What must we do?

Micah 6 1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31;

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Lakes Entrance on 29th January 2017, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A.

For many people who search for God in our day and age, and I’m thinking of people from outside the world of organised religion, the “God questions” remain the same as ever they were.  And the key question among all the questions, from an Evangelical perspective at least, is “what must I do to be saved?” Now, what salvation actually means in this question can often be hard to nail down; I mean, does that seeker after Godly wisdom mean the same by “salvation” as me who is “saved” thinks it means?  I told you last week that my first degree from University was in Sociolinguistics, and none of you knew what that was.  Well this is one example of what sociolinguistics does, it does this word that you and I are using in conversation actually mean the same thing for each of us.  When I say “salvation” what ideas come into your head?  Are they the same ideas that are in my head?

 In other words, do we know what each other is talking about?  Are you hearing what I’m thinking about as I speak?

 My theology as it is now, (and as a student of theology my ideas of theology tend to move about a bit), but at the moment I think the question “what must I do to be saved” is actually not the major question.  With my understanding of who God is and what God does, what God is like and what God wants from the world, the question we really need to be asking is “what must I do to be loved”.  I think, and I may be wrong in this, that your average non-believer in the world is not looking for “salvation” so much as he or she is looking to be loved and to feel valuable in the universe.  More of that later.

 Now, for those of us who are being saved, for those of us who know that we are loved by God and valued by the Lord and by the Church, the question goes a little deeper.  My question of God, and myself, is “what must I do to be useful”?  Knowing that the One whom I worship already loves me completely and is actively working for my salvation, and that neither love nor salvation can be earned since each is a free gift of grace, what am I actually supposed to be doing as a Christian?  To borrow Micah’s words, what does the Lord require of us?

 Well I think since we’ve borrowed Micah’s question we might as well look at Micah’s answer.  What God required of the Israelites of Micah’s day, and I believe what God requires of the Christians and Jews of our day, is human kindness.  God’s word is quite plain in Micah’s mouth, God would rather that we were just nice to each other and to strangers than that we ignore our neighbour’s needs to prioritise churchgoing and hymn-singing.  According to Micah all of creation is called as witnesses to this, God speaks to humankind in the named presence of the mountains and the hills, the seabed and the tectonic plates, the oldest subjects in creation. God demands of us exclusive loyalty and love; however, it seems that in Micah’s day at least these demands were going unmet by the nation of God.  I wonder if we might say the same thing today.

 Micah tells us that God was worthy of such loyalty in Micah’s day because God is both creator (as the geology testifies) and saviour (as the ancestors and the national history testify).  Israel was living in the land promised to Moses, God’s side of the covenant had been more than met since God had gone beyond the agreement in showing patience in the presence of a disloyal covenant partner.  Look at the specifics of God’s argument through Micah’s mouth.  Shit’tim was the last camp in the wilderness, and Gilgal the first camp on the west bank of the Jordan.  God is specifically pointing to the crossing of the Jordan behind Joshua, the actual moment of the Hebrews’ entry and first settling in the land of Canaan as the culmination of God’s presence.  “I got you there”, says God, “all the way there and all the way in, just like I promised Moses.”

 So, again, what is God’s actual point here?  What does God want in response to this great act of salvation?  Does God want worship, gratitude, your tithe, your wealth, your firstborn son?  No, and in Micah 6:8 we may as well read the phrase “look you thick-headed mob, I’ve already told you this.” God wants justice, kindness, and humility, which my commentary suggests is better read as “wisdom”.  God does not want what the Canaanite gods want. In place of the scared children desperately scuttling about at the feet of the baals with their tearful screaming, their grain and blood; Israel’s God wants an adult relationship with the nation called to declare God’s majesty.  “Don’t act like pagans, idiots that they are,” says Micah, “act like God’s own people, act like God’s own character”.  Worship God by emulating God’s nature, like God has been toward you so you be wise, be just, show mercy, and be loyal toward each other.

 Paul tells a very similar tale to the Corinthian house-churches.  Whatever you “civilised Greeks” and “pious Israelites” think is worthy and to be held up as exemplary God’s wisdom says otherwise.  Micah has already addressed the preferred Israelite manner of pleasing God, extravagant temple worship and lots of bloodied sacrifices.  Now Paul knocks down the pinnacle of Greek culture which is its philosophical tradition.  We are not saved through wisdom, says Paul, and wisdom cannot discern God unless God is already a part of the wisdom-seeking venture.  We might say that God can only be found by the intellect through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Religion (ritual activities) and philosophy (rational argument) cannot lead you to the One who is above all humankind.  All human efforts to discover God fall short.  God is found and known only when God reveals God-self, in other words it’s only by paying attention to the revelation of God that you will know about God and know God at all.  Scripture reminds us that revelation was found in the prophets through whom God spoke, and the messiah who is God with us.  In addition to these God was known from the time of Paul and through until today through the disciples of Jesus through whom God speaks and acts.  Christ’s gospel is proclaimed in our actions of love and our spoken assertion that God’s salvation and love is accessible through a personal, welcoming relationship with God.  Our God is the only god ever to come to earth in human form to reveal love as God’s purpose.  “To obey is better than sacrifice,” we read, but we also read “because you obey I call you friends.”  God wants us as friends, not as minions, and certainly not as offerings of self-flagellated or cremated human flesh.

 So, let’s step away from the theoretical bit and talk brass tacks.  We know what God doesn’t want, mindless ritual or masterful rhetoric, and we know what God does want, meaningful relationship.  So how do we actually do that.  Back to our key question, how can I be useful for God who already loves me and is saving me?

