If Today Was Your First Day (Pentecost 10B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn and Morwell gathered at Yallourn North on Sunday 29th July 2018.

2 Samuel  11:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21

Last Monday was an anniversary for me.  Actually, it was two on the same day.  On Sunday 23rd July 1972 I was baptised, and Monday 23rd July 2007 was my first day in prison.  I’m still baptised, and my last day in prison was Friday 30th January 2009, but I’d never really connected those two “first days” in my mind before.  I knew they were the anniversaries, but I tend to have remembered only one or the other, not both, but this past week I did.

Something that drew that connection even closer for me this year was the titles of two of the commentaries I chose for this week.  One book was called “Letters from Heaven” and the other was called “The Prison Letters”.  Of course, these books each in their own special way refer to the same letters; specifically, for me the pastoral Letter to the Church in Ephesus, attributed to Paul.  That Paul could write words of such heavenly encouragement from a prison cell is not a surprise to me, but we must not breeze past that fact either.  Even in the twenty-first century a gaol is not the sort of place you want to make a life, despite what you may have heard of its creature comforts boasting three square meals a day, a warm bed at night, and a 14’ TV in every cell.  The gaols where Paul spent time were a far cry from that, but even if they were of today’s standard they’re still not the sort of place you want to stay in if you have any other option.  And yet, the hope of Christ is found there, perhaps strength in weakness as I alluded to a few weeks ago.  When all you have left is Christ then, and perhaps only then, can you discover just who Christ is.  That revelation is truly a communique from Heaven, the message of salvation, friendship to sinners.

This news seems particularly relevant to me in the light of what I have just told you.  I have spent time in gaol, and I was baptised as an infant. For some people that news is scandalous, either piece of news an issue in need of remediation.  Of course, you all know that there is more to the story of my being in prison, a far less scandalous explanation, and I dare say many of you were ritually sprinkled or poured upon as babies and have never been submerged as adults, so you will see no problem in the story of my Presbyterian infancy.  Nonetheless, the finer details of my life are not the issue; the subject of Christ as saviour is a great theme.

In our reading for Jewish history this morning we find David not doing what a king should do and what every other king does.  David has gone home part way through the campaign of battle and is in Jerusalem and enjoying the comforts of his cedar-lined palace while his armies are in the field under the command of generals.  David’s conduct is contrary to that of the faithful Uriah who refuses on several occasions to spend even one night with Bathsheba, even when drunk.  Look at David in 2 Samuel 11:1 and compare him with Uriah in 2 Samuel 11:11, 13.  So, while the army is under canvas and in the midst of military manoeuvres David is at home, first having a nap and then having a perve.

Now, we need to understand that just because David can see her bathing that doesn’t mean that Bathsheba is showing off.  Remember that David is on his palace’s roof, potentially the highest point in this city which does not have a permanent temple.  Bathsheba might be innocently going about her bathing in the privacy of an inside courtyard, not anticipating at all that anyone would be looking down from the roof, or if they happened to do so that they would stay there leering at her.  David is in the wrong here.

What I most liked about the story as I read it this week, and like you I have read this story many times before, but what struck me as fresh information is that the Bible gives Bathsheba a full identity.  So, a Feminist reading might object to her being the daughter of some man and the wife of another rather than a woman in her own right, and fair enough actually, but at least she is identified.  This woman does have a name, a named father, and a named husband.  Bathsheba even has a calendar and we are told that it is the end of that week of the month for her.  The Bible identifies this woman by name, by relationship, and by care for her welfare.  King Leer on the other hand, David the just-awoke-from-his-nap-time sees her only as an assortment of curvaceous lumps of sexy meat.  The Bible tells us that she has just had her period, that’s why she’s in her ritual and hygienic bath, which means that in the coming week she will ovulate and be fertile.  David, obviously, could not care less.

In Ephesians 3:1 Paul calls himself a prisoner of Jesus.  He was also a prisoner of conscience at the time, probably in Rome.  Paul credits his imprisonment for the sake of the Gentiles; he understands that he’s been locked up for preaching and specifically for preaching what it is he has actually preached: but as far as he is concerned what choice does he have?  The gospel itself compels him, the news is too great not to share and the call of Jesus to apostleship is not something that Paul would ever refuse (Ephesians 3:3,7).  “Keep the faith, but don’t keep it to yourself” is his motto.  God has order in all things because all things are in God’s keeping, even if they are not all in God’s plan (Ephesians 3:8-13).  So, where the reading this morning began with for this reason the reason is all of the above; that the gospel is compelling, and that Christ’s own ordination is upon one so undeserving.  In Christ, from the Father, we are given a name and an inheritance which is being delivered now through divine blessing and resource for the work of the Kingdom (Ephesians 3:14-16).  All of this is delivered by love, and by the Spirit of Christ dwelling within each of us (Ephesians 3:17-18).  Paul is so assured that he has made a telling point that Ephesians 3:20 reads as a benediction; Paul might just as well have ended the letter there.

The writers of 2 Samuel 11 tell us that David denies Bathsheba’s and Uriah’s humanity: the woman is sexy meat and the husband is a barrier between David and the sexy meat.  Paul in Ephesians 3 on the other hand tell us that The Father, in Jesus declares and provides identity, lifting up nameless nobodies to kinship with God and ultimately to perfection.  Uriah was a great bloke cut down, Bathsheba was a victim of rape, and Paul was a bully transformed.  David is a bully right now, his transformation will come later, and Bathsheba will one day become Queen Mother.

Today’s message from scripture is that identity is personal.  Personal not that it is private, and not just that it is “you-specific”, but personal in that that it is meaningful to each individual.  When I was baptised and then as a more mature believer made confirmation of that baptism I was entering into a specific, recognisable covenant with God.  When I was three months old my parents made a loving choice on my behalf, and twelve years and three months further on I chose to confirm their intention, that I would follow God and God alone for all of my life.  God, who had already chosen me before I was knot together in my mother’s womb, indeed before my mother was knit together in her mother’s womb and so forth back in time, the God who chose me became my God by my choosing.  Even though God had no vows in the Presbyterian liturgy of baptism as was current in 1972, nor in the Anglican liturgy of confirmation as was current in 1984, I’m pretty sure God actively engaged with those processes and continued to choose me as a son and disciple.

