Melchizedek (Lent 5B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation, gathered at Yallourn North, on Sunday 18th March 2018.  It was the fifth Sunday in Lent.

Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

When the writers of the text we now call “The Letter to the Hebrews” sat down to get their thoughts together it seems that one of their primary concerns was the authority of Jesus.  Probably written around the year 65CE and written to be read by Christ-worshippers in Rome, the issues addressed by this text include who Jesus was and why these writers felt confident to make the claims about him that they did.  They also sought to answer questions about what the point of Jesus’ life and ministry was, to clarify what Jesus accomplished.  The Roman Empire continued to occupy Jerusalem: God had not delivered the Israelites from oppression, and the temple continued to function for Judaism as it had done since the days of Ezra.  How can the Jewish Messiah have come, and nothing has changed?  Who was Jesus?

In today’s section we are told quite plainly that the work of Jesus as high priest was authorised by God: Jesus did not appoint himself divine intermediary, nor did he steal the role from the rightful Levitical clansmen in Jerusalem.  Furthermore, say the authors, the evidence that Jesus was authorised by God is plain because he did the work of a priest properly, praying and interceding while he was alive.  Jesus prayed with confidence, knowing the Father and knowing the Father’s capability and the Father’s will.  Jesus asked God to do only what God wanted done: Jesus was qualified to be high priest because Jesus was faithful to God.

But this is only part of the answer, and Hebrews 5:8-9 speaks of Jesus’ life on earth as a time of struggle and of learning.  As God the Son, and the Son of God, life in God’s creation might have been cushy for Jesus: descending from a cloud and floating about Creation he could have kept himself clean and dry by not touching anything or being touched by anyone.  But that’s not how Jesus came and that’s not how he lived: Jesus was qualified to be high priest because Jesus was faithful to humanity.

Jesus was born in the part of the house where the animals were kept.  Despite what you’ve heard about that cosy manger I have no doubt that little lord Jesus loud crying did make.  And probably lots of times afterwards.  Jesus grew up in an ordinary village in an ordinary family where his tradesman father taught Jesus his trade.  Jesus was the Son of God, but when he was apprenticed to his father to learn the family business he matured into a fitter and joiner, not as Master of the Universe, the divine and sovereign creator.  Jesus’ feet got dirty, we know that because a woman washed them.  Jesus got tired, we know that because he fell asleep in the boat.  Jesus got hungry, we know that because satan was able to tempt him with food, even though Jesus resisted the temptation.  Jesus got lonely, we know that because he cried out that even God had forsaken him, twelve hours after his friends couldn’t remain awake for even an hour.  It’s never mentioned but I am sure that Jesus must have relieved himself at times, perhaps having to hold it in, perhaps having to “nip off” in a hurry.  I am sure Jesus got sick, and I imagine that Mary had to cuddle him and wipe him down and kiss it better when he was small.  Jesus was a tradesman, traditionally described as a carpenter it’s likely that he was a builder alongside that: so, did he never hit his thumb with a hammer, or catch his fingers on a saw blade?  Will anyone suggest that Jesus never got a splinter from the wood, or a stone chip?  Did he never trip over, or stub a toe?  Did he never bang his head on a low door or overhanging branch?  Did he never drop something on his foot, or get dust in his eye?  Did he never step in dog or camel or donkey poo?  Jesus learned what it was like to live on earth as a person: baby, toddler, child, teen, youth, and man.  Jesus was made complete and perfect we read in Hebrews 5:9 in that he experienced all that there was to experience as an adult Galilean Jew in Roman-occupied Judea.  Jesus lived the whole picture and he learned the full story of humankind in action.  God The Son had first-hand experience of the world in its fallen state, and he grieved with God The Father over what had been lost and over what had become of that wondrously good Eden that God had made.

So, the fully human Jesus got dirty and smelly, hurt and tired at times.  Of course, he also had friends and family and I am sure he laughed quite a bit.  Jesus experienced joy and love and companionship, he was not only a man of sorrows.  Jesus ate and drank, and he probably spewed and pooed too.  And the fully divine Jesus grieved for the world, but he also rejoiced in the company of the worshippers of God and in the news or presence of their devotion and godliness where he experienced it.  Not that he desired worship for himself, but that he experienced God being worshipped by his companions in the room, and that delighted him as the Son of God amongst women and men.

All of that is true and meaningful.  But what carries the most weight, at least as I see it, is what we read in Hebrews 5:7: Jesus experienced fear.  Jesus got scared and Jesus drew back momentarily from the great act of the cross.  What makes Jesus the best high priest, allowing for all that I have said about his being chosen by God rather than taking the mantle upon himself, and that he lived a human life of dirt and fun, and that his spirit grieved at the fallenness of Creation, no what makes him the best is that he saw how ugly the cross was going to be and he called “time-out”.  Gethsemane is no secret to us, and apparently it was no secret to the writers of Hebrews 5:7: Jesus pleaded in cries and tears that God would use any other way to complete the work, anything else than the brutality of Good Friday.  This is a man, a human; a flesh and bones and blood and sensory neurones person.  This is a man who knows that what is coming is going to be all kinds of worlds of hurt in his body, mind, soul, and spirit.  This is a man just like us; this is the one God chose to do this great work.  Not an angel, not an alien, not a golem, not even a quadriplegic with no sense of pain below the neck.

And he knew it was coming from well beforehand because one day Philip and Andrew brought Gentiles to meet him.  The great act of service of a seed is that it dies, anonymously and underground, to cause a new tree with thousands of new seeds to grow in that place.  Jesus’ death was neither anonymous nor underground, but it was his great act of service, and his life’s end brought about the beginning of billions of lives in every land on the planet.  With the request of these Greeks for an introduction Jesus knew that the time to embark upon his greatest service was at hand.  Jesus’ response to the coming moment, John 12:27 tells us, is that he was troubled.  He knew that the cross would break him, it would kill his body and it would take his mind and spirit over the edge of human capability too.  And Jesus knew that in the activity and immediate aftermath of the cross his disciples would be broken by confusion, grief and doubt.

And he went through with it.

(But only after he had called a time-out to get his head around it.)

