Cross focused or Resurrection focused?

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Cross focused or resurrection focused, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Easter Sunday April 21, 2019. The Reading was Luke 24:1-12.

Right place, wrong time

I’m sure you’ve heard of the phrase, Right place, wrong time. It’s this whole idea that you might be where you are supposed to be, but you’re either too early or too late to make the most of you being there. Or maybe, you’ve been in the wrong place at the right time – for example, maybe you late for something that you were meant to be at, but by being late, and being in the wrong place, it allowed you to make the most of an opportunity, to have a chat with someone that really needed to have a chat. The reality is that neither of these things are bad… it’s just not ideal. You just don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In our Bible reading today, we have something similar told to the ladies who come to visit the tomb. They are told that they are looking for the right thing, in the wrong place. Well, not exactly. They came to the tomb looking for the right thing in the right place – that is, they came looking for the dead body of Jesus, which would be expected to be in the tomb, right where it had been left. Because, really, apart from Lazarus, there hadn’t been many examples of dead bodies just getting up and moving.

Jewish tradition valued care of the deceased, and so it was right for the ladies to come and anoint the body with spices and incense.

And so, it seems really odd to hear the angel tell them that they are in the wrong place. They were looking for the dead among the dead. They were in the right place at the right time for what they were intending to do.

Cross Focused living

I think many Christians are in the same spot as the women were. They’re doing what they think is the right thing to do, and doing it at the appropriate time if it was the right thing to do. They’re just missing an important piece of information. They are cross focused.

What I mean by that is that many Christians put their focus on what Christ did on the cross as the most important thing. That Christ dying on the cross is the most powerful and significant thing that Christ did.

But Crucifixion isn’t unique to Christ. Jewish historians Josephus and Appian both refer to the crucifixion of thousands of people by the Romans. Crucifixion isn’t what makes Christ special. Many thousands of people were crucified and stayed dead.

When we, as Christians, become too cross focused, and live out our life and faith in a way that is cross focused, then the way we interact with others becomes cross focused as well. That is, we become focused on the punishment.

We live out our lives in a way that says “we don’t do this” or “We don’t do that”. Even in Salvation Army Soldiership, we sometimes get too cross focused, as when someone asks what soldiership involves, we’ll say “we don’t drink, smoke, or gamble.” Surely, there is more to Christianity than what we don’t do.

When we become too cross focused, our evangelism methods become less effective. Cross focused evangelism tells people that if they don’t change their ways, they will be punished. It seeks to convert based on fear. And the only way for cross focused conversions to continue is to keep establishing that fear. If you back slide, you will be punished. If you do the things that we say are bad, then we will be very disappointed in you – we might even throw you out of our club and not let you back in.

Stop looking for the living among the dead

But the angel tells the women to stop looking for the living among the dead. Because Jesus isn’t dead. He’s not among the dead, he has risen.

You’ll notice that in our church, we don’t use a crucifix – that is, our cross doesn’t have a body attached to it. This signifies that Jesus is no longer attached to the cross – he is living, he is risen.

And as such, we need to stop looking for the living among the dead – that is, we need to stop looking to bring people to faith with cross focused thinking. Fear isn’t going to bring people into faith. And as hard as it can be for the church to realise that, it is what we need to do.

Throughout history, the Church has held a position of power within the community, and was able to utilise that fear to bring people to faith, and keep them there. But these days, the church does not hold that same position. As such, perhaps we need to look to Jesus’ response to sin, and see how we might respond.

In Mark 2, Jesus heals a paralyzed man, having first said to him “Son, your sins are forgiven.” He doesn’t write out a big list of them, doesn’t ask him to repent, doesn’t say “Unless you follow me, I will not forgive your sins”. He just forgives them.

Similarly, in Luke 7, where a pharisee objects to a woman he declares as a sinner anointing Jesus’ feet with tears and perfume, Jesus tells the pharisee a story, and then says to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” She didn’t ask for forgiveness. Jesus didn’t lecture her and scare her into repentance. He just forgave her.

Often, Jesus would forgive their sins and then tell them to go and sin no more. He wouldn’t say what those sins were, and he didn’t go into the details of consequences for not leaving their life of sin. There was no fear, just an instruction to not sin any more.

Resurrection focused living

You see, while Jesus was very well aware of where his life was headed, he didn’t engage in cross focused living. He didn’t scare people into repentance so that he wouldn’t need to die on the cross, because he realised that the cross was not the end game – it was just the necessary step on the path to the resurrection so that we can live resurrection focused lives.

