Sermon 14th February 2016 – Jan Betts

Notes from the sermon given by Jan Betts on the first Sunday in Lent at the baptism of Edie and Thor.

Reading: Matthew 10: 17-20, 26-33, 40-42

This is a very tough chapter for a baptism. In verse 21 Jesus says ‘brother will betray brother and a father his child: children will come forward against their parents and have them put to death.’  And in verse 37 ‘no one who prefers father or mother to me is worthy of me. No one who prefers a son or daughter to me is worthy of me.’ What a great message to give children at a baptism. Doh! Thanks Heston!! But it also says nice things and x is going to read some.

So let’s have a closer look at this theological can of worms. What is Jesus doing here?

Let me set out two points of context first :

In Jesus’ time, family loyalty was everything and such warm links to family are still the norm in the Middle East. Having very close friendships and loyalties outside the family group is still pretty strange, as someone told me the other day describing a Lebanese family group. Asking his disciples to put him first, before family loyalty, was a huge ask.  It wasn’t unknown in Judaism because the first commandment says you shall love the Lord your God with all of yourself. The OT is shot through with this message about God as the first point of loyalty but it was part of the family loyalty structure, embedded in the legal system of responsibility. So Jesus was putting himself in the line of the OT here, but he was pointing up how a relationship with him rather obedience to laws was the most important thing. Jesus was underlining how we are made for God first, not family first. There’s so much we could explore here about how Jesus fulfils OT commands, but not today!

Second point of context:  this was written after the fall of Jerusalem, when Christians were beginning to expect systematic persecution in the Roman Empire and were also expecting Jesus to return at any time. Life could be very tough as a Christian. The gospel here is asking the new testament followers of Jesus to remain faithful, not to give up on their faith and retreat into human relationships. Again there is much we could  explore in this topic, which touches us all in our lives in very practical ways.

So what was Jesus asking when he asked people to love him more than family?

I think we can see it as both an ask but much much more importantly as a gift and as a welcome.

Jesus is inviting those who follow him to recognise that we are given our lives freely by God, as a gift, and that this calls us to give back to God and others equally  freely.  God wants us  to live under Kingdom values  not to human values.  We are first of all children of God. We are there to bring  good news to the lost, to share with  them news of the Kingdom of heaven. To do this we need God’s  courage and truthfulness, generosity and honesty. God needs to be our vision and our guide. But this kind of living is not very popular: one of my favourite theologians, Rene Girard, writes of how  we as human beings tend to  live lives of copy  cat envy and we take our discontent out on the scapegoats who show up our weaknesses, the ones we hate because they act as a mirror to our selfish envious wanting.  Someone who speaks the truth and asks questions which are innocently direct is not popular. Do you remember the story of the Emperor’s new clothes? The boy who called out that the king was naked was not the most admired person in the kingdom. Speaking truth to power is hard, but it is what God asks us to do, and sets us free to do – in ways which are as wise or rather as shrewd and watchful  as the serpents who don’t go looking for trouble but are prepared to strike if necessary and as harmless as the doves who don’t make trouble or offend gratuitously. It’s not easy in our practical everyday capitalist lives to be truthful, loving and humble, ready to give ‘cups of cold water’, that is both physical and all sorts of other necessary things to people as we share God’s love.

Who influenced you most and why?

The welcome to living this  life comes with a promise, that we can totally rely on God, that we have the holy spirit to speak for us and live in us, that every hair on our head has been counted and we are more precious to God than we can imagine. This is mind-blowing and wonderful and very very difficult to accept. It’s something which easily gets forgotten by us – maybe  part perhaps of our daily sitting with God during Lent could be to remember this? Jesus wept over Jerusalem…we upset the loving parent heart of God when we race after things which are bad for us. God wants us to know that we are fully loved so we can live a life without fear. What a great thing to offer a child. We are children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus.

Such love is God’s gift to us all. Today we are celebrating another kind of gift. A child is a gift a trust, a fragile, malleable determined little human being, who is dependent and needs to  be brought to independence through wise parenting,  to  be loved totally through all the ups and downs of that journey. We know  they will be hurt, through their own desires and through the desires of others. We can’t always protect them. they don’t always know what is best for them. But  we want them to learn to steer a course though life which will give them everything we could wish for them, joy, security and a sense of their true place in the world.  God sees us as we see these vulnerable, wonderful children, Edie and Thor. God’s  longing is to give us all we need , much more than we can imagine or desire.

One of those things which we need, which God gives us, is Christian brothers and sisters,  people who see the world as we do and who want to grow in grace and into the fullness of all they can be.  We fail sometimes in our support of each other. Sometimes we want more from others than it  is possible or right to ask, as children want things that aren’t possible. Sometimes it’s right to challenge each other to live responsibly and I have heard and admired and learned from such challenging in All Hallows over the years. It’s right to do that because we are all, all the time, stumbling and falling and needing to be brought back to where we are loved,  dusted down, have spiritual plasters put on our knees, given a cuddle to make sure we are OK and sent out to try again.  Some of this comes from our relationship with God but we can also do this for each other, as other friends can support these children. Why are we afraid of saying that we didn’t do so well this week? God knows – in every sense.

So Edie and Thor, our new brother and sister, we want to make you welcome. We want to say welcome to our Christian community here as well as to the enormous community of baptised people of God. We want to tell you that like your godparents who will make formal promises, we all want to support you and your parents as they bring you up in the way of Jesus, of truth and love.

We want to pray for you, to wish you all that God wants for you, courage and joy and fun and resilience, a sense of being loved by God and being free to be all that God wants you to be, knowing that you are of more value than many sparrows.

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