This is the text of the message I prepared for the Kaniva Day Centre (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 3rd September 2019.
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.
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 on“ belts 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”.
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.
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.
This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday August 11th 2019, the ninth Sunday in Pentecost.
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Luke 12:32-40
In the opening words of the Psalm we read how God, The Great and Powerful One, summons all of the earth and calls every one and every thing to listen to the word of God. God speaks and God sets out what God wants from the world, and especially from humankind, and especially especially from the chosen people among the nations. God wants thanksgiving: acknowledgement in gratitude of what God has brought to humanity. This call is echoed in the prophetic writing of Isaiah who makes clear to the Kingdom of Judah that the people are destined for destruction because of their unfaithfulness.
Well that’s a fairly hefty first paragraph! I mean, what sort if preacher just jumps in at the very beginning with such a word of judgement right at the get-go? Where’s the anecdote to warm up the crowd, where’s the “a funny thing happened to me on the way to the pulpit this morning”? Well it’s deliberate, of course it is, because this is the way that both of our Hebrew Tradition passages start this morning. Chapter one, verse one, “hello, my name is God and you and your lot are toast.” Wow!
It seems that God has a good reason to be upset, so I think it’s good that God doesn’t actually beat about the bush when it comes to naming the elephant in the room. The voice I hear in this pair of passages is one of frustration rather than anger, God is not raging like fire here, more that God is puffing with exasperation: God is fed up and run down with this people’s behaviour. “I will not honour your worship,” says God, “I won’t even look at it.” Well that’s a bit harsh. “You have the wrong motive,” says God. Okay, well now we’re getting somewhere: “what I want is that you don’t sin at all rather than that you repent later in spectacular festivals. I want you to do what is right, and that means to show mercy.” We read that in Isaiah 1:17. “Come with humility, ready to talk, and I will save you,” says God; “come with arrogance and presumption and I will squash you.” And as we read from Psalm 50:23, the best sacrifice is thanksgiving.
What’s going on here is another one of those contractual arguments, or “a covenantal lawsuit” as I put it a few weeks ago. God and the chosen people, in this case the Kingdom of Judah, have an agreement. God will be their God, and they will be God’s chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a light to the world, a foretaste of the Kingship of The LORD in the whole of creation, blah de blah de blah. And that’s kind of the point, the blah de blah de blah bit, because the Judahites are taking it a bit for granted and in many ways they are not honouring their side of the covenant made with Abraham on their behalf. God remains faithful to the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and in the case of Judah God is also faithful to the promise made to David: but Judah is not acting like God’s distinct people, Judah is acting like every other nation, particularly in the area of social injustice. God is being fair here, more than fair actually because God takes the time to warning the people that they won’t get the benefits of obedience unless they obey, rather than just leaving them to crash and burn. God says to them that they will only get paid for the work that they do, and they will only get the reward when they do the thing which brings it. Don’t do the thing, don’t get rewarded: don’t plant the seed and you won’t reap the crop, not because God is punishing you but because you are delinquent in your duties. It is a sign of God’s faithfulness in God’s work as The God of Israel (and Judah in this case), that God does intervene in the life of the Judahites to speak this warning through the prophet. A good father never stands by silently while his daughter does something dangerous, he steps in and warns her “stop doing that, you’ll get hurt”, not because a slap is coming next but because the daughter’s action is dangerous in itself. God is the same, and God’s faithfulness to the work of God means that God will name the danger and the better path.
In Isaiah 1:10 we can see God’s specific charge against Jerusalem: I saved you from Sennacherib, if not for me you would have been like Sodom and Gomorrah are (that is to say utterly destroyed). I’m doing the God thing and saving you from your enemies, so why aren’t you doing the People thing and showing justice and hospitality in the world? Why justice and hospitality? Well because that was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah: those cities failed to show hospitality to strangers (Lot’s family) and instead attempted to assault them. Now God is saying to Jerusalem, you are just the same, but instead of sending destruction I sent deliverance because you are Jerusalem, so how about you reciprocate and show me some respect by doing as you’re obligated to do according to our shared ministry agreement. I don’t need your incense and ritual, in fact I’m bored and annoyed by having to attend the times when you do that stuff (Isaiah 1:14), I need you to display my character in the world, that’s what we agreed on. And if you get back to the work of blessing the world then you’ll have such abundance from me that you won’t miss what you share and give away (Isaiah 1:19), but if you don’t then the tap gets turned off entirely and you’ll have to make your own way, a small kingdom with huge and hungry neighbours (Isaiah 1:20).
