Slowly Relentless (Epiphany 5B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 4th February 2018, the fifth Sunday in Epiphany in Year B.

Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

When I began blogging back in the 2000s I had a few pages on the go.  One blog, which had, (and still only has) one post was called “3Rs”.  No, it was not about my skills in literacy and numeracy; and just as well because Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic are not three Rs at all, but one R, one A, and a W.  I know this because I was once a Primary School teacher, and they learned me that at NTU where I got teached stuff for my Graduate Diploma in Primary Education.  No, my 3Rs were Resolute, Relentless, and Resilient.  After a few tough years, the toughest ever, where my 40 days in the wilderness had lasted four years so far and didn’t look like ending any time soon, I began to write about my desire to see the journey through with blood, sweat, tears, and a few other, less pleasant bodily fluids.  Resolute, Relentless, Resilient.  I was going to push through with all of mine and God’s strength.  The blog never saw a second post because the journey was too painful, complicated, and downright weird to try to put into words.

Today’s message, ten and a bit years later, and posted to my current blog I have entitled “Slowly Relentless”.

In Mark 1:31 we read that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law by taking her by the hand and lifting her up.  Her response to healing is to engage in ministry, diakoneo, the work of a ministering angel.  The same word is used in Mark 1:13 when Jesus is assisted in his recovery after the forty days in the wilderness.  This woman is raised up not to be a mere woman doing “women’s work” or “being a housewife” as if those activities were not important anyway; as if a healed father-in-law could have just moved from bed to chair with Jesus and demanded a beer but the woman must serve and not be served.   No, she is restored to her act of ministry because Jesus’ healings are not just restorative, they are also empowering.

In Mark 1:32-34 we are told about many other women and men in Capernaum who were healed through Jesus’ ministry to weakened bodies, minds, and souls.  I wonder, did Jesus expect the same from these renewed people as he did in the house of Simon?  Imagine that next day in Capernaum, a village filled with active and restored people, buzzing with excitement that God’s grace had been manifested amongst them and how they were now able to do what they had been limited from doing for however long.  What a fabulous day that would have been!

How many of you long for the day when Jesus will take you by your hand and lift you up?  I know I do.

I live with a mental illness, you all know that, and many of you have taken to wearing the beyondblue wrist bands in support of me and my ilk.  And yes, that mental illness came about back in those wilderness days when I needed to be intentionally resolute, relentless and resilient.  Sometimes life today for me is more about mental ill-health for me than actual illness because some days I have the emotional version of a sniffle and some days I have the emotional version of quadriplegia.  Each of these conditions impact on my physical activity (or lack thereof) to that extent.  I’m not always flat on my back, and I’m not always sneezing, mentally speaking, but some days I am one of those two things, or something in the middle.  On many days I’m in mentally good-health; “mental healthy” rather than “mental healthish” as it were.  So, yes, I long for that day when Jesus will take me by my hand and lift me up so that I can go about the work of ministry.  Ministry to him, ministry to you, ministry to myself.

But I’m not so fussed about my failing eyesight.  I’ve worn spectacles for short-sightedness for almost forty years, since I was six, and I now have the reading glasses of a man who was six years old almost forty years ago.  I am not fussed about that,  and I do not long for the day when I have 20/20 vision at last, although I’d take it if it came.  Like many men I’d like to be thinner around my abs, thicker around my quads, biceps and triceps, and more powerful in heart and lungs, although I’m happy with the covering of hair I wear.  So, it’s just the mental thing, and the sleep apnoea connected with it that I want fixed.  I need the lifting-out-of-bed hand of Jesus, and I need it many days a week, because of what happens in my mind.  I would love to have it once-and-for-all, but God’s grace is sufficient, and every morning Jesus helps me make it out of bed.  Some mornings it is before 8:00am, other mornings it is after 11:00am, but it’s always morning and it’s always Jesus.

So, I get excited when I read that God healed a whole town, or at least all of those who asked it of God, through the ministry of Jesus.  I know how excited I’d be to hear the promise that I’ll never be midday-dozy or fidgety again. I know how excited I’d be if Jesus did that for the whole Latrobe Valley, at the very least the western bit where Moe, Morwell, Narracan, Newborough, Yallourn and Yallourn North are.  I’m excited that Jesus is amongst us, and about us, even though this mass miracle of lifting to minister seems unlikely, simply because it hasn’t happened for a while.  I don’t believe that Jesus can’t heal our whole cluster and the towns in which we live, but I acknowledge that he hasn’t.  Maybe, like those few at Capernaum, we need to ask.  Maybe we need to rock up at sundown and bring all who are sick or possessed with demons and gather around the door.

Or, maybe, we need to look for something else.  Without discounting for a second that God could heal our bit of the City of Latrobe and the Baw Baw Shire, and give us a new energy, there is something else we can rely on from God in the interim.

It’s in Isaiah 40:31, and it is always, ALWAYS EVERY SINGLE TIME quoted incorrectly by Christian card manufacturers, poster makers, and rabble-rousing preachers.  Always until today of course.  After all, you’re not a rabble so why would I want to rouse you?