Jesus knows our every pain and weakness, he has been there.  Jesus knows every pain and weakness of The Father, he has been there too.  This is what makes Jesus the greatest of great high priests, the ultimate and unsurpassable intermediary between Holy God and Fallen Creation.

So, what does this mean for us?  I see two outcomes of this message, two things we can do with this revelation of who Jesus was regarding this special role of intercessor and advocate.

  1. We take courage. Jesus to whom we pray, and through whom we pray to The Father, knows what it is like down here and he understands.  Jesus will never call you a wimp or deride you as unfaithful and unworthy of him when the thought of pain and suffering causes you to pause.  He gets it, he paused too, and then he went on.  If he went on alone, then you or I can go on with him beside us.  Whatever God is calling you to, or whatever life has thrown up in your path, Jesus knows about it and wants you to do well.  Maybe its public speaking and evangelism, maybe its standing up for the oppressed or is dispossessed where you work or live; maybe it’s a mozzie bite or some dog poo on your shoe.  No human experience, no make-or-break call to disciplined action is below Jesus’ attention or above Jesus’ capacity to support you.
  2. We worship. Last month we heard the story of the Transfiguration and of how Jesus was glorified by God in the presence of Moses and Elijah, and the special needs class from amongst his followers.  This is the one who we killed, the transfigured one is also the crucified one.  We need not be afraid of Jesus, he loves us, and his death is the ultimate act of love for us; nonetheless the Fear of The LORD, our great regard and honour for who Jesus is as Son of God, should drive us to our knees or faces, or maybe to our feet with our hands aloft.  But we can’t just sit there, indifferent, any longer.

Jesus was afraid to die for us, that’s how we know he’s human and that’s how we know that he loves us.  He understands pain.  Nonetheless Jesus died for us.  We may be afraid to live for him, after all we are human and that’s how he knows that we love him.  He understands the threat we may be inviting, discipleship is not easy.  Nonetheless we live for him.

But we live for him, with him beside us.



Nisi per gratiam per fidem (Lent 4B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation gathered at Newborough on Sunday 11th March 2018, the fourth Sunday in Lent.

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21; John 6:28-40

Today’s reading from the Jewish tradition is one of those texts that causes me bafflement.  I do not claim to have the full picture on this, and I challenge any of you who think you do to explain it to me later.  So, in this story the Hebrews are in the desert with Moses, somewhere between Egypt and Canaan, and they are sooking again about hunger, thirst, and poor leadership from God and from Moses.  So, God sends snakes, and those snakes bite some people, and some of the bitten people die.  The not dead people catch on that God is upset about their sooking, so they wisely repent of their sookiness, and God responds to their repentance by mandating a means of healing.  In a tick we shall hear how the bronze snake lifted in the desert for healing is an image used by Jesus in John to speak of his own being lifted on the cross as a means of healing: it’s a great image.  But for now, for the Hebrews their specific sin, the lesson that we are supposed to take away is that thing that needs healing even more than the venomous attack is the people’s speaking against God and against God’s appointed leader.  Death by reptilian poison is merely a symptom of the Hebrews’ shoddy attitude toward God their deliverer: once they understand that they repent and ask their embattled leader to intercede for them.  And Moses prays, and the snakes leave, and the people rejoice.

But did God really have to send actual deadly snakes for all that to happen?  Other times when the people complained of hunger God sent manna and quail and water from a rock.  So, what’s with all the bitey vipers?  That’s not very Jesusy of God, even taking consideration for it being 1200 BC at this stage.

Today’s psalm declares that all of God’s healing for the sick and stupid comes by God’s word, literally a diagnosis of “all clear” from the specialist.  The God of steadfast love delivers God’s people, so let them rejoice with sacrifices of praise says this psalm.  The Christian writer Selwyn Hughes once described the sacrifice of praise as “thanksgiving with blood on its hands”, a phrase I like.  This suggests that sometimes praise is hard fought, hard won, and worth hanging on to.  These are the songs of an overcomer sung toward the God who has delivered victory to him or her at long last.   Perhaps this sort of sacrifice of praise is the one sung by the Hebrews who received a harsh lesson in discipleship and who heeded that lesson to now stand and sing with awe of God’s power and deliverance.  Confronted by the one who can destroy, but who chooses instead to deliver, the people understand that God desires praise as a response to grace, but it is not a prerequisite.

Paul picks up the theme of Torah in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus writing in Ephesians 2:4-5 that debt has left them dead, but God has made them alive with Christ by grace.  All who belong to God are saved by grace through faith, not by faith itself he writes in Ephesians 2:8.  In other words you are not saved by what you accept as true about the universe, neither are you saved by what you accept as true about the Bible.  You are not saved by signing your name beneath or reciting every week the Creed of Nicaea; as if by saying “this document details what I agree to be the facts of Christianity” is what will get you into Heaven.  It won’t.  None of those things will.  It doesn’t matter what you accept as true says Paul, it matters only what God has done by grace, and by grace alone.

Salvation in the Christian tradition is by trust in Jesus and that what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross is sufficient.  The Christian tradition teaches that if you don’t trust the sufficiency of Jesus then you are un-saving yourself because you are taking yourself out of the hands of God who only ever saves by grace.  Jesus says this in John 3:17-18.  Every other means of salvation falls short, and salvation that falls short is salvation that doesn’t succeed in saving.  When a method of salvation doesn’t save then the thing is lost, or to use Jesus’ words the thing is left in the dark.

The message of Jesus who brought light to the world is choose not to walk out of the light; stay in the light and be saved.  To think and act as if you must earn your salvation is to walk away from God’s initiative which is the free gift of salvation by grace.  To receive salvation by grace through faith is not about praying a certain way or saying a certain formula, or even by being baptised, or by any other liturgical or traditional thing.  Salvation by grace is a trust exercise, it’s the heart’s acceptance that “Jesus did it” evident in the attitude that “I am safe because Jesus”.  Everything else we do as Christians can be only be because of one of two things: assured discipleship which is living freely within the reign of God, worshipping and serving out of gratitude and loving delight; or anxious despair wherein the cross is insufficient, and one must earn salvation through spiritual disciplines and altar-specific formulas.