Jesus didn’t tell people what not to do. He didn’t teach through fire and brimstone sermons. In fact, his harshest sermons and criticisms were reserved for the pharisees who were so focused on cross centered living. Most of his teaching was not telling people what not to do, but instead showing them how to live.

Jesus shows his disciples that the way to live is to show love, forgiveness, and mercy to all people. To show that life is better with Christ than without.

Because I absolutely believe that life is better with Christ than without it. And if you’re here today and you haven’t invited Christ into your life, then I want to invite you to believe in Christ – not because you’re going to go to hell if you don’t, not because there’s some sort of punishment. No, I want to invite you to believe in Christ because I believe in Christ, and I know that my life is better with Christ in my life, and I know that your life will be better with Christ in your life.

Now, some may say to me, But Ben, what about all those lists of sins that Paul lists in his letters, and I want to say to you that for the most part it’s just good advice anyway – but unless you base that living in the love, forgiveness, and mercy that Jesus teaches, then you’re still focused on the Cross – you’re looking for the living among the dead. Jesus is alive, and wants to share that life with you.

Resurrection power

So go out and live a resurrection focused life. Go and live a life filled with Love, forgiveness and mercy. Go and live a life that is filled with resurrection power living on the inside. Because life is better when you are filled with resurrection power, living a resurrection focused life, and sharing Christ’s resurrected love, forgiveness and mercy with all people.

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The Prodigal Story

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, The Prodigal Story, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday March 31, 2019. The Reading was Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.

Missing the Story

Our bible reading today is the Prodigal Son.

How many of you would switch off at hearing that? That you’re so familiar with the story that you don’t actually need me to read it out? I’ll admit that I did that. When I saw what was the bible reading for today, I initially skipped it and didn’t read it through.

We all know the story. The son asks his father for his half of the estate, goes and loses it all, comes back, and asks to be a slave, and the father welcomes him back into the family. In the mean time, the elder son hears there’s a party happening, and refuses to come back in, and so the father goes out to him.

And we’re so familiar with this story, that we’re probably very familiar with the interpretation. The Father is God. The prodigal son is the Christian. The elder son is the Jewish people.

But if we believe that scripture is the living word of God, and that it continues to teach us and continues to show us new insights into the nature of God, then we have a duty to read it and hear it through fresh eyes.

And so, I’m not going to read our reading for today. Not right now. I’m going to shake things up – give my sermon first, and then we will read the scripture. Because I want to give you some information about the three characters that may change the way you hear this story.

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God’s Kingdom is Mercy

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, God’s Kingdom is Mercy, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday March 3, 2019. The Reading was Luke 6:27-38.

Follow the leader

Our reading today follows on from the reading we had last week, so it makes sense that my sermon should follow on in many aspects. We still have Jesus speaking to his disciples in that level place. But we also need to remember that Luke is writing this gospel for his congregation, and as such, much of what he is writing here are instructions for his church. Just as Jesus is saying this is how I want you to live, Luke is saying to his church “This is how you need to be as a church”.

In Jesus’ day, many groups believed that not only did the individual need to imitate their leader, but the community needed to imitate their leader as well. Therefore, the values that Jesus and God showed and show as central should also be the values that the church holds as central.

For us, in our passage today, that grounding is found right in the center of our reading. It’s a short verse, but it sums up everything that comes before and after it in the passage, as well as being our guide for what we should be as a community. Verse 36 says “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

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Discipleship amidst the desolation

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Discipleship amidst the desolation, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday February 24, 2019. The Reading was Luke 6:17-26.

Placing us – Have you ever?

I want to start by playing a little game. I’m going to ask a question, and if it applies to you, I want you to raise your hand.

I want you to think back over the last week. Has anybody paid you a compliment? If someone has spoken some kind words about you in the last week, please raise your hands. (For those with their hands up, you might like to look to those with their hands down and see if you can repay that compliment).

Again, over the last week, if you can think of a time where you have laughed – either a little chuckle, or a full bellied guffaw, then raise your hands.

If you have food in your fridge, which is in a house that you are able to live in and gives you a safe place to sleep and to store the clothes that you are wearing, please raise your hands.

If you have money in your bank, some in your purse or wallet (either actual cash or accessible through a debit card), and some loose change in a dish at home somewhere, raise your hand.

