Respice Finem (Epiphany 6C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 17th February 2019.

Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

My mother was not born with the surname that she has now: I suggest your mother probably wasn’t either.  Many of you here today who are mothers, the same.  My mother, Mrs Tann, was born Miss Fisher; no, not that Miss Fisher, she’s Judith, not Phryne (or Peregrine) although she does love a good crime drama on Foxtel.  I raise this because mum’s key ring, the one with her actual keys on it, bears the Fisher family coat of arms: it’s much more impressive than the Tann coat of arms let me tell you, and yes there is a Tann coat of arms.  The Fisher coat of arms, (much more impressive), bears the motto Respice Finem.  “Regard the End”, or, to put it another way, “consider the future”.  Hold that thought.

Last week in our reading from the Jesus traditions we heard the story of Jesus calling the first of his named followers, namely Simon, James and John, from their lives of fishing to a new life of discipleship and fishing for souls.  By the time we pick up the story in today’s reading Jesus now has a band of followers, and the twelve have each been chosen and brought to the front.  Having begun his ministry in earnest with some healing and teaching Jesus takes some time away from the road to sit with his mob, so the twelve plus the crowd, and he begins to lay out for them the ways of discipleship.  Luke records Jesus speaking in a short series of dot pointed blessings and woes, and the content is similar to the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew, who was probably there (whereas Luke was probably not).  You may have recognised some of the beatitudes along with some of the later content on the Sermon on the Mount.  What Matthew takes three chapters to cover in his account; Luke takes twenty-nine verses, but what does Jesus say to his disciples?  Well it can be summed up in two words, Respice Finem, consider the future.

Last week we also heard from Paul and his letter to Corinth.  Today’s reading follows immediately after last week’s, and it begins with a similar theme to that of the Fisher family and Luke’s first words from Jesus’ “sermon on the flat place”.  “Regard the end”, respice finem says Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:13-14: consider the future if Christ has not been raised: our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.  I have wasted my time, preaching only emptiness, says Paul, and you have no hope, if there was no (and therefore is no) resurrection.  What appears to have been going on in Corinth is that some Christians, Christians mind you, not agnostics or Sadducees or cynics, some Christians had evolved an idea that Paul’s regard for the end of the world and the soon to be returning Jesus was more like a metaphor for a spiritual life in the present.  Heaven, and the bodily resurrection of the died-in-Christ was not real, it was more about what life is like before Jesus and after Jesus.  You know, dead to sin, alive to Christ in repentance and rising again to new life, but in this life as a new life: it doesn’t actually mean that corpses will be reanimated in tombs at The Rapture or that we will live eternally in the sky with the angels.  That’s what people were saying and Paul is saying “no”: no there really is eternal life and there really was an empty tomb.  If Christianity is nothing more than a moral code for good citizenship then it’s a bit of a waste of time says Paul, and it’s certainly not the Kingdom or the future that Christ proclaimed.

Good one Paul.

Also, says Paul, hold on to your “good one Paul” for a tick, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, as we have been saying, then we have been lying.  Because we said it happened but it didn’t: (I mean it did, but what if it didn’t).  Look at 1 Corinthians 15:15: we have been proclaiming as gospel that God raised Jesus from the dead, and by implication and explanation have declared God to be all mighty and powerful enough to raise even the crucified, ex-sanguinated (drained of blood), dehydrated, asphyxiated, corpse of a man beaten half to death and then speared through the chest to make sure!  We have not been talking about some random Ambo who did a close to brilliant resuscitation thing with a set of de-fib pads and some well placed CPR; Jesus was dead!  He was dead dead, so dead he was dead, D-E-double-D dedd!  He was dead, he was so dead, but God raised him.  So if God didn’t raise him then we’ve been lying (or fooled), and if we’ve been lying or fooled about that then what else have we been lying or fooled about, and therefore what else have we been saying that isn’t true.  Mate, is any of this true?

