A Better Day (Pentecost 16C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Nhill Uniting Church for Sunday 29th September 2019, the sixteenth Sunday in Pentecost

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; Luke 16:19-31

I’m sure that like me you have heard many of the apocryphal stories of Christianity and that the one I am about to tell you’ve already heard. But since these stories often take the place of what is actually Biblical in our understanding of what Christianity is all about I’m going to tell it anyway. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard it before, because I don’t care and I’m the one preaching. And don’t come up to me later to tell me you have a different version, because I have the correct version.

So anyway: a teenage girl who has been diagnosed with some inoperable and untreatable disease knows that she has less than a handful of months to live. So, being a headstrong girl (as all teenage girls are), she makes her parents take her to the funeral director to arrange her funeral in advance of her death. She tells the funeral director, it may well have been Rodney Kennedy, (it probably wasn’t), that she wants an open coffin and she wants yellow flowers, and she wants to be wearing her debutante dress and her footy boots. And, here’s the bit you’ve heard before, she wants to be holding a dinner fork. “What’s with the dinner fork?” asks the funeral director, (because apparently he’s fine with the deb dress and footy boot combo), and she says “well”. “Well,” she says, “when I was little and we used to go to church with Nana they would have potluck lunch after church. First would come the savoury stuff, party pies, sandwiches, mini quiches, salads, the cold roast chicken (because it’s not church potluck unless there’s cold roast chicken) and a few casseroles, and you’d grab a fork and a plate and you’d help yourself. And when that was all cleared up and cleaned off my nana would remind me to keep my fork because the sweet stuff was on its way. That’s why I want the fork, and the open coffin, because when people see me in the coffin and ask ‘what’s with the fork’ then you can say ‘she knows the sweet stuff is coming, the best is on its way’.”

And so it is with us and faith: Christians know that earthy life is utterly meaningless, but we also know that we’re all going to die some day (yippee!!) and go to Heaven and that will be better. In fact I’m pretty sure it was actually Jesus who told this story originally, and it was about Jairus’ daughter. Pity he raised her from the dead then isn’t it, and the fork was wasted. Oh well, I guess she got some more wear out of those footy boots at least.

It’s a fun story, and it can make a good point. I’m not convinced that it’s the best story in all of Christianity, but the story of the fork in the open coffin is one of those stories that carries truth, truth about the future in God.

A better story is the one we find in Jeremiah 32. Jeremiah is in dire straits at this point: he’s imprisoned, in the dungeon, of the royal palace, of the capital city; which city is being besieged, by an army which has already overrun the rest of the country. This isn’t the girl in the coffin; this is Hitler in his bunker in the last week of April 1945. Except that it isn’t even Hitler, it’s some random Wehrmacht intelligence officer under court marshall in a back room two floors below Hitler. And he’s doing the paperwork and handing over actual coinage to buy his oldest cousin’s farmhouse in the countryside so as to keep it in the family; a house already overrun and currently occupied by drunkenly carousing Red Army soldiers. Why, I mean, why? (What the fork?) “Well,” he says, “well God has told me that houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land (Jeremiah 32:15). There will come a time when these invaders will be defeated, and our land will not be occupied by strangers, and grandpa’s farm will be mine and ours again. Our displaced family, maybe two generations of refugees, will need a home to return to. That’s why.Now we know that Jeremiah’s hope was on good ground: he was released from his dungeon even as the whole nation of Judah went into exile. In my story our Wehrmacht officer might have been taken as a PoW to Russia, and maybe he never saw the farm again, and maybe the farm was confiscated and collectivised by the East German government. But in 1990 after the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited, maybe this man’s grandchildren were handed back the deed of title in East Berlin, and now thirty years later they’re living life on their own land once more.

What is your hope for the future, Nhill? It’s certainly true that the Babylonians and the Red Army are not here, in fact they’re not anywhere these days; but are you feeling besieged? Are you hard-pressed by doubts and concerns about the future, do you wonder whether there is a future at all? Maybe it’s not soldiers at your walls, but maybe its banks, or the shire or state legislators, or our evermore increasingly secularist and immoral society. Maybe its the Church itself; the Uniting Church in this part of Victoria, or just the permissiveness of Christians across the globe? I’m certainly not here to speak against the Uniting Church, and I won’t do so, but that doesn’t mean that you mightn’t have doubts or wondering. Maybe you’ve had enough and you’re aching for that coffin and a fork; but the Word of The LORD is not found there. The Word of The LORD as it is revealed in scripture is that we are not to lose heart.