In a Jewish devotional work written around the time of Jesus The Wisdom of Solomon 16:5b-7 says that it is not the symbol of the snake or even faith in the symbol that saved the Hebrews back in the day, rather it was God’s activity.  Today we might go on to add that God acted by grace to preserve the people.  When we look at images Jesus crucified, be that a crucifix or a painting, or a mental image since none of us were eyewitnesses, we see the evidence of our salvation.  God has saved us, and by grace alone are we saved.  Look at the cross and see how much you are loved: look at God hanging dying, and don’t doubt that you are overtly and utterly beloved.  But don’t think that hanging a cross on your wall or around your neck will do anything other than remind you of how much you are loved: possessing a renaissance sculpture or a piece of cruciform jewellery won’t save you any more than those formulaic prayers.

Flip over your Bible, if you’ve got one there, and have a look at a conversation Jesus had with the crowds.  In John 6:28 a Jewish crowd is listening to Jesus speak about salvation and they ask Jesus “what must we do?”  Judaism is a religion centred on practice and belonging rather than doctrine and belief: what makes a person a Jew is that he or she behaves like one and is accepted into the group who is behaving like Jews.  In other words, you are a Jew if you do Jewish stuff and other Jews invite you to join in.  You can’t earn salvation as a Jew, you don’t need to: you are saved because you are chosen, saved by grace just by being a descendent of Abraham.  As a saved one, a chosen one, you live that out by doing Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic things.  So, in that framework the crowd asks Jesus “what’s your kosher? your circumcision? your ritual? your psalms?” to which Jesus says in John 6:29 “trust me”.  Nothing else, no instruction for action, just “trust me”.  He doesn’t even say “accept these facts to be true, agree to the following doctrinal statements”, he just says…what does he say?  Trust me.  So, the crowd says in John 6:30-31 “okay, you want us to trust you?  Why should we trust you unless you prove it?  Abraham made us reshape our sex organs, Moses gave us laws, David wrote us songs with theology in them.  Give us something tangible so that we know you are telling us the truth: do something” they say, “or at least ask us to do something for you” they might have added.  And Jesus says in John 6:32-33, 38 “no.  It’s all about God’s generous grace and not about performance, indeed it isn’t even about my (messianic) performance,” and in John 6:40 Jesus says again “trust me and live abundantly and confidently, and I will look after you.”

What if Jesus said that to us?

What if our reasons for believing ourselves to be saved weren’t the reasons Jesus offers?  “But Jesus, I was converted at 27 when I repeated the special prayer line-by-line with Billy Graham-slash-Brian Houston.” Or “but Jesus, I was baptised because of my Christian parents at 3 months of age, confirmed in my local congregation at 12 years of age, hit with the Holy Spirit at a Charismatic Renewal convention at 13 years of age, and I’ve prayed in tongues since I was 35 after specifically asking my Pentecostal megachurch cell group leader to pray for me one night.”  What do you think Jesus would say to that?  My reading of John 3, John 6, and Ephesians 2, is that Jesus would say “doing those things didn’t get you saved, being saved lead you to do those things.”

Huh?  So, how then were we saved if not by a prayer of invitation and confession, or the waters of baptism following vows of obedience and faithfulness?  How were we saved?  How were we saved?  By grace.  Grace alone.  We know we were saved because God has told us, and also because we are actually safe.  If we weren’t saved then we’d be unsafe, wouldn’t we?  But we’re not unsafe, so we know we are saved.

So, here’s a big statement for you.  Don’t let your faith get in the way of your salvation.  By this I mean as soon as you try to work out what it is you did which actually got you saved, which specific belief, which specific action, you’ve missed the point.  It is grace that saved you, God did it all and you did nothing.  That you received the message that you are loved, and that you responded with joy or relief or whatever, and that you accepted the story of grace to be true, made your salvation effective and it put you on the path of growing in discipleship.  But the actual deliverance was all God’s work.

So, remember that.  And make sure that when you share your faith, and you should, that what you share is the free gift of grace given by God because of love.  And nothing less than love.


One Day in The Temple (Lent 3B)

This is the text of the message I wrote for the people of Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 4th March 2018, the third Sunday in Lent.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

I am an uncle to three magnificent children with whom I caught up in South Australia last weekend, but I am not a father.  However, in the light of today’s reading from the gospel I want to start with a “dad joke”.  Are you ready, is your excitement building?  Okay, here it is: what is the highest jump recorded in history?  What was it, do you know?  Are you ready for this, are you sure?  Okay, here it is: it’s when Jesus cleared the temple.  Bahahaha!

Okay, you’re not laughing but I get it, it’s okay.  It probably sounds better in Aramaic.  No worries.

In all seriousness Jesus clearing the temple is one of the surprisingly few stories which occurs in all four gospels, but it is unique even among those stories because of its timing in the life of Jesus.  Mark, Matthew and Luke each locate this story specifically on Monday in Holy Week, the day after Palm Sunday, whereas John puts it right at the start of Jesus’ public ministry.  Did he actually do it twice, did Jesus throw a hissy in the courtyard two times, three years apart?  That’s a good question; it’s not one I’m going to answer today, but it’s still a good question.

Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggests that in clearing out the traders Jesus did not actually “cleanse the temple” as the language about this episode often goes, in fact Jesus symbolically abolished the temple[1] and the temple-way of doing things.

Borg and Crossan make this claim regarding the activity of Jesus in the week before he was murdered, so it fits better with the time of the year we are in now rather than the time of John 2, but it’s worth making the point for that since we are in Lent right now.  I’m not going to get into the depths of what these theologians say, but the basic story is that Jesus is not bothered by the different ways people worship God: be that by sacrifice or by praise; by sitting or standing; by singing or silence; in Aramaic or Latin or Shakespearian or Australian English.  Activities of the religious community presented to God for God’s pleasure are never of themselves a problem for Jesus, no matter how strange they might appear to Protestant Gippslanders.  However, when any supposedly worshipful act becomes a substitute for activities of justice and gracious-welcome then that act is a problem for God.  Our God, the God of our people, is the God of All Nations; so, if our church-stuff excludes other types of people from God’s company then we shouldn’t be surprised when the Word-became-Flesh, God-with-us immediately shuts down this counterfeit worship.  To sing to God, to pray, to sacrifice, yet to resist and not allow justice is not pleasing to God; therefore, whatever goes on in church must empower disciples for acts of justice, it must never excuse them from it.