Let me read this passage again.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

Luke 6:20-26 (NRSV)

Did you know that if you have food in the fridge, clothes on your back, and a roof over your head with a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of the world.

If you have money in the bank, in your purse or wallet, and spare change in a dish somewhere, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthiest people.

In response to those statistics, how do you feel about this reading?

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Teaching, Catching, Calling

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Teaching, Catching, Calling, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday February 10, 2019. The Reading was Luke 5:1-11.

Big Picture

There are plenty of accounts of boats throughout the bible, and many of them involve fishing of some kind. But do you know where there is strangely no mention of fishing? In Chapter 7 of Genesis. Now, if you’re not up to date with your bible reading plan, and that reference doesn’t come straight to your head, let me refresh your memory. Genesis starts with the creation of the world, of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They get cast out of Egypt, and Cain murders Abel, and then civilisation expands, and we get all the descendents from Adam through to Noah, whom we meet in chapter 6. Chapter 7, therefore, is the great flood. And there is no fishing there. Do you want to know why Noah didn’t go fishing while on the ark? He only brought two worms.

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Good News Is Bad News Is Good News

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Good News Is Bad News Is Good News, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday January 27, 2019. The Reading was Luke 4:14-21.

Back Handed Compliments

The English language is a wonderful thing isn’t it? Our words have so many different meanings, all depending on where we place the emphasis. When my mum was working with refugees, helping other people to teach them to learn English, she would use the example of this sentence to show how difficult our language was, as this sentence can have different meanings all depending on where we place the emphasis.

Do I know Elvis Presley? Do I know Elvis Presley? Do I know Elvis Presley? Do I Know Elvis Presley? Do I know Elvis Presley? Do I know Elvis Presley?

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Call and be called

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Call and Be Called, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday October 28, 2018. The Reading was Mark 10:46-52

Places of welcome

Last week, Liesl and I ran off at the end of the service. So I apologise to anyone who wanted to speak to us, but we weren’t available. Remember, you can always pop in and see us during the week, or call us and we’d be more than happy to come round and have a chat, if that’s what you need. But I wanted to share with you a couple of experiences that I’ve had this week.

As you know, our wonderful Davey has been diagnosed with Autism. And because of the way that his brain is wired, it means that we often don’t go out. We’ve got a few places that we’re familiar with – the playgroup at Nanneela, Gravity Shack at Echuca, Mainly Music, Church, etc. But taking Davey to somewhere new is often really difficult. On our holidays just recently, there were some Sunday’s where we didn’t go to Church, because going to a place where we have this unstated expectation that he sit down, be quiet, and not noticed is just sometimes too much for us. We end up stressing over what he might do next, that we don’t end up getting anything out of the service. And so there were some weeks where we just stayed home, or only one of us went, because it was better for our soul to do it that way.

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Who will you serve?

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Who will you serve?, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday October 14, 2018. The Reading was Joshua 24:1-15, (16-28).

Quotable quotes

In the Bible Reading we’ve had today, there is a bit of a “quotable quote”. That is, a short, memorable verse that people like to remember, or get printed up on coffee cups, keyrings, or decorative wall plaques. “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

Very nice. Short, punchy, memorable.

I wonder if there’s any others like that which you can remember.

Phil 4:13 Coffee Mug

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13.

Ps 23:5 Travel Mug

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Ps. 23:5. Good one for a coffee cup.

John 3:16 Tie

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16.

Ps 46:10 Coffee mug

“Be Still and Know that I am God” Psalm 46:10

“His father scolded him, and said “What kind of dream is this that you have had?” Genesis 37:10

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Flood and Promise

As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Flood and Promise, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday September 9, 2018. The Reading was Genesis 6:5-22, 9:8-17, and 8:1-12.

This sermon was given as 3 separate messages given throughout the meeting.

Message 1: Going Deeper in the Story

This is a familiar reading, but we know the Sunday School version. Have you ever gone a bit deeper into this story – and thought about how that initial conversation God had with Noah might have gone?

