There’s a better Question

Recently I was at a meeting where the topic of prayer came up, or rather the topic of asking God for an answer.  There were various topics of interest at this meeting but there was a common question: what is God’s will in this situation, what does God want us to do.

In the first instance the topic was new to us, and a situation was presented to us where a local church was being asked to support “toleration” of a certain group of people.  Now this church doesn’t like the concept of toleration, they believe God has called them to do more than just “agree to get along” or “put up with” others of different opinion, they want to go the steps further which will enable them to be inclusive and invitational.  Rather than “yes you can come in, but stand over there” they are a church that says “welcome to the table, long black or flat white? grab a chair next to me”.  So they decided to ask God about how they can welcome and still be the sort of people that God calls to be light in the world, when they (and we) have deep concerns about some of the ethical values of this group of new people.

In the second instance the topic had already been introduced to us, and we had each gone away to “seek God”, and then come back with what God’s Spirit had lead us to, to share this intelligence with each other.  What became apparent is that the answers that God had brought to us, through us, (which were internally consistent, they all lined up to form a complete picture even though no two responses were identical), were “a bit obvious”, and the conversation leader wondered out loud whether any prayer had been undertaken at all.  “Did you actually pray, or did you just think about the question and bring along your own thoughts?” was the leader’s question: and to be honest he was very aggressive and rude in the way he presented that opinion.

In both of these situations the question is “did you pray”.  In the first situation it might be asked of the one who brought the situation to the meeting, along the lines of what God had already said to him about it.  In the second situation the question was asked (in a rather exasperated and aggressive tone) in the exact words “did you pray”.  But I think there is a better question.

There is a better question because the question has a simple and rather abrupt answer: which was the cause of the offence in the second situation.  We are Christians, of course we prayed.  Of course we prayed, we pray all the time, we’re Christians and that’s what we do.  To ask someone “did you pray, did you actually pray about this or did you just think about it” can be misconstrued as a doubt on the veracity of someone’s faith at all, and also in their capacity to pray.  (Well if you prayed then you’re not very good at it are you.)

I wanted the conversation leader in that second situation to ask, “how did you pray, and how did you hear” rather than “did you pray”.  An answer had come from God, which should have been enough evidence that prayer had taken place: but the fact that the answer was the obvious one, one that sociology if not plain common sense might have answered in the same way, came to overshadow the conversation.  Better to ask “how did you pray, and how did God give the answer.”

Leadership, even discipleship, is not always about the answers but about the questions.  And better leadership (and discipleship) demands a better question.

A Call To Prophesy (Epiphany 5C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry on Sunday 10th February 2019.  We met at Serviceton Uniting Church for holy communion and at Kaniva Church of Christ also for holy communion.

Isaiah 6:1-8, 9-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Today is one of those good days for a preacher, because the message contained in each of the four lectionary readings is well structured and exciting to preach.  It’s all about God’s call and the story of how each of three men first heard God saying to him, “go and tell”.  It’s a great message for a church of eager disciples such as this one, so the sermon shouldn’t take very long at all.

Let’s start with the passage read to us this morning.  In the opening words of today’s reading from the Hebrew traditions we read how Isaiah dates his call to ministry to a specific time and place; he knows his origin as a prophet and teacher.  In the activity of the story Isaiah overhears The LORD calling for volunteers to take the message of God to humankind, and Isaiah steps up for the job (Isaiah 6:8).  Oftentimes when this story is read in church this is where we end our reading; we hear how great and holy God is, we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” before the sermon and “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky” after it, and we all go home.  Even today Isaiah 6:1-8 is listed to be read, with Isaiah 6:9-13 in brackets, as if you don’t have to read on if you don’t want to.  See what I’m saying, easy message, familiar concept, fast sermon is a good sermon, let’s go home.

