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.

So, you good?

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell and Yallourn Cluster for Good Friday, 30th March 2018.

Psalm 22; Hebrews 5:7-9

So, you good?  How’s your Friday been so far?  How’s it looking for this arvo?  Good Friday can be one of those days when you can’t get your head around much else, if you really get in to it.  It can also be one of those days that is best skipped over.  Go to church, sing “The Old Rugged Cross”, look sad for a bit and then go home to watch Channel Seven for the Royal Children’s Hospital Telethon, or since 2017 some AFL.  It’s a day of mixed emotions: bewildering and contradictory to say the least.

Psalm 22 begins with a cry of desolation in the midst of an episode of feeling forsaken.  Why is God acting so much out of character as to abandon the one who is screaming out to the deliverer, with faith, for deliverance as we read in Psalm 22:1-2.  Yet, there is praise and acknowledgement that God is exalted in Psalm 22:3-5, and humanity is not, even at the best of times, let alone from the place of despair we are told in Psalm 22:6.  So, despite how its opening line has been perceived this is actually a prayer of faith and confidence in God.  The desperate one is so confident in God’s ability to deliver that he is ashamed of his own situation because it is causing God to be mocked.  The unbelievers see the believer shamed, the deliverer has patently not delivered, and blasphemy is arising we read in Psalm 22:6-8.  Think of the Pharisees with their “he saved others, why doesn’t he save himself” taunts.  Today Christians face similar mockery when life stumbles for us and the secularists cry “ha-ha, he believes in the flying spaghetti monster, but now he’s bereft and there’s no pasta-ral care forthcoming for him.  Wattanidjit!”  Still, according to Psalm 22:9-11 the desperate man believes, and he believes because of God’s prior record of faithful deliverance.  On and on the man describes his predicament, and on and on he reasserts his praise for God and his absolute confidence in God’s faithfulness to deliver.  This is seen in Psalm 22:12-21a. God is capable, and God is willing, and I shall be delivered, and when I am delivered I shall praise you all the more says the man in Psalm 22:21b-31.

When Jesus prayed Psalm 22:1 out loud from a Roman cross every Jew who heard him would have been reminded of the Psalm, even the positive bits.  I wonder what it means that this whole prayer is in the mouth of Jesus as he crucified.   I wonder what is actually going on for Jesus here, and what we are supposed to learn from this.  Well, in Hebrews 5:7-9 we read that while Jesus was alive as a man he prayed boldly and loudly to God, with passion and volume, and that because of his faith God was faithful to Jesus and responded to Jesus prayer.  Jesus was a Psalm 22 sort of person, a man of relentless, resilient, resolute hope in God. And we are assured that Jesus understands humanity because he lived as a man among women and men; Hebrews 5:8 clearly says that Jesus learned about human life through living a human life of his own. So, the perfection in Jesus that we read about in Hebrews 5:9 is not only that Jesus completed the work of salvation; that he submitted to God at Gethsemane and held that commitment right through all that occurred at Golgotha, and that by dying on the cross as a bloody sacrifice and representation of all created things he opened a path to human reconciliation with God and the possibility that we might be made perfect.  Yes, there is that, but there is more because Jesus understands perfectly. Jesus has completed and perfect experience of all created things because he lived like a created thing, a man.  So, the message of Hebrews 5 is that we are perfected by redemption because Jesus perfectly understands us; and he understands us because he was one of us.  See?  Do you see?

To think of God as “friend of sinners” is to assert that the pure and righteous God is not so far removed from the impure and unrighteous. We don’t need to protect God or God’s reputation from dirt, as if God lives in some Oxy-Action brightness and turns into a Dickensian gentlewoman at the sight of dust: the crucifixion tells us how God in Jesus got right down into the mud with us so as to lift us out.  That’s what the cross is about; the holy one who embraced lepers and allowed unclean women to embrace him, the foot-washing rabban, got bloody and muddy to rescue us from the grot and snot; even the grot and snot of our own making.

But don’t believe that this wasn’t hard.  Even with the faith that Jesus expresses and how he never drops his dependence and confidence in God The Father, Friday hurt.  The word “excruciating” was invented for this day, ex-Crucis literally means out of (or from) the cross.  Jesus died of shock and asphyxiation after six hours of excruciating pain as he hung all his bodyweight from nails through his wrists and ankles.  “Ouch” doesn’t come close.  His back from neck to knees had been torn open to the bone from the Roman flagellator, and you’d better believe that that would not have been comfortable.  Add to that the psychological, emotional pain of anguish and shame of hanging naked and alone while the whole city spits abuse at you and your sobbing woman friends (including your mum) who scream with broken hearts at the foot of your cross.  It was hard, bloody hard, bloody and hard for Jesus to die like that.

