Luke 14: 25-33 (Sermon 1: “Jesus the Extremist”)
Jeremiah 18: 1-11 (Sermon 2: “A Visit to the Pottery”)
Psalm 139: 1-6 & 13-18
The light and joy of Christ Jesus be with you all.
And also with you.
Let your chief delight be in the Almighty, and lift up your face to God.
This is the day which the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.
We are never alone; in God we live and move and have our being.
We have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Grace to you and peace,
from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
How precious to me are your thoughts, loving God.
How immense is the number of them!
If I could count them, they would outnumber the sand.
When I wake up each morning, you are still with me.
I will praise you, for you are awesome!
Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, are all your works!
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Holy Friend, close in on us; cut off distractions and dissipate our worries. Gather anything that is true and holy within us into one theme of loving praise. Give to us a few precious moments when we can feel and anticipate that wholeness of Spirit who is our true nature and destiny. From the awesome perfection of a brief time with you, enable us look to the future with a serene confidence. Through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
CONFESSION AND ASSURANCE
God, who is our Awesome Friend, is more than ready to listen as we confess our sin.
Let us pray.
God of all life, ever creating and recreating, come with the saving grace of Christ Jesus into the unruly kingdom of our lives. Deal radically with our tarnished souls which were meant for brighter things.
Reach into the bank of our memories, down into the spring of our feelings, deep into the tender places where faith and hope struggle towards more light, liberty and joy.
Forgive all that you find fallen, reclaim that which is rebellious, expel that which is alien, and strengthen that which is sane, loving and beautiful.
By your Spirit living within us, enable us to become in reality as well as hope and intention the true sisters and brothers of the Son of God. This we pray in his name.
GOD IS MERCIFUL
Here is a saying that you can trust without any hesitation:
“The Son did not come to condemn the world
but that the world through him might be saved.”
My sisters and brother, embrace that word and you will be free indeed.
Thanks be to God.
PRAYER FOR CHILDREN
Putting Jesus First
We’re sorry that we often put ourselves first,
well ahead of Jesus
and the things he wants us to do.
Please cure us of our silliness
and our selfishness.
Let Jesus so live in our hearts
that his way will become more natural
than our old way.
See ‘Australian Psalms’ by B.D. Prewer
It’s easy in the morning sun,
when youth is awash
with hope and ideals,
to take the vows of saints
and get high on the thrill
of tackling dragons and giants.
Much harder in midday heat,
when perennial set-backs
take their wearisome toll,
while dark questions rise up
and insinuate angst
into the crevices of the soul.
Later comes the evening light,
the landscape softens
and lines blur a little,
we limp where once we ran
and wonder what’s achieved
in one’s brief life-span.
Great Source of life and time,
stay close through all the hours
of this one fleeting day,
that we may still stay true
to what we have commenced
and leave the finish up to you.
© B.D. Prewer 1993
God most wonderful, please cure us from the dis-ease of divided aims. Give unto each of us a single-minded devotion to Christ Jesus, so that his Spirit may be in us forever. Then may our dealings with other people reflect a larger measure of his truth and grace. For your love’s sake.
SERMON 1 : JESUS THE EXTREMIST
Luke 14: 26
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even hate his own life, they cannot be my disciple.
It does not get much more extreme than this!
Question: Was Jesus a religious extremist? Was he a fanatic?
Some critics say yes! A Hindu may well say “That Jesus may well be one of the many incarnations, but he sometimes disappoints me! He is so self important. He puts himself ahead of everyone else.”
Maybe such a strong reaction from a person of another faith, touches the edges of something many Christians may have felt but never dared say aloud. Maybe Jesus was an extremist. To “hate one’s father and mother, sisters and brother”? What is going on here? To cut across one’s loyalty to family, sounds a very extreme thing to do.
NOT AN EGO TRIP
First let us clear up one thing. Jesus was not on an ego trip. To be a disciple of Jesus was not putting Jesus in top position, but God. The burning passion of Jesus was God: God’s purposes, God’s truth, God’s compassion, God’s love. He focussed his message on the kingdom of God. Seek first the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is among you, turn around and believe.
So when he says: “If you are going to follow me” he is saying : “If you are going to share my passion for God..... my enthusiasm....my task.....my reason for living.....the true love of my life.” To put God first means not only putting God before loved ones but also putting God before your own life.
