Eternal Happiness 2

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 9th February 2020.  It is modified from the message I prepared for Kaniva in that Serviceton was having its Sunday School picnic, an outside event with lots of children present.  This message was in no way dumbed-down, but it has been childed-up.

Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1:-12; Matthew 5:13-20

A lot of the Bible is made up of what people who speak Hebrew call “Midrashim” (eww, that sounds like a red and sore tummy!) and in English we call commentary or interpretation. Usually this is a bit like a sermon where a teacher (rabbi) takes a Bible reading and then explains what it means and gives an example about its usefulness for his or her disciples. So maybe Psalm 112 which we looked at today is a midrash of Psalm 111:10 where it says [t]he fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice them have a good understanding, because we read in Psalm 112:1, [h]appy is [the one] who fears the LORD, the one who delights in his commandments. We can ask what is so happy about these people and what blessings come on them, and then we hear the answer that their children will be winners, happy and shiny for starters. In other words the children of God’s people have good reputations. But even in their own lives the people who respect God will have God’s grace and compassion, because even in darkness light dawns says Psalm 112:4. Things are good if you behave like God behaves and you stick with God even in the hard times. People who do this will be generous and other people will think and say good things about them.

Well that sounds good, but what exactly are these nice people doing? How is their religion helping them to be good people? I don’t think it’s actually about trying to obey the Ten Commandments like rules, but about realising that they are good advice: so it’s not about trying very hard to obey God because you’ll get a smack if you don’t, but about being grown up about it and thinking that these rules are actually good anyway. If you are polite and friendly then people will treat you well and you’ll have lots of friends; if you’re a bully or a sneaky person then people won’t like you and you’ll be left out, whether you are religious or not. Try to act like Jesus, behave kindly, and you will be popular with the people who like kindness, and hopefully people will think nice things about you. That doesn’t mean that you can just be nice and ignore God’s word, but it means if you focus on being nice and acting like Jesus acted then you’ll be following God anyway. So it’s not about trying not to be naughty, because you should try, but it’s more about always trying to be good, because if you focus on being good all the time then you won’t be naughty anyway.

In the next few weeks we’re going to be reading about Paul and how he tried to gently teach the Christians in Corinth to act more like Jesus, less like snobby religious people or puffed up smarty-pantses. If you look at 1 Corinthians 2:1-3 you can see that Paul says, “you all know that I am actually quite clever, but I tried not to act like a smarty-pants when I visited you. My whole message was about Christ who lives the same way God lives, even though Jesus was a real man, and so the best way for Christians to live is to try to live like Jesus, and that’s it.” I really hope you’ve heard me say that too. I know I’ve told you that I went to four university degrees, but I told you that not because I’m a snob about being clever but because when I lived my life I spent a lot of time at school, so that’s part of my story and who I am. But my sermons aren’t supposed to be about how clever Damien is, no what I want you to learn is that Jesus is nice, God is like Jesus, and God wants us to act like Jesus in the world. Be nice: that’s the midrash for you about the whole Bible. It’s true that the Bible says other things, my midrash doesn’t include the message about salvation, but I have just told you everything you need to know about being a disciple. Act like Jesus, because when you look at Jesus you is actually see what God is like.

So, let’s see what Paul actually says here. We jump in at 1 Corinthians 2:6 where Paul begins to use the wisdom he has to speak to clever people on their level. The message of the gospel is very simple, God loves you and you should love each other. It sounds easy, but those words are wiser than anything Professor Wisey McWiseface ever wrote or said. “Clever as they are,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:8, “they don’t get it.” Jesus, who was God as a person, taught that people who want to be most like God should be loving and generous, and the world’s leaders killed him because he said it. There is a word for that sort of behaviour and “wise” is its opposite, says Paul.

When we look at 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 we can see that God has such brilliance in store for the people who are like Jesus that it makes the Wisey McWisefaces upset. But Paul keeps going and he says in 1 Corinthians 2:11 that they are the foolish ones, because God says in 1 Corinthians 2:11b-12 “let me tell you who you really are and what you are really like.”

