Advantage Us (Advent 3C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Serviceton Shared Ministry at the Church of Christ on Sunday 16th December 2018.

Isaiah 12:2-6; Luke 3:7-10

So, I’m wearing pink; what of it?  For those churches who follow the tradition of an Advent wreath, and do it with candles of specific colour, today as the third Sunday in Advent is when the pink candle would be lit.  So yes, pink socks and a pink tie.

Since God is our strength and salvation we can trust and not be afraid.  The words of Isaiah 12:2 are similar to those of Moses recorded in Exodus 15:2, and the psalmist in Psalm 118:14, most likely with the same intent.  In this prayer of thanksgiving Isaiah speaks of the joy bubbling over in the life of the woman or man who knows that God’s grace and forgiveness has been poured out; we can also think of Mary’s song when we read Isaiah 12:4-6.  Such superabundant joy leads to proclamation, to shouting out the wonders of God and the work God has done, so that all nations will hear about God and will know that God is worthy of praise and exaltation.  God is with us we proclaim, God is in our midst, so why would we not sing loud praise for God?  More than that, some of the earliest church scholars saw Isaiah 12:3 and its reference to the spring of the saviour (rather than wells of salvation as the NRSV puts it) as a specific reference not only to Jesus but to baptism.  If you know that God is good, and that God has saved you, and you are minded to shout and sing and dance and pray, then wash in the river and be made whole. On this day of joy and the pink candle, and in this house where the tank sits behind me waiting, let us each remember our baptism and where God has brought us from that day of water until this day of worship.

It can be a bit of a shock then to move from this great song of celebration and the invitation to baptism to read how John the Baptiser declared the water ready.  Let’s look at Luke 3:7-9 again; I have to tell you that even though there were no classes in how to give an altar call at my university I am sure that John would not have been on the syllabus.  “What do youse want?” he says, “who told youse to come?”  Hardly Christ-like language is it?  Well actually it is a lot like the language of Jesus, calling out the pride of the prideful and the arrogance of the arrogant.  “Youse mob think you’re saved already, don’t you, and that being an Abraham-descendent is enough, that you don’t need to act with justice and mercy because you were born into the right religious family.  Well you’re wrong because that’s not what God is looking for, but who told youse that, eh?  What are youse doing out here?”  Is John trying to keep people away from those wells of salvation, the spring of the saviour?  Seems like.  Well maybe it does seem like, but not really, because what John is saying is what all the prophets have said, and what Isaiah said, and what Jesus of Nazareth who is the Christ of God will say.  The life-path of the baptised, the way of the wet, is not to rely on ancestry but to depend upon God alone and to commit to discipleship.

Those of us who belong to God and Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry by way of the Uniting Church might be aware that our denomination refers to ourselves as “a pilgrim people”.  Have you heard that before UCA mob?  Yeah.  As a people on pilgrimage we know we haven’t arrived yet, but we are on the way, and along the way we fellowship with each other as fellow travellers.  As John says in Luke 3:11 we look out for each other, sharing our coats where we have two and our mate has none, sharing our sandwiches and water-bottles likewise.  Mostly it’s a metaphor, a very powerful metaphor, but sometimes it is seen in practical help like the help you gave me as a church last month when my car died and they who had two cars gave to me who had none.  And Church of Christ the same; the earliest traditions of Stone and Campbell speak of you as “Christians only, but not the only Christians”, and as “the Disciples”.  No big and fancy denominational name, no massive creed, just a commitment to read the Bible and to follow its instruction. So whether you are walking in unity with the Pilgrim People on the Way, or you are part of the Church of the Disciples of Christ, or you have a different history which has brought you to Serviceton and this fellowship for this time you know that it is God who is your saviour, not your ten-greats-grandfather’s surname.  And that because God is your saviour, and because you are a disciple and a pilgrim, (I say “and”, this is not an “either/or” thing in KSSM), you live with joyful fellowship with the rest of us, and excited follow-ship of the saviour in whose likeness God made you.  That is what each of us was baptised into, whether it was as an adult plunged in a tank or as an infant with water poured over our scalps above a font, or something else, that is what each of us has committed to as a path for life.

The set reading for today actually goes on a bit.  Today I asked that Luke 3:7-10 be read, but the lectionary would have had us read on until Luke 3:18.  If we’d read as far as Luke 3:14 we would have heard John counselling people from many professions as they asked for special advice on how to do their jobs within the context of discipleship.  It is as simple as being honest says John, show justice and mercy; basically act like God acts towards you as the Chosen people.

And so the source of our joy, the reason for the pink candle and clothing, is the gospel of God.  The good news, the news which we celebrate, the news which cause Isaiah and Moses and Mary to bubble over with joy, is that God is on our side for no other reason than that we are loved.  It’s nice to have had disciples for parents and grandparents: I did, and many of you did too.  For some of you your parents and grandparents are in this house this morning, for others you can remember a time when they were.  This is where the Jews of John’s day were; they were not all arrogant and self-important at all.  After all, John was in the wilderness and speaking to people who were there, people who had bothered to journey out to the river and away from the cities and villages to hear him.  But as John said to them so I say to you, as good as it is to have had Christian ancestors, and especially ones in the previous generation who told you about God, that is not what God is looking for.  Your Christian ancestors were saved by God not because they had Christian ancestors but because they were disciples in their own generation.  This is what is required of you.  If you want the joy of the Lord, and if you want that joy as your strength, then choose discipleship as your way of life.  It need not be denominational, and it need not be vocational in the narrowest sense where you must become a priest.  In fact, according to the articulated positions of the Uniting Church and the Churches of Christ it need not even begin with a wet head; although both traditions and many others beside strongly endorse the idea of baptism as soon as is possible and appropriate, (unofficially in that order if the scripture at Acts 8:36 is to be believed, and it is).  One of my favourite theologians has said about tradition in the church that true faithfulness is not about wearing your grandmother’s hat, but about having grandchildren of your own.  In other words the strength that you have as a Christian today derived from your faith filled ancestors should be utilised to the outcome that you have faith filled descendents, who have you as their faith filled ancestor.  And of course if you are not a child of Abraham well there is good news for you in John’s message and Isaiah’s message too.  The whole world is to know the glory of God and the wonders due to God’s action on earth: the good news proclaimed to Gentiles as well as Jews is also for the children of non-Christians.  I mean, if actual Roman soldiers can get discipleship advice from John the Baptist (Luke 3:14) then those of you who are the first Christian in your family for one or more generations can certainly get it too.

