Adventures in Peace (Advent 4C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Kaniva Shared Ministry at Kaniva Church of Christ on Sunday 23rd December 2018.

Psalm 80:1-7; Luke 1:39-45; Luke 46-55

Week four of Advent as we heard in the lighting of the fourth candle this morning is associated with peace; and what we know from the Bible is that peace is often hard to come by.

In the brief reference to the town of the Saviour’s birth as recorded by Micah, which was our set reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning, Micah is prophesying in the context of war.  He says that the one who will come from Beit Lechem, the birthplace of David and a small town whose name means “House of Bread”, is not the saviour from sin and darkness so much as he is the one who will lift the siege on Jerusalem.  In Psalm 80:1-7 which was one of our set psalms we get a similar idea: the people are in distress and they cry out to God in the words of Asaph pleading that God will hear them and deliver them from the consequences of previous military defeats.  Indeed Psalm 80 might be the plea of asylum seekers, of survivors from the Assyrian conquest of Samaria which was capital of the northern kingdom of Israel who have escaped and are seeking shelter in the southern kingdom of Judah and its capital at Jerusalem.  A destroyed people ask the God of Hosts, the lord of Heaven’s army in Psalm 80:4How long will your nostrils smoke? which I just love as language.  In Psalm 80:7 it is this same God of hosts who is petitioned for restoration, salvation, and the smile of blessing.  When my little sister was actually little she would often say when our mum was angry and scowling “I don’t like that face mummy, where’s your happy face?”  I think Asaph is saying the same thing, in Hebrew and with greater reverence for sure, but the idea is there: please be nice to us Great-Father-who-is-a-General, stop steaming and please love us and cuddle us again, because we are hurt and we are sad and we are sorry.  Please daddy, our tears are making us sick.  Bring us back says Psalm 80:7 in The Good News Bible, show us your mercy and we shall be saved.

Our Christian tradition readings from Luke 1:39-45 and then Luke 1:46-55, (the lectionary separates them), speak of Mary’s visit to her elderly yet pregnant cousin and Mary’s song in response to the work of God in her womb as well as that of Elisabeth.  Perhaps God has heard the choking tears of Elisabeth in the way that Asaph pleaded for Israel; certainly God has heard Elisabeth as God heard Hannah.  God has also heard Elisabeth as God heard Rachel, desperate for a child for the husband who loves her dearly; and God heard Elisabeth as God heard Leah who even after seven children, six of them sons, still felt unloved by her husband who only had eyes for her barren yet pretty little sister.  So many daughters, each desperate beyond tears for her father to look upon her with favour and grace and reverse her shame and embarrassment.  So many sons, each desperate beyond aching bones and torn muscles for his father to look upon him with favour and grace and release him from war and siege.  The adult children of God need peace; the plea of the people of God is for that shalom that passes all understanding but which also comes with physical release.

When the two passages from Luke 1 are read together there is a contrast between them; the story of Elisabeth is a story whereas the song of Mary is a song.  “Well, derr!!” you might say, and fair enough.  But when I point out that the gospel so far has all been story and that what we read is narrative prose from Luke 1:1-45 but suddenly we switch to poetry in Luke 1:46 maybe you understand what I am saying.  What am I saying?  I am saying that the story of the salvific work of God is interrupted by the song of thanks and praise from the salved one, and I think that’s remarkable.  Having pleaded with God for so long for deliverance, for saving, for soothing, don’t forget to offer praise and adoration when the saviour-deliverer shows up. Mary’s song sums up in an act of worship all that Luke has already described in narrative, including what God has done for Zechariah and Elisabeth.  And Elisabeth joins in not with singing but with response to the Holy Spirit’s prompting into proclamation and prophesy of her own.  Think about it, if Mary has heard Gabriel’s message and then shot straight off to Elisabeth’s house she may not have been showing a bump.  Elisabeth us pregnant and her younger kinswoman has come to help around the house, Elisabeth is not expecting the virgin teenager to be pregnant and Mary does not look pregnant when she arrives.  But as soon as Mary does arrive it’s all “Blessed are you amongst women”,  and “my baby leapt with joy”.  Cool huh?  Well I think it is.

