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Friday, 12 February 2016

Luke 6:43-45: Fruit from the heart

Some years ago, my mother in law bought us a plum tree. Victoria plums, she told me, are the best variety, tasty and easy to grow. So I dug a hole, and planted the tree, and we sat back and waited.

The following summer, fruit began to appear. But they didn't grow as large as expected, and weren't the pink colour of a victoria plum. Smaller, harder and purple, they were rather sour eaten raw, though very tasty when cooked.

So the tree we had wasn't a victoria after all.

Even today, unless you're going to do some chemical genetic test, the only way to correctly identify some plants is to wait for the fruit to appear. It's the fruit that tells you what the tree is.

A good person, Jesus tells us, produces good things from the treasury of a good heart. But the heart is hidden, and we don't know its nature until we see the outcome, the upshot, the follow through, the end product. 

Jesus, we suppose, could see into people's hearts. But maybe even he only had a partial view. We've heard how he guessed what the pharisees were thinking, as they sat and judged him. But did he know what Judas Iscariot was like, when he chose him as one of the Twelve? Or did he, like the rest of us, have to wait patiently to see what sort of fruit would eventually come forth from the cloistered core of a man who could have been either pure, or evil?

We can't change our plum tree. Doesn't matter really, it makes nice jam. 

But can we change our hearts?

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Luke 6:37-42: Judge not...

One of those wonderful coincidence moments happened yesterday. Having read "love your enemies" in the morning, I had lunch with a lady, some of whose family have turned against her, who was bravely trying to do the right thing despite their animosity, and trust God to help her overcome her hurt.

It felt like God had given me Jesus' words to read so that I could pass them on to her. It wasn't exactly comfort I was offering her, but somehow it felt like an endorsement of her decision not to be bitter, not to repay evil for evil. 

Of course it was a coincidence, but such things do happen, and they always make me want to thank God. I think it was William Temple, once Archbishop of Canterbury, who said "When I pray, coincidences happen."

Anyway, turning to today's passage: Jesus moves on to talk about the way we should think about one another. If what he said yesterday was radical to the point of being impossible, then today's words are just as extraordinary.

If there's one thing we all do all the time, it's judge one another. We take one look, and make up our minds about the person in front of us, Often we feel like other people have compared us unfavourably to themselves, and it hurts us and damages our self esteem. If you're not posh enough, or pretty enough or rich enough or clever enough for the person in front of you, you're going to feel a failure.

And if that person condescendingly offers to help us, we feel even worse. Jesus says that's like someone with a plank in their eye trying to get a speck out of yours! I like that joke - it makes me feel better when I feel like someone's putting me down. Yes they've noticed something wrong with me, but there's something even worse wrong with them. 

So he warns people - don't condemn others, be generous and forgive them. The more you give, the more you'll get. 

Is he right or is he right?

But of course, we're far too savvy for this homespun advice. It all seems far too unsophisticated, doesn't it? We can't be foolish, we got to live within our means, we can't take risks with what we own. That's the sort of advice that makes sense.

And on we go, as if we can't see our hands in front of our faces. 

Follow me! I know where I'm going! It's this wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Luke 6:27-36: Love your enemies

I said yesterday that people listened to Jesus, and believed what he said. Some did, but others, obviously didn't. Jesus carries on his sermon by saying "But to you who are willing to listen I say, Love your enemies!"

What?? Sorry, didn't quite catch that. Love our - who??

What's the definition of an enemy?

One who feels hatred toward, intends injury to, or opposes another.

Yes, thank you, Mr Dictionary

You're welcome.

Pause to look over shoulder at where the disembodied voice came from ...

As I was saying, the definition of an enemy is someone I hate. So I can't love them, or they wouldn't be my ...

Oh I see. This means don't have enemies. God doesn't have enemies, does he? As Jesus says, "The Most High is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked." He doesn't treat them as enemies, he keeps on pouring out his blessings, no matter what they do.

