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.

 

Advertisements

The Honour of God

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 21st October 2018, the twenty-second Sunday in Pentecost, Year B.  It was my first sermon in my new placement.

Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Good morning Church!  It’s good to be with you at last.  Today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (to give it its full title), a series which I see KSSM follows because it is published on the newssheet, come from Job, Hebrews, and Mark.  Two of those books are anonymously attributed in that Bible scholars are undecided about who wrote them, and some traditions say that the other one was written by a secretary.  Regardless of who wrote what, and whether the writers wrote on behalf of some specific patron or another, the points made by these writers intersect beautifully.  You will hear as we get to know each other better that I am a fan of the lectionary; not just because it encourages me as your primary preacher to make use of the Bible each week, but because the women and men who chose which readings go with which week, and which readings go with each other, set us up with some interesting ideas.  So it is today when we read about God speaking to Job and Job’s friends, about Jesus speaking with his disciples, and about who Jesus is with regard to the Jewish God in the mind of a Jewish person who has come to see Jesus as a unique revelation of God.

I have not been here in the past weeks; you know this, so I don’t know how much of Job’s story you have been told since the beginning of October.  So I hope you know who Job is, and the basic gist of his story, because I don’t want to go into it now.  Suffice to say that Job has had a hard life of late, and his God-fearing friends have not been entirely helpful in their well intentioned support, wisdom and counsel.  In today’s reading, from assorted bits of Job 38, we get to hear God’s response to all that has been said by Job and by Elihu, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar: and God is immediately on the offensive.  “Who are you?” asks The LORD over and over again; “who are you to question the Creator, the Almighty One”, and “what do you know about anything”.  Job 38:1 makes it clear that what God says is addressed to Job, but I wonder whether God speaks to Job while Job’s friends are still there, and God means for them to also hear what God says.  God somewhat takes the role of barrister for the defence and cross examines the prosecution witnesses, looking for humility in their responses.  Not only is Job brought to account for his constant whining, but God’s “who are you” questions are pointed at the friends.  “Who are you to presume to speak on my behalf,” asks God, “do you really know more about divine will and justice than Job?”  God makes it clear who The LORD is, and who isn’t The LORD.  God alone is God, God is the only god in the room, and not one of the five men in the room is correct in his own theology.

Last week at the induction service I said in my brief remarks that I’d been to the Salvation Army corps that morning.  A song that we sang was “I am a friend of God”, a song I’d not sung in Australia but which was familiar to me from my time at Hillsong Church London a decade ago.  Today I am reminded that even though the song is written about you and me and our relationship with God through Jesus, and that the song uses the language God used of Abraham, that Job was also friend of God.  All that God says to Job is true, correct and trustworthy as every word from God is, and so too are the words overheard by the friends.  God is not who you religious types think God is; suffering is not a sign of divine displeasure and grief is not a deserved condition for sin elsewhere.  The word of The LORD to Job is the same as the word to the four, and that word is “pull your head in, mortal one”, but the application is different.  Job was questioning God’s character, but the four friends were presuming to speak on God’s behalf to rebut Job’s complaint.  Job says that God is unjust, the friends say God is just and Job is a sinner, but God says that God is just and Job is not a sinner, but that God is God sometimes what God does is incomprehensible to human rationale.  If you don’t know how to make it rain, the how do you presume to comment upon the way that God does it, when only God knows how to do it?  You don’t know what you’re talking about, so stop talking about it, all of you…yes him, but especially youse mob.  That’s rather humbling to hear as a leader of faith: as it should be.

The Psalm set for us today, 104, declares that God is all that God claims to be.  The LORD who spoke to Job is indeed divine creator and the one who sustains all that was made, and The LORD is wise beyond human understanding.  Furthermore, Creation is for its own sake, not primarily for the purposes of humankind, and is an act of wisdom and an activity of the Spirit.  God’s care for creation is ongoing; humanity has stewardship of the world, but God retains ownership and abiding love.  God also retains control; the creation continues to exist because God continues to uphold it.  The messages of the Psalmist are clear when we think of Job, firstly that God is God and no one else is, but also that God remains interested and involved, there is no divine watchmaker here who set the world going by clockwork and then walked off.  God is just, God does care, and all that God does is done with wisdom and love.  This is the bit that the other four seem to have forgotten.

