Friday, 22 March 2013

Matthew 23.23-26

Matthew 23.23-26

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy, and faith. These things should have been done without neglecting the others.  24 Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, yet gulp down a camel! 25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self- indulgence!? 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so the outside of it may also become clean. 

Perhaps the most powerful word in this passage is HYPOCRITE.  It is a word that none of us want to hear, it is charged with accusation, it is a word that ends careers and breaks apart friendships.  The interesting thing is that the word in Greek means 'one who wears a mask' - like in a play where the actor puts on the mask of a demon or an angel, a monster or a prince.  The real person is the one hiding behind the mask, behind the facade.  But we see and hear the fake, the charade.  I must confess that I am a hypocrite, I often put up a mask, many different masks in fact.  I play along with things I find tedious, I smile when really I want to explode.  I am a sinner, and the pressure of society of course forces me to wear the mask of a saint.  The question is where in your life do you wear a mask? To whom do you wear them? Have you worn them so long that when you look in the mirror at yourself you actually see the mask, the fake, the lie?

The apostle John writes in his first epistle chapter 1 verse 7 "But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. ?"  This is pretty much my life verse, it was at the core of the East African Revival and it contains pretty much the entirety of the Christian Good News.  The challenge is that it calls on us to walk in the light - not in darkness, not in the shade of a mask or in the shadow of a lie.  That horrible two letter word appears at the start of this verse - IF - if we walk in the light, and only if we walk in the light, can we be forgiven and washed clean by God and thus have true fellowship not only with Him but with each other.  You see you cannot truly be friends with someone if they don't know you, you can't have a real relationship with someone if you are always pretending to be someone you are not, if you are living a lie when you speak and living behind a personal facade.  Real relationships only exist between people who are real.

Now Jesus, He was real.  But we often don't know Him as we should because we only look surface deep and we only see what we want to see, we only look at the sanitised Jesus. Jesus was not a handsome man with blonde hair perfectly done and blue eyes who walked around holding little lambs and smiling at everyone.  No where in the Bible will you find that Jesus.  Jesus had no beauty that we would look twice at Him. He was a man of sorrows, yet he told jokes.  He was strong and well built not scrawny and androgenous - He was a carpenter and stonemason for over 20 years! He had rough calloused hands and dirty clothes.  He was pretty much homeless for three years so likely smelt a bit. 

G.K. Chesterton, the great Christian writer, made one serious mistake when it came to Jesus.  Chesterton claimed that the one thing God could not bring Himself to do on earth was be humourous.  Chesterton believed in the stone faced stoic philosopher Jesus who wear a perpetual poker face.  But Jesus spent three years with a group of twelve working class manly men, if He didn't tell jokes it is hard to imagine such friendship.  Last week we heard about passing through the eye of needle - something that can only be understood as a joke, there was no little hole in the wall of Jerusalem that a camel could only fit through when crawling - can you picture in your minds a huge stinking camel spitting on the ground chewing the cud trying to squeeze through the tiny hole on the end of needle?  Can you imagine it's body squishing like jelly to seep through and like a cartoon come out on the other side or even get stuck?  It is funny, Jesus was telling jokes! 

But Jesus wasn't only funny, He was also angry, at times very, very angry.  Twice in the Gospels He gets so full of rage that the only word they writers could use to describe it was one which refers to the image of an angry warhorse snorting in rage.  Even I haven't been that angry, but Jesus, Jesus was passionate! When He saw what was bring done in the Temple he snorted like a warhorse, He made a whip from cords of leather and He went in there tossing over tables, kicking over crates and cages and shouting and whipping people till they got out running away in terror!  In Revelation we again see Jesus angry, He appear on a warhorse in robe with a sword coming out of His mouth and He is 'treading the winepress of the wrath of God' He then cuts people apart with His words, with the sword.  Jesus is a warrior, He leads and army, He treads the winepress of the anger of God against sinners.  Jesus is no push over, no choir boy and no sissy.