 Well, think about your own story says Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:26. If God called humble and bumbling you back in the day, why would God prefer to choose the wise and powerful now?  The answer is simple, God chose people who could not make anything of themselves so that when they were made notable it can only have been because of God and not by their own achievements.  God alone is our source (1 Corinthians 1:30) so that when we are asked “how did you do it?” we can only answer “I didn’t do it, God did it through me” (1 Corinthians 1:31) and in that way God gets the praise and glory.  Your theology degree might be useful, but it doesn’t make you a better person, so stop your posing and live with Godly wisdom among the company of the all-are-saved.  Step one in being useful for God is that you be yourself; the self that God is transforming you in to through the continuing work of salvation.  Utilise the wisdom of God, tell people about what God is like based on how God has acted toward you and what you have seen God do in the lives of your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Tell others about your answered prayers, your sense of peace in a troubled world, your firm assurance that you are loved beyond comprehension by the creator of the universe.  That’s a pretty big story in itself, it doesn’t need embellishment.

 Following last week’s sermon we might say “live in the reign of God”.  Live as if God is already king of the world and your best beloved father, friend, and lord.  Then tell everyone you know what that feels like.  You never know how persuasive your unfettered excitement is to others who are living precarious, loveless lives.  The world is not looking to us for philosophy, it has enough of that, but when they see our excitement for God and our joyous abandon to the love of God and each other they will quickly rush over to see what we are up to.

 And who may abide with God?  This is the question from today’s psalm so we ask whether there is a difference between being saved and abiding with God.  I think yes.  You can abide with God on the earth, and I think that’s actually the point.  Judaism back in the day wasn’t big on an afterlife, Heaven was where God and the angels operated but it wasn’t necessarily a blissful place for the after-dead.   It still isn’t to a great extent, the idea of “believe in God and go to Heaven after you die” wasn’t a major focus even of Jesus ‘teaching because it just wasn’t part of Judaism.   The psalmist lists the characteristics of those who dwell with God, i.e. those who live inside the reign of God and act as if God is already king of the world, that they are blameless, they do what is right, they speak truth, they don’t speak slander, they don’t do evil, and they don’t take reproach.  The citizens of God’s kingdom despise the wicked and respect the lord.  In their broken and troublesome world, they are loyal and trustworthy even beyond the point of their own pain.  They do not extort and they don’t even charge interest (because interest is extortion of the poor).  They do not take bribes nor take any unfair advantage which might have afforded to them by their position in the world.  The Psalmist concludes his short list of life standards with the confident assertion that if you hold fast to God then God will uphold and preserve you in the time of hardship.  You will not be moved, you shall not waver (Psalm 15:5c).  You will know God’s strengthening and quickening in your soul when you need it.  God’s got your back.  So, again, God desires that you be yourself, and if you’ve forgotten what it is that you do as a saved and loved son or daughter of God then the Psalmist gives you a little cheat sheet.  As a Christian, a citizen of God’s reign in the world God created, this is how you act.  This is what we do, we who are the saved, redeemed, beloved ones of God the king.

 So, if you worship God that’s great, no-one is saying you shouldn’t worship and practice your religion.  But what Micah, the Psalmist, and Paul are all saying is that if you really want to do it properly, if your attention to goats and trumpets really is for the glory of God alone and not just the fun of the party, then spend your time showing compassion and good character so that others will also give glory to God what God is patently and lovingly doing through little old you.

 Amen.

Unity

1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-13, 17, 23

This is the message I preached on Sunday 22nd January 2017 at Lakes Entrance UCA.  It was the first time I had celebrated communion as the president.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a rally on the steps of state parliament.  I’ve not been to one in person, but I’ve seen many a crowd on television shouting out to the people of government inside.  Quite often, if they are Lefties, the chant will go up “The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated!”  Oftentimes, in this situation, the people are defeated because parliament does what parliament wants to do, and the angry-shouty people go home unimpressed and disappointed.

Our reading this morning from Paul’s apostolic letter to the Christians of Corinth carries a similar message, if not a similar tone.  The Church cannot stand unless it is one.  No local congregation or arrangement of linked congregations will hold its own in the world if it is not holding together internally.

The Church at Corinth wasn’t really like the Uniting Church in Lakes Entrance.  It was more like the whole Church in Lakes Entrance, but even that is only a loose fit.  Paul was not writing to one large gathering but to several small house-church arrangements dotted across the city.  The Christians met locally in the homes of benefactors, and even if the homes were large they were still not cavernous.  A congregation may in fact have been one father with his wife and children and servants.  It may have been a set of neighbours, two or perhaps three families with their servants.  It may have been like a guild where a bunch of neighbouring tradesmen and their families and servants met in the shop of one man.  So, Paul in writing to “the Church” is actually writing to a village dispersed across a city.

Therefore, we get Chloe’s people.  It’s not that Chloe is a cult leader or that she’s got her own little cabal of whingers over in the corner of the basilica; more likely Chloe was simply the hostess of one of these house groups.  Indeed, Chloe’s people seem like the heroes of this story, and Chloe a heroine, because it is they who have told Paul about the divisions breaking out between the houses of Corinth and they are upset by this.

This is also why we get some following Apollos and some following Cephas.  Again, it’s not little cliques within the gathered congregation, but rather it is the preferred style or theology of the leader of the house.  I know in churches I have been to in the past there have been cell group leaders who like Joyce Meyer or Brian Houston or Louis Giglio or Rick Warren.  They all met together on Sunday as we do here, but on Wednesday night at cell they’d be studying their favourite theologian: with several groups going on at once the groups might be studying very different things.  Well imagine that without the Sunday gathering, where “church” for you is only Wednesday night, then you have some idea of what normal life was like for the Christians of Corinth.  Indeed, such a model is typical of every church we read of in the New Testament, even Jerusalem, even Rome.  Galatia, for example, isn’t even a city, it’s region.  Think of an epistle to the “Gippslanders” or the “Philip Islanders” as opposed to the “Melbournians”.