I can also tell you that identity is important in gaol; you might expect this, maybe you didn’t.  You all know that my time in gaol between 23rd July 2007 and 30th January 2009 involved me wearing mostly black clothes and a pair of epaulettes with a blue band on them.  I also carried a numbered a set of keys and a radio with a unique callsign.  I was an OSG, an “Operational Support Grade” member of staff: not a prisoner in my prison, but a gaoler in my gaol.  I had a unique name and specific grade “OSG Tann”, a unique number (MT264), and set roles each day.  This made me distinct in the system; no other person in Her Majesty’s Prisons Service was me.  And, importantly, I was not a prisoner.  Prisoners also had specific colours to wear, maroon if they were especially difficult and green if they were especially amenable.  Prisoners also had their own name, usually their own surname prefaced by “Mr”, and a number.  Each prisoner is unique in the system and any prisoner “on the estate”, which is to say anyone incarcerated in England and Wales, could be located and identified to his or her specific cell.

My identity as a Christian, and as an OSG, were given to me.  I chose to be a Christian, and I chose to be an OSG, but how I was identified after those decisions was given to me.  Your identity today is both your choice and decision of the places into which you have been included.  In this cluster as a whole and in each of two parish congregations, you are called “sister” or “brother”, you are one of us not only in Christianity and the family of God but in our gathering as Yallourn and Morwell.

God sees you as unique and as part of the whole body.  You are you and you are part of us: this is an important distinction missed by David who saw only a whole mob of which he was shepherd.  David did not understand how one sheep here or there would be missed in the grand scheme, big picture of the flock.  A cute girl here, a random soldier there, who was to tell Israel’s king otherwise?  Well, God was to say otherwise, and so was Nathan (on God’s behalf) in his story of one ewe lamb amongst the mobs.

If you are a Bathsheba or a Uriah to God, then so may you be to me.  One, unique, irreplaceable one.

Amen.

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Watch Your Step 2 (Pentecost 9B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell congregation gathered for worship on Sunday 22nd July 2018.

2 Samuel 7:1-14; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

In Mark 6:30-34 we return to the place where two weeks ago we watched the twelve go out in pairs to proclaim the Kingdom of God around Galilee.  This week they have returned, and Jesus whisks them away for a bit of a rest and a debrief; just the thirteen of them, the twelve and him.  But, as ever seems to be the case with ministries, the mobs in need of God’s care trail the team and when Jesus arrives at the place of retreat he finds the crowds ready to ask him for more of God and himself.  Jesus’ practical response, which we did not read today, is provided in the miracle of superabundance of food and the feeding of five thousand families.  Since the disciples had not even had time to eat, (hence Jesus’ attempt to take them away from the crowds in the first place), perhaps those twelve baskets of leftovers mean that they did get a basket each.  I’ve told you before that it says in Second Leviticus 8:1 that the minister’s family gets the leftovers from all church meals; here is Jesus showing that to be true.  Following this event, the disciples turn the boat around and head home, no doubt giving up on the idea of a rest, and Jesus later meets them on the lake by walking across the waves and out to the storm-tossed boat.

What strikes me about the readings we have today, more so there than in what we have skipped, is that Jesus was moved by the people’s desperation for ministry, and especially their need for leadership.  Jesus is tired and the twelve are tired; they should have been recipients of ministry at this point, not providers, yet Jesus steps up because as Mark describes the people in 6:34 Jesus sees “a flock without a shepherd”.  Maybe in Australian terms they are “a mob without a dog, let alone a roustabout”; and even though the twelve are exhausted they do at least have a leader.  So, without apparent regard for his or the twelve’s tired and emotional state Jesus prepares to once again extend himself and them in ministry to the lost sheep of Israel.  He brings food to the mob, and he brings shalom to his mates.

The story this morning is taken up again in Mark 6:53 as the thirteen men in the boat bump up to the dock at Gennesaret.  We know it’s the dock because Mark tells us that they tied the boat up, they didn’t drop anchor and wade ashore.  And, once again, Jesus isn’t even off the jetty before he is besieged by the sick and their intercessors.  When he does finally get as far as the grass and then the open road he’s beset by caring friends and bouncing stretchers.  Caring friends of those on the stretchers I mean, I’m not sure how many people were showing care toward Jesus at that point.  (I hope his solo walk across the water was rejuvenating for him because that’s the only alone-time he’s had since the twelve returned.)

So, what do we say at this point, same old same old?  Jesus awesome in majesty, disciples struggling to keep up, world pathetic and needy: c’mon it is the gospel every week.  Well maybe not.

I’m thinking that, maybe, the twelve didn’t want a break at all.  Maybe, as one of my commentators this week suggested, the “apostles” (in quoteys) were all hyped up from being out in pairs and they wanted to keep going with the flow.  They were sent out by the Messiah himself as emissaries of the Kingdom of God, and they saw lives changed and miracles performed by their own selves, not by Jesus.  Can you just imagine them all returned to Jesus and trying to top each other’s story?  “Yeah, well, but where John and I went …” Indeed, this is the only place in Mark’s gospel that we can be sure that he used the word “apostle”; the only other place you’ll find it is Mark 3:14 and some scholars suggest that that might be a later addition to Mark’s completed book.  Perhaps Mark is making a point, that twelve discipuli (students) went out whereas twelve apostoli (missionaries, emissaries) returned; at least in their own eyes.  Maybe Jesus didn’t want them to rest up so much as to calm down.  And, I wonder if this is where we also find David in today’s reading from Jewish history.

David’s story as we read it today in 2 Samuel 7 is taken up just as David is sitting down.  Like the twelve he has found himself ready to rest after a time of heavy activity:  David has conquered Jerusalem and he has seen the Ark of the Covenant brought to the place of meeting in the City of David, the site where the temple will be built.  David looks out of his cedar-lined palace to the Tent of Meeting and wonders whether it is appropriate that God lives under canvas.  This story is also where we first meet Nathan, a prophet who will have much to say to David in coming years and chapters.  Nathan has discerned (or maybe he has just opined) that God is with David in all that David does, therefore whatever David does will have the blessing of God and a divine stamp of approval.  Go, do all that you have in mind for the LORD is with you we read in 2 Samuel 7:3, so that’s pretty clear; however, God has other ideas when it comes to building a temple.