Yes.  Yes mate, says Paul, any of this is true because all of this is true, including the resurrection part.  He says that in 1 Corinthians 15:20, and he says more than that.  Paul says respice finem, Jesus was not only raised from the dead but he was the first one raised from the dead.  Not “the one”, not “the only one”, no Jesus was “the first one”, which to me at least suggests that there will at least be “the second one”, and if God can do a second one then a seven billionth one is probably not out of reach and therefore I can (and will) be raised too.  Regard the end sister-brothers in Christ, the end is not death but resurrection and life eternal.  And life eternal we read elsewhere in scripture is not just everlasting life, infinite in time and going on forever, but “a life for the eons”, a life that is long long looong but is broad and tall and fat and thick and rich and full and…and you get the idea.  And as the great yet underrated theologian of the twentieth century Jewel Kilcher wrote “let eternity begin”.  In other words, the fat life has already begun for those alive in Christ, dead to sin, and regarding God’s end which is endless.

In Psalm 1 we read what the compositors of the NRSV have subtitled “the two ways”.  There’s the God way, the way of discipleship, the Yahweh Way, that’s one way.  There’s also the “no so” way, the way of the wicked, we way where respice finem suggests that the end is not good.  Look, whether the way of Psalm 1:4-6 is a way of fire and brimstone for eternity, or whether it is just a way of frustration and tears in this life where there is no flow and everything is hard, the point is not to focus on where the dead and stupid end up.  The point of Jesus, of Paul, of the Psalmist, of Jewel and of Damien is the end for the disciple, which is not an end at all.  Delight in God says the Psalmist in Psalm 1:2, so this isn’t even about begrudgingly following the rules and regulations of organised religion and steering clear of the whirring saw-blades of heresy.  No, delight in life, drink from the cool springs, sit in the shade, laugh and play, make toddlers squeal with pleasure, and eat the cake.  Prosper!  Not in a prosperity gospel way: God is not going to give you a new car if you tithe 95%, (although I might get a new car if you tithe 95% so don’t let me stop you), don’t be afraid of the news that God wants your life to be rich and full so long as your life is about the richness and fullness of God.  We do not seek God for the reward, we seek God for God’s own pleasure, but we know that when God is pleased then blessing flows and we can live with joy and security in the everlasting life of the eons.

Have you connected, maybe you’re still thinking about it so let me make the connection for you, Psalm 1:1-3 only makes sense if 1 Corinthians 15:20 is true.  Respice finem, regard the end if Christ was not raised: if God is not able (or not willing) then scripture’s promises of blessing are empty.  The story is not that only Christians prosper in the Kingdom of God: the story is that there is no Kingdom at all if Jesus was not raised.  But if Jesus was raised, and he was, then there is a Kingdom and the power of God is trustworthy and available and prosperity in God’s manner is given to all to receive if they choose to receive it.

Respice finem: have you chosen to receive what God has for you?  If not yet, then how about now?

Amen.

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A Call To Prophesy (Epiphany 5C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry on Sunday 10th February 2019.  We met at Serviceton Uniting Church for holy communion and at Kaniva Church of Christ also for holy communion.

Isaiah 6:1-8, 9-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Today is one of those good days for a preacher, because the message contained in each of the four lectionary readings is well structured and exciting to preach.  It’s all about God’s call and the story of how each of three men first heard God saying to him, “go and tell”.  It’s a great message for a church of eager disciples such as this one, so the sermon shouldn’t take very long at all.

Let’s start with the passage read to us this morning.  In the opening words of today’s reading from the Hebrew traditions we read how Isaiah dates his call to ministry to a specific time and place; he knows his origin as a prophet and teacher.  In the activity of the story Isaiah overhears The LORD calling for volunteers to take the message of God to humankind, and Isaiah steps up for the job (Isaiah 6:8).  Oftentimes when this story is read in church this is where we end our reading; we hear how great and holy God is, we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” before the sermon and “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky” after it, and we all go home.  Even today Isaiah 6:1-8 is listed to be read, with Isaiah 6:9-13 in brackets, as if you don’t have to read on if you don’t want to.  See what I’m saying, easy message, familiar concept, fast sermon is a good sermon, let’s go home.

