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.

The Scholarly Man

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Parish for proclamation on Sunday 21st May 2017, the sixth Sunday in Easter, year A.  I had just returned to Lakes Entrance after a week in Adelaide where I received my Master of Theological Studies degree at a service of celebration at Adelaide College of Divinity.

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20.

Well there he is: as promised I have produced a photograph of me from the service of celebration I attended at Adelaide College of Divinity on May 8th this year.  So yes, there’s me in my flat hat and Geneva gown, wearing the hood of a Master of Theological Studies in the Flinders University tradition.  You can’t see it very well there but my hood is blue, with a pale blue lining of satin and edged with a ribbon of violet.  This degree in no way makes me “official”, other than as a graduate of Flinders University.  A degree in ministry or theology, and I now have one of each, (plus degrees in Education and Arts) does not confer ordination upon anyone, that’s a separate process.  A degree in ministry or theology does not make anyone any more or any less a minister; I was commissioned for ministry at my baptism, as were you.  Does this outfit make me a scholar?  Arguably if I weren’t a scholar I’d not have made it so far as to wear this particular outfit, but I’d suggest having completed the path leading to my graduation that the outfit indicates that I once was a student.  I should hope that even though I am now finished with formal education for at least twenty years that I shall continue to learn and study, so maybe I’ll always be a student.Damo Graduate

In our reading from Acts this morning we eavesdropped into Paul’s address to the Areopagus on the topic of an unknown god.  Paul is both a scholar and a student, he has credentials from the Pharisees and rabbis he studied Jewish Law with and he remains open to the Holy Spirit to teach him further.  The men to whom Paul is speaking are Greeks, not Jews, but they too are masters and students of philosophy and theology, so Paul addresses his remarks in the style of a scholar.   Paul, in this place of the study of gods, speaks of the God to whom he belongs as the sole creator who exists beyond temples such as these.  The God of Paul created humankind and needs nothing from us in the way of resources as offerings.  The God of Paul is the bringer and sustainer of life, and this God created the world with order and structure, God made place within space, and such order makes it possible for God to be found in the pursuit of order and study.  You’re on a right track Paul might have said, God can be found through reflective study.  Paul speaks of all men and women deriving from one nation established by God, a lone source.  This means that all people are the offspring of God exactly as the philosopher Aratus said in the 200s BCE, and that it is indeed in God in whom we exist and function as Epimenides said in the 500s BCE.  Paul then uses the words of the Greek philosophers to point to where their pursuit of the rational God has fallen off course, because if humankind have been made by God and from God then it follows that God cannot be made from gold or stone.  So, what’s with all these statues and temples as objects of worship?  Once, Paul says, God allowed us our human ignorance but now God is calling us to repent and to see the truth revealed in the man sent by God to show us the way to God.  If you want to know God then you need to pay attention to the real world of created things, not manufactured ones.  Gold cannot tell you about God, only a man can do that since men (and women) are made by God but idols are made by men.  But, says Paul, there is good news.  God has sent such a man with the gospel that God is waiting to be found and wanting to be found.  God, in the spoken revelation of the one who came from God enjoins you to the undertake the chase through repentance from ignorance and trust in the revelation of God.

So, this speech has a context, it is addressed to academics in an academic place.  Paul is philosophising with the philosophers in the philosophy club, that’s where he is.  I find it interesting that Paul doesn’t actually say very much about Jesus, or the message that Jesus proclaimed other than to say that God is accessible through any concerted, well-directed effort to find God.  Paul’s message to the Areopagus is not Jesus Christ band him crucified as it was to the Jews, but God the rational and personal essence which both transcends and engages with the physical “real” world.

During my studies, I undertook a unit in The Acts of the Apostles in 2015, and during that series of lectures I heard that this passage is set piece speech on how to proclaim the story of God to pagans.  My lecturer and his commentators understood that this speech is not the exact words of Paul, rather it was drafted by the writer of Acts as one of five key speeches which form a framework for the whole book. Whether it really was Paul’s word reported back to the writer, or whether it is a literary invention conceived by the author of Acts to make a point is not the point here, but it’s still good to know.  These are not random words spoken off the cuff, there is intent and thought gone into this speech.  We hear Paul speaking to a pagan audience at the Areopagus of Athens about how Jesus does not need a temple or priesthood to be set up in his honour since God acts in the world.  This is a counter-argument to the interpretations of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, and indeed the idea that the “unknown god” needs an altar to his honour lest he be offended by the oversight.  If anything, God is dishonoured by the plinth, since its presence limits the creator’s influence to this one small place.   Jesus is the evidence of what God is doing, and he is attested to by his being raised from the grace by the power of the creator.