For the bulk of the first decade of this century I lived in the south of England.  One of the churches with whom I belonged to God during that time made quite a point out of 2 Samuel 7:5b in its call to mission.  “Are you the one to build me a house?” asked the paraphernalia, calling attendees to connect and connected people to sow into the work of that local church with this rousing question from God.  I could ask the same of you today, are you the one to build a house for God in your local context. Well, are you?  Interesting to me, and I knew this all along which is why the church publicity puzzled me somewhat, the answer to the original question is “no”.  David was not the one to build a house for God, and maybe you aren’t either.  God’s plan was for Solomon to build the permanent temple; a fresh man with a fresh start, and God would honour the moment of the new thing in the fullness of time.

If David the conqueror had built the temple maybe it would have looked like a monument to victory, the shining house of worship as the ultimate prize of the warrior.  Less of a House of God, more of a Colosseum, built by slaves and paid for with war booty.  Perhaps God chose the unnamed-at-that-point Solomon because Solomon could not have been seen to earn the prize: the glory for the temple would be God’s alone, not the triumphant king.

The church in London that I speak of has been grown, and I am sure that God has found women and men to build a house.  I am not sure that all of the glory belongs to God, but God is glorified in that place.  I’m sure David’s temple would have been a blessing to Israel, but God’s temple built by Solomon was undoubtedly a greater thing for the People of God.

So, what am I saying.  Should we do nothing for God?  Of course, I’m not saying that at all.  What I am saying is that we do for God must be done for God, and not for ourselves.  God must have all the credit, and all the glory.  We can work in expectation of God’s reward, God’s “well done good and faithful servant” when we finish, but we must listen for God and move only where God is moving.  In other words, we must not get ahead of ourselves lest we get ahead of God.

When the twelve returned from their preaching tour of Galilee they were  justifiably excited.  God had moved amongst the people and God had been demonstrably at work through their ministering hands.  Maybe Mark is genuine in his ascription and these men had moved from disciples to apostles, from apprentices of the master to artisans in their own right, even if they were not masters.  But Jesus was wise as a leader, and a teacher, wise as a master to say, “well done fellas, brilliant first effort but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, let’s take some time after the reporting for quiet reflection and solid debrief”.  God, through Nathan, said the same thing to David who was genuine in heart but was about to get ahead of himself in his inertia.  The kingdom is united once again, there is a capital at Jerusalem, and God’s chosen man sits on the throne.  That’s enough for now, that’s enough.

Maybe that’s why the people on the other side of the lake, and at Gennesaret, were frantic at Jesus’ departure and then at his appearance elsewhere.  Unlike David and the twelve they did not have a leader, someone ahead of them, to direct them to the still waters for a time of what the Psalms call “Selah”: pause and consider.  The sheep without a shepherd were overexcited and there was no one to lead them to the still and quiet waters of Spiritual Retreat, or Sabbath, or Selah.  The mob had no one to remind them that they were cared for by someone capable of healing, restoring, and safeguarding them.  The team had no coach to remind them to “warm down” and to know when to take five for water and an orange quarter.

David was wise, and God was able to use David for more than David ever imagined because David heard God say, “that’s not for you, leave that with me”.  The twelve discipuli were wise in the same way, they saw their continued need for Jesus when the lake rose, and the boat fell, and he walked across the waves to them.  Eleven of these men became apostoli, and ten died as martyrs for the truth about God that they heard from Jesus over the years between Gennesaret and Golgotha.

Listen for God.  If God directs you to build the house then build it with all your might, except on Sabbath days when even God took a  break from creative, constructive work.  If God directs you to leave house-building for the next generation wait for what God has set aside for you to do, and then do that, with the same Sabbath proviso.  As church we are the flock of Jesus, but we are never to be an unruly mob, listen for the shepherd’s invitation to green fields and still waters.  And if God chooses to live in a tent in the midst of our homes of brick and tiles, so as to be free to commune with us as we grow, rather than imprisoned behind three layers of massive stone edifice where we are celebrated by the world for erecting such a fine piece of architecture, well that’s God’s call to make.

Listen for God.  Look for the shepherd who walks among the people.  Lay down when the time for selah and shalom is given to you.

Amen.

Watch your step (Pentecost 8B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn  Parish Uniting Church at Yallourn North on Sunday 15th July 2018.

Mark 6:14-29; Ephesians 3:1-14

The passage from the gospel that was read to us this morning is unique in that the hero of this story is not Jesus.  In every other story told by Mark Jesus is the hero by his helping the main character, or Jesus is the main character.  But in Mark 6:17-29 Jesus doesn’t appear, and we read an episode from the past where John the Baptiser is both the major character and the hero.  I wonder why that is, why does Mark make an exception to his rule?

Of course, our set reading does actually begin with Jesus, and in Mark 6:14-16 we read that his fame was so widespread and impressive that even the king had heard of him.  Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Perea and Galilee was both astonished and afraid by the news of Jesus’ ministry: the news of the Kingdom of God was upsetting to the kings of the earth, especially the king with jurisdiction in Galilee.  John had been proclaiming the coming of the king, and now the message of the Kingdom of God was going ahead even though John was dead.  So, if Herod Antipas is afraid that being murdered has only made John Baptiser stronger imagine what he’ll think about Jesus!

Antipas was a bit of a Herod-wannabe, not the man his father was, and since old man Herod The Great had been a Solomon-wannabe and a Messiah-wannabe with his temple building and his sucking up to the Romans, the moral and intellectual challenge set for Antipas by John Baptiser was warranted.  So, since Antipas thinks John was dealt with and silenced, but now he’s back, and in version 2.0 to boot, Antipas is on guard.  This is where it is helpful to consider for whom Mark wrote, and see his story as encouragement intended for the small communities of persecuted believers and potential martyrs in the generation after Jesus.  Mark reminds them that God is stronger than every king, and that Jesus will always win when the Caesars (or Herods) gets knotted up and narky (Mark 6:26).