Meh-yeah-nah.  Sadly for you if you were hoping for an early minute, this is a red rag to a brown bull for me; I mean what are those lectionary writers trying to hide?  Why don’t they want us to read on?  Well maybe it’s because in these optional verses what we get is God’s actual word to the world, the text of what is to become Isaiah’s message, and it’s not very nice; in fact it’s very not nice.  In essence Isaiah’s job is to make the people stubborn and hard-headed because God has decided in advance of Isaiah’s mission to punish the people.  This is not like Jonah where God sent the prophet to seek repentance so that God could relent; this is where God is baiting the people to further resistance to the gospel so that when divine wrath falls it is more fully deserved.  That’s harsh.

A strong comparison with Isaiah 6:2-3 is offered in Psalm 138:1 where the spiritual beings gathered around God’s throne hear a man, let’s call him David, singing his praise and thanksgiving to God.  Instead of God the holy, holy, holy One asking in the hearing of the cherubim and seraphim for a volunteer to carry a message of wrath and devastation, here we see a man in the same company thanking God for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.  (That’s in Psalm 138:2.)  God tells Isaiah to make the people resistant to God’s voice; but David tells the seraphim that the moment he began praying with distress God came close and answered him (Psalm 138:3).  It’s as if we’re speaking about two different gods here, or at least about the one God dealing with the Chosen People on one hand and the pagan and heathen nations on the other.  But no, and you know it’s no, this is Adonai on both occasions, and Israel on both occasions.  What is going on?

At this point let me interrupt myself and say that this is my favourite type of Bible study.  So often our evenings of fellowship and study revolve around opening a letter of Paul or a gospel and reading around the circle from a familiar story, looking for the obvious answers to the reading comprehension questions posed by IVP or Scripture Union.  This sort of Bible study, the one we’re doing today, looks at unfamiliar texts and searches out the hard questions.  Awesome fun, I hope you’re enjoying this as much as me.  Let’s get back to it.

In today’s set reading from the Jesus traditions we read Luke’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples.  And it is one of those intensely familiar stories: Jesus teaches a pressing-in crowd from a boat, then he asks the boat-owner (who is a stranger at this point) to put out and go fishing.  Twenty-seven trillion fish are caught in just under four minutes, causing that fisherman to recognise that a miracle worker has turned up in his boat and that he utterly unworthy to be in such a lord’s presence; kinda like Isaiah in Isaiah 6:5 and his “woe is me, man of uncleanness” lamenting.  And our familiar story continues, Jesus says to Simon “get up,” and he says “don’t be afraid,” and he says “you will no longer fish for men, but for people,” and without a second thought Simon, and James, and John from the next boat walk away with Jesus and into the sunset.  So there’s nothing heard-headed or confusing about that; okay the “fishers of men” reference is a little opaque, but we trust Jesus, he seems nice, and so we leave everything behind and just walk away and follow him.  As Christians we get that; no biggie, Jesus is worth dropping everything else for, there’s no stubbornness amongst us to the voice of God calling us to discipleship.

In today’s set reading from the Christian traditions we find ourselves at the other end of Jesus’ mission to earth, and Paul’s explanation to the churches of Corinth how the resurrection works as a theological and soteriological truth.  In other, less-greeky words, how the facts and understandings we have around the resurrection make us think about God, and how they make us think about what it means to be “saved”.  Very recently, on Vision Radio in fact (which is broadcast on 88.0 FM into Kaniva from a small box and a big aerial in my back yard), I heard someone describe 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 as a perfect distillation of the whole gospel.  It was a passing comment, with no further discussion, but I remembered it as I wrote this sermon down at 03:38 am this morning.  We have just heard the passage read, do we agree?  Is this all you need to know about Christian doctrine in one handy-to-open box, no easy payments, no postage and handling?  Indeed could we sum the whole Christian story up in one line, 1 Corinthians 15:3b-5a which plainly says that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to... well a lot of people actually.  That’s all you need to know isn’t it?  I’d argue no, that there is more to the whole gospel than that, but I acknowledge that any telling of the whole gospel must include that.  The thing is that in some ways this passage, what I’ve just read, is not actually the point of the paragraph you find it in.  The real point of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is found in 1 Corinthians 5:8-11, where Paul uses the brief nub of the gospel to explain how he too is an apostle, just like Cephas in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and the twelve also in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and the many living witnesses in 1 Corinthians 5:6, and James and all the “apostles” in 1 Corinthians 5:7.  So “yeah-yeah, yada-yada, died, buried, rose again, Jesus awesome” is there, but the point is that Paul is allowed to say that because he’s just as much a follower of God, and a bearer of divine ordination as Simon (aka Cephas), and by extension David and Isaiah.  Paul has been called; Paul is an apostle, an individually dispatched messenger of God’s light about Godself to a world in darkness.