The double-edged promise in Isaiah 1:19-20 is restated by Jesus in today’s reading from The Gospel Traditions. You can trust God, says Jesus, The Father loves you and wants to show you parental care in providing every good thing in abundance. Give it all away and you’ll not lose a thing, hoard it and it will rust, rot, and get pinched: have a look at Luke 12:32-34. So, looking particularly at the themes of hospitality and sharing with others which we pick up from Isaiah and Jesus, let’s go on to Luke 12:35-40 which in the New Revised Standard Version has the subheading “Watchful Slaves”. It might be easy to see this passage as disconnected from what Jesus was just saying about faithfulness to the work of discipleship and practical love in the world and see Luke 12:40 referring more to the second coming, and especially to the rapture. You know, “be good so that when the Rapture comes Jesus will zap you up from somewhere charitable rather than somewhere selfish or naughty.” That’s possible, but I think it’s somewhat out of context here because that’s not what the verses around it are saying: well at least not the verses we have read this morning. So whether Jesus comes back in the next ten minutes and finds us all in church, or not, let’s look at what we should be doing when he does return.
Hospitality is a big theme in the scriptures, and it is a vital, (so that means it is important and life-giving), a vital part of many Middle Eastern cultures. Care for strangers is considered normal, it’s just what you’re supposed to do when your environment is a desert and your traditions are nomadic. Everyone shares the shade, the water, and the bread; and if you’re the one giving hospitality this time you can be sure you’ll be the one needing it soon enough. But beyond that, the loose community of “we’re all in this harsh place together, even when we’re otherwise enemies” is the model of the Kingdom of God. God’s desire for Israel was that it’s people would be generous and welcoming. If you occupy the land of milk and honey and you got there via the wilderness then you know what hardship is and your common humanity should lead you to two assumptions. The first is that we should thank God for where we are, and for what God has provided; the second is that we should share the bounty of this place because we know that God is for all people and not just us. We have been chosen as agents of God’s love, we are the ones with the task of sharing, and as such we are the ones who occupy the storehouse of blessing. But just because we live with all the stuff doesn’t mean that the stuff is all for us, no it means that we have the obvious job of distribution and welcome. This is why God gets upset with Israel and Judah in history, because they are hoarding the blessings of God which were supposed to have been shared with the whole creation. And more so, as we saw from Amos last month (Amos was a Judahite in Israel) and from Isaiah today, the nations of God had not only kept the blessing to themselves they had kept the blessings to the elite within the nations. Not only were the Assyrians and the Egyptians going without, there were Israelites and Judahites living in hungry destitution: all while there were festivals and celebrations and sacrifices at the temples in Jerusalem and Samaria.
So what is God’s word to us in this? Well there’s probably a few, but here’s two. Well, actually here’s one with parts a, and b.
Okay, first: don’t hoard the blessing of God, share it. As Australians were pretty good at looking after each other, especially in times of crisis. When I look back at the various concerts and telethons and benefits for drought and fire and so forth I am proud to be Australian and that God chose this nation for me. I am aware that there is poverty in many forms in this nation, let alone the other nations of the world, and that more could be done to make sure that everyone has enough. I’m not convinced that everyone has to have equal, but I am certain that if there are two people where one person has three things and the other person has no thing that the one with three giving one to the one with none so that the share is now two and one is good. Work should be rewarded, and if you work more you should get more, but there is also a basic level of support that God requires of disciples for the benefit of the world. While some have none, and others have more than two, there is not only imbalance there is injustice.
