Back in Green (Epiphany 2C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 20th January 2019, the second Sunday after Epiphany.  It was a communion Sunday at Kaniva Uniting Church

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10

In our reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning we hear God speaking up on behalf of God’s people, and what God says is vindication of the faith of the people in God.  Yes Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians, but the people who went into exile remained faithful to God, they “copped it sweet” to use an Australianism, and now they are to be set free and allowed home.  When they are freed God will speak up for them, removing their shame and echoing their excitement at what is to come: a newly-directed future with new glory and new reputation.  These are not victim-people; they are victor-people, winners through perseverance and trust in The LORD.  They shall be a crown of beauty according to Isaiah 62:3, neither forsaken nor desolate but delighted in by God and rejoiced over as a bride newly married to her husband who is God.  What an amazing promise for a nation considered by all other nations as weak, defeated, abandoned by its gods, and decidedly unattractive.  The spinster hag of the village is now the most beloved bride of The LORD, a princess amongst her neighbours: she has a new name befitting her new status in relationship with God.  God who was faithful is now envisaged as husband, the ultimate faithful one who will love the bride with unconditional and abounding love: Jerusalem need never fear shame or isolation again.

In some Jewish sources it is actually Isaiah who speaks out like this, not Godself.  I wonder what difference that makes.  The message that Jerusalem is the bride of God is not changed that it become the bride of Isaiah, that much is made clear in Isaiah 62:2, but if we look at the first verse and a half we see something else, something exciting, something which is possibly even more exciting than God speaking out on Jerusalem’s behalf.  We see the tenacity of the prophet who will not keep silent and who will not sit down until God has rescued the city’s reputation and therefore the glory of God’s own name.  This is a leader who loves his people and who is shameless in promoting the fame of God to a scoffing world.  “Jerusalem has not been abandoned,” says the prophet, “and God did not forget the people.  God was not defeated, God is not ambivalent, God is faithful even when the people weren’t and now God is going to restore the nation to greater glory.  I am so confident of this that I am going out on a limb to proclaim this as truth until it occurs.” How confident are we that God is going to come through for us?  Are we confident enough to speak to the scoffers and risk our own shame on the reputation of God’s promise of salvation?  Remember if this is Isaiah speaking the whole time, even as he is speaking about God, then all of these words are coming from his mouth.  There is no fresh promise of God here, Isaiah is remembering his history and saying, in effect, “even though God has not said so today, I remember what God promised in the past and God will be faithful to that word a generation ago.” That’s an even bigger call I think.  If God were to speak prophetically to you and through you with a message today which is for today then that’s one thing.  But to think that God has essentially been silent in the world for seventy plus years, then suddenly the prophet says “yeah but I have never forgotten, so I’m going to shout it out in public so you remember, and I’m going to keep shouting until it actually happens,” well that’s some bravery right there.

Are any of you up for that today?  Have any of you a specific, defiant memory of the promise of God to Australia, or to the Wimmera/Tatiara, that even though God is not speaking through you freshly today you still know the truth from way back and it still fires up your soul today?  Anybody?  If yes then speak it out, don’t be silent, because now, today, is the time when the rest of us need reminding.

I was speaking with friends recently about how God speaks freshly into old words, and particularly with how as preachers, (my friends and I all preach regularly), how as preachers sometimes we don’t have to write a new sermon each week.  Sometimes, and especially with the lectionary, the word you wrote three or six years ago on the same passages speaks truth.  Sometimes it’s the word you preached six years ago, or nine, and not the word from three years ago.  This is not an excuse to spend the first three years of your ministry writing a lectionary-based sermon every week and then just preach them in rotation for the next decades, but it is often an interesting task to read what God said, and to whom, from these scriptures “last time”.  In the course of that conversation I remembered a quote from Joyce Meyer, the famous American preacher, and I heard her say at Hillsong Conference in London in September 2007, “what you need to preach is not a new word, but a now word”.  She is right.  So often we try to be relevant or current, looking for a fresh revelation each week, and sometimes God says, “but you haven’t got it yet, say the last thing again”, or even “the timeless truth is timeless, nothing has changed, the message is the same.”  And as I was writing this sermon in the car on the way to Serviceton this morning I was reminded of a quote from the Senior Pastor of Hillsong Church London at the time of Joyce Meyer’s visit who told us one Sunday “I’m going to keep preaching this until you hear it, because I’ve been saying the same thing for weeks now and I haven’t seen you change.  If you’re sick of this message then put it into action and I’ll start talking about something else.”  Maybe harsh, maybe a “now word”: we all laughed when he said it, good naturedly of course, and got on with giving him space to say the next thing because we put the current thing into action.  The now word for Isaiah was not a new word, it was the old word which was still current.