According to Jewish history the kingship of God is not something to be taken lightly.   In 2 Samuel 6 (1-5, 12b-19) the stories are told of how David went out from Jerusalem to gather and bring the Ark to the place set aside for worship.  The journey began as a military parade with David marching in pageantry; the royal retinue was full of nationalistic pride and treated the Ark as the spoils of war.  You all know that this attitude ended in the death of one of the attendants of the Ark, even as he thought he was being helpful.  Make no mistake in reading this story, we are to rejoice in God’s presence with us, God’s choosing of us, and God’s victorious vindication of our confidence in God.  But God is never a trophy for us to toss around like winning grand finalists on a lap of honour, and neither are the things of God ever “booty”.  The Ark of the Covenant, which I have seen one children’s Bible call “the box of the promise” (grr!) belongs to God.  More than a box, or even an ark, it is a sign of God’s faithfulness to Israel.  The Ark itself is the visible remainder of God’s covenant with Abraham, repeated to Isaac and Jacob, and reminded to all further generations by the prophets.  That the Ark is coming to Jerusalem, and that it is being brought there by David, is a magnificent thing.  But it is a God thing, not a David thing: as great a king as David is and as great a conqueror he was in capturing the city from the Jebusites, God is the hero of this story, not David.   God is stronger than any Caesar and every Herod, and God is more wonderful than David, indeed more wonderful than David can even imagine.

When the journey of the Ark toward the city resumes it is as a celebration of praise and thanksgiving to God.  There are songs of worship and blood sacrifices along the road.  David is stripped back in humility and abandonment before The LORD, even as king, and he is more effusive in praise than all the people.  All of the people are blessed with gifts of food as signs of the abundance and generosity of the God of the covenant and a reminder of what was agreed to in the first place.  The Kingdom of God is at hand, the realm where God is king through the agency of a human intermediary of Abrahamic descent, and those to whom the kingdom has been revealed are receiving the abundance of the king.  Likewise, in Psalm 24 we read earlier that The LORD is the great king, ruler and creator of all the universe.  There is no doubt who is God, and who God is to us.  There is also no doubt of the message of God which is welcome and blessing for those who are blameless in action and thought, who are faithful to God and to their word.  When the pageant celebrating the God of the covenant cries out “lift up the gates and the King of Glory shall come in” God invites us to join the march and enter the city of God with God, and to make our home in the place where the Ark is.

And so that is where we are: in the Spirit at least.  We who belong to God by God’s choosing are citizens of the Kingdom of God and we live in the heavenly realm.  We do not live in Heaven, but we live in the realm of which Heaven is the capital and the place from which we take our identity and receive our government.  Even if we are kings in life, as Antipas and David were, we are subject to the rule of God; and even if we are at the bottom of the chain as John was in gaol or the random peasants who grabbed a flying loaf or two from David’s cake-chucking teams, we are beneficiaries of God’s justice.

Today’s set reading from Early Christian history came to us from Ephesians 1:3-14 where we read the larger story of Christian life in faith.  In other words, this is what life in God’s realm looks like, even for us in the borderlands.  Our instructions as citizens begin with an exhortation to bless God for all that God has blessed us with, especially in God’s sending Jesus as king.  The passage fits well with the gospel and Jewish history accounts because it is a declaration of adoration and praise for God’s choosing each and all of us by grace to be God’s agents for missional action for the transformation of Creation.  John the Baptiser served out his days as a prophet of God, and whilst it cost him his head it cost him no more than that.  Jesus praised John as a faithful witness to the coming kingdom and a herald of the almost present king.  David eventually got it right and today he has the honour in history of being the man responsible for seeing the Ark of God placed in the City of God in the very centre of the place occupied by the People of God, a venue where it remained for almost five hundred years. The visible reminder of God’s covenant was there to see (if you were allowed in to see it).  In all of this glory for the heroes of our faith we can be assured that God glorifies us in our celebration of God and our participation in the work of God: the inheritance passed on to us by grace is the transformed Creation.

God’s promise to us, to Christians and to others who follow the Way of Jesus, is the new creation.  We are confident that this will come about because as Paul reminds us we have received the Spirit as deposit.  This is cause for celebration.  Now I’m not expecting you all to start leaping about David-style, stripped to your underwear and throwing cakes of dates at each other, but this is not a message to just sigh at and say “oh yeah, okay” either.  The promises made by God were trusted implicitly by those who went before us.  David was prepared to look like a complete idiot in front of his subjects and his grumpy queen, and John was prepared to go to the block, because of what they each understood about God.  God has promised that God is coming, and coming as king, and coming as saviour with restorative justice and bounteous provision.  God has promised to overthrow all injustice and iniquity, all the Caesars and Herods of the world.  This is good news.

This is the good news we proclaim.  This is the good news the twelve in pairs proclaimed as they went about Galilee proclaiming the kingdom of God and restoring to wellness the sick, the possessed, and the dead.  This is an exciting message because it will transform the world, and it is a true message as well.  God has already begun to do this, God is doing it today, and God will do it wherever we go and introduce the story of God to people who are waiting for liberation.

No matter who the story is about, or who it is told by, the hero is always Jesus.

Amen.

The New Creation (Pentecost 4B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Parish Uniting Church gathered at Yallourn North on Sunday 17th June 2018.

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:14-17

I have been listening to quite a bit of Christian music recently.  This is in part because I’ve been trying to get a grip on the changes to Life FM in recent weeks, and because I just happen to have a full set of studio albums of Casting Crowns in my car.  A recent song which has come around as the CDs cycle through is “Hallelujah” from Casting Crowns’ most recent album entitled “The Very Next Thing” and the first part reads like this:

On the morning of creation, Father, Son and the Spirit rise. As they set the world in motion, The morning of the first sunrise. A symphony of golden sunlight, Dancing in the Father’s eyes, He gazes at His masterpiece, As all creation cries: Hallelujah!

As majestic as those words read it sounds better sung, let me tell you.  I love the idea of creation crying out in praise as life is birthed, even if theologically some might struggle with singing on the first day of creation when only light was made by God.  But can’t light sing?  Why can’t light sing?  In 1 Corinthians 5:16 we read what Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth about taking God’s perspective on what exists.  Maybe light and colour does sing for God, but more than that this section of Paul’s letter to a specific group of new Christians making their way in the world in which they live is about the ministry of reconciliation.  Paul specifically speaks into how the Church has been commissioned to continue the work begun by Jesus at Calvary to bring back to God all that was lost after the Fall.  In these verses Paul encourages Christians to view each other through fresh eyes and see each other as a new creation.

