The Happiest Ending is Not an Ending at all. (Pentecost 23C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva and Serviceton for Sunday 17th November 2019

Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 12

In Isaiah 65:1-16, so the verses prior to our reading today, we are given the context for what God is saying in our set passage. So, straight off the top, here’s a hint from your preacher: when you set out to read from the Bible read the chapter, not just the verse or two: today’s text has shown it to be true. Today, where God begins to speak to us in Isaiah 65:17 saying I am about to create we have confidence in each of those words because of the page and a half which has gone before, the first sixteen verses of Isaiah 65 and the twin stories which they tell. The I am is God The LORD; and actually I suggest that God is more fully named in the phrase I am about to since God is only knowable by revelation and activity. This I am, this God who is and the God who does, is the One who revealed Godself to the world even before the world began to look. We read that in Isaiah 65:1, and we understand some of that in the story of Christmas where Godself, in all of God’s Godfulness, entered the created world in the form of a created thing to communicate and to pitch a tent amidst humankind. God is ready, God is willing, God is excited about fellowship, and God is present and welcoming even before we’re aware there’s a party about to start. Israel is a hot mess at this point, the exiled ones are well away and the remnant of the old and the broken, whom the Babylonians left behind, have forgotten God and been forgotten by the bulk of God’s people. But God is excited by the thought that there will be a seeking and a finding in the next breath, and God just cannot wait. The God who is, who is the God who does, is about to do what God is first known for, saying I am…about to…create.

For I am about to create new… says The LORD in Isaiah 65:17, new heavens and a new earth; so basically a new everything then, and of such wonder that the old heaven and the old earth (so, this one here) shall not be remembered or come to mind. Who’s up for some of that? Yeah, me too. The best bit within this new everything is the new Jerusalem, a joy, and its people…a delight, in which God will rejoice: and not only “in which” God will rejoice but where God will rejoice, depending how you read Isaiah 65:19. Is it possible, is it true that God will not only rejoice about the new Jerusalem and the restored people, but will God actually do the rejoicing in the actual place, with the actual people? Mm-hmm, yep.

The rejoicing that God does in Jerusalem, where God is actually present in the city, looks like life. Life, doesn’t it? Babies will live to adulthood, and adults will live to 100 and more, so that’s a long life. And people will live in houses they have built, and enjoy the produce of trees they have planted and tended. Everyone will benefit from his or her own work and so these long lives, (long enough to plant and then wait for the maturation of tress from which to enjoy the harvest, long enough to still be considered young at 100), these long lives will be full lives, abundant lives, eternal lives. Big, fat, wide, full, deep, long, tall, complete lives; lives lived in the company of the Presence (big-P) of The LORD.

And not just that, because if that wasn’t enough of a promise there’s more to come. These long and fruitful lives will also be peaceful lives, shalom-ful lives, (BTW shalom-ful is a great word, even if I’m not entirely sure if it existed before now), lives without anxiety or grief, lives where wolves and lambs are safe in each other’s company, where lions don’t eat people and snakes don’t eat at all. This last point, found in Isaiah 65:25, is important when you consider the rest of the picture: this is a new Eden. Long life, full life, abundant life, non-anxious life, worshipful life, a life of companionship with God; this is what Eden was like, until the serpent spoke up and wrecked it all. But in this new Eden the serpent eats dust from the outset, there is no room for a second Fall, this Eden will last forever and will never be corrupted. The happy ending to the long story of Israel and Judah in exile; the story during which the people were taken away to Babylonia and then Persia and their identity as the Chosen people of the Promised Land was destroyed, and the cities and towns and farms and fields they left behind were destroyed, and the temple of God in Jerusalem was destroyed, the happy ending to that story is actually no ending at all. The end of the people’s story is the eternity of God, as wide and high as it is long, and full, so full, so very very full.

Can you imagine what a word of hope that was to the first hearers? Imagine if you were in exile, or you were one of those left behind amongst the ruins because you weren’t worthy even of slavery. Imagine that God said that what is coming next is everything you could never imagine of joy and restoration.

As our Christian calendar moves to its end, where today is the penultimate Sunday in the year, and our last Sunday in this long season in green stretching all the way back to Pentecost, we are closing in on Advent. Advent is more than just a month of daily chocolates and me in a purple shirt, it is the season of preparation for the Church when we think of Jesus coming to Earth as a human child, and of his return one day as the King of Glory. It is a time when we remember that at the Last Day the new Jerusalem will descend from Heaven, that a new Heaven and a new Earth will be completed, and God will again live in our midst (and we will live in the very centre of God’s presence) and that God’s Kingdom will have no end. No end, but also no edges, and no roof, God’s Kingdom is not just a future but it is a wideness in very dimension, a fullness in every conceivable thing. Even without the lived experience of a physical exile, of a life of slavery under a foreign empire, of colonisation and subjugation, even if you haven’t had any of that the promise of what God has in mind and the absolute certainty that it will occur should be thrilling for you. Is it? Do you really grasp what it is that is coming? This is why I get annoyed when Christianity is boxed so tightly around a formula of repentance to guarantee a place above the sky after death. If your Christian expectation is for “a glorious afterlife” then man (woman or child) you are selling yourself so short, and you have missed the whole point of God’s self-revelation through Jesus the Christ.