In the words of Jesus which are in Matthew 5:1-12 Jesus describes eight groups of people that he calls “blessed”. In one church, I used to belong to our pastor used to define “blessed” as “happy and to be envied”; I think that fits very well. People who follow Jesus and act like him are happy, and they are to be envied. We can read in Matthew 5:13-16 where Jesus said his disciples are like salt and light on the earth, in a looking and tasting example of God. Our job as disciples, like it was for Jesus personal friends 2000 years ago, is to live a life that reminds people what God is really like. When we think about the people Jesus was talking about we can see that God responded to them by recognising how they were:

Matthew 5:3 declaring their need for spiritual insight;

Matthew 5:4 declaring their need for spiritual comfort;

Matthew 5:5 declaring their need for spiritual strength;

Matthew 5:6 declaring their desire to see the way of God become universal in the world;

Matthew 5:7-11 declaring their love for God and the ways of God even when they are actively and viciously opposed.

Jesus promised that Heaven would come to you (and you would go to Heaven) because if you are being treated like the prophets of old then you’re probably showing people God’s life like they did, and also making the world think about its lack of goodness. Keep bringing up God-colour and God-flavour wherever your life is: talk about how the Ten Commandments are promises that God ill lift you up and keep you safe. We can say that Jesus is teaching a midrash about religion here: “everything is valid” he says, “as long as you think about it in the right way.” And what is the right way? Well behave like God does, with kindness and love. In Genesis 1 it says that all people were created in the image and likeness of God, so just go back to being normal like God made you with your behaviour and your attitude. Be generous, be wise about God, act with righteousness because if you’re being attacked it’s only because your example is making the wicked upset about their own wickedness. The way the world does things is not normal says the Bible: it’s not normal to the stingy, conceited, or self-interested, it’s normal to be like Jesus. So, be yourself, the person God made you to be.

Amen.

Who May Abide? (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Active Retired group at Kaniva Hospital Day Centre (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 4th February 2020.

Psalm 15

Today’s psalm is a bit of a gift for me because it is one of my favourite passages of scripture. As a pastor I have lots of favourite passages; I know other ministers and preachers who have the same thing. Indeed most Christians have a favourite passage or two, so for those of us who read scripture for a living it seems straightforward that this would happen. But among the many that I like, Psalm 15 comes near the top and I am always happy when it appears in the lectionary.

Psalm 15:1 begins with a question, and depending upon which English translation you use the words say something like who shall dwell in your tabernacle, who shall live in your holy mountain, or words to that effect. I love the one which reads Lord who can rest in your tent, it sounds so welcoming and inviting; so much more than Lord, who dares to dwell with you, who presumes the privilege of being close to you, living next to you in your shining place of glory. You really know where you stand with each of those, yet both are translations into English from the Greek text used in the time of Jesus, how can they be so different?

I think the answer to that question, how can they be so different, comes back to how we think about God in the first place. One of the commentators I read suggested that Psalm 15 is David’s (earlier) version of the Beatitudes, and the lectionary seems to agree because this Psalm was matched with Matthew 5:1-12 last Sunday. How do you think of the Beatitudes, how do you think of the instructions here? Do you believe that God has set a minimum standard of perfection and that the only way to live in fellowship with God is to live a perfect life? Does this mean for you that imperfect people are kicked out of God’s tent and thrown down the mountain? Is it enough to try your best and rely on God to honour your effort? Or does salvation by grace through faith mean that you don’t have to try at all, and that God will save you and invite you in regardless? All of those options, and others besides them, have been offered by Christian scholars since the time of Jesus; and since it’s Christian scholars who translate the Bible into common languages they will let their bias-slash-theology-slash-interpretation show.

For example, the scholar who wrote who dares and who presumes has a very high view of God’s glory, and he (the scholar) is trying to encourage Christians to be passionate about their faith. The grace of God is not something to be taken for granted, something to be nonchalant about as if it’s your right or entitlement as an Israelite or Judahite. Or a Gentile sinner saved by grace we might add today. God is holy and you can’t just wander in to the Presence of The LORD like that, so this Psalm is full of majesty and challenge. If you want to enter God’s house then you need to be righteous and awestruck.

Yet there is a welcome in God’s grace, and a patience, and a reaching-down to meet the broken and the lost who is dead inside (and maybe outside) and completely unable to do anything. Here is where we can rest in God’s tent and then live in God’s house as people who have been rescued. What follows then is about how God transforms us as we learn the rules of the house, and take on the character of the host. Righteousness and awe are requirements, but they are attributes of those who already live in the house, they are not the tickets for access.

And this is why I like Psalm 15. I like it because it is the double story of how holy and righteous God is, The LORD Almighty, but in the same passage we find God The Father, fatherly in God’s meeting us in the gutter and taking us limp and bleeding into the tent for triage and then into the palace as adopted sons and daughters who become what God is, awe-inspiring and righteous, through the ministry of Christ and his grace.

