So, you good?

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell and Yallourn Cluster for Good Friday, 30th March 2018.

Psalm 22; Hebrews 5:7-9

So, you good?  How’s your Friday been so far?  How’s it looking for this arvo?  Good Friday can be one of those days when you can’t get your head around much else, if you really get in to it.  It can also be one of those days that is best skipped over.  Go to church, sing “The Old Rugged Cross”, look sad for a bit and then go home to watch Channel Seven for the Royal Children’s Hospital Telethon, or since 2017 some AFL.  It’s a day of mixed emotions: bewildering and contradictory to say the least.

Psalm 22 begins with a cry of desolation in the midst of an episode of feeling forsaken.  Why is God acting so much out of character as to abandon the one who is screaming out to the deliverer, with faith, for deliverance as we read in Psalm 22:1-2.  Yet, there is praise and acknowledgement that God is exalted in Psalm 22:3-5, and humanity is not, even at the best of times, let alone from the place of despair we are told in Psalm 22:6.  So, despite how its opening line has been perceived this is actually a prayer of faith and confidence in God.  The desperate one is so confident in God’s ability to deliver that he is ashamed of his own situation because it is causing God to be mocked.  The unbelievers see the believer shamed, the deliverer has patently not delivered, and blasphemy is arising we read in Psalm 22:6-8.  Think of the Pharisees with their “he saved others, why doesn’t he save himself” taunts.  Today Christians face similar mockery when life stumbles for us and the secularists cry “ha-ha, he believes in the flying spaghetti monster, but now he’s bereft and there’s no pasta-ral care forthcoming for him.  Wattanidjit!”  Still, according to Psalm 22:9-11 the desperate man believes, and he believes because of God’s prior record of faithful deliverance.  On and on the man describes his predicament, and on and on he reasserts his praise for God and his absolute confidence in God’s faithfulness to deliver.  This is seen in Psalm 22:12-21a. God is capable, and God is willing, and I shall be delivered, and when I am delivered I shall praise you all the more says the man in Psalm 22:21b-31.

When Jesus prayed Psalm 22:1 out loud from a Roman cross every Jew who heard him would have been reminded of the Psalm, even the positive bits.  I wonder what it means that this whole prayer is in the mouth of Jesus as he crucified.   I wonder what is actually going on for Jesus here, and what we are supposed to learn from this.  Well, in Hebrews 5:7-9 we read that while Jesus was alive as a man he prayed boldly and loudly to God, with passion and volume, and that because of his faith God was faithful to Jesus and responded to Jesus prayer.  Jesus was a Psalm 22 sort of person, a man of relentless, resilient, resolute hope in God. And we are assured that Jesus understands humanity because he lived as a man among women and men; Hebrews 5:8 clearly says that Jesus learned about human life through living a human life of his own. So, the perfection in Jesus that we read about in Hebrews 5:9 is not only that Jesus completed the work of salvation; that he submitted to God at Gethsemane and held that commitment right through all that occurred at Golgotha, and that by dying on the cross as a bloody sacrifice and representation of all created things he opened a path to human reconciliation with God and the possibility that we might be made perfect.  Yes, there is that, but there is more because Jesus understands perfectly. Jesus has completed and perfect experience of all created things because he lived like a created thing, a man.  So, the message of Hebrews 5 is that we are perfected by redemption because Jesus perfectly understands us; and he understands us because he was one of us.  See?  Do you see?

To think of God as “friend of sinners” is to assert that the pure and righteous God is not so far removed from the impure and unrighteous. We don’t need to protect God or God’s reputation from dirt, as if God lives in some Oxy-Action brightness and turns into a Dickensian gentlewoman at the sight of dust: the crucifixion tells us how God in Jesus got right down into the mud with us so as to lift us out.  That’s what the cross is about; the holy one who embraced lepers and allowed unclean women to embrace him, the foot-washing rabban, got bloody and muddy to rescue us from the grot and snot; even the grot and snot of our own making.

But don’t believe that this wasn’t hard.  Even with the faith that Jesus expresses and how he never drops his dependence and confidence in God The Father, Friday hurt.  The word “excruciating” was invented for this day, ex-Crucis literally means out of (or from) the cross.  Jesus died of shock and asphyxiation after six hours of excruciating pain as he hung all his bodyweight from nails through his wrists and ankles.  “Ouch” doesn’t come close.  His back from neck to knees had been torn open to the bone from the Roman flagellator, and you’d better believe that that would not have been comfortable.  Add to that the psychological, emotional pain of anguish and shame of hanging naked and alone while the whole city spits abuse at you and your sobbing woman friends (including your mum) who scream with broken hearts at the foot of your cross.  It was hard, bloody hard, bloody and hard for Jesus to die like that.

