Hidden Figures

The 2017 film Hidden Figures gives rise to questions of what minority members of the professionals in other fields might have to offer.  If an African-American woman can use her mathematics to facilitate safe space travel in the dawning decade of such endeavours, I wonder where the leading edges are now, and who is being cut-off from riding those edges because of hubris and prejudice.

My field is the Reign of God.  I want to understand the nature and implementation of the Kingdom of Heaven, and I want to repeat and reinterpret for today the central message of Jesus concerning what life is like within God’s intent for the world.  What does it mean that there is a dawning reality where son-daughters of God live in a world which has been recreated to promote life without evil or distress?  How do we go about welcoming and facilitation such a realm’s arrival?

So, first I ask who is being excluded and who is the “nigress” of today’s theology.  Is she even in the Church, I’d say yes, is she in some form of ministry, again yes.    The “Colored Computers” worked for NASA, just not in the location of their most effectiveness.  So, then I ask, who do we have in the Church but in the back room, who do we insist drink from a segregated coffee pot and relieve herself in a segregated, isolated toilet?

Who is doing the work while today’s theological Anglo Alpha-males get the credit?

Who is heralding the change, bringing “the math” that would help us all to reach the moon?

Perhaps I’d better find out.

Advertisements

The Call (Second Sunday after Epiphany: Year B)

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

When I was living in England the last job that I had, before I returned to Australia, was in a prison where I worked as an Operational Support Grade officer or OSG.  One day I was outside the prison, doing some work near the gatehouse, when a voice yelled across from the visitors’ carpark.  “Oi screw!” came the voice.  I ignored it.  “Oi!  Oi screw!” came the voice again.  I looked up, and could see a man looking in my direction, but standing thirty metres away and near the door to the visitors’ centre, the place where visiting family and friends wait before being allowed into the prison on visiting days.  I looked down again.  “Screw!” came the demand, “oi screw I’m talking to you!”  Still nothing from me.  “Screw!  Feckin screw, screw!”  Nothing.  Eventually the man gave up.  I didn’t see where he went, whether he entered the prison or went back to his car; I didn’t look.

Why did I not answer, you might ask.  Well it’s simple really, he wasn’t talking to me; and I believe that if you’re not talking to me then it is rude of me to answer you.  I know he wasn’t talking to me because my name is not, nor has it ever been, “Screw”.  My name certainly isn’t “Oi Screw”.  The fact that I was the only other person in the area, and that I was wearing the Queen’s uniform of HM Prisons Service, is beside the point.  Had he wished to speak to me I’m sure he would have come over to me and politely said “excuse me OSG”.  But since he didn’t, he can’t have been speaking to me.

Oddly enough this isn’t the first time I’ve heard someone not speaking to me.  Often students at the school I told you about two weeks ago would yell “Oi Squeak”, or “Oi Aussie”, or occasionally “Oi Tanny” on campus.  I don’t know who those people are, if they are people at all, but since my name is “Mr Tann” or “Sir” the students can’t have been speaking with me, so I didn’t get involved.  Similarly, here in Australia, I’m not sure who “Oi blind maggot” is, but since my name is “goalie” or “umpie” again I am polite enough to stay out of other people’s conversations, especially when they already sound rather cross.

As was read to us this morning from 1 Samuel 3:3 the lamp of God, the light which symbolised the presence of God in the sanctuary, was still alight when Samuel laid down to rest in preparation for sleep when God spoke.  Since The Voice of The LORD was rarely heard in those days Samuel, who was in the actual sanctuary and lit by the lamp of presence, responded to his name believing it had come from the priest.  Maybe Samuel thought that even if The LORD did speak that God would only address the priest, so the voice he heard could not have been The Voice of The LORD since it was directly addressed to him, Samuel, by name.  Three times the voice came, three times Samuel responded promptly by running in to Eli’s presence.  Kind of like me waiting for a polite summons to listen to someone, any my ignoring any impolite tone or name as indicating that the voice could not have been directed toward me, Samuel knew the inverse; that he couldn’t have been hearing The Voice of The LORD because The LORD doesn’t speak to small boys.   Unlike me, Samuel was called by name, and at last he recognised The LORD’s summons, or at least he followed Eli’s instruction, and God spoke to him.

Did you notice, right at the beginning of this reading, that Samuel was already engaged in ministry when he was called to?  In the second part of 1 Samuel 3:1 it says that he was singled out for a rare honour because visons were not widespread and in 1 Samuel 3:2 we are told that the sparsity of visions did not matter much since Eli was going blind anyway.  When The LORD spoke to the boy, and bypassed the priest in doing so, Samuel’s work of priestly ministry was expanded to encompass the work of prophecy.  The Voice of The LORD spoke, out of the blue, to a boy, and thereafter The LORD spoke through Samuel because Samuel was willing to be used as an amplifier.  Samuel showed his willingness to be used by God, even in his ignorance of The Voice of The LORD, by engaging in priestly ministry.  The one who had amplified God’s ministry in ministering would be used to amplify God’s message in prophesying.

