A Call To Prophesy (Epiphany 5C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry on Sunday 10th February 2019.  We met at Serviceton Uniting Church for holy communion and at Kaniva Church of Christ also for holy communion.

Isaiah 6:1-8, 9-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Today is one of those good days for a preacher, because the message contained in each of the four lectionary readings is well structured and exciting to preach.  It’s all about God’s call and the story of how each of three men first heard God saying to him, “go and tell”.  It’s a great message for a church of eager disciples such as this one, so the sermon shouldn’t take very long at all.

Let’s start with the passage read to us this morning.  In the opening words of today’s reading from the Hebrew traditions we read how Isaiah dates his call to ministry to a specific time and place; he knows his origin as a prophet and teacher.  In the activity of the story Isaiah overhears The LORD calling for volunteers to take the message of God to humankind, and Isaiah steps up for the job (Isaiah 6:8).  Oftentimes when this story is read in church this is where we end our reading; we hear how great and holy God is, we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” before the sermon and “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky” after it, and we all go home.  Even today Isaiah 6:1-8 is listed to be read, with Isaiah 6:9-13 in brackets, as if you don’t have to read on if you don’t want to.  See what I’m saying, easy message, familiar concept, fast sermon is a good sermon, let’s go home.

Meh-yeah-nah.  Sadly for you if you were hoping for an early minute, this is a red rag to a brown bull for me; I mean what are those lectionary writers trying to hide?  Why don’t they want us to read on?  Well maybe it’s because in these optional verses what we get is God’s actual word to the world, the text of what is to become Isaiah’s message, and it’s not very nice; in fact it’s very not nice.  In essence Isaiah’s job is to make the people stubborn and hard-headed because God has decided in advance of Isaiah’s mission to punish the people.  This is not like Jonah where God sent the prophet to seek repentance so that God could relent; this is where God is baiting the people to further resistance to the gospel so that when divine wrath falls it is more fully deserved.  That’s harsh.

A strong comparison with Isaiah 6:2-3 is offered in Psalm 138:1 where the spiritual beings gathered around God’s throne hear a man, let’s call him David, singing his praise and thanksgiving to God.  Instead of God the holy, holy, holy One asking in the hearing of the cherubim and seraphim for a volunteer to carry a message of wrath and devastation, here we see a man in the same company thanking God for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.  (That’s in Psalm 138:2.)  God tells Isaiah to make the people resistant to God’s voice; but David tells the seraphim that the moment he began praying with distress God came close and answered him (Psalm 138:3).  It’s as if we’re speaking about two different gods here, or at least about the one God dealing with the Chosen People on one hand and the pagan and heathen nations on the other.  But no, and you know it’s no, this is Adonai on both occasions, and Israel on both occasions.  What is going on?

At this point let me interrupt myself and say that this is my favourite type of Bible study.  So often our evenings of fellowship and study revolve around opening a letter of Paul or a gospel and reading around the circle from a familiar story, looking for the obvious answers to the reading comprehension questions posed by IVP or Scripture Union.  This sort of Bible study, the one we’re doing today, looks at unfamiliar texts and searches out the hard questions.  Awesome fun, I hope you’re enjoying this as much as me.  Let’s get back to it.

In today’s set reading from the Jesus traditions we read Luke’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples.  And it is one of those intensely familiar stories: Jesus teaches a pressing-in crowd from a boat, then he asks the boat-owner (who is a stranger at this point) to put out and go fishing.  Twenty-seven trillion fish are caught in just under four minutes, causing that fisherman to recognise that a miracle worker has turned up in his boat and that he utterly unworthy to be in such a lord’s presence; kinda like Isaiah in Isaiah 6:5 and his “woe is me, man of uncleanness” lamenting.  And our familiar story continues, Jesus says to Simon “get up,” and he says “don’t be afraid,” and he says “you will no longer fish for men, but for people,” and without a second thought Simon, and James, and John from the next boat walk away with Jesus and into the sunset.  So there’s nothing heard-headed or confusing about that; okay the “fishers of men” reference is a little opaque, but we trust Jesus, he seems nice, and so we leave everything behind and just walk away and follow him.  As Christians we get that; no biggie, Jesus is worth dropping everything else for, there’s no stubbornness amongst us to the voice of God calling us to discipleship.