And God The Father?  Evangelicals like us often sing of how “the Father turns his face away”, but I cannot believe that.  I have no doubt, no doubt and every confidence, because I am a Psalm 22 person, that The Father watched every livid second of Jesus’ last 24 hours of mortal life. I am sure you’ve been told before about the torn veil in the temple, shredded at the very moment of Jesus’ last breath, as a prophetic sign of access.  Our traditions teach that with Christ’s death we can meet the Father at any time, and God is now on the loose in the world never again to be domesticated behind a curtain.  We have access to the holiest place, and God has access to the rest of the world: we can enter in and God can run amok. But perhaps the tearing of the veil was also a prophetic sign, or even an actual physical manifestation of our interventionist God’s anguish as the grieving Father, Abba Daddy, rends his garments in grief at the sight of what has been done to his beautiful and best-beloved son.

Or maybe it means that on a day like Good Friday that no place is holy, no place at all.  After all, how can our priests conspire to murder God yet hope to maintain a holy of holies in the temple of the holy city?  And if our priests can’t maintain a temple, how on earth can we scum-of-the Earth poor sinners lay people manage to achieve such a thing?

It’s a day of mixed emotions: bewildering and contradictory to say the least.

So, how’s your Friday going?

Amen.

Melchizedek (Lent 5B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation, gathered at Yallourn North, on Sunday 18th March 2018.  It was the fifth Sunday in Lent.

Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

When the writers of the text we now call “The Letter to the Hebrews” sat down to get their thoughts together it seems that one of their primary concerns was the authority of Jesus.  Probably written around the year 65CE and written to be read by Christ-worshippers in Rome, the issues addressed by this text include who Jesus was and why these writers felt confident to make the claims about him that they did.  They also sought to answer questions about what the point of Jesus’ life and ministry was, to clarify what Jesus accomplished.  The Roman Empire continued to occupy Jerusalem: God had not delivered the Israelites from oppression, and the temple continued to function for Judaism as it had done since the days of Ezra.  How can the Jewish Messiah have come, and nothing has changed?  Who was Jesus?

In today’s section we are told quite plainly that the work of Jesus as high priest was authorised by God: Jesus did not appoint himself divine intermediary, nor did he steal the role from the rightful Levitical clansmen in Jerusalem.  Furthermore, say the authors, the evidence that Jesus was authorised by God is plain because he did the work of a priest properly, praying and interceding while he was alive.  Jesus prayed with confidence, knowing the Father and knowing the Father’s capability and the Father’s will.  Jesus asked God to do only what God wanted done: Jesus was qualified to be high priest because Jesus was faithful to God.

But this is only part of the answer, and Hebrews 5:8-9 speaks of Jesus’ life on earth as a time of struggle and of learning.  As God the Son, and the Son of God, life in God’s creation might have been cushy for Jesus: descending from a cloud and floating about Creation he could have kept himself clean and dry by not touching anything or being touched by anyone.  But that’s not how Jesus came and that’s not how he lived: Jesus was qualified to be high priest because Jesus was faithful to humanity.

Jesus was born in the part of the house where the animals were kept.  Despite what you’ve heard about that cosy manger I have no doubt that little lord Jesus loud crying did make.  And probably lots of times afterwards.  Jesus grew up in an ordinary village in an ordinary family where his tradesman father taught Jesus his trade.  Jesus was the Son of God, but when he was apprenticed to his father to learn the family business he matured into a fitter and joiner, not as Master of the Universe, the divine and sovereign creator.  Jesus’ feet got dirty, we know that because a woman washed them.  Jesus got tired, we know that because he fell asleep in the boat.  Jesus got hungry, we know that because satan was able to tempt him with food, even though Jesus resisted the temptation.  Jesus got lonely, we know that because he cried out that even God had forsaken him, twelve hours after his friends couldn’t remain awake for even an hour.  It’s never mentioned but I am sure that Jesus must have relieved himself at times, perhaps having to hold it in, perhaps having to “nip off” in a hurry.  I am sure Jesus got sick, and I imagine that Mary had to cuddle him and wipe him down and kiss it better when he was small.  Jesus was a tradesman, traditionally described as a carpenter it’s likely that he was a builder alongside that: so, did he never hit his thumb with a hammer, or catch his fingers on a saw blade?  Will anyone suggest that Jesus never got a splinter from the wood, or a stone chip?  Did he never trip over, or stub a toe?  Did he never bang his head on a low door or overhanging branch?  Did he never drop something on his foot, or get dust in his eye?  Did he never step in dog or camel or donkey poo?  Jesus learned what it was like to live on earth as a person: baby, toddler, child, teen, youth, and man.  Jesus was made complete and perfect we read in Hebrews 5:9 in that he experienced all that there was to experience as an adult Galilean Jew in Roman-occupied Judea.  Jesus lived the whole picture and he learned the full story of humankind in action.  God The Son had first-hand experience of the world in its fallen state, and he grieved with God The Father over what had been lost and over what had become of that wondrously good Eden that God had made.

