Adventageous

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Yallourn Parish meeting at Yallourn North Uniting Church on Sunday 17th December 2017, the Third Sunday in Advent in Year B.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; Luke 1:46b-55

Last week when I spoke about God’s word spoken through Isaiah to the exiled Judahite and Israelite nations I said that that passage, found in the first eleven verses of Isaiah 40, was an inauguration text.  I said that God had set aside a new prophet for a new message, and we were coming in at the very beginning of that story.  Today’s reading from Isaiah 61 serves the same purpose in scripture and history.  Today we heard how God was again speaking to a people in distress, and the message of God was hope.  Last week we heard of comfort and assurance, this week we hear of activity and remembrance.  You are not forgotten by me, says God, now go and gather the lost whom you have forgotten.

“The spirit is upon me because God has set me apart to do the work of God” says the prophet.  Unlike last week’s initiation where overheard God speaking to the angels, and the angels speaking to the prophet with a “tell them this” message, today’s reading began with the prophet himself speaking as if he has already received the message.  That’s fine, and you’ve probably seen that already, it’s no big deal that we miss out on Heaven’s conversation today.  But what sets this inauguration apart is that this prophet claims to have the Spirit upon him.  Usually prophets were not anointed, but in a way this prophet claims to have been.  Anointing was for priests and kings, ordination and coronation involved oil, but prophets usually announced themselves simply by beginning to speak.  We heard last week how John the Baptiser seems to appear out of nowhere, the same was true, pretty much, of the Israelite and Judahite prophets back in the day, with no activity of the temple or the palace.  In other words, the Spirit’s presence was conferred by Godself as the evidence of God’s appointment.  That doesn’t mean that the rituals of coronation or ordination are irrelevant in the Kingdom of God, we do still need kings and priests, but the work of a prophet is something different.  Prophets belong to God in a special way, they do not owe tenure to any parliament or synod.

This may sound inspiring, and it should do, but it is also heavy with meaning.  Quite simply if you do not have the Spirit, and the Spirit is a gift of God which cannot be earned or acquired through study or seniority, then you are not equipped for the work of God.  I believe that this is true for all Christians and Jews, not just those called to the unique office of prophet.  I do not claim to be a prophet in the way that John the Baptiser or Isaiah were, but I hope that you recognise that what I say is said because of the Spirit of God working through me as a preacher and in me as a Christian.  Without the Spirit you cannot do the work of God.  You can do public speaking, you might even be able to preach a decent Bible study.  You can do pastoral visiting and listen attentively to the sick and lonely.  And those are good things.  But without the insight of the Spirit those jobs will always lack something, they will be incomplete as ministries.

And, of course, the reverse is true.  If you have been equipped by the Spirit to do the work of God, but you do not do the work, then what use is the Spirit to you?  Maybe some people are not doing the work of God because the Spirit is not with them, and that is the evidence that the Spirit is absent from their lives.  I don’t care if you don’t speak in tongues, there are other signs of God’s individual presence.  But if you don’t do anything as a disciple, then I wonder about your relationship with the saviour.

No Spirit of God, no work of God.  Without the Spirit we can do nothing.  But no work of God, no Spirit of God?  If your faith is not seen in action aligned to the mission of God, then what evidence does the world and the church have that you are with God at all?

So, as a pastor-teacher here, and someone you have chosen in the short-term at least to fill a leadership role, what am I looking for?  How do I know that you are each and all a Christian?

When I was a primary school teacher I used to write two names on the whiteboard at the beginning of each lesson, and these were our learning friends.  One was W.A.L.T., and the other was W.I.L.F.  “WALT” told us “we are learning to”, and “WILF” told us “what I’m looking for”.  For example: We Are Learning To…use adjectives.  What I’m Looking For…is good describing words. It was very clear to the pupils, be they grade two or grade seven, what the lesson was about.  Just so, I want to be clear for you today.  As the one acting in the role of your “Minister”, W (am) ILF?

Isaiah, and Jesus who quotes him later and at the outset of his own ministry, offers that God’s work is good news to the oppressed, bandaging for the broken, liberty to the captive, release for the imprisoned, declaration of God’s favour to the abandoned, and comfort for the mourning.  That sounds like a pretty clear “WILF” on God’s behalf, so let’s go with that, and make that our “WALT”.  In Isaiah 61:8 God’s own voice declares repair and restoration of that which was destroyed and thought lost forever.  God through Isaiah promises restoration of what was stolen, full restoration with the right of inheritance.  Isaiah has great cause to rejoice in God who has called him and equipped him with resource and blessing and joy.  Isaiah among the Israelites has been restored and healed, perhaps he has been among the first to have been so and now he is telling his story to encourage those awaiting the Spirit’s arrival in their lives.  The blessing of God is natural and once the channels are unblocked what should flow naturally, God’s favour, will flow in abundance.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20, 24 we read Do not quench the spirit.  Do not despise the words of the prophets…. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this. As I hope you’ve already picked up, but now I’m going to say it blatantly, the work of the Spirit is to make us more like Jesus.  Jesus was the one who was most guided by the Spirit, so if we are guided by the Spirit and attentive to God’s “WILF” and “WALT” then we’ll be more like him.  Through all Jewish history the prophets were the custodians of the nation’s greatest hopes, desires and dreams.  When the actions of the people lead the nation away from these great thoughts, the work of the prophet was to remind them of the picture of the future to call them back.  As Christians we don’t have a nation in the way that the Jews do, we have a Kingdom which is made evident in the work of the Church.  The Spirit moves on some people to speak out, and the Spirit moves on all people to respond, to draw the Church back to the hopes, desires, and dreams of God and the Christians who have gone before us.

