Celebrating The City (Pentecost 18C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Sunday 13th October 2019, the 18th Sunday in Pentecost in Year C.  This was a combined service with all of the churches in Kaniva in celebration of Kaniva Agricultural Show which had been held the previous day.  We gathered in the Shire Hall in Kaniva for church: I was the preacher and a youth band from The Salvation Army in Geelong lead us in worship and song.  That band had been performing at the Show.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-12; 2 Timothy 2:8-15

One of the great themes of the Hebrew scriptures is the story of God’s continued deliverance of Jews from their gentile enemies. There’s the whole story of the Exodus to start with, the many victories of the Judges, then the kings Saul, Solomon, and especially David, and Esther, who whilst a queen was actually a queen-consort in a foreign land. Outside the centuries covered by the Jewish scriptures, but well within Jewish history, is the Maccabean overthrow of the Syrians in 167 BC. Maybe we could add Israel’s wars in 1967 and 1973 to our list. One description I have heard of the Jewish festivals like Passover (Exodus) and Purim (Esther) is the phrase “they tried to kill us, but God delivered us, so let’s eat!” Jewish history inside and outside the Bible is the story of deliverance repeated.

So what happens when God does not deliver? What happens when God’s people are in the minority, in decline, in exile, and specifically not in Canaan? In Jeremiah 29 we can read Jeremiah’s letter which he addressed to the whole community of the first and second exiles, specifically including the priests and prophets amongst the people. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem at this stage so we’re talking around the year 597 BC, but he’ll be in Babylon within a decade when Nebuchadnezzar’s armies return for another cartload or three of Judahites. Surprisingly in the context of all those stories where God has saved the people from their enemies, what Jeremiah says is that Babylon is the correct place for the People of God right now, and that it was God’s plan all along that they be there. It is always God’s desire that God’s own people are actively completing God’s work in the world, that is what discipleship is all about. God’s instruction to the Judahites of Jeremiah’s day was to settle down and live abundant lives: they were to engage with their Babylonian neighbours and build homes and families of their own, make new and deeper friendships and relationships, and not hide away in ghettos. In other words the Judahites and Israelites were to grow in every way imaginable, and to make sure that Babylonia grew because of them. Jeremiah encourages them to practice domestic life according to Jewish cultural patterns and to remain faithful to God, but they were not be isolated and angry. This is also true of us, the people of God’s nation should keep their faith and their religious and cultural identity, but they should share an abundant life with the people around them, especially those who badger and malign the faithful out of spite and ignorance, so that everyone may come to understand the grace and love of God.

In Jeremiah 29:7 we read in some English translations that God desires the peace and prosperity of the city to which the exiles have been sent, but in Hebrew this is “shalom” in all that that word conveys. Shalom is more than peace, it is restful and complete well-being, not only the absence of war but the absence of anxiety. “You are to work towards and intercede with me for the shalom of Babylon” says The LORD, because in Babylon’s shalom is the exiles’ shalom. More so Jeremiah adds in 29:8b that the exiles and the remnant in Judah are not to listen to anyone who tells them otherwise: this message of shalom is the correct Word of The LORD, as opposed to what the other prophets are saying. The truth is that the apparently bad news of exile is actually God’s news, and the supposedly good news of a near release is false hope and false prophecy. Hananiah says that the exile will be over in two years’ time, but he’s an idiot so don’t listen to him, and don’t go setting up a partisan resistance movement to overthrow the oppressors. Settle petals.

No, the correct response to recognising the place where God has put you is to sing praise and thanksgiving to God because of what God has done: for you and for us all. In Psalm 66 we are encouraged to actively remember and proclaim aloud the glorious history of the salvation of out nation; specifically how God rescued us (including each of us) from oppression and oppressors. This might seem an odd response to exile, but God is the true king and every other king and president is less than God is. God will overrule governments to preserve God’s people. God has kept us from death and destruction in the past and God has used hard times to refine us and to bring us through and make us better people than we would have been had we had an easier life. In Psalm 66:4 we read that all the earth bows down…sings praises, and the chosen nation is asked to pause and reflect (Selah) on this. What God has done for us God has done for all humankind (Psalm 66:5), but so far we are the only ones who know. Since God has caused us to grow, has growed us up, we must be adult about this and we must no longer be selfish: we must share the news, share the joy, invite everyone we know to the concert of adoration and thanksgiving. After a time of walking through the hard places, where God actually opened up a road through the sea, Psalm 66:8 tells us to “drop to your knees in adoration” and “shout out God’s glory” so that everyone knows about it. Like the exiles we were bound up and dragged away, we went through hell and high water (Psalm 66:12a) but we have been brought through, and we have been brought to a place of plenty (Psalm 66:12b). That is worth celebrating with songs of praise, isn’t it?