But this doesn’t let the Corinthians off the hook.  Yes, they are meeting in small groups, but this is probably out of necessity since no one house was big enough to get all the Christians together at one time.  That’s not the issue.  The issue is that these various house groups are at enmity with each other, and they are at enmity over the truth.

When he wrote this letter, which scholars suggest might have actually been the second one he wrote to them, (the first one is lost in time), Paul says to the Corinthians that the true nature of the Christian message, the gospel itself, calls for people to be in agreement and with no divisions amongst them.  He says as much in 1 Corinthians 1:10.   In the same verse he says that the best reflection of the message of Jesus is found in the people who claim to be his truest disciples being in the same mind and with the same purpose as each other.  Instead they are quarrelling according to 1 Corinthians 1:11 and forming cliques, each with its denominational hero according to 1 Corinthians 1:12.  Everyone should be looking to Christ, as proclaimed by all the missionaries, says Paul.  Don’t even follow Paul says Paul, follow Christ.  You can almost hear him saying that Apollos and Cephas would agree with him.  Follow the simple truth of the message that Christ died for all and for each, and don’t be distracted by theologies or philosophies that are at best personal preference, and at worst empty prattle or bubble and froth.  The message of Christ crucified defies ordinary, colloquial wisdom, but it is the truth and it must not be altered to fit the wisdom of the academics or the preferences of the secularists.

You need the coffee and not just the froth, says Paul, the cake and not the coulis.

I have drawn two things out of this for you today, and oddly you’re getting the first one first.  (I know, I’m just as surprised as you.)

In brief, they are:

  1. What the true message of Jesus is.
  2. Why the Church must be united if it’s going to proclaim that truth.

Looking at our gospel passage this morning we read Jesus saying “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” to the people of Galilee.  That’s in Matthew 4:17 and it echoes the message proclaimed by John the Baptiser in Judea recorded in Matthew 3:2. This is Jesus’ key message, and the one thing he will proclaim for the rest of his life on earth.  Where we might have heard from Joyce Meyer, Brian Houston, Louis Giglio, and Rick Warren to “keep the main thing the main thing” we immediately want to ask them what “the main thing” actually is.  Well for Jesus it was this.  The “main thing” for Jesus is the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew puts it, the Reign of God as it is spoken of by the other gospels.  That John the Baptiser had been proclaiming the same message in his forerunning, prophetic role before the messiah came, suggests to me that the rolling out of the Reign of God might just be the main thing for God the Father and the absolute heart of the gospel itself.  The creator is coming near as king: the one who made the earth in eons past is today sending forth authority and heralds of that message prior to the king’s own arrival and the establishment of kingly rule and reign in the whole creation.  So, repent.  Don’t just stop being naughty in the ways we think of as sin, but begin to do the things the king commands as king and sovereign.  And what does the sovereign lord require of us, apart from that we stop being naughty and “repent”?  The king requires of us that we be reconciled to each other and to all of creation.  The king requires of us that we look only to Christ as our head and that we begin to follow him and walk toward him from wherever we are right now.

So, there’s your first point and the introduction to the second one.  If you’re taking notes take this note.  If you’re not taking notes write this down anyway.  The true message of Jesus is “repent because the Reign of God is here”, and the necessity for the church to be united is that we can’t proclaim a sovereign Kingdom of Heaven if we heralds of that kingdom are not in harmony with each other.  Do we trust a government when its own MPs are bickering and forming factions?  Were we impressed by the Canberra-antics that disposed of Prime Ministers Rudd, Gillard, and Abbot?  So why should the world trust the governance of God and the reign of King Jesus when we Christians are sniping and stabbing at each other in public?

Unity in the Church means everyone walking toward Jesus.  But, since we each walk toward Jesus from the location where we first heard him call we might be walking in opposite directions.  Think about it.  If God calls you from the over here, to the centre, then your journey will be in this direction; but if God calls you from over there then your journey will be in this direction, which is opposite to the first one.  So, which is the correct direction?  Can we say that to be a Christian means that you must always and only travel in a westerly direction?  For us that might seem obvious, but it makes no sense at all for a person who is starting from the West.

Think of it like this.  Imagine you have a friend in Horsham and you ask her to meet you in Melbourne.  You instruct her to follow your own plan and travel west for four hours along the highway.  When you arrive in Melbourne your friend, who obediently heeded your instruction to travel west, is in Adelaide.  And let’s be honest, if you wanted to be in Melbourne but you found yourself in Adelaide your desolation would be indescribable.

This is what it means for the Church to be united.  Not that everyone is walking the same path, but that everyone is walking the true path that leads them to Jesus.  Since this means that we will all meet in the centre, which is both him and the place where he is, it might only be then that our journeys will make sense to each other.  “Now I understand,” you might say, “you were walking eastward while I was walking westward, but you weren’t actually walking toward what I had left behind.  You were walking toward Jesus, and in fact you were walking toward me.” We might add at that point, if we are brave enough, “I’m sorry I doubted you, I’m sorry I mocked you, I’m sorry I didn’t try to understand you.”