But it gets even cooler, seriously it does.  Because not only is Mary’s song a praise summary of Luke’s prose summary of Luke 1:1-45, Mary’s song is a praise summary of Micah 5 and Psalm 80 and so much of Hebrew history besides.  In all that we Jews were, be we wandering Arameans, enslaved Hebrews, imperial Israelites, Judahites and Samarians, or colonised Judeans and Galileans, at all points in our history from Adam and Abraham until today have asked from God God has answered it today.  Show us your mercy that we might be saved cries Asaph in Psalm 80:3,7, God has looked with favour on the misery of his servant…he has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy declares Mary in Luke 1:48,54.  I mean, just look at Luke 1:50-55 (Damien: read and extemporise).  God has done it all, now, in the coming of the promised one, and everything will change and nothing will ever be as it was.  Woot!

The story of Advent is that The Son of Man revealed in Jesus of Nazareth did not come to Earth as conqueror; he neither arrived nor departed as Commander of The Angel Armies, The Lord of Hosts, as God is acclaimed in the psalms.  Unlike the Pax Romama or Pax Augustana, the peace brought about by Augustus who established the imperial form of the Roman Empire by wiping out all of his enemies the peace of God never depends upon military defeat.  The Christian gospel, beginning with the stories of Advent, is the story of Emmanuel’s ministry of proclamation of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus brought and preached and told the story of God by inhabiting the good news that the peace which comes from Heaven, the ministry of The Prince of Peace, the glorious Advent message is the peace which only God can bring.  The peace of God is a peace that not even the political assassination of the Messiah or the decimation of Jerusalem itself can overcome.

The story of the fourth Sunday in Advent is that Caesar Augustus and his peace-through-victory fell far short in comparison to God’s promised peace-through-justice, the peace of Christ delivered in a newborn child.   As we have heard in recent weeks military victory has never brought peace to the world; it has only ever brought a lull in fighting before the fighting escalates.  The end of “The War to End All Wars” which we celebrated as a centenary a few weeks ago was nothing of the sort: the fact that what was known at the time as “The Great War” became known within twenty years as “World War One” is evidence of that.  From 2018 looking back to 1918 we know there was a World War Two, and many wars besides between 1918 and today.  Some of those wars are ongoing as we sit here today.  The message of Augustus Imperator, “the all-conquering one”, is seen in his primary title: Octavian was more than just emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth; he was continually acclaimed as victor and the embodiment of victory.  As nephew of Julius Caesar, who it was claimed was a direct descendent of Venus, Octavian carried the title divi filius, and his title Augustus became a proper noun (like “Christ” did), suggesting that Octavian is “the god who is to be worshipped”.  It seems that as emperor Octavian could only claim the title of God Incarnate and Son of God because he was the great conqueror first.  Our Emmanuel, our Son of Man who is God The Son, did no conquering and never intended to. In a world where even today the superpowers posture and threaten, and it is assumed that Australia need never be afraid of Jimmy Foreign because America is our friend and China is our customer, the message remains.  Since the empire of Rome our European cultures have understood that there was no other way to achieve peace than by winning wars, but in Christ who is the Prince of Peace we are offered a radical alternative.  We can trust God, and leave our struggles with God, because God loves us and has favoured us because of God’s love for us and our loving response to God.

Emmanuel means God with us, and if we believe that God truly is with us, then whoever can be against us is no one we need to worry about.  So peace, which we are reminded of by today’s fourth candle, is not difficult to come by at all, we just need to remember to think differently about who God is, and what the baby in the manger came to say.

Shalom: Amen.

Adventures in Loss (Blue Christmas)

Haggai 2:1-9; Psalm 27:13-14; John 1:5

A little over one hundred years ago, on the morning of Monday 4th November 1918 2nd Lieutenant Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, MC, 5th Battalion Manchester Regiment, was shot and killed whilst attempting to cross the Sambre-Oise canal near the village of Ors in France.  The news of his death reached his mother at Birkenhead exactly one week later; on Monday 11th November when churches’ bells were ringing out the Armistice.  A day of international celebration was for Susan Owen a day of personal pain.  Sometimes Christmas can feel like that for those of us who have experienced profound and devastating loss: so many lights, so much laughter and song, so many tinselated shops and family-friendly propaganda it can feel very alienating for the ones like us who are crying and trying to hide it from shame or good citizenship.  Peace and goodwill to all men can be hard to muster when you are breaking inside and no one wants to know.