And this is how Jesus is in the passage today.  It is impossible to seriously read this passage and not imagine Jesus being angry when He says it.  Jesus is rude, He insults the nice religious types who love going to church and keeping lots of rules and telling others to.  He calls them liars, hypocrites, a brood of vipers and He publically condemns them to Hell.  Powerful and emotional stuff.  The real Jesus - not the mask we like to make Him wear.  Jesus first rips into the Pharisees and Scribes by calling them the real hypocrites of society - they appear all good and pure and religious and obedient but really they are fakes and phonies, they are dead inside and heartless.  He mocks them by pointing out how the meticulously spend time weighing out a tenth of every spice on their spice rack so they keep the Law (or their own interpretation of it) and yet whilst getting all OCD on spices they ignore Justice and mercy and humble faith with repentance.  We see the call for Justice in Isaiah and the need for mercy in Hosea and the humble faith with broken heart in the Psalms.  But the Scribes and Pharisees were too busy making up extra laws to read those.

He then calls them blind, as if they were idiots who can't see the truth in front of their faces.  He makes a joke of how they sieve out the flies and gnats and insects from their spices and foods so as not to break the food laws but whilst concentrating on that they open up their mouths so impossibly wide that a whole camel, equally unclean and against the Law, jumps down their throat! Again here we see the humour and passion of Jesus - it is a hilarious image.  Sometime we say we are so hungry we could eat a horse, but eating a camel, that is a bit too far!  Jesus continues His attack by making clear how dirty and filthy the Pharisees are on the inside - Jesus can see right through their masks and charades.  They hide behind the Law and use it to appear pious and good and righteous but really they are sinners like everyone else, probably greater sinners because of their misplaced pride.
The Pharisees tried to make themselves righteous and good through works, but doing good things and keeping on the right side of the line and keeping everything in order.  But people are saved by faith not Law.  In fact the Law is a curse, Saint Paul tells us in Galatians that "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law."  We no longer need to lie and be fakes and appear all good and holy.  We have confidence in Jesus not in ourselves.  We are free to be vulnerable and broken - because only broken people can be used by God.

In the letter to Sardis from Jesus in Revelation Jesus tells the people "I know your works - you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead... be alert and strengthen what remains... remember what you have received and heard; keep it and repent."  Jesus sees through our reputations for being alive and knows how dead we really are - He knows our real works which we try to hide.  He calls us to strengthen ourselves and remember what we have received from Jesus - forgiveness and real righteousness, the righteousness of God.  That is why Jesus calls on them to repent, so they can be honest and be washed clean.

We need to live in the light, no more masks and no more lies, we get things wrong in life, we are sinners, we are broken, we are as far from perfect as the East is from the West.  We know this is true, and Jesus Christ knows this is true, but we need to let others know it is true so that we can truly have fellowship with one another.  We all have a little attorney on our shoulder who tells us that we have an excuse for the things we do wrong, or it was OK because someone else has done worse or it was only once or God doesn't love you so you should be able to do it.  But this is Satan, and he wants you to make excuses, to lie to yourself , to God and to each other about who we really are and what we really do.  There is only one way to defeat Satan, to move into the light, to have true fellowship and be washed clean - we need to recognise that we do not deserve forgiveness from God, but that in Jesus Christ He gives it to us out of love, we need to recognise this grace and come to the Cross on our knees to be washed in His most precious blood which flows freely from His side for you and me.  Then we will be clean, then we can be honest, then we can start again, then we can have fellowship with God, with each other, and then we can finally own ourselves and look in the mirror and see not a mask but the face of a forgiven child of God.


Christ the King!


Christ the King, possibly one of the most important titles we have for Jesus – King Jesus.  And it is an accurate one.  We find out about Jesus as King from all sorts of places in the Bible – Isaiah, Daniel, the Gospels, Revelation, the Epistles, the Psalms.  And it is important that we do so.  All of Scripture reveals to us who Jesus is, what kind of person He is, and what He does.  It is not just the Gospels which show us who Jesus is.  In fact if we only used the Gospels to learn about Jesus we would end up with a very unbiblical Jesus.  For the Gospels show us of Jesus in humility, having humbled Himself and emptied Himself of all but love and come down to live among us, come down to die and save.  It shows us the Jesus who cast aside his crown of gold to take up a crown of thorns.  It shows us Jesus stepping down off the White Throne of Heaven and stepping onto the Cross.

