Wonder-filled Expectation

Another of my preached sermons, this one was delivered to Stokes Bay Uniting Church in South Australia.

In this first Sunday back together after the day of resurrection we come to church with a mixture of wonder and exhaustion.  Today is often the least attended Sunday of the Christian year: after the hustle and bustle of Holy Week for those who stayed home, or the mega-length long weekend for those who went away, the so-called “Sunday after Easter” or “Easter 2” is one that is easily skipped by church attendees.  In light of that it is encouraging to read such positive and energising sections of the scriptures from today’s set readings.

In Psalm 16 we read in summary that God is all that we need.  On reflective reading it looks to me that Psalm 16 is a prayer that says “I know you are all that I need Father, so always be all that I need” because we have understood that we can experience trust and security only in God.  If we try reading between the lines we recognize that no religious ritual or promise of scripture, no sacred thing or gift or blessing of God but only God Godself will we provide fulfilment. Verse three says there is delight in the company of faith but verse four says that those who seek their assurance in places other than the Lord are doomed to shame.  You are supposed to enjoy church, you are supposed to enjoy church, but you can’t let church replace your need for God.  You can’t let church replace your need for God especially on Easter 2, since many of them aren’t here or are here but aren’t paying attention.

Our heritage as Protestant Christians offers the reminder that our chief goal in life as faith-filled believers in God is to love God, to bless God, and to live for God’s purposes and glory. Martin Luther said that, the Calvinist compositors of The Shorter Westminster Catechism said that, that and so did the lyricist of Psalm 16:7.  As believers in God we understand that during daylight hours God guides our way, and that during the night God guides our ponderings. As believers in God we understand that in life God cares for us and we live securely, and in death we will not be isolated from God or abandoned by God but will experience the assurance of eternal fellowship with God.  It is here that Peter on the day of Pentecost reinterpreted Psalm 16 to declare that the hope of salvation is found in the bodily resurrection of Jesus who not only did not remain in his grave but was bodily resurrected and did not decay, unlike the mortal remains of the prophetic psalmist.  In the words of [I] Peter (1:4) our inheritance is imperishable and unfading, we are destined not to rot or burn in eternity, even if our corpses do in time.  Christian life has God as its source, and the presence of God as its purpose.  Life with God produces joy and eternal pleasures and we will enjoy God both today and forever in Eternity.

Peter in his letter to a particular group of Christian believers declares that all Christian believers live with a wonderful expectation because Jesus rose from the dead.  Trials will assuredly come, but they come only to test and refine our faith, to make us tempered, hardened and resilient.  The reward for standing firm is the guaranteed salvation of our souls and we can be confident that the suffering and death of Jesus was as much a part of God’s plan as his resurrection.   It is likely that Peter was writing to an isolated group of Christians in north of the province of Asia in what is now Turkey.  This is an area which Peter may have evangelised and it is the area that the visionary Man of Macedonia directed Paul away from.  This mixed group of Jewish and Gentile Christians were feeling alone, abused, and unloved so Peter writes to them, most likely from Rome where he himself is facing persecution and the very real threat of martyrdom, to say that he is aware of them and their plight and to remind them that as much as he remembers them God does more so.  The Church knows about you and is praying for you, says Peter, and the Lord’s answers are coming for all of us.  Stand firm in the memory of the resurrection and the hope of salvation that it brings.  Stand firm.

Our Christian theological heritage as twenty-first century Christians, our “godly inheritance” of truth, gives three[1] key approaches to the nature of salvation.  No single one of the three has ever been “the one lone orthodox position” but theologians, scholars and church leaders throughout the history have acknowledged that the reality lies somewhere within the tension held amongst the three.

The first view is the one which I imagine is best known to you, that the cross is primarily a demonstration of God’s justice.  This is also called the substitution model and according to this line of thinking Jesus died in place of sinful humanity and fully pays its debt.

The second view might be more common among more liberal churches, but as I say it is still to be considered a central Christian position.  In this view the cross is primarily a demonstration of God’s love and according to this line of thinking Jesus addresses humankind’s incapacity to give, receive, and share love.  The cross is the bold display of God, where God is love, and it is the supreme example of how we should go about loving others and ourselves.

In the third view, which is common among Eastern and Orthodox Christians, the cross is primarily a demonstration of God’s triumph over darkness. According to this line of thinking Jesus addresses human oppression beneath inescapable demonic opposition and our bondage to the evils of sin and death.  Jesus comes as victor to break the grip of death and defeat by the resurrection.  Jesus is the champion “victory-giver”.