Lift up your eyes.

Today’s psalm comes to us from Isaiah 12. So yes, it is a psalm, it’s just from a different part of the Bible: same genre though, it’s a song of God. Again, the best place to begin reading is back a page or two, in this case the oracle which occupies all of Isaiah 11 and which in some Bibles carries the subheading “the peaceful kingdom” and in others “the righteous branch”. It’s important to remember that these headings are twentieth (or twenty-first) century additions in English, they’re not in the original text, and they’re there to offer help to understanding the passage. I say this because it’s true, I also say it because I don’t find either of those headings helpful in this case, so I’m going to ignore them. In fact, Isaiah 11, in the Newly Infallible Damien Version, has the title “the ideal king”. This king, upon whom God’s Spirit rests, is wise and just and fair and honourable, he is worthy to be praised. This king calls and the whole of humanity answers, all who are homeless are called home, drawn home indeed, and the home to which they come is filled with love and the generous abundance of every good thing. This home is better than Heaven, this home is the new Jerusalem upon the new Earth, this is Eden in all that it would have become if 6000 years or 6000 million years of what became of God’s good creation had not strayed from the Master’s plan. Good eh? More than.

And so we come to Isaiah 12:1 and the words [y]ou will say in that day: I will give thanks to you O LORD. What day? That day. THAT day. The day when the ideal king summons you home to the better Eden: that day. And what will you say on that day? Well the rest of Isaiah 12 is what you will say; thank you because you saved me, you comforted me, you restored me, I trust in you and I trust you to be my strength and my might. You will say that The LORD is my salvation, (Isaiah 12:2), I am not my salvation and I cannot save myself, salvation is a gift of God, drawn from the wells of God: wells I did not dig fed by aquifers I did not fill. And what else will you say on that day? You will say [g]ive thanks to The LORD, call on God’s name, make known God’s deeds among the nations, proclaim that God’s name is exalted. (Isaiah 12:4.) Good eh? More than.

So, to recap; in two places in Isaiah we are told that God is about to begin the work of restoration. In fact God has already begun the work of restoration, what is about to happen is that God is about to invite creation to enter the workspace and be the completion of it. It is God who is doing this, the I AM, the Creator, the King who is the root of Jesse (so a Davidic sovereign, a filling of God’s promise to David himself). That’s what we’ve heard so far. What we have also heard so far is that this restoration is not Heaven, it is Eden; but better even than Heaven and Eden it is an Eden WITHOUT THE SERPENT. This is Eden and it will never be withdrawn from us, or we from it, because the King himself, a grandson of David and The LORD God will live amongst us in that Eden. Look at Isaiah 12:6 where it says great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. Where? In our midst! Who? The Holy One of Israel. Now that, that is a promise.

So, what does it all mean? What does it mean for us, Christians of The Wimmera and The Tatiara. Two things I think come to me immediately from the text.

  1. It’s Jesus we’re looking for. Jesus is the root of Jesse, the grandson of David.

  2. It’s God we’re looking for. In the Vulgate, which was an update of earlier Latin translations from koine Greek (the original language of the New Testament and the working language of the Old Testament in the form of the Septuagint) into decent Latin, Isaiah 12:2-3 read God is my saviour rather than my salvation. God was not just the one making the promise and giving the assurance, it was Godself doing the actual saving. Judaism didn’t teach that so explicitly, even in Jesus’ time, but early Christianity did. You’ll find that wording in the New King James Version for example where Isaiah 12:2 reads Behold, God is my saviour and Lord, I will trust in Him and be saved by Him. So it’s personal, not just that I am saved but that God personally did the saving.

  3. And point three is of course the Christian understanding that points one and two intersect, God who does the saving Godself does so through the work of Jesus, the root of Jesse. Isaiah wasn’t saying that, but The Vulgate did, and so am I.

I said two things, and then went to three dot points. But that was only one thing. The second thing, without dot points, is that Jesus has saved us for the new Eden, not for the old Heaven. Now I’m not redefining Christianity here, relax and don’t get upset: if you want to go to Heaven and you are fully confident that Jesus wants you there then you will be there, and you will see me there. (This I know, for the Bible tells me so.) But the point is that God intended creation to be here, where God could walk in the cool of the evening with God’s own friend Adam, and that Adam would be God’s friend and he would not be ashamed of who he was (or was not) in God’s presence. This is what Jesus brought to us through his death and resurrection, not only the golden city above the clouds, but the fullness of what the Earth was always supposed to be, and what it will be again, and more so what it will become in the form of what it should have become, the place of God’s personal dwelling among God’s beloved people. This is the Kingdom of God, not so much a place (although in the fullness of time there will be an Earth location) as the reality that God reigns today, God reigns here, and God’s presence is upon us and amongst us where we love and worship and serve God and each other.