  But Jesus doesn’t remain on earth after His death and glorious resurrection – He returns to heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand, to be enthroned again next to the Ancient of Days.  He once again takes up His crown of gold, sits upon the White Throne of Heaven, and will do so till He judges the living and the dead at the end of time.  As we say in the Creed – He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and His Kingdom shall have no end.  Jesus is the King and one aspect of His Kingship is that He is judge – it is Jesus and only Jesus who accepts people into heaven and Jesus and only Jesus who sends people to Hell.  Indeed Jesus says this of Himself in the Gospels whilst He was on the earth – in fact Jesus speaks of Hell and the coming judgement more than any other person in all of Scripture.

There is something of an epidemic in the church today which turns Jesus into a poster boy for hair-products, or someone who is up in heaven stroking lambs and kissing doves.  This leads people to treat Jesus as simply their best friend, their buddy, their, as people say nowadays ‘BFF’.  Now this is not in itself wrong.  Jesus is our friend, our best friend, He is always there to listen, He holds us when we shake, He calms us when we fear, He encourages us when we stumble.  But He is also God.  Whenever people meet God in the Bible and realise it is Him they fall to their knees in terror.  When the demons see Jesus they are petrified and awed by Him – ironically during His earthly life it was the demons who recognised Jesus for the fullness of who He really was whilst the disciples were at best rather clueless.

Just listen to what happened when Isaiah met Jesus, a man who had been a prophet of the Lord for many, many, years:

 “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and His robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphim were standing above Him; each one had six wings:with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another:
Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts;
His glory fills the whole earth.4 The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke.
5 Then I said:
Woe is me for I am ruined
because I am a man of unclean lips
and live among a people of unclean lips,
and because my eyes have seen the King,
the LORD of Hosts.
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand was a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth with it and said:
Now that this has touched your lips,
your wickedness is removed
and your sin is atoned for.

WOW – Isaiah had been a holy prophet for years and a ‘righteous man’ yet when he came face to face with Jesus he was terrified by how Holy Jesus was, how before Him there could be no sin – but in His mercy Jesus has an angel cleanse Isaiah from the altar of heaven, a prefiguration of the Cross, and by grace and grace alone is Isaiah’s sin atoned for

Or take what we heard of Jesus in Revelation – the White Rider leading the armies of Heaven – we first meet Jesus in this role in the book of Joshua outside Jericho where Jesus reveals Himself to Joshua as the Commander of the Eternal armies.   In Revelation we see Jesus  as the one called Faithful and True – indeed He is – who judges and makes war in righteousness.  He has eyes of fire and many many crowns, a robe stained in blood – both signifying his own blood spilt on Calvary and the blood spilt as He tramples The Winepress of the fierce anger of God Almighty.  And His name written on His robe and seemingly tattooed on His thigh is KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. That is Jesus – KING OF KING AND LORD OF LORDS. A far cry from the rather feminine blonde hippie we see in popular pictures and which so easily creep into our perception of Him.  


 So here is one thing to take from this, in your prayer life recognise that Jesus in King.  That Jesus is the great and powerful Lord of Lords sat on a throne around which angels sing day and night “Holy Holy Holy.” How would stopping and picturing this awesome scene, the light, the sound of thunder, the smells of heaven, the power of His presence, picture yourself there, kneeling as you would as your knees went weak, and once you are there, then begin your prayers before the great God of the Universe and History.  Jesus is our friend, we can turn to Him in prayer as we could turn to a friend sat besides us, we should pray to Him all the time, talk to Him all the time, but once in a while it is helpful to pray with perspective, to stop and recognise just who exactly your friend is.