What are you doing now, in God’s work, that God can ask you to do something else for the Kingdom?

I know that I have been called by God.  I do not say that to boast, or to make myself superior to you.  As all are called to ministry within the Kingdom of God, those who belong to that Kingdom at least, I am called.  I am a Christian, I am a Christ worshipper and Christ follower, and part of that is lived out in what I do for Christ in the world.  I hope you can say the same, even though none of you do what I do.  One of the things that gives me confidence to follow God in the footsteps of Jesus, and also in the footsteps of those who walked in the footsteps of Jesus, is that I know that God knows what I am capable of.  God will often take me beyond what I think I can do, but God has never taken me beyond what God can do through me nor beyond where God can save me if I stumble.

Early in my time in England things were not going well and my life was equal parts adventure and adversity, sometimes unequal parts in fact with adversity in the majority.  One time when I was crying into the phone to Australia my mum, in her regular attempts to get me to come home, said to me, “I don’t know what to do Damie, God has taken you out of my depth.”  I remember that being a turning point, one of many and not the final one, but a turning point nonetheless when I realised that God might have taken me out of my mother’s depth, and she was struggling as a loving mother with the distress her darling boy was undergoing, but God had not actually taken me put of my depth.  I was on tiptoe for sure, and in fact I had to swim after that, but I can swim, and I did swim and God swam me into deeper water where I learned to swim harder.  What we read from Psalm 139 this morning is the same message.  God knows me.  God knows me “in the Biblical sense”, for all of the intensity band passion that phrase suggests.  Before I was knit together in my mother’s womb, 32 years before the anguished phone calls between the mouth attached to the heart attached to that same womb and my adult ears, God knew what God was doing.  Because I have swum hard, very hard, but never have I drowned, I am confident, utterly confident in God.

Sort of like Samuel, but sort of not, when God took me from the ministry of pastoral care as a school chaplain on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia and reset me through five years and two more degrees at university to minister as a preacher and pastor, currently in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria, I followed God without question.  The one who knows me in the Psalm 139 sense has my permission to call me in the 1 Samuel 3 sense because I am so well known, so thoroughly understood.  I don’t say that to boast in my prestige as a minister, a lay preacher with a long-term contract, not at all.  I boast in the Lord Jesus Christ and the empowering grace of The Holy Spirit with the word of my testimony.  My life’s story is that God is dependable.  I was ministering, and God called me to minister bigger, and I trusted God to go with that because God had proved Godself faithful way, way ago.

So as your brother in Christ, a simple yet dedicated Christian, and in no way your senior pastor (which I’m not) or the ordained priest (which I am so, so not), again I ask you: what are you doing now, in God’s work, that God can ask you to do something else for the Kingdom?

Perhaps your answer is that you aren’t doing anything.  Now that is not true because I know you; not in the Biblical sense but I’ve been here four months now and I am familiar enough with each of you to know that there are no passengers on our mission bus in Yallourn and Morwell.  So, you are each doing something.  So, we’ve sorted that one.

Perhaps your answer now, because I didn’t let you get away with the first one, is that you aren’t interested in doing more.  “Yes, okay Damien I am doing, but I’m happy with what I’m doing, and God is more than welcome to ask someone else to step up.  Don’t let me stand in God’s way of asking someone who is not me.  No, no really, you first mate.”  And you know what, that’s fine with me.  It’s not fine in the sense that I am defeatist, or that I don’t have confidence in you, that’s not what I’m saying.  It’s fine because I am confident to the extent of my ministry to leave your ministry up to God.

I don’t know you in the Psalm 139 way, but I know that God knows you like that.  So,

  • If God is calling you onward today then my job is to open opportunities for you to serve in this place, a job I share with the elders at Yallourn and Morwell.
  • If God is calling you to sit and rest, as in “well done good and faithful servant”; and you see out your days as an active worshipper and a retired missionary then praise God.
  • If God is calling you to sit and rest, as in “take a breather, I’ll be back for you in the fullness of time and it’s going to be epic”; and you spend a season here as an active worshipper, active in private prayer and discernment, and a recuperating missionary then praise God.

Just let me know eh, but please be polite and call me Damien won’t you.

Amen.

Named and Presented (Christmas 1B)

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

I will rejoice greatly because I am overwhelmed with joy in the LORD we read in Isaiah 61:10. These words spring from the mouth of Zion, the embodiment of God’s people in the form of a woman declaring her praise for the wonderful rescue she has seen at the LORD’s hands. She who has remained faithful to God has been rewarded with the full blessing of God’s faithfulness to her.  She is clothed with salvation and there is a sense in which she is wrapped in the loving embrace of belonging.  She is encompassed by God’s goodness regardless of the damage and dirt she knows lies underneath her fresh white dress.  The just actions of the LORD are praiseworthy and Zion sings praises at the top of her voice, praising and praising and Isaiah commends her for it.  Indeed, this passage bubbles over with praise, it is exuberant and lush with imagery and excitement.  There is a new name for Zion in Isaiah 62:3, a name which represents God’s personal pledge to change the status of the people, a name which itself declares God’s praise.  As Paul said to the Galatians, no longer will we be known as slaves because now God calls us beloved children.