Life can be hard at times, and the message of God can seem puzzling.  When Jesus told the crowds in the days before his death that the great temple would be torn down and not one stone would remain upon another they thought he had lost the plot.  Yet in the smugness of hindsight we know that Herod’s temple was razed to the ground less than a generation later, and fifty generations after that it still hasn’t been restored.  I’m sure Susan Owen felt the same way, no matter how well meaning the praises of King and Country for “the glorious fallen” nothing could rebuild what was torn down when her Wilfred was dropped by a German’s bullet.  Jesus said you will hear of wars, yet do not be terrified for they must happen, but the end will not follow immediately.  Perhaps not,but for Mrs Owen, even for a short time, the end of the war was the end of the world.  It was the end of her world anyway.

So what hope do we have today?  Where can we look when the bells are ringing out on Christmas Day and we just want to cry for what has been lost.  The assurance of Jesus’ teaching is that God is with us; indeed the assurance of Jesus’ life is that God is with us.  Stuff happens, pretty nasty stuff, but God has it all in hand and when the end comes God will be there to bring it and God will remain with us while we work the end through.  Charlie Brown once said that “the answers to the book of life are not written in the back”, but for Christians they are.  I invite you to read Revelation 22 some time, on the last page of the Bible the Christians win! God is with us, and we do not labour in vain.  Perhaps the death of 2nd Lt Owen was in vain, the war had only a week to go after all, but the life of young Wilfred was not in vain.  The gospel reminds us in John 1:5 that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.  Perhaps the light has yet to overcome the darkness for you at this point, and there is much more dark than light.  Or perhaps the candle is somewhat bright, but the room is still so very cold in this bleak midwinter of the soul,a further-reaching blackness than one dark night.  The LORD speaking through the Hebrew tradition of Haggai 2 reminds us to not fear because my Spirit abides with you….Once again I will fill this house with splendour, and the latter splendour of this house will be greater than the former...in this place I will give prosperity.   

December 21st is the shortest day of the year in Birkenhead, Northern France, Persia and Jerusalem, so it’s a good time to pause and reflect away from the flashing lights and the ringing tills.  God’s word to all who mourn is to take courage and be assured; but there is no call to rush in the Christmas rush.  The promise of God is assured, but the character of God is patience and love. Wait for God and you will see the restoration of good things while you are still alive (Psalm 27:14).

Amen.

Advantage Us (Advent 3C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Serviceton Shared Ministry at the Church of Christ on Sunday 16th December 2018.

Isaiah 12:2-6; Luke 3:7-10

So, I’m wearing pink; what of it?  For those churches who follow the tradition of an Advent wreath, and do it with candles of specific colour, today as the third Sunday in Advent is when the pink candle would be lit.  So yes, pink socks and a pink tie.

Since God is our strength and salvation we can trust and not be afraid.  The words of Isaiah 12:2 are similar to those of Moses recorded in Exodus 15:2, and the psalmist in Psalm 118:14, most likely with the same intent.  In this prayer of thanksgiving Isaiah speaks of the joy bubbling over in the life of the woman or man who knows that God’s grace and forgiveness has been poured out; we can also think of Mary’s song when we read Isaiah 12:4-6.  Such superabundant joy leads to proclamation, to shouting out the wonders of God and the work God has done, so that all nations will hear about God and will know that God is worthy of praise and exaltation.  God is with us we proclaim, God is in our midst, so why would we not sing loud praise for God?  More than that, some of the earliest church scholars saw Isaiah 12:3 and its reference to the spring of the saviour (rather than wells of salvation as the NRSV puts it) as a specific reference not only to Jesus but to baptism.  If you know that God is good, and that God has saved you, and you are minded to shout and sing and dance and pray, then wash in the river and be made whole. On this day of joy and the pink candle, and in this house where the tank sits behind me waiting, let us each remember our baptism and where God has brought us from that day of water until this day of worship.

It can be a bit of a shock then to move from this great song of celebration and the invitation to baptism to read how John the Baptiser declared the water ready.  Let’s look at Luke 3:7-9 again; I have to tell you that even though there were no classes in how to give an altar call at my university I am sure that John would not have been on the syllabus.  “What do youse want?” he says, “who told youse to come?”  Hardly Christ-like language is it?  Well actually it is a lot like the language of Jesus, calling out the pride of the prideful and the arrogance of the arrogant.  “Youse mob think you’re saved already, don’t you, and that being an Abraham-descendent is enough, that you don’t need to act with justice and mercy because you were born into the right religious family.  Well you’re wrong because that’s not what God is looking for, but who told youse that, eh?  What are youse doing out here?”  Is John trying to keep people away from those wells of salvation, the spring of the saviour?  Seems like.  Well maybe it does seem like, but not really, because what John is saying is what all the prophets have said, and what Isaiah said, and what Jesus of Nazareth who is the Christ of God will say.  The life-path of the baptised, the way of the wet, is not to rely on ancestry but to depend upon God alone and to commit to discipleship.

