testament didn’t think later generations of Christians would be under any disadvantage. They didn’t think Jesus was just a historical character; they thought he was alive, and had sent the Holy Spirit to fill his people, and that through the work of the Spirit we could continue to live in fellowship with him, even today, two thousand years later.

Those early women evangelists told the first disciples where they should go to meet the risen Lord. What if I stand with them this morning, as an evangelist, and tell you where you can meet him?

I need to be careful about this. Jesus isn’t like a slot-machine god: slot in the right prayer, and out comes Jesus! He’s totally in control, and it’s entirely up to him how he wants to make himself known to us. Sometimes people have dramatic experiences of his presence and his power; at other times, our Christian lives seem more mundane. We need to leave that up to Jesus, trusting that he knows best.

Nevertheless, down through the centuries, Christian people have testified that there are some places, or some situations, where Jesus does tend to make himself known. Let me list a few for you.

Let me invite you to meet him in the place of faith and commitment. When I was thirteen years old, I sat down on my bed in my room and prayed a simple prayer giving my life to Jesus. I can’t say that anything dramatic happened that night; Jesus didn’t appear to me, or anything like that. But looking back now, I know that simple prayer was the beginning of a whole new life with Christ for me. I’ve spent my life since then learning to know Jesus better and to follow him more closely. But it all began with a moment of decision: was I going to keep my life for myself, or was I going to give it to Jesus, the Lord of all, trusting that he loved me and wanted the best for me? That was my first real moment of faith and commitment.

Have you had a moment of faith and commitment – or more than one of them? Have you had a time when you’ve sensed that Jesus is real and you want to give yourself to him? Don’t be afraid; don’t hang back. Just tell him that you love him and you want to put your life in his hands, and ask him to help you know God. Sometimes that’s all it takes to spark a whole new relationship with the living God.

Let me also invite you to meet him in his sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion. Jesus tells us that baptism is the way we become disciples of Jesus, and Paul tells us that in baptism the Holy Spirit joins us to the Body of Christ. Luke tells us that when two of Jesus disciples met Jesus on the road to Emmaus on the afternoon of Easter Sunday, they didn’t recognize him until he ate with them, and then their eyes were opened and they realized it was Jesus. They went back to tell the others how the Lord had been made known to them in the breaking of bread. And we too experience this, when we gather around the Lord’s table together, and the bread is broken and the wine poured out. As we receive the bread and wine, we feed on him in our hearts by faith, and he draws us closer to himself.

If you haven’t been baptized and you’d like to be, come and talk to me. Or if you’ve been baptized and would like to renew your commitment, we can talk about confirmation. And if you are a baptized believer in Jesus, don’t hold back from this Holy Table. Prepare your heart to receive him and then come forward, holding your hands out in faith. We don’t know exactly how it happens, but we have been promised that it does happen: Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!’

So we can meet him in the place of faith and commitment, and we can meet him in his sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Finally, let me invite you to meet him in the scriptures and in prayer.

Imagine this: your tasks are all done for the night. You’re starting to feel like it might be time to head for bed. But there’s still some time, and you have this hunger inside to get close to God.

So you make yourself a cup of tea, you find your Bible and you go off by yourself to some part of the house where you can shut the door for a few minutes. You sit down and take a sip of tea. You still yourself and take a minute of silence, closing your eyes and focusing your mind and heart on God. You intentionally turn away from all the concerns of the day. “God, I want to meet with you. Jesus, come and be with me. Holy Spirit, fill me with God’s love”.

After a minute you open your Bible to the place you left off the day before. You read a passage – a few verses, or perhaps a chapter. All the time you’re listening: ‘What does God want to say to me?’ Maybe you have some questions up your sleeve. What’s this passage telling me about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about the world, about what’s important and what’s not important? Is there a promise in it for me? A warning of some kind? Is there a command for me to obey, and if there is, what would it look like if I put it into practice? Is there a good example for me to follow, or a bad one to avoid? Is there a person in this story I identify with? Why?

So you use your mind to meditate on Scripture, and maybe at the end of that time you’ve got one thought you want to take with you, to ‘sleep on’, as they say. Finally, you take a few minutes in prayer. You thank God for the good things you’ve received that day. You remember the times you failed God and other people and you ask God to forgive you. You pray for people you love who need God’s help, and for the needs of the world at large, and your own needs too. You worship God and praise God for his goodness and love. Maybe you finish off by saying the Lord’s Prayer quietly.