The blaze of Jesus’ anger in the temple therefore had nothing to do with merchants doing honest business, or even with merchants doing dishonest business.  Jesus is not bothered by a parish fete making use of this room, (although I am), and he’s not fussed if our fundraising garage sale takes place on this property.  That’s not the issue here, and it never has been.  Rather the issue at hand, and the reason behind Jesus suddenly going boonta in Jerusalem’s holiest building, it is the shift in emphasis of the temple authorities away from prayer to cosy up to the imperial oppressors.  Borg says in another book, one written without Crossan, that it’s not the sacrificial-animal sellers and coin merchants who Jesus names and flogs as thieves, it’s the priestly collaborators who are using their social status to cosy up with Rome[2].

The people of God are supposed to stand away from the rulers of the world: not to ignore them or to rebel against them, but to make sure that we are never implicated in human schemes of oppression and greed.

As with almost all Christians who will allow the name “Evangelical” to be pointed at them I understand and proclaim as truth that Jesus was crucified because of human sin.  But this is not as obvious a statement as it might seem.  It’s not just that Jesus died as a sacrifice for us, it’s that he was murdered by individual sinful men acting sinfully.  Jesus died because of the envy and corruption of a group of Jewish religious leaders, and the cowardice and injustice of the Roman imperial governor.  These men who were supposed to care for God’s people as God’s appointed leaders instead established a system in which religion and government, high priest and governor, temple and empire operated in life-destroying ways.  Jesus was killed by the powerful men of his day.  Part of the story of Easter is that like Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero, and millions of brutally silenced other men and women of God, Jesus was assassinated by the powers that be in an attempt to shut down his God-centred summons to their repentance.

In the light of this different view of the death of Jesus, a view which expands what we were taught about the cross and sin but in no way undermines it, the New Testament writers offer another way of responding to Jesus.  Salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection is not about life inside a broken system of injustice and corrupt self-interest but with a new and handy reset button called “confession and repentance”.  No, Calvary says that the world is broken and a completely new way of doing life which turns domination on its end and affirms God’s Kingdom justice above human imperial injustice is required.  If you follow the Easter story through Mark, Matthew or Luke what you find out is that it was this activity that lead directly to Jesus’ death.  When Jesus called out the injustice and corruption of the temple and shamed the Jewish leaders as collaborators with the Romans, that was the last straw.  “He needs to be shut up and shut down: let’s kill him embarrassingly” says the Sanhedrin first to each other and then to Pilate.

The Bible’s story of salvation, and this is evident in the message of Jesus is not primarily concerned with life after death, but with life on a transformed Earth within the Kingdom of God.  Salvation is therefore about the life of the world to come, meaning this world in its restored state.  Salvation is Genesis 2, but better.  But this world, the Kingdom of God which Jesus inaugurated, must be healed.  The new Earth, by which the whole Bible means this Earth made new rather than an entirely different planet to replace the current, old one, is a place of completion rather than fragmentation, and wholeness and healing rather than brokenness, because of grace.  Salvation runs right through the Bible as a healing story, moving the people of God (and the persons within the body) from slavery under Pharaoh to the land of milk and honey with lots of walking and being upheld by grace in between.  Then Israel falls apart, becomes too corrupt for its own good, and the people are exiled.  Then God brings them back and starts again in a rebuilt Jerusalem.  Then Israel falls apart and God leaves them in Jerusalem but the Greeks, then the Romans arrive.  When Jesus comes he is the saviour in this repeated Jewish pattern.  Like God through Moses Jesus is the liberator who sets the captives free.  As he says of himself, and like the prophets in the model of Elijah who we met at Transfiguration three weeks ago Jesus is The Way who points the exiles toward home and gives navigation to homecoming.  And like the temple itself, and as reiterated by the authors and editors of the New Testament book Hebrews Jesus is the Sacrifice who once for all fulfilled and made obsolete the temple and its rituals for atonement, guaranteeing acceptance and forgiveness for all from God.

Beyond the gospels we read from the early Church how Jesus, the one murdered by Rome has been vindicated by God.  Peter says this in his great sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:23-24, 36.  Throughout his letters Paul repeatedly says that his primary purpose, his life’s work as a writer and a public speaker is Christ crucified.  Christ is wisdom where the world is foolish we began to read today in 1 Corinthians.  This story goes past where we finished today and for the full effect read 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16 where for the first time in his life Paul writes about the cross from a theological perspective, not just an episode of history.  Where Paul sets up a comparison between the wisdom of the world practiced by some of the Christian factions of Corinth (that is to say, the broad way) and the wisdom of God (the narrow way which is foolishness to the academia of the Greeks and a stumbling block to the religiosity of the Jews) he does it within the framework of Christ as the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-24, 30).

The human way of doing things is broken and it leads to brokenness.  The People of God: the people who honoured Abraham, Moses, Elijah and the prophets, David and the good kings, and Samuel and the faithful hearers and doers of the word of God; this People executed the Messiah for Blasphemy and the King of Kings for Treason.  Tell me how that’s a good system, if you can.  Calvary says that the human system is broken.  Jesus’ anger at how the system had pervaded and corrupted the very heart of God’s own nation’s worship shows how much that hurt him.  That the religious and national leaders of God’s own nation chose to murder and humiliate Jesus for calling them out is all the evidence and more that we are up against it if we choose to stand with Jesus.

This is a dangerous message, after all according to Mark, Matthew and Luke this is the message that got Jesus killed.  Yet in that we hear the heart-felt cry of the Word of God.

Resist evil, but do not rebel.  Let me be clear in saying that I have not heard calling us to storm the council chambers in Traralgon, or the parliaments in Melbourne or Canberra.  God is not calling us to picket the Uniting Church offices of Assembly, Synod, Presbytery, or Cluster.  Do not burn your flags, just don’t worship them either.  Listen to God, follow Jesus, and pray without ceasing for the Church and our nation.  Just don’t be surprised if when the world continues in the way that is going, without God, we who live according to the Way of Christ find ourselves headed for the high jump.


[1] Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final days in Jerusalem. (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 48.

