Dem stones, dem stones…

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Unitingt Church on 14th May 2017, the fifth Sunday after Easter in year-A.

Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10.

Several weeks ago, I described myself to you as “a preaching-nerd” when I spoke about how I enjoy discovering the ways that the lectionary has set up the weekly passages of scripture for the purposes of establishing a theme.  Today’s set of readings present us with the theme that the Bible suggests a variety of understandings of stones.  For Stephen who was executed by stoning, stones are bad things.  For the Psalmist who calls upon God as his rock, rocks are good things.  So, rock equals good, and stone equals bad?  Got that?  Well…well unfortunately, it’s not that simple since Peter speaks of Christ as the living stone; one who was rejected by mortal beings but is exalted by God.

In today’s reading from the Psalms we read of how God is a rock of refuge for the worshipper (Psalm 31:2), and “indeed” God is a rock and fortress (Psalm 31:3).  My commentary points out that the Hebrew word translated as “indeed” is used seven times in Psalm 31 to introduce a new verse.  This God, the rock, is one who can be relied upon and trusted in, this word is solid, and solid indeed!  Standing on this assurance it is no wonder to me that the psalmist is confident to say in Psalm 31:5 “into your hand I commit my spirit”. We know that this statement is not the famous last words of the psalmist, especially since even this psalm has twenty-four verses and this is only verse five.  The assurance that God is worthy of our trust, worthy to hold our spirits in safekeeping, is assured by the wisdom that God is both the rock and the proven deliverer.  “God has saved me before; more than once in fact, so here and now I take the step of faith to commend my whole life into God’s hands and safekeeping.”  What a word of confidence that it, and what an example to us all!   The psalmist asks of God in Psalm 31:15 that in God’s steadfast love that God would “save me from my persecutors”.  Not only do I trust God in my own life and its adventures says the psalmist, but I trust God where it comes to other people and their potentially harmful interactions with me.  It is no wonder then that in the very moment of his murder by his persecutors each of two men pray the words in Psalm 31:5, and with his final breath commits his spirit to God.

The writer of 1 Peter says of Jesus that he was rejected by humanity, yet was chosen by God and is precious and that the same can be said of us if we follow Jesus.  The world outside sees our faith as wasted and our activities as irrelevant and inconsequential.  But in God’s economy the worthless rocks and scattered gravel that the world sees is revealed to be living stones which build a spiritual house.  Where the world sees a pile of broken brick God sees and experiences a house of worship whose cornerstone is Christ himself.  God sees the other stones of that house, that house with Christ as cornerstone and capstone, as you and me, him and her, and them over there making another wall in that other denomination’s house today.  God sees unity and worth in who we are and in what we do when we are connected to each other and connected through each other to Christ who is our sure foundation.  1 Peter says that if the cornerstone of your belief is in Jesus then you will be part of what God builds upon the foundation of your belief: but if you don’t believe then that same stone becomes a barrier, a stumbling block, and you’ll be tripped up in your disbelief.  It is made even more plain by 1 Peter, those who stumble do so because of disobedience; but those who believe, those who are part of what God is building upon the foundation of belief in Jesus Christ, become a royal and holy gathering tasked with the proclamation of God in speech and action.  We who were once a bunch of rubble, boulders and bluemetal are now a single unified, strong tower and palace, a temple and a house with a common identity and a unified task.  This is monumental stuff church, pun intended, because the Church is a monument to God’s glory, and it is true in metaphorical speech because the Church takes on the identity given to the Jewish nation.  We, the Christians of 2017, are a royal and holy community: we have received the same promise made to the tribes of Hebrews a thousand years before Jesus’ life.  What was spoken over them is spoken over us alongside them two thousand years after Jesus.  And more so this is true because of Jesus, and is true for us because of our belief in Jesus.

So, to summarise what we have so far:

  1. God is a rock.
  2. You are a living stone. With the rest of us, you form a monument which has its foundation upon God, the rock.

The manner in which Stephen met his death mirrors the death of Jesus in many details.  The rock of which 1 Peter speaks as being rejected by humanity is shown here in the first murder of a Christian for being a Christian.  To put it somewhat ironically the one who trusts in rock of Israel is being stoned to death by the priests and Levites of the Pharisees.