In today’s set reading from the Christian traditions we find ourselves at the other end of Jesus’ mission to earth, and Paul’s explanation to the churches of Corinth how the resurrection works as a theological and soteriological truth.  In other, less-greeky words, how the facts and understandings we have around the resurrection make us think about God, and how they make us think about what it means to be “saved”.  Very recently, on Vision Radio in fact (which is broadcast on 88.0 FM into Kaniva from a small box and a big aerial in my back yard), I heard someone describe 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 as a perfect distillation of the whole gospel.  It was a passing comment, with no further discussion, but I remembered it as I wrote this sermon down at 03:38 am this morning.  We have just heard the passage read, do we agree?  Is this all you need to know about Christian doctrine in one handy-to-open box, no easy payments, no postage and handling?  Indeed could we sum the whole Christian story up in one line, 1 Corinthians 15:3b-5a which plainly says that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to... well a lot of people actually.  That’s all you need to know isn’t it?  I’d argue no, that there is more to the whole gospel than that, but I acknowledge that any telling of the whole gospel must include that.  The thing is that in some ways this passage, what I’ve just read, is not actually the point of the paragraph you find it in.  The real point of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is found in 1 Corinthians 5:8-11, where Paul uses the brief nub of the gospel to explain how he too is an apostle, just like Cephas in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and the twelve also in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and the many living witnesses in 1 Corinthians 5:6, and James and all the “apostles” in 1 Corinthians 5:7.  So “yeah-yeah, yada-yada, died, buried, rose again, Jesus awesome” is there, but the point is that Paul is allowed to say that because he’s just as much a follower of God, and a bearer of divine ordination as Simon (aka Cephas), and by extension David and Isaiah.  Paul has been called; Paul is an apostle, an individually dispatched messenger of God’s light about Godself to a world in darkness.

So, that might have been a good place to move to a paragraph on how we apply Paul’s and Peter’s stewardship of the apostolate to our own lives, and how we too are called to carry light into the world.  I could say that even though God has not spoken to any of us like God spoke to Isaiah (in a vision in a temple), or Simon-Peter (literally as a flesh and blood man asking us for a favour after a long night at work), or Saul-Paul (blinded and yelled at in the middle of a highway on a multi-day road-trip), God still calls some of us to be witnesses and prophets today.  Paul may have been the last on his list to see Jesus in person and to be commissioned by a lordly figure in a vision, but he is not the last in all history: you need to watch and be ready for Jesus to appear in your dreams-slash-windscreen.  And all of that would be true, and neat, and good, and we could move on to the benediction and beverage service.  But we can’t do that: there’s a loose end.

So, yay! let’s get back to the awesome fun of finding hard questions.  Well, we’ve already found the hard question, and now we’ve put some shape around it to make the question even harder.  With all that Isaiah, David, Jesus, and Paul have said about God and the call of God to tell the good news of salvation, (case in point the cross and empty tomb), why did God send Isaiah to make the ninth century BC Israelites and Judahites resistant to that story?  If Christ died for all, and if Christ died for sin, why would God a) deliberately exclude Jews, and b) deliberately make them sin more badly so they would deserve the punishment already lined up?  God effectively says to Isaiah, “ look, I really want to smack them, but they don’t deserve it yet, so stir them up to rebellion and I’ll wait until I can really smack them so they stay smacked”.  I mean, where’s the grace?  Where’s the honour for the covenants with Abraham and with David?  And if the situation really is that dire for the people of God why does God make them wait another 800 years for the Messiah?  Don’t send Isaiah to harden their hearts LORD, send Jesus to redeem them!  I mean, you’d think God had never even opened a Bible the way this is going.

So, what’s the answer?  Anyone?  Do you need the question again?  The question is, with all that we know of God in Christ, and all that we know of David, Jesus, Peter and the twelve, and Paul, why did God send Isaiah to make the Israelites more naughty rather than more repentant, just so that God could snap them with a backhand as well?  So, what’s the answer?  Anyone?

Well what I’m going to do right now is keep you in suspense, but let you off the hook.  And I am also going to wrap up, so here’s the final paragraph.  As great and profound a question as that is, and would be on a Tuesday night, it’s not a question for Sunday morning.  A good teacher, a good pastor, a good preacher knows that.  And you don’t only have a good teacher, pastor and preacher, you have a great one.  You’re blessed.  No the question for a Sunday is, given all that, given David and Jesus and Paul and yada-yada-yada, how do you respond in Isaiah’s place when God calls you to prophetic witness and sends you to the Church with such a message of desolation.  Again, anyone?  You proclaim it.  For me the question is not why God wants to do this to my people, but how do I go about telling the leaders who need to know what God intends for us.