As you finish your prayer time you probably haven’t felt anything spectacular; you haven’t had any amazing mystical experiences. But I’ll be surprised if you don’t notice that you’re calmer somehow; you have a sense of peace you didn’t have when you started out. And you can go to bed and sleep easier because of it.

I’ve assumed that this time of prayer is taking place last thing at night. Actually, it never does for me, because I’m a morning person! So I get up in the morning, make my tea and have my time of prayer. The time doesn’t matter; what matters is the invitation to meet the living God and his Son, our Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

So to us, just like those first disciples, the evangelists come with good news.

Their good news includes reassurance. Don’t be afraid. God is in control. God is working his purpose out in ways you never expected.

Their good news includes an amazing announcement: Jesus is alive and he always will be. He is Lord of all, and all authority has been given to him.

And their good news includes an invitation: come and meet him. Meet him as the place of faith and commitment. Meet him together with his other disciples in his sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. Meet him day by day in the scriptures and in prayer.

Don’t be afraid. He’s alive and he’s calling you to come and meet him. Are you ready to accept his invitation?

Random Lent Thought for the Monday in Holy Week: ‘When I Am Lifted Up’

Yesterday in the liturgy for Palm Sunday I read these words:

‘Today we greet him as our King, although we know his crown is thorns and his throne a cross. We follow him this week from the glory of the palms to the glory of the resurrection by way of the dark road of suffering and death. United with him in his suffering on the cross, may we share his resurrection and new life’.

Many churchgoers like to skip from the glory of the palms to the glory of the resurrection without going through the dark road of suffering and death! Although our attendance at St Margaret’s on Good Friday is usually pretty strong, still there are those who choose not to attend that service in which we celebrate the central reality of our faith – the self-giving love of God pouring his life out for us on a cruel cross.

The cross is such a counter-intuitive way of saving the world! Jesus says in John’s Gospel:

“Now is the time for judgement on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31-32 NIV 2011).

And John adds,

‘He said this to indicate the kind of death he was going to die’ (v.33).

Paul says that the message of the cross seems like weakness and foolishness to the world, but to us it is the power of God and the wisdom of God (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). This message of the Son of God choosing to go all the way to a cruel death rather than turn back from doing his Father’s will – choosing not to take vengeance on his enemies, but rather to pray for their forgiveness – and somehow winning the decisive victory in the battle against evil by the sacrifice of his own life – this message has spread around the world and won the hearts of millions.

It’s not a message of power and glory that draws people to Jesus. It’s the beauty of his self-giving love shown in the ugliness of the crucifixion. This week in the Christian Church we lift high the cross. Yes, of course, we’re going to celebrate the resurrection with glory and trumpets – but not yet. For a few days, we’re going to stay at the cross.

Random Lent Thought for Wednesday March 29th: Love Your Enemies

When I first started getting interested in the Anabaptist tradition of Christian spirituality, I thought loving your enemies was a peripheral practice, but now I see that I was wrong. Loving your enemies is not peripheral: it’s right at the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel story is a story of a God who loves his enemies.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:38-48).

This is what God is like. He doesn’t check to see whether we’ve obeyed the Ten Commandments before he lets the sun shine down on us. He doesn’t investigate whether we love him or hate him before he sends us rain. God pours his love out on everyone, whether they love him or not.  That’s why he came among us in Jesus and gave his life for us on the Cross. As Paul says:

‘You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

‘Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!‘ (Romans 5:6-10, italics mine).

This is the heart of the Gospel. This is what is happening on Good Friday. In order for reconciliation to take place, someone must decide not to strike back. Someone must say, “Rather than take the revenge which is my due, I will choose to absorb the evil – even though I don’t feel like doing it – and respond with love instead”. On the Cross, God says, “That will be me. That’s what I will do”. We reject him and vilify him and crucify him, and his response is “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”. We can kill him, but we can’t kill his love for us.

“Be perfect”, in the original language, meant something like “be complete”; Luke renders it “Be merciful, as your heavenly Father is merciful”. Jesus’ meaning is “As your heavenly Father’s love is complete, leaving no one out (not even his enemies), so you are to imitate him and love your enemies too”.

Tomorrow we’ll think a little more about what this might mean for us.