When Stephen cries out with his final breath in Acts 7:59 he says two things of Jesus; that the life of Jesus is worthy of emulation, and that Jesus is the Lord Godself.  I’ll unpack that a little bit for you, and in my unique and peculiar style I’ll give you the second one first.  So, secondly, Stephen speaks of Jesus in language that Jesus himself, and the psalmist, used of God.  Where Jesus and the psalmist commit their spirit to God in prayer Stephen commits his spirit to Jesus.  Stephen prays as if he believes that Jesus is God, or at least worthy of the same ascription to majesty as the Father.  Of course, we know this, this is why he is being executed in the first place, but there it is in black and white on page 891 of the Bible in front of you.  And firstly, Stephen’s last words are almost word for word the last words of Jesus.  What Jesus did is what Stephen does.  If asked “WWJD?” Stephen would answer “in your final breath commend your spirit to God.”  And that is what Stephen did, with the unique extrapolation at that stage, of naming the LORD in this circumstance as Jesus.

In my persona as preaching-nerd, and a man who finds the lectionary fascinating, I am delighted that our reading set for today ends at Acts 7:60.  Whenever I have seen this passage marked in a Bible, or heard it read aloud, the block of text typically continues to 8:1.  Stephen dies, but somewhat more importantly it seems, Saul approves of the murder.  But not today.  Not today, thank you lectionary.  Today the focus is not on Saul the persecuting Pharisee who will go on to cause havoc amongst the Christians before being knocked off his horse and then going on as Paul the preaching Christian to cause havoc amongst the Pharisees.  No, today the focus, by ending at Acts 7:60, is the last words of Stephen and his ascription that amidst and amongst the flying stones of his murderers it is God in Jesus who is the rock which is steadfast and sure.

I pray that none of us, you or I, face death by judicial stoning nor by any other form of avalanche.  But I do pray that each of us, you and I, would cry out to God when the time comes and commit our dying selves into the hands of the steadfast God.  May it be for us that our last words can be “into your hands, my Lord I commend my all”.

And that would have been a wonderful place to finish this sermon.  But there is more to say.  Just a paragraph, so relax.  As much as I hope that you will emulate Jesus in death, as Stephen emulated the dying Jesus in Stephen’s own death, my prayer for you is that your prayer of commitment to God’s surety as rock is uttered well before your final breath.  The time is NOW to commit your spirit into God’s hands, and then to live for years and decades with that surety at your back and on your heart and mind.  As beautiful as the picture is of Stephen dying with Jesus, and dying for Jesus, he only got there because he lived for Jesus first.

So, live for Jesus.  God is your rock, and is your rock right now.  Commit your spirit today.

Amen.

 

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What must WE do?

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 30th April 2017.

 Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-23.

Good morning Church.

When I began my time amongst you on January 1st this year I told you in that first service that I’d not be telling you too much about myself from the front.  I said that my focus as a preacher was upon the gospel, and that if you wanted to get to know me then you were welcome to come to the manse and catch up.  Because of that you’re still finding out things about me, even after four months.  This morning I’m going to share another part of my story with you.

During the months between May 2003 and January 2009 I belonged to a Hillsong congregation, particularly the one which meets in central London.  The site of our worship moved about a bit, so I cannot tell you about a specific location, but Hillsong Church London was where I “did church” to use their terminology.  One of my great privileges as a participant in Hillsong Church London was the time I spent associated with the “New Christians Team”.  We were the sneaky ones who were sat strategically around the theatres where we met as church, and when everyone else had their eyes closed for the altar call we had our eyes open.  When someone in my “section” raised his or her hand for salvation I would see that hand, and then I would discreetly identify that person to one of my team members who would then approach that person during the final songs and speak with him or her about salvation as the service ended.  In 2004, there were something like 637 “hands” raised, some for first time salvation and others for a re-connection with God after a time “in the wilderness”.  In 2005, we saw the thousandth person that year raise her or his hand in late September.  We stopped counting after that: we had the delicious difficulty that converts were being made faster than we could count them.  So, we stopped counting them and instead focussed on loving them.

Two things from that experience stand out for me, and I hope you’re already seeing the link to our reading from Acts this morning.

  1. Whilst we never had 3000 people baptised in one day, God really was adding daily to our number those who were being saved.  One of our regular guest speakers was a church planter in India and his intention at the time of one of his visits to us was to plant 365 churches each year; statistically that would be one new church per day.  Let alone God daily adding people, this pastor wanted God daily adding new missional congregations to the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
  2. I remember that one service where no one raised a hand. I’m a bit used to this story now, but when I first began telling it in sermons in Australia I used to choke up at the memory.  Now to be clear, I’m not talking about no one in my section raising a hand, that often happened; what I’m saying is that after the hour and a half of song, praise, prayer, message, and all, there was not one hand raised across our theatre.  I remember the visible distress in our team room after the service: not one person had been saved anew!  We had been church and we had done church, and no one had found Christ anew.  No-one, not one!  We had failed God: to say we were devastated is an understatement, we were gutted and hurting.