So, the fully human Jesus got dirty and smelly, hurt and tired at times.  Of course, he also had friends and family and I am sure he laughed quite a bit.  Jesus experienced joy and love and companionship, he was not only a man of sorrows.  Jesus ate and drank, and he probably spewed and pooed too.  And the fully divine Jesus grieved for the world, but he also rejoiced in the company of the worshippers of God and in the news or presence of their devotion and godliness where he experienced it.  Not that he desired worship for himself, but that he experienced God being worshipped by his companions in the room, and that delighted him as the Son of God amongst women and men.

All of that is true and meaningful.  But what carries the most weight, at least as I see it, is what we read in Hebrews 5:7: Jesus experienced fear.  Jesus got scared and Jesus drew back momentarily from the great act of the cross.  What makes Jesus the best high priest, allowing for all that I have said about his being chosen by God rather than taking the mantle upon himself, and that he lived a human life of dirt and fun, and that his spirit grieved at the fallenness of Creation, no what makes him the best is that he saw how ugly the cross was going to be and he called “time-out”.  Gethsemane is no secret to us, and apparently it was no secret to the writers of Hebrews 5:7: Jesus pleaded in cries and tears that God would use any other way to complete the work, anything else than the brutality of Good Friday.  This is a man, a human; a flesh and bones and blood and sensory neurones person.  This is a man who knows that what is coming is going to be all kinds of worlds of hurt in his body, mind, soul, and spirit.  This is a man just like us; this is the one God chose to do this great work.  Not an angel, not an alien, not a golem, not even a quadriplegic with no sense of pain below the neck.

And he knew it was coming from well beforehand because one day Philip and Andrew brought Gentiles to meet him.  The great act of service of a seed is that it dies, anonymously and underground, to cause a new tree with thousands of new seeds to grow in that place.  Jesus’ death was neither anonymous nor underground, but it was his great act of service, and his life’s end brought about the beginning of billions of lives in every land on the planet.  With the request of these Greeks for an introduction Jesus knew that the time to embark upon his greatest service was at hand.  Jesus’ response to the coming moment, John 12:27 tells us, is that he was troubled.  He knew that the cross would break him, it would kill his body and it would take his mind and spirit over the edge of human capability too.  And Jesus knew that in the activity and immediate aftermath of the cross his disciples would be broken by confusion, grief and doubt.

And he went through with it.

(But only after he had called a time-out to get his head around it.)

Jesus knows our every pain and weakness, he has been there.  Jesus knows every pain and weakness of The Father, he has been there too.  This is what makes Jesus the greatest of great high priests, the ultimate and unsurpassable intermediary between Holy God and Fallen Creation.

So, what does this mean for us?  I see two outcomes of this message, two things we can do with this revelation of who Jesus was regarding this special role of intercessor and advocate.

  1. We take courage. Jesus to whom we pray, and through whom we pray to The Father, knows what it is like down here and he understands.  Jesus will never call you a wimp or deride you as unfaithful and unworthy of him when the thought of pain and suffering causes you to pause.  He gets it, he paused too, and then he went on.  If he went on alone, then you or I can go on with him beside us.  Whatever God is calling you to, or whatever life has thrown up in your path, Jesus knows about it and wants you to do well.  Maybe its public speaking and evangelism, maybe its standing up for the oppressed or is dispossessed where you work or live; maybe it’s a mozzie bite or some dog poo on your shoe.  No human experience, no make-or-break call to disciplined action is below Jesus’ attention or above Jesus’ capacity to support you.
  2. We worship. Last month we heard the story of the Transfiguration and of how Jesus was glorified by God in the presence of Moses and Elijah, and the special needs class from amongst his followers.  This is the one who we killed, the transfigured one is also the crucified one.  We need not be afraid of Jesus, he loves us, and his death is the ultimate act of love for us; nonetheless the Fear of The LORD, our great regard and honour for who Jesus is as Son of God, should drive us to our knees or faces, or maybe to our feet with our hands aloft.  But we can’t just sit there, indifferent, any longer.

Jesus was afraid to die for us, that’s how we know he’s human and that’s how we know that he loves us.  He understands pain.  Nonetheless Jesus died for us.  We may be afraid to live for him, after all we are human and that’s how he knows that we love him.  He understands the threat we may be inviting, discipleship is not easy.  Nonetheless we live for him.

But we live for him, with him beside us.

Amen.