This is the outset of Eternity, not yet as long and wide and high and full as it shall be when God’s presence comes down, but Eternity nonetheless. The reality of Eternity today is the news of Eternity tomorrow, and that is good news indeed. It is tidings of great joy, it is the meaning of Christmas. It is, in every degree, the gospel.

Amen.

Burn

I was blessed to begin my year second year at KSSM with a time of retreat alongside some of the other pastors from the Churches of Christ in Victoria and Tasmania.  One of the retreat speakers taught us about burnout and how God works with the willing to restore those who have been left in ashes and sawdust by life.  There are four keys to this.

In Acts 3:6 we learn that as a minister you can only give what you have got.  This passage can be read that Peter gave the man what he really needed, rather than what the man had asked for, (and there is that too), but for today let’s look at what Peter said about what he did have to share.  “I don’t have that,” said Peter, “but I do have this and so here’s the best of what I have”.

In Isaiah 40:28-31 we learn to rely on God for strength.  God has more than enough strength for us, we can never exhaust God through relying on The LORD’s strength for our journey.  When ministry has drained you, return to the source.

In Mark 12:30 we learn to return love to God with everything in our heart soul, mind, and strength.  In burnout it might seem counter-productive to be giving everything out, but in worship we are emptied of ourselves so that we can be filled by God.

In John 15:2 we learn that God is a wise gardener who prunes what is dead and useless.  In the same way we need to stop giving energy to things that are dead: we need to commit to activities and relationships which are life-giving and affirming of the gospel.  Sometimes the stuff we have to do to get well again is more about stopping doing stuff.

Within a priesthood of all believers everyone can take these words about ministry to heart: even if you are not ministering in the same way that the elders and deacons do this is wisdom for every disciple of Christ in his or her daily life.  So as November brings the beginning and preparation for the harvest, and the holidays, and the holy days, let’s all remember to draw close to God for refreshing and renewal before we burn ourselves to the ground.  (And then maybe we won’t burn ourselves to the ground.)

A Rite of Welcome

Good morning Church: know that you are welcome.
 
Know that you are welcome if this is your first time among us,
or your first time in a long time
or your first time since last week.
Know that you are welcome if you have been here since 8:59
or 9:29
or you’re not here yet but are on your way.
Know that you are welcome if you have arrived with peace,
or you have arrived with rush,
or you have not arrived at all.
Know that you are welcome if you have come alone,
or with friends,
or with family, including an untidy child.
Good morning Church: know that you are welcome.

A Better Day (Pentecost 16C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Nhill Uniting Church for Sunday 29th September 2019, the sixteenth Sunday in Pentecost

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; Luke 16:19-31

I’m sure that like me you have heard many of the apocryphal stories of Christianity and that the one I am about to tell you’ve already heard. But since these stories often take the place of what is actually Biblical in our understanding of what Christianity is all about I’m going to tell it anyway. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard it before, because I don’t care and I’m the one preaching. And don’t come up to me later to tell me you have a different version, because I have the correct version.

So anyway: a teenage girl who has been diagnosed with some inoperable and untreatable disease knows that she has less than a handful of months to live. So, being a headstrong girl (as all teenage girls are), she makes her parents take her to the funeral director to arrange her funeral in advance of her death. She tells the funeral director, it may well have been Rodney Kennedy, (it probably wasn’t), that she wants an open coffin and she wants yellow flowers, and she wants to be wearing her debutante dress and her footy boots. And, here’s the bit you’ve heard before, she wants to be holding a dinner fork. “What’s with the dinner fork?” asks the funeral director, (because apparently he’s fine with the deb dress and footy boot combo), and she says “well”. “Well,” she says, “when I was little and we used to go to church with Nana they would have potluck lunch after church. First would come the savoury stuff, party pies, sandwiches, mini quiches, salads, the cold roast chicken (because it’s not church potluck unless there’s cold roast chicken) and a few casseroles, and you’d grab a fork and a plate and you’d help yourself. And when that was all cleared up and cleaned off my nana would remind me to keep my fork because the sweet stuff was on its way. That’s why I want the fork, and the open coffin, because when people see me in the coffin and ask ‘what’s with the fork’ then you can say ‘she knows the sweet stuff is coming, the best is on its way’.”