We can draw four messages from this.

  1. God loves and wants to be reconciled with the academics and with all pagan leaders, as well as the worshippers and all Jewish priests, Levites, and Israelites.
  2. God’s means of outreach can be culturally specific so as to be inclusive. An Areopagus message would sound like useless wordy worldliness to the Sanhedrin, and a Sanhedrin message would sound like ethereal superstitious babble to the Areopagus.  There is only one God, and only one way to God, but there are countless ways of speaking of God so as to elicit a response from the hearer of the news of salvation.
  3. The gospel stands up to academic scrutiny, even in the presence of the most learned of learned men.
  4. God was doing the work through the Jews before God was doing it through the Christians. Paul has not discovered a new thing about God, and Paul has not invented cross-cultural; evangelism.

Bless our God, O peoples says the NRSV, on page 459 of the Bible in front of you.  The NKJV says “Gentiles” which makes it even more obvious what is going on.  The Hebrews are calling the world to bless the God of the Hebrews (Psalm 66:8).  God established [each living thing] in life according to Psalm 66:9, just as the Greek philosopher Epimenides said.  The nations have tried to destroy us says the Psalmist; in other words, God may be not made of gold and stone but the people of God have been refined and refreshed as if we are, (Psalm 66:10), but we have come through because of our God’s faithfulness.  So now, says the Psalmist, I (singular) will worship with Hebrew worship, and I call upon you all now to listen to my story of what God has done for me.  And what has God done for me? Well God heard my prayer.  Now I call upon the world to come and hear (Psalm 66:16) me say that when I cried out to God, God came and heard (Psalm 66:19).

The messages of the Psalmist and of Paul are not entirely the same, but there is a common theme.  The God of the Israelites is the God of the world, and the only true God.  The One for whom the entire world is searching can be found amongst the Israelites in the personal testimony of individual Jews and in the disciplined and applied study of the Jewish cultural traditions.  Whatever your way of searching for meaning is, however it is that you bet understand your need for something greater than yourself, God has provided a way in Jesus Christ.

So how does this apply to you or me?  Some of us fit into both models, even if it does require some stretching.  I was raised in a Christian home so, like Paul and the Psalmist, I learned the stories of God as a child from my parents and many of the other adults in my life at church and school.  I am not a Jew, but I am a Christian, and so I know about God from inside the culture of God’s own people.

But, like Paul and the Psalmist I am also a student.  I don’t like being thought of as a scholar or an academic since my desire is to be approachable in ministry.  I am clever and well read, I have degrees in Arts, Education, Ministry and Theology, but I hope I’m not lofty.  I can debate with other university graduates, but I’d rather sit and listen to people living daily lives and I hope I never become too grandiose to do that, even if I do use words like “grandiose” in my preaching.

The gospel speaks to the ordinary person who just wants to thank God for what God has done, and to the no-less ordinary person who enjoys a well-written book and relates to a God of crosswords and sudoku.  If finding God is a puzzle to be mastered for you, a journey to be walked by you, a lover to be wooed for you, a parent to be rediscovered in your adulthood, or any other image there is room in God for all those ways to lead to satisfaction.

My job, all our jobs, as ministers is to make sure that the Church does this too.

I have now completed all the formal study I want to do, and at the end of my studies in theology, ministry, leadership, and scripture I am more in love and awe of God, and more in love and awe of the Church.  I did not lose my faith in learning about other ways of approaching God, in fact when I read all the books and articles, and distilled the information into essays and seminars, I discovered a real God who expresses real love through the real man Jesus Christ and the Church which carries his name.  Tertiary studies might not be your path further into God, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work for anyone else.