I said earlier that unity means that we are all walking toward Jesus, and now we understand that that path is unique to each of us.  In application, this means that we are each obeying Jesus’ command to us as our king and saviour, and that we are each actively working to see the reign of God advance in whatever way God has personally asked us to contribute. For some of us that means being a preacher and speaking out in public a well-researched exegetical hermeneutic.  For others, it means making sure there is a venue for the preaching by making sure that this house or the one at Lake Tyers Beach or Johnsonville is tidy and comfortable for whoever shows up.  For others, it means being in the community beyond our doors, telling people about Jesus and inviting them to church.  For still others it means being here as “church “so that when the evangelists bring their friends along to hear the preaching, and to sit on the comfy chairs, and drink the freshly-brewed cups of cino, that they are not doing so in isolation.  All those jobs are important, none of them is unnecessary, and none of them take precedence.  As your preacher, I might be thought of as your leader, but if no one comes to hear me preach what’s the point?  Your elders might be thought of as your leaders, but if no one sought their counsel or care then what would be the point?  Each of us serves Christ as Christ has instructed us, none better, none lesser; and we serve Christ where we are and on the road which we travel, some from the east and some from the west.

So, as we move into a time of communion, which is to say the reminder of our belonging in community to which we each bring our unique individuality, let us remember to look only to Christ for headship and to look always to each other for fellowship for his glory.

God’s people, united, will never be defeated.

Amen.

 

The Servant’s Mission

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church on Sunday 15th January 2017.  It was the first sermon which I wrote in Lakes Entrance.

Isaiah 49:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:40-42a

Listen to me O coastlands, pay attention you peoples from far away! says the prophet Isaiah.  Wow, if ever there was a call to the people of the Gippsland Lakes, and especially to those who live behind Ninety Mile Beach, this seems to be the perfect introduction.  My work of a sermon writer, and the preacher and pastor to this specific place, was made all that much easier this week when God and the prophets all-but named my new home town in the declarations of scripture.  So listen up, O people of Lakes Entrance, Lake Bunga, and Lake Tyers Beach, this word is obviously for us.

In my study bible, the one I use when writing sermons, the passage from Isaiah 49 has been subtitled “The Servant’s Mission”.  Now those little subtitles in the Bible are not actually scripture, they are editorial guides to help us read the Bible better; as indeed are the chapters and verses themselves, they weren’t part of Isaiah’s actual writing back in the day either.  For this reason, I usually don’t comment on them at all; but today I am commenting, because I think it gives us a great focus.  This passage is about the servant’s mission and its subheading leads us to ask two great questions:  who is the servant, and what is his or her mission?

“I have been called by God”, says the servant, “and God has shaped me for the work to which I have been called.  This call was announced in the moment of my conception and this call typifies my life’s span.  I was shaped in the womb by this call by God’s design and I was born ready to get to work”.  That’s a remarkable introduction, and in fact the image we get here is of the archetypical prophet, indeed it’s practically a job description for the role of prophet and is pretty much a combined biography of Isaiah and Jeremiah in who it describes.  God has chosen this individual as a prophet, and he or she has a specific message to declare.  Now, remember, a prophet is someone who speaks the truth plainly and loudly.  Prophecy is not about telling us what will happen in the future, it is about explaining what is happening right now under the noses of us everyday people but which we are too blind or distracted to see for ourselves.  “Look at what God is doing,” says the prophet, “look and see right now”.  The people who heard Isaiah recite this in Isaiah’s day would have been able to draw that conclusion, that Isaiah is describing a prophetic person, someone called from childhood to tell the nation what God is doing and what God is wanting that prophet to do.  But the people would also have known that Isaiah was not actually speaking about himself, since the description doesn’t actually match his known biography.  So who was he speaking about?  Well to answer that we need to ask what this prophet’s message is.

So, Isaiah goes on to describe the work of this one born as a prophet to do prophetic work.  After a time of shaping and training in quietness, through both childhood and spiritual retreat, the prophet’s specific message will be revealed as one of bringing God’s people back to God.  In other words, this prophet is specifically a reconciler, a friend-maker, an ender of dispute and a restorer of broken relationships.  We might think of this prophet as both a healer and restorer, but also as a networker. He, or she, is that one at parties who moves through the room introducing people to each other to form new friendships, but also as one who perhaps reacquaints people who were close but who have drifted apart through life’s circumstances.

Such a reintroduction need not be about grief or angst.  In my life, I have moved in and out of people’s lives simply because that is where life took me and them.  For example, when I was at university in Darwin I was very close to a young man named Daniel.  We were studying education together, training to be primary school teachers, and Daniel and I used to sit with each other in classes and we would pair up for group work.  At the end of uni Daniel went to work at the primary school in Nakara, one of the northern suburbs of Darwin, and I went to England.  After nine months in England I returned to Darwin and began work as a day supply teacher, ranging across the northern suburbs where I lived, teaching as required.  I met Daniel again when I did some day supply work at Nakara, and whilst I cannot say we rekindled our friendship, it was initially an odd feeling to be introduced a year later by Nakara’s principal to someone who had practically been my best friend, at least on campus.  Perhaps like me you have had relationships which drifted apart, only to be reacquainted with that person later.  That is the first part of the work of this prophet, reacquainting the people of God with God.  There’s no blame here, the people are not at enmity with God, they’ve not “wandered away” in any meaningfully religious sense, they’re just no longer as close as they once were.  Intimacy has become acquaintanceship, and the prophet has come to rekindle a friendship.  Daniel and I were never as close as teachers as we were as uni students, but I’d sit with him and his new friends in the Nakara staff room at morning tea whenever I was there.  He and I did this ourselves, but it might just as easily have been a mutual friend who reintroduced us, that mutual friend would have been like the prophet in this story.

But, returning to Isaiah, it doesn’t end there.  The servant’s mission also involves calling out to those who have never heard, to be a light to the nations as well as a reformer of Israel.  In the context of my teaching career this might have looked like my introducing Daniel to one of the other day supply teachers whom I had met at another school.  This teacher would not have studied at NTU alongside Daniel and me, and might not have been to Nakara before, but when the three of us were in Nakara’s staff room I might have made the introduction and then they two might have gone on to be friends without me, sitting together when the other teacher was at Nakara but I was not.