Those who dwell in the place where God is, who are welcome in God’s presence are those who have been welcomed into God’s presence and who are attentive to God’s attributes so much that they are learning to emulate God’s character. By grace we are saved, and by love we are instructed to follow the Way of The LORD which is the best way to live. God’s desire for the Church is lives which the world recognises as good citizenship; blamelessness, truth-telling, incorruptible, generous, just, and steadfast in faith and obedience.

In my way of thinking, Psalm 15 is not primarily a challenge (although there is that), it is first and foremost a promise of who we are becoming so long as we stay close to Jesus. Amen.

Just Visiting

This is the text of my ministry message for the KSSM monthly pewsheet for February 2020.  It was my first Sunday with them since Christmas Day 2019 (which was actually a Wednesday).

While I was away over January, having some annual leave and spending time with my South Australian family, I did a lot of visiting.

I played Junior Monopoly with my six year old nephew, and managed to get myself in gaol a few times. Miss a turn and pay the bank $1 and you get to be Just Visiting. (He won by the way, little capitalist.)

I went for a drive through old haunts along the South-West Fleurieu coast and inland, including the apartment block I used to live in. I stood outside my old door, but didn‘t go in, I was just visiting. I had a coffee at the tourist complex there, overlooking the golf course and sitting where I used to sit and study. This time there was no study, no frantic counting of nickel in my pocket to see if I had enough for a mug or only a cup, (I‘m a proper pastor now, I have brass in my pocket). No longer resident, just visiting.

I went to church (I‘m still a Christian, even on holidays), at four different churches. No preaching, no pastoral care, just visiting, yet how insightful that was. One church was my old church, Delamere Uniting, and I was welcomed with open arms (literally, I got four hugs). I was just visiting but I was welcomed home. One church was One Church, the UC/CC in Keith: again just visiting but the news of my being the pastor from KSSM made me a minor celebrity over coffee. One church was a local fellowship who describe themselves as relaxed and friendly; however I didn‘t find that to be the case, (but then I was just visiting and maybe that was the point). Maybe I needed to belong longer for them to find out who I am and how I prefer to relax and be befriended.

My prayer for KSSM this year is that we care for all who enter our doors, including (but not especially) those who are just visiting. All are welcome here; all are welcome back, all are welcome through, all are welcome home. Aren‘t they?

What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 2nd February 2020.  It’s not a lectionary reading.

Psalm 116

Recently I had the privilege of not only attending, but actively participating in the ordination of a dear friend. For reasons beyond her control this ordination took place on Australia Day; but that set up a happy coincidence, for me at least. The happy coincidence is that one of the readings which my good friend had chosen to be read on her special day was the entirety of Psalm 116, a special set of verses for her. As her friend I know that a good deal of her testimony is replayed in those words of scripture. Okay, great; so January 26 and Psalm 116 are coincidental: how exactly? Any takers? Well actually the coincidence comes tomorrow, because on Sunday 3rd February 1788 Rev Richard Johnson, inaugural chaplain of the penal settlement at New South Wales preached the first Christian sermon in Sydney and Psalm 116:12-13 was his text. As it reads in the Authorised version which he used, What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. Johnson’s appointment was largely the work of John Newton and William Wilberforce, have you heard of them? Yes, well as you’d expect they were keen that an evangelical would take on the chaplaincy of New South Wales and so Johnson was appointed as minister and educator, and with his wife Mary he sailed with the First Fleet.

The news which comes later, after the landing at Port Jackson and that first service of worship under a tree at Sydney Cove, is that Johnson was not well attended to by the governors. Governor Phillip had more important things to focus upon than the building of a chapel, what with trying to house a starving population, so church took place out in the open. Later governors and lieutenant-governors were even less helpful, so in 1793 Johnson built a 500 seat chapel himself; at his own expense and with his own hands. With that building in place Richard and Mary were better able to run a school and as many as 200 children were in class. That building was destroyed by fire in 1798, probably arson, and in 1800 the Johnson family (now four of them with two Australia-born children) returned to England on a furlough, from which they did not return.