So, that might have been a good place to move to a paragraph on how we apply Paul’s and Peter’s stewardship of the apostolate to our own lives, and how we too are called to carry light into the world.  I could say that even though God has not spoken to any of us like God spoke to Isaiah (in a vision in a temple), or Simon-Peter (literally as a flesh and blood man asking us for a favour after a long night at work), or Saul-Paul (blinded and yelled at in the middle of a highway on a multi-day road-trip), God still calls some of us to be witnesses and prophets today.  Paul may have been the last on his list to see Jesus in person and to be commissioned by a lordly figure in a vision, but he is not the last in all history: you need to watch and be ready for Jesus to appear in your dreams-slash-windscreen.  And all of that would be true, and neat, and good, and we could move on to the benediction and beverage service.  But we can’t do that: there’s a loose end.

So, yay! let’s get back to the awesome fun of finding hard questions.  Well, we’ve already found the hard question, and now we’ve put some shape around it to make the question even harder.  With all that Isaiah, David, Jesus, and Paul have said about God and the call of God to tell the good news of salvation, (case in point the cross and empty tomb), why did God send Isaiah to make the ninth century BC Israelites and Judahites resistant to that story?  If Christ died for all, and if Christ died for sin, why would God a) deliberately exclude Jews, and b) deliberately make them sin more badly so they would deserve the punishment already lined up?  God effectively says to Isaiah, “ look, I really want to smack them, but they don’t deserve it yet, so stir them up to rebellion and I’ll wait until I can really smack them so they stay smacked”.  I mean, where’s the grace?  Where’s the honour for the covenants with Abraham and with David?  And if the situation really is that dire for the people of God why does God make them wait another 800 years for the Messiah?  Don’t send Isaiah to harden their hearts LORD, send Jesus to redeem them!  I mean, you’d think God had never even opened a Bible the way this is going.

So, what’s the answer?  Anyone?  Do you need the question again?  The question is, with all that we know of God in Christ, and all that we know of David, Jesus, Peter and the twelve, and Paul, why did God send Isaiah to make the Israelites more naughty rather than more repentant, just so that God could snap them with a backhand as well?  So, what’s the answer?  Anyone?

Well what I’m going to do right now is keep you in suspense, but let you off the hook.  And I am also going to wrap up, so here’s the final paragraph.  As great and profound a question as that is, and would be on a Tuesday night, it’s not a question for Sunday morning.  A good teacher, a good pastor, a good preacher knows that.  And you don’t only have a good teacher, pastor and preacher, you have a great one.  You’re blessed.  No the question for a Sunday is, given all that, given David and Jesus and Paul and yada-yada-yada, how do you respond in Isaiah’s place when God calls you to prophetic witness and sends you to the Church with such a message of desolation.  Again, anyone?  You proclaim it.  For me the question is not why God wants to do this to my people, but how do I go about telling the leaders who need to know what God intends for us.

As your pastor let me say this: I know God is calling some of you to ministries of proclamation, and God is calling all of us to witness and fishing-for-men.  So, whatever God tells you to tell me, and to tell us, please just tell us.  Be brave, for The LORD your God is with you.

Amen.

How do we care?

This is the text of my ministry message for the newsheet at KSSM for February 2019.

