Year C, SUNDAY 20  

14-20 August

 

Luke 12: 49-56                                                                                    (Sermon 1: “Double Trouble.”)

Hebrews 11: 29 to 12:2                       ( Sermon Cloud of Witnesses”)

Isaiah 5: 1-7

Psalm  80: 1-2 & 8-19

 

PREPARATION

 

Grace mercy and peace, from God our Friend and from Jesus our Brother, be with you all.

And also with you.

 

I urge you, my friends, by the generosity of God, to present your whole bodies, as a living sacrifice, dedicated, and acceptable to God, which is a very reasonable kind of worship.

 

The love of Christ inspires us to give thanks and praise and honour and glory!

 

                        OR—

 

Turn your ear to us, great Shepherd of people,

you who lead the church like a flock.

You who are enthroned among heavenly beings,

shine upon every church congregation.

Stir us up with your unique glory

and come to liberate and heal us all.

 

Let the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,

the love of God,

and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,

shine upon us all today.

 

PRAYER OF APPROACH

 

Most loving God, help us to centre our lives on your awesome light and love, that we may recover, or maybe even discover in a new way, that ennobling awe and worship which can hallow all our years.

 

May we become more true than we have been, and offer you more than we thought possible,

with a liberty of spirit which makes praise as natural as dancing for joy. Let this hour colonise all the hours of this week. To your glory.

Amen!

 

CONFESSION AND ASSURANCE

 

We have all done wrong, wilfully or clumsily, aware or unaware. Let us turn to the therapy of confession and forgiveness.

 

Let us pray.

 

God our Saviour, we humbly seek catharsis in the presence of your saving grace.

 

If we have shrugged off our vows to you and rushed headlong into temptations we could not safely deal with, have pity on us.

Please forgive, purge, and rehabilitate us, loving God.

 

If we have slid slowly into an apathy towards loving our God with all our being and loving our neighbour as ourselves, have pity on us.

Please forgive, purge, and rehabilitate us, loving God.

 

If we have received blessings with scant gratitude, begrudged calls on our time and energy, and faced new opportunities with a sour face, have pity on us.

Please forgive, purge, and rehabilitate us, loving God.

 

If we have tried to hide behind excuses, or attempted to dignify half-hearted efforts with pious self-justifications, have pity on us.

Please forgive, purge and rehabilitate us, loving God.

 

God our holy Friend, we put ourselves in your hands. Those hands can be most gentle, as when you forgive us and smooth away our frustration. But your hands can also be very firm, disciplining our delinquent ways. Quietly we ask you do whatever is best for us. May we receive your mercy without doubting and accept discipline without grumbling.   Through Christ Jesus our Redeemer.

Amen!

 

FORGIVENESS IS DECLARED

 

It is written: “If we come clean about our sins, God is true and more than fair, forgiving our sins and cleansing us from all evil.” In the name of Christ Jesus, I assure you that our sins are remarkably and completely forgiven.

Thanks be to God.

 

PRAYER FOR CHILDREN

 

            It’s Hard to Stand Alone

 

Do you know, God,

            how much we want others to like us?

Do you know,

            how hard it is to stand alone

            while others giggle at us or jeer?

If you do,

            then please help us, help us a lot,

            to be brave and tough like Jesus

            and to do the right thing

            even when it’s not popular.

Amen!

 

 

PSALM 80:1-2 & 8-19

 

Turn your ear to us, great Shepherd of people,

you who lead the church like a flock.

You who are enthroned among heavenly beings,

please shine upon every congregation.

Stir us up with your startling energy

and come to liberate and heal us all.

 

Restore us, God of countless hosts.

Let your face shine, that we may be saved.

 

You brought the church like a vine out of alien soil,

cleared away the weeds and planted it.

You dug the soil thoroughly to receive it

and it took deep root and spread everywhere.

Restore us, God of countless hosts.

Let your face shine, that we may be saved.

 

Once the mountains were covered with its shade

and the forests sheltered under its branches.

Some branches reached the distant seas

and its shoots grew along wide rivers.