And that is of course the unbelievable thing about King Jesus, about Christ the King, for all His power, all His Glory, all His majesty and most importantly all His Holiness which means He cannot stand to be in the presence of sin, still He came to earth that He might be friends with you and me – sinners all invited to His Kingdom Banquet.  

There is a great passage in CS Lewis’ Narnia books when Lucy and Susan are asking Mr and Mrs Beaver about Aslan.  It goes like this:

Aslan a man? Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the woods and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

And of course just like Aslan, Jesus is the Lion of Judah, the King sent from the Father, who rules all, He is not safe, it would be foolish to appear before Him without trepidation, but He is good.  Jesus isn’t safe, but He is good.

See this is where we have to look at what kind of King is Jesus.  We know He is a righteous king, we know He is a judge, we know He is a Holy king, we know He is a king who knows all and sees all.  But as the hymn says He is the King of Mercy and of Grace.  He is the kind of King who despite having all the glory and power and majesty, would still give it all up, cast it all aside, and come to earth, who would go from being the one who keeps this universe in place every second and keeps all of us breathing, to being the one helpless baby in a manger who needs others to survive and grow.  He would go from being the only immortal one to dying on the Cross in agony.  And more than that, on that Cross He did the unimaginable, as Saint Paul says – He who knew no sin became sin.  On that Cross Jesus, the Holiest of Holies, who cannot stand to be near sin, becomes our sin.  He gives each of those who believe that He is God, that He is who He said He is, He gives to all those who acknowledge with their lips and lives that He is Lord of Lord and Kings of Kings, that He is not just a prophet or a good man or a guru or an angel but that He is God Above, to all these He gives His perfect righteousness, His perfect Holiness, His perfect record where no red ink is found.

And He Himself takes on our sin, on that Cross He becomes our sin, He becomes the adulterer, He becomes the liar, He becomes the thief, He becomes the murderer, He becomes the whatever your sin is no matter how great or how small.  And then Father turns His face away, and Jesus knows our isolation from God, and He gives us His relationship with God,  and then He takes all of that sin and shame and death and loneliness and He nails it to the cross and He dies the death we deserved to die and the weight of all that sin is rolled in front of His tomb – and three days later he dropkicks that sin away and rises from the dead as the first fruits of the resurrection, as a promise that when we die we will rise again just as He did, because He gives us His perfect record, His perfect standing with the Father, His perfect Holiness.

That is the kind of King Jesus is – one which gives up His life for His friends, one which walks the road we all walk and doesn’t expect us to do something He hasn’t Himself done and experienced.  There is no King on earth who has ever done such a thing, who has ever shown such complete love, who has ever taken His slaves and called them friends. There is no king in all of mythology, no king of any religion but Christianity, who dies in our place that we might live.  We who believe don’t have to live in fear of the Judge because He has already paid our debt, we don’t have to live in fear of hostile heaven because the moment we believed we were washed clean.  And as saint Pail says, we need not fear or feel condemnation, we don’t have to live under the weight of guilt, but the moment we come before the Cross and repent, and say sorry and turn again and commit to changing mind body and soul, that moment we are so completely forgiven it is as if the sin had never existed in the eyes of God. For we who believe in King Jesus live under freedom, live under joy, live under peace and the complete assurance of eternal life in heaven with Him.

And it is because of this that we worship Christ the King.

What sense can we make of the Cross today?

What sense can we make of the Cross today?
(Lent Course talk)

The Cross is at the very centre of all that it is to be Christian.  It is arguably the most important thing in the history of the world. Right from the killing of animals to give skins to Adam and Eve to hide their shame, through God’s accepting Abel’s animal sacrifice and not Cain’s offering of grain, to Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac but God substituting a ram for Isaac (not the Lamb of God promised), to the Passover, the Levitical Sacrifices of the Day of Atonement, and the words of Prophets – the Cross of Jesus is the central event of the Bible. 

But what does it mean? What did it achieve?
There are too many facets of the Cross to cover in a short session, and I would wager more books have been written about the Cross and what Jesus achieved than on any other subject in all of history.