This is why Paul finds it possible to proclaim the gospel even in chains. The chains of imprisonment will not silence him and they cannot silence the good news of Jesus the liberator, because Paul’s task is to continue to proclaim salvation to those who do not yet know that they are saved. God is faithful to Godself, Paul knows and he says that God will never go back on a promise or fail to deliver those whose trust is in God. God is worthy of praise because God is faithful toward those who persevere for the sake of the good news. In 2 Timothy 2:14-15 we read why it is so important that Timothy teaches the message of perseverance directly to the church he pastors, and why Christians must never get caught up in jargon. Let every person who trusts God for deliverance plainly speak the truth that the world needs to hear, because that is the task set by God for each one of us. It’s not the job of the overseers to silence the people, but to instruct them in the good news (of what the gospel actually is) and to empower them to proclaim it by the word of their own story and testimony. Be zealous for the truth so that the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of David) is proclaimed, and nothing else. Paul specifically reminds Timothy about false teachers, and like Jeremiah six hundred years earlier he counsels him to stay away from the self-seeking idiots who have a different agenda. Listen to God, hold fast to the good news of salvation, and trust in God’s timing for the completion of the work which God has been conducting since time began.

Well that’s all great; God is faithful even in the hard times, and even if there seems to be more tunnel than light we are encouraged to stay faithful and not be looking for a sneaky, early exit. But what do we actually do about it? I can honestly say that I do not feel that my life in Kaniva is a form of exile: I hope you don’t either. Okay, so compared with Serviceton and Broughton it’s a bit of a dive, but I like Kaniva and I enjoy living amongst the Kanivan people. As Christians we might say that all life on earth is exile because Heaven is the home for which we long to return: I think that’s a bit simplistic in light of what we’ve heard from scripture this morning, but there is some truth in it. It’s not the whole truth, but it’s not wrong. But even if the Wimmera and the Tatiara, let alone Corio, are not exactly places of exile, they are places where God is not so central as God was in Jerusalem, or shall be in the New Jerusalem. Since we live in a place which is not all that God wants for us so we must pray for the shalom of our cities.

This morning, as many of the Church in Kaniva who have wanted to gather have gathered in this place. There is only one Church in Kaniva even though it meets in six buildings with six different surnames. There is a common purpose and a shared culture amongst us. Yesterday our town was filled with visitors, and today we have the mob from Geelong participating as sisters and brothers in Christ. As Church (singular with a capital-C) and churches (plural with a small-c) we are the God’s light in the world, in Kaniva and its districts. As Victorians whose state motto is “Peace and Prosperity” we pray for the shalom of our home. We pray for the shalom of Melbourne our capital, for Kaniva our town, for Servi and Broughton and Nhill and all the other places we live, for Geelong. We pray that God would bless us and our neighbours, somewhat anxious that God will want to bless our neighbours through us, thereby giving us jobs, yet hopeful that God will indeed look with favour on our homes and industries.

So together in Kaniva this morning we celebrate God’s goodness to us recalling that God’s record for coming through is 100%. The Jewish exiles from the land may have lasted for decades, centuries, and millennia at a time, but God always called the people home and we know from scripture that the call to all the world is still there. One day soon we will be home, but this day we pray for the place where we are today and we sow into this. Today as we pray we build homes, we build lives and families, we build and plant and put down foundations in the place where we are because the place where we are is the place where God is, and God is with us here.

Go, sow, build, grow, pray and praise: they need to see it and hear it so that they will know it, and grow and sow and build and worship too.

Amen.

Wail

Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; Psalm 137

Well! In all of my years as a Christian in church I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon on Lamentations. That’s not to say it’s never happened; more likely the message as it was didn’t connect with me or appeal to me, so I didn’t take much notice. I hope that today is not like that for you. On the other hand I have heard sermons on Psalm 137:1 with its famous disco riff By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion, popularised by Boney-M; less so on the notoriously misquoted Psalm 137:9 where God commands all Christians to bash out the brains of infants and rip the wings off newborn puppies. Yeah, that got your attention didn’t it!