Unlike Philip on the road with the Ethiopian eunuch there is no water here, well not right now.  But if you want more of the joy of God that Isaiah spoke about, and the rest of us have sung about, and that Christmas is all about then know this.  Know that access to baptism and discipleship, or discipleship and baptism and more discipleship, is always available in this house.  Don’t go home without it, and don’t let me or the leaders or deacons go home and leave you without it.

The joy of the Lord is our strength, and it is the Lord’s gift at Advent.

Amen.

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Advantageous How? (Advent 2C)

This is the text I prepared for the people of Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 9th December 2018, the second Sunday in Advent in year C.  It was also a communion Sunday.

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Last week in my introduction to the Church’s season of Advent I spoke about it as a time when the Church remembers the arrival of the Messiah on earth as the baby of Beit Lechem, and our preparations for when he returns at the end of this age and the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth.   Today our reading from the Hebrew traditions come in the words of the prophet Malachi who lived during the Persian Empire days of Jerusalem’s history, so somewhere between 500 and 350 BC.  Malachi told the Judahites that a messenger was coming who would herald the Lord’s return to the city; in fact Malachi’s own name means “my messenger” and he certainly did act as a prophet and a messenger of God, but it is clear that he was not writing about himself.

Malachi wrote that when the Lord comes he will bring refining fire for purification and righteousness so that the people will be pleasing to God as they once were.  Under colonisation the Judeans had become cynical, complaining that God had left them under foreign rule to live in a ruined version of the Promised Land.  God’s response was that the people were disobedient, expecting God to make things good while they sat around whinging and disregarding God’s will and word of correction.  God’s word to them was that when God will come in response to their complaint not only will the temple and the city be physically and gloriously restored, but God’s lordship over the people will be too, and that will require them changing their attitudes and behaviours and being made pure.  Hebrew tradition connects the soon-to-be-coming messenger with Elijah who would return (since Elijah was already dead at this point) to herald the return of the Lord of Glory to Jerusalem.  Christian tradition connects this messenger with John the Baptiser, who spoke into a similar cultural and economic situation for Judea four centuries later than Malachi.  Malachi and each John hear the people’s complaints and say to them in God’s inspiration “you want God to come and save you, but you aren’t yet ready for what God brings”.  Malachi warns the people in an oracle and John goes a step further as he begins to denounce the self-satisfied and baptise the repentant.

In the days following the birth of God’s new messenger, the first Jewish prophet in four centuries (who broke that long period of darkness and silence), John’s father Zechariah prophesies over his newborn son.  Zechariah says that the child will be the witness to the coming of the Davidic king, the one who will restore Israel to its former glory as the nation of God.  In Luke 1:76-79 we hear how John will prepare the people for the Messiah, telling them what the messianic mission will be so that when the Lord comes they will be ready to respond, and the dawn will come to end the long night of God’s silence.  When the saviour comes he will fulfil the promise made to Abraham (Luke 1:73) and liberate the people from their enemies and show mercy to Judea so that they could worship God without restriction (Luke 1:71-72).  This is what the audience around Malachi might have wanted to hear if worship was as high on their list of desired freedoms as self-governance was.  The news is exciting for Zechariah because he knows that God’s deliverance is at hand; it will come in his son’s lifetime because John himself is the herald.  Zechariah quotes Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 in his praise, and Isaiah 9:1 in his identification of whom it is that God will send: it is the Wise Counsellor and Mighty God whom is the Everlasting One.  John’s proclamation of who is coming in Luke 3:4-6 is also a quotation from Isaiah 40:3-5.  Adonai, the Lord Godself is the one who is coming, and is coming for all humanity, in the lifespan of baby John.  How exciting!

I like how Luke’s narrative, his telling the story of Elisabeth’s pregnancy and then of Mary’s is interrupted by this song of fatherly worship.  This can be a reminder to us not to get carried away with the events of the day, even God’s marvels, but to stop and adore and worship and praise: we are reminded to “Selah” as the psalmists say, to pause and consider.  Zechariah in his song is pointing to repentance; but not only to the forgiveness of sins through the coming of the Lord but also the need for the world to stop, rethink, and change direction in the light of this latest news.  The Lord who is coming has come to restore justice to Israel and to bring light to the whole world, not just the Jews.  The Lord who is coming is coming for everyone, that’s a new idea for many people.

In Luke 3:1-6 we read how the Spirit fell on John when John was already in the wilderness.  The message of God was the one prophesied by Zechariah, that John must proclaim that the Lord is coming and the whole world needs to prepare.  I like the detail that Luke includes in Luke 3:1-2, setting the ministry of John in a specific time and place, and with a specific theme: John is in outback Judea in 29AD and proclaiming repentance for purification through baptism.  This is just as Malachi 3:4 suggested, but it also makes a stark contrast between what is occurring around the emperor, procurator, and client kings in their various capital cities, and where God is at work which is actually in the wilderness.  The God of the Jewish people is the God of the Exodus: this God works in the wild places which are the places between other places.  God chooses to be active in the places others rush through (or past) on the highway to other places, so the places where God’s people live are often places where other people stop only for a toilet break and a photo of the brick line across the road demarcating a barrier which God’s people in God’s wisdom don’t consider significant.  John in preparation to declare his message, which is the preparation of the way of the Lord, is already in the place where the Lord will be.  What is also significant is the number of authority figures listed: Judea is under the authority of empire, province, and local warlord forms of control, this is not a free country and the Judeans are not a free people.  Who John is speaking to in the wilderness, who John is calling to repentance are people who are living directly under heavy burdens of governance and colonisation but who are also marginalised and ignored.  These people are of no consequence to the big-hats in Rome or Jerusalem or Caesarea, except when it comes to taxation and conscription, at which time they are very much in the crosshairs.

