This is the sermon I preached at Yankalilla Uniting Church on the occasion of the 39th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia. Sunday 26th June 2016.
Deuteronomy 30:1-10; Psalm 100; 1 Corinthians 3:10-17; John 15:1-8
The lectionary offers two sets of readings today, one for the seasonally adjusted sixth Sunday of Pentecost and the thirteenth “Ordinary Sunday” of the year, and another set for the UCA Anniversary which fell on Wednesday this past week, the 22nd of June. So if you’re wondering why today’s readings don’t match the ones in the newsletter, well that’s why.
So what do these alternative lectionary readings have to say to us today? In other words, what do the paid theologians and paid liturgists of the Uniting Church want us to read today as we celebrate the thirty-ninth anniversary of our establishment as a new, uniquely Australian expression of Protestant Christianity?
Well, we are directed first to read Deuteronomy 30:1-10, and the words of Moses to the gathered Hebrew tribes on the edge of the Promised Land. You might remember that the book of Deuteronomy is actually one big long sermon wherein Moses retells the history of the Hebrew people from the giving of the law at Horeb until this point where the second generation of Hebrews stands at the cusp of entering the Promised Land. Everyone to whom Moses is speaking, everyone except Joshua and Caleb that is, has been born in the desert. Not one of them has living memory of Egypt or of that first visit to the edge of the Promised Land forty years ago. Only Moses, and as I said Joshua and Caleb, know the full story. So here is Moses telling them what has happened since that first failed attempt to enter Canaan a generation ago and in the weeks following the Exodus. In today’s passage we have reached the part of the sermon where Moses has reached his present day. “So here we all are,” he says, “you now know the full story and why it is that you were born in the desert rather than in the Promised Land.” But he goes beyond that, and if you read the chapters preceding this you’ll see where Moses says that it’s all going to happen again, and the Hebrews will whinge and rebel again and that a future generation will be exiled just as the parents and grandparents of this congregation were. But God will be faithful to them as God has been faithful to you. When all of these things I have set before you come upon you, says Moses as we take up the story in Deuteronomy 30:1, and you take them to heart… turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul.
Do you see it? There is a future for the Hebrew people. The message is plain and simple: listen for God and listen to God. Hear God and obey God; and if you do that then you will do well because God is faithful and God rewards the faithfulness of God’s own people.
Jewish and Christian scholarship in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries suggested that Deuteronomy was not written for the people of Moses’ time; rather it was written about them for people reading hundreds of years later. Moses didn’t hand out copies of Deuteronomy on the day, and there probably weren’t too many scribes around taking notes to publish in the Jerusalem Chronicle a week later. The story is actually written and told for the exiles in Babylon and Persia in the 540s BCE. The story of Deuteronomy, indeed the story of the entire Old Testament, is that God is faithful to those who are faithful to God. But this is more than reciprocity, as if God is into everyone else doing half the work. God is faithful, full stop. God’s faithfulness cannot be denied, full stop. If, and indeed when, you find yourself in a place of exile remember the promise of God and that God is entirely faithful to deliver on it, full stop. What God promised to Abraham God also promised through Moses and all the prophets. God said I AM with you and I AM will deliver you if you turn to I AM and obey what I AM has commanded.
In other words:
Don’t care what is written in your history as long as you’re here with me.
I don’t care who you are,
Where you’re from,
What you did,
As long as you love me.
For the gospel of the Lord according to “St Backstreet Boys”, thanks be to God.
Our prescribed Psalm today is 100, the “Old Hundredth”, wherein we praised God from whom all blessings flow and the story of how we must offer praise to the faithful God whose we are. This is a song of those who know that they have been rescued by the faithful and loving God who pursues them beyond the end of the world to redeem them. I don’t need to read that to you or explain it to you further because we’ve already sung it, and heard a version of it as our prayer of adoration, but I am sure you can see how it fits the story of what God has been doing all along.
So what is God saying to us through the Uniting Church’s choice of readings this morning? I hope it’s becoming clear that the message is one of God’s eternal, extravagant, and infinite faithfulness, but let’s see what Jesus and Paul have to say on the subject.
The epistle read for us today is from 1 Corinthians 3:10-17. The first thing we notice from what Paul has written is that Jesus Christ is our sure foundation. So it’s lucky we had that as one of our hymns this morning isn’t it? Paul claims to have laid the foundation of Christ upon which others have built. By this he means that he preached the gospel first, he provided the basics and the fundamentals in the truest sense of the word upon which other preachers and teachers have come and built the case for God. Those who build on Christ as the foundation build wisely and build for strength that much is evident, even if what they build upon that foundation is flimsy. Unlike the man described by Jesus who built upon the sand, some of the labourers in this story of Paul’s are building with hay upon the rock.