Because of the work of Christ there is a new Creation for us.  Since we have been reconciled with God by grace through faith our eyes are opened to see Creation as it always appeared to God. So, the new Creation is not a replacement for the old one; it’s the same one looked at with renewed perspective.  And that renewed perspective begins with how we view each other.

Today’s Old Testament reading tells us that the brothers of David looked kinglier than he, they were impressive in height, girth, charm, and maturity and they were washed and perfumed for worship and that even Samuel was impressed.  But that God chose the sheep-stinking boy with the beautiful eyes, and Samuel anointed him without a second thought.  Like Paul and like Samuel the Church has the role of mediator in the world, not conqueror; God needs leaders who will heed the Word of God and not be carried away by their own ideas of kingship and magisterium.  To say that we regard no one from a human point of view is to say that we refuse to play games of politics any more.  Other people are not a threat or a potential enemy by virtue of being someone other than us: no, we see every other person as God seen him or her, a beloved one belonging to Jesus and for whom Jesus died out of his love for him or her.  We see brothers and sisters in the family of God; we citizens of the Kingdom of God of which we are citizens; we see friends.  This is who they always were, but now, finally, we see that.  Indeed, we see that even if they don’t see that.  Part of our job as agents of reconciliation is to tell the world that they are the sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of us, and our friends in the new creation where reconciliation is taking place and love is abundant.

When Saul was chosen as king he was head and shoulders above everyone else.  A Benjaminite, so a man from the smallest tribe (1 Samuel 9:21), but a big man in physicality (1 Samuel 10: 23) even if he was obviously not up to the task of being king emotionally.  There is no need for metaphor in the story of Saul, at his own coronation he is found actually hidden among the baggage: read it yourself in 1 Samuel 10: 22.  David is a Judahite, so the son of a big tribe, but he’s a youngest son and was considered so unimportant that “the boy” was left out shepherding when Samuel came to town and met with “the men”.  God does not want another Saul, a big man with a small heart, and God makes this clear to Samuel as each of David’s large brothers are passed over (1 Samuel 16:7).  When Samuel anointed David as king the Holy Spirit descended upon David, God’s anointing matched that of the prophet-judge.  And then what happened?  Well, Samuel returned to Ramah and David returned to the flocks.  God’s next thing has been set in motion and its time would assuredly come: but not yet.

As agents of God’s reconciliation in the world this is also our task, to speak of what God is going to do as well as what God has done.  As I suggested last week the message of the coming thing is not necessarily about Heaven for dead Christians, it is more about how God is continuing to save the world by revealing the man Jesus as the Son of God and Saviour of the world and demonstrating that God is already King, and God’s reign is unfolding across the planet.  With the fresh eyes for a new creation we see this, even as we live in the middle of the old creation.  David had the Spirit of God, Saul did not, but David at this moment is still a shepherd and Saul the king.  It’s not even as if Jesse had kept David in the house and sent one of the other, un-anointed brothers out to the mob in the back paddock.  Immediately after his anointing nothing changed for David even though everything had changed.  This is the message we proclaim as well; the change has been made and it is assuredly coming.  How do we know?  Because we know that David did indeed become king in the fulness of time, and that he was the greatest king the world has ever seen.

There is one more characteristic of the coming reign of God that I saw in this week’s readings, one more sign that as individuals we are on the same page as God and the same track as Paul; but it’s found in 1 Samuel 15:35 where we read that Samuel grieved for Saul.  I read this as a sign of Samuel’s greatness in spirit; he does not gloat over the defeat of the king he never wanted in the first place but mourns the man whose greatness got too much for him and has led to his being rejected by God.  In the opening words of today’s Psalm, we read may the LORD hear you in the day of affliction, may the name of the God of Jacob defend you, (Psalm 20:1-2), and in Psalm 20:10 we read O LORD save your King and hear us in the day we call upon you.  These two Old Testament passages are not connected in history, the Psalm was not written about Saul, but I like that the lectionary has connected them for us today, for whatever reason the lectionary compositors chose.  Perhaps we are supposed to see David as the LORD’s King now that Saul has been rejected.  Perhaps the Psalmist is praying for David’s safety inside Saul’s realm until such time as David can take assume the throne that God has already given him.

It is true that God interrupts Samuel’s grief and send Samuel to Bethlehem to find and anoint the new king, of God’s choosing.  It is true that Samuel must be careful because Saul is mentally unstable and even with God as his protector Samuel is on thin ice travelling to do the work he is called by God to do.  It is true that God chose the youngest and smallest son; even as David is no nerdy runt but is ruddy and handsome with beautiful eyes.  It is true that David is full of life, it is true that David’s brothers are full of themselves, and it is true that Saul is full of something else entirely.  But it is also true that Saul was chosen by God’s people, that Saul was appointed by God on their recommendation, and that Saul remains king over Israel at the point and for some years beyond.  Samuel does not delight in the fall of Saul, because with fresh eyes he sees a man who is a creation of God and who is loved by God even as God is disappointed and regretful about Saul’s life.

Like Samuel we must be open to compassion and empathy for the lost, even if in the old way of looking these people are our opposition and agents for our destruction.  Saul was never going to get his anointing back, but perhaps Samuel’s grief was for the man who got lost along the way, the tall but shy Benjaminite who may have lived a better life if he’d not been thrust into the Israelite limelight by an envious nation wanting to be like everyone else.

So, who do we know, who do you know, who needs to be reconciled with God the Creator?  Maybe that person you are thinking of has fallen from glory, maybe he or she is about to fall but is unaware, or maybe like the later kings of Israel he or she will live and die elevated in the world but will always be rejected by God.  For whom do you grieve?  From what grief will God call you out to make a new way for the world?  Do you even care that there are lost people in the world?  What difference does it make to you that some of the lost are currently acting as kings and bishops and CEOs?

Are you looking at the world as a new creation?  I commend to you this week that you take some time to look at the world through fresh eyes, through God’s eyes, and that you let yourself grieve for what God grieves for so that you will be moved to act toward what God wants done.  There is a world to be reconciled to God, and you and I are the ones who have the responsibility as Church and the means as Christians to do that.  So, this week think, read, pray, and go where God is calling you to call others to God.