Restore us, God of countless hosts.

Let your face shine, that we may be saved.

 

Why are we now being broken down by the world,

and strangers pick our fruits without asking about You?

Like a wild boar, the secular world ravages our ranks,

and the press feeds on our every mistake.

Restore us, God of countless hosts.

Let your face shine, that we may be saved.

 

Turn things round again, God of countless hosts!

Look around and see what’s going on.

Have regard for this wilting vine

which you planted with your own wounded hands.

 

Restore us, God of countless hosts.

Let your face shine, that we may be saved.

 

Let your blessing be upon your chosen Son,

the son of man to whom you give your own strength.

Then we will never grow away from you;

give us new life and we will praise your name.

 

Restore us, God of countless hosts.

Let your face shine, that we may be saved.

 

POEM: HE BRINGS FIRE

 

He brings fire

            for forging;

the hammer strikes

            with skill

but I’m not yet unbent.

 

He brings fire

            for greening;

the new life

            covers the bush

but I’m not yet full spent.

 

He brings fire

            for feasting;

with much laughter

            on the wind

but I’m not yet content.

 

                        ©  B.D. Prewer 2000

 

COLLECT

 

God of Christ Jesus,  you call us out from the cloying comfort of pleasing ourselves, to the exhilarating adventure of pleasing you, no matter what the cost. Should division and pain be our lot, let us receive it gracefully, not licking our wounds or sulkily demanding special favours. May your holy fire let loose on earth,  inflame us with love both for friend and foe, and purge us from things that are unfaithful and unloving. Through Christ Jesus our Saviour.

Amen!

 

SERMON 1: DOUBLE TROUBLE

 

Luke 12:49 & 51

 

I came to cast fire upon the earth, and I wish it were already ablaze.

                                                                                                                                                            Luke 12:49

 

Do you imagine that I came to bring peace on earth? No way! I bring division.

                                                                                                                                                                                    Luke     12: 51

 

The main thrust of these texts is a warning from Christ that his followers must expect trouble from being loyal to him.

 

He himself will suffer. He will inevitably pay a costly price for his beliefs. The shadow of his fate looms over him. He wishes his bloody baptism into suffering and crucifixion would quickly come.

 

His disciples will also suffer. Christ’s work is inflammatory, his work brings division.

 

Later I will come back to this, but first I want to enlarge the scope to include the varied disasters that can happen to good Christians.

 

A DIALOGUE WITH ROSY

 

Let me introduce you to Rosy.

 

There are some rosy Christians who are convinced that trusting in Christ results in a charmed life. Rosy Christians claim that believers receive good health, good friends, happy families, popularity and financial prosperity. They will be spared in drought or flood, protected for road accidents, and healed from any diseases. Their church, where the full Gospel is preached, will also be rosy; flourishing and well respected in the community.

 

If I try to argue with Rosy, to suggest that this superficial optimism is not true for all Christians, the conversation goes something like this:

 

Rosy: Ah! But that’s because many so-called Christians are not sincere. Churches have nominal members, not committed to Christ. They are in it for the wrong reasons. That is why some do not receive the full blessings of the Lord..

 

Bruce: “That is misguided. I know very dedicated Christians, true believers through and through, who have known nothing but a succession of misfortunes.  Some go bankrupt; some are persecuted. What about those Christians in East Timor who put their trust in God but were slaughtered in their church?”

 

Rosy: Maybe. But have they prayed enough? If they trusted the Lord and prayed faithfully every day, then their lives would be one long blessing. Prayer is  the key that opens all doors.

 

Bruce: I cannot agree with you. There are Christian people who do pray, daily and earnestly. But things go badly wrong for them. They get made redundant from work, or a beloved daughter gets pregnant at the age of fourteen, or old friends turn against them, or their spouse runs off with a family friend.

 

Rosy: No. Something was not right. Maybe they were more superstitious than  true believers. Or maybe they just did not have enough faith. You have to really believe, you know. You must have complete faith that God will bless you and care for you. Anything is possible if you have true  faith.