And God The Father?  Evangelicals like us often sing of how “the Father turns his face away”, but I cannot believe that.  I have no doubt, no doubt and every confidence, because I am a Psalm 22 person, that The Father watched every livid second of Jesus’ last 24 hours of mortal life. I am sure you’ve been told before about the torn veil in the temple, shredded at the very moment of Jesus’ last breath, as a prophetic sign of access.  Our traditions teach that with Christ’s death we can meet the Father at any time, and God is now on the loose in the world never again to be domesticated behind a curtain.  We have access to the holiest place, and God has access to the rest of the world: we can enter in and God can run amok. But perhaps the tearing of the veil was also a prophetic sign, or even an actual physical manifestation of our interventionist God’s anguish as the grieving Father, Abba Daddy, rends his garments in grief at the sight of what has been done to his beautiful and best-beloved son.

Or maybe it means that on a day like Good Friday that no place is holy, no place at all.  After all, how can our priests conspire to murder God yet hope to maintain a holy of holies in the temple of the holy city?  And if our priests can’t maintain a temple, how on earth can we scum-of-the Earth poor sinners lay people manage to achieve such a thing?

It’s a day of mixed emotions: bewildering and contradictory to say the least.

So, how’s your Friday going?

Amen.

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Palm Sunday B (Annunciation)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 25th March 2018, which was Palm Sunday and also the Feast of the Annunciation.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 11:1-11

Today is Palm Sunday, I’m sure you already knew that without my having to tell you.  I wonder however, did you know today is also the day of the Feast of the Annunciation, the day upon which we celebrate the messenger Gabriel and his news to Mary that she has become pregnant by God?  Think about it, it’s nine months today until Christmas day.  Have you heard of that idea before?  March 25th, yeah?  That would be why we’ve just read from Isaiah 7 and sung “O come, O come Emmanuel”, yeah?  Clever.

 Well if you did know all of that, well done, but did you also know the tradition that the actual Good Friday upon which Jesus died was March 25th?  The theory goes that Jesus died on the anniversary of his conception; thereby completing the cycle of God the Son’s incarnation all rather neatly.  I must admit that I am radically unconvinced by this theory, for many reasons, but it is a rather nice puzzle even if it is all conjecture.  And hey, “Christ was born for thi-is, Christ was born for this” as we good Christians all rejoiced back in December.

Mark tells us that Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Passover festival; they have come to participate in one of the three great pilgrimage festivals in Judaism.  In John’s gospel Jesus comes and goes from Jerusalem quite a bit over his three years of ministry, but Mark (and Matthew and Luke who base their gospels on Mark’s) has Jesus coming to Jerusalem only one time, this time, and have Jesus ministering for less than a year.  So, this event is a big deal for Mark, and this passage describes the day that the Messiah enters the city for the first time.  Now, since it was expected of Jews from around the world that they would make their way to Jerusalem for the festival Jesus had probably been to Jerusalem before.  Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents brought him several times when he was a boy, to have him dedicated to God as a newborn firstborn, and again when he was a twelve-year-old.  So, Jesus has been before, but today he is coming as Messiah, not as a pilgrim.

 Passover was a time of celebrating the special identity of the Jewish religion and the Israelite people; of the three big festivals Passover was the biggest and it was a time of heightened awareness of nationalism and the pride that there was in being Jewish.  As Australians we might imagine Anzac Day with an added tradition that everyone gathers in Canberra for the dawn service at the War Memorial, and then moves across to the lawns of Parliament House for a massive barbeque breakfast.  Okay, that’s big, and it’s sacred.  However, unlike Canberra today Jerusalem in the first century took a bit of getting to.  Without aircraft, buses or cars pilgrims in Jesus’ time would have walked for days or even weeks to reach the city.  They would have travelled in groups with friends, neighbours and families walking and working together to entertain and protect each other.  Along the way the pilgrims would have stayed in designated campsites or hostels where they would have met up with other groups of pilgrims to eat and sleep together but also pray, sing and tell stories as well.  By the time they approached Jerusalem there would have been a mounting excitement and a buzz of expectation.  Songs like Psalm 118 which was read this morning, and other “songs of ascent”, would have been sung along the road and then would have formed part of the worship during the festival itself.  Happy and to be envied is the one who comes in the name of the LORD they sing to one another, reminding each other that this psalm had been composed as a victory hymn in celebration of a great triumph.  It’s “all hail the great, returning, and all conquering king” and all that. This is a song of deliverance and thanksgiving: think VE Day or a parade of gold medallists.  The roads to Jerusalem in the days before Passover were an exciting place to be and Jesus on his donkey is arriving right in the middle of it all.