God: (standing on a chair behind Noah, he rings a bell once) NOAH.  
Noah: (Looks up) Is someone calling me? (Shrugs and goes back to his work)
God: (Ding) NOAH!!  
Noah: Who is that?  
God: It’s the Lord, Noah.  
Noah: Right … Where are ya? What do ya want? I’ve been good.  
God: I want you to build an ark.  
Noah: Right … What’s an ark?  
God: Get some wood and build it 300 cubits by 80 cubits by 40 cubits.  
Noah: Right … What’s a cubit?  
God: Well never mind. Don’t worry about that right now. After you build the   ark, I want you to go out into the world and collect all the animals of the   world, two by two, male and female, and put them into the ark.  
Noah: Right … Who is this really? What’s going on? How come you want me to   do all these weird things?  
God: I’m going to destroy the world.  
Noah: Right … Am I on Candid Camera? How are you gonna do it?  
God: I’m going to make it rain for a thousand days and drown them right out.
Noah: Right … Listen, do this and you’ll save water. Let it rain for forty days and forty nights and wait for the sewers to back up.  
God: Right…  

Bill Cosby

It’s a bit of a humorous look at that situation, but it’s a worthwhile point. We often read the words, but don’t think about what is happening, or what is happening around the story.

And a big part that we often overlook is God’s role in the flood. When we think about Noah building the ark to protect all the animals from the flood – that is, the Sunday school story – we often forget that it was God who caused the flood because he wanted to destroy the earth. That the only way to redeem what God had made was to destroy it all.

Does that make you uncomfortable?

Or what about if I was to point out that as Noah locked up his ark, with all the animals inside, and the waters began to rise, there would have been a large number of bodies floating around the ark – a constant reminder of what God had done.

We’re not in Sunday School anymore with this story, are we?

But there is something that I want to go a bit deeper still in. In verse 18, God says to Noah, “I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.”

Now, a covenant was a reciprocal promise of sorts. It would generally take the form of “If you do this, then I will do that for you”. And when normal people would make a covenant, they would often invoke a higher power – that is, God – as a witness to that covenant. But God can’t invoke himself in order to keep this promise. And the promise that he makes is somewhat different to what a normal covenant would be. There is no reciprocity. God isn’t expecting Noah to do anything – just that God will let him and his family on the ark. And maybe that is the covenant – that Noah and his family will be allowed in the ark. Or maybe this isn’t the covenant, and what God is saying is a promise that there will be a covenant established.

We’ll come back to that – I promise.

Message 2: God Remembers his Promise

It’s amazing how Davey can show me just how awful my memory is. He can remember things that happened to him ages ago like they were only yesterday. I have trouble trying to remember what I did last week. Why, even on Thursday, between talking about my day with Liesl before leaving about 8:30am, and just after lunchtime, I had managed to forget something I had on that night which threw the rest of my day out. Some may claim baby brain, but I guess now that Micah is 1, I can no longer claim that.

Our memory is an interesting thing. At times, we can completely forget about something, and then all of a sudden, we have remembered it. Where did it come from? Where did it go? What made it come back? Have you ever had those experiences, where for some unknown reason you’re remembering some event that happened to you years, or decades ago? At times, it can seem like it is a switch – when we have forgotten about something, it’s switched off, and when we are reminded, it’s switched back on, with seemingly no in between ground between the two.

And when used in that context, this passage seems a bit odd. Almost as if God had completely forgotten about Noah and the ark, and one of the angels reminded God about it. Or maybe, as in Genesis 1, God was hovering over the waters, and all of a sudden saw this strange looking boat on the waters and went, “Oh, that’s right, Noah. I had completely forgotten about that! Guess I better do something about them now.”

However, the way that the Hebrew verb is constructed, it is indicating an action that happens in the past, but is continuing to unfold in the present. So, perhaps a better way of explaining this phrase was that God had remembered and continued to remember Noah and the promise that was made.

We’re still early in the book of Genesis. We don’t even have the name of God at this stage – that doesn’t come until the book of Exodus with Moses. Through these stories we are learning about the nature of God. We are learning that God is a God who is remembering. A God who doesn’t forget the promises that were made.

We’ll come back to that – I promise.

Message 3: God’s Covenant – then and now

I have my computer in the living room at home. It means that I can work on it while the kids are watching something and I can still keep half an eye on them. But it also means that sometimes, they will come over to the computer, and start hitting keys. Sometimes, I’ll get to the computer and there will be a whole heap of nonsense in the middle of my sermon. And that’s easy enough to delete. But sometimes, they’ll have done something that I have absolutely no idea what they’ve done, and the computer is doing something wrong. I have no idea what to do to fix it, so the general solution is for me to reset the computer – turn it off and on, and start again.