Amen.

Who is a King? (Pentecost 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Parish, gathered at Newborough, on Sunday 10th June 2018.

1 Samuel 8:4-20; Psalm 138

I am not a parent.  This news is not a surprise to you since those of you who know me know that I have never been married and I have never had any children of my own.  It is impossible that I would have had flesh of my flesh until this point, and whilst as a man of middle age my clock is not ticking as fast as those of my female friends of middle age, the idea that I might be a father to one of my own is receding in possibility with each passing year.  Nonetheless it cannot be said that I don’t have children: I am an uncle, I was a “big cousin”, and I was once a school teacher.  So, I know more than a little bit about children and their reasoning.  And I know that there is one fail-proof argument that a child can fall back whenever he or she is not getting his or her way.  There are modifications on this argument, it can be adapted for the circumstances, but basically it goes like this: “ohnh! everyone else is allowed to!!” or “ohnh! (insert name of another adult) lets us!!”

Who’s heard that before?  Who’s said that before?  Hopefully you said it when you were a child and not in the last few days, but still.  “Ohnh Damien!  Our last minister used to let us put our feet up on the pews during the sermon, and drink beer for morning tea!!”  I doubt that Newborough, I doubt it.

Well in today’s Old Testament reading we find the people of Israel doing the whingeing thing, and sadly they are all adults as they do it.  The leaders of Israel have come to Samuel, who is both prophet and judge, and they demand that a king be appointed to reign over them so that they can be like all the other nations.  In other words, “ohnh, but Philistia and Egypt have kings”, and “ohnh, but Baal and Osiris let their countries have kings”.

It is true that Israel was not like other nations at this point; other nations did have kings and Israel did not, but that was because God was Israel’s king and God reigned through the agency of judges as and when required. Israel was the holy nation, set apart from all other nations by God to serve as an exemplary nation and the demonstrate the Kingdom of God, literally the kingship of God, on earth.  So, when Israel asks for a human king they are not only asking to give up their unique status as first nation of the earth, they are specifically rejecting God’s kingship, seceding from the Kingdom of Heaven, and rejecting God’s lordship as their God.  Samuel only addresses the executive part of this rejection and he warns the people that human kings are oppressive.  God has set these people free, saved them from Pharaoh, and now they are choosing to enter servitude under their own military autocrat. Samuel doesn’t address their blasphemy, only their mutiny, and the people reject his advice and repeat their demand to be treated like all the pagan nations, the not-Chosen nation, and to have a narcissistic, bureaucratic, corruptible, nepotistic war-lord like the nations they have conquered.  The king they got was Saul.

Samuel was the last judge over Israel.  We can read of the exploits of the judges in the book named after them and what we read is that they were not a constant presence.  In times of peace there was no need for a national leader holding together an alliance or coalition of armies, the people of Israel just got on with cropping and parenting and going about life as they knew it.  When a threat arose then God would intervene in history and call forth a judge – names like Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson.  A man or woman born for such a time as that, who lead Israel to military victory and restored the worship of God in place or Baal or Astarte or whomever it was.  Then when the need was met, and the peace was restored, everyone went home again, and they lived happily ever after, for a short time anyway.

A king on the other hand, warns Samuel, will always be present.  Even when there is no need for national defence the monarchy will continue taxing the people and holding a standing army thereby being an unnecessary burden in times of peace and prosperity.  (And no, a king does not preserve peace and prosperity, that’s the Lord’s work.)  Dynastic kings are takers, there are six “takes” in 1 Samuel 8:11-17, whereas God’s appointed judges are givers and saviours.  “Don’t go there”, says Samuel, “God has given Israel a better way”.  But, sigh, Israel does go there, and they get Saul, and Saul gets them into fights.

This story raises questions for us about the phrase “what God intends”, especially when it comes to who our rulers are.  Sometimes things happen that are not the will of God, and God does not intervene when human systems driven by selfish men drive against what is best for humanity.  God does not desire a kingship in Israel, but God chose not to intervene other than to send a prophet to speak the truth.  In 2018 some of the nations have rulers whom God has raised up, other nations have rulers in place because they were elected by people who ignored God’s wisdom and the voice of the prophets.  The trouble is we often don’t know which leader has which story, who is God’s woman or man and who is not, and some proclaim a leader to be God’s appointed while others see that same leader as a threat to God’s people and mission.  This is as true for Joel and Abijah the corrupt sons of Samuel who Samuel tried to set up as hereditary judges, as it is for Saul who became king.

In Psalm 138 we read a song traditionally thought to have been composed by David who was king after Saul and who took on the rule of God’s people around forty years or so after the story told in 1 Samuel 8.  In King David’s song of personal thanksgiving and praise to God who is his Lord we hear how God is good, generous and glorious, and how God will be worshipped and adored by every one of the Earth’s kings because God is gracious and wise in majesty.  God is the protector and God’s presence is the assurance of safety in a dangerous world.  The promises of God are certain, and the plans of God are good.  True kingship is found in God: the best human kingship follows God’s methods of rule and all human kings, queens, presidents and governors attest to that.  We read in Psalm 138:5 that God is the exemplary king, and that this is personally attested to by the greatest ever of human kings, David of Israel.  In Psalm 138:7 we read David’s remembrance of his personal history and the history of Israel, including the circumstances of Saul’s coronation and the military threat posed by Israel’s coastal neighbours from Philistia.  God is the safeguard of Israel’s security, not David himself nor the thousands of men and bows and chariots at his command.  All the security, all the governance Israel needs is found in God, so says the king.  I don’t think David sees himself redundant at this point, what I see is that God as king is ruling through David, and David acknowledges and welcomes this development.  Where the LORD had to work around Saul, and around most of the later kings of the divided kingdoms, the LORD can work with and through David, the good and godly king, just as God had worked through Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and Samuel.

Well that’s great for all of those kings, but what does it mean for us?

