Still Trusting (WWHS)

This is the devotion I prepared for sharing at West Wimmera Health Service (WWHS) at Kaniva.  The event is a Day Centre devotional/chapel time which is hosted once a week: I have the provilege of leading on the first Tuesday of every month.  This was an extra service filling in for someone who was away.

Isaiah 55:1-9

Isaiah speaks on God’s behalf in issuing an invitation to the thirsty, an invitation extended to anyone who thirsts for what God can provide.  There is no need for money; rich and poor alike are welcome so long as they come with openness and expression of their need for God and their needs from God.

I wonder, what do you need from God?  When I said just now that rich and poor alike are welcome at God’s invitation you may have thought that I was just being poetic.  Yes the poor are welcome, there is no need for money so it doesn’t matter if you can’t afford it, just come.  But the rich?  Why would the rich need an invitation?  Surely they would have just come anyway, after all they can afford to purchase whatever is for sale, and if it’s free then all the better and what a lovely surprise once we’re here.  But the rich would not have stayed away in shame or poverty, so why invite the rich when the rich were already coming?

Any ideas?

Well maybe the rich weren’t coming, because the rich thought they didn’t need to come.  Maybe the rich, because they are rich, have money, milk and wine enough.  After all, you don’t need to go to the shops, even for free stuff, when your pantry is full.  If you’re not thirsty then an invitation to the thirsty doesn’t interest you.  Maybe you’ll hold back out of a sense of charity and let the poor go first, or maybe you’ll just ignore the invitation entirely.  Either way, God’s invitation might go unmet by you and you just won’t come, and that’s sad.  Where it says in Isaiah 55:1, without money and without cost perhaps the fact that you have money enough means that if you do come to God there will be a cost, a cost to your pride, and that’s too much cost to bear, especially if you are rich in money, milk and wine.

So I think even though Isaiah is just issuing God’s invitation, and without judgement or interpretation, he’s just an amplifier of the quiet voice in his heart which speaks God’s truth, he knows that the message will go unheard by some.  Why spend money on what does not feed, he asks (or rather God asks through him in Isaiah 55:2), advising to feed on what is good so that your soul will delight.  In other words, I don’t care how well stocked your cellars are, and how awesome is your dairy operation, feed from God’s provision and you will be blessed.

When I lived in England I had a strange encounter with God.  I was shopping in the local Tesco with my housemate, and with our boss-slash-landlord, since it was a ministry organisation I was attached to.  I felt in my chest and heard a voice in my head say that I was not to be shopping: that whatever I needed I was to allow my boss-slash-landlord to pay for.  He found me in one of the aisles, crying, with my basket on the floor.  He asked what the matter was and I said, “I’m not allowed to shop, I mustn’t actually pay for anything.” He said to me, “well okay, give me your basket and I’ll pay; if that’s what God has told you then that is what we need to do.” That situation lasted for five months, indeed the whole time I stayed at that house.  Food was donated to the ministry, and money came in too, “to support Damien”, but I never bought any food or groceries in the time I was there.  Even my housemate would come home from his own shopping and say “this is for you” and give me a packet of frozen fish fingers or something.  That was an incredibly humbling experience for me: not embarrassing as I knew I was obeying God and the men around me knew it too, but it was kinda hard.  Now I know that God has me in mind at all times, and that I am safe and provided for.  Now I am confident to direct my labour only to what satisfies, as Isaiah 55:2 says, which is not to say that I rely on others to pick up the tab, or that I am happy to be a burden to others, but to say that if God wants to pay my way while I minister and serve the Kingdom then that is what God can do.

I am not too rich to have God care for me, and because of that I have never been too poor for God to find me and feed me.  But that does not mean it isn’t hard.

Isaiah, and perhaps God in Isaiah’s mouth, counsels us to seek God while God may be found and to call upon God while God is near.  This is another wonderful invitation, but it is another one with a hidden threat.  Is there really a time and space limit?  Will there be a time when God cannot be found, or God is not near and therefore cannot hear us if we call?  I don’t want to get into the theology of the near-and-farness of God, so let’s just cut to the chase and say that if you hear God’s invitation then it’s best to respond straight away, and with complete trust that you will be welcomed and provided for.  Sometimes what God asks us to do is baffling, God’s ways are not our ways as Isaiah 55:8 reminds us; but hey, if God is the one asking then who am I to say no?  Trust and obey – there is no other way.