The wilderness is outside polite and formal society, so it is a place of disorder and chaos.  The wilderness is a place you only pass through if you have to, and you do so as quickly as possible.  To make an unnecessary journey through the wilderness is weird: to go there deliberately, and to stay there, is madness and maybe even demonic.  Yet look at what God does in Luke 3:5-6, the chaotic and demonic will be ordered and rescued by God: no place, and the residents of no place, will be left behind by God because all will be made whole and all will be saved.  This is great news for the poor, but confusing news for the merchants and the ruling classes who don’t believe they need saving and believe they don’t need saving.  The elites are told that God is coming, which is great news.  The prophecies of John and Zechariah point to God doing what has been promised, the salvation promised by God through Malachi and all the Hebrew prophets is at hand, God is about to deliver the good news into a world where there is so much bad news. However, God is arriving way outside and God’s ministry is beginning with the weird mobs that live out the back of beyond.

There is so much more going on in John’s proclamation than God delivering the Jews from the Romans, Zechariah and John each acknowledge this; but I wonder if even John thought that a coup would indeed be part of the messianic mission.  Later in the story of John we find him sending his disciples to Jesus to question him about whether he really is the messiah, and whether he is the only messiah.  Perhaps we want to ask the same question sometimes.

We do not live beneath an obvious empire as did Malachi and John, there are no Persians or Romans here, and if the British remain well we actually are them.  But I think we do still live with a misguided idea of what the Lord’s coming will mean for The Wimmera and The Tatiara: after all with no empire and no slavery, with relatively fair taxation and no degrading or onerous religious demands what do we need liberating from?  Why do we need a saviour when we have already been saved through the cross?  Perhaps, with pun intended, we need to ask why in Advent it would be advantageous for us that the Lord come back at all.

Selah, pause and consider.  Amen.

Advent 1C

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva and Serviceton for Advent Sunday, 2nd December 2018.

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36

Today is Advent Sunday, therefore the wreath.  Today we enter a new Christian year as far as the three-year cycle of the Lectionary goes, so, Happy New Year, it is now “The Year of Luke” in case you’re interested.  With the change of season I am wearing purple rather than my usual green, (have you noticed), and today we focus our thinking on the coming of Jesus.  Advent is not only four weeks for preparation for Christmas and our remembrance of the Word becoming Flesh, of God coming to Earth and dwelling amongst us, (the literal phrase is “tabernacled” which basically means that God comes and pitches God’s own tent in our camp); Advent is also when we think about the return of Christ and the fulfilment of all promises made by God.

In our reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning God says that the days are coming when righteousness shall come to the earth as a fulfilment of God’s promise to David.  This righteousness shall bring national and domestic security we read in Jeremiah 33:14-16.  To the original hearers of this message, so Jeremiah himself and the people we spoke to, this meant that God was promising to restore the Davidic monarchy with a king so just and righteous that his personal name would be surpassed by his reputation.  For people who were living in exile this was an amazing promise, because not only would they return from Babylon and Persia to Judea and Jerusalem, but the kingship would be restored through the previous royal family, and the king in the fulfilment would be beyond magnificent in his reign.  This is like the king we heard about last week, a new David for whom the whole nation will shout abundant thanks and praise to God in gratitude.  For Christians reading this passage we get echoes of Christ, of Jesus who will be king beyond all other kings in righteousness and justice.  This is an Advent promise.

And like the king of last week, what we read in Psalm 25 might be the personal prayer of a (new) leader asking God for guidance and wisdom in his reign; and as all great prayers for wisdom in leadership begin this prayer begins in worship.  In my experience as a leader in this community, alongside experience gained in other communities where I have watched leaders and been a leader, I know that I cannot lead anyone unless I am willing to lead myself and to be lead by God.  I cannot lead you as a congregation if I am not under God’s authority and listening for God’s wise counsel.  How can I lead you where I have never been?  I cannot.  And how can I lead you where I am unwilling to go?  Of course I don’t mean the future, I have never been to the future so I can’t lead you there from personal experience; I mean discipleship.  I am no great disciple; I do not think of myself like the scribes of three weeks ago, I am no saint in any but the most grace-filled definition of the word.  But I am a devoted, prayerful, Bible-literate, Christ-centred disciple of God and that is what I want to lead you in.  Where God takes this congregation as a body of devoted disciples is God’s business, and that of the leaders listening to and responding to God’s word.  My job as your pastor, (and specifically in this role right now as the preaching-elder), is to build you into that body of devoted believers and listeners to God’s word.  I cannot do that unless I am first a disciple and a listener.  So it is with the great and future king of Jeremiah 33, if I am to lead these people says the candidate for leadership in Psalm 25:1, then I must start with my own character.  This is a good man, I like this man, he has his priorities straight.  Of course nothing in this Psalm says that it’s a king who is praying only that it is a person seeking guidance and deliverance.  We are told David wrote it, so he’s a man rather than a woman, and he is king at some point in his life; but this is an anybody prayer in that anybody can pray it with confidence that God will answer it.  Listen to me LORD, whoever I am, and keep me close to you.  Teach me about you, teach me your path, teach me your truth, and lead me in those two things.  Forgive me and be gracious when I fall, and remembering your mercy lift me up when I need it.  How great you are God, how wonderful you are in generosity to wait for us and slow down to teach us along the way.  How worthy of praise you are God, you are loving and faithful and good.  There are some more Advent promises, perhaps a little bit hidden, but still there.  This is how one man three thousand years ago found God to be like; if David is to be believed and God is everlastingly loving and faithful then these things are true of God today.  This is what God is like, and you are welcomed into God’s family if you want to take hold of this friend and saviour as Lord.