And, like I did with Philemon last month, when I began my reading for this sermon I wondered why we need Lamentations in the Bible at all. I mean, isn’t there enough moaning and sighing going on in Psalms and all of the prophets, why Israel needs a specific book just to lament I don’t know. Well, I do know now, but I was wondering then. Like Philemon which in one way is about the specific message of reconciliation wherein it would be safe for Onesimus to return home, the big theme of the Jewish Bible is homecoming. You have messed up and you have been kicked out, but God is ready to welcome you home: be you Adam and Eve kicked out from Eden, or Saul kicked out from the kingship, or the entire nation of Judah kicked out from their land and into exile in Babylon. Exodus is about the journey home and Joshua and Judges is about how home is then made homely. Ezra-Nehemiah is a similar story. The stories of Kings explain why the exile happened, the messing up leading to the kicking out, and many prophets take up that story with the words of warning included. This is where Lamentations comes in, it is the sorrowful tale of the sorrowful people sorrowing: it is the explanation of why the people of Psalm 137 wept, and why God’s chosen nation had to remember Zion as a decimated past home rather than living in its glorious present. Sometimes it’s good to remember what was lost so that we appreciate it if we get it back: and even if we don’t get it back we are able to see with hindsight how faithful God has been to us, and we are prompted to worship.

In Lamentations 1:1 we read how the daughter of Zion mourns like a widow, how the much cherished princess is now a servant-girl. Her husband is not dead, rather he has left her and now he is threatening her with divorce, that’s why she’s a widow. All comfort is gone, everyone has betrayed her and abandoned her; the daughter of Zion is alone in her grief, except for her enemies who are abusing her we read in Lamentations 1:3. What a tale of woe for the one whom God has caused to suffer: by taking away all her strength and every means of rebuilding that strength the daughter of Zion has been utterly destroyed by God. The sobbing goes on for a bit, and we take it up again in Lamentations 3:19 where Zion is now characterised as a man, and he is speaking for himself rather than being described by a narrator as the daughter of Zion was. Zion speaks like Job here, bitterness is in his mouth and he is utterly desolate, but even in that there comes a spark of joy. Here, again, is the thought that even if God will not restore what we have lost that it was God who gave all the good things first, and God is faithful to God’s own character. God is worthy of worship, and beginning at Lamentations 3:22 that is what we hear and see. The song of Zion is returning to the mournfully abandoned man and he no longer feels betrayed.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases sings the son of Zion, perhaps with clenched fists and gritted teeth. “I will hope, I will hope,” he says, grasping at that small flicker of light, blowing on that one last bit of red in the coals and ashes of his incinerated life. Like Job he says “I am not cut off”: everyone and everything may be gone, every “thing” and every “one”, but not God. God is here because God is faithful, and not only faithful but steadfast, and not only steadfast but steadfast in love. I have hope, says the son of Zion, I have hope because God always brings the dawn and with the dawn God always brings my portion. Maybe the point has come in time where the son of Zion has confronted his exile, he’s taking account of his sins and recognises why he is in Babylon now and not in Zion. Not every disaster that befalls a believer in God is divine punishment, neither is distress always the plain consequences of sinful behaviour; however in this case it is the truth. God is faithful, and I am faithless: and because I am faithless I am here, in exile, and not in Jerusalem; and because God is faithful I am here, in exile, and not in Hell or otherwise dead. Where there is life there is hope; and even here, by the rivers of Babylon, I am living and I am alive, and God is present. Thanks be to God.