Each of these models, and especially each in conjunction with the other two, offers an explanation of exactly how God is all that we need.  These explanations go some way to helping us to understand just why the psalmist was so confident in God’s provision, and why the resurrection was so important to Peter as a sign of hope in a time of fear.  God is our advocate and saviour, our example and guide, and our captain and superhero.

So in all that we do in light of the resurrection, all that we do about Jesus and not about us.  Hear what I said: in all that we do in light of the resurrection all that we do is all about Jesus.  (The bit thatis about us is the bit that Jesus did.)  We are charged as students, emissaries and followers of Christ our head to use whatever is in our hands to glorify God, celebrate Jesus, and rescue of our neighbours but it is up to God to provide us with what we need and the instructions in how to utilise those gifts and resources.  In the promise, hidden in plain sight within the resurrection, is a wonderful expectation that God knows us, loves us, desires us, and longs to involve us in what the Holy Spirit is doing in our midst.

The signs and wonders performed by Jesus attested to the truth of his preaching.  While many of Jesus’ miracles were acts of liberation, healing, and restoration, and were therefore signs of God’s mercy, their primary purpose at least as far as the writers of John’s gospel understand it was to provide evidence that Jesus was who he said he was.  “Your sins are forgiven” he tells one man.  “Okay,” say the onlookers, “but who are you to announce God’s forgiveness for this man?”  “Get up on your bandy lame legs and walk,” Jesus tells the forgiven man.  “That is who I am to announce God’s forgiveness,” Jesus tells the onlookers.  “Today I tell you, you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus tells a suffering man on a hill.  “Mary, don’t grab at me but go and tell our friends that I am going to my Father and your Father,” Jesus tells a distraught woman in a garden.  If we want to see signs and wonders in this place, if we want to see the evidence of truth we proclaim about Jesus the risen Messiah, if we want to see and experience and taste and smell the fulfilment and accomplishment of this wonderful expectation then we need to be preaching, teaching, witnessing and living out the message of Jesus.

So, on the Sunday after Easter today need not be a day for flatness and tiredness, although as one who starts back at studies after a supposed two week break I understand why it might be.

Today need not be a day of deflation after the building anticipation of Lent and the intensity of Holy Week and Easter, although as one who lives in the manse I understand why it might be.

Today can be a day, quiet as it might be, to pause and reflect, to take time for Selah, to meditate on the wonderful expectation that a God who lived and died and was raised to life as a man among women and men brings to God’s Church.

Today is a day to make plans live out the truth of that wonderful expectation, to dream aloud of what might be possible in this place if we truly believed and knew that we knew that we know that God is on our side, God is in our favour, and God loves the rest of the planet just as much as we know God loves us.  So who might we tell?  How might we tell him or her?  Who or what are we waiting for?  By all means rest now, ponder anew what the Almighty can do, and as Peter said to the Christians of Bithynia and Pontus, “keep the faith”.

Keep the faith Stokes Bay, but please don’t keep the faith to yourself.

[1] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History In Plain Language, 4th edition. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 503-504.

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Behold The Man

This is the text of the first Good Friday sermon I ever preached.  I proclaimed it at Parndana Uniting Church in South Australia in 2014.

Good Friday is often thought of as the defining day in the story of one man.  If any day on any calendar was about one man surely it is Good Friday and the man Jesus.  Unlike the Ides of March for Julius Caesar, the many saints’ days of the Orthodox, Roman and Anglican calendars, or even Christmas day, the date of Good Friday changes.  In the Jewish calendar the day of Jesus’ death, the day of Passover, is 14 Nisan, but the Jewish calendar is based on cycles of moon, so it doesn’t line up with the Western calendar.  This year Passover began last Monday night, so the actual calendar date of Jesus’ death was last Tuesday.  Now that’s all very interesting, but what is it about this one man that makes his death remarkable in the history of the world?  Why remember him at all?

Well, the short answer is that this one man represents the many.

When Isaiah’s prophecies were first written down to be circulated among the returned exiles of the nation of Judah there was no knowledge of Jesus and there was little idea that this passage about a Suffering Servant might be foretelling this specific Messiah five centuries in the future.  Deutero-Isaiah, as scholars call him, like all prophets was a man of his time who spoke the immediate and relevant message of God to the people of his day.  It is possible that to Isaiah this “Suffering Servant” was the whole nation of Judah, God’s chosen people represented as if they were one man: this is the understanding of many Jewish scholars today.  It was Judah who represented God on earth because Judah, along with Israel to the north, was the Chosen People.  So it was Judah who was unremarkable in its day, it was not a great empire like Assyria or Egypt that other nations would envy it, and it was Judah who in spite of looking unremarkable even before being beaten up by its neighbours who would stun the nations with its sacrifice.  The justice of God was displayed before all nations in the way in which Judah, sent into exile and then brought back after seventy years, was treated by God.  The righteous sacrificial nation was lifted up by God in honour of its service. God promises prosperity to the people returned from exile in Babylon and Persia in that they will be a great nation once again and no longer a mob of disoriented refugees in a desolate land of destroyed cities.  The hope of restoration for Jewish readers is therefore not found in the future hope of the resurrection of a dead Messiah, but in the return of a people from exile, a story repeated again and again in Jewish history right into the twentieth century.