Fourteen years ago, I began work as a specialist teacher in an Education Support Centre in the city of St Albans in England.  At one of the schools to which I was sent, to work with teenaged boys in danger of exclusion from school, the Headmaster was named Mr Andrew Wellbeloved.  Isn’t that a great name to have?  He sounds like some rotund and jolly character from a novel by Dickens don’t you think?  “Mr Wellbeloved.”  I would be proud to have a name like that and Andrew Wellbeloved obviously had ancestors who were held in high regard by their neighbours to have been given such a name as that.  I’m not sure how many school principals would be awarded such a name by their students today, indeed I know exactly what the boys I worked alongside called their teachers and “Wellbeloved” never made the top ten.  However, according to Isaiah and Paul God has given each of us this new name; so regardless of who you are now, or what your current name is, God thinks of you as Mr or Ms Wellbeloved because you are well beloved by God.

Like Mr Wellbeloved’s name, the name of God carries a message in itself.  It is not just a label; it is a description of the label’s owner.  My names are Damien Paul, which in turn mean “the one who tames”, and “small”.  Tann does not mean “light brown” or “worked leather” as you might have thought; Tann is the name of at least two towns in Bavaria, and traditionally it means in German someone who lives in a forest.  Our family coat of arms features three pinecones, three rampant pinecones.  Now I’m not sure how accurate a description “the tame-making little feral” is of me, but it does have meaning on some level.  In fact, I was named after two saints, St Damien who worked with lepers and St Paul the Evangelist.  And my surname comes from my dad, and his dad before him, and so forth back up the generations of our family pine tree.  With my name I have a heritage, a mission, and a network of belonging.

Psalm 8 tells us that the name of God is majestic; it carries a message.   Emmanuel, God-with-Us is the name we sing of Jesus.  Jesus’ name, Yehoshua in Hebrew and what he would have heard when summoned, means “God’s salvation” or “God saves.”  It is the name Joshua, and is also the name of the disciple of Moses who lead God’s people into the Promised Land.  God was made known to the Hebrews by the name YHWH, “I AM” or “I WILL BE”.  Our God, the God of us, is the God Who Is: no other god is like our God the eternal, living oneness.

Paul wrote to the Celtic people of Asia telling them that when Jesus came he did so at the right time.  The baby who is God-with-Us and God’s Salvation came for the Jews and for the Gentiles, so that anyone who acknowledged Christ as saviour would also belong to God.  Paul understood the entry of the Christ into the world as a turning point in history:  Jesus was born like any other boy of his day, from a human womb and into the human world of Jewish culture and religion.  Yet during his life he brought about a change in the state of humankind, from slaves of circumstance to the children of God.  Because of Jesus humankind would no longer be trapped in the endless cycle of suffering, pain, defeat, and disappointment, but women and men would be released to live in God’s pattern of life within flow the God colours and God flavours of the world.  Paul makes this point in first person singular tense in Galatians 4:7, this message is for each of us individually: you are a son or daughter of God.  The evidence of this is that we may address God as Abba, “daddy” or “dear Father”, the word still used by Hebrew speakers about their well-beloved fathers. As with God’s own name, the new name God gives us is majestic as we each have the new name “child of God” and we no longer have the old name “slave of circumstance”.

In the nativity and temple dedication stories of Luke 2 we read that Jesus was all things special and at the same time nothing special.  The one born to be King, Saviour and Lord went home after church and just grew up like any other kid.  This is just like Psalm 8 where mere humankind is seen as only a little lower than God.  Jesus was a mere human and like all other Jewish boys he was taken to the temple by his father to be circumcised and named formally by the priest on duty.   The ritual sacrifices offered to redeem him as a first-born son, and to purify his mother from her uncleanness at having given birth were also offered.  Even the birthing of the Messiah, God-made-Boy, was ritually defiling for the woman who was delivered of him.  Miriam and Yehoshua were just another pair of mother and child, tender and mild, among many thousands.

Yet within the context of this one ordinary family the truth is revealed that the God of Abraham is the God of all people; women and men, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, old and young.   Simeon and Anna are a man and a woman.  Simeon waits for God in the Court of the Gentiles where anyone can come and be close to the House of God; Anna is one stage further in to the temple complex in the Court of the Women which was a place for Jews only.  Mary offered birds rather than a lamb for her sacrifice of purity, demonstrating that their family was poor.  The message of Jesus’ birth, and the meaning of his name, is that God’s salvation is for all nations; the Word-made-Flesh, The Word of God, the word is that other nations are not the enemies of God to be destroyed, but other children of God to be included.

