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 (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.