Our reading from the gospels this morning points us at Luke 21:25-36 where Jesus is teaching the disciples on the Wednesday of his last week.  This event takes place just after Jesus has commented upon the poor widow and her two pennies which we heard about a few weeks back, and some comments from the crowd about how awesome the temple complex is.  Jesus’ response is this passage which speaks about the coming of The Son of Man and the need to watch and be fruitful in the meantime.  And just listen to what he is saying in Luke 21:25-33, the event of the Coming of the Son does not sound pleasant, but you need to get ready because it’s about to happen.  As Christians reading the Bible in 2018 we know that these events did not take place around Nazareth and Beit Lehem when Jesus was born; yes there was a star but there were no great portents and we are not told that the sea went berserk, so we assume that it didn’t.  What seems to be happening is that Jesus is speaking of a time in Jerusalem’s future and Kaniva & Serviceton’s, when the Son of Man comes a second time, coming in all his Godly power and great glory as Luke 21:27 reads.  Perhaps of greater concern to us as Christians reading the Bible in 2018 is that these events did not take place around Jerusalem when Jesus died or in the forty years or so after; indeed they haven’t happened like that at all.  In Luke 21:32 Jesus indicates that these events were about to happen, and that a forty-year deadline was probably generous: so what happened such that what was supposed to happen did not happen?  Well, nothing happened, but that’s not the point.

So, what is the point?  Well the point is what comes next in Jesus’ words, be on your guard as we read in Luke 21:34, and be alert we read in Luke 21:36.  Don’t worry about when it didn’t happen, be ready for when it does.  And how do we be ready?  [Congregation interaction time, how do we be ready?]  Discipleship.  [Weren’t you listening before?]  Yes, discipleship; we get on with acting with righteousness and justice and love with the guidance, grace and equipping of the one who promises to be steadfast and faithful, and who more than three thousand years of Jewish history has proven to be true.  That Jesus may not have been speaking about “this generation” as the actual people alive on that day but referring to an attitude of complacency among religious people which has continued through to this day, is not the point.  That the fully-human Jesus speaking in 30AD may have got God’s timing wrong in his mind is not the point.  That the writers of the gospels working in the 60s-80s AD may have got the God’s timing wrong and wrote into Jesus’ mouth words that Jesus never said, words that would have rung true in Jeremiah’s day and connect better with the then five-centuries-old encouraging story of God’s deliverance of the Jewish exiles and the situation of Jerusalem in the 70s than the situation in the 30s, words that would be an encouragement for Christians in the present situation in Rome or Asia living with Nero and Diocletian and an amphitheatre full of gladiators and lions, is not the point.

Phew!  No, the point is that God is faithful, the promise is sure, the Son of Man shall return, and Christians and Jews need to get busy in the meantime proclaiming the Kingdom of God through lives of faith-filled compassion, love-filled justice, and hope-filled confidence.  That is the point because that is what Advent is all about.

Amen.

The Reign of God (Christ the King)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 25th November 2018, the Sunday of Christ the King in Year B.

2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-12; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

Good morning Church.

About a month ago I asked the members and leaders of Kaniva Youth Group who were gathered at Serviceton what they thought the world would be like if God was its boss.  We talked about how the world would be different if Jesus was in charge and President Trump, Prime Minister Morrison, Premier Marshall of South Australia and then-Premier Andrews of Victoria were not.  This is a particularly relevant question for today, the first day of the final week in the Christian year, the Sunday of Christ the King.

In 2 Samuel 23 we read the dying words of David and what we read is a psalm and a set of proverbs about kingship and about David’s experience of being a king.  In his last words the king praises how God spoke through him to the nation of Israel, a nation for whom God remains steadfast and secure as Israel’s hope.  According to 2 Samuel 23:2-3 the good king is not just a governor; he is also an oracle, prophet, and intercessor.  God says that the good king is like the dawn of daylight in a bright sky.  Like the psalms and proverbs of later Hebrew writing we see the common theme that the good men are blessed and succeed for generations and the evil men are cursed and die quickly.  So, is this what David sees as he looks back over his reign, his life, on his last day?  I wonder whether this is how the nation will remember David, was he like a bright sun on a dewy morning?  Is this how they speak of him already?  Is this how he was thought of back in the day, not with the damp eyes of hindsight and eulogising but in the cut and thrust of palace life, battle ground, and village life far from Hebron or Jerusalem three decades previous?  David says in 2 Samuel 23:5 that he does have such a reputation, and he is confident that his house, which is to say his dynasty, will have the same relationship with God and with the nation.  Sadly the history of the family of David will not be so great, and the stories we read in the books of Kings and 2 Chronicles sadden us when we recall who David was and the covenant that God made with him.  Indeed those kings seem to fit better inside 2 Samuel 23:6-7.  Jesus, a descendant of David was perhaps a good king.  I say “perhaps” because on earth Jesus did not have the power of governance; but he certainly was a prophet and intercessor, and God prospered Jesus in his work.

So, a faithful king is God’s blessing to the people, and God’s faithfulness is a blessing to the king.  Today’s psalm provides an example of this where David promises to establish a permanent home for the Ark in Jerusalem, and God promises to establish a permanent kingship in Israel through one of David’s sons.  One of the commentators I read this week suggests that Psalm 132 might have been a celebration psalm, sung as part of a ceremony of remembrance and thanksgiving to God for David and for David’s capture of Jerusalem and his bringing the ark into the capital city.  A good king is to be cherished and celebrated.