The events that involve Simeon and Anna took place as Mary and Joseph were entering the temple, so probably happen before Jesus and Mary were formally blessed.  Simeon and Anna were not priests, but as worshippers of God serving God in the temple they were ready when God chose to act to unveil more of God’s unique revelation.  Simeon recognised that Jesus was the saviour of all people, and in his hymn of praise he said that he could see God’s salvation completed in the child in his arms.  Jesus will bring truth to light and he will affect discernment in the community.  Simeon tells Mary that when Jesus is an adult this work of discernment and his prophetic naming of sin and injustice will see him opposed and rejected.   Be warned young mother, your son is indeed the Messiah of God, but his story will be painful for you.

Anna, we are told, is an Asherite; her ancestry is the tribe of Asher which we tend to think of as a bit of an also-ran tribe.  After all, the Asherites were not the Judahites, the royal line of King David and of Jesus’ father Joseph.  The Asherites are not the Benjaminites, the tribe of King Saul and of St Paul.  The Asherites are not the Levites, the priestly tribe of Zechariah, Elisabeth, and John the Baptiser.  Yet where the Levitical priest Zechariah had lived in the hope that God’s time for liberation had come, (have a look at Luke 1:68-79 for his hymn of praise at the birth of John), Anna the Asherite also-ran sees in Jesus the hope of liberation for Jerusalem.  Once more we see the story of no-one special, Anna is not special compared to Zechariah or Paul, but she receives the same message from God that the priest and the Pharisee received, the message of God’s present-day action for liberation and release.

So, what is the message?  No matter who you think you are, and no matter from where you have come, God wants to tell you about the hope found in accepting the love and future that God has for you, you as an individual.  The message of today, this last day of a soon to be passed year is that no person is ordinary to God.

For those who have never heard the message, the message is that you are loved, you are noticed, you are special, and you are wanted.  You may well go home this morning to an ordinary life and an ordinary job, but so did Jesus after he was dedicated at the temple.  Baby Jesus was not forgotten, God had a plan for him and God has a plan for you.  So, listen up to the ordinary people around you, they might just have amazing words of life and inspiration if you’re willing to hear it from them.

And for those of you who have the message, and yet think yourselves ordinary because you are not a Levite or a King, well join the work of Anna the Asherite and speak about what you know.  After all Christian sisters and brothers, we have a gospel to proclaim: Yehoshua Emmanuel.

God saves, and God is with us.

Amen.

 

Love Re-Advented

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell Uniting Church for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B.  It was Sunday 24th December 2017

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55

The story that Christianity tells about Advent and Christmas is about many things, but one of the main things is newness.  God did a new thing when “Word became Flesh”, God in all God’s God-ness came into the world as a male human baby.  But that new thing was not without precedent, since God was honouring a promise and God was faithful to the world in the way that God had always been, and how God has always been since the ascension of Jesus.  So, there’s another thing about Advent, God’s new thing is about God’s long-term faithfulness.

The story found in today’s Psalm is a reminder that God has loved humankind in very practical ways through the ministry work of Israel, and God has remained faithful to all the promises of the covenant.  The prophets through the ages from Samuel who anointed David, Nathan who advised David, and the prophets who spoke to later kings, all proclaimed God’s faithfulness and God’s desire that the people remain faithful, (Psalm 89:3-4).  God who is consistent, who we declare to be the same yesterday, today and forever, is also constantly changing, working with each new king in the best way for that king and his situation.  So, by the time of Ethan, the Ezrahite, who re-wrote an earlier song of Israel’s king to suit his circumstance as a hope-filled exile, Ethan can find much for which to praise God.  Even though the people’s unfaithfulness and disobedience has caused their downfall as a nation, Ethan can declare that God is no less worthy of praise because God is still faithful, (Psalm 89:1-2).

Looking back on Ethan’s song today; and as Christians we are looking back through the life of Jesus, we see that in the baby in the manger is the fulfilment of God’s promises.  In Jesus the Israelites were given a king directly descended from David and the royal family, (Psalm 89:19-20).  Israel was given a man who would lead them in worship, and a man who would point them towards a new and complete revelation of God as a faithful and loving father: something they had always known but had also tended to forget, (Psalm 89:26, 28).  The exiled Israelites believed that they had been forgotten; they were confused and felt abandoned and betrayed in Babylon and Persia.  But God had remembered the people even if they had forgotten that God was faithful.  And four hundred years after the last prophet spoke, and when the Judeans and Samaritans were living under Roman occupation and were feeling forgotten again, God spoke through a baby’s cry.  Jesus as the son of Joseph of Bethlehem was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David, and God’s promise to the Israel through David.

God’s new thing is only a new way of keeping God’s age-long promises.