[2] Marcus J Borg. Meeting Jesus in Mark: Conversations with Scripture. (London: SPCK, 2011). 93

Slowly Relentless (Epiphany 5B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 4th February 2018, the fifth Sunday in Epiphany in Year B.

Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

When I began blogging back in the 2000s I had a few pages on the go.  One blog, which had, (and still only has) one post was called “3Rs”.  No, it was not about my skills in literacy and numeracy; and just as well because Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic are not three Rs at all, but one R, one A, and a W.  I know this because I was once a Primary School teacher, and they learned me that at NTU where I got teached stuff for my Graduate Diploma in Primary Education.  No, my 3Rs were Resolute, Relentless, and Resilient.  After a few tough years, the toughest ever, where my 40 days in the wilderness had lasted four years so far and didn’t look like ending any time soon, I began to write about my desire to see the journey through with blood, sweat, tears, and a few other, less pleasant bodily fluids.  Resolute, Relentless, Resilient.  I was going to push through with all of mine and God’s strength.  The blog never saw a second post because the journey was too painful, complicated, and downright weird to try to put into words.

Today’s message, ten and a bit years later, and posted to my current blog I have entitled “Slowly Relentless”.

In Mark 1:31 we read that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law by taking her by the hand and lifting her up.  Her response to healing is to engage in ministry, diakoneo, the work of a ministering angel.  The same word is used in Mark 1:13 when Jesus is assisted in his recovery after the forty days in the wilderness.  This woman is raised up not to be a mere woman doing “women’s work” or “being a housewife” as if those activities were not important anyway; as if a healed father-in-law could have just moved from bed to chair with Jesus and demanded a beer but the woman must serve and not be served.   No, she is restored to her act of ministry because Jesus’ healings are not just restorative, they are also empowering.

In Mark 1:32-34 we are told about many other women and men in Capernaum who were healed through Jesus’ ministry to weakened bodies, minds, and souls.  I wonder, did Jesus expect the same from these renewed people as he did in the house of Simon?  Imagine that next day in Capernaum, a village filled with active and restored people, buzzing with excitement that God’s grace had been manifested amongst them and how they were now able to do what they had been limited from doing for however long.  What a fabulous day that would have been!

How many of you long for the day when Jesus will take you by your hand and lift you up?  I know I do.

I live with a mental illness, you all know that, and many of you have taken to wearing the beyondblue wrist bands in support of me and my ilk.  And yes, that mental illness came about back in those wilderness days when I needed to be intentionally resolute, relentless and resilient.  Sometimes life today for me is more about mental ill-health for me than actual illness because some days I have the emotional version of a sniffle and some days I have the emotional version of quadriplegia.  Each of these conditions impact on my physical activity (or lack thereof) to that extent.  I’m not always flat on my back, and I’m not always sneezing, mentally speaking, but some days I am one of those two things, or something in the middle.  On many days I’m in mentally good-health; “mental healthy” rather than “mental healthish” as it were.  So, yes, I long for that day when Jesus will take me by my hand and lift me up so that I can go about the work of ministry.  Ministry to him, ministry to you, ministry to myself.

But I’m not so fussed about my failing eyesight.  I’ve worn spectacles for short-sightedness for almost forty years, since I was six, and I now have the reading glasses of a man who was six years old almost forty years ago.  I am not fussed about that,  and I do not long for the day when I have 20/20 vision at last, although I’d take it if it came.  Like many men I’d like to be thinner around my abs, thicker around my quads, biceps and triceps, and more powerful in heart and lungs, although I’m happy with the covering of hair I wear.  So, it’s just the mental thing, and the sleep apnoea connected with it that I want fixed.  I need the lifting-out-of-bed hand of Jesus, and I need it many days a week, because of what happens in my mind.  I would love to have it once-and-for-all, but God’s grace is sufficient, and every morning Jesus helps me make it out of bed.  Some mornings it is before 8:00am, other mornings it is after 11:00am, but it’s always morning and it’s always Jesus.

So, I get excited when I read that God healed a whole town, or at least all of those who asked it of God, through the ministry of Jesus.  I know how excited I’d be to hear the promise that I’ll never be midday-dozy or fidgety again. I know how excited I’d be if Jesus did that for the whole Latrobe Valley, at the very least the western bit where Moe, Morwell, Narracan, Newborough, Yallourn and Yallourn North are.  I’m excited that Jesus is amongst us, and about us, even though this mass miracle of lifting to minister seems unlikely, simply because it hasn’t happened for a while.  I don’t believe that Jesus can’t heal our whole cluster and the towns in which we live, but I acknowledge that he hasn’t.  Maybe, like those few at Capernaum, we need to ask.  Maybe we need to rock up at sundown and bring all who are sick or possessed with demons and gather around the door.

Or, maybe, we need to look for something else.  Without discounting for a second that God could heal our bit of the City of Latrobe and the Baw Baw Shire, and give us a new energy, there is something else we can rely on from God in the interim.

It’s in Isaiah 40:31, and it is always, ALWAYS EVERY SINGLE TIME quoted incorrectly by Christian card manufacturers, poster makers, and rabble-rousing preachers.  Always until today of course.  After all, you’re not a rabble so why would I want to rouse you?

God has not abandoned the weary, rather God has extended salvation to all who seek God from wherever it is they begin to seek.  In Isaiah’s day the Israelites were in exile, and they were tired, and they were weary, and they were very close to being worn out.  God’s message to these people is that God is aware of the people and their circumstance, and because God is actively directing history (rather than sitting back and letting it unfold while God sits on the couch with divine Tim Tams and a six-pack,  of Victorious Draught), God will intervene presently.  In the meantime as we read in Isaiah 40:28-29 God is present, present at present, and God’s current work is strengthening and upholding the fainting and exhausted.  That’s been said before, and that’s all good; it’s the next bit that Koorong’s suppliers can’t seem to get right.

It’s not about being an eagle.