As someone who loves God fiercely, and who knows that he is loved by God with even greater ferocity, I like that the language of the Bible is bold. And as a man who has lived with illness and disability for all of his adult life, and much of that psychological and emotional, I like that the language is not only bold but dead-set blunt. Lamentations is honest in its grief, as is much of Job, and many of the psalms including Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion; and it’s no wonder when you consider what we have just heard. They didn’t just weep, they lamented like the darling daughter who is shut out in the cold not only by daddy but by her fiance. They grieved like the king who has lost everything and everyone, and all he has is cold ashes and boiling memories. That’s what’s going on for them, so when the Babylonians say “hey, gissa song then, how about one of those songs where you boast about how awesome your God is and how Zion is impregnable, bahahaha”, they are not laughing. No, they are seething. First they whinge, and rightly so, about how it’s all a taunt and that even if it wasn’t there is no mood for joy and celebration when you’re living in exile. Then they grieve when they think of the songs themselves, songs about the land God gave them and the land they filled with crops and children, a land that is now desolate and abandoned. No-one wants to be reminded of what was once glorious but is now a ruin, yet these are hymns of praise to God and isn’t God worthy of praise even if the people have sinned and the land has been wrecked? Yes, God is worthy, and in signing God’s praises the memory of what has been lost comes to the forefront. Look at Psalm 137:4 and Psalm 137:7 where the poet refuses to forget God but the memory of God is also the memory of defeat. God’s beautiful city was destroyed by bogan pagans, and as a royal priest and a holy citizen that triggers rage in the poet, which is why he wants everyone and everything associated with the Babylonians dead. Again this is raw, honest, blunt language: but because it is these things it is also worship. To pray like this is to trust God completely, to trust God with your emotions and your vulnerability, to have the greatest respect for God, the God who laid you low in Exile but who hears your righteous rage at what has become of Israel.

The commentaries that I read all said about Psalm 137:9 that it’s good to vent. God doesn’t really want you caving in the skulls of toddlers and God is not going to be doing that sort of thing on your behalf: no children were harmed in the making of this story. If you’re that upset then have a good yell and a good spit and get it out there; however there’s more to it than that, and the commentators say more. The point is not only that it’s good to be raw and honest with God, although it is, but that God is not violent like that. Remember that God is steadfast in love; love doesn’t kill children, even the children of enemies, even the children of the Babylonians who had killed Judahite children. Even exile and slavery are not good reasons to kill people, says God.

To kill children is to kill hope. We see this in the church today where we wonder about the next generation; we wonder whether there will even be a next generation. God who is steadfast in love and alongside us in presence is the source of hope, and the promise to Abram back in the day was not only the land of Canaan but also the millions of descendants who would occupy it. What if God engineered the return of Israel and Judah from exile, just as God had caused the exodus from Egypt in the first place, but the nations had no children and so the nations died out in the land. “That’s not who I am,” says God, God is not the sort of personality to cut off hope from anyone, even from Babylon: neither is God the sort who repays an eye for an eye. As Christians we know that God is faithful to all who place their hope and trust in God, you don’t have to have had a Jewish mother for God to love you as one of the chosen: it seems this love and invitation extends even to the Babylonians. Hope must not be killed, babies must be allowed to live, God is to be glorified even in the depressing place of mockery and isolation.

Our hope lives because our God lives: this is the message of Lamentations and of Psalm 137. That we live in a hole of human construction is not God’s fault, but it is God’s concern. God is concerned because God’s people are suffering, and God’s remedy is coming just as sure as it did last time, in Egypt.

Even in a time of lamentation, of anger and bitterness and shame, we can rejoice in the steadfast love of God.

Amen.

Sunday 6th October 2019

Serviceton Church of Christ

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.

Mutual Love (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Kaniva Day Centre (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 3rd September 2019.

Hebrews 13:1-8

Let mutual love continue says the writer in Hebrews 13:1. We don’t know for certain who the writer of this sermon was, although we can be pretty certain who it wasn’t: it wasn’t Jesus, or any of the apostles, and it wasn’t Paul. With that in mind I wonder whether we should care who it was, and what he or she said. “Who are you to tell us what to do, who are you to tell us how to live a Christian life?” we might ask. Christianity, indeed all life, is very different in 2019 to how it was in 65 AD; and in Australia to how it was in the Roman Empire; and for people born Christian than people born Hebrew. But I’d advise against getting too upset because if we do we might miss the point. The point is that this is good advice; “let mutual love continue” is a good thing to keep in mind.

The thing about mutual love, and this is especially so in how it related to Christians of Hebrew background, is that we are all in this together. At this point in church history much of the terror to come had not yet come. It’s been about thirty years since Stephen had been martyred and Saul of Tarsus had been locking people up; but then Paul had been converted and life had gone on without much backlash, save the occasional bullying episode. Nero hadn’t arrived on the Roman scene yet, and the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing when Hebrews was written: still, that bullying was going on, and especially so at the local level toward Jewish converts to Christianity. You can read about of that in the stories of Paul’s travels in Acts and his letters. And this is interesting, well, I think it is, because I think this is one of the reasons why Hebrews is relevant to Christians in Australia in 2019. We are not being persecuted like the Christians of later decades, look at what was happening ten years later across the empire and the condition that the Romans left Jerusalem in and you’ll know real pain. But no, for the original hearers of Hebrews the message is not about the struggle against flesh and blood and spiritual authorities, but about being kind to itinerant strangers at the door, and about staying in fellowship and encouraging one another for mutual support when the neighbours start throwing sideways glances and well-aimed fruit as you pass by.