 

Amen.

Yeah-yeah! (Yeah-nah)

This is the text of the message I prepared for proclamation at Kaniva Church of Christ on Sunday 24th March 2019, the Sunday of Annunciation.  It was a combined, ecumenical service with the Anglican, Church of Christ, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, and Uniting Churches of Kaniva gathered.

Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 40:5-10; Luke 1:26-38; Hebrews 10:4-10

I am blessed to be able to address you all today.  By “all” I mean a gathering of Christians beyond my regular congregation; and by “today” I really mean tomorrow.  (Except that none of you would have come tomorrow, so today will have to do.)  What’s so special about tomorrow you might ask?  Well if you don’t know, find an Anglican or a Roman Catholic and let that person tell you.  (And if that person doesn’t know, tell me and then I’ll dob them in to Fr Nagi.)  Tomorrow, in those flavours of Christianity who pay attention to such things, is 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.  So, for those of you from Protestant traditions, for whom this is not a central event, have a think about it; it’s nine months tomorrow until Christmas day.  Have you heard of that idea before?  March 25th as the date of Jesus’ conception, yeah?  Yeah.

Well if you did know that, well done, but do 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 rejoice” back in December.

So tomorrow is potentially the two thousand and twenty third anniversary of the annunciation, and possibly the one thousand nine hundred and eighty-ninth anniversary of the real “Good Friday”.  It probably isn’t, but that doesn’t matter: it’s a good opportunity to be reminded that Jesus really was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried.  We may not all say the creed, but we all acknowledge the truth of Christ Jesus who is The Word Incarnate.

But what’s the point?  Well other than showing that “I is well ecumenical” and that even as a Uniting Church minister in a Church of Christ house I am on the ball with the varied flavours of Protestants, Anglicans, and Catholics in my town at large and congregation this morning, (and in my personal history as a worshipping Christian in this country and the United Kingdom), I believe that annunciation is actually worth celebrating just for what it commemorates.

So what does it commemorate?  Well it commemorates God choosing someone ordinary and anonymous for the most amazing act in all of global history.  Jesus is God the Son: on earth he lived as the Son of God and the Son of Man; exalted today in Heaven he reigns with the Father and the Spirit as Christ the Lord, King and Messiah.  But Mary?  Nah, Mary was just Miriam the teenager from Nazareth.  God did not choose Mary because she was special; Mary was special because God chose her.

And if God chose Mary, God can choose you.

But that’s not the whole story, is it?  Is it?  Well I’ve just told you it isn’t, so “no” is the answer I’m looking for here.

Take a look at Ahaz, whom God also chose.  We find part of his story in today’s set text from the Hebrew tradition, specifically Isaiah 7:10-14.  So as far as choosing proof-texts for annunciation goes this is a good one because we read where God previews the name and character of Jesus’ birth in the days of pre-exilic Judah: a young woman will give birth to a son who shall be named Immanuel, a name which means God with us.  But remember that Isaiah who spoke this word didn’t think he was addressing a peasant family in Galilee seven hundred and thirty years later; he is speaking to the king of his day in the culture of his day.  That Matthew 1:23 quotes this verse as proof to Joseph that the baby in Mary’s womb is God’s own is appropriate, I’m not saying it isn’t, but the point that Isaiah was making is very important and must not be overlooked in our rush toward Christmas.