Turning briefly to the Christmas story I want to suggest that the evidence that Mary the Virgin and John the Baptiser were doing God’s work was that the Spirit was with them, even though the work they were doing was new.  In Christian tradition God had not spoken to the Israelites through a prophetic man for over four hundred years, until suddenly John appeared in the wilderness quoting Isaiah amongst the other prophets, yet denying the charge of being a new Elijah.  He didn’t fit the preconceived idea, and his style was four hundred years out of date, but the Spirit was all over him so whatever he was doing and saying it must have been God.  And think of Mary, God had never sent a messiah before, so Mary’s pregnancy was unique; it still is.  Yet hear her song of “tell out my soul” and look at the life of the boy-became-a-man born from her womb.  Do you see the Spirit of God upon her, upon Jesus, in this new thing?  Then it is God, and “WALT…do something new”.

How do we know that God is speaking through the voices of the people on the margins of our tradition, our society?  How do we know that this message is true if it comes without precedent?  We look for the Spirit.

Again, in Mary the Spirit was seen in her celebration and her song of worship and delight filled praise; so much so that her very presence caused the prophet John to leap in praise in utero.  In John the Spirit was seen in this leap, a second trimester foetus who prophesies to the coming Christ.

In John the Spirit was seen again in his proclamation of the message of God in accordance with the Jewish tradition.  The great test of any prophet is found not so much in what he says but in whether what he says will happen does happen.  That Jesus came and was seen to be all that John had foretold and more is evidence that John was a man sent by God.

I have no doubt that the Spirit is with this congregation, by which I mean the whole Yallourn Parish.  God is with and on and in each of you people here this morning, and those who are sometimes here but not today.  And with the mob at Morwell listening to Cathy Halliwell this morning.  And with Cathie.  I know these things because I have seen the Spirit at work amongst you in your care for each other and for the care-needing people of your towns.  I do not believe that we are in danger of losing the Spirit or of disappointing God, but I hasten to add that we can never take our ministry for granted.  We are engaging in a work which is a privilege, and if we lapse then that privilege will be taken from us and given to someone else.  Let’s not allow that.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, to do God’s good works.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Adventure

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 3rd December 2017, the first Sunday in Advent.

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80 1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37

Well, happy new year!  As I indicated last week, today is the first day of a new year in the rolling calendar of the church.  We have entered a new season of the lectionary: today is Advent Sunday, the first day in Advent and the season of purple which will take us up to the morning of Christmas Eve.  Today is also the first day in the second year of our three-year perpetual cycle, we are now in the indescribably beautifully named “Year B”, better called “The Year of Mark”.    This year the bulk of our gospel reading will come from the Gospel According to St Mark.  Since Advent Sunday a year ago and until last week we were primarily interested in Matthew, and from this day in twelve months’ time we will be reading Luke.  So, again, happy new year.

With the new liturgical year comes the opportunity to refresh ourselves in God, and to perhaps reconsider our patterns of engaging with God.  One of the things which I have taken up as of today, with some preparation work in the last few weeks, is a new pattern of Bible reading. For the next twelve months or so, every Monday at 9:30 am before I sit down to work on my sermon for the following Sunday I will take the time to read a chapter from my new book.  This book is designed to assist my spiritual formation for my development of faith as a Christian, and my development of depth as a minister.  And this week’s reading, written to be read in the first week in Advent, has already born fruit.

Each of today’s prayers were drawn directly from scripture, indeed from today’s set Old Testament readings and from the Psalm.  I read to you from Isaiah 64:1-5a, and then Isaiah 64:5-9, so, Isaiah 64:5a was read twice; it acts as a hinge between two thoughts.

In the second prayer, of adoration we heard the prophet’s heart-sung desire that God would split the heavens and descend in personal display of holy majesty.  Let the name of God, the authority and reputation of God, be so well promoted in the Earth that it would be like fire under a kettle.  Come down God and remind us of how awesome you are, remind us how awestruck we should be at the very thought of you.

In the third prayer, of confession, we heard the prophet’s heart-wrung sorrow that if God were to descend God would find a people broken by sin.  God’s people no longer call on God’s name or celebrate God’s glory, not even one person.  God’s chosen people are defiled, and to use Isaiah’s own image which is not made clear in English translation but which my commentator noted in Isaiah 64:6, they are “filthy cloth”, literally, a used tampon.  Yuck eh?  Certainly, this is less than what God deserves from us, far, far less.  Yet God is the creator, the potter for whom we are clay, and we are assured that God has not forgotten us, and God will deliver us from the mess we have made of ourselves.

The writer of my new spiritual formation book said of the Israelite prophets that they were the custodians of Israel’s greatest hopes, desires and dreams.  When the actions of the nation lead them away from these great thoughts the prophets spoke out to remind them of the picture of the future to call them back.  God promises all that we adore God for, but if we ignore God or refuse God then all we are good for in the future is to put in the bin next to the toilet.  I know which future I’d prefer.  (And yeah, continuing thanks for that mental picture Isaiah: Yuck!)

You can perhaps see why Asaph, the writer of today’s psalm (and of our first prayer and call to worship today), felt the need to pray restore us God…God of hosts…LORD God of hosts, let your face shine that we may be saved in Psalm 80:3, 7, 19.  This prayer for Israel’s restoration may well have been composed after the Kingdom of Israel, the one situated on Samaria, had been conquered and the people carried away.  God’s patience had run out and the people had been overcome by their enemies.  Like Isaiah, Asaph is calling upon God to come in might and power, specifically as Lord of Hosts which is to say supreme marshal of the armies of Heaven, and deliver the people with divine and military intervention.  The nation has not heeded the word of the prophets, and now they’re in that bin and wrapped in tissues.  What is to be done for them?