So you may or may not have heard the story of Richard Johnson before, and of course there is a lot more to tell. Much of their woe occurred during life in the colony and therefore after that first sermon was spoken out. But I’m sure that as Australians, even not as Sydney-siders, you have some understanding of The First Fleet and what went on to get those eleven ships into Botany Bay and then Port Jackson. It was not a fun time by any means; and there were no doubts aboard ship among anyone, marines and freemen included, that life in Sydney would be easy. As far as journeys go the First Fleet wasn’t the worst, the Second and Third Fleets were disease ridden and most unpleasant, but it was bad enough. So I wonder what Johnson was thinking, and more importantly what he was seeing (envisioning) as he prepared and then delivered that first sermon to the prison colony. Just think about it, imagine yourself if you’d like as a convict or a marine, or the surgeon, or the governor himself, or the tag-along wife of someone, imagine you’re Mary Johnson, and Richard gets up and says what shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me? I’m not entirely certain, and in this instance my background in sociolinguistics lets me down, but I’d say that was the first instance that the derogatory use of the word “mate” was used in Straya. I mean, you’ve been at sea since May 1787 and it’s now February 1788, not to mention (but I probably will) whatever prison-hulk or barracks-and-orders rigmarole went on before sailing. You’re standing under a gum tree in February, and you’re wearing rags (as a convict) or prissy England clothes (as a free person or marine), so you’re probably sweating like mad. You’ve been sleeping in a tent, or on the ground, or maybe you’re still going back to the ships to sleep. You’re here forever, or at least seven years, or at least until you’re re-called for re-deployment by the Admiralty, and even that is at least a year and a half away by the fastest ships. The last year has sucked, this year looks desolate and hungry, and next year might see us starving if we even make it that far. So, ah Rev, Richard-mate, what are these benefits unto me which the Lord has rendered? Maaate? Psh!

How’s your year looking Kaniva/Serviceton? How was 2019? What does 2020 have in store for you? Are you hopeful of even reaching 2021? Hopefully you’re feeling better than that mob who were standing on Eora Country 232 years ago, but just because a town exists here and you slept in sheets last night that doesn’t mean your future is rosy. My friend’s story, the friend who was ordained last Sunday, her story is hers to tell so I won’t even touch it: but it’s a doozy. You all know some of my story and many of the doozy bits (but not all of them) and I tell that in drabs. What’s your story, and how does this Psalm speak to you?

I’m going to ask that again, what’s your story, and how does this Psalm speak to you? In my research this week I discovered something which I think is every interesting, in Tanakh (the actual Jewish Bible rendered into English and used by some Jewish traditions, rather than one of the Old Testament translations of the Christian traditions) there’s a variant reading in Psalm 116:1-2. In the New International Version it reads I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me I will call on him as long as I live. Positive, praiseworthy, comfortable and comforting. In the Good News Bible (which is in your pew) it reads I love the LORD because he hears me, he listens to my prayers. He listens to me every time I call to him. More of a shift to continuing present tense, not only did The LORD hear my voice but God hears my voice: all good so far. In the Tanakh it reads I love the LORD for He hears my voice, my pleas; for He turns His ear to me whenever I call. Pretty similar to the Good News Bible, but without that “because” statement from the NIV. But, here’s the variant, Tanakh footnotes suggest this one I would love that the LORD hear my voice, my pleas; that He turn His ear to me whenever I call. Hmm. Anyone been there? “I’d love it if God would listen and could hear me right now”. Anyone there now: don’t put your hand up but do let me know later if I can pray with you. Maybe some of Sydney’s first congregation were thinking that, maybe Rev Richard was thinking that himself, just quietly. Or maybe you’re with the Orthodox Church where the translation reads I have loved, because the Lord shall hear the voice of my supplication; for He inclined His ear to me. And in my days I shall call upon Him. (Athanasius Academy Septuagint found in The Orthodox Study Bible). I have loved because… that’s something different again, and suggests that we love God because God loves us (true) and that by God’s love for us we become mature through carrying that love even in the dark places, and finding strength in it. That points us toward Psalm 116:12-13 which we looked at earlier, with the understanding that even with the depths of Sheol, and the depths of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans The LORD has been good thus far and we can be confident. We can be confident because we have trusted The LORD and The LORD has come through for us; therefore whatever lay ahead of New South Wales in 1788, and whatever lies ahead of the Wimmera and Tatiara in 2020, we can celebrate God and be thankful in advance. Interesting to me is that according to its lectionary the Orthodox Church reads this psalm on Palm Sunday, and we read it on Maundy Thursday.