Meh-yeah-nah.  Sadly for you if you were hoping for an early minute, this is a red rag to a brown bull for me; I mean what are those lectionary writers trying to hide?  Why don’t they want us to read on?  Well maybe it’s because in these optional verses what we get is God’s actual word to the world, the text of what is to become Isaiah’s message, and it’s not very nice; in fact it’s very not nice.  In essence Isaiah’s job is to make the people stubborn and hard-headed because God has decided in advance of Isaiah’s mission to punish the people.  This is not like Jonah where God sent the prophet to seek repentance so that God could relent; this is where God is baiting the people to further resistance to the gospel so that when divine wrath falls it is more fully deserved.  That’s harsh.

A strong comparison with Isaiah 6:2-3 is offered in Psalm 138:1 where the spiritual beings gathered around God’s throne hear a man, let’s call him David, singing his praise and thanksgiving to God.  Instead of God the holy, holy, holy One asking in the hearing of the cherubim and seraphim for a volunteer to carry a message of wrath and devastation, here we see a man in the same company thanking God for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.  (That’s in Psalm 138:2.)  God tells Isaiah to make the people resistant to God’s voice; but David tells the seraphim that the moment he began praying with distress God came close and answered him (Psalm 138:3).  It’s as if we’re speaking about two different gods here, or at least about the one God dealing with the Chosen People on one hand and the pagan and heathen nations on the other.  But no, and you know it’s no, this is Adonai on both occasions, and Israel on both occasions.  What is going on?

At this point let me interrupt myself and say that this is my favourite type of Bible study.  So often our evenings of fellowship and study revolve around opening a letter of Paul or a gospel and reading around the circle from a familiar story, looking for the obvious answers to the reading comprehension questions posed by IVP or Scripture Union.  This sort of Bible study, the one we’re doing today, looks at unfamiliar texts and searches out the hard questions.  Awesome fun, I hope you’re enjoying this as much as me.  Let’s get back to it.

In today’s set reading from the Jesus traditions we read Luke’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples.  And it is one of those intensely familiar stories: Jesus teaches a pressing-in crowd from a boat, then he asks the boat-owner (who is a stranger at this point) to put out and go fishing.  Twenty-seven trillion fish are caught in just under four minutes, causing that fisherman to recognise that a miracle worker has turned up in his boat and that he utterly unworthy to be in such a lord’s presence; kinda like Isaiah in Isaiah 6:5 and his “woe is me, man of uncleanness” lamenting.  And our familiar story continues, Jesus says to Simon “get up,” and he says “don’t be afraid,” and he says “you will no longer fish for men, but for people,” and without a second thought Simon, and James, and John from the next boat walk away with Jesus and into the sunset.  So there’s nothing heard-headed or confusing about that; okay the “fishers of men” reference is a little opaque, but we trust Jesus, he seems nice, and so we leave everything behind and just walk away and follow him.  As Christians we get that; no biggie, Jesus is worth dropping everything else for, there’s no stubbornness amongst us to the voice of God calling us to discipleship.

In today’s set reading from the Christian traditions we find ourselves at the other end of Jesus’ mission to earth, and Paul’s explanation to the churches of Corinth how the resurrection works as a theological and soteriological truth.  In other, less-greeky words, how the facts and understandings we have around the resurrection make us think about God, and how they make us think about what it means to be “saved”.  Very recently, on Vision Radio in fact (which is broadcast on 88.0 FM into Kaniva from a small box and a big aerial in my back yard), I heard someone describe 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 as a perfect distillation of the whole gospel.  It was a passing comment, with no further discussion, but I remembered it as I wrote this sermon down at 03:38 am this morning.  We have just heard the passage read, do we agree?  Is this all you need to know about Christian doctrine in one handy-to-open box, no easy payments, no postage and handling?  Indeed could we sum the whole Christian story up in one line, 1 Corinthians 15:3b-5a which plainly says that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to... well a lot of people actually.  That’s all you need to know isn’t it?  I’d argue no, that there is more to the whole gospel than that, but I acknowledge that any telling of the whole gospel must include that.  The thing is that in some ways this passage, what I’ve just read, is not actually the point of the paragraph you find it in.  The real point of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is found in 1 Corinthians 5:8-11, where Paul uses the brief nub of the gospel to explain how he too is an apostle, just like Cephas in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and the twelve also in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and the many living witnesses in 1 Corinthians 5:6, and James and all the “apostles” in 1 Corinthians 5:7.  So “yeah-yeah, yada-yada, died, buried, rose again, Jesus awesome” is there, but the point is that Paul is allowed to say that because he’s just as much a follower of God, and a bearer of divine ordination as Simon (aka Cephas), and by extension David and Isaiah.  Paul has been called; Paul is an apostle, an individually dispatched messenger of God’s light about Godself to a world in darkness.