In Mark 13:24-37 which was read to us we find Jesus speaking about the day when the Son of Man will come in glory.  Hear how the images presented by Jesus echo those presented by Isaiah, when the LORD comes the earth will be shaken and there will be a display of great power and glory.  The signs of the times are there; God is always ready to come because the glory of God is not diminished in the time between epiphanies, there is no need for God to be girded up ready because God is never not God. Humankind, however, is not always ready and God’s action occurs more often than it should as a surprise to the Israelites.  Be on your guard, says Jesus.  As Jesus has taught us through Matthew 25 in these past three weeks the Master will return, and he will be displeased to find us sleeping like the five girls, or lazy like the man with the one talent, or ambivalent to the world like the goatish people.

The prophets have told you, God is close by and God is powerful and mighty.

Your own history has taught you that God is incredibly faithful to those who heed God, obey God, and serve God in loving worship and acts of justice.

And now the Son of Man, the messiah, is telling you in your hearing that the time of God’s appearing in fullness is very, very close.  Wake up!  Watch out!  Repent because the Kingdom is at hand and the King Godself is just over the horizon!  Can you not see the dawning glory already?

If you are awake and all of that then the work Jesus has for you is simple: tell others.  What I say to you I say to you all says Jesus in Mark 13:37. In other words everyone needs to know this message, everyone needs to be awake when God comes in glory, even if it happens in the graveyard shift.  If you are alert and alive to the possibilities tell others who are not, so that they will be.  If you are a friend to someone don’t let your friend sleep through the coming of God, or let God find him or her sleeping, or lazy, or indifferent.  When God comes for you to draw you into a loving relationship with the Father, don’t allow that your friends will instead go into that bin with all the other biohazardous things of the world.

Today is our New Year’s Day: let it be a fresh start in your relationship with God.  Let it also be a fresh start in your relationship with the world within your reach.  Perhaps today and on to this week is your chance to be a prophet to your own people; speaking to them as the custodian of your tribe’s greatest hopes, desires and dreams.  Call your friends and their attention away from the actions and attitudes which inhibit this future.  The child has come, the king is coming, the time is now.

Amen.

Make your Choice.

This is the text of the message I prepared for Newborough Uniting Church for Sunday 12th November 2017.  It was the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost in Year A.

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Today’s reading from the book of Joshua jumps us straight into an episode in the conquering history of the Hebrew peoples.  Of course, if we had spent the last few weeks reading Joshua on a Sunday we’d be better informed of what is going on, but the lectionary and my choosing to not preach from the lectionary for most of October anyway did not allow for that.  Anyway, the Hebrews have reached the point where they are preparing to seal the conquest of the land.  The armies have been as far as they wish to have gone, and each tribe or half-tribe has a satisfactory allotment of land.

So, in today’s reading Joshua has gathered the leaders of the tribes and of the armies as well at Shechem in Ephraimite territory.  Joshua is an Ephraimite so perhaps he has gathered them on his own land.  Joshua’s address to the leaders reminds them of The LORD’s work among the Hebrews since the call of Abraham, and he cleverly asks them to declare their loyalty for The LORD one way or the other.  As leaders they are to choose now and forever as they settle in the land promised to Abraham what they will do with the benefits of the covenant they have inherited.  Joshua calls the nation to choose between worship of The LORD the God of Abraham, worship of the Egyptian gods from their slave days, and worship of the Canaanite gods whose worshippers have been overcome.  Choose the lesser gods if you will, invites Joshua, but choose one way or the other with deliberate action.  As for Joshua he chooses The LORD as his God.

The leaders respond on behalf of the nation that they too will choose The LORD: but Joshua warns them that The LORD will take them at their word in this and that if they fall away they will face the consequences of disloyalty since that is a breaking of the covenant.  Once you have chosen The LORD he says, you cannot back out, so be very careful before committing your way to The LORD.  Again, the leaders say that The LORD will be their God, and that they reject the Egyptian and Canaanite gods.  Joshua erects a monument in that place as a physical and visible reminder of the promise.

In a place of pluralism, during a time of rapid societal transition Joshua seeks to ground the people on the firm foundation of worship of and trust in Israel’s God.  Today we face a similar situation.  Today as Christians we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves, (and therefore to love ourselves), but we must never fail to worship God foremost.  We are to be compassionate and hospitable, but we are first to be faithful to the God of compassion and hospitality, the God of salvation and grace for all the world.

The Kingdom of Heaven is described by Jesus in a parable of ten bridesmaids waiting for a delayed bridegroom.  The hour is unknown, but will be at hand: do not be unprepared.  The task of the bridesmaids in this story is bearers of light; oil is a metaphor for faithfulness in discipleship which keeps the light aflame.  The wise bridesmaids do not share their oil with the foolish because discipleship cannot be borrowed.  You may have heard it said that “God does not have grandchildren”, we cannot rely on the beliefs of others to earn us salvation.  In the same way each woman or man can only source her or his own light from her or his own faithfulness.  The message of Jesus is that always faithful are always ready, the half-hearted or negligent in faith will be caught off-guard.

This parable has been used in the past to point toward lukewarm faith in the congregation.  Much like the sheep and goats, or the wheat and weeds, this story points to how only some people in the Church are true disciples of Jesus while others who come on Sundays are just going through the motions.  Like the foolish girls some Christians only have enough goodness to keep their lamps lit on a Sunday, going dark or at least growing dull during the week.  Other Christians may not shine as brightly on Sunday, but they do shine all week.  So, don’t be one of the blazing hypocrites, instead burn brightly for every hour of every day since you never know when God is watching or when Jesus might return a second time.

