This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 20th January 2019, the second Sunday after Epiphany. It was a communion Sunday at Kaniva Uniting Church
Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10
In our reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning we hear God speaking up on behalf of God’s people, and what God says is vindication of the faith of the people in God. Yes Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians, but the people who went into exile remained faithful to God, they “copped it sweet” to use an Australianism, and now they are to be set free and allowed home. When they are freed God will speak up for them, removing their shame and echoing their excitement at what is to come: a newly-directed future with new glory and new reputation. These are not victim-people; they are victor-people, winners through perseverance and trust in The LORD. They shall be a crown of beauty according to Isaiah 62:3, neither forsaken nor desolate but delighted in by God and rejoiced over as a bride newly married to her husband who is God. What an amazing promise for a nation considered by all other nations as weak, defeated, abandoned by its gods, and decidedly unattractive. The spinster hag of the village is now the most beloved bride of The LORD, a princess amongst her neighbours: she has a new name befitting her new status in relationship with God. God who was faithful is now envisaged as husband, the ultimate faithful one who will love the bride with unconditional and abounding love: Jerusalem need never fear shame or isolation again.
In some Jewish sources it is actually Isaiah who speaks out like this, not Godself. I wonder what difference that makes. The message that Jerusalem is the bride of God is not changed that it become the bride of Isaiah, that much is made clear in Isaiah 62:2, but if we look at the first verse and a half we see something else, something exciting, something which is possibly even more exciting than God speaking out on Jerusalem’s behalf. We see the tenacity of the prophet who will not keep silent and who will not sit down until God has rescued the city’s reputation and therefore the glory of God’s own name. This is a leader who loves his people and who is shameless in promoting the fame of God to a scoffing world. “Jerusalem has not been abandoned,” says the prophet, “and God did not forget the people. God was not defeated, God is not ambivalent, God is faithful even when the people weren’t and now God is going to restore the nation to greater glory. I am so confident of this that I am going out on a limb to proclaim this as truth until it occurs.” How confident are we that God is going to come through for us? Are we confident enough to speak to the scoffers and risk our own shame on the reputation of God’s promise of salvation? Remember if this is Isaiah speaking the whole time, even as he is speaking about God, then all of these words are coming from his mouth. There is no fresh promise of God here, Isaiah is remembering his history and saying, in effect, “even though God has not said so today, I remember what God promised in the past and God will be faithful to that word a generation ago.” That’s an even bigger call I think. If God were to speak prophetically to you and through you with a message today which is for today then that’s one thing. But to think that God has essentially been silent in the world for seventy plus years, then suddenly the prophet says “yeah but I have never forgotten, so I’m going to shout it out in public so you remember, and I’m going to keep shouting until it actually happens,” well that’s some bravery right there.
Are any of you up for that today? Have any of you a specific, defiant memory of the promise of God to Australia, or to the Wimmera/Tatiara, that even though God is not speaking through you freshly today you still know the truth from way back and it still fires up your soul today? Anybody? If yes then speak it out, don’t be silent, because now, today, is the time when the rest of us need reminding.
I was speaking with friends recently about how God speaks freshly into old words, and particularly with how as preachers, (my friends and I all preach regularly), how as preachers sometimes we don’t have to write a new sermon each week. Sometimes, and especially with the lectionary, the word you wrote three or six years ago on the same passages speaks truth. Sometimes it’s the word you preached six years ago, or nine, and not the word from three years ago. This is not an excuse to spend the first three years of your ministry writing a lectionary-based sermon every week and then just preach them in rotation for the next decades, but it is often an interesting task to read what God said, and to whom, from these scriptures “last time”. In the course of that conversation I remembered a quote from Joyce Meyer, the famous American preacher, and I heard her say at Hillsong Conference in London in September 2007, “what you need to preach is not a new word, but a now word”. She is right. So often we try to be relevant or current, looking for a fresh revelation each week, and sometimes God says, “but you haven’t got it yet, say the last thing again”, or even “the timeless truth is timeless, nothing has changed, the message is the same.” And as I was writing this sermon in the car on the way to Serviceton this morning I was reminded of a quote from the Senior Pastor of Hillsong Church London at the time of Joyce Meyer’s visit who told us one Sunday “I’m going to keep preaching this until you hear it, because I’ve been saying the same thing for weeks now and I haven’t seen you change. If you’re sick of this message then put it into action and I’ll start talking about something else.” Maybe harsh, maybe a “now word”: we all laughed when he said it, good naturedly of course, and got on with giving him space to say the next thing because we put the current thing into action. The now word for Isaiah was not a new word, it was the old word which was still current.
And so I hope you’ll be happy when this morning I do the obvious. As your lead preacher and one of your pastors I want to seek God’s “now word” for Kaniva and Serviceton. The lectionary guides our Christian tradition readings to the wedding at Cana in John 2, and to Paul’s explanation of the gifts of God’s Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12. Maybe those are God’s directions for us this morning; the story of how Jesus provided for that wedding in many interesting and theological ways, and/or gifts of the Spirit and the ministry we all have within the priesthood of all believers, which would follow neatly on from last week’s message about baptism as our authority to minister, not ordination. Especially since last week’s sermon was actually written in December 2015 and this week’s at 08:55 this morning, and to be honest I’m still making it up as I go along.
And let’s be honest, why would I even want to pass up the opportunity to speak on such a rich and empowering topic as spiritual gifts for ministry? Especially since we are in a place called “Shared Ministry”, duh!, and especially especially since I am 0.8FTE which implies that youse mob really should be picking up 1/5 of the ministerial workload as well as your usual volunteering for the congregation if we are to be an effective witness in our towns.
So, instead, let’s look at Psalm 36:5-10. Huh? Well, just look at it! Your steadfast love extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgements are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike Oh LORD. The song of David, the servant of The LORD, is a “now word” for our church as we stand here on the third Sunday of 2019, the first Sunday in green. How precious is your steadfast love, all people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. In all that we have been gifted for, in all that the unity of God’s people in the Body of Christ implies for our worked-out love for God’s world and the building of the Kingdom of God on Earth, we cannot start, we cannot move, we cannot even open our eyes to awaken if we are not conscious of who God is and what God thinks of us. The message of David in song is the message of Isaiah in both oracle (he’s prophesying) and in action (he’s stating his workable agenda for the next however long it takes). Our message to the world is the same, God is love and extends superabundance in grace, God is righteousness, and God is for us and on our side in the extremes and quietness of each day. The message is urgent, but the means is not frantic: we do not help the world’s rush and bustle to settle if we are shouting impatiently at them. Begin from rest is, I believe, God’s “now word” for Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry in 2019. Maybe (hopefully) this is not all that God has to say to us, maybe it’s just the February word as we begin to enter the working year from our summer holidays. But maybe, maybe if we aren’t starting in the love and abundance of God, maybe if we’re not remembering the promises made to us in the past, maybe if we’re too focussed on getting our ministry on and hitting February with all guns blazing and a head-up of steam to run the race we will miss God’s direction. Yes we have to get going, yes there is much to do, and yes we’re already (almost) a month into this new year; but I don’t want to run even one step, or fire one spiritual shot, or make one pastoral phonecall or attend one church committee meeting without quieting myself to check in with God to hear God’s plan for us. I don’t want us to forget where we came from, and whom. I don’t want us to forget who we are, and whose.
Twenty nineteen is a year of opportunity for us, but to make the most of each opportunity let’s set in place a framework where we are always listening to God whenever it is “now”, so that we are with God when “now” is the time to minister. Oh continue your steadfast love to those who know you; and your salvation to the upright of heart. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.