Can you imagine why Hillsong Church is so successful at what it does?  I’m not here to praise them up, after all I am here and not there.  What they do with media, music and film, is another story, not a bad story, just not my focus this morning.  Can you imagine what it feels like to be in a congregation where the leaders go home crying, some wracked with sobs, because there was a service without a salvation?  I don’t need to imagine it, I was there, and it haunts me occasionally, and here’s why.  At that stage Hillsong Church London met in a small theatre, it had about 650 seats, and because of that there were three services on a Sunday.  There were salvations in the other two services that day, so it’s not like God went home empty-handed.  People were added to the Church that day.  So, imagine that.  Even though God was saving Londoners in the morning and in the evening, that not one person had asked for grace in the afternoon set off grief like I had never before seen in a bunch of Christian leaders anywhere.

In today’s set text from 1 Peter 1:18-19 the writer tells his readers, which includes us, that we were ransomed with the blood of Jesus; a ransom far more valuable than coin and bullion.  And in Acts 2:41 we are told that about 3000 were added to the congregation after they had been cut to the quick by the word of the gospel.

Do we really doubt that salvation is a precious thing?  More precious than anything the world can provide, more devastating when it is missed than any other human catastrophe.  Just think of it in these terms, to miss salvation is to have an “Act of God” which didn’t happen.  As nasty as storms and fires are we understand that they are awe-inspiring in their power: imagine how powerful a positive “Act of God” might be, and how awful to miss out.  Money cannot buy that, and if you miss that window in the skies how can you be sure that it will come again?  We as Christians have faith that there is always a way to God, but if you are not a Christian, and you miss your chance, how do you know there will be another chance?  Or, and this one does cut me to the heart, if we Christians miss our chance to open the skies to those who are not Christian, how will we know that they’ll get another chance?  We trust that God is gracious in seeking the lost to save them, but if this congregation did not extend a hand to welcome the lost how can we rely on the next congregation to do so?

And if we continue to miss our opportunities, if we continue to shirk our responsibilities, perhaps God will not send the lost to us anymore.  Maybe when God is shepherding a lost woman or man into the Kingdom of God God will send that one to one of the other denominations in town.  Now I’m not saying we are in competition with the other churches, not at all.  I am delighted that God is adding daily to the Church those who are being saved, even if they are being saved in Lakes Community Church, the Baptists, the Anglicans, and the Roman Catholics.  But if God is sending lost souls there because God feels God cannot send lost souls here…  I don’t even want to think about that being true.

So, what do we do?  Do we have an “altar call” each week for the next six weeks in the hope of having a mega baptism service on Pentecost Day?  Do you need to start bringing your unsaved friends to church more often so that I can preach salvation to them?  Do you actually trust me to do that, or is this congregation and its worship life embarrassing to you?  I’m not suggesting it is, and I’m not having a go at you at all: in fact, I have belonged to congregations where I would not have invited my unsaved friends along, so I know that such sentiments exist.  On the other hand, and this is new to me as pastoring a church is new to me, as your preacher and chaplain can I trust you to disciple and encourage those friends and neighbours of yours that I lead in salvific prayer?  I know that Hillsong lost converts when having “prayed the prayer” they were then not followed up or encouraged in their new faith by their Christian friends.

The gift we were given in Jesus Christ is beyond compare.  It is beyond value, (we’ve already said that), and it is beyond comprehension.  Salvation from sin, from its effects in our life (through the process of healing and discipline, not magic); security and salving from aloneness and hopelessness, and from feelings of worthlessness and uselessness; these are concepts that we could spend a lifetime of sermons and Bible studies unpacking and still not get to the end of.

I have always been a Christian.  If you want to argue the merits of that statement in view of original sin and the time between my birth and my accepting Christ’s lordship over my heart as a sentient adult, well I don’t care for your tone.  I was born into a family of disciples, raised in discipleship, and I’ve never departed from it.  I am not sinless, I am far from perfect, but I have always had God in the centre of my life.  And because of this, for the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone could possibly live without that.  I mean, how do unbelievers even continue in the world?  They exist because God created them human, but how do they actually live without the knowledge of God and this deep, core, fundamental, central, foundational, defining understanding that they were made in the image and likeness of God with the sole purpose of being loved by the God who made them?

This is why it is so important that we be ready when people from “outside the awareness of the love of God” come to us ready to respond.  Psalm 116 speaks of a man who was ensnared and in deep distress but God leant down so as to hear his cry for deliverance all the clearer, and God saved him.    He goes on in the later verses to say “now I will thank God with an offering and with public declaration of God’s magnificence and my gratitude.  I know that I am precious to God and that God is interested in me and takes care of me, God deals carefully with me.  I am nothing, yet I am precious to God, so I will praise and magnify God’s name.”