But in 2017, and alongside what Joshua said to the gathered tribes, I’m not so sure.  Perhaps those half-lights are no longer in church at all.  Churches these days are much smaller than they were a generation or two generations ago.  Like many of you I wonder why that is: I have concluded that perhaps some of the decline is due not to society’s recalcitrance or the indifference of “the young people today”, but to the honesty of society.  Many of the people my age, and younger, with whom I have spoken about faith say that they are no-longer prepared to live a lukewarm life, and so they don’t bother coming to church at all.  “I’d come if I actually believed more strongly,” they say, “but I’m not interested in going through the motions any more”.  Maybe the reason that there’s less than twenty of us here this morning is that we are the only ones with sufficient oil to last the week.  The others who have only a day’s or an hour’s supply didn’t bother to come at all.

So, what do we do with that?  Whilst we cannot share our oil, (our own relationship with God in Christ), since it is our own, the news of where to get more oil is in our hands.  Rather than sending the foolish girls away in the dark, our job as bridesmaids and brides-mates is to make sure that everyone has enough oil before we set out.

The challenge extended by Joshua can be thought of as a choice for the best source of oil, and of the best oil too.  All gods provide opportunities for worship, and all gods provide benefits to their worship.  All oil burns, but some oils burn better than others.  In terms of religion I’ve only ever been a Christian, so I have no personal experience of Buddha or Krishna, let alone Ba’al or Horus.  However, I know that when I have allowed myself to put Jesus second for short periods of time, say for the Geelong Football Club, or a particular band and its CD, or a nice bottle of ale or shiraz, that there has been short-term pleasure in that.  Joshua challenges the Hebrews to see that The LORD is the only source of filling, lasting joy.  In our world of many gods we can say the same; but we must proclaim it with one caveat.  To have the fullness of The LORD, to receive the overabundant filling of the Lord, we must give ourselves totally to The LORD.  Someone coming to church at Christmas, or Easter Day, or an especially meaningful funeral, wedding, or baptism might get some temporary joy from church, even as I get temporary joy from the Cats winning a premiership or from my second glass of that amazing red.  But if that person is not encouraged to seek more of God by seeking God more often, then she or he will assume that all there is to God is seasonal or short-lived.

When Paul wrote to the Christians at Thessaloniki he answered a question from some Christians there.  They were concerned about loved ones who had died before the news reached them of the salvation won by Jesus on the cross, and others who had died in faith but would miss out on the immanent second coming of the saviour.  Aren’t Christians who die before Christ returns just like the foolish bridesmaids?  Will they be left rotting in their graves while the rest of us get Raptured away to Heaven?  Paul assures the Thessalonians that all who die are safe in God’s hands.  The grace of God is not limited by time or place: God can and will intervene to save whomever wherever and whenever God chooses to do so, even in the past.  In all things rest assured that your hope is safe in God.  Faith is empty without hope, so hear the words of God through Paul’s pen, you are safe to hope in God because God can and will deliver on the promise of salvation for all.

Paul’s response is good oil.  Where the news of the depth of the gospel had not pervaded the Thessalonian Christians Paul proclaims the fullness of grace, and therefore puts more oil and better oil into their jars.

And so, this is our work too.  We are not to lament that we have less bums on seats here today than we did a generation ago.  We are not to lament that our friends and our children and grandchildren are spending Sunday mornings elsewhere than here, including sleeping of hangovers or a late night’s return from the Speedway or the MCG.  Yes, there are legitimate concerns here, I’m not saying we ignore those situations.  But our work is to speak to those living with less oil than us, and oil of a lesser quality than that provided by The LORD through the saving and salving grace of Jesus Christ.  The way of Christ is a better way: choose now.  Do you want to be full of Jesus?  Then worship him.  Or do you want to be full of Collingwood, or Holden, or VB?  Make no mistake that if you do then you will worship those.  Today I invite you to make your choice, make it stick, once and for all, and then tell others about the best choice.

But as for me, and for my house, we will worship The LORD.

Amen.

‘Cos you gotta have faith…fa…fai…fa…faith

This is the text of the message I prepared for Moe-Newborough Uniting Church for Sunday 8th October 2017.  It was a communion Sunday and was also my first time preaching to this congregation.

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19:7-13; Philippians 3:4b-11

So, the ten commandments eh?  You’d think that would be a straightforward task for a preacher: it’s all there in black and white.  God quite clearly says what is expected of Christians and Jews, so the sermon for today is read that, live with obedience, and move on.  Case closed, thanks for listening, let’s sing another hymn.

But I really don’t think it’s that simple, and here’s why.  The way I read it the primary purpose of the Ten Commandments, according to the narrative of Exodus, was to introduce the Israelite people to the God who had delivered them from slavery.  So, rather than being a set of rules without a context, (common-sense as those rules are for the most part), the commandments inform Israel of the best way to relate towards and behave in the presence of God, and each other.  Rather than primarily being a legal code framed for punishment of offenders these commandments are boundary markers for healthy communities.  They are words spoken personally by God (Exodus 20:1) and they speak of who God is with respect to the Israelites.  The LORD, whose self-spoken name is YHWH, is their God and the one who delivered them from slavery.  There is no doubt that this God is same one who spoke with Moses and sent Moses to Pharaoh.  This is the same God who sent the plagues, opened the sea, sent the manna and quail, and provided water at Horeb.  “I AM” the One who is with you, says God, the one who has always been with you.  In other words, “it’s me”, and “it’s been me, only me, all along”.  With that introduction make God then sets out the expectations of ongoing relationship.