So, whether you meet God and go deeper with God in books, gardens, or solitary or with your beloved walks along the beach; whether in singing in the car or at church, in hanging out with Christian friends on Sunday mornings or Tuesday afternoons, I encourage you to do more of it.  Continue to pursue God, continue to go deeper into your relationship and God’s love.  Whatever it is that you do to know God more is what God has set before you entirely for that purpose.  So, go on, keep going on, and be ignorant of the depth of love no more.

Amen.

Dem stones, dem stones…

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Unitingt Church on 14th May 2017, the fifth Sunday after Easter in year-A.

Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10.

Several weeks ago, I described myself to you as “a preaching-nerd” when I spoke about how I enjoy discovering the ways that the lectionary has set up the weekly passages of scripture for the purposes of establishing a theme.  Today’s set of readings present us with the theme that the Bible suggests a variety of understandings of stones.  For Stephen who was executed by stoning, stones are bad things.  For the Psalmist who calls upon God as his rock, rocks are good things.  So, rock equals good, and stone equals bad?  Got that?  Well…well unfortunately, it’s not that simple since Peter speaks of Christ as the living stone; one who was rejected by mortal beings but is exalted by God.

In today’s reading from the Psalms we read of how God is a rock of refuge for the worshipper (Psalm 31:2), and “indeed” God is a rock and fortress (Psalm 31:3).  My commentary points out that the Hebrew word translated as “indeed” is used seven times in Psalm 31 to introduce a new verse.  This God, the rock, is one who can be relied upon and trusted in, this word is solid, and solid indeed!  Standing on this assurance it is no wonder to me that the psalmist is confident to say in Psalm 31:5 “into your hand I commit my spirit”. We know that this statement is not the famous last words of the psalmist, especially since even this psalm has twenty-four verses and this is only verse five.  The assurance that God is worthy of our trust, worthy to hold our spirits in safekeeping, is assured by the wisdom that God is both the rock and the proven deliverer.  “God has saved me before; more than once in fact, so here and now I take the step of faith to commend my whole life into God’s hands and safekeeping.”  What a word of confidence that it, and what an example to us all!   The psalmist asks of God in Psalm 31:15 that in God’s steadfast love that God would “save me from my persecutors”.  Not only do I trust God in my own life and its adventures says the psalmist, but I trust God where it comes to other people and their potentially harmful interactions with me.  It is no wonder then that in the very moment of his murder by his persecutors each of two men pray the words in Psalm 31:5, and with his final breath commits his spirit to God.

The writer of 1 Peter says of Jesus that he was rejected by humanity, yet was chosen by God and is precious and that the same can be said of us if we follow Jesus.  The world outside sees our faith as wasted and our activities as irrelevant and inconsequential.  But in God’s economy the worthless rocks and scattered gravel that the world sees is revealed to be living stones which build a spiritual house.  Where the world sees a pile of broken brick God sees and experiences a house of worship whose cornerstone is Christ himself.  God sees the other stones of that house, that house with Christ as cornerstone and capstone, as you and me, him and her, and them over there making another wall in that other denomination’s house today.  God sees unity and worth in who we are and in what we do when we are connected to each other and connected through each other to Christ who is our sure foundation.  1 Peter says that if the cornerstone of your belief is in Jesus then you will be part of what God builds upon the foundation of your belief: but if you don’t believe then that same stone becomes a barrier, a stumbling block, and you’ll be tripped up in your disbelief.  It is made even more plain by 1 Peter, those who stumble do so because of disobedience; but those who believe, those who are part of what God is building upon the foundation of belief in Jesus Christ, become a royal and holy gathering tasked with the proclamation of God in speech and action.  We who were once a bunch of rubble, boulders and bluemetal are now a single unified, strong tower and palace, a temple and a house with a common identity and a unified task.  This is monumental stuff church, pun intended, because the Church is a monument to God’s glory, and it is true in metaphorical speech because the Church takes on the identity given to the Jewish nation.  We, the Christians of 2017, are a royal and holy community: we have received the same promise made to the tribes of Hebrews a thousand years before Jesus’ life.  What was spoken over them is spoken over us alongside them two thousand years after Jesus.  And more so this is true because of Jesus, and is true for us because of our belief in Jesus.