Scripture teaches that everyone has sinned (except Jesus) and not only that, but that we are all ‘depraved’ – 26 verses of Scripture declare that even from birth all of us are lost and our hearts are inclined to evil, even from birth we are all in desperate need of a Saviour.  Indeed, we are so lost that of our own power and choice we would never seek out God None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3.10-11).  That God hates this sin because He is Holy is clear from even the most cursory reading of the Bible.  God detests sin, when we sin we become enemies of God.  As Saint Paul said

8But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! Much more then, since we have now been declared righteous by His blood, we will be saved through Him from wrath. 10 For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life! 11 And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have now received this reconciliation through Him.” (Romans 5.8-11)

Note carefully how Paul says that Christ died for us whilst we were sinners. And that because of this death we will be saved through Him (Jesus) from wrath – that is the anger and just judgement of God against sin. Note that we were enemies who are reconciled by the death of Jesus and that because of His resurrection (His life) we are saved.  This is something we should rejoice about!

Jesus on the Cross died for us.  He removed the wrath of God against sin.  He brought us into a right relationship with God (that is made us righteous) and He frees us from condemnation and gives us assurance of salvation.   In the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), which point towards Jesus, we see two aspects of what Jesus did on the Cross.  These two aspects of the Cross have two special words to describe them: Propitiation and Expiation. 

The first goat becomes a substitute for the people’s sins and is killed – much as the Passover Lamb was killed in the place of the Hebrews in Egypt.  On this goat goes all the just judgement against sin, all the righteous anger of God.  As Isaiah makes clear in his famous prophecy of the Cross in Isaiah 53 “He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him and we are healed by His wounds. We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the LORD has punished HIM for the iniquity of us all.  Thus Jesus is our Propitiation – He takes the death we deserve and the punishment we deserve and the wrath of God on Himself.

After this the priest would place his hands on the second goat’s head and put all the people’s sins on the goat and sends it into the wilderness where it can never be found. This is called Expiation – at the Cross Jesus takes our sins away from us by putting them on Himself, on the Cross “God made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5.21) – not just a sinner but sin itself, all our sin was placed on Him.  In return, when we believe in Him we were given His Holiness, His Righteousness, His perfect standing with the Father.

So what does this practically mean for us who believe that Jesus is LORD, God, and Saviour?

-          Firstly, it means that we have no reason to fear God or His righteous judgements against sin.  As Saint Paul said Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 8.1).  People often think Christians are all gloomy and think of nothing but their sin, that they live lives where they are depressed by guilt.  People think that Christians carry so much baggage around.  But on the Cross Jesus took all of our sin, all our guilt, and all our baggage away. Christians should never feel condemned or fear Hell and judgement.  Jesus took our condemnation on Himself and so satisfied the Triune God’s need for Holy justice. (Condemnation and conviction are two different things)

-          Secondly, it means we have nothing that can stop us knowing God and speaking to Him whenever we like.  In the Old Testament sacrifices had to be made all the time so that people could get right with God and have a relationship with Him.  Now Jesus has been sacrificed once and for all for the sins of the whole world so that those who believe in Him are given a place in God’s family and are adopted as the Father’s children.  As it says in Hebrews 10.10 “By this will of God, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all”

-          In the Old Testament a covenant was made and signed in Blood.  On the Cross Jesus begins the New Covenant with His own Blood “This cup is the new covenant established by My blood; it is shed for you” (Luke 22.20).  God never breaks His covenants, God always uphold His end of the deal.  This is why with Abraham and on the Cross He was the one who did all the covenant making – He knew we could not keep up our side but He will keep up His.  Because of the Cross we have complete assurance that God will always love us, that He will keep all His promises, and that He will give to us all His gifts.  We should never have to doubt God.

31 If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8.31-39)

What ‘Laws’ do Christians have to keep?