Those of us who belong to God and Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry by way of the Uniting Church might be aware that our denomination refers to ourselves as “a pilgrim people”.  Have you heard that before UCA mob?  Yeah.  As a people on pilgrimage we know we haven’t arrived yet, but we are on the way, and along the way we fellowship with each other as fellow travellers.  As John says in Luke 3:11 we look out for each other, sharing our coats where we have two and our mate has none, sharing our sandwiches and water-bottles likewise.  Mostly it’s a metaphor, a very powerful metaphor, but sometimes it is seen in practical help like the help you gave me as a church last month when my car died and they who had two cars gave to me who had none.  And Church of Christ the same; the earliest traditions of Stone and Campbell speak of you as “Christians only, but not the only Christians”, and as “the Disciples”.  No big and fancy denominational name, no massive creed, just a commitment to read the Bible and to follow its instruction. So whether you are walking in unity with the Pilgrim People on the Way, or you are part of the Church of the Disciples of Christ, or you have a different history which has brought you to Serviceton and this fellowship for this time you know that it is God who is your saviour, not your ten-greats-grandfather’s surname.  And that because God is your saviour, and because you are a disciple and a pilgrim, (I say “and”, this is not an “either/or” thing in KSSM), you live with joyful fellowship with the rest of us, and excited follow-ship of the saviour in whose likeness God made you.  That is what each of us was baptised into, whether it was as an adult plunged in a tank or as an infant with water poured over our scalps above a font, or something else, that is what each of us has committed to as a path for life.

The set reading for today actually goes on a bit.  Today I asked that Luke 3:7-10 be read, but the lectionary would have had us read on until Luke 3:18.  If we’d read as far as Luke 3:14 we would have heard John counselling people from many professions as they asked for special advice on how to do their jobs within the context of discipleship.  It is as simple as being honest says John, show justice and mercy; basically act like God acts towards you as the Chosen people.

And so the source of our joy, the reason for the pink candle and clothing, is the gospel of God.  The good news, the news which we celebrate, the news which cause Isaiah and Moses and Mary to bubble over with joy, is that God is on our side for no other reason than that we are loved.  It’s nice to have had disciples for parents and grandparents: I did, and many of you did too.  For some of you your parents and grandparents are in this house this morning, for others you can remember a time when they were.  This is where the Jews of John’s day were; they were not all arrogant and self-important at all.  After all, John was in the wilderness and speaking to people who were there, people who had bothered to journey out to the river and away from the cities and villages to hear him.  But as John said to them so I say to you, as good as it is to have had Christian ancestors, and especially ones in the previous generation who told you about God, that is not what God is looking for.  Your Christian ancestors were saved by God not because they had Christian ancestors but because they were disciples in their own generation.  This is what is required of you.  If you want the joy of the Lord, and if you want that joy as your strength, then choose discipleship as your way of life.  It need not be denominational, and it need not be vocational in the narrowest sense where you must become a priest.  In fact, according to the articulated positions of the Uniting Church and the Churches of Christ it need not even begin with a wet head; although both traditions and many others beside strongly endorse the idea of baptism as soon as is possible and appropriate, (unofficially in that order if the scripture at Acts 8:36 is to be believed, and it is).  One of my favourite theologians has said about tradition in the church that true faithfulness is not about wearing your grandmother’s hat, but about having grandchildren of your own.  In other words the strength that you have as a Christian today derived from your faith filled ancestors should be utilised to the outcome that you have faith filled descendents, who have you as their faith filled ancestor.  And of course if you are not a child of Abraham well there is good news for you in John’s message and Isaiah’s message too.  The whole world is to know the glory of God and the wonders due to God’s action on earth: the good news proclaimed to Gentiles as well as Jews is also for the children of non-Christians.  I mean, if actual Roman soldiers can get discipleship advice from John the Baptist (Luke 3:14) then those of you who are the first Christian in your family for one or more generations can certainly get it too.

Unlike Philip on the road with the Ethiopian eunuch there is no water here, well not right now.  But if you want more of the joy of God that Isaiah spoke about, and the rest of us have sung about, and that Christmas is all about then know this.  Know that access to baptism and discipleship, or discipleship and baptism and more discipleship, is always available in this house.  Don’t go home without it, and don’t let me or the leaders or deacons go home and leave you without it.