There you go.  Isaiah 40:31 is not actually about being an eagle, and how God is going to make you into a herculean pterodactyl or whatever.  The renewing of your strength is found in…wait for it…keep waiting…a bit longer…okay now…realising that you have permission to slow down.  Look at Isaiah 40:31, look at the order of the verbs:  you mount up, then you run, then you walk.  If you are a bird then my birdy friend you are coming in to land, you are not taking off.  It’s not wander out of the nest, have a run up and then lift off, no this verse is very much swoop about for a bit, come in to land at a run, and then slow down.  Having flown with God but come out of the skies you will be strengthened in God to land safely, running without weary legs after your wings have become too tired to carry you, and then walking to a standstill on your own feet.  You don’t crash, you don’t collapse.  You land safely.

Yes, of course all that eagle stuff is also true.  There are soaring times in God’s presence, and in God’s strength when you are ministering away from the gathered body.  I have been there, I have “soared with you in the power of your love”, and I hope that you have too.  But I have also heard, and I now teach the wisdom of God, that there is a place in ministry and in discipleship when you need to return to the ground and to the nest.

After all, it’s what Jesus did.

The strength of Jesus’ ministry, and his ability through God’s direction to heal and restore the women and men who came to him as he did, was Jesus’ own ministry.  By that I mean his ministry to himself.  When Jesus needed restoration he went to the source, to the Father, with the advocating assistance of the paraclete, the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was at the walking stage, which as I say is not a bad stage, he sat, (or perhaps knelt, or lay, or stood still), and there he prayed as Mark 1:35 tells us.  And why did he pray?  Well for the reasons I have just said, he was tired to walking pace, but also because of Mark 1:36.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him as the NRSV says.  They did not “seek” him or “search for him”, the did not “inquire into his whereabouts”, and certainly didn’t “await his return”.  No, the Greek text here, which I use to highlight the specific word chosen by Mark, is the word katadioko.  It means “pursue with hostility” in the sense of “hunted him down”.  The disciples didn’t just try to find Jesus, they sent the dogs out.

I do not wish to imply that this congregation has ever set dogs on me.  You have not: I promise, you haven’t.  But I’m sure you can each relate to what Jesus might have felt.  Perhaps you are or were a parent who couldn’t even use the toilet without having your toddler follow you into the loo, and leave the door open after finding you.  Perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel, late one afternoon after a hectic day at the office, was really your boss with a torch and an overflowing folder of apparently urgent paperwork.  There are times when it is right in The Spirit to not soar, not run, and not even walk, but to stop.

God knows, and I know, and your mental health specialist will also tell you, that that is true.  Where Psalm 46:10 says “be still and know” the sense of the Hebrew there is “Freeze!  Hear and understand!” This message is no less (and no more) a Biblical imperative than “Onward Christian Soldiers”, or “an as I wait I’ll rise up like an eagle and I will soar with you, your spirit leads me on”.  There is power in God’s love, and more often than we might like to think that power is the wing under which the hen gathers and shields her sleepy chicks.

God alone can raise you up on eagle-like wings, God alone can take your hand and lift you up to minister again.  If that is what you need to do today, then do that

Let God.


Hear The Word Speak (Epiphany 4B)

This is the text I prepared for a cluster service for the Yallourn and Morwell Uniting Churches for Sunday 28th January 2018.  It was the final cluster service for the summer and was held at Morwell.  Holy Communion followed the sermon.

Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Hear The Word speak.  In days ago when the Hebrews were still across the Jordan and not yet near the land of the Canaanites Moses assured them that God was going to raise up a new prophet, one like Moses from amidst the Israelites.  This prophet would speak in the Name of the God of Israel and with all the authority of the LORD.  But, this prophet will have come from amidst the people of Israel, so he would not be terrifying like The LORD is in his presence.  This prophet would not arise, (or descend), from a Mountain Which May Not Be Touched, he would come from amongst the people, he would be one of them but with a special task.  This prophet would be identifiable by his speaking the same message that Moses spoke, which is to say the words of YHWH Godself in a form understandable by women and men who want to know God’s way.  The words and actions of this prophet will give glory to YHWH and will conform to the pattern of YHWH’s previous prophets, especially Moses.

So says Moses himself; so reads the Old Testament lectionary story for today.

The Psalm set for today is a wholehearted, public, declaration of praise for God’s work and the God who works.  God is faithful, and the faithful One’s works are majestic in that they are works of mercy, redemption and salvation.  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding says Psalm 111:10. Henry Handel Richardson said something similar in her story of that “Wondrous Fair” Laura Tweedle-Rambotham of Melbourne’s PLC, so as Australians, nay as Victorians and somewhat-Presbyterians we know it to be true. This whole psalm is the context of Moses’ message to the listening Hebrews: praise for the wonderful acts of the covenant God must be the content of any declaration or oracle of “the prophet”, or anyone claiming to speak for God.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1, and sadly many of us Victorians and somewhat-Presbyterians know this also to be true.  The cure for being a clever-bottom according to Paul, (but not so much according to the somewhat self-important “Tweedle-Dum-Ram’s-Bum” as her nemesis calls her), is to be known by God.  Those who are known by God, who know God and who follow in God’s ways, do their things the way God does things.  Jesus knew a lot of things and he said a lot of things, but he always taught those desiring his wisdom with love and patience.  Jesus was never a clever-bottom and he never came across as a know-it-all.  In Mark 1:22 we read how Jesus spoke with authority, but more than that he told the truth.  Jesus did not only speak with love, but also with depth and profound patience.  To say that he taught “but not as the scribes” doesn’t mean that he was a liberal theologian, (or that they were), but that he wasn’t arrogant about his ability to exegete and hermeneut with academic insight.

In the first part of 1 Corinthians 8 Paul begins to address an issue in the Christian community at Corinth, but that issue is not the issue food offered to idols.  Paul is aware of the need to guard one’s shopping choices in the market, and the reasons why one might refuse a dish when out for dinner; but what he is addressing is the attitude behind the behaviour of Christians toward other Christians, Christians who are conscientiously working through their theology regarding these sorts of meals.  “I know and some of you know”, he says, “that the only god is God, and so food offered to idols is nothing.  Eat it, nothing has defiled this food and there are no Greek-germs upon it since the Greek gods are non-existent.”  Of course, you and I might say.  However, Paul goes on, “but if people new to faith are struggling over this and they see a problem with Greek-germs in their food because they haven’t yet heard the full message of liberty, don’t you be mocking them for it.”  Supposedly leading Christians engaging in idolatry, sin, and defiantly public disloyalty to the God of Israel by engaging in the worship of the Olympians or the Roman deities, can be a real moral distraction to new converts.  So don’t do it, says Paul: don’t flaunt your freedom in such a way as to distract a new Christian from his or her growth.  And if you are asked by a young believer the reason for your behaviour, don’t be a clever-bottom about it.  In view of the sermon of Moses and the model of the Psalm, what do you think Jesus would do?  Jesus knows that idols have no power over meat, but Jesus also knows that a bad example has power over new believers.  So, says Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:13: in this instance be a good brother-sister and go vegetarian in company because this is a good example of love.