In Psalm 91:1 we are reminded that those who live sheltered by God Most High will rightly praise The LORD as my refuge, my fortress, my God in whom I trust. This is not a hope for the future, neither is it a plea for deliverance from the pit: this is a statement of fact and is as true as if there were straightforward and present evidence of its truth. If God is your deliverance; in other words if you have been saved and believed that you have been saved and this is evident in that you have stopped trying to save yourself; then God is, already is, has/is/shall, God is your fortress. And this is true no matter where you are. If God is your fortress then there is no gaol, no dungeon, no Fuhrerbunker that can hold you down; neither is there any overdraft, any drought, or any diagnosis. If you trust in God, and do not trust in yourself other than to trust that your trust in God is sufficient, then you are figuratively (and maybe literally) help beneath God’s wings. You are within hugging distance, and drawing close distance: you are within reach of God’s embrace and God’s snatch and clutch. And if that is where you are, then it doesn’t matter what the walls and floors look like, the skies are open and God is looking right at you. But how can it be true, how do we know it’s really so? Well, because Jeremiah was released from his dungeon for one thing – that happened, (even if Wehrmacht guy and fork girl are actually fiction).

The promise of God’s overriding protection is repeated at the end of the Psalm where in Psalm 91:14 we are told that God’s deliverance and protection are assured for those who love God. Well who loves God and is afforded this promise: Psalm 91:15 tell us that it’s those who call to God expecting an answer.

Do you love God? I’m not asking whether you’re a Christian because you’ve made some sort of conversion prayer or activity, that’s actually quite a different question. Do you love God is a question answered not by, “yes, since 3:10 pm at the Billy Graham event on 15th March 1959”, but by “yes, because whenever I call, God answers”. You may see that as a statement of God’s love for you, that God answers your prayers: but if you didn’t love God you wouldn’t call expecting an answer. You can be Christian and not love God, not trust God, and never rely on God if you think that being a Christian is about having been saved a long time ago, so that you will go to Heaven in a long time from now. You may even have a fork in you hand, or perhaps you’ve had a tiny fork made into a lapel pin or charm for your jewellery. I’m sure God honours your prayer and your intent to do the right thing, I’m not going to tell you that you’re not saved or unsaved or whatever. But again, I ask you, do you love God? Do you trust God?

Imagine this scene, and pay attention because there will be a quiz.

It’s the night of Passover, the first one, the real and actual one in Egypt, okay? Okay. Two Hebrew couples, each with a son, live as neighbours, and following Moses’ instruction the families agree to share one goat between the two small households. Each husband paints his own doorpost with blood while both wives join in roasting the meat and making flat bread and stuff, and when the cooking and the painting are done each family goes into its own house. Are you with me? Right. In one house the family huddles under the covers, cuddling close, and they barely eat. They make little roast goat sandwiches and eat them quickly, hushed together in fear. In the other house the three sit around on their mats and share the meal, dipping their flatbread into the sauce, and eating their goat as they sing their songs of praise to God.

Question time: which boy does the Angel of Death kill?

Correct answer: neither. The blood on the door is enough to save them each.

But which house honoured God? Which house trusted God more? Which house loves God more?

Which house do you live in?

As great as the story of the girl with her fork is, there’s a big point missing from that story. You aren’t supposed to simply keep your fork in preparation for the dessert course, you’re supposed to be eating the main meal with it now. Now, the parable of Lazarus and the wealthy man reminds us that we must never party at another man’s expense: to be prodigious in celebration while your neighbours starve or scrimp is no more the gospel either. Jesus in Luke 16:24 reminds us that all Jews are sons of Abraham, and today we remember that all men and women are sons and daughters of The Father and brothers and sisters of The Son. Their welfare is our concern; you may keep your own fork but if you are a follower of Jesus then you must be certain that everyone else in the room also has a fork, and that there is no one outside the room because everyone is in.

Do you love God? Then love those whom God loves, especially yourself.

Do you trust God? Then live as if God’s promises are true: celebrate the festivals, buy back the family farm, call out to God for salvation at the first sign of turmoil.

Amen.

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Adventures in Peace (Advent 4C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Kaniva Shared Ministry at Kaniva Church of Christ on Sunday 23rd December 2018.