As I listen to God and for what God is saying to Yallourn and Moe-Newborough I hear the message for us as stay close to God.  The Kingdom of God was Jesus’ great topic, it’s the first thing he says as an adult in his first sermon and it remain his great theme.  Jesus was not specifically talking about the Kingdom as a literal Heaven for Christians who die in faith: although there is a literal Heaven for Christians who die in faith.  No, the point of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Reign of God is as I have often told you before: live today as if God was the king of Australia and the sovereign of you.  That doesn’t mean you show disrespect for Elizabeth Windsor, Peter Cosgrove, or Linda Dessau who you did not elect but who reign over you in various degrees of authority.  Neither should you be unduly disparaging for Malcolm Turnbull or Daniel Andrews, whom you also did not elect but for whom others voted.  The regard God as king is to show respect for those who serve us as rulers, no one is called to mutiny or rebellion in ordinary circumstances, but we are called to honour God above all else.  God above the queen, as she herself does.  God above the parliaments and councils, as they claim to do.  But most importantly, God above our own ideas of what we would like and how we think the world should be done.

The reign of God says that you don’t get to decide anything, except to follow God. God is king and not only a judge, God is always in charge and does not pop up for danger and pop away for peace, and to treat God like an emergency service is not honouring.  But neither is God a king like Saul who taxes your produce and takes your children as slaves.  God’s rule is good and of benefit.  Why would you want a king other than God?  Today’s message therefore is not about avoiding making Saul king of your life, but about allowing anyone else to take God’s place.

And that includes you.  You are not the best boss of you: God is.

Well may we say “God save the King”: because God alone is the saviour king.

Amen.

Groaning Trust

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 2nd July 2017

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13

The story of the sacrifice of Isaac has been a troubling one for scholars since the day it was presented as a text.  In oral and written traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and social scientific study this story has caused problems for thousands of years.  I mean, what is this story trying to say?  What is the take-home message from such an horrific account?

Some have said that the point is God’s definitive rejection of human sacrifice.  That in a time and place where children were sacrificed to gods in the Ancient Near East, the instruction of Elohim as God is called here, to first bind Isaac on the altar and then to so gloriously redeem him with a last-minute shriek from an angel and the placement of a nearby ram, is clear.  “No more boys, just rams please,” thus saith the Lord.  But if that is the point, that Elohim does not need or want children killed in worship, why make such a big show of it?  Poor Abraham and Isaac to be pawns in such a role-play.  The God of Abraham and Isaac, and later of Jacob, comes out as a new type of deity, but this God is still a monster who thinks nothing of terrifying the most faithful of worshippers to make a point about God’s own generous nature.

So, no, I don’t think it’s that at all.  God could have just said “thou shalt not kill thy children for my sake” and been done with it.  This week-long sermon illustration which culminates at the point of a father’s dagger over his son, his dear son, the son whom he loves who is tied up and terrified is unnecessary and is therefore extremely cruel.

So, it must be something else: so why this story, and why so early in the Hebrew tradition?  Remember that we are in Genesis 22 here, that’s page 15 of the Bible in front of you.

I think that the question is actually for the worshippers of God, and that it is framed by the thought “can we be trusted with God’s future”? Abraham was prepared to trust God even with the death of his dearly loved son.  But more than the death of his boy, Abraham’s sacrifice put into jeopardy the promise of God that Abraham would be the father of many descendants, indeed of many nations.  With Ismael sent off with Hagar years ago, and Isaac soon to be a charred corpse, how was God going to provide this nation?  Now I am sure that Abraham had faith for another son, after all he’d had sons at 75 and 100 years of age, but the promise had been through Isaac and now Isaac was to be slain and cremated.

So, in asking whether we can be trusted with God’s future I wonder whether the real question is whether we trust God with God’s promise.  Not that any of us would dare to sacrifice our child, or to even set off on the journey without first checking back with God in prayer: but what if God asked us to do something which would put in jeopardy the unique and divine promise made to you?  Would you, do it?  Would you ask God for clarification first?  Or would you assume that this voice was a temptation or an instance of spiritual warfare and just ignore the call to a different sort of obedience?

I wonder whether you would think a call to you in the way that God called to Abraham was a step to far.  Is this one of those “do not lead me into temptation” or “save me in the time of trial” situation we pray about in the Lord’s prayer, asking not for an easy life but for a life where God’s testing does not push us over the edge?  In other words, is this a test you would definitely fail?  Is this moment a step beyond Gethsemane where even the Christ who lives in you would hand the cup back to God and say, “no Father, just no, you’ve asked too much this time, even of me.”  I believe that such an act is outside the love of God, and therefore inconsistent with the one who is utterly dependable.  Yet Abraham saw light where there was just blackness and chose to trust God even when God seemed self-contradicting.  This is extraordinary faith.

So, what do we do when God is saying yes and no to the same thing?  I know that if a voice in his prayers had told my father, at any time in the last 45 years, to “take Damien into the hills, slit his throat and burn his corpse”, that my dad would have had a very hard time believing that that voice was God.  And even if he did believe, I’m pretty sure that would have been an instruction too far: again “no Lord, not even you can ask me to do that, I won’t do it.”  That instruction is inconsistent with the God we know, and who has been revealed to us in Jesus, scripture, Creation, and the history of the world and theology.  So, it’s a pretty safe bet that if you hear an instruction to kill somebody it’s not God who is telling you that.  But Abraham didn’t know that, Abraham did not have the Bible, or Jesus, or even Judaism to tell him the way of God.  I don’t know if child sacrifice was part of Abraham’s earlier life in Sumer, and that the revelation that the new god he had followed into Canaan was that sort of a god was a shock to him.  I mean if the gods of Sumer wanted child sacrifice why shouldn’t this new god demand it too?  If you didn’t know any better, and Abraham may not have known any better, why not?

So, here’s two things we can do to be ready when our trust of God takes us beyond the edge or Reason, and then beyond the edge of Faith itself.