For another example of clever-bottom discussion we can go back to the gospel reading for this one and see how Jesus himself handled it.  In Mark 1:23-26 we read about Jesus’ first healing miracle as recorded by Mark, and it’s an exorcism.  In Mark 1:24 the unclean spirit calls Jesus by name, correctly identifies his home town, and calls out Jesus on his hidden identity.  In other words he shows off what a smarty he is in the company of the none-the-wiser natives of Capernaum.  Jesus answers the spirit directly in Mark 1:25 saying “shut up windbag, nick off”.  (It probably sounds better in Aramaic.)  In Mark 1:26 the unclean spirit spits the dummy, and then goes, embarrassed and sooking back to wherever it is unclean spirits come from.

The unclean spirit had tried to outmanoeuvre Jesus, trying to trick him into showing his hand and acting Messianically before he was ready.  The spirit called Jesus by name, trying to show its power by demonstrating something supernatural.  “Ooh look at me, I have insight because I am a spirit, I know you’re really the messiah and these dopey peasants do not.  La-li-la-lala-pthth!”  Notice how Jesus doesn’t get into the game: Jesus doesn’t name the spirit, and Jesus doesn’t try to out-power it with a declaration of divine will such as “you’re just an unclean spirit, whereas I, I AM!”  No, Jesus just says “shut up and nick off”, and up the chastened spirit shuts, and off the humiliated spirit nicks.

One of the more recent manifestations of the Kingdom of God in Australia has come about through a group called Common Grace.  One of its leaders, a pastor named Jarrod McKenna, says that the intent of the group is to be “more like Jesus, less like jerks.”  This is the intent of a group striving for humility, if that isn’t an oxymoron, (and it isn’t).  Common Grace are a public group in that they appear on television news, often in custody, occasionally in their underwear, (and occasionally in their underwear in custody, but not actually in custody because they are in their underwear if you follow).  They are not hidden, they do not intend to be.  But then, Jesus wasn’t hidden either; he was a public figure, but he never big-noted himself like the unclean spirit wanted to do and wanted Jesus to do.  Like Jesus, Common Grace stands up publicly for grace foremost and for God’s preference for salvation and homecoming rather than piety and prejudice and elitism disguised under religious activity.  God will be glorified, and the captives will be freed, if Common Grace gets their way.

This then is the message of reconciliation to which we are called as Christians.  This is what the table of grace is about.  Make no mistake, you are welcome at this table whether you are or are not a clever-bottom.  However, we do hope you won’t be one as you leave.



It’s Not About You (Epiphany 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for a cluster service of the Yallourn and Morwell Uniting Churches, for Sunday 21st January 2018.  The congregations were gathered at Yallourn North.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20

In Mark 1:14-20 we read Mark’s account of where and how Jesus began his ministry.  This is an important text because alongside the story of Jesus calling the first four to the ministry of discipleship and men-fishing we hear the first declaration of the gospel message according to The Son of Man.  Jesus says that the time of the revelation of God’s Way has come, so turn to God and hear the good news.

In Jesus’ day to call someone to believe carried the meaning of that person committing him/herself toward a special relationship marked by loyalty: it did not carry the meaning that the person should accept a special set of statements to be true.  Belief in the coming Kingdom of God in Jesus’ mind was about an insatiable commitment to God and a passion to bring about the realisation of the kingship of God on the Earth in the same way that God is king in Heaven.  So, Jesus’ call to the fishermen in Mark 1:16-20 is a call to attention, repentance and belief in the way of the Kingdom in the perfect tense (continuous present, once and future).  Jesus goes on in the gospel stories to exhibit the arrival of the Kingdom by teaching, healing and exorcism, and private prayer.  We’ll see Jesus in action next week, so I’ll leave Mark 1:21-45 until then, but that’s what it’s about, the activity of the Kingdom once revealed.

What is going on in today’s reading carries the message that the proclamation of the Reign of God precedes the ministry of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The first thing Jesus does is declare God’s arrival; Jesus does not begin by healing or saving, he begins by proclaiming.  In other words, the key to the gospel is that you get aboard the Kingdom before the stuff of ministry happens, so that the stuff is put in context.  Healing and saving are activities of the Kingdom, a display of what life is like under God’s reign, or better said within God’s realm.

When Jesus invites the two sets of brothers to join him there is a deliberate echo of God’s invitation to Abram – leave your father and the family business and follow God to a new place and a very different future to the one predicted by the generations.  As Abrahamitic men these Galileans would have had confidence in their place in God because of their ancestry, their obedience to the Law of Moses, their attendance at the local synagogue, and their respect for their parents and family ties.  But Jesus calls them to the Kingdom of Heaven, and they are required to leave all that social and religious confidence behind.  What Jesus is saying is that they have nothing to rely on, nothing to take confidence in except the hope that God is on their side.  If you are not hitched to God’s wagon it doesn’t matter who your grandparents were or which religious centre you attend on which day, even if it is a synagogue on Shabbat.  This is the eternal invitation of Jesus, even today, even to Christians.  The only thing you can rely on is grace, and by grace alone can you act and serve in the world as if it is “on Earth as it is in Heaven”.

In our Hebrew story this morning we hear how Jonah prophesied to Nineveh and the Ninevites turned to God.  Unlike Jesus, and hopefully unlike you, Jonah does not want the hearers of his gospel, the Ninevites, to repent.  Jonah doesn’t like the Ninevites, and he doesn’t like what they represent; so, his message is as brief as he can possibly make it.  He obeys God just enough to stay out of trouble, and remember his recalcitrance has already cost him three days lost at sea, but he does the barest of bare minima so that he is seen to be obedient yet be unsuccessful in God’s mission.  In fact, Jonah’s whole message is five Hebrew words in length.  Five.  And there’s no hope in it, no call to repentance, no instruction about what to do; Jonah is practically boasting to these people, whom he intensely dislikes, that they are going to get splattered.