That’s an interesting question I think, “How do we care?” because there are many answers.  I have been thinking about it in preparation for some appointments I have in February.

In my previous churches in Gippsland pastoral care was one of the things the people wanted me to teach them about.  I was in a supply role, preaching every Sunday and doing some visiting one day a week, and I was asked whether I could run a Q&A for the congregation on what I do and how I do it.  Sadly time never allowed for that even; my diary was too full with visits to the aged care facility and to people’s homes for me to set aside time to explain my work, but “how do we care” as a request for training in care is a great question to ask.

In my previous job in South Australia pastoral care was the key aspect of the work: I was a “Christian Pastoral Care Worker” in a school and on-the-spot care rather than evangelism was what I was supposed to do.  That occurred often in by sitting outside classrooms with a kid who needed to “take 5” because of something happening in his life right then, or “just being there” unobtrusively in the classroom for the same kid.  That role led me to work as a speaker with Beyond Blue, a job I still do and will be doing at Lameroo on 7th February.

How do you care?

Damien.

Relay

Recently I was reading an article about church leadership, the gist of which was that any pastor at any given time does not have the task to lead the local church from A to Z, rather from A to B.  The preferred outcome of that gist seems obvious; it is not the work of one man or woman to do the whole journey in the space of one pastoral placement, and this needs to be understood by the pastor and the people.  For me, where and when I am (here and now) I should be encouraged by the thought that I have at least three years in my current placement to get from A to B; there is nothing to panic about, and anyway the goal is only B and not Z.

But I don’t like that, not one bit, and here’s why.  The churches that I pastor each have a century or more of history behind them.  Kaniva and Serviceton are nineteenth century settlements, and the Methodists and the Churches of Christ were present as believers gathering in homes well before the church buildings we meet in today were erected.  So why am I getting the people to move from A to B?  Seriously, after 130 years of continuous presence and ministry I would hope that at the very least I’m responsible for moving the churches from J to K, or maybe even R to S, or even T.  A to B?  No, no, no, that should have been done a hundred years ago.

The point is more than semantics about the metaphor of alphabet, the point is that the church in this generation, (so all the Christians active today regardless of when they were born), is part way through a relay toward establishing the Reign of God in The Wimmera/Tatiara.  We are not called to reinvent the wheel but to change the tyres (or bearings) if they’re worn.  The race has already started and we gain nothing by going back to the start every time there’s a new minister arrived.  Let us continue the race with the baton handed to us by those who have died, and let us run forward until with our final breath we pass the baton to those not yet alive.  Let us today prepare to launch tomorrow the church of M and N, or U and V, or maybe even Z.  But not C, the church of C is surely in our past.

Back in Green (Epiphany 2C)

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.

Amen.

 

 

 

A New Year’s Day

This is the text of my ministry message for the January 2019 pewsheet at KSSM.

“All is quiet on New Year’s Day, a world in white gets underway…”  thus sings U2 on their 1983 album entitled “War”.  I assume that Bono is referencing the midwinter snow of his native Dublin rather than the liturgical colour for January in Christendom, but you never know.  Nonetheless it is a new year in the world, and I shall be wearing white on the first two Sundays as we celebrate the recognition of Jesus as a baby (6th January is Epiphany) and a man (13th January is Jesus’ Baptism).

I don’t know what 2019 will bring for Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry, or the West Wimmera and Tatiara beyond ourselves.  I hope for better than more of the same: my prayer for us is that as a local church we will grow in discipleship and influence and in a year’s time will be bigger people living bigger lives of faith and confidence.  I shall preside at my first wedding as celebrant in March, and I am looking forward to leading my first service with you as worship leader this month, (until now I have only preached and prayed).  My greatest excitement is for what you will do as Christian disciples in your daily lives, and how you will engage with the ministries of all believers.  This year we will be running local seminars in preaching and worship leading, conflict resolution through Biblical means, and assisting those who want to learn more about God, the Bible, ministry and mission.

Twenty-nineteen is our new year of opportunity: make sure you don’t miss out.

Damien.

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.