Sometimes, it’s like that with the various projects that we do. I know there’s been times where Liesl has been doing some crochet, and has got most of the way through a project, only to realise that she made a mistake somewhere along the way and now it’s all wrong. Sometimes, the only way to fix something is to take it all apart and start again.

And that’s effectively what God did with this Flood. The creation that he had made had become so out of hand, so corrupt, that the only way for him to fix it was to turn it off and on again. And we see that in the command that God gives to Noah to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” But you can also see that God was hurting from having to destroy his creation.

It’s never easy to start over. It’s never easy to change what you thought was going to work. In doing so, you have to recognise the mistakes that you made. Maybe God destroying the whole world was the right thing to do. Maybe, it was a mistake. Either way, I think we see God’s heart grieve the loss of life that he inflicted. And so we get this covenant.

This is the covenant that was promised to Noah. Known in theological circles as the Noahic Covenant, this is the true covenant that follows the standard form. Noah, and his descendants, will be fruitful and multiply, and will respect the sanctity of life in all things. In response, God committed to never destroying the world again. And to remind us both of this covenant, God adds some meaning to the Rainbow. The rainbow was already in existance – the text reads “I have set my bow in the clouds” not, “I will set”. The bow was already there, part of God’s magnificent creation. But with it being a regular sign, God uses that to remind us – and to remind God – about the covenant that was made.

But, as we’ve already established, God doesn’t forget. God isn’t going to destroy the world again. But us humans – we forget. We forget often. The Jews would find more and more ways to break the will of God, to grow hard in their hearts. And us as humans, we would find more and more ways to destroy the sanctity of life. We keep finding new ways to destroy life – there is a whole industry that seems hell bent on getting stronger and more powerful weapons in to the hands of the general public. We’re finding more and more dangerous ways to go to war. We’re finding new words that can be used to destroy a person and break them down so that we don’t kill them, but they kill themselves. We’re finding new and harsh ways to torture the people that we don’t like. We have forgotten the sanctity of life. We have forgotten that humankind was created in the image of God.

Now normally, if one party was to break the covenant, the covenant would be invalid. But as we have established, God is a God who remembers. He has been constantly remembering the covenant made with Noah. And since the world couldn’t be destroyed again, there had to be a new plan. Jesus. Jesus is the answer to all the mistakes in our world. The answer to all the death and destruction that we have created. When God said “For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning”, it wasn’t to institute the death penalty. It wasn’t to say, if you kill one person, then you will be killed likewise. No, the reckoning, the blood that was to be shed was the blood of Jesus. God’s ultimate reset. For in Jesus offering himself up as this sacrifice, he took on the sins of the world – both the ones that had been made and the ones that will be made, and said “God, this is that reckoning. Remember those sins no more”.

God knew that in hitting the reset button, that humanity wouldn’t change. We were corrupt before, and in Genesis 8:21, God acknowledges that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” So instead, God sets in place a plan that will allow God’s mercy to win. God blesses Abraham and Sarah in order that they will be a blessing. God calls the Israelites to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” God calls prophets and priests, shepherds and vine-dressers, to proclaim God’s judgement and God’s mercy, and call people back to this covenantal loyalty.

This is the story of Noah – a story about a God who always remembers, sets in action a path that will allow God to forget our sins. A promise, a covenant with us that God will never forget.

You’re invited to come into that covental relationship. To come in and be remembered by the God who will never forget. To be re-membered as a part of God’s creation, made in God’s image. All that is needed is what we find in Romans 10: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” If you haven’t done that before, then I invite you to come and be a part of God’s covenant. To be party to that incredible mercy that means our all-remembering God will forget your sins. And if you have confessed that Jesus is Lord, and you do believe that God raised him from the dead, then I invite you to remember that amazing Grace that transformed your life.

Win this nation back?

There are some worship songs that I really get into. And there are some bands and writers that I especially get into. At the moment, one of the bands that I’m absolutely loving is Rend Collective. They have this funky, Irish-Bluegrass type feel to much of their recordings, and their songs are just great to sing along to.

I’ve used some of their Campfire Christmas versions of Christmas Carols at Christmas time, and their albums are on a high rotation in my iTunes playlists. And one of my favourite songs – and one that seems to be gaining more and more traction particularly within The Salvation Army here in Australia – is Build Your Kingdom Here.

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