And so it is with us and faith: Christians know that earthy life is utterly meaningless, but we also know that we’re all going to die some day (yippee!!) and go to Heaven and that will be better. In fact I’m pretty sure it was actually Jesus who told this story originally, and it was about Jairus’ daughter. Pity he raised her from the dead then isn’t it, and the fork was wasted. Oh well, I guess she got some more wear out of those footy boots at least.

It’s a fun story, and it can make a good point. I’m not convinced that it’s the best story in all of Christianity, but the story of the fork in the open coffin is one of those stories that carries truth, truth about the future in God.

A better story is the one we find in Jeremiah 32. Jeremiah is in dire straits at this point: he’s imprisoned, in the dungeon, of the royal palace, of the capital city; which city is being besieged, by an army which has already overrun the rest of the country. This isn’t the girl in the coffin; this is Hitler in his bunker in the last week of April 1945. Except that it isn’t even Hitler, it’s some random Wehrmacht intelligence officer under court marshall in a back room two floors below Hitler. And he’s doing the paperwork and handing over actual coinage to buy his oldest cousin’s farmhouse in the countryside so as to keep it in the family; a house already overrun and currently occupied by drunkenly carousing Red Army soldiers. Why, I mean, why? (What the fork?) “Well,” he says, “well God has told me that houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land (Jeremiah 32:15). There will come a time when these invaders will be defeated, and our land will not be occupied by strangers, and grandpa’s farm will be mine and ours again. Our displaced family, maybe two generations of refugees, will need a home to return to. That’s why.Now we know that Jeremiah’s hope was on good ground: he was released from his dungeon even as the whole nation of Judah went into exile. In my story our Wehrmacht officer might have been taken as a PoW to Russia, and maybe he never saw the farm again, and maybe the farm was confiscated and collectivised by the East German government. But in 1990 after the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited, maybe this man’s grandchildren were handed back the deed of title in East Berlin, and now thirty years later they’re living life on their own land once more.

What is your hope for the future, Nhill? It’s certainly true that the Babylonians and the Red Army are not here, in fact they’re not anywhere these days; but are you feeling besieged? Are you hard-pressed by doubts and concerns about the future, do you wonder whether there is a future at all? Maybe it’s not soldiers at your walls, but maybe its banks, or the shire or state legislators, or our evermore increasingly secularist and immoral society. Maybe its the Church itself; the Uniting Church in this part of Victoria, or just the permissiveness of Christians across the globe? I’m certainly not here to speak against the Uniting Church, and I won’t do so, but that doesn’t mean that you mightn’t have doubts or wondering. Maybe you’ve had enough and you’re aching for that coffin and a fork; but the Word of The LORD is not found there. The Word of The LORD as it is revealed in scripture is that we are not to lose heart.

In Psalm 91:1 we are reminded that those who live sheltered by God Most High will rightly praise The LORD as my refuge, my fortress, my God in whom I trust. This is not a hope for the future, neither is it a plea for deliverance from the pit: this is a statement of fact and is as true as if there were straightforward and present evidence of its truth. If God is your deliverance; in other words if you have been saved and believed that you have been saved and this is evident in that you have stopped trying to save yourself; then God is, already is, has/is/shall, God is your fortress. And this is true no matter where you are. If God is your fortress then there is no gaol, no dungeon, no Fuhrerbunker that can hold you down; neither is there any overdraft, any drought, or any diagnosis. If you trust in God, and do not trust in yourself other than to trust that your trust in God is sufficient, then you are figuratively (and maybe literally) help beneath God’s wings. You are within hugging distance, and drawing close distance: you are within reach of God’s embrace and God’s snatch and clutch. And if that is where you are, then it doesn’t matter what the walls and floors look like, the skies are open and God is looking right at you. But how can it be true, how do we know it’s really so? Well, because Jeremiah was released from his dungeon for one thing – that happened, (even if Wehrmacht guy and fork girl are actually fiction).

The promise of God’s overriding protection is repeated at the end of the Psalm where in Psalm 91:14 we are told that God’s deliverance and protection are assured for those who love God. Well who loves God and is afforded this promise: Psalm 91:15 tell us that it’s those who call to God expecting an answer.

Do you love God? I’m not asking whether you’re a Christian because you’ve made some sort of conversion prayer or activity, that’s actually quite a different question. Do you love God is a question answered not by, “yes, since 3:10 pm at the Billy Graham event on 15th March 1959”, but by “yes, because whenever I call, God answers”. You may see that as a statement of God’s love for you, that God answers your prayers: but if you didn’t love God you wouldn’t call expecting an answer. You can be Christian and not love God, not trust God, and never rely on God if you think that being a Christian is about having been saved a long time ago, so that you will go to Heaven in a long time from now. You may even have a fork in you hand, or perhaps you’ve had a tiny fork made into a lapel pin or charm for your jewellery. I’m sure God honours your prayer and your intent to do the right thing, I’m not going to tell you that you’re not saved or unsaved or whatever. But again, I ask you, do you love God? Do you trust God?