God has not abandoned the weary, rather God has extended salvation to all who seek God from wherever it is they begin to seek.  In Isaiah’s day the Israelites were in exile, and they were tired, and they were weary, and they were very close to being worn out.  God’s message to these people is that God is aware of the people and their circumstance, and because God is actively directing history (rather than sitting back and letting it unfold while God sits on the couch with divine Tim Tams and a six-pack,  of Victorious Draught), God will intervene presently.  In the meantime as we read in Isaiah 40:28-29 God is present, present at present, and God’s current work is strengthening and upholding the fainting and exhausted.  That’s been said before, and that’s all good; it’s the next bit that Koorong’s suppliers can’t seem to get right.

It’s not about being an eagle.

There you go.  Isaiah 40:31 is not actually about being an eagle, and how God is going to make you into a herculean pterodactyl or whatever.  The renewing of your strength is found in…wait for it…keep waiting…a bit longer…okay now…realising that you have permission to slow down.  Look at Isaiah 40:31, look at the order of the verbs:  you mount up, then you run, then you walk.  If you are a bird then my birdy friend you are coming in to land, you are not taking off.  It’s not wander out of the nest, have a run up and then lift off, no this verse is very much swoop about for a bit, come in to land at a run, and then slow down.  Having flown with God but come out of the skies you will be strengthened in God to land safely, running without weary legs after your wings have become too tired to carry you, and then walking to a standstill on your own feet.  You don’t crash, you don’t collapse.  You land safely.

Yes, of course all that eagle stuff is also true.  There are soaring times in God’s presence, and in God’s strength when you are ministering away from the gathered body.  I have been there, I have “soared with you in the power of your love”, and I hope that you have too.  But I have also heard, and I now teach the wisdom of God, that there is a place in ministry and in discipleship when you need to return to the ground and to the nest.

After all, it’s what Jesus did.

The strength of Jesus’ ministry, and his ability through God’s direction to heal and restore the women and men who came to him as he did, was Jesus’ own ministry.  By that I mean his ministry to himself.  When Jesus needed restoration he went to the source, to the Father, with the advocating assistance of the paraclete, the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was at the walking stage, which as I say is not a bad stage, he sat, (or perhaps knelt, or lay, or stood still), and there he prayed as Mark 1:35 tells us.  And why did he pray?  Well for the reasons I have just said, he was tired to walking pace, but also because of Mark 1:36.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him as the NRSV says.  They did not “seek” him or “search for him”, the did not “inquire into his whereabouts”, and certainly didn’t “await his return”.  No, the Greek text here, which I use to highlight the specific word chosen by Mark, is the word katadioko.  It means “pursue with hostility” in the sense of “hunted him down”.  The disciples didn’t just try to find Jesus, they sent the dogs out.

I do not wish to imply that this congregation has ever set dogs on me.  You have not: I promise, you haven’t.  But I’m sure you can each relate to what Jesus might have felt.  Perhaps you are or were a parent who couldn’t even use the toilet without having your toddler follow you into the loo, and leave the door open after finding you.  Perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel, late one afternoon after a hectic day at the office, was really your boss with a torch and an overflowing folder of apparently urgent paperwork.  There are times when it is right in The Spirit to not soar, not run, and not even walk, but to stop.

God knows, and I know, and your mental health specialist will also tell you, that that is true.  Where Psalm 46:10 says “be still and know” the sense of the Hebrew there is “Freeze!  Hear and understand!” This message is no less (and no more) a Biblical imperative than “Onward Christian Soldiers”, or “an as I wait I’ll rise up like an eagle and I will soar with you, your spirit leads me on”.  There is power in God’s love, and more often than we might like to think that power is the wing under which the hen gathers and shields her sleepy chicks.

God alone can raise you up on eagle-like wings, God alone can take your hand and lift you up to minister again.  If that is what you need to do today, then do that

Let God.

Amen.

And Vent!

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Parish Uniting Church, meeting in Newborough, for Sunday 10th December 2017.  It was the Second Sunday in Advent.

Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

This year, beginning last week on Advent Sunday and running through until we celebrate Christ the King on the last Sunday in November 2018, we shall be reading primarily from The Gospel According to Mark.  This is one of my favourite gospels, and if it’s not my absolute favourite it’s definitely top four.  I especially enjoy how brief and to the point Mark’s writing is, everything is so sudden and there’s no padding.  Today’s reading, the first eight verses of the book, is just like that.  Bang – here it is in Mark 1:1 and then straight in to the coming of John the Baptiser in Mark 1:2 to prepare the way for Jesus, who appears in Mark 1:9.  Matthew and Luke each take until chapter three of their gospels to get to the arrival of John in the desert: Matthew in 48 verses and Luke in an astonishing 132 verses.  Mark takes one.