The joy of the Lord is our strength, and it is the Lord’s gift at Advent.

Amen.

Advantageous How? (Advent 2C)

This is the text I prepared for the people of Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 9th December 2018, the second Sunday in Advent in year C.  It was also a communion Sunday.

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Last week in my introduction to the Church’s season of Advent I spoke about it as a time when the Church remembers the arrival of the Messiah on earth as the baby of Beit Lechem, and our preparations for when he returns at the end of this age and the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth.   Today our reading from the Hebrew traditions come in the words of the prophet Malachi who lived during the Persian Empire days of Jerusalem’s history, so somewhere between 500 and 350 BC.  Malachi told the Judahites that a messenger was coming who would herald the Lord’s return to the city; in fact Malachi’s own name means “my messenger” and he certainly did act as a prophet and a messenger of God, but it is clear that he was not writing about himself.

Malachi wrote that when the Lord comes he will bring refining fire for purification and righteousness so that the people will be pleasing to God as they once were.  Under colonisation the Judeans had become cynical, complaining that God had left them under foreign rule to live in a ruined version of the Promised Land.  God’s response was that the people were disobedient, expecting God to make things good while they sat around whinging and disregarding God’s will and word of correction.  God’s word to them was that when God will come in response to their complaint not only will the temple and the city be physically and gloriously restored, but God’s lordship over the people will be too, and that will require them changing their attitudes and behaviours and being made pure.  Hebrew tradition connects the soon-to-be-coming messenger with Elijah who would return (since Elijah was already dead at this point) to herald the return of the Lord of Glory to Jerusalem.  Christian tradition connects this messenger with John the Baptiser, who spoke into a similar cultural and economic situation for Judea four centuries later than Malachi.  Malachi and each John hear the people’s complaints and say to them in God’s inspiration “you want God to come and save you, but you aren’t yet ready for what God brings”.  Malachi warns the people in an oracle and John goes a step further as he begins to denounce the self-satisfied and baptise the repentant.

In the days following the birth of God’s new messenger, the first Jewish prophet in four centuries (who broke that long period of darkness and silence), John’s father Zechariah prophesies over his newborn son.  Zechariah says that the child will be the witness to the coming of the Davidic king, the one who will restore Israel to its former glory as the nation of God.  In Luke 1:76-79 we hear how John will prepare the people for the Messiah, telling them what the messianic mission will be so that when the Lord comes they will be ready to respond, and the dawn will come to end the long night of God’s silence.  When the saviour comes he will fulfil the promise made to Abraham (Luke 1:73) and liberate the people from their enemies and show mercy to Judea so that they could worship God without restriction (Luke 1:71-72).  This is what the audience around Malachi might have wanted to hear if worship was as high on their list of desired freedoms as self-governance was.  The news is exciting for Zechariah because he knows that God’s deliverance is at hand; it will come in his son’s lifetime because John himself is the herald.  Zechariah quotes Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 in his praise, and Isaiah 9:1 in his identification of whom it is that God will send: it is the Wise Counsellor and Mighty God whom is the Everlasting One.  John’s proclamation of who is coming in Luke 3:4-6 is also a quotation from Isaiah 40:3-5.  Adonai, the Lord Godself is the one who is coming, and is coming for all humanity, in the lifespan of baby John.  How exciting!

I like how Luke’s narrative, his telling the story of Elisabeth’s pregnancy and then of Mary’s is interrupted by this song of fatherly worship.  This can be a reminder to us not to get carried away with the events of the day, even God’s marvels, but to stop and adore and worship and praise: we are reminded to “Selah” as the psalmists say, to pause and consider.  Zechariah in his song is pointing to repentance; but not only to the forgiveness of sins through the coming of the Lord but also the need for the world to stop, rethink, and change direction in the light of this latest news.  The Lord who is coming has come to restore justice to Israel and to bring light to the whole world, not just the Jews.  The Lord who is coming is coming for everyone, that’s a new idea for many people.