Imagine this scene, and pay attention because there will be a quiz.

It’s the night of Passover, the first one, the real and actual one in Egypt, okay? Okay. Two Hebrew couples, each with a son, live as neighbours, and following Moses’ instruction the families agree to share one goat between the two small households. Each husband paints his own doorpost with blood while both wives join in roasting the meat and making flat bread and stuff, and when the cooking and the painting are done each family goes into its own house. Are you with me? Right. In one house the family huddles under the covers, cuddling close, and they barely eat. They make little roast goat sandwiches and eat them quickly, hushed together in fear. In the other house the three sit around on their mats and share the meal, dipping their flatbread into the sauce, and eating their goat as they sing their songs of praise to God.

Question time: which boy does the Angel of Death kill?

Correct answer: neither. The blood on the door is enough to save them each.

But which house honoured God? Which house trusted God more? Which house loves God more?

Which house do you live in?

As great as the story of the girl with her fork is, there’s a big point missing from that story. You aren’t supposed to simply keep your fork in preparation for the dessert course, you’re supposed to be eating the main meal with it now. Now, the parable of Lazarus and the wealthy man reminds us that we must never party at another man’s expense: to be prodigious in celebration while your neighbours starve or scrimp is no more the gospel either. Jesus in Luke 16:24 reminds us that all Jews are sons of Abraham, and today we remember that all men and women are sons and daughters of The Father and brothers and sisters of The Son. Their welfare is our concern; you may keep your own fork but if you are a follower of Jesus then you must be certain that everyone else in the room also has a fork, and that there is no one outside the room because everyone is in.

Do you love God? Then love those whom God loves, especially yourself.

Do you trust God? Then live as if God’s promises are true: celebrate the festivals, buy back the family farm, call out to God for salvation at the first sign of turmoil.

Amen.

Where There’s Smoke

This is the text of my ministry message for the September 2019 edition of The Vision, which is the quarterly newsletter of Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry.

How many of you are purveyors of social media I don’t know, although I am aware that some of you are attached to Facebook and Twitter because you are connected with me on those platforms. You may then be aware via The News According to Twitface that several high profile Christians are declaring a loss of faith, or perhaps the realisation that there never was faith for them in the first place. Among the several is Marty Sampson, one time lead worshipper at Hillsong Church Sydney and lead singer with the band Hillsong United. A decade and a half ago Marty wrote the words: “I want to live, I want to love you more, I want to be used, Father, in all of the world, may your word be heard, and may it stay on my lips, to live what I speak, until your kingdom come”, (“Shine For You” © Hillsong Publishing, 2003). I remember this song fondly, and particularly this bridge as it has been my own prayer for some time, probably since 2004 when I was participating in Hillsong Church London. But for Marty all the shazam of Hillsong has not been enough, and he thinks (and says) that the issues within Christianity have put his faith on shaky ground. Marty has not renounced Christ, but he is expressing the raw honesty of a young man (he’s 40) struggling with a Bible which is self-contradicting, and a church which proclaims miracles as reality yet does not see them evident in worship contexts. His central soundbite is “no-one is talking about it”, suggesting that in his church experience the issues with Christianity are being ignored, or papered over.

Whether this is a legitimate critique of Hillsong Church or of Pentecostalism in general is not for me to say, but I do think it’s a fair point for Christianity in Australia. It is appropriate for us to look into our own church and not just point fingers at the happy-clappies (and jumpy-shouties). Is Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry prepared to engage with going deeper into Christian doctrine: do we acknowledge Marty’s concerns and see what he sees? How are we addressing the struggles of believing and trusting a 2000 year old message, a message that includes talking donkeys and massacred enemies as “facts”? How do we answer Marty’s question about a God of grace and love who sends the majority of humans to a fiery, eternal Hell simply because they haven’t said a certain prayer at some point during their earthly life? Or do we just concentrate our attention on singing “All I need is you Lord”, (“All I Need Is You” ©Capitol Christian Music Group, 2005), louder and louder in an effort to shout down the screaming crescendo of doubt until such time as we find we actually do need more from Jesus than a bunch of unquestionable doctrines?

Inside KSSM right now doubt is welcome. (I wanted to say “under my ministry” but I’m not the “above” type of minister; however if you need your senior pastor to say that then he just did, even in brackets.) I do not want anyone drifting away from Christ because of unanswered questions, unaddressed fears, or squashed doubts. Curly questions are welcome in our family: trite answers are not. I think it sad, and more than sad, that Marty heard no-one addressing these concerns in his Christian home, (especially since I lived in that same home for six years and I did hear such conversation), but it would be for me an absolute tragedy if someone looking back at KSSM in 2019 from years in our future were to say the same.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith: doubt is a necessary part of faith, and doubt addressed is what creates trust. Without doubt there is only certainty, and certainty is the condition where learning stops happening and smugness and self-reliance set in. I have no interest in participating in a congregation which is smug and self-reliant, and I will resist with every part of my being the development of such a congregation where I am in leadership. In view of that the invitation stands: talk to me, ask me, bring The Spanish Inquisition if you must (so long as they bring coffee with them…), but do not be afraid or ashamed of your doubt or your questions. As your pastor I am primarily the one who is responsible for your spiritual care and your spiritual health, I am here to teach you and to love you: I hope you feel safe enough in my care to talk to me first before you walk out the door and leave church and/or faith behind.