Upside-Down World (a sermon on Matthew 5:1-12)

In his little book about Matthew’s gospel Tom Wright tells of a movie he saw about the first test pilots to break the sound barrier; you may have seen the movie yourself. Until 1947, no plane had ever flown faster than the speed of sound, and many people didn’t believe that you could fly faster than the speed of sound. But eventually, in the movie, various test-pilots began to take their planes over the magic figure of 735 miles per hour, and over and over again bad things happened: in some cases the planes began to vibrate, the vibrations got bigger and bigger, and eventually the planes just disintegrated. Crash after crash took place. It seemed as if the controls just refused to work properly once the plane came up to the sound barrier.

But finally one test pilot, Chuck Yeager, had a hunch about what to do. His hunch was that when the plane broke the sound barrier the controls began to work backwards, so that pulling the stick up to make the plane climb sent it downwards instead. And so Yeager flew to the same speed, and instead of pulling the stick back, he pushed it forward. Normally that would cause the plane to dive, but his hunch turned out to be correct; the nose came up, and the plane flew on without damage, faster than anyone had ever flown before.

Apparently the movie is not historically accurate. Chuck Yeager was often asked whether he’d done it the way the movie showed, and he insisted it wasn’t like that at all. However, the story from the movie illustrates what Jesus is doing in our gospel reading this morning; it’s almost as if he’s taking the controls and making them work backwards. And the only explanation for that is that he thinks he is taking God’s people somewhere they have never been before – like a test pilot breaking the sound barrier for the first time. In the previous chapter Jesus has announced the coming of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom has ushered in a radical new situation for the world; the old common-sense rules we thought were so sure are no longer so certain. And so in the Beatitudes, he says things that make no sense to us – things that completely contradict the common-sense view of the world. But we’re on the other side of the sound barrier now, and we’re face to face with a world of new possibilities.

The word ‘beatitude’ comes from the Latin word for ‘blessing’; in these verses Jesus describes eight situations or conditions of life, and pronounces a blessing on them. Likely there were people sitting in front of Jesus that day who fit into these various situations or conditions of life. They didn’t have it all together in their lives; they struggled with sins and weaknesses, and they needed to know that this did not exclude them from the kingdom of God.

The situation has not changed. The average Christian congregation may look pretty good on Sunday morning, but underneath that glittering image the reality is often not quite so shiny. There are people with good long term marriages and people whose marriages are full of pain, or have failed completely. There are dedicated people who give themselves to helping the poor and disadvantaged, but many of those people struggle with secret sins and temptations and they’d be frantic with fear if their fellow Christians found out about them. There are people who stand up and say the Creed on Sundays but inside struggle with doubts: ‘Did he really rise from the dead? Does he really care about me?’ There are strong assertive people, but also people who are timid and full of fear and wouldn’t dare to speak up for themselves. There are recovering alcoholics who aren’t really recovering; there are people with financial struggles who wonder why God doesn’t seem to provide for them. This is what the average congregation is like. Where in the world would such a mixed bunch of people find a welcome, if not in the Kingdom of God?

There are two things I want to say about the message of the Beatitudes this morning. The first is this: the Beatitudes assure us that everyone is welcome in God’s Kingdom.

 

In this part of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has just begun his ministry in Galilee. He has announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God and has invited people to repent, believe in him and become his followers. He has chosen some people specifically, and the ones he has picked are not religious professionals but ordinary working class people, fishermen like James and John, Simon and Andrew. He has gone on a mission around the countryside, teaching, announcing the kingdom, and healing the sick. Remember that in Jesus’ day it was a common idea that if you got sick it was because you were a sinner. But Jesus didn’t condemn the sick; instead, he healed them.

Having done these things, Jesus then sat down and began to teach his disciples. As he taught, he could probably point to people in the crowd in front of him who fit into each of the categories he mentions. There are some tax collectors and prostitutes – the poor in spirit, the ones who’ve never given the godly life a second thought up ‘til now. There’s a woman whose son was murdered by Roman soldiers – she’s mourning and grieving. There’s someone whose greatest hunger is to do what God wants. There’s a meek person who never stands up for herself and is always being sat on by others. But what’s the good news? The good news is not that they have these particular characteristics. The good news is that all of these people are included in the kingdom of God anyway!

