Mighty to Save (Easter 3C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry, gathered at the Church of Christ, on Sunday 5th May 2019.

Acts 9:1-19a; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Today’s psalm speaks of one man’s lamentation and then vindication: the one who cries out to God from the place of death, calling upon The LORD to save, was rescued and restored.  More than simply lifted out of bed, or commanded to pick up his mattress and walk home, the man of the psalm was specifically delivered from Sheol, and he responds to God’s gracious intervention by summoning his community to join his declaration of praise of God.  An early indicator of what this song is about is that only in despair do we truly know who God is and where God can be found: when we are in “prosperity” (Psalm 30:6) we forget to look for God and God is hidden from us; maybe God hides or maybe God is obscured by our stuff and nonsense.  But God is there when we re-/turn and God is faithful in welcoming us home with joy: God is always more ready to love and restore than to withhold and punish.

I wonder, do you have such a testimony?  We’ll come back to that, but keep your story in mind as we hear more about this man’s story.

There are two subheadings in the New Revised Standard Version added this psalm on the page: one says that Psalm 30 was associated in Jewish tradition with David and utilised in the annual rituals of dedication of the temple at Hanukkah.  The other subheading which comes from the twentieth century editors suggests that Psalm 30 is a song of thanksgiving for one man’s recovery from a grave illness.  I like that it can be both of things, it’s such a wonderful tribute to our God and to those who worship God.  I mean, why not both?  Why not praise for what God did for me as part of a greater festival of setting up the house of community worship for a great festival of God’s deliverance of the whole nation in a time of war and oppression. This is true of Judaism then and now, and also of Christianity, that God is interested in you for who you are and also in the whole congregation as a unity, indeed the whole of Creation as a unity: it doesn’t have to be either/or.

This is why Psalm 30 is a great psalm to read in the weeks after Easter.  Just have a look at Psalm 30:1-3 and focus on the individual story, the one man in his song of deliverance, and how he exalts and extols The LORD for drawing him up, the downcast one, and for lifting him above the scorn of the mockers.  They, (remember “they” from Easter Day?), “they” had thought the faithful man had been deserted by God, but God came all the way down into Sheol, down beyond the platform of the living and into the place of the dead to rescue the man who cried out, to rescue him from falling even further down and into “the Pit” as the psalm puts it.  God lifted him above all the scorn and all the pain and restored him to God’s presence, above the platform of the living, where there is healing and recovery.  Of course when I say “faithful man” this is no less true of a woman who cries out to God; but I also think it true of women and men we might consider not to be “faithful”, people who cry out in desperation even if they haven’t previously been religious or even Evangelical to our liking.

So I ask you again, how does this psalm fit with your story?  Have you ever cried out to God from “the place of death”, from “the grave” as it were?  If you haven’t then I assume it’s because you’ve never been to the lowest place; I assume this because if you have been to the lowest place and you did not cry out to God then how is it you are here today?  Seriously!  I can’t say I’ve been to Hell and back, because my journey took me through the middle of Hell and out the other side, and without God I’d be dead.  In fact without God I might have been dead on any one of multiple occasions, so if you’ve done it without God then either you’re lying, or you need to step up here and I need to sit down.  Anyone?  So we’re left with two options: either you’ve never been to Sheol; or you, like me and like the faithful man, have been down there, and the only reason you are here now, and not there now, is that God delivered you.  I hope none of you have been there, because Sheol, but if you have then you know why God is worthy of all honour and glory.

In Revelation 5 we read about another faithful man, one man who went to Sheol, even to the deepest depths of its Pit, and who returned because of God.  This man is the source and object of the community’s praise in Heaven: Jesus is worthy because he was victorious over death and all that leads to death, be that sin, illness, isolation, exposure, or shame.  In the eyewitness account of the recipient of the revelation it’s not just a choir of angels and a few assorted cherubim and seraphim who sing, but every created being that has a voice.  Every angel, every cherub, every seraph, every woman and every man, every beast, fish, bird, sheesh every rock and stone cries glory, because Jesus was vindicated by God in the sight of all creation for the benefit of all creation.  The cry begins under the earth, resounds across the earth, and culminates above the earth as even the Eldership of Heaven falls face-down.  That’s some adoration, massive praise and worship, glory and honour; but is not Jesus worthy of it?  All who have been to and thorough Sheol say “Amen!”, or as it translates into Australian, “oath mate!”