But that is not the Christian story.  It is also likely that Deutero-Isaiah knew he was writing of a future Messiah, the one the Jews were told to expect, even though he had no way of naming that one man as a certain Jesus of Nazareth to be born in Bethlehem.  We know that this passage from Isaiah forms part of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures, and it was used to good effect by the gospel writers and the early evangelists like Paul and the writer of Hebrews.  They were able to identify this servant with Jesus, and the references to disfiguring, mocking, beating and piercing make this a compelling reinterpretation.  Once again the one represents the many, only this time it is one man who represents all men and women rather than one nation representing all the nations.  Hebrews 5:8-9 says that [a]lthough he was a son [Jesus] learned obedience through what he suffered, and having been made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.  In our Lenten studies across Kangaroo Island over the past month the various groups, including the one at Stokes Bay, have discussed eternal life and what it means that Christ died and rose again.  But here the promise of the writer to the Hebrews is more than eternal life. Did you see?  According to this anonymous writer in Jesus we see the source of eternal salvation.  Not just life without end, but life lived in the company of Christ in the presence of God forever.

So how does the suffering and shame of Jesus the servant of God guarantee eternal salvation for all who obey him?  Isaiah offers the answer here; they were our sufferings that Jesus experienced, he took our punishment when he didn’t deserve any punishment at all.  The New Jerusalem Bible makes in quite clear in Isaiah 53:5 where it says that the punishment reconciling us fell on him.  The punishment Jesus received is God’s activity of reconciliation.  With the punishment we deserve for disobedience taken by Jesus nothing is left to stand between God and humankind and we are able to be reconciled.

But the news gets even better.  Guilt was dealt with forever by Jesus’ death, but guilt is not the only thing that keeps us away from God, or indeed from anyone towards whom we feel guilty.  The way in which Jesus died, as a crucified man, also deals with the issue of shame.

The cross was a shameful way to die and Jesus was humiliated as much as he was murdered.  In a shame-based culture where honour was everything there was Jesus, nailed up naked for all to see.  He couldn’t move, his hands and feet were pinned, and he was on display in a very public place for at least six hours.  Jesus not only conquered death when he rose from the dead on Sunday, or yesterday according to our Jewish calendar, he also conquered shame.  The one who was so humiliated came back and looked everyone straight in the face and it was they who turned away in embarrassment.

The Christians of this church believe that Jesus represents not only all people before God, the one man who stands in the place of everyone else, but that he also represents God before all people.  God chose to engage with humankind and in Jesus we see God coming to earth in human form to make friends with ordinary men and women.  The Calvinists among you might like the thoughts of theologian Karl Barth who said “God in Christ elected [God]self for fellowship with humanity.” Jesus is the self-revelation of God and he revealed that God has always existed for humanity.  God’s interest in the world is not a secondary endeavour; we have always been the highest priority of God.  Unwilling to lose this connection Christ, who lives eternally in the intimacy of the Trinity, came to earth and was humiliated and murdered.  Jesus Christ knows what it feels like to be forsaken by God and what the Psalmist wrote about Jesus knows about.  Human expressions of grief and loss are totally understood by God.

Three hundred years after the death of Jesus the Roman Empire which executed him became Christian. One hundred years after that the barbarians who decimated Rome became Christian.  Even today we Anglo-Saxons, Celts, and other barbarian-types worship the God of the people our ancestors defeated.  Why would we worship the God of the losers?   Because in Isaiah’s prophetic words of hope for a suffering nation, and in the life and suffering death of Jesus Christ, we meet a God who knows struggle and is willing to undergo abuse and murder at our hands just to be friends with us.  So like Jesus, and a hundred generations of Christian preachers since, I invite you to hear the message once more.  Repent.  “Change your way of thinking”, is an invitation, not a threat.  Jesus never said “turn or burn”, what Jesus said was dump the rubbish that is holding you back from living an abundant life.  With open arms from Friday’s cross and Sunday’s abandoned grave Jesus shows that he is the one who knows how it is down here away from Heaven, and he is the one who is more than strong enough to deal with it all to make sure we each make it back to Heaven, alive.

Behold the man.