Trust and Relax (Pentecost 9C)

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.

Amen.

Reconciliation

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.

It’s All About The Good (Pentecost 6C)

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.

Amen.

Pastoring is hard work (parts 1-3).

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dedicated Faith (Praying with “Open Doors Australia” during Ramadan)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Amen.

Mighty to Save (Easter 3C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry, gathered at the Church of Christ, on Sunday 5th May 2019.

Acts 9:1-19a; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Today’s psalm speaks of one man’s lamentation and then vindication: the one who cries out to God from the place of death, calling upon The LORD to save, was rescued and restored.  More than simply lifted out of bed, or commanded to pick up his mattress and walk home, the man of the psalm was specifically delivered from Sheol, and he responds to God’s gracious intervention by summoning his community to join his declaration of praise of God.  An early indicator of what this song is about is that only in despair do we truly know who God is and where God can be found: when we are in “prosperity” (Psalm 30:6) we forget to look for God and God is hidden from us; maybe God hides or maybe God is obscured by our stuff and nonsense.  But God is there when we re-/turn and God is faithful in welcoming us home with joy: God is always more ready to love and restore than to withhold and punish.

I wonder, do you have such a testimony?  We’ll come back to that, but keep your story in mind as we hear more about this man’s story.

There are two subheadings in the New Revised Standard Version added this psalm on the page: one says that Psalm 30 was associated in Jewish tradition with David and utilised in the annual rituals of dedication of the temple at Hanukkah.  The other subheading which comes from the twentieth century editors suggests that Psalm 30 is a song of thanksgiving for one man’s recovery from a grave illness.  I like that it can be both of things, it’s such a wonderful tribute to our God and to those who worship God.  I mean, why not both?  Why not praise for what God did for me as part of a greater festival of setting up the house of community worship for a great festival of God’s deliverance of the whole nation in a time of war and oppression. This is true of Judaism then and now, and also of Christianity, that God is interested in you for who you are and also in the whole congregation as a unity, indeed the whole of Creation as a unity: it doesn’t have to be either/or.

This is why Psalm 30 is a great psalm to read in the weeks after Easter.  Just have a look at Psalm 30:1-3 and focus on the individual story, the one man in his song of deliverance, and how he exalts and extols The LORD for drawing him up, the downcast one, and for lifting him above the scorn of the mockers.  They, (remember “they” from Easter Day?), “they” had thought the faithful man had been deserted by God, but God came all the way down into Sheol, down beyond the platform of the living and into the place of the dead to rescue the man who cried out, to rescue him from falling even further down and into “the Pit” as the psalm puts it.  God lifted him above all the scorn and all the pain and restored him to God’s presence, above the platform of the living, where there is healing and recovery.  Of course when I say “faithful man” this is no less true of a woman who cries out to God; but I also think it true of women and men we might consider not to be “faithful”, people who cry out in desperation even if they haven’t previously been religious or even Evangelical to our liking.

So I ask you again, how does this psalm fit with your story?  Have you ever cried out to God from “the place of death”, from “the grave” as it were?  If you haven’t then I assume it’s because you’ve never been to the lowest place; I assume this because if you have been to the lowest place and you did not cry out to God then how is it you are here today?  Seriously!  I can’t say I’ve been to Hell and back, because my journey took me through the middle of Hell and out the other side, and without God I’d be dead.  In fact without God I might have been dead on any one of multiple occasions, so if you’ve done it without God then either you’re lying, or you need to step up here and I need to sit down.  Anyone?  So we’re left with two options: either you’ve never been to Sheol; or you, like me and like the faithful man, have been down there, and the only reason you are here now, and not there now, is that God delivered you.  I hope none of you have been there, because Sheol, but if you have then you know why God is worthy of all honour and glory.

In Revelation 5 we read about another faithful man, one man who went to Sheol, even to the deepest depths of its Pit, and who returned because of God.  This man is the source and object of the community’s praise in Heaven: Jesus is worthy because he was victorious over death and all that leads to death, be that sin, illness, isolation, exposure, or shame.  In the eyewitness account of the recipient of the revelation it’s not just a choir of angels and a few assorted cherubim and seraphim who sing, but every created being that has a voice.  Every angel, every cherub, every seraph, every woman and every man, every beast, fish, bird, sheesh every rock and stone cries glory, because Jesus was vindicated by God in the sight of all creation for the benefit of all creation.  The cry begins under the earth, resounds across the earth, and culminates above the earth as even the Eldership of Heaven falls face-down.  That’s some adoration, massive praise and worship, glory and honour; but is not Jesus worthy of it?  All who have been to and thorough Sheol say “Amen!”, or as it translates into Australian, “oath mate!”

