The Happiest Ending is Not an Ending at all. (Pentecost 23C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva and Serviceton for Sunday 17th November 2019

Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 12

In Isaiah 65:1-16, so the verses prior to our reading today, we are given the context for what God is saying in our set passage. So, straight off the top, here’s a hint from your preacher: when you set out to read from the Bible read the chapter, not just the verse or two: today’s text has shown it to be true. Today, where God begins to speak to us in Isaiah 65:17 saying I am about to create we have confidence in each of those words because of the page and a half which has gone before, the first sixteen verses of Isaiah 65 and the twin stories which they tell. The I am is God The LORD; and actually I suggest that God is more fully named in the phrase I am about to since God is only knowable by revelation and activity. This I am, this God who is and the God who does, is the One who revealed Godself to the world even before the world began to look. We read that in Isaiah 65:1, and we understand some of that in the story of Christmas where Godself, in all of God’s Godfulness, entered the created world in the form of a created thing to communicate and to pitch a tent amidst humankind. God is ready, God is willing, God is excited about fellowship, and God is present and welcoming even before we’re aware there’s a party about to start. Israel is a hot mess at this point, the exiled ones are well away and the remnant of the old and the broken, whom the Babylonians left behind, have forgotten God and been forgotten by the bulk of God’s people. But God is excited by the thought that there will be a seeking and a finding in the next breath, and God just cannot wait. The God who is, who is the God who does, is about to do what God is first known for, saying I am…about to…create.

For I am about to create new… says The LORD in Isaiah 65:17, new heavens and a new earth; so basically a new everything then, and of such wonder that the old heaven and the old earth (so, this one here) shall not be remembered or come to mind. Who’s up for some of that? Yeah, me too. The best bit within this new everything is the new Jerusalem, a joy, and its people…a delight, in which God will rejoice: and not only “in which” God will rejoice but where God will rejoice, depending how you read Isaiah 65:19. Is it possible, is it true that God will not only rejoice about the new Jerusalem and the restored people, but will God actually do the rejoicing in the actual place, with the actual people? Mm-hmm, yep.

The rejoicing that God does in Jerusalem, where God is actually present in the city, looks like life. Life, doesn’t it? Babies will live to adulthood, and adults will live to 100 and more, so that’s a long life. And people will live in houses they have built, and enjoy the produce of trees they have planted and tended. Everyone will benefit from his or her own work and so these long lives, (long enough to plant and then wait for the maturation of tress from which to enjoy the harvest, long enough to still be considered young at 100), these long lives will be full lives, abundant lives, eternal lives. Big, fat, wide, full, deep, long, tall, complete lives; lives lived in the company of the Presence (big-P) of The LORD.

And not just that, because if that wasn’t enough of a promise there’s more to come. These long and fruitful lives will also be peaceful lives, shalom-ful lives, (BTW shalom-ful is a great word, even if I’m not entirely sure if it existed before now), lives without anxiety or grief, lives where wolves and lambs are safe in each other’s company, where lions don’t eat people and snakes don’t eat at all. This last point, found in Isaiah 65:25, is important when you consider the rest of the picture: this is a new Eden. Long life, full life, abundant life, non-anxious life, worshipful life, a life of companionship with God; this is what Eden was like, until the serpent spoke up and wrecked it all. But in this new Eden the serpent eats dust from the outset, there is no room for a second Fall, this Eden will last forever and will never be corrupted. The happy ending to the long story of Israel and Judah in exile; the story during which the people were taken away to Babylonia and then Persia and their identity as the Chosen people of the Promised Land was destroyed, and the cities and towns and farms and fields they left behind were destroyed, and the temple of God in Jerusalem was destroyed, the happy ending to that story is actually no ending at all. The end of the people’s story is the eternity of God, as wide and high as it is long, and full, so full, so very very full.

Can you imagine what a word of hope that was to the first hearers? Imagine if you were in exile, or you were one of those left behind amongst the ruins because you weren’t worthy even of slavery. Imagine that God said that what is coming next is everything you could never imagine of joy and restoration.

As our Christian calendar moves to its end, where today is the penultimate Sunday in the year, and our last Sunday in this long season in green stretching all the way back to Pentecost, we are closing in on Advent. Advent is more than just a month of daily chocolates and me in a purple shirt, it is the season of preparation for the Church when we think of Jesus coming to Earth as a human child, and of his return one day as the King of Glory. It is a time when we remember that at the Last Day the new Jerusalem will descend from Heaven, that a new Heaven and a new Earth will be completed, and God will again live in our midst (and we will live in the very centre of God’s presence) and that God’s Kingdom will have no end. No end, but also no edges, and no roof, God’s Kingdom is not just a future but it is a wideness in very dimension, a fullness in every conceivable thing. Even without the lived experience of a physical exile, of a life of slavery under a foreign empire, of colonisation and subjugation, even if you haven’t had any of that the promise of what God has in mind and the absolute certainty that it will occur should be thrilling for you. Is it? Do you really grasp what it is that is coming? This is why I get annoyed when Christianity is boxed so tightly around a formula of repentance to guarantee a place above the sky after death. If your Christian expectation is for “a glorious afterlife” then man (woman or child) you are selling yourself so short, and you have missed the whole point of God’s self-revelation through Jesus the Christ.