John in his letter to the seven churches calls Jesus the ruler of the kings of the earth; you can see that in Revelation 1:5.  As I said a few weeks ago when we heard about Christians who suffer extreme persecution in our day Revelation was likely written at a time when Christians were being murdered for their faith under the emperor Domitian.  For the writer to claim that Jesus is ruler of all the kings is a big and dangerous claim in a world with a Caesar.  It’s a big and dangerous claim in a North Korea with a Kim and in a China with a Communist Party.  It was a big and dangerous claim in the Soviet Union with Stalin, Germany with Hitler, Uganda with Idi Amin, and Cambodia with Pol Pot.  It was and is, and always will be a threatening idea anywhere where there is a tyrannical president, a local drug boss, or a warlord.  This is why it is good to remember that Revelation actually is a letter written to seven specific cities in the Roman province of Asia at the turn of the first century.  It is a personal note of encouragement from a friend of Jesus to a group of specific, unique, neighbouring congregations.  This is not purely doctrine; it is not just theory it is application and pastoral care; and the whole thing was to be read to each congregation in the place where it met.  In other words the news that Jesus is the king of kings is not something to be filed away as a Christian belief; it is supposed to be an encouraging word in the moment.  In this verse, and the next one, so Revelation 1:5-6 we see Jesus described as the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, him who loves us and frees us from our sins by his blood, him who made us to be a kingdom, him who made us to be priests serving his God and Father, the one to whom be glory and dominion forever and ever.  So, Christians of Asia, do you remember him? Yeah him, well that’s the him who is on our side.  So, what were you saying about Caesar and/or the local procurator?  This is not to say that persecution isn’t painful, or that martyrdom is pleasant, there is no sugar-coating of the world against us here; but it does ask us to lift our eyes and to remember the one to whom we belong and the one whom we serve.

In John 18:33-37 we read where Jesus is speaking to Pilate immediately before the crucifixion.  Do you see in John 18:35 that Pilate asks Jesus what crimes he is guilty of, “what have you done?” Pilate asks because it seems that Jesus’ accusers cannot get even that straight.  In view of the confused accusation the two speak about kingship and Jesus says that his kingdom is not from this world but that if it were then his loyal armies would have prevented their king from being handed over to the Jews.  Interesting that, so is the kingdom of Jesus is not a Jewish kingdom either?  Is Jesus claiming that he is not King of The Jews, and that he is innocent of the accusation of promoting insurrection?  Or was this story written by an anti-Semitic man who wanted to distance the Christian saviour from the rabid mob of circumcised blasphemers at Pilate’s door?  Regardless, Jesus’ kingdom is not from here he says in John 18:36.  Jesus’ power comes from God, not from conquering armies nor cabinet-room shuffles.  Jesus’ kingship is theological, so his kingdom is too: Jesus’ authority is his power to speak and define truth.

So that’s how the Bible reads, but what do we think; what is “the Kingdom of God”?  In our twenty-first century world where absolute monarchy is seen as a bad thing, and most first world nations are parliamentary democracies with elected heads of government and heads of state, it can be challenging to speak of a kingdom.  Perhaps we’d prefer to use words like “realm” or “sovereignty”; maybe “zone of governance”, “area of authority” or even “arena of control”.  God’s kingdom is not about there being a place with demarcated border walls to keep the foreigners out and the citizens in, so much as it is the experience of God’s control.  When Pilate asked Jesus whether he was a king Jesus’ responded yes and no; yes I have authority to reign, no my kingdom is not a place on earth and I don’t have an army.  Jesus refutes the militaristic claim to be King of The Judean people.  Jesus does not offer an earthly challenge to the Herod family or the Roman Empire occupying and colonising the land; nonetheless his cross is adorned with the famous “INRI” sign as an accusation, Jesus from Nazareth who is King of the Jews.

Like Pilate we must acknowledge who Jesus is when we speak of the Kingdom of God.  We cannot speak of God’s influence without speaking about Jesus, there is no kingdom without a king and the king of God’s kingdom is Jesus.  Our conversation is not about power for its own sake, but about the power of Jesus: the miracles of Jesus are the display of his power, pointing toward God’s expectation of what the Lifestyle of God-followers looks like.  Where John the Baptiser proclaimed that the Kingdom was coming Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom had begun to arrive.  And that tense is important, “begun to arrive” is what we see.  The Kingdom is among us in present and future tense, the reign of God is underway but it is not yet complete for fulfilled.  The power of God, the influence and equipping of the Holy Spirit upon the Church and each disciple was “inaugurated in the incarnation”, in other words it started when Jesus was born as a human child, but it continues through the Church as we get amongst the work of faithful ministry carrying the authority, the blessing, and the equipping of Emmanuel.

So the concept of a Kingdom of God, and of Christ as King, need not be a scary nor outdated idea.  We are not mediaevalists for thinking and speaking in these terms, and we don’t do ourselves or anyone else any favours by updating God’s identity as “President of Presidents”.  Instead we can use these phrases to enhance our excitement at what is underway, God came to earth and lived amongst us, sharing divine secrets and authority with all of Creation.  God likes us and wants to be near us; God has no intention of “watching us from a distance” and does not sit on a lofty throne.  King Jesus is not Louis XIV, Henry VIII, or Ivan the Terrible.

The question therefore is not what our ideas of monarchy and democracy are, but what we think God is like.  When I asked Kaniva Youth Group what the world would be like if God was the boss they responded with words and ideas about God.  “The world would be more kind,” was one response, presumably because the girl who said it thought that Jesus was kind or is kind.  Her thinking was that with Jesus in charge kindness would become the way things are done.  What do you think?  What do you think the people of the West Wimmera and The Tatiara think?  If the world under God’s authority would be like God, then what if God is like the Christians we heard about from the Royal Commission?  What if God is like some people’s Old Testament ideas of God?  What if God is like some people’s New Testament ideas of God?  I wonder whether when we talk about a Kingdom of God people think not so much about a world operating under the broadly beneficial ideas of The Sermon on The Mount, but a world of Trump’s Evangelical America, or the modern State of Israel, or something like Saudi Arabia, or Iran, or North Korea, with the pope in charge.  Is that what they think?

God said to David that the good king is like the dawn of daylight in a bright sky – is that how we see Jesus?  Is that how our neighbours see Jesus?  Is that how strangers to us living in the district see Jesus?  Are the Kanivans and the Servicetonians as stoked at the idea of Jesus as the Ephesians and the Philadelphians?  Would they be prepared to swap ScoMo for Jesus?  Okay maybe ScoMo, but what about Elizabeth?  QEII or JC, place your bets.