So, to summarise what we have so far:

  1. God is a rock.
  2. You are a living stone. With the rest of us, you form a monument which has its foundation upon God, the rock.

The manner in which Stephen met his death mirrors the death of Jesus in many details.  The rock of which 1 Peter speaks as being rejected by humanity is shown here in the first murder of a Christian for being a Christian.  To put it somewhat ironically the one who trusts in rock of Israel is being stoned to death by the priests and Levites of the Pharisees.

When Stephen cries out with his final breath in Acts 7:59 he says two things of Jesus; that the life of Jesus is worthy of emulation, and that Jesus is the Lord Godself.  I’ll unpack that a little bit for you, and in my unique and peculiar style I’ll give you the second one first.  So, secondly, Stephen speaks of Jesus in language that Jesus himself, and the psalmist, used of God.  Where Jesus and the psalmist commit their spirit to God in prayer Stephen commits his spirit to Jesus.  Stephen prays as if he believes that Jesus is God, or at least worthy of the same ascription to majesty as the Father.  Of course, we know this, this is why he is being executed in the first place, but there it is in black and white on page 891 of the Bible in front of you.  And firstly, Stephen’s last words are almost word for word the last words of Jesus.  What Jesus did is what Stephen does.  If asked “WWJD?” Stephen would answer “in your final breath commend your spirit to God.”  And that is what Stephen did, with the unique extrapolation at that stage, of naming the LORD in this circumstance as Jesus.

In my persona as preaching-nerd, and a man who finds the lectionary fascinating, I am delighted that our reading set for today ends at Acts 7:60.  Whenever I have seen this passage marked in a Bible, or heard it read aloud, the block of text typically continues to 8:1.  Stephen dies, but somewhat more importantly it seems, Saul approves of the murder.  But not today.  Not today, thank you lectionary.  Today the focus is not on Saul the persecuting Pharisee who will go on to cause havoc amongst the Christians before being knocked off his horse and then going on as Paul the preaching Christian to cause havoc amongst the Pharisees.  No, today the focus, by ending at Acts 7:60, is the last words of Stephen and his ascription that amidst and amongst the flying stones of his murderers it is God in Jesus who is the rock which is steadfast and sure.

I pray that none of us, you or I, face death by judicial stoning nor by any other form of avalanche.  But I do pray that each of us, you and I, would cry out to God when the time comes and commit our dying selves into the hands of the steadfast God.  May it be for us that our last words can be “into your hands, my Lord I commend my all”.

And that would have been a wonderful place to finish this sermon.  But there is more to say.  Just a paragraph, so relax.  As much as I hope that you will emulate Jesus in death, as Stephen emulated the dying Jesus in Stephen’s own death, my prayer for you is that your prayer of commitment to God’s surety as rock is uttered well before your final breath.  The time is NOW to commit your spirit into God’s hands, and then to live for years and decades with that surety at your back and on your heart and mind.  As beautiful as the picture is of Stephen dying with Jesus, and dying for Jesus, he only got there because he lived for Jesus first.

So, live for Jesus.  God is your rock, and is your rock right now.  Commit your spirit today.

Amen.

 

Humbility

This is the text of my “Minister’s Message” which I wrote for inclusion in the May newsletter of The Lakes Parish

I have been thinking about the topic of humility recently and what it means to say that Jesus humbled himself to come to Earth and be our saviour.  If Jesus chose to be humble then it must be a good thing and something we should be doing as followers of him.  Yet as a disciple of Jesus and a participant in the Great Commission I wonder how humility is compatible with evangelism.

 Paul says variously in his letters that Jesus chose humble obedience as the way of ministry (Philippians 2:7-8), and that God has not called Christians to a life of timidity but rather to a life of power (2 Timothy 1:7).  While these may seem contradictory, or at least counter-productive, they are of course complimentary texts.  God has called us to be assertive in life and ministry.  We are to remember that we were each created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) as the pinnacle of created beings (Psalm 8:5) subject only to God.  We were not made to be timid or anxious, that is not in our design nor is it within God’s plan for humankind.  At the same time, we are not to be arrogant or lordly but are to serve our world as stewards (Genesis 2:15), in the way that Christ served the world as redeemer and defender (Ephesians 5:25).  We who know who we are, each a beloved daughter-son of God called to a specific task in declaring the news of God’s approaching reign.  We live with confidence as examples of what the Kingdom of God looks like in practice.  We are not arrogant or superior, since Christ who truly is king never acted like that, but we do not act like doormats or peasants in the world because that is not who we are.