 

Bruce: But I have known people with tremendous faith. But they were financially ruined when a business partner embezzled the firm’s funds. Another person contracted cancer yet totally believed that God would heal them. They had no doubts at all. She was still telling me she recovering the day she died.

 

Rosy: But were they born again Christians? You must be born again. Those who have been born again will ask Jesus for anything they want and they will receive it  My cousin Esme was a born again Christian and she recovered from cancer.

 

Bruce: I cannot let you say this stuff. It is not true. There many most wonderful, born again, faithful, prayerful, true believers, for whom everything goes wrong.. Marriages break, or their children turn out badly, or they get blamed for a crime they did not commit, or their house burns down, or the badly needed rain storm misses their farm, or they suffer from relentless pain and disease and so on.

 

Rosy: So you say. But were they properly baptised? It has to be by immersion you know, none of that sprinkling.  Or maybe they did not get the second blessing of the Spirit. That could be the reason. God will not let harm come to those who truly trust him.

What is more-- I just have to say this--  I find you, as a Minister, somewhat.....  lacking in faith .

 

THE FAITH OF THE UNFAITHFUL?

 

So it goes on . Nothing will shift this rosy outlook on the fortunes of these who preen themsleves as the “true” Christians.

 

Yet at the same time as they mouth their optimism, somewhere in the world devout Christians are dying of starvation, or falling foul of anti-Christian regimes, or being laid off from work, or seeing their marriage fall apart, or grieving for a son or daughter who is on drugs, or dying of disease, or being murdered in some sectarian or racist outrage, or being maimed on our roads.

 

As I see it, people who peddle this religious optimism are no only being grossly unloving but they are being unfaithful to Christ. Yes, I mean it. Some of those who are loquacious about faith, are in fact peddling a product which does not match up with Jesus. In a sense they are being ignorantly unfaithful.

 

Jesus did not offer us a twenty four hour protection policy, nor a prosperity bargain. Nor a good health voucher for all predicaments, nor an assured popularity certificate.

 

I came to cast fire upon the earth, and I wish it were already ablaze.   Luke 12:49

Do you imagine that I came to bring peace on earth? No way! I bring division.  Luke 12: 51

 

Fire! Division! There is nothing comfortable about these things!

 

Jesus on a number of occasions told his followers to expect big trouble. His way would divide people. His way would inflame people. His way would result in misunderstanding, unpopularity and maybe persecution.

 

He chose to describe discipleship in terms of picking up a cross and following him. He attempted to prepare them for the troubles that lay ahead.

 

At first his closest friends, like Peter, did not want to believe this. They considered such talk to be ill considered. God would not allow things to go so badly wrong. Only when Jesus came to his cross, and was not spared any suffering and shame, did they have to face up to the hard truth.

 

Jesus, the person of supreme faith in a heavenly Father, died on a cross crying out his desolation to the heavens. A disciple, then or now, cannot assume that becoming a Christian will ensure a comfortable life surrounded by peace and prosperity.

 

I came to cast fire upon the earth, and I wish it were already ablaze.

 

Do you imagine that I came to bring peace on earth? No way! I bring division.

 

Not for one moment am I suggesting that we should go looking for trouble.  Nor am I approving that sick form of religion where devotees are regarded as most holy if they frequently whip their own bodies, starve themselves, live alone in caves, or deliberately sever themselves from loved ones. Not that.

 

I am saying that the way of Christ is so contrary to the ways of this world, that there must at times be conflicts. Fire: It does at times inflame those who stand against us.  Division: It may embroil us in misunderstanding or make us the but of jokes. It may lose us friends. It can, alas, in some cases cause the break up of marriages.

 

Christ does not offer us a safety zone against misunderstanding or conflict. Nor are we hedged against accident or disease. Nor are we buttressed against poverty or some bloody outrage.

 

THINGS CAN GET MESSY

 

Things get messy. As Jesus warned: People in the one house will be divided: three against two and two against three. Father against son and son against father. Mother against daughter and daughter against mother. Mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. It does not get much messier than that!