So when we get to Mark 10, where we read of James and John asking for places of honour beside the throne of Jesus, we have been brilliantly set up by the compositors of the lectionary.  I mean, who chooses this story as a match for the interruption of God into Job’s lament?  I am a preaching nerd, proudly so, and this kind of thing makes me excited about God’s message to the Church.  God is awesome and above any responsibility to answer to human complaint, and God is creator and sustainers of the Universe for God’s own pleasure and the Universe’s own purpose, and here two random Galileans ask to be Deputy Messiah in the caucus of the Kingdom of God.  The temerity of it!  The utter arrogance!  Or did they really not know what they were asking?  I hope they were confused about God rather than thinking that they were actually worthy of such an honour.

It can be a comfort that this story tells us that the other ten disciples were enraged and indignant at the request of James and John.  At least they know who Jesus is and what an insult to his majesty the brothers’ request was; unless of course they were actually angered by Jesus’ response.  I wonder, did they assume thrones in the Kingdom by virtue of their being the first disciples, first as earliest and first as superior, and now Jesus has dashed that assumption.  If you understand that the time when Jesus came into his glory was when he was lifted upon the cross, it is interesting that in Mark’s account that at the right and left of Jesus were two criminals who mocked his glory from their own crosses.  In today’s reading from Mark 10:42-44 Jesus speaks of what lay ahead of him and of those who followed him: discipleship of the Messiah is not a life of thrones and lording it over heathens but of service and suffering.

So what does this mean for us?  What should it mean?  I like the way that the writer in Hebrews 5:1-10 has reminded us that everybody who serves God serves at God’s invitation.  As someone God has chosen, and who the Church has confirmed, and someone for whom there was a very recent reminder of these two callings within the past week, it’s good to remember that.  In all of the congratulatory emails and phone calls from family and friends I am reminded that, yes, congratulations are in order and I have been given the great privilege of ministering in my first placement as a pastor.  A good thing has happened to me, and congratulations are in order, but where some people have kindly offered that this placement is “much deserved” I’m taking that with more than a grain of grace.  I acknowledge and agree with what they are saying, yes I have worked hard and yes I have completed my university courses and practical ministry experiences with diligence and long hours.  Yes I have stuck with the Church and particularly with the system when it seemed that I was facing roadblocks and detours, and the occasional dead-end.  But do I deserve this role?  Do I deserve you?  (Do you deserve me?) No matter how hard I have worked, no matter how much I have stayed the course and run the race thus far, I am here because it is God’s pleasure that I am here, and when God moves me then I will move.  I am here because I offered myself to God, and God gave me to you, because God loves you.  So my first thought is not that I am “God’s gift” in the arrogant sense of that phrase, but that if I am an offering of God’s grace to you then I’d better make sure I stay under God’s lordship and instruction while I am here.  The author of Hebrews reminds us all that God chooses the fallible to mediate between humankind and God lest the priestly overestimate their worth and abilities.  I am here as your pastor because I possess certain gifts, gifts appropriate for the exercise of ministry within the Uniting Church as we heard last week from Marjorie.  Yes I have worth and abilities, and yes I have worked hard to increase those; but I am here because God chose me and not because I have earned this place.  I wouldn’t be here if I’d not worked so hard, but that’s not why I’m here.  I’m here because God is gracious and generous and God chose me for you and you for me for the next three years or so.