Second: remember that this is not only economic. It certainly is economic, and must include economic aspects in the First World space which Australia occupies, but the blessings of God extend far beyond milk and honey. The Church across the planet is incredibly wealthy, stupidly so, but that’s not true of the local congregations I have belonged with. Even when I was participating in Hillsong Church London we weren’t mega wealthy. But think of the riches we do have because of Christ, freedom from sin yes but more than that is what it means in today’s world: freedom from guilt. This has also been abused by the Church across the world, where paedophiles and other scum have been allowed to continue in their jobs “by divine grace”; which is sickening and not God’s plan at all. But think of what you know about God which the world does not know.
It may be a silly picture, but go with me in this: as a Christian who has been Christian for all of my life I have a lot of Jesus. I was raised by Christian parents and have attended a local church for the vast majority of Sundays since I was born. I have not earned salvation but I have been assured of God’s grace so many times in so many ways that I am utterly convinced of it: in fact I have so much of Jesus and his assurance in my life that it bubbles out of me sometimes and I just spill Christ all over the floor. Sometimes I spill him in worship, and I get my praise on in song and movement; sometimes I spill him in prayer and I just love all over God in words and smiles to Heaven. For salvation’s sake at least I have more than enough of Jesus, I possess far in excess of the minimum level of Jesus for eternal security even as I can never get enough of him in other ways. Yet even in Kaniva there are people who don’t know Jesus. Some are saved and don’t know it, others don’t know anything at all. I am not wealthy in money, but I am stupidly wealthy in hope, so why wouldn’t I share that? I have more hope than the Vatican Bank has dollars, so before I start criticising the Pope for the Roman Catholics’ lack of poverty-alleviation in the world (and I’d always leave that up to Jesus anyway, he’s Francis’ boss and not me) I ask myself what am I doing for hopelessness-alleviation in Kaniva. Perhaps I need to start spilling Jesus in public: and much more than the loose change I might throw at the homeless, but great wads and wallets-full of hope and assurance.
The truth is that whatever we have a lot of, we will never feel safe in being generous enough to share it unless we feel secure in what we have; and we will never feel secure in what we have unless we are thankful for it. Generosity requires gratitude: and if Psalm 50:23 is accurate and to be trusted, and the best worship is thanksgiving, then I am going to thank God until God is worn out by my praise; and I am going to give and give hope into the world until everyone has enough, and many people have abundance.
Who’s with me?
Great, because if you’re not with me in this then God says you’re toast.
This is the text of the Ministry Message I prepared for the August 2019 newsletter for KSSM.
Reconciliation is one of the big themes in the writings of Paul. Jews and Greeks, males and females, slaves and free, all are welcome and to be welcomed as participants in the fellowship of believers for their common humanity. This is something the Church has always had in its heritage, but sometimes local churches and even entire denominations seem to have forgotten it.
The Uniting Church and the Churches of Christ are reconciling churches, historically and currently seeking unity and community above difference. Sometimes it is painful belonging to an organisation which includes everyone, and sometimes pain is caused when those differences which shouldn’t matter still rub against us in tender places: but ultimately belonging is life-giving.
The Uniting Church and Churches of Christ are also typified by holiness, as is The Church catholic and apostolic, because we are set apart as bringers of light seeking truth and health in a world which in many places is dark, sick, and seeking a hiding place for its shame and its scheming.
Christianity is a radical way of being human, and life within a radical new way of being family (in church) which brings all together. One family with one Father is who we are, and this is what God intends for the Body of which the Son is Head.
This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 21st July 2019.