Jesus is a child of the impossible, and one of many in the history of Israel.  The significance of the virgin birth of Jesus is seen as miraculous, and so it should be, since it is impossible for any virgin animal to give birth to male offspring.   (Even if Mary had somehow fertilised one of her own ova, which is theoretically possible but very improbably, the baby would have been XX and a clone of the mother.)  But I think it is more significant to Luke that in Mary we see the messiah born to a young and fresh mother rather than an old and barren one.  Any woman could have been the mother of Jesus, and any birth might have been miraculous: but God chose twelve-year-old Mary.  In his telling of the story of Jesus Luke immediately sets Mary beside Elisabeth, the post-menopausal mother of John the Baptiser.  John’s conception is no less a miracle than Jesus’, even when you consider that Zechariah was involved in a way that Joseph was not.  But by doing it this way, and having the messiah born of a girl, Jesus is presented as the bringer of a new covenant.  John, born of an old-and-barren woman is presented as the last in the line of the old covenant.  Both conceptions are miracles of God since both covenants testify to God.  Mary is a new Hannah, and Elisabeth a new Sarah.

Luke goes further in his presentation of the new-born king, and this is something often missed in the retelling of the Christian stories of Christmas.  In fact, the gospel accounts are inflammatory, and each one challenges the legends of the day.  Are you aware of how much the Christmas stories in the three gospels in which they appear blatantly contradict and mock the stories told about the origins of Caesar Augustus?  The legendary conception of Octavian, as he was known before he became Emperor, also took place under the shadow of infanticide: in Octavian’s case the senate was fearful of the foretold, newborn king.  (Matthew speaks of a jealous Herod.)  Octavian was considered to have been of divine origin since he was the son of Apollo through the human mother Atia.   The way in which God overshadowed Mary is both like and unlike the Roman and Greek stories, since Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit but the human girl Mary, unlike Leda and Atia among other heroines, was not seduced and raped by her god.  Mary was not harmed, and whilst she did become pregnant she remained a virgin after conception.  Jesus, unlike Octavian, was conceived in love and peace, not violence and fear; Mary is a willing recipient of the angel’s grace and God’s activity.  The actual son of the chief god, (and Jews would say the only true God), who was born from a human woman, and born to bring divinely-attested peace to the world, is too close to the Empire’s propaganda to be allowed to exist.  Of course, this all comes later, the written down stories of Jesus’ birth do not come for another seventy years or so, but you can see how the story of Jesus is a threat to the story of Augustus and every Caesar who followed.  The actual presence of the God of the Jews, on earth as a man, just adds to this.

In Genesis 1:26 we read that humankind was made in the image and likeness of God, and St Augustine wrote in the fifth Christian century that humankind was made by God to be recipients of love.  If Jesus’ conception and birth is supernatural then it is only because it is very natural: it is in God’s nature that things take place like this.  We can call it miraculous, we can, but really, it’s just doing what God does the way God does it.  Baby Jesus was created in the image and likeness of God, much like baby everyone else was.  This is ordinary divinity: it’s manger faith.

And so, with all this talk of the miraculous I am lead to ponder two things.  Maybe these things haven’t occurred to you, maybe you’ll not think much of them after I’ve said them anyway and think them irrelevant, but for now let me plant a couple of seeds of manger faith.

Number One.  Back in the day there wasn’t the understanding of human biology that we have now; specifically, there was no understanding of the ovum.  There was also no understanding of the sperm, which are too small to see, but there was some understanding that the man put something in the woman during sexual activity and that thing made babies.  So, I ask you this: did the Holy Spirit fertilise one of Mary’s ova with a holy spermatozoon, or did God plant an entire zygote, a fertilised ovum in Mary?  Luke can’t tell us because he didn’t have that understanding of conception: God certainly did the man’s part in making the baby, but in a world which didn’t understand the woman’s contribution, other than as incubator, what happened?  Did Jesus come from Mary’s egg?

Number Two, and why number one matters.  Who, if anyone, did Jesus look like?  Even if we allow for Mary’s biological contribution, and that her ovum was used by God, did Jesus look like his mum?  And allowing that everyone knew in Bethlehem, as I’m sure they’d know just as easily in Morwell, that Mary was pregnant before Joseph had had his manly way with her, did Jesus look like Joseph?  Was there room for doubt that the baby asleep in Mary’s arms belonged also to the man in whose arms Mary rested?  Was Mary’s boychild the image and likeness of his father, both upper-case F and lower-case f father?  You can all see today, because he is here, that I look like my dad: did Jesus look like his?  Since my dad was more involved in my conception than Joseph was in Jesus’ conception that would be another act of manger faith.

I have no doubt that whoever Jesus looked like, he was the image of his father.  Fathers, plural, as I am the image of mine, both.  The faithfulness of God to the promise made to David, which came about by same means that God sealed God’s promise to Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elisabeth allows for God to be faithful to Mary that her son looked like her husband, and shame was averted.  The Christian story of Christmas is that even when God is doing mighty and divine stuff, like saving the world by sending the messiah into the world via the virgin fiancée of a direct descendent of King David, in Bethlehem, God can still be personal enough to make sure that there was at least a stable and that the baby looked like his daddy.  Our faithful God is more than dependable, our God is considerate and kind.