So, what is the identity of this servant?  Who is this person who was conceived with the gifts and graces of prophecy, raised in obscurity, and then sent out into the world to reconnect God’s people with God and then to go to the other peoples of the world and introduce them to God for the first time?  Well Isaiah states it explicitly in 49:3, the missionary servant is Israel.

This passage is one of four passages in the book of Isaiah known as the “Servant Songs”, and this is the second one.  Christian readers tend to connect the “servant” himself with Jesus Christ, and even though this is not who Isaiah had in mind, since he was speaking in his present day to the people of his day and Jesus was still 700 years away in the future, to consider Jesus in this role is not too much of a stretch.  So we can and should think of Jesus as being the one who calls the religious people back to God, back to righteousness, back to right relationship with our Father in Heaven.  And we can and should think of Jesus as being the one who calls the lost and the unreached people to God for the first time, to right relationship with the Father they have never heard of or of whom they have heard only a misrepresentation.  That is Jesus, that is what he did, and that is what he commanded the Church to do in the Great Commission and throughout his prophetic word to Paul and Peter and the missionary servants of the first century Church.

But that is not the whole truth.  It’s not untrue, but it’s not the full story.  Remember that Isaiah has no Jesus to shift the responsibility on to, for him the responsibility to go and tell and to make disciples and to remake relationships falls upon Israel.  He, or they, is or are to be a prophetic nation.  We as Church are the same.  It is the responsibility of you and me and us to do this work.

So, as with last week, I have two points to make.  And, as with last week, you’re getting the second one first.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, and we find these words in 1 Corinthians 1:7, that those who belong to the Church are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you await the revealing of Jesus.  Father will strengthen you and be faithful to you so that you can be blameless and called into the fellowship of the Son.  There are two meanings here: fellowship with the Son means fellowship with Jesus himself, and fellowship of the Son, or perhaps in the Son, means fellowship with others who fellowship with the Son, which is the Church.  Because we each worship Jesus in intimacy with him we are also in fellowship and intimacy with each other.  Now intimacy with God is a good thing, a very good thing, because we know from 1 John 4 that God is love.  To be intimately relational with the One who is Love is indescribable.  The problem, if there is one, is when there are others there too: intimacy within the Church can be hard.  I remember when I was working in gaol greeting one of my friends one morning with “how are you” to which he responded “I’m great, it’s the others you need to watch out for.” Happily, no-one has said that to me in Lakes Entrance, and to be fair to my friend he was joking and that’s actually a pretty common response to that question among peers in England, part of their slang I suppose.  But it’s true, isn’t it. “I’m great, it’s the others you need to watch out for”. But look at what Paul says to the Corinthians, people we know from previous readings of this letter who were a rather quarrelsome and divided, clique-ey mob: you are not lacking in any spiritual gift and God will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless.  “I know it’s hard”, says Paul, “but God is looking after you, making you strong enough to cope and to be nice”.

And look, remember what I was saying about those little subheadings Bible editors put into our modern scriptures?  The ones which are not part of the original text but there to help us find the bit we’re looking for?  So, do you see the heading for the next bit of 1 Corinthians where it says “Divisions in the Church”?  Cool, it looks like Paul knows where we’re at.  (Listen to me O coastlands, pay attention you peoples from far away! said the prophet Isaiah.)

So here’s the bit where those of you who are taking notes need to write something down.  It is your responsibility, (and by “your” I mean mine as well), your responsibility to tell the world that God loves them and wants them to love Jesus.  And, it is your responsibility to tell the other people in church that God loves them and wants them to love Jesus.  That’s what Isaiah said, sort of, and that’s what Paul goes on to say later in 1 Corinthians and in lots of other places.  So that’s point two, tell everyone you know about the love God has for them and how God wants them back in relationship.  Tell even the people you don’t want to be in relationship with, because God has gone ahead of you and given you grace, patience, perseverance, and self-control.  God’s got your back in this; you’ll be fine.

And so, finally, we come to point one.  Flick over to gospel of John 1:40. This little story of Jesus calling his first disciples, and again we are given one of those little headings, follows immediately after apostle John’s account of John the Baptiser seeing Jesus for the first time.  So we’re in the zone of last week’s message, minus the forty days in the wilderness and the temptation of Jesus.  We know this doesn’t happen in John’s account because in John 1:35 he says [t]he next day.   So there is Jesus, the day after John the Baptiser’s identifying him as the saviour in view of the dove-shaped spirit’s presence, walking near to the Baptiser and the Baptiser’s disciples. Andrew hears the Baptiser identify Jesus, so he approaches Jesus and asks Jesus, who he addresses as ‘teacher’ where he is going.  Jesus tells him, and apparently invites or at least allows Andrew to come along.   So we see the Baptiser doing the work of the servant messenger.  “See that bloke, that’s God’s salvation right there” he says, speaking to two Jewish men who know what that means.  Then what happens?  Well then Andrew takes up the role of the servant messenger and he finds and tells his brother Simon the same thing.  In words that only make sense when one Israelite is speaking with another Andrew says “we have found the messiah” and then he brings Simon to Jesus and makes the introduction.

There it is.  That’s how it’s done.

I have heard it said of Andrew that in John 1:42a he has the best epitaph of any man who has ever lived.  In the Greek original text of that verse Simon is not actually named, there’s just the masculine third-person singular pronoun: the verse reads “he brought him to Jesus”.