In our story from the Hebrew Traditions today we come across a people bored with religion. This could be Australia in 2019 where much of the population just wants to set it aside all of those obligations of ritual to live the lives they want. “When will it be Monday,” they cry “when can we stop having to sit around (boring!) in our Sunday best and we can do what we want and play outside again?” Well obviously that’s not Australia in 2019; it was probably Australia in 1919 for most people but nowadays the shops are open, the parks are not patrolled by the fun police (who used to be actual police) and you can even buy a beer at the footy on Good Friday. But that’s not the case for Israel in the 700s BC, and their complaint goes even further: “why does God always have to be looking over our shoulder, when will God turn away so that we can fiddle the scales a bit and make a bit of extra in our margin?” So not just Sunday trading instead of church, but dodgy trading instead of honesty! But God remembered what the covenant stipulated (Amos 8:7) and God knows what should be expected of the chosen nation who are the light of God to the world, and God is not prepared to compromise the high standards of ambassadorship. God will remove the blessings due to the Chosen ones, those benefits that they have taken for granted (Amos 8:11-12) so that the people notice how bereft they are, the poverty of their own shame, and they will hunger for God again, but God will withhold divine favour from them just as they have withheld divine favour from the other nations of the world. This is utter devastation and the loss of all hope, the nation is beyond the point of salvation and it will be annihilated. There won’t even be prophecy any more in Israel; God has finished speaking to them.
As we saw last week, so this week, the Psalm connects with the theme and action of our reading from the prophets. Here the faithful one (this is a human voice, not God) speaks to the evil ones quizzing them on their evil. The people being accused are outright wicked, there is no pretence and there is no error here, the veil is blatant and is celebrated, boasted about. The retort comes in Psalm 52:5 where the faithful man says but God…, because God has seen and God will vindicate the true and hospitable manner of the chosen people. Evil will not win, injustice will not prevail, God will restore the world to the way it is supposed to be and God will tear away and remove completely anything or anyone that undermines the goodness of creation. And not only this but those who have stood firm for goodness will be delivered and will in their turn mock the downfall of the evil: Psalm 52:7 tells the whole story of why the destruction has come, and Psalm 52:8-9 tells the whole story of what should have happened in the first place. It cannot, surely, be made any clearer what God expects of us: take refuge in God, trust in God, and seek refuge nowhere else except in the steadfast and eternal love of God. Following that plea we see the response: if you depend on God so tightly and so completely then when God comes though, public worship will be thrust out of your spirit in a proclamation of thanksgiving and praise. God will destroy the self-reliant before they can destroy anyone else because of their wickedness, and God will rescue the faithful and deliver the ones whose trust and hope is in God, secure in God’s own knowledge that the faithful when delivered from the wicked will honour God with praise and obedience because The LORD is good.
Our reading from the Christian Traditions this week, just like our reading from the Hebrew Traditions, follows directly on from last week’s readings. Last week we read along with the Colossians as Paul praised them up and spoke back to them about the reputation he had heard that they were generous and hope-filled people, an exemplary church when it comes to displaying the likeness of God in action. Now Paul goes on to say more about the likeness of God, in that he describes Jesus for them. “I have heard that you have hope,” Paul tells the Colossians, “and that hope is centred in the redemptive, sin-destroying work of Jesus. Now let me tell you more about Jesus.” Jesus is the image of the invisible God says Paul in Colossians 1:15, he’s probably quoting a hymn that the Colossians already know and he’s about to explain what the lyrics mean. This is doctrine, it’s something to be learned and understood, but it’s also straightforward; there’s no philosophising or metaphors here but only direct information and that information is that what God is like is what we have seen Jesus to be like. We can’t see God, but we used to be able to see Jesus and we know what Jesus was like: well Christ is like what Jesus was like, and The Son is like The Father (I’m moving away from Paul’s wording here), so if you want to know the characteristics of God’s perspective remember Jesus.
It’s straightforward, there’s no metaphors here, but it’s not exactly simple to understand. Okay so God is like Jesus, patient and loving and compassionate and radically protective of the downtrodden against even the most scripturally literate religious leaders, but how does that actually work? How did Jesus get these characteristics? Well Paul goes on to tell his readers and hearers, and we can see for ourselves from Colossians 1:15b-20, that Jesus is special because Christ is an eternal partner with God in creation. Christ is the means of Creation (through him) the reason for Creation (for him) and the centre of Creation (in him all things hold together). In everything Christ is first, all of the fullness of God dwells in Christ, and through Christ all Creation is being reconciled with the Creator, including the Colossians who are creatures being drawn by Christ to reconciliation with God.