The message of Christmas, this year at least, is that each of us who was born to be loved by God, created in the image and likeness of our Father in Heaven should be faithful, considerate, and kind too.  The best way to share God at Christmas is to act like God at Christmas.

Amen.

Ahead of Ourselves: A Confession centred on 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16

Settled in our homes, resting in your glory

sometimes Lord we get ahead of ourselves.

What magnificent thing can I do for the Lord? we ask,

as if you are incapable of doing for yourself.

 

Settled in our homes, resting in your glory

sometimes Lord we get ahead of ourselves.

What magnificent thing can I do for the Lord? we ask,

as if your input into our ministry is not required.

 

Settled in our homes, resting in your glory

sometimes Lord we get ahead of ourselves.

What magnificent thing can I do for the Lord? we ask,

as if domesticating the presence of the ineffable One is appropriate.

 

Settled in our homes, resting in your glory

sometimes Lord we get ahead of ourselves.

What magnificent thing can I do for the Lord? we ask,

as if the magnificent thing you did for us can be trumped.

 

Established in your house, rejoicing in your glory

Forgive us Lord when we get ahead of ourselves.

What magnificent things the Lord has done for us! we announce,

and remember that we are forgiven by your grace and favoured by your love.


					

Adventageous

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Yallourn Parish meeting at Yallourn North Uniting Church on Sunday 17th December 2017, the Third Sunday in Advent in Year B.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; Luke 1:46b-55

Last week when I spoke about God’s word spoken through Isaiah to the exiled Judahite and Israelite nations I said that that passage, found in the first eleven verses of Isaiah 40, was an inauguration text.  I said that God had set aside a new prophet for a new message, and we were coming in at the very beginning of that story.  Today’s reading from Isaiah 61 serves the same purpose in scripture and history.  Today we heard how God was again speaking to a people in distress, and the message of God was hope.  Last week we heard of comfort and assurance, this week we hear of activity and remembrance.  You are not forgotten by me, says God, now go and gather the lost whom you have forgotten.

“The spirit is upon me because God has set me apart to do the work of God” says the prophet.  Unlike last week’s initiation where overheard God speaking to the angels, and the angels speaking to the prophet with a “tell them this” message, today’s reading began with the prophet himself speaking as if he has already received the message.  That’s fine, and you’ve probably seen that already, it’s no big deal that we miss out on Heaven’s conversation today.  But what sets this inauguration apart is that this prophet claims to have the Spirit upon him.  Usually prophets were not anointed, but in a way this prophet claims to have been.  Anointing was for priests and kings, ordination and coronation involved oil, but prophets usually announced themselves simply by beginning to speak.  We heard last week how John the Baptiser seems to appear out of nowhere, the same was true, pretty much, of the Israelite and Judahite prophets back in the day, with no activity of the temple or the palace.  In other words, the Spirit’s presence was conferred by Godself as the evidence of God’s appointment.  That doesn’t mean that the rituals of coronation or ordination are irrelevant in the Kingdom of God, we do still need kings and priests, but the work of a prophet is something different.  Prophets belong to God in a special way, they do not owe tenure to any parliament or synod.

This may sound inspiring, and it should do, but it is also heavy with meaning.  Quite simply if you do not have the Spirit, and the Spirit is a gift of God which cannot be earned or acquired through study or seniority, then you are not equipped for the work of God.  I believe that this is true for all Christians and Jews, not just those called to the unique office of prophet.  I do not claim to be a prophet in the way that John the Baptiser or Isaiah were, but I hope that you recognise that what I say is said because of the Spirit of God working through me as a preacher and in me as a Christian.  Without the Spirit you cannot do the work of God.  You can do public speaking, you might even be able to preach a decent Bible study.  You can do pastoral visiting and listen attentively to the sick and lonely.  And those are good things.  But without the insight of the Spirit those jobs will always lack something, they will be incomplete as ministries.

And, of course, the reverse is true.  If you have been equipped by the Spirit to do the work of God, but you do not do the work, then what use is the Spirit to you?  Maybe some people are not doing the work of God because the Spirit is not with them, and that is the evidence that the Spirit is absent from their lives.  I don’t care if you don’t speak in tongues, there are other signs of God’s individual presence.  But if you don’t do anything as a disciple, then I wonder about your relationship with the saviour.

No Spirit of God, no work of God.  Without the Spirit we can do nothing.  But no work of God, no Spirit of God?  If your faith is not seen in action aligned to the mission of God, then what evidence does the world and the church have that you are with God at all?

So, as a pastor-teacher here, and someone you have chosen in the short-term at least to fill a leadership role, what am I looking for?  How do I know that you are each and all a Christian?

When I was a primary school teacher I used to write two names on the whiteboard at the beginning of each lesson, and these were our learning friends.  One was W.A.L.T., and the other was W.I.L.F.  “WALT” told us “we are learning to”, and “WILF” told us “what I’m looking for”.  For example: We Are Learning To…use adjectives.  What I’m Looking For…is good describing words. It was very clear to the pupils, be they grade two or grade seven, what the lesson was about.  Just so, I want to be clear for you today.  As the one acting in the role of your “Minister”, W (am) ILF?