 

Sometimes very bad things happen to very good Christians.

 

Whether good or evil happens to us in no way signifies our grasp on faith or lack of it.

 

The same applies to churches. Whether a parish church is prosperous or struggling is in no way a reflection of the quality of Christianity being practised. Whether a denomination is large or small, says nothing about the standard of belief or practice.

 

Things are never as neat as the self-righteous people who are experiencing apparent success would have us believe. And that applies to the clergy as well as to the congregations to which they pastor.

 

WHY AM I HET UP?

 

Why am I feeling particularly worked up about this theme?

 

I can identify two personal factors.

 

1/ During my ministry to seven different parishes, sometimes my efforts seem to have been rewarded with considerable success:( Have you heard that pernicious phrase: A.B. is a successful minister?)

At other times I have appeared to have been notably unsuccessful; a failure even.  I know in my heart of hearts that the difference does not lie with me being more faithful to Christ in some situations than others.  There is much that I don’t understand about how God works in this world, but this I know: There is no simple (slick?) law which says-:  good faith = good results, or bad faith = poor results.

 

2/ Not long ago I was pastor to a man whose wife was dying of cancer. He is a truly lovely Christian.  Yet the more he prayed, the more she declined.   Some friends (perhaps they would better be called acquaintances!) from another church kept on telling him that if he had faith, his wife would recover. They were praying for healing, he must have similar faith. As she sank closer to death, they badgered him about needing to repent and be born again. When she died they said it was his fault; he was a faithless Christian.

 

That kind of pious cruelty makes me so angry! 

 

It is, as I said earlier, such pious humbug is both grossly unloving and unfaithful to Christ Jesus.

 

CROSSES AND THE LOVE OF GOD?

 

Crosses remain mysteries in a world where the ultimate power is the love of God. But it is far better to live by faith in the Christ of the cross, that to go into denial and concoct some God of pretty-pretty optimism.

 

The Christ of the Cross is the God who shares everything that goes wrong in our lives, and who can take all the fire and division, all the disasters and the torn bleeding ends, and work them all together for good.

 

That is the bottom line. Our God works all together for good. God does not send calamity, but for those who maintain their trust, new patterns of beauty are forged out of the most ugly circumstances.

 

 

SERMON 2: THE GREAT CLOUD OF WITNESSES.

 

HEBREWS 12: 1-2

 

Travel can be an enriching experience.

In younger years, when I was not so reliant on physical comforts, I with my wife Marie, and two dear friends, camped around various parts of  the “Old World.”

 

I recall one afternoon in Greece.

We pitched the tent not far from the famous ruins of Delphi. In our sightseeing we did the usual things, the treasury ruins, the shrine of Apollo, the site of the sacred spring and the oracle and so on. Towards evening we sat quietly for a time on the tiered seats of the amphitheatre and absorbed the atmosphere.  I can still hear a blackbird singing as we sat there in the near silence.

 

I thought of the ancient spectators.

Those who long ago packed these same seats to watch athletic events. I imagined them cheering the athletes of their respective city states. What a wonderful scene it must have been, here in this amphitheatre carved from the side of the mountain.

 

In a whimsical mood, I descended to the arena.

I stood at the starting blocks and then sprinted (I told you I was much younger!) the length of the stadium. I imagined hearing the cheering of the crowd around me, as it had been in that ancient era when Greece was in its hey day. I did not pretend to win the race but I did have to give my best.

 

It seems the writer of the letter to the Hebrews had a scene like that in mind.

It is the backdrop to when he/she concluded the roll call of the ancient heroes of faith in Chapter 11.. We are the athletes of Christ. The onlookers include those mighty servants of God, like Abraham and Sarah, Miriam and Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Isaiah and all the prophets, who have died but are definitely not out of the picture. They are seated in the stands, watching the present day men and women of faith run the race.

 

            Being surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us strip down to basics, and rid     ourselves of every clinging sin. Let us run with determination the race before us, looking           to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. This same Jesus who for the celebration             that lay ahead of him, endured the cross despising its shame, and is now seated at the     right hand of God.