So, that might have been a good place to move to a paragraph on how we apply Paul’s and Peter’s stewardship of the apostolate to our own lives, and how we too are called to carry light into the world.  I could say that even though God has not spoken to any of us like God spoke to Isaiah (in a vision in a temple), or Simon-Peter (literally as a flesh and blood man asking us for a favour after a long night at work), or Saul-Paul (blinded and yelled at in the middle of a highway on a multi-day road-trip), God still calls some of us to be witnesses and prophets today.  Paul may have been the last on his list to see Jesus in person and to be commissioned by a lordly figure in a vision, but he is not the last in all history: you need to watch and be ready for Jesus to appear in your dreams-slash-windscreen.  And all of that would be true, and neat, and good, and we could move on to the benediction and beverage service.  But we can’t do that: there’s a loose end.

So, yay! let’s get back to the awesome fun of finding hard questions.  Well, we’ve already found the hard question, and now we’ve put some shape around it to make the question even harder.  With all that Isaiah, David, Jesus, and Paul have said about God and the call of God to tell the good news of salvation, (case in point the cross and empty tomb), why did God send Isaiah to make the ninth century BC Israelites and Judahites resistant to that story?  If Christ died for all, and if Christ died for sin, why would God a) deliberately exclude Jews, and b) deliberately make them sin more badly so they would deserve the punishment already lined up?  God effectively says to Isaiah, “ look, I really want to smack them, but they don’t deserve it yet, so stir them up to rebellion and I’ll wait until I can really smack them so they stay smacked”.  I mean, where’s the grace?  Where’s the honour for the covenants with Abraham and with David?  And if the situation really is that dire for the people of God why does God make them wait another 800 years for the Messiah?  Don’t send Isaiah to harden their hearts LORD, send Jesus to redeem them!  I mean, you’d think God had never even opened a Bible the way this is going.

So, what’s the answer?  Anyone?  Do you need the question again?  The question is, with all that we know of God in Christ, and all that we know of David, Jesus, Peter and the twelve, and Paul, why did God send Isaiah to make the Israelites more naughty rather than more repentant, just so that God could snap them with a backhand as well?  So, what’s the answer?  Anyone?

Well what I’m going to do right now is keep you in suspense, but let you off the hook.  And I am also going to wrap up, so here’s the final paragraph.  As great and profound a question as that is, and would be on a Tuesday night, it’s not a question for Sunday morning.  A good teacher, a good pastor, a good preacher knows that.  And you don’t only have a good teacher, pastor and preacher, you have a great one.  You’re blessed.  No the question for a Sunday is, given all that, given David and Jesus and Paul and yada-yada-yada, how do you respond in Isaiah’s place when God calls you to prophetic witness and sends you to the Church with such a message of desolation.  Again, anyone?  You proclaim it.  For me the question is not why God wants to do this to my people, but how do I go about telling the leaders who need to know what God intends for us.

As your pastor let me say this: I know God is calling some of you to ministries of proclamation, and God is calling all of us to witness and fishing-for-men.  So, whatever God tells you to tell me, and to tell us, please just tell us.  Be brave, for The LORD your God is with you.

Amen.