 To be humble is to live according to who you know yourself to be.  We are neither haughty nor timid, rather we are confident and assured.  As royal priests and holy princes (or -esses) we have both a mission and an identity of belonging.  My prayer throughout May is that you will live out your calling in poise and wonder, knowing that God has called even you, while acting with assurance that this is indeed the truth.

What must WE do?

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 30th April 2017.

 Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-23.

Good morning Church.

When I began my time amongst you on January 1st this year I told you in that first service that I’d not be telling you too much about myself from the front.  I said that my focus as a preacher was upon the gospel, and that if you wanted to get to know me then you were welcome to come to the manse and catch up.  Because of that you’re still finding out things about me, even after four months.  This morning I’m going to share another part of my story with you.

During the months between May 2003 and January 2009 I belonged to a Hillsong congregation, particularly the one which meets in central London.  The site of our worship moved about a bit, so I cannot tell you about a specific location, but Hillsong Church London was where I “did church” to use their terminology.  One of my great privileges as a participant in Hillsong Church London was the time I spent associated with the “New Christians Team”.  We were the sneaky ones who were sat strategically around the theatres where we met as church, and when everyone else had their eyes closed for the altar call we had our eyes open.  When someone in my “section” raised his or her hand for salvation I would see that hand, and then I would discreetly identify that person to one of my team members who would then approach that person during the final songs and speak with him or her about salvation as the service ended.  In 2004, there were something like 637 “hands” raised, some for first time salvation and others for a re-connection with God after a time “in the wilderness”.  In 2005, we saw the thousandth person that year raise her or his hand in late September.  We stopped counting after that: we had the delicious difficulty that converts were being made faster than we could count them.  So, we stopped counting them and instead focussed on loving them.

Two things from that experience stand out for me, and I hope you’re already seeing the link to our reading from Acts this morning.

  1. Whilst we never had 3000 people baptised in one day, God really was adding daily to our number those who were being saved.  One of our regular guest speakers was a church planter in India and his intention at the time of one of his visits to us was to plant 365 churches each year; statistically that would be one new church per day.  Let alone God daily adding people, this pastor wanted God daily adding new missional congregations to the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
  2. I remember that one service where no one raised a hand. I’m a bit used to this story now, but when I first began telling it in sermons in Australia I used to choke up at the memory.  Now to be clear, I’m not talking about no one in my section raising a hand, that often happened; what I’m saying is that after the hour and a half of song, praise, prayer, message, and all, there was not one hand raised across our theatre.  I remember the visible distress in our team room after the service: not one person had been saved anew!  We had been church and we had done church, and no one had found Christ anew.  No-one, not one!  We had failed God: to say we were devastated is an understatement, we were gutted and hurting.

Can you imagine why Hillsong Church is so successful at what it does?  I’m not here to praise them up, after all I am here and not there.  What they do with media, music and film, is another story, not a bad story, just not my focus this morning.  Can you imagine what it feels like to be in a congregation where the leaders go home crying, some wracked with sobs, because there was a service without a salvation?  I don’t need to imagine it, I was there, and it haunts me occasionally, and here’s why.  At that stage Hillsong Church London met in a small theatre, it had about 650 seats, and because of that there were three services on a Sunday.  There were salvations in the other two services that day, so it’s not like God went home empty-handed.  People were added to the Church that day.  So, imagine that.  Even though God was saving Londoners in the morning and in the evening, that not one person had asked for grace in the afternoon set off grief like I had never before seen in a bunch of Christian leaders anywhere.

In today’s set text from 1 Peter 1:18-19 the writer tells his readers, which includes us, that we were ransomed with the blood of Jesus; a ransom far more valuable than coin and bullion.  And in Acts 2:41 we are told that about 3000 were added to the congregation after they had been cut to the quick by the word of the gospel.