This sermon also addresses the hardships of life away from bullying, specifically the things that all people find hard at times. Again this is as true for Christians today and here as if was for Christians then and there, and for people of all times and places who aren’t Christian for that matter. How do we help our friends who are in gaol, or who need advice from a trusted friend because they struggle in their relationships or with self-confidence, or they are becoming distracted by money and possessions, or with fear and overwhelming concerns? The same message applies, let mutual love continue: consider the suffering of others as if it were your own and offer the help you would desire in that person’s place.

The help that the writer of Hebrews wants us to offer to our troubled friends is twofold:

1. Compassionate inclusion. Show care in whatever way care is required – be that practical hospitality to the stranger or practical wisdom clothed in comfort to the friend, do something and do what needs to be done.

2. Share Christ. Encourage others with the promise that God is faithful and consistent, Jesus Christ s the same yesterday, today and forever, which we read in Hebrews 13:8 is a reminder not that the church needs to be sterile but that God can be utterly relied upon. That’s why we read in Hebrews 13:7 to remember your leaders…and imitate their faith. This is not because the Church demands honour for its clergy,  but because leaders as those who have gone before us in the faith, and who spoke the word of God to you know the story of God. When someone is doubting God, assure him or her that God is faithful and make that assurance by your own story. Say something like “I know this looks hard now, but when I was in a similar situation God pulled me though, and because Jesus is the same today as he was back then then I am sure that God will pull you through too.” The leader speaks encouragement drawn from experience, the wise person heeds that voice.

The book we call Hebrews is really a sermon. It’s not even a letter, it’s a sermon and as a sermon it is directed entirely at Christians. So let’s pay attention to this ancient sermon; let those of us who know Christ as Lord, God as Father, and each other as sister or brother look after each other as family. Let mutual love, love for one another, continue.

Amen.

Hier stehe ich.

This is the text of my ministry message for the Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry newsletter for September 2019.

There is something to be said for resilience and defiance in the face of challenge. “Here I stand and here I stay, let the storm rage onbelts out Elsa of Arandelle. Hier stehe ich; Ich kann nicht anders Gott hilf mir! Amen“, cries Martin Luther, “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me!“ Elsewhere this month I have written about doubt and said that I’m not a fan of certainty, but there is of course two sides to that coin: as Christians we are certain of many things and those things are the rock upon which we build our home.

The Church in the world, (which is where The Church should always be), is facing earthquakes in many ways, even as The Church stands on the rock. Sex and sexual abuse remain key topics-slash-arrows in conversation, LGBTIQ+ matters around marriage and adoption remain current in conversation, and Cardinal Pell was in the news again with a failed appeal. Bodily violence for and against the name of Christ rages on every continent the world except our own (and Antarctica). Away from sex, legislation in many countries and states, including Australia and Victoria, poses challenges to the story of Jesus and the life-affirming values of evangelical Christianity. The time is now and the place is here to make a stand.

What is questionable is what sort of stand we must make. Defiant? Perhaps. Civil disobedience? Perhaps. Moral? Perhaps (but whose morality?) Whenever Jesus made a public stand there were always two characteristics; what he stood for and who he stood with. Jesus stood for the character of God the Father, and he stood with the displaced daughters and sons of God. Often, but not always, this was the economic poor. Always and often this was the downtrodden and the marginalised, particularly those who had marginalised themselves through activity and attitude.

This month, September 2019, let’s commit to standing with Christ as well as standing for him; and let’s commit to standing with our senses sensitive to what God and the world is saying to us concerning the needs of “the least of these”.

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.

By Faith

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 18th August 2019, the tenth Sunday in Pentecost.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, 29-12:2

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen: for it was by faith that our ancestors received approval. So we are told, in the phrasing of the New Revised Standard Version in Hebrews 11:1-2. This verse has been of great comfort and rousing sustenance for many, including me, but a nagging question has arisen for me in recent years, and especially in recent days: what exactly is faith? Specifically, what does this word mean in this case?