It is not self importance but God importance that inspires Jesus to make his extremist claim.
WHAT ABOUT THAT WORD ‘HATE”?
But why did Jesus use that offensive word “hate”?
There is a possibility that we have a mix up in translation here. Jesus taught in the Aramaic language of the common people. In Aramaic the words for “hate” and “forsake” are very similar. It is certainly possible that later writers, translating Aramaic into Greek, got the translation wrong.
For my part I don’t mind either way. “Forsake” soften things a little, but it is still rather extremist. I am happy to stay with “hate”. For me it sounds like yet another example of Middle Eastern hyperbole.
(I know I have commented on this previously, but let me underline it. Hyperbole is exaggerated language to express strong feelings. It is very common in the Middle East. For that matter, it is not uncommon in our culture. For example, a teenager describes a concert he has been to: “The whole town was there!” Or a woman looks in her wardrobe and says: “I have nothing to wear!” In both of these cases we don ‘t take them literally, do we? It is hyperbole.)
When Jesus says his followers must if necessary be prepared to “hate” loved ones and “hate” our own lives. he is trying to convey the utter primacy of God. He is not a half-bored philosopher reading a carefully prepared paper to students. Jesus is a passionate man caught up in a vision of God’s new world, yet already aware that it will cost him loved ones, friends and life itself.
THINK BEFORE YOU SAY YES
Please notice that unlike many hyped-up evangelists, he does not attempt to rush people into making such a decision.
This young rabbi from Nazareth warned them against hasty decisions. He wanted them to make sure they were willing to take the plunge and see it through. It is an extreme commitment that he is asking them to consider. Therefore they should think carefully before jumping in.
The two little parables that follow are not the words of a slick, religious salesman wanted quick converts.
First there is the man setting out to build an impressive tower. First sit down and calculate the cost. Can you afford it? Don’t start something you cannot finish.
Secondly the parable about a king going to war. First sit down and work out whether his army is large enough to win against the enemy. Don’t start something you cannot finish.
Becoming a disciple of this Messiah who has an absolute passion for God is a costly venture. Count the cost. The disciple must be ready to go the whole way with the Master.
MISUSE OF THESE SAYINGS
It is unfortunate that these passages have been misused by numerous sects. They drag in converts in a flush of enthusiasm and then start warning them about the rift with families. Any hostility from the family is taught as proof of their true faith.
It is also unfortunate that some religious monastic orders have not only insisted on a total severance from loved ones but have also encouraged a literal hating of one’s body. There is nothing Christlike about despising and whipping one’s own body. Self flagellation is not a saintly virtue but a sickness.
Jesus never engaged in artificial self punishment. The authentic cost of discipleship is that suffering that naturally results from being faithful to Christ. If you become a Christian and remain close to your loved ones, that’s wonderful! But if they should try and tear you away form God, then it may mean an unhappy severance.
THE DANGER OF SLIPPAGE
In our society the lines between Christ and godlessness are not always clearly drawn. For us the danger is one of slippage; we slip almost imperceptible into losing our first loyalty. A whole host of little decisions or indecisions, and we find ourselves at a distance from Christ.
These small matters may not at the time seem worth making a stand on. But accumulatively they amount to a betrayal of the God who counts more than all else. The years go by and faith slides into sentimental religion, or what is as bad, into apathy.
Is there anything more pathetic than the soul that has spent its substance, not like the prodigal son ‘on riotous living’, but on the trivia of a thousand mini disloyalties? When this happen the early enthusiasm is replaced by a dull indifference towards things of the spirit.
Jesus will not have that! The extremist Christ still calls us to give everything. That’s what his exaggerated language is about. He felt so keenly about the importance of this that he used dramatic hyperbole-- the language of ‘hating.”
Australian poet David Foster has these lines in his poem “The Fleeing Atlanta”:
Don’t give everything.
How many times have you heard them say
Don’t give everything.
You would think that they
Had given everything and lost, but hardly
A thing could be further from the truth.
They lost because they did not give everything.
“They lost because they did not give everything?”
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even hate his own life, they cannot be my disciple.
SERMON 2: A VISIT TO THE POTTERY
We live in a throw away society.
But we do not worship a throw away God. Our God loves everything “his hands have made” and does not want anyone to lose their way and end up on a junk heap.