Are you confident for what lies ahead? Maybe today you are in Sheol, or at least in fear of being there soon: feeling grave and overcome with tomb-like concerns. Maybe today you are in Cadi (Sydney Cove), and wondering how this place could ever be what London is, even Newgate Prison. Or maybe you are in the good place, with the harvest harvested and sent away to wherever the trucks and trains take the various outcomes of your work, and you are in the mood for exuberant praise and thanksgiving for the abundance of grace that The LORD has just poured over your head. Most likely you’re somewhere in between those poles, since most of the time we just live with contentment, without fear but also without celebration. The Psalmist says that a worthy response to all of those conditions is thanksgiving and praise. I would say the same, not only as a theologian who has just written a sermon on this but also as a man with a doozy of a story about Sheol and another about the Heavenlies.

And so, what shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits towards me? How can I repay The LORD for all His bounties to me? Well, as scripture exhorts us let us raise the cup of deliverance and invoke the name of The LORD. Tell people what has been done for you, show it to their own eyes, and tell them that it was The LORD Godself who did it for you. If you are in the mood to celebrate then celebrate: rejoice like the shepherd who recovered one of one hundred sheep, host a party like the widow who recovered one of ten coins, feast and drink like the father who received back one of two sons. And if you are not in the mood to celebrate then remember what The LORD has already brought you through, and trust that The LORD who is the same Lord will do it again and again. In all of those stories told by Jesus, and all of the doozy stories we tell of ourselves, the focus is on a corporate response to an individual crisis. I was in peril, now I will tell the whole congregation how amazing The LORD is to me. This is actually the point of the Psalm, not that the snares of death encompassed me, the pangs of Sheol laid hold on to me, (Psalm 116:3) woe is me I have a truly salty story; not even that gracious is The LORD and righteous, (Psalm 116:5); but I will pay my vows to The LORD in the presence of all his people (Psalm 116:14), and I will pay my vows to The LORD in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of The LORD, in your midst O Jerusalem (Psalm 116:18-19).

And so it is. Maybe Richard Jonson did feel like a bit of a dill preaching on The LORD’s providence under that tree at Sydney, barely a week after the tall ships had arrived: perhaps he spoke too soon when you consider all that he went through in the next twelve years, and all that Sydney has seen in the past 232. Or maybe he was on the right track, considering that all who gathered on that day had survived the journey to gather on that day, considering that as an evangelical he knew where and how to look for the goodness of The LORD and to find much for which to be thankful in song and word. May it ever be so with us. We no longer cry God save the King, okay mainly because we actually have a queen, but let us remember that God’s saviour is King, and that we have the responsibility to glorify his saving work and his reign in song and word, confident in him in all circumstances.

Amen.

2020 Vision

This is the text of my newsletter ,message for the January 2020 pewsheet at KSSM.  I was on leave for all of January so this is all the people heard from me.

All over the Twitface these past few weeks the pastors‘ networks which I follow have been abuzz with jokes around 20/20 vision, and local leaders‘ vision for their churches in 2020AD. As someone who has worn glasses for shortsightedness since age 6, and now has a pair of old-man glasses for reading, I‘ve never had 20/20 or 6/6 vision in either eye. But that hasn‘t stopped me learning to read, and then reading to learn, and every week I write around 1750 words of sermon after several hours of Bible and commentary study, mixed with a fair bit of imagination. The reason I can read without clear vision is of course because of my old-man glasses.

What is our vision for 2020 as the Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry? The question we might ask is what can we see (since vision is about sight, not hope), and how is what we are seeing affected by what we are looking through. I continue to ask what God is saying to the West vWimmera and to the churches of Kaniva and Serviceton; today as I write this (wearing my old-man glasses) I‘m interested by what we see locally and how we think God sees it. Do we wear lenses supplied by God? Do we see what God sees and do we see how God sees: that the slave is our brother as the old hymn goes.

My prayer for us all for January is that we wil take a month of rest after Christmas and harvest and school and whatever else, and take time to refocus our eyes on the year ahead. Lift your heads Church, look up from the books and adjust your focus to look at the horizon: what can you see in the distance. And if you do that, come find me in February and tell me what you saw, and how you feel about that.

Damien.

Born is the King

This is the text of my message for Christmas Day 2019.  KSSM (Kaniva Uniting Church) hosted the eccumenical Christmas Day service in Kaniva.