Psalm 80:1-7; Luke 1:39-45; Luke 46-55

Week four of Advent as we heard in the lighting of the fourth candle this morning is associated with peace; and what we know from the Bible is that peace is often hard to come by.

In the brief reference to the town of the Saviour’s birth as recorded by Micah, which was our set reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning, Micah is prophesying in the context of war.  He says that the one who will come from Beit Lechem, the birthplace of David and a small town whose name means “House of Bread”, is not the saviour from sin and darkness so much as he is the one who will lift the siege on Jerusalem.  In Psalm 80:1-7 which was one of our set psalms we get a similar idea: the people are in distress and they cry out to God in the words of Asaph pleading that God will hear them and deliver them from the consequences of previous military defeats.  Indeed Psalm 80 might be the plea of asylum seekers, of survivors from the Assyrian conquest of Samaria which was capital of the northern kingdom of Israel who have escaped and are seeking shelter in the southern kingdom of Judah and its capital at Jerusalem.  A destroyed people ask the God of Hosts, the lord of Heaven’s army in Psalm 80:4How long will your nostrils smoke? which I just love as language.  In Psalm 80:7 it is this same God of hosts who is petitioned for restoration, salvation, and the smile of blessing.  When my little sister was actually little she would often say when our mum was angry and scowling “I don’t like that face mummy, where’s your happy face?”  I think Asaph is saying the same thing, in Hebrew and with greater reverence for sure, but the idea is there: please be nice to us Great-Father-who-is-a-General, stop steaming and please love us and cuddle us again, because we are hurt and we are sad and we are sorry.  Please daddy, our tears are making us sick.  Bring us back says Psalm 80:7 in The Good News Bible, show us your mercy and we shall be saved.

Our Christian tradition readings from Luke 1:39-45 and then Luke 1:46-55, (the lectionary separates them), speak of Mary’s visit to her elderly yet pregnant cousin and Mary’s song in response to the work of God in her womb as well as that of Elisabeth.  Perhaps God has heard the choking tears of Elisabeth in the way that Asaph pleaded for Israel; certainly God has heard Elisabeth as God heard Hannah.  God has also heard Elisabeth as God heard Rachel, desperate for a child for the husband who loves her dearly; and God heard Elisabeth as God heard Leah who even after seven children, six of them sons, still felt unloved by her husband who only had eyes for her barren yet pretty little sister.  So many daughters, each desperate beyond tears for her father to look upon her with favour and grace and reverse her shame and embarrassment.  So many sons, each desperate beyond aching bones and torn muscles for his father to look upon him with favour and grace and release him from war and siege.  The adult children of God need peace; the plea of the people of God is for that shalom that passes all understanding but which also comes with physical release.

When the two passages from Luke 1 are read together there is a contrast between them; the story of Elisabeth is a story whereas the song of Mary is a song.  “Well, derr!!” you might say, and fair enough.  But when I point out that the gospel so far has all been story and that what we read is narrative prose from Luke 1:1-45 but suddenly we switch to poetry in Luke 1:46 maybe you understand what I am saying.  What am I saying?  I am saying that the story of the salvific work of God is interrupted by the song of thanks and praise from the salved one, and I think that’s remarkable.  Having pleaded with God for so long for deliverance, for saving, for soothing, don’t forget to offer praise and adoration when the saviour-deliverer shows up. Mary’s song sums up in an act of worship all that Luke has already described in narrative, including what God has done for Zechariah and Elisabeth.  And Elisabeth joins in not with singing but with response to the Holy Spirit’s prompting into proclamation and prophesy of her own.  Think about it, if Mary has heard Gabriel’s message and then shot straight off to Elisabeth’s house she may not have been showing a bump.  Elisabeth us pregnant and her younger kinswoman has come to help around the house, Elisabeth is not expecting the virgin teenager to be pregnant and Mary does not look pregnant when she arrives.  But as soon as Mary does arrive it’s all “Blessed are you amongst women”,  and “my baby leapt with joy”.  Cool huh?  Well I think it is.

But it gets even cooler, seriously it does.  Because not only is Mary’s song a praise summary of Luke’s prose summary of Luke 1:1-45, Mary’s song is a praise summary of Micah 5 and Psalm 80 and so much of Hebrew history besides.  In all that we Jews were, be we wandering Arameans, enslaved Hebrews, imperial Israelites, Judahites and Samarians, or colonised Judeans and Galileans, at all points in our history from Adam and Abraham until today have asked from God God has answered it today.  Show us your mercy that we might be saved cries Asaph in Psalm 80:3,7, God has looked with favour on the misery of his servant…he has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy declares Mary in Luke 1:48,54.  I mean, just look at Luke 1:50-55 (Damien: read and extemporise).  God has done it all, now, in the coming of the promised one, and everything will change and nothing will ever be as it was.  Woot!