My front door is always open so that the church’s back door is kept closed. Please stay.

New Life (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for chapel at the Day Centre of the West Wimmera Health Service (Kaniva Hospital) for Tuesday 6th August 2019.

Colossians 3:1-11

New life in Christ seems like a great topic for any act of Christian worship: the hope of faith we have in Jesus means that we’re all looking forward to what lies ahead.

Recently I was listening to an ABC podcast which featured three Christians, each from a different tradition, discussing the place of Hell in Christian thought in 2019. One of the key outcomes, perhaps a point of similarity between the three people, was the idea that God is the source of all life, and so whatever Hell is as the place where God is absent so too is life absent to some degree. Maybe there is existence without fulfilment, hardly a “life” at all; or maybe in Hell there is no life of any sort and it’s simply the case that if you don’t make it to Heaven then Hell is place where you go to just cease to exist: you die a second time in being annihilated. Well I don’t want to talk about Hell or annihilation today, I’m sure you’re pleased to hear that, because such a future is not something any healthy person would look forward. It is true that mental illnesses of various kinds might mean that you’ll look forward to ending the struggle and sinking into nothingness, (I have lived with that thought on several brief occasions), but as I say that’s illness and not what God intends for any living creature. However I think that’s a good first point, that God is the source of all life; because if that is true then new life can only come from God in which case new life can only be good.

In Colossians 3:3 Paul suggests that the new life we have in Christ is a replacement for the old life. New life is not an improvement on the old, it is not a renovation, a new lease on life: no the new life is a second, different life because the first life, the old life, has ended. Paul quite plainly says …for you have died, and there you have it, which is why in Colossians 3:5 Paul writes …put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly which he unpacks in a list of unhelpful behaviours and attitudes. We can get bogged down in this list, trying to decide what is sin and which sins entrap us, but we needn’t do. The simple truth, simple in that it isn’t complex even as it is a bit challenging to out in place, is that earthly behaviours belong to earthly lives, and we who are alive in Christ are earthly dead. So don’t act like the life that is past, act like the life that is present, the life that is found in Christ, the new life we live which flows from the source of all life which is God.

Beyond the new set of behaviours and attitudes, which doesn’t look at all like the old one which shaped the old life, is a new shape for relationships. In the new life there is no distinction between people, on any basis at all, when it comes to living the life. The new life, sourced from God, channelled through Christ (the only way, truth and life), and lived out in the company of the Church is available to every person. The Jews heard the news first, the Christians are now proclaiming it as a done deal, but you don’t have to have already been a Jew or a Christian to get the new life (although once you get it your Jewishness and Christianity will be transformed). But you can be a male or female, of any age, from any nation and speaking any language, having a shed-load of money or none: so long as you like the idea of the new life you can have it for the asking according to Colossians 3:11.

What can that mean for us, the us who are gathered here today? Well the invitation applies to us as much as anyone else, so if you want the new life of Jesus and you don’t yet have it then now’s as good a time as any. And of course if you do already have that new life, the life that means you’re empowered by the love and grace of Jesus in your daily life, then what you have is the promise that that will remain with you always. Once you have died to the world’s way of doing things, to those earthly attitudes and activities, and accepted the gift of life from Jesus then that is what you have for ever.

We rejoice, Christ is with us and we are with him.

Amen.

In Sickness and in Health (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Day Centre act of worship at Kaniva Hospital (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 2nd July 2019.  I had been ill all of the previous week with Manflu.

Psalm 13; Luke 9:11; Psalm 27:14

 Illness is one of those things that strikes each of us at times, and because of this it is a common theme in Biblical writing.  I was at a youth conference twenty years ago, (indeed it’s thirty years ago since I was a youth, but that’s beside the point) and one of the speakers there was asked what her favourite Bible story was.  She said she didn’t have one favourite above all others, but she’d have to say her favourite stories, plural, were any place where Jesus does healing.

I have lived with illness in some form or another for all of my adult life.  At age eighteen I contracted what was then called Chronic Fatigue Immunodeficiency Syndrome, and it has gone by other names since.  I had a rough year completing my HSC, and dropped out of Uni after one semester to take half a year off before returning to try again.  At some point that CFIDS became a series of mental health conditions and I have lived with Anxiety and Depression, but not fatigue, since my early thirties.  I’m now forty-seven if anyone is keeping count.  So I like those stories where Jesus does healing too, and I like even more so that Jesus defines the big-picture work of ministry as having healing at its core.