And so I hope you’ll be happy when this morning I do the obvious.  As your lead preacher and one of your pastors I want to seek God’s “now word” for Kaniva and Serviceton.  The lectionary guides our Christian tradition readings to the wedding at Cana in John 2, and to Paul’s explanation of the gifts of God’s Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12.  Maybe those are God’s directions for us this morning; the story of how Jesus provided for that wedding in many interesting and theological ways, and/or gifts of the Spirit and the ministry we all have within the priesthood of all believers, which would follow neatly on from last week’s message about baptism as our authority to minister, not ordination.  Especially since last week’s sermon was actually written in December 2015 and this week’s at 08:55 this morning, and to be honest I’m still making it up as I go along.

And let’s be honest, why would I even want to pass up the opportunity to speak on such a rich and empowering topic as spiritual gifts for ministry?  Especially since we are in a place called “Shared Ministry”, duh!, and especially especially since I am 0.8FTE which implies that youse mob really should be picking up 1/5 of the ministerial workload as well as your usual volunteering for the congregation if we are to be an effective witness in our towns.

So, instead, let’s look at Psalm 36:5-10.  Huh?  Well, just look at it!  Your steadfast love extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.  Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgements are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike Oh LORD.  The song of David, the servant of The LORD, is a “now word” for our church as we stand here on the third Sunday of 2019, the first Sunday in green.  How precious is your steadfast love, all people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.  In all that we have been gifted for, in all that the unity of God’s people in the Body of Christ implies for our worked-out love for God’s world and the building of the Kingdom of God on Earth, we cannot start, we cannot move, we cannot even open our eyes to awaken if we are not conscious of who God is and what God thinks of us.  The message of David in song is the message of Isaiah in both oracle (he’s prophesying) and in action (he’s stating his workable agenda for the next however long it takes).  Our message to the world is the same, God is love and extends superabundance in grace, God is righteousness, and God is for us and on our side in the extremes and quietness of each day.  The message is urgent, but the means is not frantic: we do not help the world’s rush and bustle to settle if we are shouting impatiently at them.  Begin from rest is, I believe, God’s “now word” for Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry in 2019.  Maybe (hopefully) this is not all that God has to say to us, maybe it’s just the February word as we begin to enter the working year from our summer holidays.  But maybe, maybe if we aren’t starting in the love and abundance of God, maybe if we’re not remembering the promises made to us in the past, maybe if we’re too focussed on getting our ministry on and hitting February with all guns blazing and a head-up of steam to run the race we will miss God’s direction.  Yes we have to get going, yes there is much to do, and yes we’re already (almost) a month into this new year; but I don’t want to run even one step, or fire one spiritual shot, or make one pastoral phonecall or attend one church committee meeting without quieting myself to check in with God to hear God’s plan for us.  I don’t want us to forget where we came from, and whom.  I don’t want us to forget who we are, and whose.

Twenty nineteen is a year of opportunity for us, but to make the most of each opportunity let’s set in place a framework where we are always listening to God whenever it is “now”, so that we are with God when “now” is the time to minister.  Oh continue your steadfast love to those who know you; and your salvation to the upright of heart.  For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.

Amen.