  1. Know God.
  2. Burrow deep into God and really listen.

How long must I wait for an answer says David in Psalm 13.  This is the prayer of a desperate man, a man who is in dire straits, a man who feels abandoned and alone.  This is the prayer of a man who needs the assurance and encouragement of the God he knows to exist and love him, but who is strangely and painfully absent in this moment.  I know this feeling.  Oh boy, do I know this feeling.  “Where are you God?  Where the hell are you?  I know you’re not in hell, because I am, and you aren’t here!!  So, where God?!!”  Have any of you been there?  Yep, me too: me two hundred.  My commentaries suggest that Psalm 13 is a textbook prayer of complaint and confident praise.  In other words, if you want to have a justified whinge at God, or even about God in God’s hearing, do it this way.  Four times in Psalm 13:1-2 David asks how long.  How dare God, my God in 13:3, forget and hide from me when God should consider and answer me?  Is this sounding familiar to you?  Have you been there?  I have been there: this is an advantage to you because if you ever find yourself in Hell you can give me a call; I have been there and I know the way back.  But you don’t need to call me (although you are always welcome to), the map for home is found in 13:5-6.  Trust in God’s steadfast love, indeed sing of it because God is worthy of our trust and God will deliver you.  In all my trips to hell God has never failed to bring me back.  David has this testimony, and so have I.  And so, I believe, has Abraham.

This is why it is important to know God.  You cannot trust someone you do not know, and you cannot trust someone deeply if you don’t know him or her intimately.  I do not have the most steadfast faith in God, but I have the most steadfast faith I have ever had in God.  And God’s faith in me has never wavered, even if my faith in God’s faith in me has.  I sometimes wonder how God could trust me with such an awesome task as I have been given, and I begin to doubt myself.  I know God can do it, but I doubt that God can do it through me because I am so fragile.  That is where God must do the trusting on my behalf too.

But here is where the struggle is.  If we know God like David did, and like Abraham did, then it can be very hard to trust God when God goes missing or when God commands something utterly ungodly.  And that is why, when the world turns against us, despite our best efforts in discipleship, we must go deeper.  “I know you are faithful Lord”, we might pray, “but right now I am frightened and confused.  I am going to trust you more, Amen.” Psalm 13 for modern readers.  But what happens when there’s just more tunnel ahead, and when you find yourself a month further along life and you’re praying, “still alone and afraid Lord, but still trusting,” and then another month and another after that?

I have faced circumstances when I was confident that I was going ahead with God’s favour and in the path God had set for me.  This is not a story of me being assured and wrong, arrogant and errant, not at all.  I look back on these particular circumstances and say, “you know what, I was doing God’s bidding there”, but still it went pear-shaped.  Now I have had the arrogant and misinformed times before, and the solution to those is simple.  Get up, apologise to God, shake off the dirt from when you fell over, and walk with God for a while, perhaps hand-in-hand.  But what if you were doing that, walking with God hand-in-hand, on God’s road, talking with God, tracking toward the opened door which was bedecked with welcome signs and flashing arrows, and as you reach it the door is slammed in your face from the inside.  Slammed so hard it breaks your nose, and breaks your grip on God’s hand even though God is standing right there wanting to lead you through that door.

Then what do you do?

Then who do you trust.  Or a more betterer question, then how do you trust?

If you know God, then this is another instance of “burrow deep and listen”.  God’s plans for you can be ruined by other people, that can happen.  God is never defeated by this, and you needn’t be either, if you stay close to God, but I have no doubt that God is frustrated by this.  In the times when this has happened to me God’s answer to my broken-hearted, tear-flooding cry of “what the actual?” has been deep, deep assurance and comfort.  The last time this happened God’s actual words to me were “that is not what I wanted to happen, you were right in pursuing the course you did.  But you and I together are going to honour the decision made, and you are going to fulfil your call and do the work set for you through another channel.”  Never let it be said that God does not have a plan-B.  In a world where women and men have the freedom to make mistakes, especially mistakes which frustrate God’s plans for strangers, there is always another way for God.

If you have stuffed up, God will rescue you and set you on the right path.

If other people have stuffed you up, God will rescue you and set you on another path, which becomes the right path because God walks it with you.

God had no need of a plan-B for Abraham in this situation.  Plan-A was the test of his faith and the fulfilment of the promise through Isaac and that was allowed to happen because of Abraham’s faithfulness.  God also had no need of a plan-B for Isaac in this situation, Abraham did not kill him.  But I have no doubt that there were plan-B moments in these men’s lives, and I am certain that David’s life as soldier and then king had many B-Road detours.

So, if God asks you to do something stupid, go with what you know of God.  You know more about God than either Abraham or David did.  But more importantly, if life puts you in a situation which just so obviously wrong in the company of the God you know and whom you know loves you, stay close.  God is unstoppable, but only because God is also agile enough to get around human stupidity, stubbornness, and selfishness.

There’s still no better way than to trust and obey.

But please, don’t actually kill your sons.  That’s just wrong.

Amen.

In the Shadows

This is the text of my minister’s message for the June 2017 newssheet at Lakes Parish Uniting Church.

Several weeks ago, I became part of a conversation on the topic of “getting over” trauma.  The man with whom I was speaking has had a rough life, rougher at some points in his life than others, and he has a few memories that he is struggling to move past.  My life’s story is similar, not that I have experienced what this man has experienced, but that I have memories which needed healing, and troubling relationships with organisations and people in my past which proved difficult to move beyond.

In Psalm 23:4 David writes of the truest source of security in his life, a steadfast knowledge which gives him the confidence to walk through the darkest valley without fear of evil: the confidence that the LORD is with him and that the LORD carries all that is needed to keep David safe.  In Psalm 27:13-14 David declares his steadfast belief that he will see the LORD’s goodness while he lives, if only he takes heart in the wisdom that the LORD will come through for him.  David is not expecting vindication of his faith after his death, as if Heaven is the answer and reward to all of life’s problems.  That might be true, but for David the sure promise of God is that David will not die until David has seen God act for David’s benefit and God’s own Glory.

Experience has taught me, and then my studies in theology have supported this understanding, that God does not expect or require us to “get over” anything.  If the life and songs of David tells us anything it is that God takes the faithful woman or man “through”, not “over”.  We are to walk through the valleys of shadows, we are to continue through life with patient confidence, and we are to do so in the company of the shepherd who walks beside us or sometimes a step ahead of us with his crook and staff.

I have a book mark which reads “Patience is not to sit with folded hands but to learn to do as we are told.” There was a time in my life when what I was told was to sit and wait for God, and I obeyed and sat.  But much of the time the call to trust and obey requires that we continue moving forward, even when it is dark and even when the shadows creep towards us.  His presence, assured to us in scripture, is Christ’s blessing upon all Christians in the world.