So, let’s briefly run through those expectations:

  1. Sole allegiance. Exodus 20:3 assumes the existence of other gods, but the Israelites are to belong to YHWH alone.
  2. Related to the sole allegiance thing The LORD God is not to be imagined in physical form. There are to be no religious statues like the ones seen in Egypt or the ones to be seen in Canaan, not even statues of YHWH.  The LORD is the creator and not a creation: the nature of God is that God has no form or shape so to imagine a form or shape for God, even for the express purpose of worship of God is to lessen God’s dignity.  You may not pretend that God is something that God is not; it’s impolite.
  3. Related to the true nature of God, The LORD is not to be spoken of as if God were something different to what God is. In the same way that you must not give God a shape that isn’t God’s, don’t give God a voice that isn’t God’s.
  4. Imagine life in the model of God. As Christians, we might think of discipleship as following the Way of Jesus, living and acting as Jesus did, even pausing to consider “WWJD” if that’s your thing.  Well Israel’s God expects the same.  Follow God by acting like God; and the primary way of this is to rest on every seventh day.  Slaves do not get a day of rest, but Israel are no longer slaves so let them model the life of God.  Sabbath-keeping is therefore about freedom and discipleship.
  5. Five to Nine inclusive are about showing respect and care for other Israelites, the other followers of The LORD. Love and don’t disrespect the value of all parents; love and don’t kill anyone; love and don’t disrespect the humanity of all peers; love and don’t steal from anyone; love and don’t lie in court.  These are great, common-sense rules for society, but to read them in the context of the way of life for a worshipping community dedicated to the God who has saved them from a disrespectful community adds a layer of importance.  Don’t be like the Egyptians, be like The LORD.

And lastly, guard your attitudes as well as your actions.  No only “do not” act thoughtlessly or maliciously, but “do not even think” along those lines.  Jesus echoed this in the Sermon on the Mount, didn’t he?  Jesus was not original in saying that, the intent was there all along.

The Psalmist, writing perhaps five hundred years after the Exodus event describes the way in which the ordinances of God revive the soul and light the fires of learning (Psalm 19:7).  The wisdom of Torah, the profound instructions of God bring joy and light, the advice and intention of God is to be sought and held precious (Psalm 19:10).  The Ten Commandments are in no way “The Ten Suggestions”, God expects them to be adhered to, but the heart of the instruction of God is that this code offers an impenetrable barrier against the thoughts of the unwise.  Think like God, not like the foolish polytheists and their slave-making ways. Torah is a guiding light for the weary disciple and a reminder when you are falling apart of how to act toward other people and toward God.  The commentary I used this week refer to omission regarding Psalm 19:12-13: the law is not a stick to beat you with but a reminder amidst times of human frailty not to forget God’s expectation that you will be nice to people and humble to God.

In the section of Paul’s letter to Philippi set for us this morning we are made to understand that there is no doubt that Paul was very Jewish (Philippians 3:4b-6).  Paul makes his credentials as a Jew and a scholar very clear: even so he considers such knowledge a loss if it does not connect with the wisdom of Jesus Christ.  Paul is not saying that knowledge of the law is loss; he is rightly proud of his knowledge of Torah and I imagine he would agree with all which was said about the Law in Psalm 19.  No, what Paul is saying is that if your scholarship, your knowledge of Torah, does not point you to Jesus then your scholarship is useless.  (But if your scholarship leads you to Jesus then it is priceless.)  To pursue scholarship for the sake of righteousness, i.e. salvation, is pointless: being an academic cannot save you, even if it does help you be a good Jew.  (So long as you are a good Jew of course, and not a scholarly snob.)  In simple terms Paul says that the advantage of a working knowledge and understanding the ten commandments is that it helps you to understand what Jesus did so that you can follow in his Way.  I hope you can see that this is a development on the Jewish understanding already presented; that the law itself is not enough but the law as a pointer toward God for relationship and discipleship of God, and a life of better fit in the community of faith is what it is all about.  If you’re going to be clever, great, but make sure your cleverness leads you to be humble before God and kind to your friends and to strangers.  Faith as Paul describes it in Philippians 3:9 is assent to articles of belief; you might say “I have faith in the resurrection because I believe it actually happened and that it is meaningful for salvation from sin”, but faith as described by Paul is also openness to God’s activity.

So, what do we need to know?  What is the simple message for you to hear and then “case closed, thanks for listening, let’s sing another hymn?”  Well the message is pretty much the same: live with obedience and move on.  And here’s how to do it: study the Bible and other Christian texts and know what God expects of you as a disciple.  Follow the text and follow the Way of the Lord.  More specifically, be like Paul and know the Bible so well that you will have what you need to rebut the arguments of the legalists and the know-it-alls.  Paul really did know it all, he tells us as much and his detractors acknowledge his learning, and Paul says love is all you need.

Love God, love other people.  Get to it.

Amen.

Underneath the lamplight

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 16th July 2017, the sixth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A.

Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11.

This week our visit to Genesis jumps forward twenty years from last week’s reading.  Isaac is now sixty years old and he has been married to Rebekah since he was forty.  In all that time she has not been able to have children, and it appears that the promise made to Abraham and then furthered through Isaac is again under threat.  No son for Isaac means no nation for Abraham.  So Isaac prays for his wife in her barrenness just as his father had prayed for his mother.  (We’ll see the same is true in the next generation with Jacob’s best-loved wife Rachel: this is a common theme throughout Hebrew and Jewish history.)  Consequently Rebekah does become pregnant and her babies, twin boys, wrestle with each other in the womb.  Rebekah asks God about all the fighting inside her belly and God confirms that two great nations (Edom and Israel) are forming, struggling for supremacy.  God also confirms that as it was with Isaac and Ishmael, the younger son will be preeminent.  After they are born and mature into young men Esau (whose name means hairy) is his father’s son and Jacob (whose name means heel) is his mummy’s boy.