Everything that Jesus says in this section amounts to "Be like God." Give without expecting to get anything back. Treat other people with all the kindness, grace and generosity you'd like them to show you. Reply to a curse with a blessing. Don't be afraid of running out of things if people take them. Why not? Because God will top you up. He never runs out.

If anybody actually believed this, they could open a channel of blessing that would go on pouring out more and more and more - and the more people took, the more it would give.

The domain of economics is the study of processes by which scarce resources are allocated to satisfy unlimited wants. 

That's Mr Dictionary again. In God's economy, scarce wants timidly call down only a tiny part of God's unlimited resources.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Luke 6:24-26: Woes

If you thought from yesterday that Jesus was Mr Nicey, and that God was like Father Christmas, all Ho ho ho's and pouring out blessings, then you need to hear what Jesus has to say today.

The first extract Luke gave us of Jesus' actual teaching was pure good news. Blessing, happiness and joy to all who put their faith in God, especially the downtrodden.

Today he gives us the flipside.

You can't make omelettes without breaking eggs, and Jesus makes it clear that you can't bless the poor without un-blessing the rich.

Today, we have a word for the 1%. The richest 1% of the world, who now own as much wealth as the the remaining 99% of humanity. The stupidly rich, the ones swimming in cream. This is as happy and as fat, and as cheerful as you are going to get.

You will be hungry, you will mourn. You who enjoy the crowds' praise, remember how they praised the false prophets who came before you.

Jesus doesn't dwell on eternal punishments, he doesn't spell out the disasters that are coming. He just reverses all the blessings he began with, and leaves it up to people's imagination. It's a very simple message, and quite hard to misunderstand: good times are coming for people who are suffering now, bad times are coming for people who are happy now.  He offers nothing in the way of proof, no evidence to convince us that he's right. The natural authority of his words is such that he didn't need to.

People listened to him. People believed him. But what did they actually do about it?

Monday, 8 February 2016

Luke 6:7-23: Blessings

Luke's been telling us for some time that what Jesus said was riveting and attractive. But he hasn't actually told us what Jesus SAID.

Until now.

This is the first slice of his teaching that he's given us to listen to, and it begins with another reminder of how popular and powerful Jesus was. Crowds from all over the nation were flocking to him, all trying to touch him, and all their sick were healed.

Then at last Jesus speaks.

Blessed! God blesses you! How happy you are!

Who is blessed? Who is happy? Who will be smiling in God's new world order?

Not the usual suspects, but the poor, the hungry, those who weep. Those who are hated and excluded and mocked for following this maverick preacher.

Leap for joy! Jesus tells his ragbag of followers. Such a blessing is coming that you won't know what to do with it all. He compares them to the prophets, the heroes of old - persecuted themselves by the establishment of their day.

Something new has begun - the old guard will fight it, but they can't hold back its blessings.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

10 Commandments: Do not steal

Introduction 

Theft takes many forms, but none of us think we are a thief.

Because we don't like this, we are not thieves. What good news!

We conceal things further by renaming what we do. Borrowing, liberating, helping yourself – all these are kinder ways of describing what we get up to. A thief is someone who burgles houses, robs pensioners, breaks into cars. Stealing is what someone else does.

Yet stealing is wider and broader than we like to think. With human sinfulness and ingenuity being what they are, there are countless ways of taking something that does not belong to you.

Direct theft 

The most obvious type of stealing is where something is just taken; what you could call “good old-fashioned theft'. A purse vanishes, a car goes, a suitcase disappears, a till is emptied, a house is burgled. Of course it also occurs at a lower level, where it is somehow more acceptable. How many people take pens or paper from their employers? How many borrow equipment or use a firm's car for their private business? How many people steal from their employers by their misuse of phones, photocopiers or internet access?

What we need here is a ruthless mental honesty. We all need to evaluate before God everything that we do and ask of any remotely dubious practice; is this theft?

Fraud 

Let me move on to the vast area of more subtle, indirect theft. Fraud is theft by deception. It is the unholy marriage of lying and theft; the result of simultaneously breaking the Eighth and Ninth commandments.