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (v.3). I’m sure you can think of a few of them; you may feel like one of them yourself. These people weren’t raised in godly homes. They never learned the Bible stories; if you asked them to turn to the book of Isaiah, they wouldn’t have a clue where to look for it. I think of a friend of mine in my last parish, a man who came to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. He has no standing in a church, little knowledge of the scriptures, and by his own admission he did a good job of messing things up for a major portion of his life. He was ‘poor in spirit’, but today he is sober and spends his life trying to get to know God better and serve God in AA. Jesus is saying ‘There are people like that in the kingdom’.

The kingdom also includes ‘those who mourn’ (v.4). Luke calls them ‘the weeping ones’: those who have buried their own children, or those whose spouses have deserted them for someone younger and more attractive; those who have lost friends or whose livelihood has been taken away from them. These people are going through awful grief, but nonetheless they have turned to Jesus as their king, and in his kingdom they will be comforted.

The kingdom includes ‘the meek’ (v.5); the shy ones, the ones who are easily intimidated and never stand up for their own rights. When a mechanic does bad work on their car, they aren’t brave enough to complain. When they come down for coffee after church and everyone is talking in little groups, they aren’t brave enough to move into one of the groups; they stand off by themselves, excluded from the conversations. But nonetheless they have been drawn into the kingdom, and Jesus is not going to exclude them. Far from it; Jesus says, ‘they will inherit the earth’.

The kingdom includes ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (v.6), or, as another translation puts it, ‘those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail (REB)’. Maybe they’ve gone through a time when they hungered and thirsted for bigger houses and fatter pay cheques, but they’ve gradually come to realize that none of this satisfies. So they’ve come to the place where the thing they long for more than anything else is for God’s will to be done in the world and in their own lives. People like this are often laughed at and excluded. People tell them to ‘lighten up’ and not take life so seriously. But Jesus does not exclude them; he takes their longing seriously, and promises them that ‘they will be filled’.

 

The kingdom includes ‘the merciful’ (v.7). The world’s version of this Beatitude runs “Unlucky are the merciful, for they will be taken advantage of”. Dallas Willard tells the story of how his parents went bankrupt and lost their clothing store in the 1930’s. Why? Because they would not refuse to give people clothes when they had no money to pay. That’s pretty poor business practice! People like that aren’t going to get credit from the banks unless they smarten up! But look – there they are in the circle around Jesus. They’ve turned to him, and he’s welcomed them into the kingdom. ‘They will receive mercy’.

 

The kingdom includes ‘the pure in heart’ (v.8). We tend to understand ‘purity’ in sexual terms, but there’s more to it than that. ‘Pure’ water is water that has nothing added to it. A pure person is a person who desires one thing: God’s will for them. They long to see God and know God, and their longing will be fulfilled.

The kingdom includes ‘the peacemakers’ (v.9). They often don’t feel very blessed – in fact, the common-sense version of this saying might be ‘Woe to the peacemakers, for they will be shot at from both sides’! Ask a policeman who tries to intervene in a domestic dispute, or a mediator who tries to bring labour and management together. Often the proposed solution pleases no one, and people’s frustrations are vented on the mediator. But there are peacemakers in the kingdom. They are called ‘blessed’ because they have put their trust in the Son of God who came to bring peace between God and people, and so they too are known as ‘children of God’.

The kingdom includes ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’, those who are reviled and slandered because they follow Jesus. They may be excluded by the group persecuting them, but they will be included in a much better group – the group of faithful prophets who have stood up for what is right in every age.

So this is the kingdom of God – a ragtag collection of saints and sinners, beginners and experienced disciples. The point is not that you have to be ‘poor in spirit’ for the rest of your life. The point, rather, is that being poor in spirit doesn’t disqualify you. Anyone can enter the kingdom if they are willing to give their allegiance to the King.

So everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God. But I said there were two things I wanted to say. The second seems to stand in contrast to the first: not only is everyone welcome, but also everyone is challenged in God’s kingdom.

 

The Sermon on the Mount is an incredibly inspiring statement about the Christian life, but the challenge of it can also reduce us to despair. And that’s why the Beatitudes are so important. Jesus started with the crowd in front of him as they were. Some of them had no knowledge of God’s law and had never been interested in living godly lives until now. Others had been hungering and thirsting for righteousness for years. There was room in the kingdom for all of them. But they weren’t blessed because of these characteristics; they were blessed because they were part of God’s Kingdom.