So that’s good stuff; again pretty straightforward in that there’s no metaphors, it’s all about what Christ is because he actually is those things. But it’s also rather heavy. All of that is what Jesus was? Jesus from Nazareth you mean, man with the beard and the nice smile, handy with a hammer and a water-filled wine bottle; all of that Christ stuff is him? Yes. And all of that crucifixion stuff, with pain and blood and a borrowed tomb, that’s Christ too? Yes, and more so than Christ too, that’s God in all of God’s Godness too. This is why Paul is so prescriptive, so picking up our story at Colossians 1:23, we read where Paul indicates that Christian salvation (salvation through unmitigated trust in Jesus the Christ) is effective only so far as your unmitigated trust never mitigating.
Go back to Psalm 52:7-9, the wicked are not destroyed because they are wicked, but because they are self-reliant in the places where they should have been God-reliant. The wickedness is a result of their self-reliance, not a cause, and the same is true of Christians. You can start good, beautiful in fact, but as soon as you begin to take God’s authority out of God’s hands and try to wield it yourself, even if only for yourself, you get broken. The brightest angel in Heaven, the most luminescent one named for light itself, was not immune to this sort of disaster: we all know what happened to Lucifer don’t we? And then as happened for Lucifer, and for the people of Amos 8 and Psalm 52, broken and deviated individual people began to break and hurt others, and lead them astray, and before long the whole world was in peril of destruction not because God was ready to smite the sinners but because the sinners were empowered and emboldened in their numbers by their own unmitigated sinfulness to break everything. God doesn’t smite sinners, they destroy each other; and they and we have done so in wave upon wave throughout history. No, God rescues sinners, and God does so in person through Christ: and yes I did say “does so” and not “did so”. Jesus died in the human past, but Christ continues to save, so he does, and so he shall continue to do until there are no sinners left. Ultimately there will be no sinners left; either every human life will individually have been redeemed and turned around by contact with the grace of God (so they’re not sinners anymore) or that life will have ultimately and completely destroyed itself in spite (and in flagrant denial) of contact with the grace of God. The choice for salvation is yours says Paul in Colossians 1:23, now that you have become aware of what God is like through awareness of who Jesus Christ is.
I said last week that I don’t think the destructive part of Amos’ message applies to us, and I specifically said that with reference to the Uniting Church. Of course I did not mean that God is going to annihilate the Churches of Christ and only the Churches of Christ, not at all; what I meant was that the Uniting Church uniquely in Australia, and especially in South Australia, seems to be in a self-destructive fit. That destructiveness is not the work of Holy Spirit, God is not tearing apart the Uniting Church and God is not tearing apart the holy catholic and apostolic Church beyond that. Rifts, schisms, breakings away, whatever they are called, are painful for God. Both the Uniting Church in Australia and its sister denominations in other parts of the world, and the Stone-Campbell Movement internationally, were established by Christians with hearts for unity and goodness, Godness, in the world. It is not in the nature of the Uniting Church with its Basis of Union, nor is it the nature of the sesquicentennial restoration movement which includes all believers in the slogan “No Creed but Christ”, to seek to divide the Body of Christ on any point of human thought, doctrine, theology, or opinion. Neither is it the work nor intention of God The Trinity, God The Community, and certainly not the unilateral activity of God The Holy Spirit to tear apart the community of God The Son.