Luke 2:1-14; Titus 3:4-7

Jesus is a truly puzzling figure in history, there really is nothing straightforward about him. The stories we tell about Jesus can be pretty simple, how he was born in a manger and died on a cross, how he fed 5000 men plus their wives and kids from a single lunch-pack, how he taught the rich to look after the poor and how he taught the poor to trust God. Not everyone is convinced that the stories are true, but the way the stories are told is pretty straightforward, it’s plain storytelling. But the puzzle comes in how believable the stories are, and what their deeper meaning is. I mean, how can a baby born in a food-trough be God? How can any baby born anywhere be God? Simple tales told simply, but baffling meanings.

The story of Jesus’ birth is pretty well know, even if you aren’t religious. In fact you can be religious in another religion, but if you live in Australia you’ve probably heard about the manger and the three kings and the shepherds and the little drummer boy and the angels from the realms of glory. The story as it is actually told by the Bible is a little bit different, mainly because there are three versions of Christmas in the Bible but Australia like the rest of the world tells only one, which is a sort of mish-mash of the three to form a complete story. In our story this morning, which is only the one from Luke 2, we are told that Joseph and Mary, who we met in Luke 1, have to travel from Nazareth where they live to Bethlehem which is Joseph’s family’s home town. It’s possible that Joseph has never been to Bethlehem and that his grandfather’s grandfather emigrated to Galilee a hundred years ago; it’s also possible he grew up there and moved to Nazareth to find work, either way it doesn’t matter because he has to go there now. So, Joseph and his pregnant wife walk down to Bethlehem over the course of a few days, (the Bible says nothing about a donkey), and Luke 2:6 tells us that while they were there the time came, and Mary was delivered of her firstborn, a son. It’s highly unlikely from this wording that our common idea of Christmas is correct: Joseph and Mary certainly did not arrive in Bethlehem just in time for the birth, but too late for a motel room, and that Mary was left to deliver her baby alone and in the car-park barely hours after arriving. More likely is that the couple arrived in plenty of time and were camping outside the village, probably with Joseph’s cousins and brothers and so forth who would also have had to go back to Bethlehem. When Mary began to feel the pangs of labour Joseph might have gone in to town to find a guesthouse for the night, just to be a bit more comfortable, and unable to offer them some space in the crowded upstairs part where the people slept the landlord offered Joseph a quiet corner in the downstairs room where the animals were kept. It strikes us as a bit primitive, but we’re talking 4BC here so it’s probably nothing really out of the ordinary for Joseph and his family.

So, Jesus’ actual birth was pretty normal in and of itself. The fact that his mother was a virgin and his conception was by The Holy Spirit is unique, but the boy in the manger isn’t terribly remarkable. Having said that, the remarkable kicks in a few hours later.

Back outside the village, most likely in a camp not dissimilar to that shared by Joseph’s extended family, is a mob of shepherds. So these guys are locals, and they’re doing their job. In Luke 2:8 we read that they are lying in the fields, as you do when you’re a shepherd and there’s no barn, but then as Luke 2:9 tells us the glory of The LORD shone around them, and they were terrified. The baby in the manger is the one they’re looking for, and when they find him they will know that good news has come. That’s all well and good, but the question I want to ask this morning is “why shepherds?” Well, why anyone really? I mean, why can’t the paparazzi just let Jesus grow up anonymously and then announce himself as an adult, when he’s ready? After all, that’s pretty much what happens in Mark and John where their stories begin with John the Baptist saying “hey, look over there”.

I think it is significant that we hear about Jesus’ birth, and that Heaven drew attention to it at the time with angels and stars and visiting Magi and shepherds. There’s a message in the baby, and that message is that when God chose to enter the world’s reality as a baby God was saying that there is no rush. Sometimes we’d love it if God would just zap! or kapow! stuff into being, especially if that means the destruction of evil or the triumph of good, but God does not work that way. Christmas shows us that God is careful and slow; not ponderous and creaky slow, but not slap-dash and hasty: God’s way is the way of growth and as those of you who are farmers know growth takes time, conditions, and care if it is to occur in the best way. In Luke 2:13-14 we read about the angels singing and so we have no doubt that this event, the one with the baby in the manger, is a God-directed event and that this child really is something special, someone special, indeed the most special someone there ever will be. And this someone is a baby, only hours old, so there will be years involved in the revealing of this plan, the unwrapping of God’s story which has begun its telling but has a long way to go until its conclusion.