It’s been well said that ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are – but he loves us too much to leave us there’. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives us the balance between the two halves of that statement. You may have lived a life of notorious wickedness – or just an ordinary life of mild inoffensive selfishness – or you may have tried hard to be godly all your life. Which ever is true of you and me, we are welcome in the Kingdom. But that doesn’t mean we’re welcome to stay the way we are. The invitation is to ‘follow Jesus’ – and you can be sure that if we follow him he will lead us into a new way of life. That’s the challenge.

The Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. The good news in today’s passage is that there are no prerequisites to entering the school. You don’t need to have studied Old Testament Law 301 or Sinlessness 401 to enter. The only requirement is to register, and we do that in a very simple way laid out for us by Jesus: repent, believe in the Good News, begin to follow Jesus and, if we’re not already baptized, get baptized into union with him. If you’ve taken those steps, then you’re in; you are ‘blessed’ even now, in the midst of your struggles and weaknesses, and in the kingdom of God you will begin to find the answer to your deepest needs.

(Next week we’ll go on to consider some of the ‘lessons in the school of Jesus’ as we continue with Matthew 5:13-20).

The Hope of the Kingdom (a sermon on Matthew 5:1-10 for the funeral of Win Rees)

We’re gathered together today on a day that is full of significance. In the Christian year, this is All Souls Day, a day when many Christians reflect on the lives of those who have gone before them, and give thanks for all the blessings they’ve received from them. And of course, as many of us here know, today would also have been Win’s 97th birthday. She is undoubtedly the oldest member of our congregation, and the newest member of the company of the saints in light. So we gather today to give thanks for her life and for all the blessings we received through our friendship with her, and to commit her into the hands of the loving God in whom she believed and put her trust.

There are many memories for us, and David has shared a few this morning already. It would be presumptuous of me to add to the list, but I will say that I always got a lot of enjoyment out of Win’s obvious delight in foods that were bad for her – whether it was fish and chips coated in batter, or Kentucky Fried Chicken, or her love of chocolate bars – one of the many things that she and Marci had in common! Also, as someone married to a person of Welsh descent, I enjoyed her enjoyment of being Welsh and the fact that every year she liked having St. David’s Day recognized in the church, and she liked the fact that we often sang ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ on that day, using that great Welsh tune Cwm Rhonda.

But it’s not my role at the service this morning to offer a second eulogy, but rather to reflect on what God might want to say to us as we gather here this morning, thinking about Win’s life and death and our own life and death as well. We chose to read the Beatitudes as our gospel reading for today, and the message of the Beatitudes is a good one as we think about the future hope Christians share. So let me direct your attention for a few minutes to Matthew 5:1-10.

I think this passage is often misunderstood because it’s seen as a sort of checklist of Christian spirituality. What sort of person makes a good disciple of Jesus? What sort of person can be assured of eternal life? Well, it’s a person who’s ‘poor in spirit’, who’s a ‘mourner’, who’s ‘meek’, who’s ‘hungry and thirsty for righteousness’, who’s ‘merciful’, who’s ‘pure in heart’, who’s a ‘peacemaker’, and who’s ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake’.

Does that strike you as a strange list? I know it does me. Some things make sense to me: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (v.6), or, in the much more helpful translation of the Revised English Bible, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail’: yes, I can see that. It’s a good and blessed thing to work for a better, more just and righteous world, and those who do so deserve to be rewarded. Likewise, the merciful, and the pure in heart.

But ‘those who mourn’? Is Jesus saying that we have to be sad all the time in order to enter the kingdom of heaven? And what about ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’? We in the western world hardly ever experience persecution; do we need to move to the middle east in order to qualify?

I think it’s important to recognize that in all eight of these Beatitudes, the blessing is in the second half of the verse, not the first. Let me explain what I mean. We need to remember that ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ does not mean ‘when they die, they’ll go to heaven’. That’s not what Jesus meant by ‘the kingdom of heaven’. Matthew uses that phrase in exactly the same way as Mark and Luke use ‘the kingdom of God’. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’. This prayer looks forward to a time in the future when God will heal the world of evil and sin and restore it to his original intention for it: a place of justice and compassion and love. This work has already begun through the ministry of Jesus and his people, but it is a long, long way from being complete.

Our hope as Christians is that one day, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he will raise us too, into a new earth where justice and righteousness prevail. This will not be a purely ghostly experience; it will involve physicality as well. And truly this will be a time of joy.