We must take care when people come to church.  We must be aware when something extraordinary is happening in someone’s life and any given Sunday is a special day for him or her because of what God has done.  Last week I prayed our confessions by using Bruce Prewer’s poem “During Last Week”.  But what if during last week something extraordinary happened and someone wanted to come and give exultant praise to God?  What if for us it’s ho-hum another Sunday, time to get the urn on and to ask who left the fans going, while a visitor (or more so, a local whose attendance we might take for granted) wants to be flat on her face before the Lord in exaltation or despair?

In the last two weeks, last week and Easter day, there were visitors here at 9:15.  Now I am not addressing these remarks only to those of you who are the early comers, those who arrive closer to 9:30 than 10:00 because you have jobs, we all need to hear this.  I am here earliest and I have my 9:00 jobs, so this is me too. We must never, ever, be too busy or too noisy in this house for those who need it to be a church.  Altar calls and discipleship classes aside this is what we can do right now, be church for those who are coming here on any given Sunday.

Here’s two quick stories to illustrate what I mean:

  1. I didn’t see this happen but I’ve been to the place where it did. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the traditional place of the cross and the empty tomb, many different Christian denominations have their own zone.  Like us there are bowls for candles and intercessions: I have been there, I have seen the bowls, and I have lit a candle.  I have been a Christian on his first visit to Jerusalem.  I have knelt at the slab where tradition says Jesus was laid out between cross and grave.  I have knelt in the sepulchre itself, the empty tomb.  Well this story goes that another pilgrim such as I was, this one a woman of the Roman Catholic faith, joyfully placed her candles in one of the bowls of sand in celebration of her being in Jerusalem.  Can you imagine this woman’s joy?  Can you imagine this woman’s heartbroken terror when a bearded man screamed “No!” from across the space, and in a mass of cassocks and flame sent her candles flying?  She had placed Catholic candles in some very specifically other Orthodox bowl.  I mean, you’d think she’d shitted on the actual cross, with all the offence that my use of that word implies as well as the act.  Horrifying!  Not my use of the word “shit”, but the way in which this dear daughter of God was treated in her own Father’s house.
  2. I was almost there for this next story, I know the woman involved and I passed her in the foyer on the day in question. A young woman who had been inconsistent in her attendance at church for a few months was present one particular Sunday.  She was not backsliding at all, she was just struggling in life and her very new husband, who was not a Christian at the time, really only got to see her on Sundays so she’d stay in bed with him rather than go off to church by herself.  Anyway, the woman came to church this week, and feeling a little bit frail for a reason I’ll tell you in a minute, she sat in the very back row.  She sat there quietly, her head bowed, while the bustle of church went on around her.  The 8:30 traditional service (which I had preached at) was emptying out of the hall after coffee and the 10:00 family service crowd was arriving.  But there she sat, this young woman, quiet in the back row.  After church got underway, and the young woman had sung the first song and so forth, she was sitting, again silently and with her head bowed, when one of the regulars came in late.  Being late she sat at the back.  She sat next to the young woman.  And since the young woman had been infrequent in her attendance the older woman whispered to her: how are you?  How is your new husband?  How do you like married life in place of just living together life?  and your new house?  and being called Mrs?  And so on.  On she whispered, being friendly and interested.  On she whispered through the formal prayers.  On she whispered through the time for silent prayer.  On she whispered through the sermon.  The young woman, unbeknownst to anyone that day, unbeknownst to the older woman, unbeknownst to the minister or any of the elders, unbeknownst to me who passed her in the foyer as I left and she arrived at 9:45, that young woman had miscarried her first pregnancy earlier in the week.  She had come “to church”, practically “back to church”, to spend some daughter-time with her Father in Heaven and some crying time with her Comforter.  What she got was an hour of whispered interrogative interruption.

Let’s not do that.

Let’s never be that priest or that older woman.  Let’s all be aware of where we are and what this house means to everyone who comes.  Let’s take care of God’s house, not just in keeping the plastic-ware in its only possible correct drawer, the blinds at a certain angle, or the cars parked facing only east in the front and precisely one metre back from the gravel.   All of that is important, some of it is a legal imperative for OH&S, but if we truly believe this building to be the house of God then we must always be aware that God is at work here, and is welcome to be at work here, in God’s own house.  We can be fun, and we can be social.  You know I have a very evident sense of humour and most weeks I have elicited a chuckle or two from you.  That must not stop.  But we are first and foremost here, here in this place, here in the house of God, to worship and to respond to our glorious Father and magnificent saviour whom we adore so much.

So please Uniting Church, please Damien, please please please all of you and me, don’t get in the way of anyone else seeking God in adoration, desperation, or both.  If we are so care-giving, so careful in this better way, then maybe, just maybe, God will add to our number those who are being saved.

Amen.