So, Mark immediately opens the story at the best starting place: the arrival of an adult Jesus on the day he begins his ministry, the day he is commissioned by the Holy Spirit in the presence of John the Baptiser, the prophesied one who would announce his coming.  Mark grounds the story of Jesus immediately in the salvation history of the Israelites, connecting the appearance of John to the prophetic speech of Isaiah, and to the mission of Israel’s God in history which had always been about reconciliation.  As God had constantly called Israel and Judah back to the covenant, offering forgiveness and mercy time and time again if only they would return, so John offers a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins as he says in Mark 1:4.  It’s the same thing, he’s calling the people to make an about face, be released from debt, and move forward in God’s direction.

So, given that Mark quotes him so early in the piece I wonder, what did Isaiah actually say?  Well we find in Isaiah 40:1-11 that God has taken Isaiah aside and prepared him with a new message for the Israelites who are living in exile.  “Speak comfort to the people”, says the LORD, “because the people have served their sentence”.  Their saviour is coming along the wilderness road, levelling the road and making a way of travel.  Repentance is not complex, and while it is not easy because it is so confronting to human pride, it is simple.  God has seen that human life is temporary and that women and men are inconsistent in their ways because of this limitation upon them.  Individuals die but the story of God lives on.  God tells Isaiah, and we can presume that God also tells John the Baptiser, to go, get up on a high place and proclaim that story loudly.  The instruction to Isaiah and to John is to tell the Jerusalemites the story of salvation so that they can then get about telling every citizen of the world that God is present.  God is coming, God has come, and when God comes the good leader will feed the hungry, clothe the exposed, and carry the broken ones close.

As far as Isaiah is concerned this is a commissioning passage, a personal call to prophetic ministry much like the ones recorded in Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 61.  If you read closely you’ll see that the call to comfort and speak is given to the angels, one of whom commands (Isaiah 40:3) the opening of the way home: a second ex-hodos through the wilderness like the first one was through the sea.  But Isaiah’s and John’s message is that this will be an easy road, unlike the trek of Moses, since the land will fall flat, and the road will be straight and direct.  This is a road without wandering or struggling.  Another angel commands Isaiah to proclaim the message of God’s constancy (Isaiah 40:6) to God’s people who are dead grass (Isaiah 40:6-8).  As the Korahites sang in Psalm 80:10-13, (which I read as our call to worship), God is constant regarding the promises of the covenant, and the people’s hope of restoration is secure.  Six hundred years later John is telling the same story, and soon enough Jesus will repeat God’s message over and over.

Peter reminds us in his letter that God is beyond age and epoch.  God is not slow, God is not limited, God has chosen to be patient and God is not feeling pressured to act or be rushed.  Even as the Israelites and Judahites waited for God in exile, even as the Judeans of Jesus’ day suffered under Roman occupation and cried out for God to restore a king from the Davidic line, (rather than an Idumean puppet appointed by Caesar), the God of Abraham waited.  Jesus had come and gone in Peter’s lifetime, but the Romans remained.  But Peter remembered God’s promise to return to earth and he trusted God to come in the fulness of God’s time.  Peter reminds his readers, the people of his church but also any to whom he had ministered in the past, that when God arrives you’ll not miss it because it will be bright and loud and violent.

Advent is the time in the Christian calendar when we remember that Jesus is the Once and Future King, to borrow a phrase from the legends of Avalon and Camelot.  Peter’s story of light and sound is obviously not a retelling of the night in Bethlehem when shepherds watched, and three wee kings arrived.  Like the exiles, the Judeans, the Romans, and the Antiochenes we wait for God to return for us and lead us home along that straight, wide, and flat road.  We believe the word of God when his disciples remind us that all that surrounds us is finite and that it will be swept away when God returns. We believe the word of God and are reminded that finite does not mean without value:  Peter is saying we must not hold onto the world or depend upon it for our safety, but we are to utilise it for the work of proclaiming the gospel.  Use it, use it up, but don’t waste it.  Demonstrate the same patience that God shows, and model your life on the generous and unhurried flow of Jesus, the one who was often busy but never hassled.  Live with integrity in a world which is mocking your trust.

The first words of Mark read “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the son of God”.  In the light of all we know about Jesus and his ministry, and all that Peter reminded us of, must this sentence refer only to Mark 1:1 as some Greek version of “Once upon a time in a land far far away”, or even “In the beginning”?  Or is the whole book of Mark only the beginning of the good news, and further instalments of the gospel are not to be found in Mark 1:2, Mark 2:1, or even in Mark 16:9, but in what we say and do with the message in our day?  Where Advent reminds us that the one who came to Bethlehem is coming again, and to Yallourn and Moe this time I think it’s more of the second, that the gospel continues in us.  Now the mandate given to the prophets, the psalmists, and the apostles is given to us.  Our task is to speak comfort to the city, not Jerusalem or Rome but the City of Latrobe, and to assure them of the coming grace of peace and restoration.  Our Christmas message to the community is that when the Lord comes he is coming for them to welcome them home.

Just as he did the first time he came.

Amen.