But when Jesus spoke the Beatitudes it was not such a time of joy. I imagine him looking out over the crowd; maybe there were people in it he had known since he was a boy. Maybe he recognized a mother whose son had been murdered by Roman soldiers; she was mourning, but he knew that in the kingdom of God she would receive the comfort she needed. Maybe he saw some little people, some helpless people, some people who were always getting trampled on and were afraid to stand up for their own rights. They were the meek, and too often in this world they get excluded from the positions of power. ‘You see those people?’ Jesus is saying; ‘They will inherit the earth!’ Them, not the politicians or the dictators or the corrupt CEOs of multinational corporations, but the meek!

And so it goes on as Jesus looks around. Those who are pure in heart, who long for God’s kingdom above all else – those who are poor in spirit, who fall short of what they should be and know it, and who cry out to God for forgiveness and strength to do better – those who are merciful to others, not angry and judgemental – all these and many more are represented in the crowd in front of Jesus. They all have a longing of some kind in their heart. One day, Jesus is telling them, that longing will be fulfilled. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”.

So this is not a list that’s meant to intimidate us. It’s a list that’s meant to include us and comfort us. Whatever the condition of our hearts, whatever we are, whatever we hope for, whatever we suffer, we will find what we’re looking for – we will find true blessing – in the kingdom of heaven. The poor in spirit aren’t blessed because they’re poor in spirit – they’re blessed because ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. The meek aren’t blessed because they’re meek – they’re blessed because ‘they will inherit the earth’. The mourners aren’t blessed because they’re mourning – they’re blessed because ‘they will be comforted’. And those who are persecuted aren’t blessed because of their sufferings, but because, again, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.

And this morning, as we gather together, we’re a group like that as well. We come from very different circumstances. Some of us are old and some are young, some are healthy and some are struggling with health issues. Some are full of faith, some are full of doubt. Some are full of joy, and some struggle with depression. Some are confident and bold, some are shy and fearful. Jesus welcomes us all, and assures us that whatever the deepest longings of our hearts, they will be fulfilled in the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. In that coming Reign of God, we will find the blessing we long for.

So today we rejoice because Win is a member of this company of the blessed. The last few years have not been easy for her, and it’s not been easy for us to watch as she struggled with the physical challenges of advancing age. But now we say to her – well, what do we say? The world says, ‘Rest in peace’, and certainly there’s truth in that. The New Testament talks about the faithful dead as having ‘fallen asleep in Jesus’, and there are weary days when I’m really looking forward to that sleep!

Nevertheless, there’s more to the Christian hope than that. Our wish for our sisters and brothers who have died is not just ‘Rest in Peace’, but ‘Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory!’ We believe that the God who made this earth has not abandoned it to suffering and despair, and that the God who made Win has not yet come to the end of his purposes for her. Paul talks in 1 Corinthians about ‘things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imagination, all prepared by God for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9 REB). This is not just talking about floating around on clouds playing harps. This is a new heaven, and a new earth, and a restored creation, where ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2:14). This is what we look forward to, for Win and for ourselves. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! Amen.

Searching for the Lost (a sermon on Luke 15:1-10)

I once had a call from a car thief who needed counselling. I am not making this up; this is a true episode from my life as a rural pastor. He called me in desperation; ‘Alliance’ was the first church he could find in the local phone book, but the Alliance pastor was out, and ‘Anglican’ was next on the list! He had left his girlfriend in a fit of temper, driven over five hundred miles in one day and tried as best he could to stop drinking, cold turkey. When he came to see me it was obvious that he was barely hanging on to his sobriety.

At first he didn’t tell me he was a car thief. He told me about his alcoholism and his destroyed relationship with his girlfriend, all of which was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. Still, I was able to get him hooked up with Alcoholics Anonymous, and for the next two weeks I drank more coffee than I ever have in my life before or since, because every day he wanted to get together to talk at the local greasy spoon.

It was during those conversations that I found out he was also a car thief. Well, not strictly a car thief; he actually made a good living by stealing heavy machinery – graders, gravel trucks, combine harvesters – that sort of thing. Obviously, the other people drinking coffee in the restaurant didn’t know he was a thief, but a few months later they discovered that he was a disreputable character because he was arrested and charged with growing marijuana! One of my older AA friends, who had spent a lot of time with this man, just shook his head and said “One day he’ll learn!”