The story of Advent is that The Son of Man revealed in Jesus of Nazareth did not come to Earth as conqueror; he neither arrived nor departed as Commander of The Angel Armies, The Lord of Hosts, as God is acclaimed in the psalms.  Unlike the Pax Romama or Pax Augustana, the peace brought about by Augustus who established the imperial form of the Roman Empire by wiping out all of his enemies the peace of God never depends upon military defeat.  The Christian gospel, beginning with the stories of Advent, is the story of Emmanuel’s ministry of proclamation of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus brought and preached and told the story of God by inhabiting the good news that the peace which comes from Heaven, the ministry of The Prince of Peace, the glorious Advent message is the peace which only God can bring.  The peace of God is a peace that not even the political assassination of the Messiah or the decimation of Jerusalem itself can overcome.

The story of the fourth Sunday in Advent is that Caesar Augustus and his peace-through-victory fell far short in comparison to God’s promised peace-through-justice, the peace of Christ delivered in a newborn child.   As we have heard in recent weeks military victory has never brought peace to the world; it has only ever brought a lull in fighting before the fighting escalates.  The end of “The War to End All Wars” which we celebrated as a centenary a few weeks ago was nothing of the sort: the fact that what was known at the time as “The Great War” became known within twenty years as “World War One” is evidence of that.  From 2018 looking back to 1918 we know there was a World War Two, and many wars besides between 1918 and today.  Some of those wars are ongoing as we sit here today.  The message of Augustus Imperator, “the all-conquering one”, is seen in his primary title: Octavian was more than just emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth; he was continually acclaimed as victor and the embodiment of victory.  As nephew of Julius Caesar, who it was claimed was a direct descendent of Venus, Octavian carried the title divi filius, and his title Augustus became a proper noun (like “Christ” did), suggesting that Octavian is “the god who is to be worshipped”.  It seems that as emperor Octavian could only claim the title of God Incarnate and Son of God because he was the great conqueror first.  Our Emmanuel, our Son of Man who is God The Son, did no conquering and never intended to. In a world where even today the superpowers posture and threaten, and it is assumed that Australia need never be afraid of Jimmy Foreign because America is our friend and China is our customer, the message remains.  Since the empire of Rome our European cultures have understood that there was no other way to achieve peace than by winning wars, but in Christ who is the Prince of Peace we are offered a radical alternative.  We can trust God, and leave our struggles with God, because God loves us and has favoured us because of God’s love for us and our loving response to God.

Emmanuel means God with us, and if we believe that God truly is with us, then whoever can be against us is no one we need to worry about.  So peace, which we are reminded of by today’s fourth candle, is not difficult to come by at all, we just need to remember to think differently about who God is, and what the baby in the manger came to say.

Shalom: Amen.

Advent 1C

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva and Serviceton for Advent Sunday, 2nd December 2018.

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36

Today is Advent Sunday, therefore the wreath.  Today we enter a new Christian year as far as the three-year cycle of the Lectionary goes, so, Happy New Year, it is now “The Year of Luke” in case you’re interested.  With the change of season I am wearing purple rather than my usual green, (have you noticed), and today we focus our thinking on the coming of Jesus.  Advent is not only four weeks for preparation for Christmas and our remembrance of the Word becoming Flesh, of God coming to Earth and dwelling amongst us, (the literal phrase is “tabernacled” which basically means that God comes and pitches God’s own tent in our camp); Advent is also when we think about the return of Christ and the fulfilment of all promises made by God.

In our reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning God says that the days are coming when righteousness shall come to the earth as a fulfilment of God’s promise to David.  This righteousness shall bring national and domestic security we read in Jeremiah 33:14-16.  To the original hearers of this message, so Jeremiah himself and the people we spoke to, this meant that God was promising to restore the Davidic monarchy with a king so just and righteous that his personal name would be surpassed by his reputation.  For people who were living in exile this was an amazing promise, because not only would they return from Babylon and Persia to Judea and Jerusalem, but the kingship would be restored through the previous royal family, and the king in the fulfilment would be beyond magnificent in his reign.  This is like the king we heard about last week, a new David for whom the whole nation will shout abundant thanks and praise to God in gratitude.  For Christians reading this passage we get echoes of Christ, of Jesus who will be king beyond all other kings in righteousness and justice.  This is an Advent promise.