The story around Ahaz, king of Judah, direct descendant of David and ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:9), is that Jerusalem is in peril from military attack and siege.  As king Ahaz has a few options, one is to form an alliance with Assyria which is the local superpower, and thereby come under its protection (in brackets “protraction racket”).  Another option is to seek to maintain Judah’s national independence and integrity by trusting in Jehovah and the promises made to Abraham and David of an eternal home from the Judahites and an eternal throne for the Davidic family.  Jehovah personally intervenes in the decision making process, speaking through the court prophet Isaiah, to say “I am God and here’s a tangible event to show that I’m with you, or even I AM (YHWH) is with you”, and then the baby thing.  That girl, yes that one, will have a child, which will be a boy, who shall be named “God is with us” because…well…I AM God and I am with you.  Isn’t that great?  A personal message from God to a leader in distress, with real evidence.  And just look at how this son of David, a son of Abraham, responds to this declaration of God’s faithfulness.  “Ahm, yeah-nah.” It probably sounds more epic in Hebrew, but essentially Isaiah 7:12 reads “yeah-nah”.

Yeah-nah.  Yeah-nah?  I mean, what the actual is “yeah-nah”?  God says “ask me for anything you wish as evidence that I am with you” and Ahaz says…well you know what Ahaz says.  The point is not the piety of Ahaz, “do not put the Lord to the test” is in Deuteronomy and is also one of the things Jesus says to the accuser during his temptations, so it sounds good.  But it’s not good.  No, it’s not good because Ahaz isn’t really saying what Jesus said.  Jesus said “I don’t need miracles to trust God, I trust God because God is trustworthy”: Jesus is no Gideon, no fleece required.  What Ahaz is actually saying is, “no, I’ve already made up  my mind to choose the Assyrian option, the alliance where the Holy Nation of God becomes a vassal to the evil empire, and I don’t want God to interfere.”  I’ve made up my mind, I’m going to do it my way, shut up and go away Jehovah.

Is that a statement of faith?  Is that a statement of submission and piety?  Yeah-nah.

And so we get back to Miriam the Galilean teen.  She was nobody special, but God chose her.  Ahaz was somebody special, and God chose him.  But Miriam did not become special because God chose her, just as Ahaz did not become special when God chose him.  Ahaz was already special, Miriam was still a peasant.  Miriam became special, became “The Blessed Virgin” and all that we read her say about herself in the Magnificat, and all that Elizabeth says about her, and all that the jumping Baptist in-utero pronounced, and all that the angel said to her and Joseph about her, when she said “yes” as we read in Luke 1:38.  (And effectively Ahaz lost his specialness when he said “yeah-nah” and walked away from God’s anointing.)

Today’s psalm, which is echoed in today’s reading from the Christian tradition, is about obedience to the call of God.  In Psalm 40:6-10, and quoted by the apostle on behalf of Jesus in Hebrews 10:5-7, we read how God is more impressed, indeed most impressed by attention to the Word which leads to obedience.  Ritual and the trappings of religion are not in themselves bad things, God does desire them and God ordained them as the means of grace for Jews.  Do not misread the scripture here, the call to worship is good.  But when God speaks to you and singles you out for a ministry, then your calling and your responsibility are to that beyond the duty to go to church.  The other girls of Nazareth were not damned for not being the mother of Jesus: by continuing to do what obedient Jewish daughters do, and by continuing to worship God within their households their obedience and worship were accounted to them as righteousness.  But Mary had a unique call, and her faith-filled response to God above worship and her relationship with her husband and family was accounted to her righteousness.  And look at what she did, having heard from the angel and accepting God’s invitation, the first thing she does is praise God and the second thing she does is nick off to Judea to be midwife for her cousin.  Mary the beloved of God, highly favoured and blessed amongst women is no less a good Jewish girl for her calling, she is all of that and more.

So, liturgically minded or not, user of ocker phrases or not, how do you respond to God’s call to you today?  Whether your response is “yeah-righto Jesus, I’ll give it a burl” or “be thou to me as thou wouldst desirest it sovereign Lord”, I pray that you would respond with delight, joy, excitement, obedience, humility, and love.

Today is the day to say yes.  Say yes today, so that when the Annunciation is made tomorrow you can tell the messenger of the Lord “I said yes yesterday, and it’s yes today as well”.

Amen.

Recall The Story (Lent 1C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM to be proclaimed on Sunday 10th March 2019.