The last Sunday before Advent is a good time to rethink our ideas of Jesus.  In five Sundays’ time we’ll be welcoming “Christ the newborn king” – so it’s good in this time before we get tinsellated to ask what sort of king we think he is.  Is a king who is like God in character and power truly welcome?  First century Christians might have said that anyone is a better option than Domitian; we might think the same of Trump, Putin, or Kim.  But if King Jesus is really a compromise candidate, or the lesser of two evils, is Christmas really worth celebrating?  Really?

O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

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.

 

The Resilience of God

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva-Serviceton for Sunday 28th October 2018, the twenty-third Sunday in Pentecost in Year B.  This was my first sermon to the people of Kaniva Shared Ministry and the second to the people of Serviceton Shared Ministry.

Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-9

Good morning Church!

Last week at Serviceton we read together the story of God’s interruption of Job in his grumbling and also the false comfort of his three friends; today we hear Job’s response to what God said.  (Hopefully here in Kaniva you know about Job because I don’t want to preach last week’s message again and then give you this week’s as well.  Suffice to say that Job has had a rough time of it in his life and has said some pretty challenging things about God.  Recently God has pulled Job up on those things, asking Job who he thinks he is to speak about Almighty God in such a way.)  Job has had an intense experience of God in that someone he had heard about he has now met in person (Job 42:5-6).  What Job has now seen and heard from God when God spoke to Job personally has somewhat reset Job’s perspective of God and who Job is in comparison to God (Job 42:6).  Last week at Serviceton I made a comment, which a couple of people followed me up on after church, that I sometimes think that studying Theology at University has actually made me know less than more; well today I find myself in that situation.  One of the subjects I studied, and this subject was part of my studies towards my Masters degree rather than my Bachelors degree so it was pretty high level, was “Old Testament Wisdom”.  During that course I studied Job alongside a few other books, so today I’m caught between wanting to bring God’s wisdom to you for this day and place, and teaching you what I was taught about this particular passage, and I wonder how helpful that might be.  So, let’s leave Job’s conversations for a bit and come back after the other reading.

In today’s Psalm, 34:1-9, we read how David responded to God’s deliverance of him from a tricky situation.  Something that is an original part of what was written in the Bible but has not been included in the verses is a note which describes what was going on in David’s life at the time that he wrote this psalm: basically he’s been on the wrong end of a coup and he’s in hiding from a mutinous son who has seized his throne.  David had been captured by his son’s army, but through faking illness he has been able to make his escape and now he is hiding and can praise God who delivered him.  Unlike Job, who in his story is still in trouble and doesn’t know what God is going to do to or for him, David has been saved and he is up to the part of his story where he can say thank you.  And just look at what he says as we read Psalm 34:1-5.  God is magnificent, faithful and true, strong and mighty, compassionate and protective, and to be embraced with all the senses.  David is obviously having a better time of it than Job is right now, but if you look at this Psalm you will notice that it’s actually not addressed to God.  This Psalm is about God, so it’s a testimony or a declaration, rather than a prayer or an act of worship toward God.  Job is talking to God, but David is talking about God.

I wonder, are the stories of David and Job familiar to you?  I don’t mean have you read them in the Bible, but does their story relate to yours?  Can you think of a time when you have been where Job is, where the whole thing went pear-shaped for you and then it got worse?  Can you think of a time where you have been where David is, when everyone and everything turned against you but God did the impossible and got you out, and you were ready to tell everyone how amazing God is?  Can you?  I can.

During much of the first decade of this century I lived in England, specifically the first nine months of 2001 and then from October 2002 until January 2009 with two trips back to Australia in the middle.  That first nine months was great, and I don’t have much to say about it.  The first year of that second visit, so November 2002 until December 2003, was one of the worst seasons of my life.  “Character building” doesn’t come close, “terrifying” and “soul destroying” are closer to the truth, with small doses of “horrific” thrown in.  You will hear a lot about my time in England if you stay on at church in the next few years, but I promise not every story will come from this year of my living dangerously.  But today’s stories do.

So, I had a bit of a Job year.  Funny thing about the pronunciation of his name, and Carla brought this to our attention last week; my year of being Job involved me not having a job.  Also, somewhat unlike Job, my turmoil was kind of deserved, or at least it was my own fault because of reasons I’d rather not go into right now.  It’s not that I’m embarrassed, it’s just that I’m actually still working through what the actual sort of hell was going on and I’m not sure what to say.  But I do admit to being foolish, and I acknowledge that my foolishness lead me to a situation where my life was a mess.  My family was far away, I was in England but my parents were in Darwin and then Pt Lincoln and my siblings were in Hobart.  God was very close, but very, very inactive, at least in the ways I wanted God to act, and I let God know all about it on several occasions.

Let’s look at Job 42:1-3.  Open your Bible if you have one.  (And if you don’t then please be sure to bring one next week; I like to preach from the Bible most weeks, so it’s good if you can read along.)  In the Bible that I use when writing sermons this passage has an added heading, not part of the Bible but part of the editing of the modern book, and this heading says “Job is humbled and satisfied”.  Let’s see shall we as we read Job 42:1-6.