And again, there it is, that’s how it’s done.  I’d love that to be my epitaph, the words on my gravestone, should I live long enough to have one and Christ has not returned first.  What can we say of Damien, well we can say “he brought them to Jesus”.  That’s what I’m here for, and you as well.  Whomever “they” are; be they Christians in worship who I encourage to go further in their discipleship, or Christians in the community who still believe something but are somewhat distant from God and the Church, or other people who know little or nothing about Jesus at all, it doesn’t matter.  My job is that I bring them to Jesus, I work to rebuild old and establish new connections between my fellow men and women and the God who made us and loves us and adores us.  Andrew introduced his sibling to Jesus, Paul exhorted the church to be reconciled to each other and re-introduce each other to Jesus, and Isaiah declared that the purpose of the whole people of Israel was to tell the world about the greatness of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The purposes of God for we people of the coastlands and from far away is not rocket surgery.  Love God in the power of the Spirit as we heard last Sunday, and in that same love and that same power tell other people about Jesus, starting with the people sitting on the opposite side of the building.

As my English friend from gaol would say, “let’s have at it!’

Amen.

The Baptism of Jesus

Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church on Sunday 8th January 2017.  It is a reworking of an earlier sermon.

Do you remember the events of the day of your baptism with water?  I don’t remember mine, although I know that it took place on Sunday 23rd July 1972 at Mt Waverley Presbyterian Church.  I was eleven weeks old at the time and whilst I am assured by my parents that I was awake for most of the performance I wasn’t actually paying too much attention.  When Jesus was baptised with water he was paying attention.  We believe that Jesus was around 30 years of age at the time and whilst he had been considered an adult in terms of Jewish Law since the age of 13, at 30 he was now a social adult ready to move out of his father’s apprenticeship and open his own shop and then marry and start his own family.   As with all later Christian baptisms so with that of Jesus the Jew we know that God was paying attention because we are told that a voice from Heaven spoke a blessing over the Son and that the Spirit appeared in bodily form.  God was present in all God’s forms and God made that presence known in multiple ways.

John’s baptism with water was for repentance and the forgiveness of personal sin.  This is the basis of the sacrament of baptism that the Uniting Church offers and the baptismal vows made by the candidate or his or her sponsors indicate this.   In the Uniting Church, and others which offer baptism to children, the additional liturgy of Confirmation is added so that the child once grown can “confirm” the promises made on his or her behalf.  I was 12 when I underwent this ceremony with David, Bishop Shand of Gippsland at St James’ Anglican Church in Pakenham, and my baptism by a priest as an infant was therefore “confirmed” by the bishop according one of the earliest practices of Christianity.

John, while baptising any who came with a repentant spirit, prophesied in Matthew 3:11 that someone would come after him who would baptise with the Holy Spirit.   I wonder, do you remember the day of your Holy Spirit baptism?   I do remember mine, but more of that later.

The Uniting Church has not made a sacrament out of a distinct baptism in the Holy Spirit: this is because Jesus did not expressly command it.  But we certainly believe a distinct baptism in this form to have been a Biblical event and we recognise that the infilling of the Holy Spirit has been considered necessary for every Christian since the earliest days, as evident in Acts 10:44-46a.   In Acts 10:38 we read of Peter speaking of the recently-baptised Jesus ministering in the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit.  The apostles of Jesus Christ believed that being filled with the Holy Spirit was vital: vital in that it is of the utmost importance, and vital in that it brings vitality to faith.  The testimony of scripture is that life in Christ is life in the Spirit; you cannot have one without the other.

One of the fundamental statements of belief declared by the Uniting Church is that all baptised Christians are ministers, and that it is baptism which is the sacrament that sets apart a man or a woman as a minister, not ordination.  From Matthew 3:13 we understand that when Jesus arrived at the Jordan he did so from Galilee.  Again, we believe that Jesus was 30 years old at this point, perhaps he has just turned 30 and was ready to be about “his father’s business” in a way quite different to the expectation that he would have taken on Joseph’s clients.  Jesus was an anonymous young man who has left home at the age when young men leave home, and who has come to begin his own life. Matthew tells us that John the Baptiser identified this particular young man as the one who was prophesied to come, and he tells us; that when Jesus was baptised by John the Spirit of God descended like a dove, and that a voice from heaven endorsed Jesus as one whom his father loves and is pleased about.

There are two aspects of note here.  The second aspect is the nature of the “Voice from Heaven”.  I understand this voice to be a personal message to Jesus which is repeated over all who are subsequently baptised as believers into this same Jesus.  “This son [or daughter] is mine”, says the God The Father, “and he [or she] is pleasing to me” says God The LORD.  What follows from this declaration is affirmed by the Uniting Church in its theology, and by the activity of Jesus, that all baptised Christians are servants of God and are called by God to be ministers of God’s mission.  We Christians have everlasting hope because God loves us and is pleased with us, and we Christians have an everlasting mission in sharing that good news with others as evangelists in this life and worshippers in the next.

I said that there are two aspects to Matthew’s story of the results of Jesus’ baptism and in a typical style of mine that you will grow to love, I told you about the second aspect first.  So, here’s the first one: the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form.  Note that Matthew does not actually say that a dove appeared, but that the Holy Spirit appeared like a dove.  The Holy Spirit is not a dove, but when the Spirit came the Spirit came in a form which resembled a dove.  So, doves in and of themselves are not the point, the bodily appearance of the Holy Spirit at an event in the life of Jesus is the point.

All of today’s passages speaks of the presence of God.  God the Father speaks from Heaven with the Voice of the LORD as Psalm 29 would have it, and our gospel reading points to the bodily presence of God the Spirit resting upon the body of the Son of God, who we know from the Christmas story is himself Emmanuel and “God (bodily) with us”.    The Spirit who would come in one thousand days’ time in rushing-fire-like form upon a room full of expectant women and men came this day in dove-like form upon one man obedient to God’s invitation.