One of the commentators I use regularly describes Revelation 5:13 as “a song of praise to the Redeemer of all”, and I have to agree.  As it should be, really, given all that Jesus did and all he went through physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially, spiritually, and I’m going to suggest geographically as well.  Worthy is he, blessing and honour and glory and might, and power forever and ever.  I add my voice to that today, and if Revelation is a picture of the future then I’ll be singing my lungs out on that day too.  Glory to the one who came below the dirt and pulled me out of Sheol, lifting me above the sky to wipe me down, stand me up, and set me off on a new life.

Among the voices that will sing with me, and the psalmist, and maybe some of you, are those of Peter and Paul.  Their stories are told in the gospels and epistles at large; Acts 9:1-19a and John 21:1-19 are the set readings for today.  We haven’t read them this morning but I am sure you are familiar with these stories.  Can anyone remember what stories these passages tell?  Well, very briefly Acts 9 is the Damascus experiences of Saul the Christianophobe, and John 21 is the lakeside experience of Peter the wuss.  Both of these men have recently been through Sheol, in fact Saul is still on his way out.  Common to their stories is that their descent to the place where only Christ can save has happened because they let down Jesus.  Peter has denied knowing his best friend at the hour of greatest need; and Saul, well Saul just been very silly in general hasn’t he.  I’m not going to go into those stories now, you can read them for yourselves later, but I will say this; they were redeemed by Jesus.  Now of course we have all been redeemed by Jesus, that’s the cross and that’s Melody Green’s “thank you oh my Faaaather”.  But think specifically of Peter and Paul: these two nutjobs basically go on to found Christianity.  That’s a big and loose claim I know, and I’m not interested in debating it at all because you know what I’m saying; what I am saying is that these men were saved not only from suicide, (think of Judas in his despair), but from wasted lives because of wasted opportunities.  Christ meets them both and gives them what they need at the time, reassurance, forgiveness, friendship, and a mission.  “Feed my flock” says Jesus to Peter in John 21:15-17, and then in John 21:19 “ follow me”.  “Get back on your horse and go to the church, they’ll tell you what to do” Jesus tells Saul in Acts 9:8, and by Acts 9:20 he’s proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus the Christ.

Where are you today?

  • I’d be sad to hear that you’re in Sheol today; primarily because I’m your pastor and I didn’t know, but if you are then let me know, please. There’s no shame in being in Sheol today, and since I’ve already been there a few times I can show you the way out if you’d like.
  • Maybe you’re heading for Sheol; the bottom has fallen out of the world and you are falling and tumbling, and heading for a spreading that you know is imminent, so you’re bracing for impact. Again, please come and tell me.
  • Maybe you are climbing out; with God’s help assured because that is not a climb you can make on your own. Again, let me know, I won’t take your hand because you’ll need both of them to hang on to God, but I’m happy to rub your back.
  • Maybe, hopefully, you’re in a good place today. I’d like that to be true for each of you, because I don’t want disaster for any of you, but it’s okay if you’re not.  But it’s okay if you are, Jesus has risen and God is faithful and if life is blessing you today then praise God.  But if you have memories of your time in the shadowlands, I ask you to let those memories stir you to two activities.  One, show extreme and practical compassion to your sisters and brothers who are near the Pit right now, regardless of their theology and whether you’d accord them the status of “faithful”.  Even if they are not faithful, and who are we to say, but even if they are not, we are, and our job is compassion and support.  Don’t be the one kicking at the fingers of the climbing, which is never your job.  And two, which should be one because it is first, but is ongoing so I’ll say it last, worship and adore God the saviour, the redeemer, the healer and restorer and sanctifier.  Jesus is worthy of all praise, glory and adoration.

Bloody oath he is!

Amen.

The Remembrance of God

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people gathered at Kaniva and Serviceton on Sunday 11th November 2018.  It was the centenary of the Armistice and the 25th Sunday of Pentecost in Year B.

Mark 12:38-44

Good morning Church.

Today is a significant date in the history of the planet, and specifically in the history of Australia.  One hundred years ago today, at 11:00am Paris time, the guns of the Great War fell silent.  Today, in the remembrance of God, we actively recall the ultimate sacrifice of the 1st AIF on land, sea, air, and ward.