 

 

 

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Named and Presented (Christmas 1B)

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

I will rejoice greatly because I am overwhelmed with joy in the LORD we read in Isaiah 61:10. These words spring from the mouth of Zion, the embodiment of God’s people in the form of a woman declaring her praise for the wonderful rescue she has seen at the LORD’s hands. She who has remained faithful to God has been rewarded with the full blessing of God’s faithfulness to her.  She is clothed with salvation and there is a sense in which she is wrapped in the loving embrace of belonging.  She is encompassed by God’s goodness regardless of the damage and dirt she knows lies underneath her fresh white dress.  The just actions of the LORD are praiseworthy and Zion sings praises at the top of her voice, praising and praising and Isaiah commends her for it.  Indeed, this passage bubbles over with praise, it is exuberant and lush with imagery and excitement.  There is a new name for Zion in Isaiah 62:3, a name which represents God’s personal pledge to change the status of the people, a name which itself declares God’s praise.  As Paul said to the Galatians, no longer will we be known as slaves because now God calls us beloved children.

Fourteen years ago, I began work as a specialist teacher in an Education Support Centre in the city of St Albans in England.  At one of the schools to which I was sent, to work with teenaged boys in danger of exclusion from school, the Headmaster was named Mr Andrew Wellbeloved.  Isn’t that a great name to have?  He sounds like some rotund and jolly character from a novel by Dickens don’t you think?  “Mr Wellbeloved.”  I would be proud to have a name like that and Andrew Wellbeloved obviously had ancestors who were held in high regard by their neighbours to have been given such a name as that.  I’m not sure how many school principals would be awarded such a name by their students today, indeed I know exactly what the boys I worked alongside called their teachers and “Wellbeloved” never made the top ten.  However, according to Isaiah and Paul God has given each of us this new name; so regardless of who you are now, or what your current name is, God thinks of you as Mr or Ms Wellbeloved because you are well beloved by God.

Like Mr Wellbeloved’s name, the name of God carries a message in itself.  It is not just a label; it is a description of the label’s owner.  My names are Damien Paul, which in turn mean “the one who tames”, and “small”.  Tann does not mean “light brown” or “worked leather” as you might have thought; Tann is the name of at least two towns in Bavaria, and traditionally it means in German someone who lives in a forest.  Our family coat of arms features three pinecones, three rampant pinecones.  Now I’m not sure how accurate a description “the tame-making little feral” is of me, but it does have meaning on some level.  In fact, I was named after two saints, St Damien who worked with lepers and St Paul the Evangelist.  And my surname comes from my dad, and his dad before him, and so forth back up the generations of our family pine tree.  With my name I have a heritage, a mission, and a network of belonging.

Psalm 8 tells us that the name of God is majestic; it carries a message.   Emmanuel, God-with-Us is the name we sing of Jesus.  Jesus’ name, Yehoshua in Hebrew and what he would have heard when summoned, means “God’s salvation” or “God saves.”  It is the name Joshua, and is also the name of the disciple of Moses who lead God’s people into the Promised Land.  God was made known to the Hebrews by the name YHWH, “I AM” or “I WILL BE”.  Our God, the God of us, is the God Who Is: no other god is like our God the eternal, living oneness.

Paul wrote to the Celtic people of Asia telling them that when Jesus came he did so at the right time.  The baby who is God-with-Us and God’s Salvation came for the Jews and for the Gentiles, so that anyone who acknowledged Christ as saviour would also belong to God.  Paul understood the entry of the Christ into the world as a turning point in history:  Jesus was born like any other boy of his day, from a human womb and into the human world of Jewish culture and religion.  Yet during his life he brought about a change in the state of humankind, from slaves of circumstance to the children of God.  Because of Jesus humankind would no longer be trapped in the endless cycle of suffering, pain, defeat, and disappointment, but women and men would be released to live in God’s pattern of life within flow the God colours and God flavours of the world.  Paul makes this point in first person singular tense in Galatians 4:7, this message is for each of us individually: you are a son or daughter of God.  The evidence of this is that we may address God as Abba, “daddy” or “dear Father”, the word still used by Hebrew speakers about their well-beloved fathers. As with God’s own name, the new name God gives us is majestic as we each have the new name “child of God” and we no longer have the old name “slave of circumstance”.