Do we really doubt that salvation is a precious thing?  More precious than anything the world can provide, more devastating when it is missed than any other human catastrophe.  Just think of it in these terms, to miss salvation is to have an “Act of God” which didn’t happen.  As nasty as storms and fires are we understand that they are awe-inspiring in their power: imagine how powerful a positive “Act of God” might be, and how awful to miss out.  Money cannot buy that, and if you miss that window in the skies how can you be sure that it will come again?  We as Christians have faith that there is always a way to God, but if you are not a Christian, and you miss your chance, how do you know there will be another chance?  Or, and this one does cut me to the heart, if we Christians miss our chance to open the skies to those who are not Christian, how will we know that they’ll get another chance?  We trust that God is gracious in seeking the lost to save them, but if this congregation did not extend a hand to welcome the lost how can we rely on the next congregation to do so?

And if we continue to miss our opportunities, if we continue to shirk our responsibilities, perhaps God will not send the lost to us anymore.  Maybe when God is shepherding a lost woman or man into the Kingdom of God God will send that one to one of the other denominations in town.  Now I’m not saying we are in competition with the other churches, not at all.  I am delighted that God is adding daily to the Church those who are being saved, even if they are being saved in Lakes Community Church, the Baptists, the Anglicans, and the Roman Catholics.  But if God is sending lost souls there because God feels God cannot send lost souls here…  I don’t even want to think about that being true.

So, what do we do?  Do we have an “altar call” each week for the next six weeks in the hope of having a mega baptism service on Pentecost Day?  Do you need to start bringing your unsaved friends to church more often so that I can preach salvation to them?  Do you actually trust me to do that, or is this congregation and its worship life embarrassing to you?  I’m not suggesting it is, and I’m not having a go at you at all: in fact, I have belonged to congregations where I would not have invited my unsaved friends along, so I know that such sentiments exist.  On the other hand, and this is new to me as pastoring a church is new to me, as your preacher and chaplain can I trust you to disciple and encourage those friends and neighbours of yours that I lead in salvific prayer?  I know that Hillsong lost converts when having “prayed the prayer” they were then not followed up or encouraged in their new faith by their Christian friends.

The gift we were given in Jesus Christ is beyond compare.  It is beyond value, (we’ve already said that), and it is beyond comprehension.  Salvation from sin, from its effects in our life (through the process of healing and discipline, not magic); security and salving from aloneness and hopelessness, and from feelings of worthlessness and uselessness; these are concepts that we could spend a lifetime of sermons and Bible studies unpacking and still not get to the end of.

I have always been a Christian.  If you want to argue the merits of that statement in view of original sin and the time between my birth and my accepting Christ’s lordship over my heart as a sentient adult, well I don’t care for your tone.  I was born into a family of disciples, raised in discipleship, and I’ve never departed from it.  I am not sinless, I am far from perfect, but I have always had God in the centre of my life.  And because of this, for the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone could possibly live without that.  I mean, how do unbelievers even continue in the world?  They exist because God created them human, but how do they actually live without the knowledge of God and this deep, core, fundamental, central, foundational, defining understanding that they were made in the image and likeness of God with the sole purpose of being loved by the God who made them?

This is why it is so important that we be ready when people from “outside the awareness of the love of God” come to us ready to respond.  Psalm 116 speaks of a man who was ensnared and in deep distress but God leant down so as to hear his cry for deliverance all the clearer, and God saved him.    He goes on in the later verses to say “now I will thank God with an offering and with public declaration of God’s magnificence and my gratitude.  I know that I am precious to God and that God is interested in me and takes care of me, God deals carefully with me.  I am nothing, yet I am precious to God, so I will praise and magnify God’s name.”

We must take care when people come to church.  We must be aware when something extraordinary is happening in someone’s life and any given Sunday is a special day for him or her because of what God has done.  Last week I prayed our confessions by using Bruce Prewer’s poem “During Last Week”.  But what if during last week something extraordinary happened and someone wanted to come and give exultant praise to God?  What if for us it’s ho-hum another Sunday, time to get the urn on and to ask who left the fans going, while a visitor (or more so, a local whose attendance we might take for granted) wants to be flat on her face before the Lord in exaltation or despair?