The writer of Psalm 29 declares that The LORD is glorious and strong, and that the LORD is worthy of worship.  The voice of the LORD accomplishes wonders: the voice of the LORD is thunderous, powerful, majestic, breaks cedars, manipulates nations to God’s will, strikes like lightning, shakes the desert, twists oaks and strips the forest.  The LORD gives strength to God’s people and blesses them with peace.  It is no wonder that this passage is used every year for the Sunday upon which we recall the Baptism of Jesus and not once every three years as most lectionary passages are.  We learn from this song of Hebrew celebration that worship is our right response to the voice of God.

In the story of Jesus, we see that with worship comes obedience to God’s leading.  Each of the three synoptic accounts of Jesus’ baptism reports that Jesus went immediately into the wilderness where he spent time alone with God and time alone without God.  When temptation was thrown at him Jesus responded with worship and obedience, and when the time of preparation was finished Luke says that Jesus was again visited by the Holy Spirit, following which he commenced his ministry of proclamation, healing and exorcism in obedience to God’s commissioning.

When God speaks with power and majesty the created order is bodily changed.  The voice of God brought light to the formless world as the first act of Creation, reported in only the third verse of the Bible.  We have been reminded by Psalm 29 that the voice of the LORD sends the created order into a flurry whenever God speaks.  In the baptism of Jesus, both the baptism that Jesus received at the hands of John and the baptism that Jesus confers through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the creative voice of God is released to speak and act through people.  Filled with the Spirit Jesus preached in local synagogues, in town squares, beside roads and lakes, and upon mountainsides and fishing boats.  The manifest presence of the Holy Spirit brought far more than “tongues” to the Church, although it certainly brought no less than that because in the proclamation of the Spirit is the full wisdom of God in human voice.  The language of God is mind-blowing, desert shaking, tree shredding, and darkness scattering stuff.  When the language of God is heard doves descend, nations dance, and the community of God cries “glory!”  The language of God demands ascription of greatness and glory to God by all other voices because the language of God draws attention to God in all of God’s Godness.

At his baptism the Spirit was bodily present with Jesus: so too was the Spirit bodily present with the newborn Church at Pentecost.  Unlike the wind which is invisible and intangible and only its effects can be seen, the Spirit of God has been known to be visible and tangible in the Past.  The scriptures offer no reason why this cannot be the case today.   This is why the ministry we are called to is more than talk and proclamation.  We are most certainly called to announce the kingdom, to declare (or withhold) God’s forgiveness in the world, to speak against injustice and petition those in authority to see free the oppressed and the enslaved.  But we must also work as Jesus did, healing the sick and rehabilitating them to society, raising the dead and rehabilitating them to the living, and exorcising the demons and restoring the freed ones to fellowship with the believers.

I was 13 when I was baptised with the Holy Spirit at the Wayville Showgrounds in Adelaide at the “Jubilee ‘86” Tabor convention.  The speaker that night was Reinhard Bonnke and Paul Yonggi Cho as he was then named was also present at the convention.  I was nothing special, just a child with his parents in a big service of worship.  I remember going weak at the knees and having trouble standing up, I was standing on a chair so that I could see over the crowd and my dad was holding me up next to him.  I didn’t begin speaking in tongues then, indeed I still don’t “speak” in tongues (although I do pray in tongues) but I did cry out “hallelujah” a few times.  My experience wasn’t about the miracle of a new language; it was about the capacity to praise God and to worship Christ as Lord in a new, deeper way.  Hallelujah is all that is needed, literally “praise be to Yahweh”, what more could be said?  Would it have been more meaningful had I said it in Korean or German or Afrikaans or in a “tongue”?  It was a defining moment for me, perhaps a step or a jump into the next phase of Christian life for me rather than a natural progression between stages, but in the scheme of things it wasn’t that big a show.  I didn’t start healing people with a touch or prophesying all at once.  But I learned how to worship and I got a bigger picture of God, and my ministry in prayer and advocacy for justice came later.  The first thing I did as a newly-baptised-in-the-Holy-Spirit Christian was ascribe greatness to God and give the glory due God’s name with passionate and repeated shouts of “Praise to Yahweh” while my dad stood beside me with his arm around me to stop me falling over.

So when the Holy Spirit comes upon a person what we must listen for is the voice of God.  Not tongues, not barking or laughing, not even falling over; listen for worship and the ascription of praise and honour to God.  Whatever the language, whatever the posture, whatever the volume, is the response to this apparent act of baptism the recipient’s cry of praise to God?  The authentic answer can only be yes.

What follows for those of us who have been baptised with the Holy Spirit is to get on with the work of proclamation and ministry.  Spend as long as you need at the front of the church or in the place where your baptism took place in the actual moment, but then get on with it.  The baptism of the Holy Spirit is an empowering to continue the work of proclaiming God’s glory, it’s not a cue to go back to church the next morning and sit on the steps below the altar rail to reminisce on how awesome last night’s service was and how heavy the anointing had been.

The genuine sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit is that the recipient proclaims the glory of God in word and deed, and like Jesus the Emmanuel and the Spirit coming in bodily form this involves getting close to people in the places where they actually are.

Let us always be doing that.

The Naming of Jesus

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 67; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:21

This is the text of the message I preached at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church on Sunday 1st January 2017.

What’s in a name?  According to Shakespeare even if a rose were named the rancid-stink-blossom it would still smell roselike.  It would probably not be the name you’d give your daughter, although our famous Australian boxer and World Champion of the last century, Lionel Rose, might have liked it as a fighting name.  (I mean, what sort of pugilist wants to ‘float like a butterfly’ anyway?)  Well today, eight days after Christmas Day, it is the tradition of many Christians to celebrate the circumcision and naming of the baby born in the manger.  This child was the fulfilment of God’s promises to Joseph, Mary, and the countless prophets, sages, and faith-filled Jewish worshippers who longed for the day of his coming.  Therefore, the day when he is publicly presented to the world for the first time is significant.