 And that is part of the problem:  Jesus is coming on a mission of peace and reconciliation, riding a colt and not a stallion, but the crowds are shouting for Jewish victory.  The first part of Psalm 118:24, which was read to us as this is the day The LORD has made can also be translated this is the day on which The LORD takes action:  the pilgrims have reached Jerusalem and are ready to kick some Roman heads.  In a similar vein Hosanna means “save us” and was a general cry of praise, but in the heightened tension of the festival it also came to mean “get on with saving us (and kick the Romans back into Italy)”.

 So, I wonder whether in throwing down their cloaks and taking up the palm fronds the crowds acted spontaneously; already hyped up by being so near to Jerusalem did they see Jesus and go mental?  Did the Jerusalemites, swept up in the arrival of so many excited tourists to their city allow themselves to be swept along in the mob?  There may have been mixed emotions in the crowd, everyone using the same words but with very different agendas.  Some were crying out in ecstatic praise at reaching their destination at Jerusalem and the temple courts themselves.  Others were no doubt happy to see that nice healing-working prophet from Galilee.  Others still were crying out to the long-awaited Messiah with a demand for action, hopeful that Jesus might just be that Messiah.  Regardless of the intricacies, everyone was saying “God, continue saving us and make us victorious!”  But just like the crowds around Jesus we must take care to enter the celebration yet remain focussed on the meaning of the festival.  The message of Palm Sunday and the lead in to Holy Week may well be don’t get swept along in all the hype or you’ll miss Jesus’ point!

 In Psalm 118:22 we read that the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.  This wording was also used by Jesus (Matthew 21:42) to describe himself, and by Paul (Ephesians 2:20) to describe Jesus.  At this point in the story it is not Jesus who has been rejected by the Jewish leaders so much as what he represents.  Jesus is the cornerstone and foundation of Christianity, but more than the man or his teaching it is Jesus’ act of submission and trust to the point of deep humiliation and suffering that our hope is based on.  Yes, celebrate the man who is king but look closer at what is right in front of you: see what everyone else has missed.  The saviour king is riding a foal amongst the rabble, rather than a charger at the head of a parade, or a cloud at the head of the host of angels.  God is not who you think God is and the messiah was never intended to come as a new David conquering the Jebusites, or another Judas Maccabaeus recovering Jerusalem from the Seleucids.   It was never ever God’s intention that Jesus would overthrow the Roman colonial governors.

 Mark helps us out because he is more interested in presenting the humility and the lowliness of Jesus than the triumphalism of the crowd.  This is where we too must look.  For Mark this is not a triumphal entry at all, see how he tells the story.  After arriving in the city amongst the pilgrims Jesus takes a quick look at the temple, then turns right around and leaves Jerusalem for the night.  He doesn’t do anything.  He doesn’t address the crowd, he doesn’t speak to anyone, and he doesn’t even stay in the city.  Is this a deliberate anticlimax?  Mark’s story of the Sunday before Easter is a story of meekness and majesty, humiliation and vindication.  All four words describe Jesus at various points across the day.

The instruction to us, as we look to this coming week towards Thursday, Friday and Sunday, is that grace, mercy, and hope are Jesus’ meaning.  Jesus is Lord and King; and that is why he alone can offer grace, mercy and hope.  This week our focus needs to be on Jesus as “the least of these”, the meek one who allowed himself to be arrested and murdered by people and ideas far weaker than himself so that his glory, and his revelation of God as the God of all, could be displayed in the strongest way possible.  Christians alone of all religious people have a God who is prepared to die for them at their own hands.  On this Palm Sunday and Annunciation day I suggest that we dishonour God when we get all triumphal and energetic when God’s own nature is to be humble and anonymous.  Or, as Paul said, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in Heaven and on Earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

That’s what we want isn’t it, that Jesus would be worshipped and adored?  So, let’s have the mind of Christ and see him glorified.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

[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