In Luke 3:1-6 we read how the Spirit fell on John when John was already in the wilderness.  The message of God was the one prophesied by Zechariah, that John must proclaim that the Lord is coming and the whole world needs to prepare.  I like the detail that Luke includes in Luke 3:1-2, setting the ministry of John in a specific time and place, and with a specific theme: John is in outback Judea in 29AD and proclaiming repentance for purification through baptism.  This is just as Malachi 3:4 suggested, but it also makes a stark contrast between what is occurring around the emperor, procurator, and client kings in their various capital cities, and where God is at work which is actually in the wilderness.  The God of the Jewish people is the God of the Exodus: this God works in the wild places which are the places between other places.  God chooses to be active in the places others rush through (or past) on the highway to other places, so the places where God’s people live are often places where other people stop only for a toilet break and a photo of the brick line across the road demarcating a barrier which God’s people in God’s wisdom don’t consider significant.  John in preparation to declare his message, which is the preparation of the way of the Lord, is already in the place where the Lord will be.  What is also significant is the number of authority figures listed: Judea is under the authority of empire, province, and local warlord forms of control, this is not a free country and the Judeans are not a free people.  Who John is speaking to in the wilderness, who John is calling to repentance are people who are living directly under heavy burdens of governance and colonisation but who are also marginalised and ignored.  These people are of no consequence to the big-hats in Rome or Jerusalem or Caesarea, except when it comes to taxation and conscription, at which time they are very much in the crosshairs.

The wilderness is outside polite and formal society, so it is a place of disorder and chaos.  The wilderness is a place you only pass through if you have to, and you do so as quickly as possible.  To make an unnecessary journey through the wilderness is weird: to go there deliberately, and to stay there, is madness and maybe even demonic.  Yet look at what God does in Luke 3:5-6, the chaotic and demonic will be ordered and rescued by God: no place, and the residents of no place, will be left behind by God because all will be made whole and all will be saved.  This is great news for the poor, but confusing news for the merchants and the ruling classes who don’t believe they need saving and believe they don’t need saving.  The elites are told that God is coming, which is great news.  The prophecies of John and Zechariah point to God doing what has been promised, the salvation promised by God through Malachi and all the Hebrew prophets is at hand, God is about to deliver the good news into a world where there is so much bad news. However, God is arriving way outside and God’s ministry is beginning with the weird mobs that live out the back of beyond.

There is so much more going on in John’s proclamation than God delivering the Jews from the Romans, Zechariah and John each acknowledge this; but I wonder if even John thought that a coup would indeed be part of the messianic mission.  Later in the story of John we find him sending his disciples to Jesus to question him about whether he really is the messiah, and whether he is the only messiah.  Perhaps we want to ask the same question sometimes.

We do not live beneath an obvious empire as did Malachi and John, there are no Persians or Romans here, and if the British remain well we actually are them.  But I think we do still live with a misguided idea of what the Lord’s coming will mean for The Wimmera and The Tatiara: after all with no empire and no slavery, with relatively fair taxation and no degrading or onerous religious demands what do we need liberating from?  Why do we need a saviour when we have already been saved through the cross?  Perhaps, with pun intended, we need to ask why in Advent it would be advantageous for us that the Lord come back at all.

Selah, pause and consider.  Amen.

Borderlands

This is the text of my Minister’s Message for The Vision which is Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry quarterly news letter, for December 2018-February 2019.

In my travels out to an evening Bible Study group a few weeks ago I suddenly discovered myself in South Australia.  I was not surprised to find myself in SA, that often happens when you live in Kaniva or Serviceton and you all know that better than me.  What surprised me was that there was no road sign to indicate the change of state.  No big red one facing a big blue one, no smaller blue and gold one facing an orange one, not even a matched pair of little white ones suggesting movement between districts.  My sat-nav lost half an hour, and the cement cylinders of Victoria turned into the steel and concrete “stobie” poles of SA, but otherwise there was nothing to say I had moved into an area of authority governed from Adelaide rather than from Melbourne.

The Kingdom of God is a bit like this.  Sometimes it is obvious where we are, whether we are in or out: Kaniva and Bordertown have different state flags flying, and you know the exact point that the Western Highway becomes the Dukes Highway, even if it’s always the A8.  At other times you just get a sense that something has shifted by observing the signs that are there, which are not the signs you were expecting to see, which you will see if you have wisdom behind your eyes.

My point is that The Church is not the capital city of the Kingdom of God; it is the service town and the border town.  We as the people of God actually live in the border lands, the frontier of the reign of God, knowing that at times we are in one realm (perhaps when we are in worship and fellowship) and at other times in another realm (perhaps when we are engaged in everyday events).  This is okay; this is actually what God intends for us as the ambassadors of the Kingdom: the Bible clearly reads that Heaven is the place of completion and fulfilment so it’s okay to be a Christian in the world and not be in blissful adoration of His Majesty 24/7.  What we must not forget is that, like Serviceton, (named after Mr Service rather than its function), we are to serve those who are coming into the Kingdom.  Church is the “welcome home” at the gate, the “have some water and a nice sit down” in the lounge, the “ladies this way, gents that” next to the rock next to the highway.  And because The Church lives at the edge of The Kingdom sometimes we find ourselves in another state.