If I had been having these conversations with my car thief friend in Jesus’ time, no doubt the Pharisees and the teachers of the law would have been muttering about me, too: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’ (v.2). And we need to remember that they weren’t taking this attitude because they were bad or malicious. They were taking it for the same reason we tell our children to be careful about the company they keep. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ is the old saying; if you want to stay on the right road in life, watch the crowd you run with. Run with the wrong crowd and you can get into trouble. Bad company ruins good morals. These are all things we were told by our parents, and no doubt most of us who have children have said something like that to our kids as well.

This is why the Pharisees and teachers of the law didn’t want to associate with the people Jesus was associating with – the loan sharks, the prostitutes and thieves and Roman soldiers and all the rest. Their motives were good – they wanted to stay pure from sin and holy in God’s sight. But in order to do this there were some very important things they forgot. I want to give you a list this morning of four things the Pharisees forgot. And of course this isn’t just a history lesson; I’m sharing them with you because I think sometimes we’re in danger of forgetting them too.

So here we go. First, they forgot that everyone is a sinner. Hopefully this is obvious to any Christian who reads the New Testament, but in Jesus’ time many people would have denied this. They would have divided the world into two camps – the good and the bad, the righteous and the sinners, the ones who were in and the ones who were out. If you made an honest attempt to live by the commandments, kept away from bad company and followed the Jewish ritual laws, you were ‘in’. If you didn’t, you were ‘out’. As far as the Pharisees and teachers of the law were concerned, they were ‘in’, but Jesus and his friends were ‘out’.

But in fact the situation is much more complicated than that. Some sins are obvious for all to see – murder, or adultery, or stealing cars. Other sins are not so obvious, but Jesus treated them just as seriously – the love of money and the things it can buy, lack of love for the poor and those in need, covetousness, self-righteousness and so on. Jesus summed up the law of God with two commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. If you fall short of these two commandments, you have sinned. Do you qualify? I know I do; therefore I am a sinner.

And we need to remember this, because it gives us an appropriate sense of our own need. I love the way people introduce themselves as A.A. meetings: ‘Hi, I’m Ken and I’m an alcoholic’. That serves as a good reminder that they aren’t gathered together on the basis of their strengths but on the basis of their weaknesses. And we Christians are the same. We don’t come together each week because we’re good; we come together because we know we fail, and we need God’s help and the help of our fellow Christians to kick our sin addiction. I am a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness; so are you. There’s no room for me to look down on you. There’s no room for you to look down on me. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.

So the first thing the Pharisees and teachers of the law forgot was that everyone is a sinner. The second thing they forgot was that every person is important to God. Not just as a part of the crowd, but as individuals. God loves each one of us, notices when we stray away, and goes out looking for us to bring us home. He would not do this if we weren’t important to him.

God’s math, you see, is a little different from ours. If we had gathered ninety-nine sheep together we would probably have weighed up the risks of leaving them and going out to search for the one that was lost, and decided “I’ll stick with the ninety-nine”. Or if we still had the nine coins we might be tempted to chalk up the loss of the tenth to bad luck and leave it at that. Not so in Jesus’ stories. Every single person is significant to God. You’re not just a statistic that he can write off; you’re a person made in God’s image, a unique individual, precious in his sight. When you stray away, he feels the loss deeply, and he wants to find you and bring you home.

Jesus, you see, did not look on these tax-collectors and sinners with a condemning eye. He said that they were ‘lost’; in his parable he compared them to a sheep that wanders away. Most sheep don’t wander away on purpose. They just aren’t thinking ahead. They keep their heads down, eating grass, thinking only of the needs of the present moment, and then after a while they look up and realize that the rest of the flock seems to have vanished! Their problem is that they’re so concerned about the need of the present moment – grass – that they take their eyes off the shepherd.

And that’s the way it is with so many people. We don’t mean to stray away from God; we just get so tied up meeting the needs of the moment – a bit more money here, a moment of relaxation there – that we lose sight of what life is all about in the first place, and we lose sight of the Good Shepherd who gives our life meaning and purpose. It doesn’t take a big sin to take us out of orbit around God – just a little distraction will often do the job.

So that’s how Jesus sees people – we’re like lost sheep, and he’s coming to look for us. He came all the way from heaven to earth, and gave his life on the Cross for us. As he says in John’s version of this story, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). And not just for the sheep as a group; Paul the great missionary says ‘The Son of God…loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). You matter to God. So do I, and so does every other individual on the face of the earth. God is out searching for us, and he won’t rest until he has found us and brought us home.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law forgot that everyone is a sinner; they forgot that every person is important to God. The third thing they forgot was that love leads to change, not change to love. What do I mean by that?