What ‘Laws’ do Christians have to keep?
Do we have the keep The Law – all the law of the Old Testament?
(Lent Course talk)

This is a very good question! But the answer is not so easy (when is it ever?).           
It is very clear from the Gospels that Jesus kept The Law perfectly (He was sinless – and is the only person who can claim that) though He had no time at all for the regulations that humans like the Pharisees had added onto the law in an attempt to ‘help’ people keep them all.  He said that until The Law was fulfilled and all had been accomplished not even the smallest part of it would pass away till earth and heaven did (Matthew 5.1-18). 

But as soon the early church began at Pentecost and the prophecy of Ezekiel 36 was fulfilled (new spirit and new hearts with God’s law written on them for all believers) it became clear that the OT law no longer applied.  Paul reveals the meaning of Jesus’ saying in Matthew about fulfilling The Law – in Galatians 3.19 Paul tells us that OT Law was only in use till Jesus came and finished His mission.  Now Jesus had ascended to Heaven the OT Law no longer applied - any of it. Paul tells us that the Law was a ‘teacher’ or ‘leader’ whose task was to lead people to Christ by making them realise they need a Saviour because they sin so much (Galatians 3.14-15).  If you try and live by the OT Law and break even one commandment of the 613 then you are guilty of breaking them all (James 2.10) and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6.23).  The Law no longer applies because we are saved and made Holy by faith in Jesus – Jesus upheld the whole Law without sin and takes our place for us (Romans 8). You cannot separate out the OT Law from the Old Covenant – and we now live under the New Covenant not the Old (praise the Lord!).

Does this mean we can do whatever we want because the OT Law no longer applies?  As Paul would say ‘BY NO MEANS!’ The NT is full of lists of vices and sins that Christians should avoid – and for some of them the offender should even be excommunicated from the church if they commit. It is also full of lists of virtues we should aspire to. The whole OT Law pointed to Christ, it was the shadow and He is the Substance.  It reveals what He would do, how He would save us, and it reveals His heart.  Christians are called to follow what Paul calls ‘the Law of Christ’ – Love.  But love cannot be commanded by laws. If we truly love God and love each other there are many things we won’t do.  But we 'don’t do them' because of love, not a law or command, and we don’t think for a moment that doing them makes us more holy or close to God – only faith does that.  

Why Commination?

Why Commination: or denouncement of God's anger and judgements against sinners?

What is the purpose of the Book of Common Prayer service of Commination?  Why is it an important service?  What does it teach?  Why should we still do it in the 21st century?

These are good questions about a service that can make some people today feel rather uncomfortable.  It is my belief that Commination is a powerful, relevant, and Gospel centred service that presents Biblical teaching on God, humanity, eternity, and the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The following are my personal views on the service of Commination, Biblical church teaching, and the Gospel.

Commination literally means ‘the action of threatening divine vengeance’ – as the service itself explains:  “a denouncing of God’s anger and judgements against sinners.”  The idea of God being angry may make us uncomfortable, but it is very Biblical.  God’s anger or wrath at sin and sinners is mentioned around 600 times in the Bible.  The most frequently mentioned attribute of God is His complete Holiness.  Because God is Holy, He cannot stand to be near sin – He hates and despises it.  Importantly, Scripture does not say ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ – that was Ghandi.  God is perfectly just, we are all sinners, we all deserve judgement and the death penalty because as Saint Paul said “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6.23).  That the service of Commination is based in the Bible can be seen by the over 75 verses of Scripture that it quotes – with many more alluded to.

In his worship song ‘Here I am to Worship’ Tim Hughes wrote these lyrics “I’ll never know how much it cost, to see my sin upon that cross.” For me this is the essence of the teaching of the Commination service – until we understand God’s hatred of sin, and all He had to overcome to restore us to a right relationship with Him, we will never know how much He loves us.  Commination begins by displaying God’s anger and judgement against sin.  Importantly though, even at the beginning, it says that God’s anger and judgement is only a curse “against impenitent sinners” – it is only those who don’t repent to Jesus who face such judgement.  For the next part of the service the ‘curses’ of Scripture are read, and like the 10 commandments, we are all guilty of breaking them.  Explaining that the Day of the LORD is coming – judgement day – the service compels the believer to fear God and turn away from sin and not to “despise the goodness, patience, and long-sufferance of God.” 