In this passage Job declares straight off the bat that God is sovereign and that nothing any human does or is capable of doing can thwart what God wants to do.  Then Job acknowledges that God’s questions cannot be answered with anything other than humility: Job does not know what God knows and therefore Job is better off not speaking.  When God is speaking, (indeed when anyone who actually knows what he or she is talking about is speaking), it’s a good idea to listen to what is being said so that you can learn.  When Job decides to listen to God rather than yell at God, Job learns about God.  We can see in hindsight that Job learns that he was actually correct about God’s character, that God is just and fair and does not punish the undeserving, but we also see that the way God does this is beyond human understanding and things are neither as simple nor as straightforward as we would like them to be or as Job thought them to be.  But in learning that God is so much bigger, so much more complex, so much far beyond his understanding than he ever imagined, Job actually gets to understand God more.  One way of reading Job 42:6 is for Job to say “I never knew how much about you LORD that I didn’t know, but now that I know how much I didn’t know I actually know you more”.  Does that make sense?  In a way Job is heading toward where David is in Psalm 34, he now has a better idea of just how majestic and awe-inspiring God is.  Job now has a better idea of how God cannot be fit into a box, or plugged into an equation where faith plus obedience equals blessing.  Job’s recent experience was that faith plus obedience equals disaster, but what Job has learned is not that God is false or unreliable, but that the equation was too simple.  It’s the maths that’s broken, not God.  It’s the theology that’s faulty, the way we talk about God and the way that Bildad and Zophar and Eliphaz talked about God that is at fault, not God.  Job doesn’t know what the new equation is, but he does know that the old formula is broken.  So in Job 42:6 he’s decided to stop talking rot and to pull his head in around God.  So, is Job “humbled and satisfied”? Is he?

Meh-yeah, I’m not sure.  One thing I have learned from reading Job, and not just at university, is that with God you are allowed to be not sure: indeed much of my life experience as a Christian, and my devotional and academic work, has pointed me toward understanding that we are allowed to be not sure far more often and about far more stuff than we think.  So I don’t think Job actually is satisfied at all, I think he’s just agreed to disagree, and I think this because of two things.

So, thing one is that God never actually answers Job’s complaint: Job actually doesn’t get from God what Job wants from God.  You see, Job never actually asked God “what did I do to deserve this?” because he knew all along and with absolute certainty that he didn’t deserve the calamity of his life.  Self-righteous Zophar, Eliphaz and Bildad were happy to ask Job what he did to deserve this, and they pressed him to find an answer, but Job kept telling them the same story.  And Job didn’t tell them “I don’t know, I can’t remember how I sinned”, no, Job said “there is nothing, this is all completely undeserved”.  Job’s question is not “what did I do to deserve this,” which God does answer, telling the friends that Job did nothing to deserve this, Job’s question is…anyone??…Job’s question is “why did this happen at all?” and God never answers that question.  God doesn’t even acknowledge that question: what God says is “who are you to question me?”  So Job is humbled, God has got right into Job’s face and shown how awe-inspiring God is, but Job is not actually satisfied.

Thing two is that Job never actually apologises.  Read closely; throughout the big story of Job and not just in the last two weeks of readings Job says “why all this?” right?  Last week God said “who are you to ask me questions?” and this week Job said “God you are too big to argue with, so please let me learn from you instead.”  What Job never says anywhere in the big story is “sorry Adonai, forgive me for my presumption”, and what God never says anywhere in the big story is “I forgive Job”.  God does call the three friends to repentance, and to ask Job to intercede for them, but Job is never pronounced guilty and Job never repents.

Which makes Job 42:6 interesting, doesn’t it?  We are Christians reading a Jewish text, but even so we can assume, I believe, that God would not leave Job unforgiven if he’d asked for forgiveness, right?  So since we never read of God forgiving Job, this verse cannot mean an apology.  But we don’t want to know what this verse doesn’t mean; we want to know what it does mean, don’t we.  Don’t we?  (Yes Damien, tell us.)  Well you already know what I’m going to say: I don’t know.  Well I don’t know enough to build a doctrine out of it at least, but here’s what life in Hertfordshire in 2003 and some book-learnin’ in Adelaide in 2016 learned me.  I’m not sure what the original Hebrew, or the Greek of Jesus’ day would have said, and my Church-History-specific Latin lets me down here so I’m gonna have to tell you in English, what Job 42:6 means is “there’s no point sooking about it.” Job acknowledges that God is not going to answer his question, God is not going to give an explanation, and that even if God would explain Godself to me (which God won’t) I’d probably not understand it anyway.  So it’s time to get up off the dirt, have a bath, put on some fresh clothes and the kettle, and get on with what comes next.  In other words perhaps a bit more in line with how the Bible puts it, “after taking a good long look at myself I see that I’m a bit of a dill, so I’ll go forward in humility but without further humiliation.”

And that’s where I got to in December 2003.  I’m not sure that my theology was that well developed then, but my Christian faith got to the stage of saying, literally, “thank God that’s over with now, now let’s move on with the new thing now that I’m safe”.  So, basically where David was in the cave where he wrote Psalm 34.

So, what does this mean for you?  Well what this means for you is up to you, I can’t tell you how you are supposed to respond.  What I hope you’ve heard is that God is bigger and wiser than you could ever imagine, and that all of that is good.  I’m not going to give you the gooey message that all that God is, in all of that exceeding abundance, is focussed entirely upon you or even upon creation, because I think that God is not limited in attention to just us.  But I do think that God is attending to us, in all of our life’s turmoils and celebrations, and that God is good.

So if you are in the mood to celebrate God, celebrate God with all that you have for all that God is.  If your mood for celebration comes out of a recent story of deliverance then all the better – go hard!  And if your mood is lament and confusion, then chase God with all that you have for all that God is.  If you are still in the midst of trial, if your future is pregnant with possibilities but it’s only the second trimester, drill in to God and be held.  Ask God whatever you want to ask, and trust whatever answer God gives you.  Even if what God gives you is silence.

Amen.

 

Standing, by God

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn Uniting Church and Morwell Uniting Church in a cluster at Newborough on Sunday 30th September 2018.  It was my last service in that district before I moved to a new placement in Western Wimmera.

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20

Over the past month we have been examining the letter attributed to Jacob, the brother of Jesus, and the message that James offers in the way of keys to discipleship.  Today’s reading from the fifth of five chapters is not so much the pinnacle of what Jacob wrote, simply the last things he got to before he stopped.  There is no summary of all that has gone before, no conclusion, no wrapping up of loss ends.  Jacob has laid out his dot points, and today we come to the end of his list.