And like the king of last week, what we read in Psalm 25 might be the personal prayer of a (new) leader asking God for guidance and wisdom in his reign; and as all great prayers for wisdom in leadership begin this prayer begins in worship.  In my experience as a leader in this community, alongside experience gained in other communities where I have watched leaders and been a leader, I know that I cannot lead anyone unless I am willing to lead myself and to be lead by God.  I cannot lead you as a congregation if I am not under God’s authority and listening for God’s wise counsel.  How can I lead you where I have never been?  I cannot.  And how can I lead you where I am unwilling to go?  Of course I don’t mean the future, I have never been to the future so I can’t lead you there from personal experience; I mean discipleship.  I am no great disciple; I do not think of myself like the scribes of three weeks ago, I am no saint in any but the most grace-filled definition of the word.  But I am a devoted, prayerful, Bible-literate, Christ-centred disciple of God and that is what I want to lead you in.  Where God takes this congregation as a body of devoted disciples is God’s business, and that of the leaders listening to and responding to God’s word.  My job as your pastor, (and specifically in this role right now as the preaching-elder), is to build you into that body of devoted believers and listeners to God’s word.  I cannot do that unless I am first a disciple and a listener.  So it is with the great and future king of Jeremiah 33, if I am to lead these people says the candidate for leadership in Psalm 25:1, then I must start with my own character.  This is a good man, I like this man, he has his priorities straight.  Of course nothing in this Psalm says that it’s a king who is praying only that it is a person seeking guidance and deliverance.  We are told David wrote it, so he’s a man rather than a woman, and he is king at some point in his life; but this is an anybody prayer in that anybody can pray it with confidence that God will answer it.  Listen to me LORD, whoever I am, and keep me close to you.  Teach me about you, teach me your path, teach me your truth, and lead me in those two things.  Forgive me and be gracious when I fall, and remembering your mercy lift me up when I need it.  How great you are God, how wonderful you are in generosity to wait for us and slow down to teach us along the way.  How worthy of praise you are God, you are loving and faithful and good.  There are some more Advent promises, perhaps a little bit hidden, but still there.  This is how one man three thousand years ago found God to be like; if David is to be believed and God is everlastingly loving and faithful then these things are true of God today.  This is what God is like, and you are welcomed into God’s family if you want to take hold of this friend and saviour as Lord.

Our reading from the gospels this morning points us at Luke 21:25-36 where Jesus is teaching the disciples on the Wednesday of his last week.  This event takes place just after Jesus has commented upon the poor widow and her two pennies which we heard about a few weeks back, and some comments from the crowd about how awesome the temple complex is.  Jesus’ response is this passage which speaks about the coming of The Son of Man and the need to watch and be fruitful in the meantime.  And just listen to what he is saying in Luke 21:25-33, the event of the Coming of the Son does not sound pleasant, but you need to get ready because it’s about to happen.  As Christians reading the Bible in 2018 we know that these events did not take place around Nazareth and Beit Lehem when Jesus was born; yes there was a star but there were no great portents and we are not told that the sea went berserk, so we assume that it didn’t.  What seems to be happening is that Jesus is speaking of a time in Jerusalem’s future and Kaniva & Serviceton’s, when the Son of Man comes a second time, coming in all his Godly power and great glory as Luke 21:27 reads.  Perhaps of greater concern to us as Christians reading the Bible in 2018 is that these events did not take place around Jerusalem when Jesus died or in the forty years or so after; indeed they haven’t happened like that at all.  In Luke 21:32 Jesus indicates that these events were about to happen, and that a forty-year deadline was probably generous: so what happened such that what was supposed to happen did not happen?  Well, nothing happened, but that’s not the point.