What we are presented with in these two men is two ways to live.  There brothers, twin brothers, are as different as men can be, let alone men born on the same day and from the same womb.  If you have been following With Love to the World in your personal Bible studies this week you’ll have read this passage on Tuesday and you would have been presented with the idea that what is going on here is very significant.  Not only is God choosing one son of Isaac over another, one grandson of Abraham to be the one who carries on that great promise made to Abraham to make a great nation of his decadents through Isaac, but God is favouring one way of life over another.  In contrast to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 God chooses the agrarian farmer rather than the nomadic hunter and tracker.  God has elected a settled way for men, and God has preferred men who are smooth-skinned, soft-handed and who work close to home.  God has de-selected the nomadic and ever wandering Neanderthal man who is rough and hairy, who eats only meat and other “red stuff”, and who doesn’t care what he has to give away to get some.

The question our readings ask of us is similar to the question asked of God.  Given two apparently equal options for moving forward, which option will you choose?  And pertinent to us alone, will your choice be the option that God chose?

The Psalmist finds in the Word of God a lamp for light in a time of severe (mental) affliction.  The section between Psalm 119:105-112 offers a plea that God would hear the praises offered by the afflicted one, and to teach her/him the ordinances of God’s chosen way.  “My life is in danger,” says the Psalmist, “but I will hold to God’s truth.  Others try to trip me up but I stay close to God so that I won’t fall, or I will be grabbed and saved if I do”.  The way of God is the way he/ she wants, and wants always, to be the way in which he/she walks.  The Psalmist finds joy, and we might unpack that as peace, rest, delight, hope, in God’s instructions to her/him.  The Psalmist listens to God and orients her- or himself to God’s ways.  The Word of God, like the creeds, is not a hammer to bash us into submission, but a light to illuminate the better way of life and to support those who walk it.  The Word of God brings freedom because in pointing out the dangers along the way the traveller can be confident that nothing will come as a surprising threat.  Remain listening and reflective as you walk, and you’ll be far less likely to walk astray.

In February I told you that I don’t like to use the headings which Bible translators have inserted into the text.  They can be misleading in that they are suggestive of only one, traditional interpretation of the passage to follow.  In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which I use to write my sermons, and you have in the rack in front of you, the heading for today’s passage from Romans 8 reads “Life in the Spirit”.  I’m not unhappy with that heading, because there is room for wriggle within it that perhaps the NRSV translators and the third-wave Charismatics may not have been aware of.  More of that in a sec.

The passage begins with the message that there is no condemnation. This is similar to the message of Psalm 119 but offers this message purely as support for the sake of freedom.  The peace of God towards you is your space to be free, and to move about on the way ahead.  (You are a hiker on a trail, not a tram on a rail.)  And like Psalm 119 there is a qualifier of this confidence, the promise is for those who are in Christ Jesus.  I understand this phrase to refer not to those who have answered an altar call and prayed “The Sinners’ Prayer”, who have walked “The Romans Road of Salvation” and who have learned “The Four Spiritual Laws”, but those who have taken notice of who Jesus said he was at face value, (i.e., that he was who he said he was) and who live and move within the world and its societies in the way that Jesus lived and moved.  Yes this is about your salvation from sin, yours and mine, but it’s not as rigid as a rote recitation of a written prayer of invitation or the memorisation and unwavering devotion to every word of the Nicene Creed might suggest.  The way of Christ is a better way than the way of rigid, legalised faith.  This is what Paul is saying; therefore this is what I am saying.  If you don’t like what I’ve just said, well take it up with Paul.  According to Paul only Jesus can save: the Law can point out error but it cannot do anything save a transgressor.  In response to this revelation, Paul counsels us to live so as to emulate Christ, not so as to avoid sin.  He says this secure in the knowledge that if you live for Christ then sin becomes an unlikely experience for you anyway.  The light of the Word which the Psalmist spoke of in 119:105 is revealed in Jesus, who is the Word made Flesh (John 1:1): not in rigid adherence to the syntax and grammar of the scriptural texts.  This is life in the spirit, as that heading in the NRSV suggests, and we can see it is so in two ways.

  1. It is life in the spirit of the law, “the vibe of the thing” it as the barrister says in “The Castle”. In the spirit of the law we find the way in which the law was supposed to be read and applied.
  2. It is life in the presence and up-taking of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit our counsellor, advocate, friend, and empowering one. Do not let your obedience of the Law get in the way of your discipleship of God, it says in Romans 8:7.  If your way of being a Christian, obeying the law and practicing the rites and rituals of the faith, leads you to act or think in ways that Jesus did not or would not act or think, then it is your way which is wrong, not the way of Jesus.

If your way is not the way of Jesus, then what does that say about your way?  This is not condemnation from Paul or from me:  Paul desires that the Romans follow Jesus, not him, and I desire the same for you; rather this question is an invitation to reflect upon what your Christian life looks like.  Does your Christian life look like the life of Jesus?  I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

Paul goes on, in the light of this revelation, to remind his readers that they and we are not bound by our ideas of God, but that we have been swept up by God into fellowship with Christ, by the Spirit.  Those who have the Spirit belong to Christ, Paul says in Romans 8:10, and because we have the Spirit we have life and not death.  And if not death then not condemnation either, nor guilt, nor punishment, nor fear.  We have a saviour who can deliver us from the consequences and shame of sin, not just a judge who points out our wrongdoing but is powerless to do anything more than point and frown which is all the Law can do.