We think of fraud as being a modern speciality and it is true that we have more ways of doing it than ever before. We have false accounts, fake documents, inflated budgets, misleading advertisements and so on. But it's as old as we are, and it is plainly condemned in the Old Testament. Moving boundary stones was one way of increasing your estate and is described as stealing in Deuteronomy 19:14

When the land was a family's source of food and wealth, the loss of even a small strip of land could make the difference between life or death.

Another way to defraud people was to have bogus weights, or misleading measuring containers or to water down or dilute what you sold. See what the prophet Amos says: (Amos 8:4–6).

The Old Testament is full of references to robbing the poor, the widows and orphans and those who are defenceless. This reminds us that God cares for such people and he is angry when we cheat them. 
Few people would directly steal hospital equipment but many people would not blink at cheating the Inland Revenue of the money that might be used to buy hospital equipment. The effects are the same.

Again, we need to look at our lives to see if there is anything in them that fits this. Are we involved personally in selling or marketing anything that is not exactly what it says it is? When someone pays us for our work do they get what they paid for? Are we ever guilty of providing a sub-standard service? And, bearing in mind the Old Testament's references to the vulnerable in society, do we have the same standard for the poor and helpless as we do for the rich and influential?

 In God's eyes fraud, however subtle, is still theft.

Exploitation 

Another way of stealing from people that is condemned in the Bible is exploitation. For example, Leviticus 19:13 says that wages are to be paid promptly.

Now in Old Testament times the focus of the prophets was on their own nation and on the people immediately around them. Our modern world has wider horizons. Our government is involved in decisions that affect the whole world; the banks we use and the firms we work for may have enormous influence on people thousands of miles from us.

Much as we would prefer otherwise, we are all linked in with national and global effects. We ourselves may not be directly involved in imposing taxes, setting rents or even making loans. But we are indirectly involved by who we vote into power, by which companies we support, by whose pension funds we subscribe to or even by what we buy at a supermarket. We need to use our power as voters, subscribers, shareholders and consumers to work for justice.

Why is stealing wrong? 

 We have looked at the different types of stealing; but what is it that lies behind them? What is it that is at the core of the whole sin of theft?

Let me give you three reasons why stealing is wrong.

Theft is an offence against God 

The heart of the problem is the belief that things are ours and we can do we want with them. But to think that is to misunderstand the whole nature of this world. In fact nothing is really ours; it is all God's. Psalm 24:1

Just think this through for a minute. Can you imagine everything in the world from plants and birds to houses and banknotes, having invisibly inscribed on it ‘Property of God'. That would mean that everything we have is issued by God on temporary loan to us. We don't own things, we borrow them.
If this is true, then any stealing is ultimately, stealing from God himself. And God sees.

Stealing betrays our relationship to God 

If we have come to faith in Christ then we have become a son or daughter of God and God has become our Heavenly Father.

So, we are to trust our Heavenly Father for what we need. If we need something that we cannot get by working, we are to pray for it. To steal it instead is to reject the idea that God our Father knows best what we really need. It is actually an act of rebellion; it is saying to him that we know best.

Secondly, God expects us, as his children, to reflect his character. We are to bear the family likeness. Time and time again the Old Testament prophets talk about the justice of God; how he is a good, merciful, just and loving God. His children are to be like him. He doesn't turn a blind eye to exploitation or to injustice and neither should we.

To be a thief is to deny that God is our Father or that we are his children.

Stealing is bad for us 

Again, we need to be reminded that the Ten Commandments are not severe rules made by a tough God who wants to put his people through impossible tests. They are instructions made by our Creator so that we can live and prosper.

For one thing, stealing is bad for us as a community. Stealing means lying and it inevitably produces anger, division and mistrust. It is impossible for God's people to live in the way that he expects if there is stealing from each other.

For another thing it is bad for us as individuals. It leads to deception and lies and it starts a vicious circle where we want more so we end up stealing even more. The thief who is caught because he or she gets too greedy is a common phenomenon.