Much has been said about Christianity, about Christians, and about our formal institutions in Australia in recent months.  The government launched an inquiry into our caring ministries and we were found wanting.  (The fact that non-Church organisations were seen to be just as guilty is not the point, although it is worth noting.)  Stories of hurting people inside and outside Christian communities where that community was the perpetrator of hurt are not uncommon.  Sometimes the Church has been seen to be of the world but not in it, squabbling in our ecclesiastical corners about things that are beside the point of the gospel.  These things are not okay, but they are not unexpected in a human system trying to engage with the world.

In 2019 let us all seek to live with Christ’s heart, even when we find ourselves suddenly across the border.

Between Times

This is the text of the message I wrote for the December 2018 pewsheet for KSSM.

Many of you heard me say that I spent a decade living in the UK, a decade ago, and that 2003 was a very difficult year.  One of the ways I dealt with the uncertainty of my life’s situation in the dark days was to journal.  Recently I have been thinking about that journal; I have not read for ages but I do remember writing in it.

I remember one day sitting in the public library at Luton reflecting in writing that I was very much in the midst of troubles.  I did not know what the future would hold or how my tumultuous adventures in poverty, isolation, and homelessness would end; but I was entirely confident that “one day” they would end and that I would be alright.  I don’t recall the wording, but I can see myself sitting at the table, I can see the journal in front of me, and I can hear myself thinking as I wrote (even if I can’t see what I wrote) that this was an odd story.  I am in trouble, I know I am in trouble, and I am in the middle of the trouble still, but “one day” the trouble will end.  I don’t know which day or how long until then, but there will be “one day” when God will come and it will be alright.

That day, that good day, was seven months in the future as I wrote.  This Advent season let’s remember that “one day” may not be as soon as we’d like, but the day is coming, and when it arrives it will have Jesus in all glory at its centre.

Damien.

Advent 1C

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva and Serviceton for Advent Sunday, 2nd December 2018.

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36

Today is Advent Sunday, therefore the wreath.  Today we enter a new Christian year as far as the three-year cycle of the Lectionary goes, so, Happy New Year, it is now “The Year of Luke” in case you’re interested.  With the change of season I am wearing purple rather than my usual green, (have you noticed), and today we focus our thinking on the coming of Jesus.  Advent is not only four weeks for preparation for Christmas and our remembrance of the Word becoming Flesh, of God coming to Earth and dwelling amongst us, (the literal phrase is “tabernacled” which basically means that God comes and pitches God’s own tent in our camp); Advent is also when we think about the return of Christ and the fulfilment of all promises made by God.

In our reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning God says that the days are coming when righteousness shall come to the earth as a fulfilment of God’s promise to David.  This righteousness shall bring national and domestic security we read in Jeremiah 33:14-16.  To the original hearers of this message, so Jeremiah himself and the people we spoke to, this meant that God was promising to restore the Davidic monarchy with a king so just and righteous that his personal name would be surpassed by his reputation.  For people who were living in exile this was an amazing promise, because not only would they return from Babylon and Persia to Judea and Jerusalem, but the kingship would be restored through the previous royal family, and the king in the fulfilment would be beyond magnificent in his reign.  This is like the king we heard about last week, a new David for whom the whole nation will shout abundant thanks and praise to God in gratitude.  For Christians reading this passage we get echoes of Christ, of Jesus who will be king beyond all other kings in righteousness and justice.  This is an Advent promise.