Lift up your eyes.

Today’s psalm comes to us from Isaiah 12. So yes, it is a psalm, it’s just from a different part of the Bible: same genre though, it’s a song of God. Again, the best place to begin reading is back a page or two, in this case the oracle which occupies all of Isaiah 11 and which in some Bibles carries the subheading “the peaceful kingdom” and in others “the righteous branch”. It’s important to remember that these headings are twentieth (or twenty-first) century additions in English, they’re not in the original text, and they’re there to offer help to understanding the passage. I say this because it’s true, I also say it because I don’t find either of those headings helpful in this case, so I’m going to ignore them. In fact, Isaiah 11, in the Newly Infallible Damien Version, has the title “the ideal king”. This king, upon whom God’s Spirit rests, is wise and just and fair and honourable, he is worthy to be praised. This king calls and the whole of humanity answers, all who are homeless are called home, drawn home indeed, and the home to which they come is filled with love and the generous abundance of every good thing. This home is better than Heaven, this home is the new Jerusalem upon the new Earth, this is Eden in all that it would have become if 6000 years or 6000 million years of what became of God’s good creation had not strayed from the Master’s plan. Good eh? More than.

And so we come to Isaiah 12:1 and the words [y]ou will say in that day: I will give thanks to you O LORD. What day? That day. THAT day. The day when the ideal king summons you home to the better Eden: that day. And what will you say on that day? Well the rest of Isaiah 12 is what you will say; thank you because you saved me, you comforted me, you restored me, I trust in you and I trust you to be my strength and my might. You will say that The LORD is my salvation, (Isaiah 12:2), I am not my salvation and I cannot save myself, salvation is a gift of God, drawn from the wells of God: wells I did not dig fed by aquifers I did not fill. And what else will you say on that day? You will say [g]ive thanks to The LORD, call on God’s name, make known God’s deeds among the nations, proclaim that God’s name is exalted. (Isaiah 12:4.) Good eh? More than.

So, to recap; in two places in Isaiah we are told that God is about to begin the work of restoration. In fact God has already begun the work of restoration, what is about to happen is that God is about to invite creation to enter the workspace and be the completion of it. It is God who is doing this, the I AM, the Creator, the King who is the root of Jesse (so a Davidic sovereign, a filling of God’s promise to David himself). That’s what we’ve heard so far. What we have also heard so far is that this restoration is not Heaven, it is Eden; but better even than Heaven and Eden it is an Eden WITHOUT THE SERPENT. This is Eden and it will never be withdrawn from us, or we from it, because the King himself, a grandson of David and The LORD God will live amongst us in that Eden. Look at Isaiah 12:6 where it says great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. Where? In our midst! Who? The Holy One of Israel. Now that, that is a promise.

So, what does it all mean? What does it mean for us, Christians of The Wimmera and The Tatiara. Two things I think come to me immediately from the text.

  1. It’s Jesus we’re looking for. Jesus is the root of Jesse, the grandson of David.

  2. It’s God we’re looking for. In the Vulgate, which was an update of earlier Latin translations from koine Greek (the original language of the New Testament and the working language of the Old Testament in the form of the Septuagint) into decent Latin, Isaiah 12:2-3 read God is my saviour rather than my salvation. God was not just the one making the promise and giving the assurance, it was Godself doing the actual saving. Judaism didn’t teach that so explicitly, even in Jesus’ time, but early Christianity did. You’ll find that wording in the New King James Version for example where Isaiah 12:2 reads Behold, God is my saviour and Lord, I will trust in Him and be saved by Him. So it’s personal, not just that I am saved but that God personally did the saving.

  3. And point three is of course the Christian understanding that points one and two intersect, God who does the saving Godself does so through the work of Jesus, the root of Jesse. Isaiah wasn’t saying that, but The Vulgate did, and so am I.

I said two things, and then went to three dot points. But that was only one thing. The second thing, without dot points, is that Jesus has saved us for the new Eden, not for the old Heaven. Now I’m not redefining Christianity here, relax and don’t get upset: if you want to go to Heaven and you are fully confident that Jesus wants you there then you will be there, and you will see me there. (This I know, for the Bible tells me so.) But the point is that God intended creation to be here, where God could walk in the cool of the evening with God’s own friend Adam, and that Adam would be God’s friend and he would not be ashamed of who he was (or was not) in God’s presence. This is what Jesus brought to us through his death and resurrection, not only the golden city above the clouds, but the fullness of what the Earth was always supposed to be, and what it will be again, and more so what it will become in the form of what it should have become, the place of God’s personal dwelling among God’s beloved people. This is the Kingdom of God, not so much a place (although in the fullness of time there will be an Earth location) as the reality that God reigns today, God reigns here, and God’s presence is upon us and amongst us where we love and worship and serve God and each other.

This is the outset of Eternity, not yet as long and wide and high and full as it shall be when God’s presence comes down, but Eternity nonetheless. The reality of Eternity today is the news of Eternity tomorrow, and that is good news indeed. It is tidings of great joy, it is the meaning of Christmas. It is, in every degree, the gospel.

Amen.

Advantage Us (Advent 3C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.