Deuteronomy 26:5b-10a; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

In this morning’s set reading from the Hebrew traditions Moses addresses the Hebrew People on the edge of the Promised Land, and he tells them about the future.  This People who had been slaves for 400 years and asylum seekers for 40 years would find rest.  When, in generations to come, the people who have become farmers will, in the context of the annual festival of harvest thanksgiving, bring in the tithes and the offerings of first fruits, the Jews were to recite this liturgy.  The liturgy is a poem, the story in verse of “a wandering Areamean”, and how God was faithful to him and to all descendent generations according to the promise.  Remember, none of this has happened yet, Moses is preaching in the Jordanian wilderness and no one has set foot in Israel for a generation.  This song was to become a reminder of who God is in the daily life of the individual and the national life of the settled Hebrews.

I wonder how that went.  Did the Hebrews, who then became Israelites and Judahites, and then Jews in exile, and then Samarians and Judeans in an occupied land under various empires, and then Jews in exile once again, and in our day are known as Israelis who live amongst Palestinians (who used to be called Philistines) actually do this?  Were there actual harvest festivals like God had decreed and Moses explained, and did the tithes and first fruits ever come into the temple?  The Biblical and historical records suggest yes; it seems that as late as the time of Jesus there was a living memory, recited at least, of who Israel was and who Israel’s God was.  History also tells us that the temple was destroyed in 70, and that it has never been rebuilt.  There has never been a tithes and offerings festival at the temple Jerusalem since then, yet Judaism remains and the calendar remains, and the right time for the festival rolls around every year when the harvest of whatever land the Jews live in is gathered.  There seems to be something in this story, a story that has been told for almost three and a half millennia, (since 1500 BCE) and which was written down two and a half millennia ago, which has continued to enrich the culture whose story it is.  God is faithful, God provides in season, and God is worthy to be praised; so the Jews have learned.  But this is not some rote piece of creed or a memory verse, it is the moral of the story, and the story is (the man) Israel as a metaphor for all who are destitute and placeless until God intervenes.  The Jews have always known that God is faithful because they have never failed to continue to tell their children the nationally personal story, even in foreign lands and foreign languages.

Recently I was invited to speak into the life of a young writer.  When I say young she is younger than me, but she is also of my cohort, so she’s no teenager.  Anyway this young woman has been journaling and worshipping and she sought my advice, amongst the advice of other trusted friends, about publishing her work and going on with God into a writing and teaching career: seminars and the like.  I’m not going to tell you her story, that’s for her to tell; and I’m not going to tell you how her story and my story run parallel and why the advice I gave her was especially pertinent.  I am going to tell you what my advice was, because I think it fits the story told by Moses and the Jews as well.  The advice is this: tell the story of God in your life, don’t tell the story of your life where God occurred.  The actual wording I used for her was tell the story of Jesus and quote yourself as a source, don’t tell the story of you.  In every faith story Jesus is the hero, you are the narrator and the researcher.  Looking at Deuteronomy 26:5c-9 the story is really about God’s faithfulness that we know about because it was us and our ancestors that God was faithful.  The story is not about us the downtrodden slave-mob for whom God intervened.  We are in the story, we are telling the story, but it is God’s story because it is about God.

When we look at a story about Jesus, and we did that earlier in Luke 4:1-13, things get interesting.  Who is the hero of Jesus’ story, is it Jesus or is it God the Father?  If the hero of my story is actually Jesus, and every story I tell is testament to his glory, who is supposed to be the hero of Jesus’ story?  What we read in Luke 4, and this is as much the case in Matthew 4 where he tells a similar but not identical story, is that Jesus lived a life of thanksgiving and humble adoration of Father, even from the outset.  In knocking down the accuser’s attacks on his character and calling Jesus made it quite clear that he didn’t need to test God to prove God to himself, and he had no interest in spectacular activities to show off God or his own faith to prove God to others.  Jesus already knew he was saved by grace through the covenant between God and Abraham, and Jesus knew as Paul would later write in Romans 10:10-11 that his salvation was evident through his trust in God.  Throughout his ministry Jesus encouraged other Jews (participants in the covenant) to trust God and know God as Father.  So even for Jesus, at least as far as he was a man from Nazareth, the hero of the story is God the faithful one, not Jesus the brave and hungry one.