As your pastor let me say this: I know God is calling some of you to ministries of proclamation, and God is calling all of us to witness and fishing-for-men.  So, whatever God tells you to tell me, and to tell us, please just tell us.  Be brave, for The LORD your God is with you.

Amen.

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Three (Trinity B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell for Sunday 27th May 2018, Trinity Sunday in Year B.

Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

I don’t know about you, but for me the Doctrine of the Trinity seems like a mixed blessing.  It’s one of the big-ticket items that really sets Christianity apart from Judaism and Islam, let alone the religions that don’t worship the God of Abraham and Moses.  That’s not really a bother for me, that Christianity is unique in this way, it’s good to be unique.  It doesn’t bother me that the Doctrine is somewhat baffling; I want God to be a little bit mysterious because God is apparently all that is and was and ever shall be, and it’s kind of disappointing if I can grasp all of that, even at 46 years old and holding a Masters degree.  So, a God who is beyond my imagining and rationalising is a solid point for me: a God who is beyond is a God who is what a God is supposed to be.  No, the mixed part in the blessing is the question of the point of it all.  So, God is infinite, and God is Three-fold in Unity: but why does that matter?  Why do we actually need a Doctrine of the Trinity, can’t we just let God be God, awesome and eternal?  Why can’t the Church just get on with saving the lost, raising the dead, and healing the sick, and leave what is above the clouds above the clouds?

In this morning’s reading from the scriptures of Israel the vision of God given to the Judahite prophet Isaiah is of God is The LORD high and lofty, the subject of seraph worship and adoration.  Isaiah doesn’t have a vision of God in Heaven; no God is enthroned on earth inside the room which is the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  The seraphim are also present on the earth and they cry out in awe of God, the majestic one.  The whole temple shakes to its foundations with the sound of seraph worship as the seraphim heed the injunction of Psalm 29:1-2.  Now, let’s remember that the foundation of Solomon’s Temple is actually the summit of Mount Zion; so, it seems that the whole mountain and with it the whole city of Jerusalem is rocking at the experience of divine anthems of adoration.  It is not that the seraphim are singing loudly, no, what is occurring is that the response of God to worship is so resounding, and the response of all creation to the display of God’s glory as it fills the whole earth is so violent.  This is God in all of God’s God-ness, this is undeniably God the earthquake and not God the gentle whisper: indeed, we read in Isaiah 6:3-5 that God’s glory is volcanic in its sound, sight and stench, and that it is utterly terrifying for the self-consciously human Isaiah who stands before it.  In the first five chapters of his book Isaiah has been denouncing the sins of Judah, especially of the city, and now here he stands in the first verses of chapter six at centre of Jerusalem in the holiest place on Earth with the memory of his prophecies; he knows that not only is he unworthy to be in the presence of The LORD enthroned he is in a dire predicament as a sinner in the presence of so imposing a display of holiness.  However, he is not in imperilled at all, and with a seraph’s touch Isaiah’s sin departs and is blotted out: Isaiah is justified just as if he’d never sinned, and he is considered worthy not only to stand in the presence of The LORD but to step closer to the throne and volunteer for a mission of proclamation.

Now on Trinity Sunday we can see some obvious links.  The cry of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 is “holy, holy, holy”, so that’s three holies.  Three, eh?  Eh!  And look at Isaiah 6:8a where The LORD asks Whom shall I send, who will go for us?  “Us”, eh?  Eh!

But have you missed what has just happened with Isaiah?  Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God The LORD is personally present in Jerusalem.  And God The LORD forgives and forgets a man’s sin, and God The LORD commissions this renewed man to proclaim the Word of God to Judah.  I mean, wow, that’s a lot more pervasive an idea than a three-fold refrain in the liturgy.  God does what Jesus is supposed to do, but God does this before Jesus gets a chance to do it.  Maybe The LORD God and the messiah are not only on the same team, maybe they are following the same game-plan because today we have seen God act like Jesus.

In today’s prescribed part of the letter to Rome, Romans 8:12-17 Paul is admonishing the Church to be active in the outworking of their faith.  Grace introduces not just a new mood (forgiven), but a new way of being in the world.  Now life is by the Spirit of God and those who heed the Spirit’s wisdom are saved from the desires of the flesh.  It is this Spirit, capital-S, who empowers those who take up godliness to act in this way.  In other words, God is active in the life of the believer, and because of God’s action through the Spirit so the believer is supposed to be active in the work of God, calling upon God as Abba and living as children who serve, worship, and obey.  “God’s spirit in you is God’s voice testifying that you belong to God” is what Paul is saying.  And when the Spirit, big-S, is acting in you and on you when you suffer for Christ then God is in effect suffering with you.