So, how then is the Church being torn apart like it is, because no one can say that it isn’t? Well we’ve had the answer today haven’t we? The Church is tearing itself apart because its people and its leaders have compromised their unmitigated trust in Jesus Christ. We, and I mean we rather than “they”, (this isn’t about a handful of suits and albs in Sydney or Adelaide), we are not listening to the prophets like Amos, like the Psalmist, like the Galilean. This isn’t about the orthodoxy of scriptural faithfulness, as if the Evangelicals are standing up for God and the Progressive are standing up against God, (and I dare you to say that to my face, or even in my hearing); neither is it about the orthopraxy of what actually would Jesus do, as if the Evangelicals are resisting the compassion of Christ and the Progressives are rejoicing in the compassion of Christ (and the same warning applies). And the thing is, it’s not just the Uniting Church in South Australia, or even nationally because it’s not just the Uniting Church…look at the kickback for and against Israel Folau just inside the Church. Think about the anguish expressed by some Christians when the Australian Christian Lobby took up the call to funds when gofundme.com shut it down. Whether you agree with Folau in his theology, and/or in his stance, (because it’s possible to stand with Bible truth without standing with the need to do it on Twitface), or whether you do not; and whether you respect “political correctness” or you think it’s “gone mad”, the conversation itself has got out of hand. The Church in its wings has moved outside grace, the people saved through trust in love and sent back into their neighbourhoods as agents of the King of the good Creation have become sidetracked, and the message is about to be lost.
We must not let that happen.
It may sound odd to hear the next sentence in the light of such passion, but there’s a reason for it. I am not going to take a stand and I am not going to call you to steadfastness. Not. There’s enough fighting in the world and in the Church, and in the church in the world and the world in the church, without KSSM publicly declaring a side.
The choice for salvation is yours says Paul in Colossians 1:23, now that you have become aware of what God is like through awareness of who Jesus Christ is. This is what we proclaim: not as a stand, not as a rampart, do not even attempt to assemble a barricade because that is not what God has called the Church to do in any era of Christian history. Popes yes, bishops and deacons far too often, local pastors all the bloody time, but never God. We are not taking a stand, but we are standing a stance: KSSM is the place where if you know you need God’s loving welcome you will find it.
This is not a house where we rush through Sunday to get to Monday and the more exciting life: we are not the Israel of Amos and we are not the Australia of the post-war years. We are a house of integrity, of respect, and ultimately of welcome. We are a house of truth and accountability to Christ and to the gospel. We are not a house of destruction but we are a true Bethel, a house of God.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva Unting Church for Sunday 19th May 2019. It was a special service of prayer and reflection for the Church under Persecution and for Muslims seeking God during Ramadan.
Sirach 2:10; Romans 12:12; Hebrews 12:1; Ephesians 6:18
Two weeks ago, (on my birthday would you believe it), I was in tears at the end of the service. I was crying not because it was my birthday, (47 years is nothing to be ashamed or desolate about), but because one of my heroes of faith had died. A young woman who had authored four books alongside countless blog posts, emails, and tweets; a young wife and mother with a three year old and a one year old child at home, and only thirty seven years old, passed away in hospital after complications following treatment for an otherwise ordinary, unrelated health complaint. The shock of her death caught me off guard and I wept for her, for her family, and for her legacy. Sometime when we lose a hero of the faith we lose something few others understand.
Today I want to speak about two more heroes of the faith, one thirty years dead and another old but alive in this life, heroes of the Christian Church in the twentieth century. I do that in honour of the work that the Church is doing at the edge of its world, which nonetheless is the centre of God’s attention.
One of these great heroes, someone perhaps better known to you than the recently called home Rachel Held Evans, the young mother of my opening paragraph, is the Dutch survivor of the Nazis Cornelia Arnolda Johanna ten Boom. Corrie, as she is known, passed away in 1983, (the year I turned 11), and I remember her story from a cartoon version of her book “The Hiding Place”. I’m sure I saw a movie version around the same time too. After her release from penal detention in a German camp, a place where her sister had died of illness and neglect, a place to which all the ten Boom women had been sent for the crime of keeping Jews hidden from the Gestapo, Corrie travelled widely speaking of God’s grace to her and her family. She was and is remembered for her love, and her attempts at forgiveness, even when met by a former camp guard at one of her rallies. Corrie proclaimed for all of her days that God is always good, even in Ravensbruch. Corrie’s was a story of dedicated faith and the message was inspiring to me as a church-going Aussie kid who liked to read. I suspect it may have been for you too.