Boldly the service proclaims that through Jesus there is forgiveness of any sins “For though our sins be as red as scarlet, they shall be made white as snow; and though they be like purple, yet they shall be made white as wool.”  It declares Jesus to be on our side “Although we have sinned, yet we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus the Righteous; and He is the propitiation of our sins” Propitiation is a word which means the removing of wrath against sinners.  We are then reassured that Christ is ready to receive us whenever we come to Him in humility, no matter what we have done or how many times we have done it  - “(Jesus is) most willing to pardon us, if we come unto Him with faithful repentance.”

Scripture teaches that everyone has sinned (except Jesus) and not only that, but that we are all ‘depraved’ – 26 verses of Scripture declare that even from birth all of us are lost and our hearts are inclined to evil, even from birth we are all in desperate need of a Saviour.  Indeed, we are so lost that of our own power and choice we would never seek out God None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3.10-11).  If we are ever to truly get right with God, to make progress in our faith and discipleship, to be moulded by the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ, we must first look in the mirror, deeply, and recognise how fallen we are.  We are far worse than we like to imagine but Jesus is far stronger than we could ever hope.  This is why towards the end the Commination service declares “Spare thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed; enter not into judgement with thy servants, who are vile earth, and miserable sinners; but so turn Thine anger from us, who meekly acknowledge our vileness, and truly repent of our faults”   Also worthy of note is that it is not our own doing that we are saved, we are not saved by ‘good works’ or keeping The Law.  We are saved by the grace of God – “whom Thou hast redeemed… Through the merits and mediation of Thy blessed Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

As I hope you can see, the service of Commination, though an uncomfortable one, is full of the Good News of Jesus. It is designed to, at the start of Lent, bring us to our knees, to acknowledge our sinfulness, to fall on the mercy of God and not our own strength, to see the judgement against sin and so be encouraged to fight valiantly against it, and to know the assurance of forgiveness through Christ.  The message is more relevant than ever and just as important as the day it was written.  But does this make this particular service, with all the thee’s and ‘Thou’s, the ‘brethen’ and the inclusion of all peoples under the gender-inclusive ‘men’ – not to mention numerous words that are no longer used or sound very different to modern usage – worth using in the 21st century?  I believe so.  In general I believe all church and prayer should be done in a language easily understood by the people present.  But, occasionally there can be good reasons to use the ancient versions that can still be understood if we concentrate. Even better, someone should update the language of the service without compromising at all on the doctrine or judgement it conveys.  Who knows, one day I may get round to it!  In the mean time it is still useful to use the old English for many reasons:

Firstly, hearing Scripture and prayer in such a ‘beautiful’ or ‘ecclesial’ form of English can hammer home the point it is making by the use of language which doesn’t just become meaningless because we use it so often.  Secondly, the service of Commination links us to the foundation of the Church of England; it connects us to the Reformation.  The service of ‘ashing’ which now seems so traditional did not exist in the Church of England until the late 19th century.  Following the Reformation it was banned because people at that time built up many superstitions around it – not helped by everything in church being said in Latin, the very poor understanding most people had of Biblical teaching, and the spurious teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. J.C. Ryle in his "Against Ritualism" lists ashing as one of their un-Anglican practices.  I believe Ryle has a good point, though in this case, given the Biblical precedence of repenting in ash and sackcloth I think the practice can be redeemed - if combined with Commination.   Thus I do not necessarily object to ‘ashing’ if done biblically but I believe it is important for Anglicans to retain their identity as a church of the Reformation, a church which is grounded on and in Scripture, and a thus a church which rejects ritualism.  

For these reasons outlined above, the use of the traditional service of Commination is an excellent practice and fits very well if done before a biblical and reformed, none ritualistic, ‘ashing’ followed by the Lord's Supper.  The sermon should make very clear what 'ashing' is and is not!

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