If one of you had come to me with this message for the Latrobe Valley I’d probably have rejected it as not having come from God.  I believe that God’s prophetic messages always have hope in them, so I’d have asked you to go away with your epic judginess and come back when you had the complete message, the “…but if you turn back and repent then…” part.  And I’d probably be right in doing that, since for much of Western Christian history the story has changed, and the rumour of God is widespread.  But in Jonah 3 something different is going on, and as a filter of God’s prophetic message I’d need to be very careful.  The prophecies of disaster tinged with hope as are always addressed to God’s own people.  “Repent,” says God, “and if you do then I will restore you and bless you.”  The consequence of not hearing God is that the disobedient go further into their own dilemma.  It’s not that God causes evil against them, it’s that God does not intervene to prevent the evil they have brought upon themselves.

But the Ninevites know none of this.  They don’t know God and they are not participants in the covenants of Abraham and Moses.  They are not lapsed Christians who have heard the message but have fallen away from salvation by grace through faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross.  No, the Ninevites have no relationship with The LORD upon which to call.  They’ve had no previous warning of divine wrath precipitating disaster, or which behaviours that wrath is directed towards.  They are unaware, and therefore in shock when Jonah speaks his five words.  And so, the people do the best they can with what they know about gods, they act with penitence in the only way they know, by sackcloth and ashes (mourning) and by fasting.  By completely embracing self-humiliation the once proud city hopes to be saved from external calamity.  And the humbled city is saved.  Nineveh knows it cannot “return to The LORD” since it was never “with The LORD” in the first place: however, it can turn from its wickedness and embrace wholesomeness, and it does that with such fervour that The LORD relents and the city is saved.

The word declared is enough.  God acts through prophecy and a call to repentance, and then through signs.  In the case of Nineveh, the sign would have been destruction, and it is averted by the people’s response to grace.  In the case of Galilee, the sign is healing, exorcism, and resurrection, and it is manifested by the people’s response to grace.

In Psalm 62:9-10 we read how confidence in anything other than The LORD comes to nothing.  We are not self-sufficient. And we cannot make ourselves self-sufficient by wickedness, as if God keeps us subordinate by the law but we could be powerful if we ignored God and tried for ourselves.  We have tried, it doesn’t work.  What does work is found in Psalm 62:5-8; trust and rest in God.  God alone has power, and God alone can be trusted to wield power since God does so with love and justice foremost (Psalm 62:11-12).  Jonah didn’t have love, so he couldn’t be trusted to judge Nineveh.  God loved the Ninevites, even as God detested their behaviour, and because God loves God is mighty to save.

God’s intent is always to save and not destroy.  God warned Nineveh, even though Jonah didn’t like it, and Jesus warned Judea even though they didn’t like it.  Often when Christians speak of Hell as the deserved end for the enemies of God we miss the point that the message of Jesus is better read as repeated warnings against the self-destructive practices of violent society and personal sin.  Hell, for sinners and the destruction of Nineveh are not predestined, the message is not “this is where you’ll end up if you are naughty”, but “this is where your self-destructive behaviours are leading you”.  The message of the Kingdom, to change your life and your mind and live as if God is king and LORD, and Nebuchadnezzar, or Trump, or Turnbull, or Molech, or Baal, or Nathan Buckley are not.  As proclaimers of the Way of Jesus and the gospel of Immanuel we must always make sure that grace has the final word.

When Jesus spoke of hell and judgement he did so with the backdrop of his message of God’s grace and the world’s terror.  Judgement for Jesus was not so much about sinners going to damnation as it is being about rabble-rousers and plotters bringing down the wrath of the Romans.  Jerusalem was Hell in 70 CE, there was fire and brimstone, death and horror, and the temple was destroyed: Jesus saw it coming in the escalating violence of the Zealots and the inevitability of the religious resistance movements.  This is what God saw in Nineveh, and even though Jonah saw something different God’s message was put across and the self-destructive behaviours of the Ninevites were stopped and decline into hell was averted.

The Way of God is non-violent resistance to the evil in the world, and following the destruction of the temple Judaism and Christianity caught that.  That had been the message of Jesus from that first day beside the lake, and that was in the message of Jesus as he approached those two boat crews and called for disciples.  Unlike Jonah there is no delight for God or Jesus in seeing people go through Hell, so how can there even be the slightest shade of that in the Church?

Our job is to let the world know that the King is coming, not so much as to warn them against divine wrath in the tribulation following our Rapture, but to prepare them for the better way of life on Earth when the King of Glory, the grace-abounding healer, saviour, redeemer and reconciling Lord takes the crown.

There is no greater thing than knowing Jesus, just because he’s Jesus.


Hidden Figures

The 2017 film Hidden Figures gives rise to questions of what minority members of the professionals in other fields might have to offer.  If an African-American woman can use her mathematics to facilitate safe space travel in the dawning decade of such endeavours, I wonder where the leading edges are now, and who is being cut-off from riding those edges because of hubris and prejudice.

My field is the Reign of God.  I want to understand the nature and implementation of the Kingdom of Heaven, and I want to repeat and reinterpret for today the central message of Jesus concerning what life is like within God’s intent for the world.  What does it mean that there is a dawning reality where son-daughters of God live in a world which has been recreated to promote life without evil or distress?  How do we go about welcoming and facilitation such a realm’s arrival?

So, first I ask who is being excluded and who is the “nigress” of today’s theology.  Is she even in the Church, I’d say yes, is she in some form of ministry, again yes.    The “Colored Computers” worked for NASA, just not in the location of their most effectiveness.  So, then I ask, who do we have in the Church but in the back room, who do we insist drink from a segregated coffee pot and relieve herself in a segregated, isolated toilet?

Who is doing the work while today’s theological Anglo Alpha-males get the credit?

Who is heralding the change, bringing “the math” that would help us all to reach the moon?

Perhaps I’d better find out.