So while I am here I want to act and think like Jesus.  Jesus did not presume the commissioning of God, as if his selection for ministry was a foregone conclusion and God would be stupid not to choose him, so why should any of us?  In the same way that God questioned the arrogance in the philosophising of Job’s friends, and their distance from understanding his suffering, the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus does understand human suffering.  Our high priest would never spout platitudes or half-baked theologies of prosperity for righteous.  Jesus whose greatest glory was seen in his greatest suffering, his greatest identification with all who have been rejected, abused, insulted, and murdered by systems and corrupted powers, is the great model for Christian life and Christian leadership.  I sincerely hope that in 3 or 5 or 10 years time I get to drive away from Kaniva & Serviceton to move to my next placement within the Church, wherever that may be, and that my time here will not end with me crucified somewhere public, painful and embarrassing.  But if I’m not willing to die for Christ here, then I’m not worthy of the calling God and the Presbytery and you have trusted me with.

But then, as the Church in this place, neither are you.

So as the Church in this place let us each and all listen for God, obey God, and speak for God only when the Spirit is speaking through us, and not from our memories of Christian clichés.  Let us ask Jesus how we can bring him honour rather how he can honour us, and let us live in and enjoy the world created by God for God, but a world in which we have a place as the apple of God’s eye.

Amen.

Groaning Trust

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

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then what do you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

It’s All A Bit Ordinary (Pentecost 2A and Ordinary Sunday 11A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 18th June 2017.

Genesis 18:1-15

Today is the day between days.

Today is the “Easter Saturday” of June.  It’s not the “Holy Saturday”, the day between God’s Friday and Resurrection Day when we sit in vigil awaiting the return of our Lord in triumph from his ravaging of Hell.  No, today is not that day.  Today is “Easter Saturday”, the Saturday at the end of Easter week when the moment of resurrection and chocolate has passed, the bunting is looking frayed, the coloured foil detritus from our body weight in refined sugar is looking on accusingly, and it’s all a bit silly now that we are still naming the days at all.

Of course, it is not Easter Saturday at all.  For starters, today is Sunday.  For seconders, it is the second Sunday after Pentecost, so we’re not even in the Easter season any more.  The liturgical directory suggests that our chapel should be dressed in green, not white, if we even bother with such things, because today is really nothing special.

Last week was Trinity and we celebrated the three-in-one nature of our God.  I spoke of how God is made of different stuff to us, and of how Jesus set aside the stuff of God to be shaped and embodied in the stuff of humanity.  I also spoke of how Jesus’ being shaped of human stuff means that God knows what it is to experience human emotions like grief, pain, risk, death, and restoration.  Stirring stuff.

The week before last was Pentecost and we celebrated the birth of the Church in wind, fire, exultant worship, and inter-racial, intra-faith extravagant declaration of the salvific purposes of God in the world.

Next week we will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Uniting Church.  Nor just a date on a calendar but a reminder of the century-long effort of Australasian Protestants to form a new nation and a new church for that nation.  We will remember that while church union occurred seventy-six years after the federation of our six colonies the desire of our forebears had been there all along.  We will remember them.

Wondrous days!  Hallelujah!  Our God reigns!  Our God pours out God’s spirit on women and men, young and old, urban and rural, local and tourist, wealthy and povertous; Euro and Asian and Koori and Anglo and African and American and all combinations of the same.  Our God takes on human form to reveal to us the wonder of God’s self, God’s ways, God’s nature, God’s plans, and our worth and value in God’s eyes.  Our ancestors responded to this great unifying vision of God the perichoretic one and sought in the birth of a new nation, with a continent for a country and a country for a continent, an expression of Church to match this great drive forward into the wonderful twentieth century of Victorian enterprise (by which I mean the age and its dear queen) and Victorian victory (by which I mean the feats of that wondrous colony, the jewel in her majesty’s crown, Marvellous Melbourne and Australia Felix betwixt the Murray’s River and Bass’s Strait).

Heady days to come next week!

And then there’s today!!  “The Second Sunday After Pentecost: Ordinary Sunday 11, Year A”. Doesn’t the very name of this day set your heart aflame?  Think of those great words of encouragement I spoke to you last month, which I first heard in the global head offices of the Church Missionary Society, CMS, in Waterloo in London, in June 2001.  “God, you have ignited a spark within each of us, now dear Lord we pray, water that spark!”

[Snort.]