In the nativity and temple dedication stories of Luke 2 we read that Jesus was all things special and at the same time nothing special.  The one born to be King, Saviour and Lord went home after church and just grew up like any other kid.  This is just like Psalm 8 where mere humankind is seen as only a little lower than God.  Jesus was a mere human and like all other Jewish boys he was taken to the temple by his father to be circumcised and named formally by the priest on duty.   The ritual sacrifices offered to redeem him as a first-born son, and to purify his mother from her uncleanness at having given birth were also offered.  Even the birthing of the Messiah, God-made-Boy, was ritually defiling for the woman who was delivered of him.  Miriam and Yehoshua were just another pair of mother and child, tender and mild, among many thousands.

Yet within the context of this one ordinary family the truth is revealed that the God of Abraham is the God of all people; women and men, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, old and young.   Simeon and Anna are a man and a woman.  Simeon waits for God in the Court of the Gentiles where anyone can come and be close to the House of God; Anna is one stage further in to the temple complex in the Court of the Women which was a place for Jews only.  Mary offered birds rather than a lamb for her sacrifice of purity, demonstrating that their family was poor.  The message of Jesus’ birth, and the meaning of his name, is that God’s salvation is for all nations; the Word-made-Flesh, The Word of God, the word is that other nations are not the enemies of God to be destroyed, but other children of God to be included.

The events that involve Simeon and Anna took place as Mary and Joseph were entering the temple, so probably happen before Jesus and Mary were formally blessed.  Simeon and Anna were not priests, but as worshippers of God serving God in the temple they were ready when God chose to act to unveil more of God’s unique revelation.  Simeon recognised that Jesus was the saviour of all people, and in his hymn of praise he said that he could see God’s salvation completed in the child in his arms.  Jesus will bring truth to light and he will affect discernment in the community.  Simeon tells Mary that when Jesus is an adult this work of discernment and his prophetic naming of sin and injustice will see him opposed and rejected.   Be warned young mother, your son is indeed the Messiah of God, but his story will be painful for you.

Anna, we are told, is an Asherite; her ancestry is the tribe of Asher which we tend to think of as a bit of an also-ran tribe.  After all, the Asherites were not the Judahites, the royal line of King David and of Jesus’ father Joseph.  The Asherites are not the Benjaminites, the tribe of King Saul and of St Paul.  The Asherites are not the Levites, the priestly tribe of Zechariah, Elisabeth, and John the Baptiser.  Yet where the Levitical priest Zechariah had lived in the hope that God’s time for liberation had come, (have a look at Luke 1:68-79 for his hymn of praise at the birth of John), Anna the Asherite also-ran sees in Jesus the hope of liberation for Jerusalem.  Once more we see the story of no-one special, Anna is not special compared to Zechariah or Paul, but she receives the same message from God that the priest and the Pharisee received, the message of God’s present-day action for liberation and release.

So, what is the message?  No matter who you think you are, and no matter from where you have come, God wants to tell you about the hope found in accepting the love and future that God has for you, you as an individual.  The message of today, this last day of a soon to be passed year is that no person is ordinary to God.

For those who have never heard the message, the message is that you are loved, you are noticed, you are special, and you are wanted.  You may well go home this morning to an ordinary life and an ordinary job, but so did Jesus after he was dedicated at the temple.  Baby Jesus was not forgotten, God had a plan for him and God has a plan for you.  So, listen up to the ordinary people around you, they might just have amazing words of life and inspiration if you’re willing to hear it from them.

And for those of you who have the message, and yet think yourselves ordinary because you are not a Levite or a King, well join the work of Anna the Asherite and speak about what you know.  After all Christian sisters and brothers, we have a gospel to proclaim: Yehoshua Emmanuel.

God saves, and God is with us.

Amen.