 

THE GREAT CLOUD OF WITNESSES

 

Don’t you love that poetic phrase: great cloud of witnesses?

One could translate it in a more mundane way by saying The large crowd of spectators. That may make the picture immediately accessible to the modern mind, but it misses the deeper level of meaning.

 

The metaphor “cloud” is much more evocative than “crowd.”

Cloud expresses a vast number of people (as in our contemporary expression “a sea of faces’) but also adds the heavenly dimension. In the Bible there are those holy moments when God draws near to humanity in a radiant cloud. Such as happened with Jesus, and three disciples, on the mount of transfiguration.

 

This is a “cloud” of spectators with a difference.

This host of whom the Letter to the Hebrews speaks, are on the heavenly side of reality, delighting in the eternal presence of God. They are those who by faith have already run the race, they have lived and died in the faith, and now watch on as a new generation give their best for Christ and his God. They are not dead and totally extinguished, but are living witnesses. Witnesses at a higher level, with expanding horizons and joys we cannot even begin to imagine.

 

That word  witnesses” is also important.

As I said, one could use the word spectators. But then we would miss much of the meaning. In the Greek language, “martyr” and “witness” are the same word.

 

Spectators are not so involved.

Many spectators may never themselves have run the race, or endured the test of wrestling, or thrown the javelin.. Most have only a superficial spectator’s knowledge of what is going on in the arena. As a result they do not appreciate the difficulties or the pain of competing in the stadium. As we well know from observing sporting crowds in this country, spectators are fickle and can turn nasty. If a favoured athlete gives their all yet falls and loses, their cheers can turn to boos.

 

Not so with God’s triumphant witnesses.

In their day, these witnesses had been totally involved. Many had suffered and died in the arena, giving their last breath, or their last drop of blood,  for their God. Some of the witnesses are indeed martyrs. They are not fickle, and ready to turn against us should we stumble or fall. They are utterly for us, willing us on with all their prayers; with all their being. Included in the great cloud are the more recent faces of those precious people with whom we once shared the joys and sorrows of this phase of service to Christ.

 

Not mere spectators but definitely a great cloud of witnesses.

These give us strength as we run the race of faith. Just as contemporary athletes speak of the strength they draw from a home crowd, so we draw strength from our “home crowd”, those who are on the heavenly side of reality. We are not alone; never bereft of the fellowship and encouragement of a shining host of fellow believers.

            Being surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us strip down to basics, and rid     ourselves of every clinging sin. Let us run with determination the race before us

 

THE ONE SPECIAL WITNESS

 

Among these wonderful witnesses is one extra special one.

 

Jesus. In fact, Jesus is like the coach, teaching and showing us all we need to know. Training us, and warning us about the dangers, feeding us a remarkable bread and wine for strength, standing at the end of the race, waiting to catch us when exhausted or wounded we fall across the line.

 

At this point the allegory breaks down.

Jesus is also the Lord of this race. He is seated in the royal box overlooking the finishing line. It is towards him we run; on him we keep our eyes fixed as we give heart and mind and soul and strength in the race he has set us.

 

It is not unusual for important people to be seen at major sporting events.

I guess it is one of the perks of office, to have access to the best seats on such occasions. Like past Prime Ministers such as Bob Hawke, our present Prime Minister, John Howard,  is no exception. He enjoys sharing the glory of the contest from his VIP seat, and afterwards meeting with the sporting stars involved. Not that he was ever much of an athlete himself. Mediocre would not be an unkind word. He does not know, from personal experience, what it is really like down in the amphitheatre.

 

But in the holy faith, our true “Prime Minister” is Jesus.

He himself is the one outstanding love athlete this world has known. And for his race he was prepared to suffer beyond anything we could ever expect. He still wears the scars of his day in the arena, when every negative power possible was pitted against him.

 

Let us run with determination the race before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. This same Jesus who for the celebration that lay ahead of him, endured the cross despising its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of God.

 

THERE ARE NO SMALL CONGREGATIONS

 

I started this sermon with the picture of a much younger me.