Today’s stories from Mark 12 locate Jesus in the temple in the days before his death.  Maybe that’s a good point of connection between the scriptures and the calendar.  We get to earwig on Jesus on Wednesday knowing that by Friday he’ll be dead – perhaps like an entrenched Anzac preparing to go over the top an hour before sunrise.  I think there’s more to it than that, more to Jesus’ teaching and more to who and what the Anzacs are and were, but we’ll get to that in good time.

First, the Bible stories.  So we find Jesus teaching the crowds who have gathered for the festival of Pesach and who have then wandered across the temple courts to hear him.  Since Palm Sunday, which was three days ago in Jesus’ time he has been busy and has actively cleansed the temple of its corrupting traders and enacted a parable about fruitlessness by cursing a fig tree.  Jesus has spoken at length about integrity in religious observance, teaching from the parable of the wicked tenants and by more direct explanation about taxation, about Heaven, and about obeying God in the way that God desires.  And Jesus has spoken about who he is with respect to the ideas of the day around what the messiah would be like.  Today’s readings continue the teachings on integrity, making clear that what God desires in worship and discipleship is action done for God and for no one else.  It is good to be an example to others, but it is not good to seek fame simply for doing what God expects of those who follow the Way of Jesus.  The example of the scribes is actually an example to be avoided, the example of the widow a little more complex.

The two stories give alternative views of widows.  In the scribes’ way of thinking widows were destitute and therefore to be cared for; that’s what the scriptures taught and as scribes the interpretation and implementation of the scriptures was their area of expertise.  Jesus has seen through their false piety; he saw the long robes and the desire for titles, he saw the desire for prestige the scribes held for being seen to do the godly thing rather than humbly serving the widows out of obedience to God.  Jesus also saw that the false piety is a reflection of the false charity going on as well, and that with the widows’ welfare in their hands some of the scribes were exploiting their position, making money out of the care of the poor and leaving the widows worse off than they would have been had they been left alone.  Shift the widow out of her big house into a little house, or a shared house, then sell the big house and keep back some of the money as commission, that’s their plan.  After all, who is going to argue with a scribe, who is going to contradict a pillar of society?  No one, that’s who, especially not a widow with no adult male relatives.

That’s the scribes’ view of widows, but what is Jesus’ view?  Jesus’ view is that widows are capable of more than being the passive recipients of welfare or the absurd victims of corrupt officials.  The scribes devour widows’ houses in Mark 12:40 as they hold back the profits for themselves, but one particular widow contributes all she has to live on in Mark 12:44, holding nothing back for herself and giving all she has to God.  That’s how I choose to read this anyway.  Maybe Jesus is continuing to criticise the system, arguing that this widow feels obliged to give her last two pennies and that even this woman is being exploited right before their eyes.  If you read the story that way then the widow is still a victim of exploitation, and I think you can read it like that, the words on the Biblical page allow you to understand the story that way.  Maybe both are true; the widow is being ripped off by the religious leaders but she still trusts God to look after her anyway.  This is a woman who won’t be defeated by the system, because her confidence is not in ritual obedience and begrudging handouts from the welfare division of the local religious authority, but in the God she trusts and knows she is loved by.

The scribes are what used to be called “yuppies”, they are literate in a society where most people were not but beyond literacy these men were academics and lawyers.  Many may have come to Jerusalem from regional or rural areas and have made a go of it in the city; they are both proud of and uncertain about their position as social climbers.  They are not the dumb peasants that their parents and brothers are, but they aren’t completely secure in town either since they live amongst peers whose families are city people or merchants or priests. If you’re a bushie trying to show how civilised you are then your appearance and your reputation are everything.  On the other hand the widow is secure in her identity, somewhat because she doesn’t have one.  There is no pretence to be had in being the left-over woman in a family where all the men have died, and so the widow relies only on God for her sense of self, and God thinks she’s amazing.

Perhaps that’s why when it comes to brining the tithes and gifts into the temple the widow is confident to hold nothing back.  With no reputation to uphold, no image to maintain, no bribes to pay and no need for a fancy wardrobe and enough wine for unexpected honoured guests the widow can give all she has to worship her lord and saviour.  She has given her whole life to God, everything she is worth in the eyes of the world has been laid on that tray in the temple; she made the ultimate sacrifice and she had no hesitation in doing so.