And so today, with no particular order in mind, Jacob  writes in James 5:1-6 of the intransigence of wealth, and of the honesty required from the rich to say that all that others aspire to is not good in the end.  Money cannot buy you salvation, this is a central Christian understanding and Jesus and Paul are as clear on this as Jacob, but we are also told today that money cannot buy you happiness.  This is also an ancient lesson, known to wise Jews at least since the days of Ecclesiastes and the teacher Qoheleth who taught the same, if not before.  Jacob instructs the wealthy members of society who are also participants in the local church to confess that having shedloads of money, (remembering that Jesus spoke of bigger barns) is not all that it is cracked up to be.  Jacob also counsels them directly to look at where that wealth has come from.  Remember in James 2:7 where Jacob tells the church to be wary of the wealthy rather than fawning?  Well, here he addresses the wealthy directly asking whether their wealth was ill-gotten through corruption, injustice, and exploitation of the poor.  Do you have anything to confess to your sisters and brothers in faith?  God looks for justice and God has heard the complaints of the downtrodden against the unjust, the unmerciful and the exploitative.

The section of Hebrew scripture suggested to us this morning comes from the climax of the story of Esther.  In assorted verses from Esther 7 and Esther 9 we hear about Haman, the arrogant and corrupt official to offered bribes against an honest man, and who is discovered and executed.  Haman’s wealth and position could not protect him from his comeuppance, but they could have allowed him to do great things.  Haman chose poorly, Jacob encourages those of his hearers who have wealth and influence in the world, including some of us in this room, to use what we have for the good of the Church and the world and not for our own selfish and ultimately fruitless pursuits.  Back to Esther we hear about the ever-reliable Mordecai and how he recorded all that took place in Susa so that the celebration of deliverance wouldn’t be forgotten: here is a man using position and opportunity to do a good thing.

Today’s Psalm, 124 which I read to you in paraphrase, is another reminder that God alone saves, and that God’s salvation is complete.  In a reading suitable for Purim and the remembrance of Esther and Mordecai the story of God’s people is that the inevitability of annihilation became victorious, total rescue with not one soul lost.  Similarly, Jacob wrote in James 5:7-12 of how followers of the Way of  Christ can wait for God in patient confidence that God is faithful and true.  More than that, a future left in God’s hands and with an ear to God’s word of instruction in the Present, is a secure future.  Even if you have been exploited and were the receiver of unjust action, says Jacob, anxiety and irritability are not necessary; enjoy each other’s company in the Church without envy.  Allow the wealthy to apologise, if they offer, and live with patient hope and even endurance like Job. God knows what you have been though, and God also knows what you have put and are putting others through and God hears everything you say – so don’t you become unmerciful either.  God’s call for the exploiters and thieves to repent is not a licence for the survivors to enact revenge and extract punitive reparations.  Be faithful in conversation and honest at all times.  Be so dependable at your word that oaths and public curses would not be required of you; let it be such that everyone trusts you to speak the truth at all times because it’s all you ever do.

And finally, in James 5:13-20 we read Jacob’s exhortation towards faith in action.  Here we get some nitty gritty teaching and some practical tips on the ways in which the local congregation goes about the work of being “The Church”.  Remembering the tradition that this was written by the first bishop of Jerusalem, whatever that means for you in terms of Church History, I’d say we can take Jacob as a man who knows what he’s talking about.  Maybe you’ll take this also as an encouragement from me as I move on and you are left without an incumbent in the manse; an encouragement that God trusts you and has entrusted to you and equipped you for the ministries in and out of this place.  “Ask the elders” says Jacob, there’s a good idea.  Two weeks ago, at Narracan, and it was a cluster service, so Morwell and Yallourn heard me say this, I encouraged you to look for and identify your leaders, and to pray for them.  Yallourn currently has people named as Elders and who form a church council; Morwell congregation is its own council and you do not have a nominated eldership.  Regardless of who does or does not have a title right now, look for leaders and encourage them to lead.  Let those who know how to, pray for the sick and expect God to heal.  Any and all of you can pray, even yourself, however Jacob writes, and I remind you to invite others into your praying, pray in pairs and teams and friendship circles as a sign of faith and belonging.  I commend to you the activities of loving, laughing and lamenting in public.  Continue to share life with the brother-sisters of your church so that all are built up in family and confidence in the God who is visibly active in your midst.  And above all, look for those who are straggling and struggling, and go in grace to them to help them and to seek to restore them to God and to fellowship. Continue to pray (with prayer) for the worn out, the worn down, and those Jacob refers to as the spiritually weak in James 5:15.

When I was invited to come here I was given three main tasks, to be completed on a 0.5FTE or 2.5 days per week contract.  Foremost, it was presented as foremost, I was to preach a good sermon every Sunday.  None of this once a fortnight stuff for 0.5FTE, every Sunday and Christian holy day, every week.  I have preached every Sunday, as well as Christmas and Easter – whether they were good sermons I shall leave to your discernment, but since I’ve not heard any complaints, or had second-hand reports of complaints, I think I’m safe.  Second task was to take time to prepare and write the good sermon.  Don’t preach from your archive as a lay preacher, write us something new and pertinent every week, and don’t write one sermon and preach it at Morwell and again and Narracan and again at Newborough.  We want God’s fresh word, not some random devotional to fit the ten minutes between the third and fourth hymn.  And third, visit those who cannot attend Sunday, the ill, the old, the hospitalised, and the residents of Narracan Gardens, Mitchell House, Heritage Manor, and Latrobe Valley Village.   In other words, you asked me to bring God and God’s word to you, wherever you were, and to prioritise that over the other things that ministers do.

I commend these tasks to you.

Your task as Church, as churches, is to bring to each other and to the people of the Latrobe Valley the means of spiritual healing. This is the work of prayer and visitation that Jacob wrote about, because as The Message translation renders James 5:20, to do so may prevent an epidemic of wandering away from God.

God and the Church have called me elsewhere, but God and the Church call you here.  Stay, and minister.  I know I’ll be missed in Moe-Newborough, Yallourn North, and Morwell, and thank you for saying that.  But please, don’t you be missed in this places – because that is where your ministries lie.

Amen.