It’s like someone has let in the Three Little Pigs to run amok through the parable of Jesus.
But what does Paul say happens? Well plainly there is no big bad wolf a’huffing and a’puffing here because what Paul describes is a purifying fire. The gold, silver, precious stones, wood, straw and hay which represent what each man or woman has built as a life upon that foundation of Christ all face the fire. Some things are refined down, some things are burned down. Some things are purified to their perfect element; gold, silver, iron without impurities or slag. Some things are changed to another element entirely; Carbon. Soot and ashes remain for them
So, where is the faithful God then? Where is the God of the faithful woman or man? What happens after the fires for those who have built a life on the foundation of Christ? Well those whose lives stood fast are rewarded by God, and those whose lives were razed and decimated are rescued by God. Do you see that? Even if your life-house burns down you are not punished by God, or rejected by God as not-good-enough. It is true that there is no reward for you: God is not a multinational corporation where you get your million dollar bonus even if you drive the company into the hands of the receivers, but there is no punishment for you. The worst thing that can happen to you if your life has been built on the foundation of Christ and disastrous circumstances arise is that God will come and…and…rescue you.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you, asks Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:16. Indeed Paul goes on to say in verse 17 that if anyone destroys what is God’s, i.e. you, then God will destroy that person.
So, hear again the news. Build your life on the promises of the faithful God. If you stuff it up, and sometimes you will, God will rescue you. If you don’t stuff it up, and sometimes you won’t, God will reward you. And if anyone else tries to stuff you up, and they might, then God will destroy them. It’s the same story that Moses told the Hebrews at the edge of the Promised Land, and the same story that the scriptures and the prophets told the Israelites in Exile. Now hear Paul telling the story to Greek-speaking Christians in Europe in the Name of Jesus. The story is the same one, God is the same one who is faithful and true, and even after Jesus came that story did not change.
So, what did Jesus himself have to say about this? Well, our gospel text today comes to us from John 15:1-8 and the well known story of Jesus the vine. Like the stories told by Moses, and later told about Moses, the story of Jesus is another one of those “on the cusp” stories. This is Jesus speaking on the night that he was arrested; within eighteen hours he’ll be dead. So it is a cusp story but it’s one unlike that of Moses and the Exiles because the disciples of Jesus are about to enter the time of abandonment. The promised land will seem farther away than ever because the religious leaders are about to execute the Messiah for blasphemy, and the government is about to execute the King of Kings for treason. That is severely messed up.
So, again, what does Jesus say? He says “stay faithful to God, because God is faithful to you”. Abide in me as I abide in you is the direct quote from 15:4; in other words stay connected and resist the temptation to let go and fall away. It’s about to get messy lads, the betrayer is already talking to the guards, and the exile of God-Incarnate from both God and Humanity is about to take place, but God is faithful and God does come through for the exiled people every time if only they call out to God in faith-filled trust for rescue. So, stay attuned to God, call out to God tomorrow when it all goes black and bloody, and you will be saved.
Of course we know that that is exactly what happened. We know that Jesus died, and died horrifically, but we also know that the twelve and the hangers-on did pull through. We know that the Hebrews under Joshua made it into Canaan. We know that the Israelites under David conquered Jerusalem, and we know that the Judahites under Ezra and Nehemiah reclaimed the city after the Persians set them free. We know that Paul heard the gospel from people who had met with Jesus face to face, and that Paul met Jesus in a vision. We know that God comes through, every time, because that is what God has promised.
So what about you? And what about the Uniting Church? The Uniting Church believes this to be true of God: that God has promised to deliver the people who call upon God as Saviour and Lord, at the very least to rescue them from calamity and at the very best to richly reward them for their wise obedience and perseverance. Sometimes we live in the richest blessing of God, and sometimes in the proudest rescue. This has been and shall continue to be true of the Uniting Church because, primarily, it is true of the people of our denomination.
I know it’s true of me.
I have been in places where God could not possibly be more generous and more amazing, and then God steps it up a notch and throws me even further upwards and all I can hear is angels worshipping flat out because there’s nothing else to say but Glory! I have also been in places so deep and so black, so far below rock bottom where all there was was suffocating peril and all I could hear was God roaring at the demons to “back off, he’s mine!” when my house of straw-on-the-rock went up in flames.
So today’s sermon in celebration of the Uniting Church is actually not about the Uniting Church at all, but about the God who is faithful to our Church, God’s Church, and to us. Today we celebrate our anniversary by declaring our wonder-filled praise, adoration, and gratitude to the One who preserves us as witnesses to God’s faithfulness through all generations.
Happy anniversary: God has come through for us one more time.
Thanks be to God.