I have mentioned more times than I’d like to, and I’m name-dropping it here again, that the first of my four university degrees was in Sociolingustics. I mention this now, and all times previously, to tell you why it is that I am so nerdy about language. I’m a words-nerd, as well as a preaching-nerd, and I love the way that language works. In the way that some people get all sweaty about number patterns, or galaxies, or the intricate dance of sub-atomic particles I cannot get enough of how sounds and scribbles make meaning, and the different messages conveyed by the same words in different situations. So that’s me, and my personality, and my interest. So it’s not that I have a university degree in something the rest of you have never even heard of and that that is a reason for me to boast, no it’s an excuse for why I’m such a nerd about words. It’s an apology really; but probably less than full-hearted because here I am doing it again.

So, “faith”; what is this word and what does it mean in Hebrews 11 and in my-slash-our today?

Well, I have come to the conclusion that oftentimes when Biblical authors and editors write of faith the key outcome is always about trust or hope. Christian Faith (and Jewish Faith for that matter) is not about a list of doctrines or proofs for truth, faith is trust is the one who is inescapably more and who is therefore utterly dependable and trustworthy. This is why I like the way the New Revised Standard Version uses the phrase faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen because assurance and convictions are words about trust: whereas the more common (at least to my ears) phrasing that faith is the evidence of these things is more about proof of truth. So, maybe you are scientifically or mathematically minded and for you God is a puzzle to be solved or an equation to be…equated…whatever, and for you evidence is an important word. That’s fine, I’m not saying it isn’t. But for me, a sociolinguist (someone who looks at language as it is used in society) and a narratologist (someone who look at how stories are put together) God is a story to be read, and Christianity is an autobiography to be lived. I don’t look for evidence to prove a theory and make a law; I look for assurance and conviction to keep going toward the next chapter, it’s how I am.

I hope I haven’t lost you. Have I? No? Good. My point is that Christianity is a personal thing and God works with us, the us who we are not only as sinners in need of grace but women and men with unique personalities and distinct interests, and that because of that the words we use can have different implications depending upon where we have come from in life.

I believe truth. So there’s a statement for you, just in case you were wondering about all my talk of assurance rather than evidence. I have read where Jesus calls himself the Way, Truth, and Life, and I have assurance and conviction that Jesus is the Truth, and that if I follow Jesus and get close to him through discipleship then I will be where Truth is. So let me tell you something true, something I have found to be true by following Jesus for more than forty years.

The deepest truth of Christianity is that we are not saved by faith.

Wow, weren’t expecting that were you? Actually as the congregations where I preach regularly (or as readers of my blog, hello!!) you might well have been. No, here’s the tricky linguistic bit: we are saved by grace through faith.

The deepest truth of Christianity is that we are saved by grace.

This is actually the deepest truth of Judaism too, salvation by grace: Jews are saved simply because God chose Abraham (seemingly at random) and promised him the salvation of his descendants simply because God wanted to do it. Yes there were covenants and so forth, but the fact that Abram was offered a covenant out of nowhere, and no-one else in Sumer was offered such a covenant, is significant. The realisation of that promise came because of Abram’s response, and that story is summarised for us at Hebrews 11:8-12. The significance of that story today is that Abram knowing nothing about God, having no set doctrine or a Romans Road of Salvation set before him, chose to say “yes” and to trust the God who addressed him. Grace saved Abram, and he allowed himself to be saved by trusting the One who held out a hand to him.

So as for Abram and the heroes of Jewish History, so for us that salvation is entirely and solely through the free gift of God who is Father to us. Those of you hearing me this morning (or reading me later) and who are saved were not saved according to how well you acceded to doctrine, I mean how much of Christianity you believe to be true, or how complicit you are in the idea that faith is belief without evidence. No, salvation is by grace: and your part in it, the faith aspect, is that you trust that Jesus did it all on the cross and therefore there is nothing else you can do or say that will add to your salvation.

Salvation by grace means that no matter how else you try to save yourself you will fail: only the blood of Christ can save. Even if you are trying to save yourself through the work of belief and gathering evidence which demands a verdict in favour of The Gospel argument, that work in itself will not save you. God’s grace is not a trial to be won but a gift to be received, a gift which is all-sufficient and needs nothing else. Salvation by Christ’s blood needs no batteries, no patch, no 2.0, and neither does it need help from you or your creeds. As was read to us in Hebrews 11:13-16 there are options to return to safety and to stop trusting God, you may well have been there where it’s a bit “whoa God, slow down eh, this one’s too deep for me” and you are wondering whether God’s sat-nav is out when you’re slipping all over Kane Swamp Road all the while knowing that Yarrock Road is bitumen and would have got you there more safely. I think the point here is that God’s way is trustworthy, even if Subaru’s installation of Tom Tom and/or your own sense of direction and expediency is not. Jesus who is the Truth is also the Way after all. This is why assurance, in my thinking, is better than evidence.