One of the commentators I use regularly describes Revelation 5:13 as “a song of praise to the Redeemer of all”, and I have to agree.  As it should be, really, given all that Jesus did and all he went through physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially, spiritually, and I’m going to suggest geographically as well.  Worthy is he, blessing and honour and glory and might, and power forever and ever.  I add my voice to that today, and if Revelation is a picture of the future then I’ll be singing my lungs out on that day too.  Glory to the one who came below the dirt and pulled me out of Sheol, lifting me above the sky to wipe me down, stand me up, and set me off on a new life.

Among the voices that will sing with me, and the psalmist, and maybe some of you, are those of Peter and Paul.  Their stories are told in the gospels and epistles at large; Acts 9:1-19a and John 21:1-19 are the set readings for today.  We haven’t read them this morning but I am sure you are familiar with these stories.  Can anyone remember what stories these passages tell?  Well, very briefly Acts 9 is the Damascus experiences of Saul the Christianophobe, and John 21 is the lakeside experience of Peter the wuss.  Both of these men have recently been through Sheol, in fact Saul is still on his way out.  Common to their stories is that their descent to the place where only Christ can save has happened because they let down Jesus.  Peter has denied knowing his best friend at the hour of greatest need; and Saul, well Saul just been very silly in general hasn’t he.  I’m not going to go into those stories now, you can read them for yourselves later, but I will say this; they were redeemed by Jesus.  Now of course we have all been redeemed by Jesus, that’s the cross and that’s Melody Green’s “thank you oh my Faaaather”.  But think specifically of Peter and Paul: these two nutjobs basically go on to found Christianity.  That’s a big and loose claim I know, and I’m not interested in debating it at all because you know what I’m saying; what I am saying is that these men were saved not only from suicide, (think of Judas in his despair), but from wasted lives because of wasted opportunities.  Christ meets them both and gives them what they need at the time, reassurance, forgiveness, friendship, and a mission.  “Feed my flock” says Jesus to Peter in John 21:15-17, and then in John 21:19 “ follow me”.  “Get back on your horse and go to the church, they’ll tell you what to do” Jesus tells Saul in Acts 9:8, and by Acts 9:20 he’s proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus the Christ.

Where are you today?

  • I’d be sad to hear that you’re in Sheol today; primarily because I’m your pastor and I didn’t know, but if you are then let me know, please. There’s no shame in being in Sheol today, and since I’ve already been there a few times I can show you the way out if you’d like.
  • Maybe you’re heading for Sheol; the bottom has fallen out of the world and you are falling and tumbling, and heading for a spreading that you know is imminent, so you’re bracing for impact. Again, please come and tell me.
  • Maybe you are climbing out; with God’s help assured because that is not a climb you can make on your own. Again, let me know, I won’t take your hand because you’ll need both of them to hang on to God, but I’m happy to rub your back.
  • Maybe, hopefully, you’re in a good place today. I’d like that to be true for each of you, because I don’t want disaster for any of you, but it’s okay if you’re not.  But it’s okay if you are, Jesus has risen and God is faithful and if life is blessing you today then praise God.  But if you have memories of your time in the shadowlands, I ask you to let those memories stir you to two activities.  One, show extreme and practical compassion to your sisters and brothers who are near the Pit right now, regardless of their theology and whether you’d accord them the status of “faithful”.  Even if they are not faithful, and who are we to say, but even if they are not, we are, and our job is compassion and support.  Don’t be the one kicking at the fingers of the climbing, which is never your job.  And two, which should be one because it is first, but is ongoing so I’ll say it last, worship and adore God the saviour, the redeemer, the healer and restorer and sanctifier.  Jesus is worthy of all praise, glory and adoration.

Bloody oath he is!

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.