The story which Christians tell about Jesus does not begin at Christmas and end at Easter. It doesn’t even begin at Annunciation and end at Ascension for those of you who know those events in our calendar. The story of Jesus begins before Creation and Genesis 1, and it’s still being told today: it hasn’t finished yet because Jesus is still going. And that story is not just the biography of a carpenter who grew up in the north of Israel but who was born and died in the south: the story of Christmas and the story of Christianity is the story of the angels in Luke 2:14, God is glorified in the exchanges of peace amongst and between humankind.

In Titus 3:4-7 we read Paul’s take on Jesus’ birth. This is not actually a Christmas story, but it does say that Jesus the man, who once was that baby, came as a representation of God’s goodness and mercy. Jesus was not a representative of God, Jesus was God in all that God is; however Paul especially draws attention to the characteristics of Jesus to tell us what God is like. God is good, loving, kind and merciful, and not that Paul says it but its obvious from these other characteristics, God is patient.

This Christmas morning as we rush home to presents, food, family, and the fun of the day (and don’t worry, I’m nearly finished preaching), it’s good to be reminded that God is patient and never rushed. God takes the time to love us, to protect us as we grow, and to be patient as we stumble along towards maturity. Jesus was active in ministry for between one and three years, depending how you read the Bible’s seasons, and these were the last years of his life. Jesus didn’t start preaching and healing until her turned 30, so he was 31 or 33 when he died, and then he was back to Heaven seven weeks later. God didn’t rush Jesus into action; God let Jesus grow up and learn a trade and get some life skills, and then Jesus did what he had to do as a teacher and a healer, an example to the world, and then he died as a sign of God’s love and then he rose again as a sign of God’s authority. Then Jesus went home. No rush, just a well placed, well-paced life.

Let’s remember Jesus the saviour, and God the patient one, this Christmas. Let’s take the time away from the tinsel, even if only a few minutes, and slow down and be present and notice where God has grown us up to and where God is pointing us toward. There’s no rush, there’s only breath and inertia, but let’s not miss the quiet and gentle movement forward by frantically sitting with the flashy and the noisy.

Celebrate with joy, the Lord is come: do you have space to receive him?

Amen.

The Advent of Loss: 2 (Blue Christmas)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the community Blue Christmas service in Kaniva for 2019.  The service was hosted by the Uniting Church on behalf of all of the town churches.

John 1:1-14

Imagine a Christmas without all the pageantry. In a field of loss that might be nice, and December 25th itself might pass in quietness, another Wednesday in the world, with nothing to set it apart. Imagine if Christmas Day was just another birthday, someone else’s birthday, and joy to them and all of that, but good that I wasn’t invited, or even aware, because I’m not in the mood for celebration. In fact, even if it was my birthday, and it isn’t, but even if it was I’m just not into it.

Do any of you know what date of the year my birthday is? It’s okay, I don’t know when yours are either. It’s probably no surprise to you that your birthday this year was just another day for me, unremarkable, I don’t even remember what I was doing: unless it was a Sunday of course, in which case I was probably preaching, but then I preach most Sundays anyway so I’m sorry if I didn’t notice your special day. Or was it a Saturday in winter and I was at the footy, same answer, sorry I didn’t notice.

There are days like that for all of us. Not just birthdays, but other significant days and the anniversaries of significant days. There are people in this room, at the very least in this town, who lost friends and family to death this year: but what was I doing on the day that that happened? Can’t say. Others observed days of anniversary: a year, two, ten, perhaps fifty since a loved one died, again days unremarked by me or the rest of you, for the most part. And generally that’s okay, we often don’t need the whole world party to our personal grief, especially when healing has begun and the years have made the memories more fond for what was had and less sharp for what was lost.

But then, then there’s Christmas. I know two people for whom Christmas Day is the anniversary of a father’s passing. But even without that, Christmas Day is a loud and bright day, especially in Australia where it’s all-but midsummer, so the parties are outside with cricket in the street and barbeques in the back yard and it’s hard to hide from celebration even if you want to. That’s not to say that there aren’t lonely people, grieving people, distressed people even on the Day when we celebrate Santa’s coming to earth in human form, it’s just that those sad-sacks get their noses rubbed in by their boisterous neighbours and their cordial-powered, remote-control wielding children.