Hmm.  I dunno about you but if anything is going to “water my spark” it is the thought of “The Second Sunday After Pentecost: Ordinary Sunday 11, Year A.” I mean, it isn’t even the Queen’s Birthday long weekend.  And at least you people only hafta show up; I’m supposed to build an engaging service of worship around this profound and lofty concept and to write a sermon to make it sound interesting.  (How am I doing so far?)  I mean, you know that I came straight to you from University.  I have more degrees than a compass, but I’ll admit it, I am desperately searching for God’s direction for today.  Today is the most boring Sunday in June.

So how are you feeling?  A bit ordinary?  Me too.

[Sigh, big blowing exhale.]

[Pause].

[Slap lectern.]

Righto then, let’s look at the scripture passage selected for this auspicious day in the lectionary.

Bang!  [Clap, thumb up.]

In Genesis 18:1-15 we read one of the most mind-blowingly unordinary stories in the Bible.  It jumps straight in at Genesis 18:1 with: The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  It’s a hot day.  Now this is a Bible story and as such it’s set in Palestine, so it’s always a hot day.  For the Bible to indicate that it was a hot day suggests that it was a very hot day.  Not ordinary hot this day is stupidly hot.  It’s also the hottest part of this sweltering day, and Abraham is sitting in the door of his tent, trying to get respite from the hot sun in that little bit of breeze and shade.   The tent has been raised near the oak trees, so I’m suggesting there’s some shade and some water available.   Abraham is 99 years old, we know this because a year later when Isaac is born he’s 100.  This is not a question of theology, it’s maths.  I don’t have a degree in Maths but I’m pretty sure what a century minus a year looks like in numbers.  So, it’s sweltering, it’s the hottest time of the day, and Abraham is very old.  And as I have just told you, he is sitting in the shade.  And while all this ordinary stuff is happening the LORD appears.

Now, Ordinary Sundays aside: if I be chillin outside me tent on a scorcher of a day, and the LORD appears, that would probably spark my water, let me tell you.  There is nothing ordinary about God showing up in the form of three men looking for a cold one each and a bit of a sit down.  Of all the things on my list of what is ordinary, and then referring to the special category of what might be expected on an afternoon in summer, God showing up looking for a drink is not on that list.  God showing up like that is unexpected.  To say the least.  And since you’ve not employed me as your preacher to say the least I’m going to say some more.  Let’s read on.

Genesis 18:2 tells us that Abraham (99 and hot, but not in the good way) runs(!) from the shade and into the sun(!) to meet the men (who are the actual LORD).  As you do: when the LORD appears.

In Genesis 18:3-5a Abraham invites “my lord” to stay, note that he’s speaking in the singular here, and in Genesis 18:5b they (plural) agree to do so.  Now this is actually not extraordinary, you would expect Abraham and Sarah to show this depth of hospitality to strangers, and for strangers to think nothing of this extravagance, since that was the cultural norm.  Travelling strangers in the desert, no matter who they are, even enemies, are to be given food, water, shelter, and provision for the road if they pass by your camp.  Even so the sexes don’t mix so Sarah has done the baking but she stays away from the secret men’s business going on in the shade.  So, what we read in Genesis 18:6-9 is not remarkable, other than that it is the LORD who is the guest.

In Genesis 18:10 we are told that one of the men suggests that Sarah will become pregnant and give birth to a son within the next year.  Okay so that’s extraordinary, not part of the ritual of being a guest, but there you go.  The man doesn’t mention Sarah’s age, but the Bible does: and it makes no bones about it.  In Genesis 18:11 the point is made three times, just in case you didn’t get it the first time, that Sarah is each of “old”, “advanced in years”, and “that it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women”.  So, she’s old, anciently old, and the menopause was a distant memory.  So that’s pretty ordinary; I mean old women, especially very old women, tend not to be fertile.  Thank you Captain Obvious whomever wrote Genesis 18:11 for making that clear, and in such a poetic manner!   So you can see why Sarah has a chuckle about it, very much derisory in tone as well.  “What are my chances, at my age, of getting lucky with that fossil I am married to?’ she asks in Genesis 18:12.  She may have no ova left, but she’s a feisty one is our Sarah.  Anyway, the LORD asks Abraham in Genesis 18:13-14 why Sarah laughed, again observing the code of dignity by which a male stranger doesn’t speak to a female, (so the LORD doesn’t actually ask Sarah), and declares that the LORD can do as the LORD desires.  In Genesis 18:15 Sarah says I did not laugh and the LORD, in full pantomime fashion and in breaking character for a second says to her oh yes you did! And then the story ends.