Another cartoon book hero of my Christian childhood, and another Dutch person of dedicated faith, is Andrew van der Bijl. Brother Andrew and his Beetle full of Bibles is a legend of our religion, taking his chances with the Communists who routed the Nazis from Eastern Europe only to plant their own special kind of restrictiveness. Unlike Corrie, Brother Andrew is still with us, although he’s just had his 91st birthday last week so we take nothing for granted. Brother Andrew is no longer smuggling Bibles under the Iron Curtain, not because he’s old, but because the need is no longer there. However, his Open Doors organisation is still involved in supporting the Church and proclaiming the gospel in places where it is dangerous and difficult to do so. In fact Andrew had already pulled back from his work in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 so as to focus on an area of greater and ongoing need: the Muslim World.
We are currently in the Islamic month of Ramadan. Okay maybe “we” aren’t, but that’s the month our Muslim neighbours are living in at the moment, and it is a time of daylight fasting and prayer for them. In view of this, Open Doors in Australia and New Zealand is encouraging local churches in our countries where it is relatively easy and safe to do so, indeed places where it is downright cushy, to join in prayer for two key things. First, that Muslims in their dedicated acts of devotion this month, in their prayer and fasting, in their searching and beseeching, are met by the Living Word of God who is Jesus. Oh God, let those who seek God earnestly find God completely: let them see Jesus. So that’s first, and that’s awesome. Isn’t is awesome? Yes, it is. And second, that we would pray safety and protection upon the Church, and local churches, in nations where Ramadan is a central event. There’s no baiting here, but there is reality, that when Ramadan comes around some believers in the Quran seek to purge the world of infidelity and impurity by knocking over the Christians. Maybe they’re tired and hungry, maybe they’re radicalised by the nature of their devotion, but Ramadan can be an especially bad time to be a Christian. So we stand with our brother-sisters in Christ that they are protected from violence, and that they take up opportunities to show love and compassion for their neighbours who are seeking God with fervour.
In many of the countries where Islam is the majority religion, and in some where it is the official or state religion, there was once a vibrant Christianity. Islam is about 600 years younger than Christianity, and in the days between Jesus and Mohammed the countries that are now Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria (to name only four) had numerous bishops and cathedrals. I am not here to talk about the destruction of those cultures in the seventh century, or the ways in which Christianity fought back in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries in Crusades and the Reconquest of Spain: but I am going to point to what has gone.
In recent weeks, since Easter really, we’ve had a few readings from Revelation. We have heard how Revelation was addressed as a letter of encouragement and sent to seven churches as a prophetic act for the building up of all people toward the end of the first Christian century. The question I’m asking today is what happens to Churches who do not overcome? Churches can die; look at the seven churches today and you will see that many are no longer places of Christian worship. Yes they were finished off by the Muslim invasions, but they were on their way out long before. If churches like Ephesus and Colossae (near Laodicea), fellowships founded by St Paul and governed by St John as bishop can be gone in a couple of generations how can we presume this will not happen to us? Brother Andrew’s counsel is “strengthen what remains,” which is why we must pray now for the Church where it is under assault. Paul wrote to one group of Christians undergoing hard times and external pressure saying rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, check out Romans 12:12. To another group he wrote pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication…to that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints, see Ephesians 6:18. If you’re suffering then pray, if you are not suffering but you are aware of others who are suffering then pray. Whether we are in the first group or the second, and I hope it’s obvious where we are today, the call to prayer for the saints is non-negotiable, and I encourage you to heed the invitation of Open Doors and Brother Andrew to hold up our sister-brothers in prayer.
The other question raised by Open Doors’ call, at least as far as I see it, is what does Christianity have to say to people who seemingly have nothing to lose? What is the Christian response to Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps? What about entire families of Pakistani Christians living almost as slaves making bricks because they can’t get better jobs without denying their Lord? What about the widows and orphans or the child-less parents made across Sri Lanka after resurrection services were bombed and terrorised on Easter Day? What does our religion say to such as these, and if it can’t speak coherently to Christians standing against the crimson tide of martyrs’ blood, what can it possibly offer to Muslims seeking God during Ramadan?