In John’s gospel and the opening chapter, which is really a prologue to the story than the opening of the story itself, we have Christmas without the paraphernalia. No wise men, no shepherds, no angels; no star, no animals, no manger; no baby. What we have is light and a word; a word which is a who (and not a what), a word who is glorious and alive, a word who is light whom banishes the darkness. I wonder what a Christmas pageant would look like if we based it on John’s account rather than Matthew’s or Luke’s. Would it actually be less boisterous if there was no bunch of kids dressed as a flock of lambs, and one solitary boy was dressed as everlasting light instead? I never got to be Joseph when I was a child, although I did play him in a monologue when I was about 42. I wonder how I would have felt had I been chosen to play the real light – the light that comes into the world and shines on all mankind as John 1:9 puts it.

The Good News Translation overlooks the phrase, but in the New American Bible (amongst others) we read in John 1:12 that to those who did accept him he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name. Now is not the time for a full theology of the Name of Jesus, but briefly, at Blue Christmas, let me say this. The name of the Word who came as light, is Jesus, and that name means “God Saves”. It’s the same Hebrew name as Joshua (Yehu’shua), the one who fit de battle of Jericho and the walls come a tumblin’ down. The phrase “in his name” also means to accept Jesus for all he is and all he stands for: the whole being of Jesus and his story. If you acknowledge and receive Jesus, the one who exists and proclaims the salvation of God, then you will become a son or daughter of God. Many did not accept Jesus when he came, during his life between 4BC and 30AD or whenever exactly it was, John 1:11 tells us that and we know it from other parts of the New Testament too. Many since then and right up to today have also not accepted him, either they have heard the story and rejected it for whatever reason, or they haven’t heard the story properly told at all for whatever reason. That’s why John 1:12 specifically says to those who did accept him, because in John 1:11 we’ve just been told that many didn’t.

And that’s where we find ourselves on Blue Christmas, and others find themselves blue at Christmas, because the story is unacceptable. Here’s a story about eternal light entering the world. Here’s a story about the Word of God, so God’s creative power (remember God created by “saying”) and God’s authority, entering the world. Here’s a story about a man who embodies all of the above and his name is literally “God Saves”, if not “God’s Salvation” as if the man is himself the saviour, and not just a living prophecy whose name is a message, he himself with the name is also the means of salvation. And yet here I am, on Thursday night 19th December 2019 (or Wednesday morning 25th December), and here I am mourning because God did very much NOT save. If God saves then why am I a widow, or an orphan, or a divorcee, or a bankrupt, or a quadriplegic, or a neurotic? Why? All this light you’re speaking about just makes my darkness even more obvious, and it’s just as painful as the noise of children on their new bikes and the sound of their dads on their fourth beer.

You say “God saves”, but I say that’s very hard to accept, let alone believe.

As a pastor I hear that, and I will not trample it. Yes I am a pastor, but only because I am a survivor in life,; and I’m a survivor in life only because I am a Christian. I’m not saying that you cannot survive life without Christianity, but I am saying that I would not have made it this far without Jesus. My story is that I have lost a lot. My grandparents have all died, so my parents (whom I dearly love) have lost their parents (whom they dearly loved). I have lost friends to death, and friends to distance. I have also lost friends to hatred, people who once were close who have turned against me and my family. I have lost health, and poor health has stolen decades of my life; in fact I’m going to say that much of my adulthood has been lost to sickness and disability. I was sexually molested as a child and I have lost most, if not all, of what it means to be in a romantic relationship. So, when you say that God’s salvation is very hard to accept, let alone believe, I believe you, and I accept your story as accurate and true.

But so is John’s story, accurate and true, and I know this because it is also my story. That I am here, after all of that, to tell my story and even more to tell John’s story from the Christian Bible, is all down to the fact that God does save, did save, will save, and that Jesus is the means by which that is accomplished. I am a Christian, a recipient of salvation, because God saved me and not because I saved myself. When I stopped trying to save myself and faced the overwhelming tide of death, because I was out of energy and motivation, that is when God has lifted me out and up and away. If you aren’t there yet well I’m not going to gloat, or accuse, or deny your pain. I will be respectful this Christmas of you in the way that I missed in Christmases past when others denied, excluded, and accused me.

Imagine a Christmas without all the pageantry: in a field of loss that might be nice, and December 25th itself might pass in quietness, another Wednesday in the world, with nothing to set it apart. You know, you are allowed to have it that way, you really are. But if you don’t want to, we’ll be here at 9:00am next Wednesday, and we’ll be telling the stories of how Jesus is God’s Salvation. And we’ll be nice about it too.

Amen.