Sacrifice is a word we hear a lot of today, and this day especially since it marks the centenary of the ceasefire which brought the fighting part of the Great War to a close.  Technically the war did not end until the surrender documents were signed in Paris on 28th June 1919, and peace was ratified on 10th January 1920; but as every Australian child at school in the past hundred years has been taught, at precisely 11:00 Paris time on the morning of Monday 11th November 1918 the guns fell silent.  We know that many women were left widowed by the events of the Great War, millions of women across Europe lost husbands to enemy fire where they were soldiers, sailors, airmen, or civilians caught up in the battle.  Millions more women in Australia and New Zealand never saw their husbands return.  Add to that the women who lost sons, the girls and boys who lost fathers, and the families of mothers, sisters, and daughters killed in service or in crossfire, and the word “sacrifice” is utilised a lot.

Maybe some of the dead, the maimed, and the survivors in 1918 had once been like the scribes in our story.  Proudly strutting about in their clean and polished uniforms in 1914, declaring that they’d be home by Christmas just as soon as they’d given Tommy and Billy (or perhaps Fritz and Abdul) a jolly good seeing to.  Maybe there were second sons of the wealthy who became officers, loving being called “sir” and proudly flashing the red bits on their khaki jackets and trousers.  Maybe the Anzacs made a big deal of not being English, especially when a Sergeant from Sydney met a Private from Portsmouth.  Maybe who could blame them?

Or maybe those who left these shores between 1914 and 1918 were like the widow in our story.  Maybe all they had in the world was themselves, and so the “Cooee from The Dardanelles” that gifted a stir of brotherhood and patriotism in their being was enough for them.  Maybe the uniform was about belonging to a family at last.  Maybe it was the outworking of their faith such that in obedience to Christ they “rendered unto Caesar”, and the uniform with its straps and epaulettes was just work-wear for their mission to resist evil and cause it to flee.

Regardless of the reasons why so many men and women, chose to go into uniform and catch the next boat to Egypt or France, and whether God was an active part in that decision-making or not, we continue to use the language of sacrifice to describe their attitude.

In religious terms the word sacrifice means “to make sacred”.  It is not necessarily about death, or glory, but it does involve giving something away and giving it with complete devotion.  Isaac was a sacrifice of Abraham even though he did not die, because Abraham dedicated him to God.  Samuel was a sacrifice, a gift of Hannah to God, and he lived for decades as a priest and judge.  The widow’s two pennies were a sacrifice not just because they were the last two things in her earthly possession, but because they were given to God, they were set apart and made holy by her action.  Jesus was a sacrifice because God set him apart as a gift for us, Jesus was made sacred and was both given by God and gave himself up to God for a special purpose.  This idea makes me wonder about the phrase “the ultimate sacrifice”.  If sacrifice is making sacred, of dedicating a thing to God for God’s own purposes and without restraint, then isn’t every sacrifice ultimate?  Unless a sacrifice is ultimate, unless the thing given over to be made sacred is given with no hope of return, then is it a sacrifice at all?  If this is true then everyone who went to war made sacrifice, even those who came home, even those who came home unscathed.  If this is true then the monetary offerings given by the scribes were not a sacrifice at all, regardless of their size, regardless of the pain they might have caused.  A sacrifice, if it is to be a sacrifice, is all or none.

It is almost the middle of November now, and our church year is drawing to a close.  In just three weeks from today it is Advent Sunday and from then it is four Sundays to Christmas.  I say this not as a spur to begin your shopping, but to point to the sacrifice of God that we are soon to remember – that God sent the Son to us.  Christmas is about sacrifice, again not the sacrifice of living on beans and dry bread throughout January so as to be able to afford the new X-station or Play-box, but about God choosing to present Godself in the world in the shape of a baby.  God came, God saw, and God died (briefly), and God made the world sacred to Godself by doing that.  God is not an Anzac, and as treasonous as it is to say such things in today’s Australia the Anzacs are not gods, but maybe the ultimate sacrifice if there is one is the sacrifice made by the Ultimate one.  When the Lord Godself, who came to bring peace to a confused, arrogant, incompletely lead and warring world showed greater love than any woman or man had seen or expressed, or would see or express, we were made sacred.  God’s sacrifice for you and me is more than the cross, (although it is no less than the cross), because God chose you and me to be the inheritors of personal love.  We were made sacred when God set us apart, our sacrifice is the sacrifice that we are rather than the one that we give, when it comes to the grace of God.

The question asked by the widow, and maybe by the Anzacs, is how will you respond to the news that you are God’s sacrifice?

Amen.