In Luke 4:18-19 in Jesus first recorded episode of him teaching he reads from the prophet in the local synagogue meeting.  In paraphrase we can say that Jesus says of himself “I have come to bring healing and to heal”.  Later, in Luke 9:11, in a verse that can be overlooked as we rush into the bigger story of the Feeding of 5000 we read that Jesus welcomed the crowd, and spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.  I like that neat phrase, “healed those who needed healing”; there’s nothing worthy or deserving about them, just that they needed healing for whatever ailed them, and Jesus healed them.  And there’s the work of ministry again; teaching the Kingdom and aiding the weak.

Jesus did four things in his ministry as an itinerant rabbi: he healed the sick, he raised the dead, he cast out demons (which is to say he freed the oppressed), and he proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, the time when the Father would come to Earth to reign as king in the New Jerusalem.  This is what the Church is supposed to do now, and to be honest and fair this is what the Church is doing.  It’s easy to be hard on the Church and disappointed in our local congregations and ministries, and perhaps more so in our structures and hierarchy, but across the majority of the planet in the majority of the faith communities Jesus’ work is being gone about quietly and in Holy Spirit’s power.

So, in the past few weeks I’ve been especially sick.  Not mortally wounded, but in addition to my ongoing struggles with Anxiety and Sleep Apnoea I’ve had a cold.  I would love it if Jesus would walk up Commercial Street East so that I could rush out and touch the hem of his cloak, or that he would turn up at Shared Ministry on Sunday and heal those who need healing, but that’s not the reality of Australia in 2019.  So I have had to rely on my own immune system, (remembering that my body and its systems were ravaged by an Immunodeficiency Syndrome for thirteen years), my own common sense, (remembering that my mind and its systems have been ravaged by a mental illness for the past sixteen years), and the best efforts of the local health care practitioners.  I’m not sleeping well, I’m coughing like an Australian (everything is coming out green and gold), my head aches, my ears buzz, and I need it all to stop.  But in all of this I know that God is good, that Jesus is Lord, and that I am a long way from death’s door.

Not so much a Bible story, but a Bible verse which leads into my own story, (but a story for another time perhaps) is Psalm 27:13-14.  This passage was my anchor in my dark and mad days of a decade ago: I am confident of this; I will see the goodness of The LORD while I am alive; be strong, take heart, and wait for The LORD.  My hope in all things, be it the depth of suicidal madness, or the triviality of a snotty nose, or even the best of physical health available to this ravaged jar of clay, is that God has promised an end to suffering: and that end is not a quick death and then a harp on a cloud, but it is the restoration of the complete and sovereign rule of The LORD Almighty upon the renewed Earth for all of the ages to come.  That’s a happy ending, and that’s worth waiting out a cold for.

Amen.

Pastoring is hard work (parts 1-3).

Pastoring is hard work, and there’s stuff I wasn’t expecting.

I did not exactly grow up in a manse, I was 14 when my family moved into a church-owned house, and I was 17 when my father was ordained and we had our first manse as a ministry family.  I lived in all of my father’s manses for various amounts of time first as a still-at-home teen.  Later I lived with my parents as a post-Uni gap-year resident, later still as a “returned to be nursed by parents through a debilitating illness” thirty-something, and finally (twice) as a ministry student living-in to do prac.  I have seen my father work from home, I have seen my father called away from home, I have seen my father come home after meetings/church/visits/councils, and I have answered my father’s phone.

And still there’s stuff I wasn’t expecting.

Growing up in the leader’s house, being on the leadership team (lay preacher, elder, secretary of church council, school chaplain and a member of ministers’ fraternal in my own ministry), being the one to man the phone and hold the fort at times, I was still left with things unknown when it came to my own manse and my own ministry.  I never thought I knew it all, but I didn’t know what it was I didn’t know: I didn’t know the extent of what my father did, and what he put up with, even though we’ve shared a ministry house and a love for beer in each other’s company for more of my adult life than not.