Jeremiah (626-585 BC) employs pictures like the other remarkable prophets.
He saw parables of God in the common things of life. Through them God’s word spoke to him. In today’s OT reading, he saw one in a potter working at his wheel.
The word of God came to Jeremiah: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”
So I went down to the potter’s house, where the potter was working at his wheel. The soft clay vessel he was shaping in his hands went wrong. So he started again and shaped another vessel, exactly in the shape he wanted it.
The word of God came to me saying: “House of Israel, surely I can do with you just as this potter has done? Just as the clay is in his hand, so are you in my hand, family of Israel.”
This was yet another stern warning from God.
A warning that the prophet felt compelled to convey to his clayish people, even though they would mock him and abuse him. Jeremiah declared that God would not hesitate to stop the wheel, seize the misshapen clay, squash it back into a shapeless lump and start all over again. That is, if the “chosen people” must be brought low before they could be redeemed, then so be it.
A COMPARISON; WOOD TURNING
Maybe you have stood and admired potters at work.
So have I. But I have never attempted to learn the craft. It is entrancing to watch skilful hands shape something beautiful out of such unpromising material.
My only similar skill has been in wood turning.
I have never been a top craftsman, far from it. Yet to shape a piece of timber spinning in the lathe has given me times of considerable pleasure. Some of my most rewarding efforts have been taking rough, unmilled wood, and finding what beauty lies hidden inside.
It has been a joy to rescue a rough piece wood, say a length of Tasmanian wild cherry from a firewood stack and turn it into a chalice. A hunk of olive root from a friend’s hedge, became two candle holders. While camping in the spectacular Flinders Ranges I salvaged from beside a fireplace two pieces of native pine.(That small tree that grows ever so slowly in harsh conditions. By the rings I could estimate 150 years of growth) I turned them both into lamp bases which, if I do say so myself, are articles of beauty. I have never been a star at the craft, but I have managed a few memorable creations.
The potter has one major advantage over a wood turner.
If things go wrong the potter can return the clay to a lump and start over again. With wood turning, a mistake or an unsuspected flaw can be disastrous. Some things, even after hours of work, can end up on the trash heap.
Not always though. Redemption may be possible.
I have know situations where either a hidden flaw has turned up, or I have made a grave error, forcing me to alter my design. The end product has sometimes been superior to the one I first envisaged. Just imagine if I were a master wood turner! The possibilities of redemption from mistakes would be much greater.
GOD IS THE SUPREME POTTER
God is the Sole Master in the craft of people making.
In God’s hand the common clay of earth can be transformed into something truly remarkable.
There is, however, in this Divine craft, one particular difficulty.
It’s a difficulty not faced by either potter or wood turner. God has granted the clay free will. Think about it? Think about making a vase from clay that has a will of its own! [Some of you might want to tell me that the only time you tried throwing clay on a potter’s wheel, it did have a mind of its own! That is an illusion I assure you!] A will of its own? That takes extraordinary skill. Sometimes the production reaches a stage where things go very wrong, and the only thing God can do is to break the clay down into a lump and start again.
This is what Jeremiah warned his people about.
Because of their wilfulness and avarice, because of their arrogance and toleration of injustice and idolatry, God would need to break them down, otherwise they would never reach their potential. God would demolish them, not to throw on the rubbish heap but to start once more from the basics.
It is okay be broken down by God.
Though not a comfortable experience, even in such loving hands. It had to happen to Israel as a nation, and it happens to many of us as individuals. We do need to be broken down by God, and to let the Master start again. Starting again requires repentance.
Our repentance is only the beginning.
Even after our repentance, it takes the remarkable skill and wisdom of God to reshape us. It all cannot happen overnight. I marvel at the faithful, careful, strong fingers of God as they take our rough clay and bring something new into being.
THE AMAZING PATIENCE OF GOD
I could never be a master wood turner.
Apart from obvious faults in my design ability and turning skills, I do not have sufficient patience. Patience is a necessity, especially at certain points in the exercise of creating a vessel of beauty. I guess it is the same with a potter.
Our God has unspeakable patience.
Think of the patience required over the millions of years to painstakingly shape humanity from creatures such as roamed the ancient rift valley of Africa until the first Adam and Eve (creatures who knew right and wrong) could stand on this planet and pray to their Creator.