In the last two weeks, last week and Easter day, there were visitors here at 9:15.  Now I am not addressing these remarks only to those of you who are the early comers, those who arrive closer to 9:30 than 10:00 because you have jobs, we all need to hear this.  I am here earliest and I have my 9:00 jobs, so this is me too. We must never, ever, be too busy or too noisy in this house for those who need it to be a church.  Altar calls and discipleship classes aside this is what we can do right now, be church for those who are coming here on any given Sunday.

Here’s two quick stories to illustrate what I mean:

  1. I didn’t see this happen but I’ve been to the place where it did. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the traditional place of the cross and the empty tomb, many different Christian denominations have their own zone.  Like us there are bowls for candles and intercessions: I have been there, I have seen the bowls, and I have lit a candle.  I have been a Christian on his first visit to Jerusalem.  I have knelt at the slab where tradition says Jesus was laid out between cross and grave.  I have knelt in the sepulchre itself, the empty tomb.  Well this story goes that another pilgrim such as I was, this one a woman of the Roman Catholic faith, joyfully placed her candles in one of the bowls of sand in celebration of her being in Jerusalem.  Can you imagine this woman’s joy?  Can you imagine this woman’s heartbroken terror when a bearded man screamed “No!” from across the space, and in a mass of cassocks and flame sent her candles flying?  She had placed Catholic candles in some very specifically other Orthodox bowl.  I mean, you’d think she’d shitted on the actual cross, with all the offence that my use of that word implies as well as the act.  Horrifying!  Not my use of the word “shit”, but the way in which this dear daughter of God was treated in her own Father’s house.
  2. I was almost there for this next story, I know the woman involved and I passed her in the foyer on the day in question. A young woman who had been inconsistent in her attendance at church for a few months was present one particular Sunday.  She was not backsliding at all, she was just struggling in life and her very new husband, who was not a Christian at the time, really only got to see her on Sundays so she’d stay in bed with him rather than go off to church by herself.  Anyway, the woman came to church this week, and feeling a little bit frail for a reason I’ll tell you in a minute, she sat in the very back row.  She sat there quietly, her head bowed, while the bustle of church went on around her.  The 8:30 traditional service (which I had preached at) was emptying out of the hall after coffee and the 10:00 family service crowd was arriving.  But there she sat, this young woman, quiet in the back row.  After church got underway, and the young woman had sung the first song and so forth, she was sitting, again silently and with her head bowed, when one of the regulars came in late.  Being late she sat at the back.  She sat next to the young woman.  And since the young woman had been infrequent in her attendance the older woman whispered to her: how are you?  How is your new husband?  How do you like married life in place of just living together life?  and your new house?  and being called Mrs?  And so on.  On she whispered, being friendly and interested.  On she whispered through the formal prayers.  On she whispered through the time for silent prayer.  On she whispered through the sermon.  The young woman, unbeknownst to anyone that day, unbeknownst to the older woman, unbeknownst to the minister or any of the elders, unbeknownst to me who passed her in the foyer as I left and she arrived at 9:45, that young woman had miscarried her first pregnancy earlier in the week.  She had come “to church”, practically “back to church”, to spend some daughter-time with her Father in Heaven and some crying time with her Comforter.  What she got was an hour of whispered interrogative interruption.

Let’s not do that.

Let’s never be that priest or that older woman.  Let’s all be aware of where we are and what this house means to everyone who comes.  Let’s take care of God’s house, not just in keeping the plastic-ware in its only possible correct drawer, the blinds at a certain angle, or the cars parked facing only east in the front and precisely one metre back from the gravel.   All of that is important, some of it is a legal imperative for OH&S, but if we truly believe this building to be the house of God then we must always be aware that God is at work here, and is welcome to be at work here, in God’s own house.  We can be fun, and we can be social.  You know I have a very evident sense of humour and most weeks I have elicited a chuckle or two from you.  That must not stop.  But we are first and foremost here, here in this place, here in the house of God, to worship and to respond to our glorious Father and magnificent saviour whom we adore so much.

So please Uniting Church, please Damien, please please please all of you and me, don’t get in the way of anyone else seeking God in adoration, desperation, or both.  If we are so care-giving, so careful in this better way, then maybe, just maybe, God will add to our number those who are being saved.

Amen.