Theft also has eternal consequences. If you or I claim to be a Christian and consistently steal, we must question whether we are indeed born again of God's Spirit or whether we are deluding ourselves. In fact I would go further; if you or I claim to be a Christian and show no spirit of generosity, no desire to give, then we must examine ourselves carefully.

So how do we respond to all this?

Reflection 

We need to think over our attitude to possessions. We need to remember that God is the source of all things; that all we possess is a temporary loan from God and that we have no right to possessions. It is far too easy to get our priorities for our lives from the media rather than from God and his word.

Repentance 

As a result of our reflections, we may easily feel that we have sinned in this area. We need to say sorry to God and to resolve to live lives that are marked by the wise use of God's gifts in the future. We need to set out God's standards in our lives and be determined to live by them.

Restitution 

Linked with repentance comes restitution. Stealing is one of the few sins where we can make amends. If we have committed theft then returning or repaying what was stolen is essential. The passage we read about Zacchaeus makes the point; in his case he was so overjoyed to be accepted by Jesus that he went well beyond what was strictly needed to make restitution. But in making amends it never hurts to err on the generous side.


In situations where revival occurs, widespread restitution can be spectacular. When Rev. W. P. Nicholson preached in Belfast in the 1920s so many shipyard workers were spiritually convicted of the sin of theft that the main firm there had to build a new shed to hold all the returned items.

Realignment 

As elsewhere with the Ten Commandments we need to look hard at our own lives and realign them according to God's word.

  • We should be grateful for what we have. One day we will be held accountable for everything we have had, how we got it and how we used it. We must learn to thank God for his gifts rather than to seek what is not ours to have. 
  • We need to use wisely what God has given us. The answer to so many of the world's problems, from the environmental crisis to global poverty, lies in applying the concept that we are stewards accountable to God. We are tenants not owners, and as such we need to realise that we have no right to do what we want with God's world. 
  • We must give generously. It is clear from the Bible that we steal not only by taking but by withholding. A generous heart is a powerful antidote to the desire to steal. 

Finally, the model for how we are to live is found in Jesus Christ. As we read in Philippians Chapter 2, Jesus' attitude was such that he did not even choose to grasp onto what were his rights as God. Instead, he willingly gave up everything in order to become human and to become one of us.

Let us all live like Christ.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Luke 6:12-16: Choosing the team

From fantasy football to Football Manager, fans everywhere love to choose a team. Who's in, who's on the bench, who has fallen out of favour, all these questions have provided endless hours of pub time discussion.

Did it feel the same when Jesus named his starting 11, sorry 12? Well, probably not, but what is significant surely is the mixture of personalities and backgrounds that Jesus assembled. It begins with the four fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James and John. These men have probably known each other since childhood. Matthew the tax collector is there (presumably the same person as Levi, since he is called Matthew in the gospel according to ... um ... Matthew). Next named is Simon the Zealot.

Wait a moment, did you say the Zealot??

Zealot as in terrorist? Or freedom fighter, depending on your point of view? In the same group as a filthy collaborating tax collector? Can you imagine the tensions?

The group dynamics are going to be truly disastrous - not only have we got the fishermen's clique, and the rivalry between pro- and anti-Romans, we've also got Philip, whose name sounds Greek, so he was probably a foreigner, and then Judas Iscariot who as Luke helpfully reminds us, later betrayed Jesus. If there was talk in the pubs about this team, the pundits would have slated it. Doomed to disaster before the start.

Incidentally, no one really knows why there are 11 players in a football team, except that there were already 11 in a cricket team, and no one knows why that should be. But we do know why there were 12 in Jesus' team. Israel was made up of 12 tribes, and Jesus is assembling a brand new, mini Israel out of some very strange shaped parts.

The pundits may be prophesying doom, but let's not forget Jesus spent all night in prayer before making his final choice.

He's thought long and hard about what he is doing. I think he's got a plan.