Isaiah, and Jesus who quotes him later and at the outset of his own ministry, offers that God’s work is good news to the oppressed, bandaging for the broken, liberty to the captive, release for the imprisoned, declaration of God’s favour to the abandoned, and comfort for the mourning.  That sounds like a pretty clear “WILF” on God’s behalf, so let’s go with that, and make that our “WALT”.  In Isaiah 61:8 God’s own voice declares repair and restoration of that which was destroyed and thought lost forever.  God through Isaiah promises restoration of what was stolen, full restoration with the right of inheritance.  Isaiah has great cause to rejoice in God who has called him and equipped him with resource and blessing and joy.  Isaiah among the Israelites has been restored and healed, perhaps he has been among the first to have been so and now he is telling his story to encourage those awaiting the Spirit’s arrival in their lives.  The blessing of God is natural and once the channels are unblocked what should flow naturally, God’s favour, will flow in abundance.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20, 24 we read Do not quench the spirit.  Do not despise the words of the prophets…. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this. As I hope you’ve already picked up, but now I’m going to say it blatantly, the work of the Spirit is to make us more like Jesus.  Jesus was the one who was most guided by the Spirit, so if we are guided by the Spirit and attentive to God’s “WILF” and “WALT” then we’ll be more like him.  Through all Jewish history the prophets were the custodians of the nation’s greatest hopes, desires and dreams.  When the actions of the people lead the nation away from these great thoughts, the work of the prophet was to remind them of the picture of the future to call them back.  As Christians we don’t have a nation in the way that the Jews do, we have a Kingdom which is made evident in the work of the Church.  The Spirit moves on some people to speak out, and the Spirit moves on all people to respond, to draw the Church back to the hopes, desires, and dreams of God and the Christians who have gone before us.

Turning briefly to the Christmas story I want to suggest that the evidence that Mary the Virgin and John the Baptiser were doing God’s work was that the Spirit was with them, even though the work they were doing was new.  In Christian tradition God had not spoken to the Israelites through a prophetic man for over four hundred years, until suddenly John appeared in the wilderness quoting Isaiah amongst the other prophets, yet denying the charge of being a new Elijah.  He didn’t fit the preconceived idea, and his style was four hundred years out of date, but the Spirit was all over him so whatever he was doing and saying it must have been God.  And think of Mary, God had never sent a messiah before, so Mary’s pregnancy was unique; it still is.  Yet hear her song of “tell out my soul” and look at the life of the boy-became-a-man born from her womb.  Do you see the Spirit of God upon her, upon Jesus, in this new thing?  Then it is God, and “WALT…do something new”.

How do we know that God is speaking through the voices of the people on the margins of our tradition, our society?  How do we know that this message is true if it comes without precedent?  We look for the Spirit.

Again, in Mary the Spirit was seen in her celebration and her song of worship and delight filled praise; so much so that her very presence caused the prophet John to leap in praise in utero.  In John the Spirit was seen in this leap, a second trimester foetus who prophesies to the coming Christ.

In John the Spirit was seen again in his proclamation of the message of God in accordance with the Jewish tradition.  The great test of any prophet is found not so much in what he says but in whether what he says will happen does happen.  That Jesus came and was seen to be all that John had foretold and more is evidence that John was a man sent by God.

I have no doubt that the Spirit is with this congregation, by which I mean the whole Yallourn Parish.  God is with and on and in each of you people here this morning, and those who are sometimes here but not today.  And with the mob at Morwell listening to Cathy Halliwell this morning.  And with Cathie.  I know these things because I have seen the Spirit at work amongst you in your care for each other and for the care-needing people of your towns.  I do not believe that we are in danger of losing the Spirit or of disappointing God, but I hasten to add that we can never take our ministry for granted.  We are engaging in a work which is a privilege, and if we lapse then that privilege will be taken from us and given to someone else.  Let’s not allow that.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, to do God’s good works.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

And Vent!

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Parish Uniting Church, meeting in Newborough, for Sunday 10th December 2017.  It was the Second Sunday in Advent.

Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

This year, beginning last week on Advent Sunday and running through until we celebrate Christ the King on the last Sunday in November 2018, we shall be reading primarily from The Gospel According to Mark.  This is one of my favourite gospels, and if it’s not my absolute favourite it’s definitely top four.  I especially enjoy how brief and to the point Mark’s writing is, everything is so sudden and there’s no padding.  Today’s reading, the first eight verses of the book, is just like that.  Bang – here it is in Mark 1:1 and then straight in to the coming of John the Baptiser in Mark 1:2 to prepare the way for Jesus, who appears in Mark 1:9.  Matthew and Luke each take until chapter three of their gospels to get to the arrival of John in the desert: Matthew in 48 verses and Luke in an astonishing 132 verses.  Mark takes one.