Think of the patience required to draw humanity onwards to Abraham, and Sarah. And the patience necessary to lead the fractious Jews from those first pioneers of faith to Micah, Hosea and the noble Jeremiah. Then more patience. Painstaking patience, waiting until the time was exactly right for the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ.
There is no adequate word to describe the patience of God.
That’s why a moment ago I referred to God’s “unspeakable patience.” It makes us dizzy just to think of it. Divine patience from time immemorial. Wow! And that may be only half of the story! How many thousands of years, indeed how many millions of years, there may still be to run before God’s astounding project is complete, and every woman is like a Christ to her human sisters, and every man a Christ to his brothers.
WHEN THINGS GO BADLY WRONG
There is one final severe word I must speak. It is a warning.
Jeremiah, living centuries before Jesus, wavered between hope and despair.
In today’s passage he speaks of God returning the misshapen pot to formless clay and starting all over again. That is hope.
In the following chapter 19, Jeremiah has a grim warning, verging on despair.
He buys a finished pot, goes out to the valley of Hinnom (which was the rubbish tip for Jerusalem) and completely shatters it. It is now worth nothing. Unlike malleable clay, a pot that has been hardened in the kiln cannot ever be repaired. It is almost useless. I say “almost useless” because I dare not put an final limit on the mercy and ingenuity of God.
Even our loving, optimistic Christ, knew that things could go fatally wrong.
If people chose to use their free will to defy the divine hands that wanted to shape them into something wonderful, if they completely hardened their hearts, then ultimately they would sentence themselves to the rubbish tip. Jesus warned of Gehenna. The word is a form of Hinnom, that garbage dump in the valley where fires smouldered and maggots crawled and fed on organic refuse.
For Jesus, God does not give up on us.
But tragically, some people use their free will to give up on God. God does not discard them, they discard God. They chose a misshapen existence and repudiate their high destiny. The trash heap becomes be their chosen end; Gehenna.
BACK TO THE MAIN THEME
That warning given, I return to the creating and re-creating God of Jesus; God is not a ‘throw away” Creator. God is also Redeemer. And also Regenerator.
God does not reject us, but seeks to start again. God is not like an impatient potter who hurls a misshapen clay out the window, to lie on the ground and return to dust.
God seeks to start once more, redeeming us from evil.
No matter what our age may be, or what the cause of our variety of ugliness, God wants to save us. God is a not a throw away God, but a redeeming God.
I put my trust in God.
I believe that we live constantly in the presence of an Eternal Lover,
whose patience never wearies and whose blessing is inexhaustible.
I believe that this world with all its grandeur and beauty, its fertility and fruitfulness,
is the gift of the Eternal Lover whose Holy Spirit cherishes and sustains all things.
I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the only authentic Child of the Eternal Lover,
and that in his life, death and resurrection there flows a saving grace
which cannot be defeated..
I believe that in life and death this God believes in me,
and God’s faith shall not be in vain.
I put my trust in God.
I put my trust in God!
“God’s mercies are over all his works.” For our sisters and brothers around the globe,
let us pray.
Loving God, please deal mercifully with those who have only toyed with faith, and with those who have slipped away from the commitment they once had.
Deal mercifully with those who are afraid to make vows lest they might not fully keep them, and with those intellectual snobs who are too proud to trust the humble son of a Galilean carpenter.
Deal mercifully with those who feel too oppressed, overworked, abused, hungry, or forsaken to even think about issues of faith.
Deal mercifully with those who have not found the kind of healing they expected for loved ones or for themselves, and who today are angry with their God.
Deal mercifully with those who are plunged into deep grief and fear that nothing on earth or in heaven can ever heal their broken heart.
Deal mercifully with those who have been ensnared by religious sects or secular idols that hold them in a state of emotional bondage.
Deal mercifully with the church when it prevaricates, or forgets its first love or dilutes the gospel to make it more palatable.
You are God the most merciful. We know you have heard our prayers before we even expressed them. In your mercy please use them for the healing of ills and the righting of wrongs. In the name of Christ Jesus our Redeemer.
As you prepare to go your separate ways, take encouragement from an old Gaelic prayer:
May God make safe to you each step,
May God open to you each door,
May God make clear to you each road.
May God enfold you in loving arms.
Grace mercy and peace, from the Creator, the Saviour and the Counsellor, will be with you now and always.