And like the king of last week, what we read in Psalm 25 might be the personal prayer of a (new) leader asking God for guidance and wisdom in his reign; and as all great prayers for wisdom in leadership begin this prayer begins in worship.  In my experience as a leader in this community, alongside experience gained in other communities where I have watched leaders and been a leader, I know that I cannot lead anyone unless I am willing to lead myself and to be lead by God.  I cannot lead you as a congregation if I am not under God’s authority and listening for God’s wise counsel.  How can I lead you where I have never been?  I cannot.  And how can I lead you where I am unwilling to go?  Of course I don’t mean the future, I have never been to the future so I can’t lead you there from personal experience; I mean discipleship.  I am no great disciple; I do not think of myself like the scribes of three weeks ago, I am no saint in any but the most grace-filled definition of the word.  But I am a devoted, prayerful, Bible-literate, Christ-centred disciple of God and that is what I want to lead you in.  Where God takes this congregation as a body of devoted disciples is God’s business, and that of the leaders listening to and responding to God’s word.  My job as your pastor, (and specifically in this role right now as the preaching-elder), is to build you into that body of devoted believers and listeners to God’s word.  I cannot do that unless I am first a disciple and a listener.  So it is with the great and future king of Jeremiah 33, if I am to lead these people says the candidate for leadership in Psalm 25:1, then I must start with my own character.  This is a good man, I like this man, he has his priorities straight.  Of course nothing in this Psalm says that it’s a king who is praying only that it is a person seeking guidance and deliverance.  We are told David wrote it, so he’s a man rather than a woman, and he is king at some point in his life; but this is an anybody prayer in that anybody can pray it with confidence that God will answer it.  Listen to me LORD, whoever I am, and keep me close to you.  Teach me about you, teach me your path, teach me your truth, and lead me in those two things.  Forgive me and be gracious when I fall, and remembering your mercy lift me up when I need it.  How great you are God, how wonderful you are in generosity to wait for us and slow down to teach us along the way.  How worthy of praise you are God, you are loving and faithful and good.  There are some more Advent promises, perhaps a little bit hidden, but still there.  This is how one man three thousand years ago found God to be like; if David is to be believed and God is everlastingly loving and faithful then these things are true of God today.  This is what God is like, and you are welcomed into God’s family if you want to take hold of this friend and saviour as Lord.

Our reading from the gospels this morning points us at Luke 21:25-36 where Jesus is teaching the disciples on the Wednesday of his last week.  This event takes place just after Jesus has commented upon the poor widow and her two pennies which we heard about a few weeks back, and some comments from the crowd about how awesome the temple complex is.  Jesus’ response is this passage which speaks about the coming of The Son of Man and the need to watch and be fruitful in the meantime.  And just listen to what he is saying in Luke 21:25-33, the event of the Coming of the Son does not sound pleasant, but you need to get ready because it’s about to happen.  As Christians reading the Bible in 2018 we know that these events did not take place around Nazareth and Beit Lehem when Jesus was born; yes there was a star but there were no great portents and we are not told that the sea went berserk, so we assume that it didn’t.  What seems to be happening is that Jesus is speaking of a time in Jerusalem’s future and Kaniva & Serviceton’s, when the Son of Man comes a second time, coming in all his Godly power and great glory as Luke 21:27 reads.  Perhaps of greater concern to us as Christians reading the Bible in 2018 is that these events did not take place around Jerusalem when Jesus died or in the forty years or so after; indeed they haven’t happened like that at all.  In Luke 21:32 Jesus indicates that these events were about to happen, and that a forty-year deadline was probably generous: so what happened such that what was supposed to happen did not happen?  Well, nothing happened, but that’s not the point.

So, what is the point?  Well the point is what comes next in Jesus’ words, be on your guard as we read in Luke 21:34, and be alert we read in Luke 21:36.  Don’t worry about when it didn’t happen, be ready for when it does.  And how do we be ready?  [Congregation interaction time, how do we be ready?]  Discipleship.  [Weren’t you listening before?]  Yes, discipleship; we get on with acting with righteousness and justice and love with the guidance, grace and equipping of the one who promises to be steadfast and faithful, and who more than three thousand years of Jewish history has proven to be true.  That Jesus may not have been speaking about “this generation” as the actual people alive on that day but referring to an attitude of complacency among religious people which has continued through to this day, is not the point.  That the fully-human Jesus speaking in 30AD may have got God’s timing wrong in his mind is not the point.  That the writers of the gospels working in the 60s-80s AD may have got the God’s timing wrong and wrote into Jesus’ mouth words that Jesus never said, words that would have rung true in Jeremiah’s day and connect better with the then five-centuries-old encouraging story of God’s deliverance of the Jewish exiles and the situation of Jerusalem in the 70s than the situation in the 30s, words that would be an encouragement for Christians in the present situation in Rome or Asia living with Nero and Diocletian and an amphitheatre full of gladiators and lions, is not the point.

Phew!  No, the point is that God is faithful, the promise is sure, the Son of Man shall return, and Christians and Jews need to get busy in the meantime proclaiming the Kingdom of God through lives of faith-filled compassion, love-filled justice, and hope-filled confidence.  That is the point because that is what Advent is all about.

Amen.