But what about the legitimate place of evidence: I mean, just because I personally am a word-nerd it doesn’t make Science wrong. In other words, what’s the point of faith and creeds? Is there any point to these? Yes, the point of creeds and beliefs is discipleship; in other words how your salvation directs your life of gratitude and thanksgiving, and worship and service.

In Hebrews 11:29-12:2 we read a summary of a summary, how by faith (which is to say with complete trust in God’s goodness and ability) God’s people went from the condition of enslaved, landless Hebrews in Egypt to established Israelites in Israel with David of Judah as king. Look at the record of history and scripture, hear the traditions of the elders and scribes passed down in word and deed, remember how faithful God is and know, always know, that God is to be trusted. God is so good that God saved us by grace, and by God’s grace we live in confidence and trust that by God’s grace we will never be shamed or destroyed. It’s only when trust in God’s grace is misplaced and we try to save ourselves that things go pear-shaped: that is when we end up in a divided kingdom without an heir of David to reign over us, and then the whole twelve tribes end up landless and enslaved again, this time in Babylon, where Jeremiah waits for us with a wagging finger and a plaintive cry of “if only!!”

Trust-derived discipleship looks like many things for me, but here’s one as an example. I believe that I was created in the image of God, and I believe that because that’s what it says in Genesis 1:26. That belief won’t save me, Christ’s activity on the cross saved me, but the belief that I am God’s very own and that I was made by God in God’s own image for God’s own glory and delight directs how I live my life. As imago Dei I try to live as Christ would, if not entirely WWJD then at least following the character of the man revealed in the gospel accounts. And, perhaps more so, if I’m created imago Dei then so are you, and that belief which does not save me might save you because I’ll honour you as a child of God and a divine presence because of that. I’ll treat you as sacred, set apart by God to bear God’s image in the world; and I’ll treat you as precious and important, and I’ll tell you how special you are as imago Dei, the image of God, in case you’ve never been told that, or you once were told but now you’ve forgotten and you life looks more like Babylon than Jerusalem.

In Hebrews 12:1-2, which I remember was a memory verse for the Year Ten class at my Christian school in 1987 (but which I have forgotten enough that I can no longer recite it from memory), we are presented with a great image. The great cloud of witnesses has been compared to the end of the Olympic marathon where the final part of the race is a lap of the stadium. As you enter the stadium, having run forty one and a half kilometres to that point, you have five hundred and ninety five metres to go. That distance is one full lap of the stadium from the point where you entered, plus a home strait to the tape…or clock…whatever. Anyway the stadium is packed, and it is packed not with ticketed-spectators and corporate types in corporate boxes, no it is packed with those who have already finished the race. And they are going absolutely American on your behalf. Man, they are hollerin’, they are shootin’ in the air, they are whoopin’ and singin’ and chantin’ and dancin’, and U-S-A! they chant U-S-A! Now, of course, you’ve been trained by a sociolinguist so you hear what they are supposed to be chanting and not the confused babble that they are chanting…they’re saying U-S-A but what they mean is A-U-S. Regardless, it’s all for you…Oi oi oi!

Why this? Because it’s true. Those who trusted God finished the race, and the race did not finish them. They have run and they have won (because everyone who runs God’s race wins it when they finish) and they are so excited to be home that their joy bubbled out, spills all over the floor we heard last week, and they welcome you home with such abandon. This is our faith: our trust in God who alone is mighty to save, our hope in this God who is willing and capable to save, and our creeds and beliefs written down by those who went before us to cheer us on as they were cheered on so that everyone will finish.

You were saved by grace and you are constantly being saved by grace. You walk as the road goes through the wilderness, through pagan lands, through green fields and beside still waters, maybe you run through the valley of the shadow of death, (or maybe you tip-toe, just keep going forward), and on to the outskirts of the distant homeland (Hebrews 11:14), and through the shires and suburbs until you reach the place of completion where The Glorious One waits to crown you. Do you trust the One who runs with you? Run by grace, with trust.

Amen.