Today’s Psalm, 91, speaks with the same theme.  At first glance it appears to be directed to people rather than God, as if it’s advice for believers or perhaps even a priestly blessing or benediction rather than a hymn of praise.  It’s something that I might say to you as a reminder of who you are to God, rather than a prayer which I recite to God on your behalf as your worship leader.  Well it’s actually that at second glance too, advice to people, and a longer reading demonstrates that this is a story about God told by the psalmist and the leader of worship as a lesson of personal experience.  Again it’s not “I was faithful and God rewarded me by blah-de-blah-blah”, it’s “God is faithful in this way, and in brackets I should know”.  And the message itself is consistent with what Moses has already told the Hebrews; and Jesus and Paul would tell the later generation of Jews; that you will find shelter and trust in The LORD, the great refuge who keeps you from harm.  God holds me above danger (and perhaps Jesus might interject “even in the midst of the greatest temptation”), and gifts me the fullness of life.

So by the time we get to Paul, and to his letter to the Roman Christians, we have the beginning of faith in Jesus as The LORD.  Paul speaks of Jesus as Jesus spoke of the Father, but remember that he is speaking of the exalted and resurrected one who reigns at the right hand of the throne of Heaven. This Jesus can be the hero of your story, even as the itinerant rabbi of Nazareth wasn’t the hero of his own story, because the one we follow is God-made-Human, Word-made-Blood.  We follow The Son; we don’t merely adhere to the teachings of a wise guru who demonstrated incredible perseverance in the Outback.  Jesus will tell you that what sustained him in the wilderness was his faith in God, not his faith in himself.  Now that Jesus has returned to God, to be God once more in company with The Father and The Spirit, and to take up all that which was laid down (according to Philippians 2:5-11), we can have confidence in him.  Our salvation is “made effective” to use a liturgical phrase, that is to say it is evident (you can see it for yourself) and it is efficacious (it actually does the thing) when we declare the truth, which comes out of the heart.  It’s Romans 10:10 which says that, and Romans 10:13 can be paraphrased into the language of Psalm 91 to add that all who declare their shelter to be God will be saved.  If you can name God as shelter then you also know in your heart (i.e. by instinct and to the extent of muscle-memory) where your shelter is when you need one.  I don’t even have to think, when there is trouble I run to God, and then I am safe (and therefore I am saved).  What is unique in Paul, something he alone says and that the Psalmist and Moses did not say, is that you don’t have to be a blood descendent of Jacob to have this: if you trust God and you call upon God you will be saved by God, (or you are safe in God).  The sentences that make up Romans 10:12-13 are a direct pull from Joel 2:32, Paul is quoting Hebrew scripture, in this instance “The Prophets” part of “The Law and The Prophets” to make a point, that in Christ all are welcome in God’s safe house.

So, where does this put us?

Well, it puts us in the place of witness.  With all that God has said to us about proclamation and the need to speak the hard truth into the present day, this message is somewhat easier to follow, I hope.  Speak about God, tell of God’s glory, and tell of how God has rescued and blessed you.  In a church with a strong theology of the priesthood of all believers you should all be bringing your offerings to God.  I am your pastor, not your priest: you don’t need me to burn a sheep on your behalf.  I am the lead preacher in this place, the only one paid to preach and with a certain responsibility to go deeper than those of you who volunteer to speak once in a while, but that doesn’t mean that my testimony is more effective than yours, merely that I am better trained in public speaking and theology than you.  You and I preach the same Jesus, and we can all share the story of how God has saved us individually.  If we want God’s Church to grow in the Wimmera, and if we want there to be a Christian Church in Kaniva and Serviceton in the generations to come, it is the responsibility of each one of us to tell the story of God to our children and to our neighbours.  If you’re not sure how to do that, well let me teach you.  If you don’t need teaching that’s great, but what are you waiting for?

Have at it, go and tell.

Amen.