B.D.P. in a whimsical mood, running in the arena at Delphi in Greece. I return to Delphi now with another snapshot.

 

Our campsite was just around the corner, in a tiny camping ground.

Perched on a height, overlooking the mountainside falling away below us, and stretching way down the hillsides where olive groves and vineyards were growing, forming dark green patterns. Below us, maybe about 500-700 metres, was a small chapel at the head of a village. Morning and evening an orthodox priest would climb up to the chapel for prayers. He would ring the bell, its notes echoing up the slopes to our campsite. Three or four village folk, women as far as I could discern from that distance, would join him. What a tiny congregation it might have seemed to him.

 

But not so. Things were not as they might appear .

I suspect that as an Orthodox Priest, he would be keenly aware of the great cloud of witnesses: That wonderful host who surrounded him and those few villages, as they gave thanks to Christ for his goodness, and prayed for his grace in their daily affairs and that of their small hamlet.

 

In the Christian church there may be some struggling congregations.

They may be weary congregations, suffering congregations, but there is never a small congregation. When we gather in the name of Christ Jesus, we gather with the great cloud of witnesses. The place is packed to the rafters! The screen between them and us is very thin. From them we draw strength and our sincere efforts to serve our loving Lord, gives them added joy.

 

Being surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us strip down to basics, and rid ourselves of every clinging sin. Let us run with determination the race before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. This same Jesus who for the celebration that lay ahead of him, endured the cross despising its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of God.

 

 

PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING

 

From beginning to end, life is one extensive bonus. It is time to give thanks.

 

Let us pray.

 

We thnak you, O God ,for bountiful blessings, above, beneath and around us.

 

Thanks for our brother the sun who brings us the day with all its delights and surprises.

 

Thanks for our sisters the moon and the stars who make the night a glorious  mystery.

 

Thanks for our brother the wind who comes and goes as he chooses for our benefit.

 

Thanks for our sister water who is humble, precious and clean, and refreshes the weary.

 

Thanks for our brother fire, who cheerfully warms our homes and cooks our food.

 

Thanks for our mother the earth, who gives us fruits, grasses, trees and radiant flowers.

 

Thanks for people who forgive one another and share burdens and tribulations.

 

Thanks for our sister death who embraces all, and sets free the child of God.

 

We thank and praise you, love and adore you, and we seek to serve you humbly and gladly for ever. Through Christ Jesus our Lord..

Amen!

                                                                        (Adapted from St Francis of Assisi)

 

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

 

Let us identify with God’s compassion for all humanity.

 

Let us pray.

 

God of Christ Jesus, please hear our prayers for the human family in its happiness or its distress. Gather us up into the reconciling fire of your love, that we may be purged of all that fosters misery, and inducted into everything that creates love, joy and peace.

 

We commend to you those who feel ground down or broken, isolated or alienated.

 

We commend to you the hungry or homeless, anxious or in agony.

 

We commend to you those who through terrorism and war are shattered and despairing.

 

We commend to you the frightened and insane, the dying and grieving.

 

We commend to you the tempted and the fallen, the fearful and the faithless.

 

We commend to you the church with its truth and error, its faith and its fear.

 

We commend to you all who love Christ, and work for his way of reconciliation, justice, compassion, and peace.

 

God of Christ Jesus, we submit these prayers to your refining fire. Purify all that is pleases you for the service of your kingdom of grace, where no good thing is discarded, and no loving deed wasted. For your love’s sake.

Amen!

 

SENDING OUT

 

Happy is the person who leaves this church forgiven and uplifted.

Happy are all who know the love of God and embrace it.

 

Happy is the person who goes their way with thanksgiving.

Happy are all whose greatest joy is to do God’s will.

 

Happy are all who realise they do not travel alone.

Happy is the person who enjoys the company of Christ.

 

The peace of God, which goes beyond all our understanding, nurture your hearts in the knowledge and love of God. And the blessing of God, the Creator, Saviour and Inspirer,

will be with you always.

Amen!