Ministry is frustrating: that’s the key thing.  Yes it is rewarding, yes it is challenging, yes it is my job and therefore it is work, and yes it is my calling and therefore it is a privilege and a blessing.  I suppose life for everyone is frustrating at times; it certainly was for me as a teacher and as a prisons officer, but I wasn’t expecting the frustrations to come from where they came from.  My father was good, is good, at hiding his professional and pastoral burdens and at keeping confidentiality: and so he should be. I don’t feel cheated by his lack of communication of “what it’s really like”, but I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

  1. The Church is not what it used to be, in society and in church, and this is especially evident for me in that people don’t come at Christmas and Easter anymore.  If they haven’t come during the year they won’t come even for the special occasions now.  I knew that I think, I’ve been to church on the high holidays and seen the size of the congregation (or lack of size): the world has stopped going to church once or twice a year.  What I didn’t know is that many Christians, people who are there many Sundays, don’t come at Christmas and Easter either.  Christmas Day means a road trip to Nana’s house, so no time for church (or if church then church with Nana at Nana’s church).  Easter is a long weekend, so no time for church (or if church then church near the campground).  People don’t come at Christmas and Easter anymore.
  2. Pastors work when everyone else doesn’t. This is not a universal truth and I’m not on night-shift; and even if I were well others work odd hours too.  My point is that I work and am paid to do a job where everyone else is a volunteer and their participation occurs in their spare time; which is usually on evenings or weekends.  I remember a time when I was in my office planning a worship service and I rang the lead musician to check on some aspect: she asked me to ring her in the evening instead because she was “at work right now and can’t talk.” Fair enough; but I was also “at work right now” in that I was at my desk planning a worship service, and I had intended to spend that evening decidedly “not at work”.  Pastoring therefore requires a lot of waiting for people to be available and fitting in around them.  That is the nature of the job, however it means that deliberate attention must be paid to scheduling rest and time-off.  The standard hours of time-off in Australia are exactly when my otherwise-employed-during-working-hours volunteers are available to meet up with me, therefore I must be available for them outside business hours.  The other side of this is the minister’s day off: because we work on Sundays, when everyone else is not at work, ministers usually have a mid-week day of rest.  This can cause consternation when church members ring during normal business hours on that day with the understanding that they are at work so why aren’t I.  Of course even when it is not my day off I might be taking some time off during the day conscious of the fact that I’ll be at an appointment that evening.  Try explaining that to someone on the phone: I don’t bother, I just answer the phone.
  3. Prayer is work.  Not that prayer is hard (although sometimes it is) but praying for your congregation takes time in the day and the diary.  If I’ve got to 11:30am and not typed anything or phoned anyone, have I really been “working” if all I’ve done since 8:30 is ponder and converse with God and an open Bible?  Of course I have, it is what I’m paid to do, but I didn’t know that until I started doing it in my own office.

There’s a better Question

Recently I was at a meeting where the topic of prayer came up, or rather the topic of asking God for an answer.  There were various topics of interest at this meeting but there was a common question: what is God’s will in this situation, what does God want us to do.

In the first instance the topic was new to us, and a situation was presented to us where a local church was being asked to support “toleration” of a certain group of people.  Now this church doesn’t like the concept of toleration, they believe God has called them to do more than just “agree to get along” or “put up with” others of different opinion, they want to go the steps further which will enable them to be inclusive and invitational.  Rather than “yes you can come in, but stand over there” they are a church that says “welcome to the table, long black or flat white? grab a chair next to me”.  So they decided to ask God about how they can welcome and still be the sort of people that God calls to be light in the world, when they (and we) have deep concerns about some of the ethical values of this group of new people.

In the second instance the topic had already been introduced to us, and we had each gone away to “seek God”, and then come back with what God’s Spirit had lead us to, to share this intelligence with each other.  What became apparent is that the answers that God had brought to us, through us, (which were internally consistent, they all lined up to form a complete picture even though no two responses were identical), were “a bit obvious”, and the conversation leader wondered out loud whether any prayer had been undertaken at all.  “Did you actually pray, or did you just think about the question and bring along your own thoughts?” was the leader’s question: and to be honest he was very aggressive and rude in the way he presented that opinion.

In both of these situations the question is “did you pray”.  In the first situation it might be asked of the one who brought the situation to the meeting, along the lines of what God had already said to him about it.  In the second situation the question was asked (in a rather exasperated and aggressive tone) in the exact words “did you pray”.  But I think there is a better question.

There is a better question because the question has a simple and rather abrupt answer: which was the cause of the offence in the second situation.  We are Christians, of course we prayed.  Of course we prayed, we pray all the time, we’re Christians and that’s what we do.  To ask someone “did you pray, did you actually pray about this or did you just think about it” can be misconstrued as a doubt on the veracity of someone’s faith at all, and also in their capacity to pray.  (Well if you prayed then you’re not very good at it are you.)

I wanted the conversation leader in that second situation to ask, “how did you pray, and how did you hear” rather than “did you pray”.  An answer had come from God, which should have been enough evidence that prayer had taken place: but the fact that the answer was the obvious one, one that sociology if not plain common sense might have answered in the same way, came to overshadow the conversation.  Better to ask “how did you pray, and how did God give the answer.”

Leadership, even discipleship, is not always about the answers but about the questions.  And better leadership (and discipleship) demands a better question.

Still Trusting (WWHS)

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

Isaiah 55:1-9

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

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

Any ideas?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Amen.