What an extraordinary story for an Ordinary Sunday!

And this of course has been my point all along.  There is no such thing as an ordinary Sunday.  Yes, there are days on our calendar which are not unique as anniversaries, although I’m sure that with today being June 18th it’s important for millions of people in millions of ways regardless of today’s being a Sunday or the Sunday between Trinity and the UCA anniversary.  But it doesn’t have to be Pentecost for us to expect the Spirit to fall upon us, or to rise up within us.  The LORD is welcome here, now, today, on Ordinary Sunday 11.  Isn’t he?  And would today still be considered ordinary if God were really present here today?  Or if the Word of God came to one of you with a word of promise for the future?  I’m sure 91 year old NNN in our congregation today would not be the only one baffled if a baby were promised to her nine months from now, but what if God promised her a resurgence of love and energy in her spirit to complete the work she was allocated as a Christian?  What if God spoke directly to 90 year old NN with a message that he was to see a new multi-million-dollar audio-visual suite set up in a new auditorium on this site, and that not only would he see it happen but that NN himself would be the one in the crawlspace in the ceiling connecting it all up?  If God promised it, would you believe it?  Would your response be like Sarah’s and to laugh behind God’s back; or would your response be like Mary’s and to ask for details and then praise God at the wonder of your being chosen for such a momentous task?

But let’s not get carried away with such big dreams.  No seriously, I’m not about to criticise here.  Let’s consider how excitingly small the promises of God can be.   I’m gonna suggest that NNN doesn’t need a baby, but she might have been praying for perseverance and strength.  I’m not going to say she needs perseverance and strength, that’s for her to discern.  But do we have faith that God can do small miracles on a Sunday?  Do we trust for the gift of faith, “that shy hope in the heart”, that God will come through for us in whatever it is we are praying and believing for?  Or do we have the attitude that if NN doesn’t throw away his crutches right now and backflip up the aisle, all the while speaking in tongues, that we’re not interested?

So, today is an ordinary Sunday.  Every Sunday is, even the ones with special names.  Because every Sunday is the Lord’s Day, not just in recognition that it is the weekly anniversary of the resurrection of the saviour (which it is) but that every day belongs to the LORD because as Genesis 1 tells us every day was made by the LORD, each day with its own purpose, even for purposeful rest.

Truly, the only extraordinary thing about any given Sunday, including this one, is that the Christians do not expect God to do the amazing.  If the LORD is amongst us then the miraculous is to be anticipated.

Every.  Single.  Day.

Amen.

Extraordinary Day (Psalm 116:1-2, 12-15)

I love you God: I love that you hear me when I try to speak with you.

Especially when I try to speak with you but my words fail me because I have been ill.

Because you listen to me and delight to hear me,

I will continue to speak to you and speak with you.

 

And I will listen, in case you want to speak to me.

 

What else can I give you?  What do I have that you don’t have?

What do I have that you could possibly need?

All that I can truly offer you is my desire to receive more from you.

All that I can truly offer you is my desire to love you more,

and for others to love you because they have seen you and known you

as I have seen and known you.

I want my worship to be overheard, not that I become famous as a worshipper

or wordsmith:

but that the content of my worship, the story of my salvation,

the litany of my thanksgiving should be heard;

and that the evidence of that which has not yet been seen by others

should be made audible to them.

 

Your care of me is so apparent to me.

Your love of me has never been more real.

It is truly shocking how intimately you know me and

the degree to which you love me.

 

I have been known by God in the Biblical sense,

and this is what you have desired for each of your daughters and sons.

 

This is an extraordinary day.

But, then every day is when you are near, Lord.

 

Amen.