So, another of today’s readings offers obvious connections to the idea that God exists in the plural as a unity rather than in solitude.  The Spirit in you points to God who is your Father, the two are working as one to guarantee your identity as son or daughter of the one you call Abba.  When you, son or daughter of Abba suffer for the sake of Christ who is the true Son, the Spirit who is in you also suffers alongside you.  So, the Spirit within you as you live for Jesus who is called Emmanuel (God-Brings-Salvation and God-With-Us), draws you close enough to God The Father that you can speak of God as Abba, or my own dearest daddy.

In John 3:1-17 the gospel author tells us that Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, recognises in Jesus’ activities the action of God.  Jesus confirms this, and says that all who trust God in the way that he trusts God will do the work of God as they empowered by the Spirit, capital-S.  However, as he makes clear in John 3:13 Jesus is not ordinary disciple, he is The Son of Man who alone has descended from The Father, and he is the vehicle of trust.  To trust in the work and word of Jesus is to trust in the work and word of God, because as John 1:1 reads Jesus himself is The Word of God.  Those who exalt the LORD when Jesus the man is crucified are those whom God is saving through the blessing of a full life: Jesus is making a wordplay in John 3:14-15.  See Jesus lifted up and lift high the name of The LORD as you look at Jesus.  Those who lift high the name of The LORD will live a life of eternity: not just a life that goes to infinity but a life that is literally a “life of the eons”, the biggest, brightest, boldest, most abundant life possible, a life full of God because it is filled with and by the Spirit.

So, what is the point of all of this?  And even if we have somehow proved by this skip across the top of the Bible that God’s essence is expressed as a unity of three co-eternal persons, existing of the same substance distinct from all created things, why does that even matter?  In some ways that’s a deeper question than we can address in the forty minutes remaining in my sermon: some of the greatest minds in Christianity spent their lives examining this question and never got to the end.  The triune nature of God is literally an eternal question: infinite and beyond all proportion of space and time to tell.  So, I won’t even begin, except to say that if you’re keen to follow the theological pathways start in the Bible and go next to the Cappadocian Fathers.

In the meantime, let’s remind ourselves of what we have heard this morning.  In Isaiah 6 we heard God act like Jesus, forgiving sin and commissioning a missionary with the gospel.  In John 3 we heard Jesus speak with patient correction to an expert in scripture, a community leader whose love for law and ritual had misdirected his heart away from those for whom Jesus’ compassion was greatest, the spiritually orphaned.  In Romans 8 we heard Paul instruct a local church to be more like Jesus, especially to live in the world with the fullness of the presence of God, and to love like a brother-sister everyone in the Church and every woman or man who entered the local congregation’s space.

So, in a grossly unfair oversimplification, (but on the other hand why complicate things), the Doctrines of The Trinity tell us that whatever God is made of God is internally and eternally consistent.  God is always the same.  Three points, because of course there must be three.

  1. God is love and God loves. The Father in all God’s glory has the same character of Jesus in all Jesus’ simplicity; Jesus lived and proclaimed love for neighbour, love for friend, and that greater love has no one than Calvary.  That’s God, not just Jesus, that’s all of God who loves with greater love.
  2. Christians who claim to trust Christ for salvation, and who proclaim Jesus as the Way, not only as “the way to Heaven” where the Nicene Creed is the password to unlock the gate that St Peter holds shut, but the Way as in a way of life, should live like Jesus lived. God is abundant and sacrificial love: we should do the same.  We cannot be the love that God is, but we can express the love that God expressed in Jesus.
  3. Christian love, the love that God is and the love that the Church expresses as people who walk in the footsteps of Jesus, is hard. Love cost Jesus his life, and it may well cost us our lives too: or it may cost us something even worse than death, it may cost us embarrassment.  Martyrs sometimes have it easy, they only have to be brave for a few minutes and then they die gloriously even if somewhat messily: we have to stand fast for decades in faithfulness.  It can be a lot lot harder to live for Jesus than to die for him, I am in no doubt of this, but that is where the Spirit comes in.  The paraclete of Pentecost, the helper, counsellor, and advocate, is also God Godself and the Spirit is the one who helps us to call The Father “Abba”, to call Jesus “lord”, and to call others “brother-sister”.  The same one who is God lives in you; equipping, encouraging, and comforting you in the life-long ministries of worship and hospitality.

And that’s why all this Trinity business matters: because not only does God want you to act like Jesus, remembering that God acts like Jesus, but the Spirit who is God is given to you to make it happen.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow: praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Amen.