So walk in light.  Let the one who is the Word of God, the light and lamp of God, guide your feet along the Way of God.  Choose the way God chose, and be fruitful and useful in that way as you walk within and beside the Spirit who empowers you for service, and cossets you in love.

Amen.

In the Shadows

This is the text of my minister’s message for the June 2017 newssheet at Lakes Parish Uniting Church.

Several weeks ago, I became part of a conversation on the topic of “getting over” trauma.  The man with whom I was speaking has had a rough life, rougher at some points in his life than others, and he has a few memories that he is struggling to move past.  My life’s story is similar, not that I have experienced what this man has experienced, but that I have memories which needed healing, and troubling relationships with organisations and people in my past which proved difficult to move beyond.

In Psalm 23:4 David writes of the truest source of security in his life, a steadfast knowledge which gives him the confidence to walk through the darkest valley without fear of evil: the confidence that the LORD is with him and that the LORD carries all that is needed to keep David safe.  In Psalm 27:13-14 David declares his steadfast belief that he will see the LORD’s goodness while he lives, if only he takes heart in the wisdom that the LORD will come through for him.  David is not expecting vindication of his faith after his death, as if Heaven is the answer and reward to all of life’s problems.  That might be true, but for David the sure promise of God is that David will not die until David has seen God act for David’s benefit and God’s own Glory.

Experience has taught me, and then my studies in theology have supported this understanding, that God does not expect or require us to “get over” anything.  If the life and songs of David tells us anything it is that God takes the faithful woman or man “through”, not “over”.  We are to walk through the valleys of shadows, we are to continue through life with patient confidence, and we are to do so in the company of the shepherd who walks beside us or sometimes a step ahead of us with his crook and staff.

I have a book mark which reads “Patience is not to sit with folded hands but to learn to do as we are told.” There was a time in my life when what I was told was to sit and wait for God, and I obeyed and sat.  But much of the time the call to trust and obey requires that we continue moving forward, even when it is dark and even when the shadows creep towards us.  His presence, assured to us in scripture, is Christ’s blessing upon all Christians in the world.

Up! Up and (not) Away!

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 28th May 2017.  It follows the readings for Ascension.

Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:36-53.

Ascension is one of those days in the liturgical calendar that many Uniting Church congregations appear to overlook.  It’s there on the calendars, marked on my lectionary and on the two month-per-view calendars I have on my wall at the manse, one each from the Synods of Victoria-Tasmania and South Australia.  Perhaps Evangelicals see this festival as a bit religious, a bit High-Church, more than a bit irrelevant to the cause of global evangelism.  Perhaps it is that, unlike many other Christian festivals which move with the day of the year, Ascension is always on a Thursday and never on a Sunday.  Good Friday, always a Friday is an exception because of what it is, and of course Christmas need not be Sunday to be Christmas, but otherwise if it doesn’t happen on Sunday it doesn’t seem happen at all.

I think that’s a shame:  I like Ascension.  I like what it represents and I like that it goes almost completely ignored by the world.  I mean, if you aren’t a High-Church person now or you didn’t go to an Anglican or Roman Catholic school back in the day, you probably don’t know it exists at all.  So, it’s one of ours, a day that the Church gets to keep for itself.  We can worship God in the way we want, without interruption or compromise, and we get to eat all the lollies on our own and we don’t have to share them with anybody.

So, what is Ascension?  Well in simple terms, and there is no need to be any more complicated than this, Ascension marks the day when Jesus returned to Heaven after the resurrection.  Pretty much all of Christianity believes that after Jesus rose from the dead on that third day, the day now called Easter Day or Easter Sunday, Jesus wandered around with the disciples for seven weeks or so, popping up here or there, before finally giving the Great Commission to the readers of Matthew, and the assurance of the Holy Spirit to the readers of Luke, and then was taken bodily into Heaven.  That’s one long sentence, because it’s one complete idea.  The risen Jesus is the one who ascends; the one who walked out of the grave is a different sort if being from the one who was carried into it.  More of that later.

Luke suggests in Acts 1:3-8 that Jesus ascends and descends many times in the forty days between the day of his resurrection and this final ascension ten days before Pentecost.  I find this idea fascinating, and somewhat under-reported.  If you’ve heard anything about the ascension before you know that it happened once, on the sixth Thursday after Easter.  Jesus rose from the dead, hung about for forty days, and then was beamed up Star Trek style from a rock just outside Jerusalem.  But Luke, and therefore the Bible, says something different.  Luke says that Jesus came and went many times in those seven weeks, and that raises a question for me.  Why did Jesus stop coming back after those forty days?

In the way that Luke reports it Jesus’ final ascension is an apocalyptic event with the cloud of presence and the angelic figures.  So, does Acts 1:11 predict an apocalyptic second coming?  He will return, just as you have seen him depart say the messengers.  I don’t doubt that Jesus will return to the earth in glory, but I don’t think this is a proof text for it.  Remember that Jesus has been up and down from Heaven on a frequent basis for the past six weeks; what I think this text says is that this will continue, even if less publicly.  In other words, Jesus did not stop coming after the forty days, he just did it differently.  Think of how Jesus appears to Saul in Acts 9.  Think, if you believe them, of the millions of accounts of Jesus appearing to people right up to our own day, many of them not Christian when he came. “Aha, but”, you might say, “Jesus appeared in person to the apostles; his appearances to Saul and the people in our day were only visions.”  So, were Jesus’ resurrection appearances on the road to Emmaus, and back in Jerusalem when Cleopas and friend returned, appearances in person or in vision?  After all, in Luke 24:13-49 Jesus eats a piece of fish and breaks apart a loaf of bread in his hands, but he also appears and disappears suddenly and at will.