An interesting insight which I don’t think I’ve preached on, and which I have certainly never heard in a sermon, is that Emmaus was a Roman garrison town in the time of Jesus. Now of course there were Judeans living there too, it was a town with a base and not a base in and of itself, but I wonder…I wonder, were the two on the road on the night of Easter Day hoping to change sides? Yes, great, we know the story of Jesus appearing on the road and explaining the whole Bible from page one and Genesis 1:1 to page two thousand and twenty and The Map of Paul’s Journey to Rome. We know about the breaking of the bread and Jesus disappearing without even a cloud of smoke or unleavened flour. But were Cleopas and his friend (his wife) simply returning home after a disastrous Passover in the big smoke, or were they doing a Judas (or a Josephus of the next generation) and getting their names on the safe list with the local constabulary? Tired apostles, or trying apostates? And how do we feel about that sort of thing now; the Christian father for whom it is all too hard to live another day for Jesus in Baghdad or Beirut or Bishkek, and who converts to Islam to save his family from poverty and murder? Words from the Hebrew Tradition just prior to the time of Jesus remind us to consider the generations of old and see: has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed? Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord and been forsaken? Or has anyone called upon the Lord and been neglected? You’ll find that in Sirach 2:10, if you have a Bible with Sirach in it. It’s a great encouragement, but it might not be enough if Jesus doesn’t meet you on the road and come in for tea. In Hebrews 12:1 we are reminded that since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we can lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and…run with perseverance the race that is set before us. But what if there are no witnesses where you are, no great stadium filled with the athletes who have already finished the marathon to cheer you on over that last 400 metres of your own race? What if you are running for Jesus, but you’re running alone, and the weight of expectation is too much to bear, so you drop all Christian expectation and try to run life unencumbered rather than dropping out of life entirely? We must pray for them, and more importantly pray with them.
So, two things, the same two things that the New Testament writers and editors, along with Andrew, Corrie, and Rachel have said.
- Run in a group. Stay close to Jesus by staying close to those of your friends who are staying close to Jesus. Pray for your own strength, ask God to strengthen what remains of your dwindling energy. Seek God until you find God, then keep going in deeper in the confidence that God is good, even in Ravensbruch.
- Be the group that others run with. Exclude no one from the pack, no matter what condition or colour their shirt (or all colours). It is good to pray for those who persecute you, and pray for those who are persecuted, that’s Jesus stuff, but do more than pray. You can petition for change, post letters and tweets of encouragement, be one of the great crowd of witnesses who yells the same story as Sirach of how God came through for you. This is not just a local thing, being faithful to the Christians of the Wimmera, be the group that is The One holy catholic and apostolic Church: run with the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and let them know too.
And one more thing, pray with those who experience violence and resistance, not only praying for them. Pray for them in the words they pray for themselves; they do not pray what we might think they pray, or even how we might pray if we were them. Pray with Christians in Muslim-majority communities that the persecutors would come to see Jesus as saviour and master, not that the persecution would stop. As iron sharpens iron the Church in these places doesn’t want to become safe: they grieve for us in Australia because in our faith we have become fat and lazy, our prosperity is a bigger barrier against Christ than their persecution in their view. So we pray that Muslims would see Christ and turn to him because Christ is the better option for life, not because we want the bullying will cease. That is the prayer of a dedicated faith.
This week, indeed from the evening of May 5th (on my birthday, would you believe it) until the evening of June 2nd, more than one and a half billion people will spend every daylight hour fasting and praying for guidance from God, and wisdom for a God-honouring life. Some of them will make mistakes and go and kill Christians in their misguided piety, but think of the thousand million crying out for a revelation of God, a revelation we have seen. Open your heart and open your mouth, let them know that you are with them in the name of Emmanuel, God with us.
Two weeks ago I wept in exhaustion because a channel of the voice of God was rendered silent by a medical complication. This week I am tired of weeping over the many channels through whom the voice of God has never spoken; voices never released to proclaim the Father’s glory, the Son’s compassion, the Spirit’s comfort, the soul’s rest. Open your heart to God and ask that those mouths will be opened by grace to declare all praise to God, the merciful and compassionate one.