So, Mark immediately opens the story at the best starting place: the arrival of an adult Jesus on the day he begins his ministry, the day he is commissioned by the Holy Spirit in the presence of John the Baptiser, the prophesied one who would announce his coming.  Mark grounds the story of Jesus immediately in the salvation history of the Israelites, connecting the appearance of John to the prophetic speech of Isaiah, and to the mission of Israel’s God in history which had always been about reconciliation.  As God had constantly called Israel and Judah back to the covenant, offering forgiveness and mercy time and time again if only they would return, so John offers a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins as he says in Mark 1:4.  It’s the same thing, he’s calling the people to make an about face, be released from debt, and move forward in God’s direction.

So, given that Mark quotes him so early in the piece I wonder, what did Isaiah actually say?  Well we find in Isaiah 40:1-11 that God has taken Isaiah aside and prepared him with a new message for the Israelites who are living in exile.  “Speak comfort to the people”, says the LORD, “because the people have served their sentence”.  Their saviour is coming along the wilderness road, levelling the road and making a way of travel.  Repentance is not complex, and while it is not easy because it is so confronting to human pride, it is simple.  God has seen that human life is temporary and that women and men are inconsistent in their ways because of this limitation upon them.  Individuals die but the story of God lives on.  God tells Isaiah, and we can presume that God also tells John the Baptiser, to go, get up on a high place and proclaim that story loudly.  The instruction to Isaiah and to John is to tell the Jerusalemites the story of salvation so that they can then get about telling every citizen of the world that God is present.  God is coming, God has come, and when God comes the good leader will feed the hungry, clothe the exposed, and carry the broken ones close.

As far as Isaiah is concerned this is a commissioning passage, a personal call to prophetic ministry much like the ones recorded in Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 61.  If you read closely you’ll see that the call to comfort and speak is given to the angels, one of whom commands (Isaiah 40:3) the opening of the way home: a second ex-hodos through the wilderness like the first one was through the sea.  But Isaiah’s and John’s message is that this will be an easy road, unlike the trek of Moses, since the land will fall flat, and the road will be straight and direct.  This is a road without wandering or struggling.  Another angel commands Isaiah to proclaim the message of God’s constancy (Isaiah 40:6) to God’s people who are dead grass (Isaiah 40:6-8).  As the Korahites sang in Psalm 80:10-13, (which I read as our call to worship), God is constant regarding the promises of the covenant, and the people’s hope of restoration is secure.  Six hundred years later John is telling the same story, and soon enough Jesus will repeat God’s message over and over.

Peter reminds us in his letter that God is beyond age and epoch.  God is not slow, God is not limited, God has chosen to be patient and God is not feeling pressured to act or be rushed.  Even as the Israelites and Judahites waited for God in exile, even as the Judeans of Jesus’ day suffered under Roman occupation and cried out for God to restore a king from the Davidic line, (rather than an Idumean puppet appointed by Caesar), the God of Abraham waited.  Jesus had come and gone in Peter’s lifetime, but the Romans remained.  But Peter remembered God’s promise to return to earth and he trusted God to come in the fulness of God’s time.  Peter reminds his readers, the people of his church but also any to whom he had ministered in the past, that when God arrives you’ll not miss it because it will be bright and loud and violent.

Advent is the time in the Christian calendar when we remember that Jesus is the Once and Future King, to borrow a phrase from the legends of Avalon and Camelot.  Peter’s story of light and sound is obviously not a retelling of the night in Bethlehem when shepherds watched, and three wee kings arrived.  Like the exiles, the Judeans, the Romans, and the Antiochenes we wait for God to return for us and lead us home along that straight, wide, and flat road.  We believe the word of God when his disciples remind us that all that surrounds us is finite and that it will be swept away when God returns. We believe the word of God and are reminded that finite does not mean without value:  Peter is saying we must not hold onto the world or depend upon it for our safety, but we are to utilise it for the work of proclaiming the gospel.  Use it, use it up, but don’t waste it.  Demonstrate the same patience that God shows, and model your life on the generous and unhurried flow of Jesus, the one who was often busy but never hassled.  Live with integrity in a world which is mocking your trust.

The first words of Mark read “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the son of God”.  In the light of all we know about Jesus and his ministry, and all that Peter reminded us of, must this sentence refer only to Mark 1:1 as some Greek version of “Once upon a time in a land far far away”, or even “In the beginning”?  Or is the whole book of Mark only the beginning of the good news, and further instalments of the gospel are not to be found in Mark 1:2, Mark 2:1, or even in Mark 16:9, but in what we say and do with the message in our day?  Where Advent reminds us that the one who came to Bethlehem is coming again, and to Yallourn and Moe this time I think it’s more of the second, that the gospel continues in us.  Now the mandate given to the prophets, the psalmists, and the apostles is given to us.  Our task is to speak comfort to the city, not Jerusalem or Rome but the City of Latrobe, and to assure them of the coming grace of peace and restoration.  Our Christmas message to the community is that when the Lord comes he is coming for them to welcome them home.

Just as he did the first time he came.

Amen.