I’m not trying to tell you that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, I believe he did, but I am asking the question whether what we read in Acts 1:10 and Luke 24:50-53 really is the end of the story of the Christ in the world, or whether he indeed continues to come and go by the grace and will of God.  Again, I say, the Jesus who walked out of the tomb is different in substance from the Jesus who was carried into it.  The real, present, resurrected Jesus was not limited to one place at one time in the same way that the pre-crucifixion Jesus was; this is true of him today but I believe it might have been true of him in that six weeks too.

Forty is a number with Biblical significance: in Jewish philosophy, it tends to signify completion.  Forty days and forty nights of flooding rain is sufficient to destroy all life on earth except the lives God personally saved.  Forty years in the desert is sufficient to effect generational change in the Hebrews who left Egypt.  Forty days in the wilderness takes Jesus to the brink of giving in to temptation, he has reached the very limit of human forbearance.  Where in the Lord’s prayer we say, “save us from the time of trial” we mean “don’t push us beyond our limits, our ability to say no to evil.”  For Jesus that limit was forty days or turmoil and starvation: his emptiness was complete.  So, forty days between the opened tomb and the opened sky brings about the completion of the teaching and coaching ministry of Jesus the disciple-maker.  Jesus returned to Heaven when the work was completed.  And what was that work?  Preparation of the 120 to receive the Holy Spirit.

That is why it does not surprise me at all to hear or read of Jesus returning to earth in our day.  He comes for the same purpose, here time and again to continue to complete the work of preparing new generations of disciples to receive the Holy Spirit for the work of mission.  I mean, look at Jesus’ last works in Luke (24:48-49) and Acts (1:4-5, 8): wait here in the place to which I have brought you until the Spirit takes you on to the next step with the Spirit’s power.

The power that Jesus promised to give the apostles is not the power to restore Israel to superpower status, but the power (boldness, authority security) to go with the good news of the Reign of God to neighbours, strangers, and aliens (Acts 1:8).  Jesus does not intend to restore the kingdom to Israel (1:6), he will restore Israel (and the world 1:8b) to the kingdom, by the word of the apostles’ witness.  This is indeed what happens.

And this is where we see more of what Jesus has become in his resurrection.  The new kingdom which the Church is heralding is characterised by embodied existence; Jesus is no ghost but neither is he a resuscitated corpse (Luke 24:39).  And he has been raised by God, the great, complete, and unargued vindication of every word of his message.  As I have heard it said, when a man walks out of his own grave to tell you something you want to pay attention to whatever he says.  And as if more proof were required, the resurrected Christ then ascends publicly to the Father where he sits right beside God Godself.  There is no higher proof that the message of Jesus is the whole truth of God, and therefore worthy of human worship (Luke 24:52).  There is no higher proof that the promises he made will be fulfilled, the promise that he will be with us always, the promise that if we act according to his will he will complete the work because of us, the promise that we are loved, forgiven, and will ultimately be reunited with God in the new kingdom.

Paul gives thanks for the reputation of the love of the Ephesians for all the Church.  This to me is evidence that the gospel has struck and stuck.  The kingdom’s values are being lived out publicly, the disciples of Jesus are known for their character and they are unique.  The Holy Spirit’s power is effective, the promises of Jesus are being fulfilled, and the news of the reign of God is going onward and outward.  From Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria the gospel has reached and is filling Roman Asia with the news of God, the message is not too far from hitting the Ends of the Earth.

Paul prays for the Ephesian believers for wisdom and revelation as they come to know the Father so that they might see and understand the hope in the message of Jesus.  That hope includes the story that the Church is empowered to continue the work of God, empowered with the same power that raised Christ from the dead and exalted him to the highest place in Heaven.  From being in the grave of an executed blasphemer and traitor Jesus is now enthroned beside God the King, and rightly so, because Christ is the head of all things.  The ascension of Christ is the next state of his resurrection, a continuation of the process of vindication that not only is Jesus revealed as Christ the true messenger of God, but that he is Godself, the king and lord who was in flesh but is now in the fullest of glory.  All that which was laid aside prior to the manger is now restored completely.  This is the news that was proclaimed on Pentecost day and this is the news which is being proclaimed a generation later in Roman Asia.

Paul prays that the Ephesians, and I pray that the East Gippslanders know this.  In Greek, this whole passage is one long sentence: one connected train of thought which we are supposed to hold together in our minds.  We have been chosen by God, because of the work of Jesus who blesses us, to receive the free gift of redemption through grace, and the power to tell others where to get it for themselves, so that every member of creation might live a life full of hope, joy, and utter security.

I do believe in a second coming of Jesus.  I’m not sure about the “Left Behind” model and I’m not a pre-Millennial, post-Millennial, ante-Millennial or any other sort of thousand-years person.  Whether one day I will vanish in the blink of an eye, or bodily ascend like Jesus, or whether Jesus does what Jesus will do another way I am not bothered.  Maybe I’ll not live to see the ultimate return of Christ at all and I’ll watch it all unfold from the old Heaven as the new one descends upon those of you who remain.  But what I believe even more than the glorious apocalypse, the great and undoubted revelation of God as both Lord and King, is that Jesus has never stopped coming to earth to be with his own.  Jesus does not walk with me like he walked with Peter, James and John, but neither is he watching us from a distance.

Ascension carries one strong and hope filled meaning for me.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, he is still with us.  Elvis may have left the building, but Jesus hasn’t gone away, and he never intended to.

Amen.