The best way of explaining it is to refer to another ‘lost and found’ story from Luke, the story of Zacchaeus in chapter 19. We’re told that Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector of Jericho, and very rich. He wanted to see Jesus when he passed through Jericho, but he was so short that he couldn’t see over the heads of the other people in the crowd. So he climbed a tree and looked down on Jesus from up above. But Jesus saw him up the tree, called him down and went to have a meal at his house. Again, the Pharisees and teachers of the law started grumbling that ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’ (Luke 19:7). Zacchaeus, however, responded to the love of Jesus by giving away half his possessions to the poor, and repaying all the people he had ever cheated four times the amount he had cheated from them. Jesus’ comment was ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:9-10).

That was quite a transformation in Zacchaeus’ life. I think the Pharisees and teachers of the law had probably been trying to make that happen for years. I can take a good guess at their tactics, too: I’ll bet they had scolded Zacchaeus, told him he should be ashamed of himself, warned him that he would go to hell if he didn’t repent and so on. None of this had any effect at all when it came to changing Zacchaeus’ heart. What changed Zacchaeus was when Jesus came to his house, loved him just as he was, and communicated by his actions that God loved him too. Once this message got hold of Zacchaeus’ heart, he was so thankful that he began spontaneously to repent and get his life in order.

And that’s the way the Christian Gospel works. God didn’t wait for us to smarten up and get our act together before he came to save us. Paul says ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). The message of legalism is that people first have to obey God’s laws and get their act together, and then, if they are able to achieve a satisfactory standard of righteous living, they will be accepted by God. The message of Jesus is the very opposite; while we are still sinners, God comes to us in Jesus, loves us as we are, and then helps us to turn away from our sins and become the holy and loving people he wants us to be. We don’t have to change in order to earn God’s love; God loves us first, and when we accept that love, it helps us change. Love leads to change, not change to love.

So we’ve seen that the Pharisees and teachers of the law forgot that everyone is a sinner, and they forgot that every person is important to God. They forgot that love leads to change and not change to love. One last thing they forgot: They forgot that shepherds look for sheep, and not the other way around. The proper movement is for the Church to go out looking for the lost, and not for us to wait for the lost to come to us, because, as Will Willimon says, ‘The last time I went down to the farm, it wasn’t the job of the sheep to find the shepherd’. That’s why Jesus was associating with tax collectors and sinners; he was the good shepherd, going out to find his lost sheep. He was the woman sweeping the house and searching until she found her lost coin.

The God of the Bible is a God who goes out in mission. The word ‘mission’ is about ‘sending’, about ‘going out’; it’s not about waiting for people to come to you! A church that worships this missionary God can’t help being in mission itself. We are learning to see people as Jesus sees them: lost sheep who have strayed away from the Good Shepherd. We are praying that God will help us to demonstrate his love in the way we live our lives, and to take every opportunity to explain the Christian message in a way that people can understand and relate to. We are the Shepherd’s assistants – his sheepdogs, if you like. It’s our job to go out and find the lost sheep, not their job to come and find us.

So I suspect that this passage has comfort in it for us, but also challenge. God is telling each one of us this morning that we matter to him. We are so important to him that he left the glory of heaven and came among us in Jesus; the Good Shepherd laid down his life so that you and I, his lost sheep, could be saved and come home again to him. We are all sinners, but he died for sinners, so we all qualify. And he doesn’t wait for us to measure up to a certain standard before he loves us; he comes to us as we are, loves us and helps us learn to walk in the new way of life he teaches us.

But the challenge to us is this: if we’ve discovered this love of Jesus in our own lives, we have a responsibility to share it. There are plenty of other lost sheep out there, and not too many of them are finding their way to the door of the church. You and I will have to make the first move, take the initiative, leave our comfort zone and look for the lost until we find them. I doubt very much if Jesus will be impressed by the argument that ‘Lord, we told them what time the service was, but they wouldn’t come!’

We have received the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Good Shepherd has found us and brought us safely home. He wants us to rejoice in that. But he also wants us to know that there are thousands more who haven’t found their way home yet. Every single one of them is important to him. There is absolutely nothing that is more important on his agenda than finding them and bringing them home. And he’s calling for our help in that. Are we willing to answer his call?