So, what is so special about the name of Jesus?  In many ways, there is nothing special; Yehoshua as his name is pronounced in Aramaic was a common enough name in Jesus’ time, so his name did not make him stand out amongst his friends.  Through my life as a child at school and then a young man at University I was in class with at least three other Damiens.  None of us thought that was unusual, and I’m sure young Jesus didn’t think anything was awry just because there were other Joshuas in Nazareth.  Even Barabbas was named Jesus, so what?  It’s just a name.

In other ways, of course there is something unique about the name of Jesus.  Paul wrote in Philippians 2:9-11 that the name of Jesus is the name above every name, the greatest of all names in other words, and that when that name is said in the right context every living creature will fall to its knees and declare aloud that this Jesus is also the LORD God.  Jesus instructed his disciples in John 14:14 that if they were to petition God “in my name” that God would grant that intercession.  So, that’s remarkable, nothing like that has ever happened when someone has said my name out loud.  But of course, we know that the name “Jesus”, those five letters and two syllables in the Roman alphabet, is no magic word.  Just saying “Jesus” as a word does nothing.  Truly, it is what that name represents in terms of an identity and a relationship that really matters.

Today’s set reading from the Old Testament is from Numbers 6:22-27 and those of you who have spent some time in Church might recognise it as the priestly blessing of Aaron, the brother of Moses.  This blessing was to be declared over the congregation as they gathered to worship God, but note what happens in Numbers 6:27; because of the blessing God puts God’s name on the community.  In other words, God claims us as God’s own.  In Psalm 67:1 we read an echo of that blessing, to which is added in Psalm 67:2 a purpose: that God’s way and God’s salvation would be made known to all nations.  The blessing of the Jewish high priest for the Jewish congregation is here enlarged to become God’s own pronouncement over all humankind, at least that portion who is attentive to the gathering of worshippers and hope-filled believers.  Those who are blessed by God, those who are given God’s name as children of God, go out with that blessing and that identity to tell the world about God.

It kind of makes sense, with that in mind, to remember that the name Jesus actually means ‘God Saves’.  In his own name, Jesus also carried his personal message.  “My name is Joshua”, he might have said, “and like that mighty man of old I am here to tell you that God is on our side, God is in the process of saving you, and I am the one through whom that salvation will come”.  That’s a big call for an eight-day old baby, but as history proved it was a well-chosen name for him.

Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia that when Jesus came he did so at the right time.  The baby who is God-with-Us (Immanuel) and God’s Salvation (Yehoshua) came for the Jews and for the Gentiles, so those of us who acknowledge Christ as saviour now belong to God and carry God’s name alongside our other names.  Paul understood the entry of the Christ into the world was a turning point in history: Jesus was born like any other boy of his day, from a human womb and into the human world of Jewish culture and religion, yet during his life he brought about a change in the state of humankind, from slaves of circumstance to the children of God.  Because of Jesus humankind would no longer be trapped in the endless cycle of suffering, pain, defeat, and disappointment.  Rather we would be released to live in God’s pattern of life within flow the God colours and God flavours of the world.  Galatians 4:7 makes this point in first person singular, this is a message to each of us individually that you and I are a son or daughter of God.  The evidence of this is that we are allowed to address God as Abba, “daddy” or “dear Father”, the word still used by Hebrew speakers about their well-beloved fathers today. As with God’s own name, the new name God gives us is majestic as we each have the name ‘child of God’ and we no longer have the name ‘slave of circumstance’.

So, what does all this mean?  The name of Jesus is enough to bring God’s attention to our prayers, but it is not in itself a magic word.  Well, as I said earlier the key to understanding the power of the name of Jesus lies in understanding the relationship we have been offered by this one man who carried this not uncommon name.

To be called ‘child of God’, and to be invited to call God ‘daddy’, is more than just words.  Through Jesus we are brought into a relationship with him and with the Father.  To ask God for anything ‘in the name of Jesus’ is to ask as if Jesus were himself asking, and we know that the Father delights to answer Jesus.  Those of you who are parents might feel the same way when your beloved child asks you for something.  I am not a parent, but I am an adult child, and I know how my father and mother enjoy doing things for me because I am theirs and they are mine.

But you won’t ask unless you trust.  To ask the Father in Jesus name, or to believe yourself to be the much-loved daughter or son of a loving God, only makes sense if you actually believe and accept what Jesus offers.  It doesn’t work, it doesn’t actually click within you unless you are in that relationship where calling God “Father” makes sense, and where you can expect God to act like a good dad towards you is obvious because you know God to be that good dad in the first place.

In other words, it’s actually not so much what Jesus was named but what we are named when we trust in Jesus.  Because of who Jesus is and what he has done for me I am named as a son of God, and God is named for me as ‘the God and Father of Damien’.  Because of whom Jesus is and what he has done for me I am no longer named ‘sinner’ or ‘unhealthy person’ even if I act in those ways, rather I am ‘son’ and ‘friend’ and ‘companion’ and ‘beloved’ because that is whom God has identified me to be.  I am named with regard to how I belong to God now and not to how I once was external to the Kingdom of God.  And because I believe that, acknowledge it, and live as if it is true, my life does flow, most of the time, in the God colours and God flavours/

And that is why it is so important to me to know, on the first day of a new year and of the adventures to come in 2017, that my Lord’s name is ‘God’s Salvation’.  I know I need saving and salving at times, and because it is his name I know the one to whom I must go when that is necessary.

His name is Jesus.