So, what is the point?  Well the point is what comes next in Jesus’ words, be on your guard as we read in Luke 21:34, and be alert we read in Luke 21:36.  Don’t worry about when it didn’t happen, be ready for when it does.  And how do we be ready?  [Congregation interaction time, how do we be ready?]  Discipleship.  [Weren’t you listening before?]  Yes, discipleship; we get on with acting with righteousness and justice and love with the guidance, grace and equipping of the one who promises to be steadfast and faithful, and who more than three thousand years of Jewish history has proven to be true.  That Jesus may not have been speaking about “this generation” as the actual people alive on that day but referring to an attitude of complacency among religious people which has continued through to this day, is not the point.  That the fully-human Jesus speaking in 30AD may have got God’s timing wrong in his mind is not the point.  That the writers of the gospels working in the 60s-80s AD may have got the God’s timing wrong and wrote into Jesus’ mouth words that Jesus never said, words that would have rung true in Jeremiah’s day and connect better with the then five-centuries-old encouraging story of God’s deliverance of the Jewish exiles and the situation of Jerusalem in the 70s than the situation in the 30s, words that would be an encouragement for Christians in the present situation in Rome or Asia living with Nero and Diocletian and an amphitheatre full of gladiators and lions, is not the point.

Phew!  No, the point is that God is faithful, the promise is sure, the Son of Man shall return, and Christians and Jews need to get busy in the meantime proclaiming the Kingdom of God through lives of faith-filled compassion, love-filled justice, and hope-filled confidence.  That is the point because that is what Advent is all about.

Amen.

The Son’s Life (Easter 7B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Yallourn Uniting Church gathered at Newborough on Sunday 13th May 2018.  It was a communion Sunday and the last Sunday before Pentecost.

Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19.

In the time between Ascension and Pentecost the Church lives alone.  As far as the lectionary is concerned the Easter season is almost at a close and today is our last Sunday in white.  According to Luke’s timetable in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus returned to Heaven for the final time last Thursday and he will no longer appear amongst the disciples in the way that he has been doing since he surprised the Cleopas family in Emmaus.  Next Sunday is Pentecost, coinciding with the Jewish festival of Shavuot, and we shall celebrate with all the churches of the West the sending of the Spirit upon the women and men in Upper Room.  But that’s last Thursday, and next Sunday.  Today and for the week to come, we live waiting for the fulfilling of the promise.

So, with Jesus gone and the Spirit yet to come, how should we live?  What is the Way of Christ when the Christ is no longer among us?  How do we live Life in The Spirit when The Spirit has not yet brought God’s new life?

Well, in 1 John 5:12 it says that “The Way” and “The Life” are found in having the Son of God.  If you have the Son you have life, but if you do not have the Son then you do not have life.  Many scholars agree that First John was written about a group of people who had once participated in the life of the John church, but who had left the church to follow another philosophical movement called “Gnosticism”.  These people were still in contact with some of their old friends who had remained with the John church and they trying to draw these friends away from the gospel and into their gnostic fellowship.  Hence this letter wherein the writer, speaking to people personally brought to faith by John or by people who had themselves been brought to faith by John, writes to keep the core of faithful ones still holding to Christ focussed even more strongly upon Jesus as the only saviour.  To have the Son is to believe and trust the story about God that you have been told, the story told by John, he writes.  The message for them applies to us gathered today: you have heard the truth and you have committed yourself to that truth by choosing to life your life as if what you have been told is true is true.  And what have we been told, what is it that those who heard John and those who have read the scriptures in the twenty-first century have believed?  In what have we placed our trust?  The gospel that God came in human form as Jesus, and that in Jesus we see modelled the ways of God in the world.  We who have seen Jesus, or who have believed the testimony of those who saw Jesus, believe that Jesus lived as if God were on earth.  Jesus lived like God would live if God were human.  And, Jesus lived like a follower of God would live if God were true.  Now since we believe that God is true, and that the life of Jesus was the life of God-as-human, then the way ahead is clear.  Believe what Jesus said about God, live as Jesus lived with respect for God and God’s creation, and model and teach this for others so that they can believe and trust as we came to believe and trust through the modelling and teaching of others.  Those who have God have eternal life, not just life after death (although there is that) and not just life which goes on forever (although there is that too) but life without restriction.  Not just a long life, but a wide life and a tall life and deep life and a rich life – this is the promise whereby God gave us eternal life…and life in the Son we read about in 1 John 5:11.  The key is believing that Jesus was who the Church says he was – Emmanuel, God in dusty skin.  Not just dusty in that Jesus was a brown skinned man, olive at least, not Anglo-Saxon, but dusty in that Jesus lived in a rural area in first century Palestine where there was dust in the wind and Jesus would have copped a face-full at times.  God lived on earth, and God lived well; there’s your model for life but also there’s your message.  God loves us too much to leave us at a distance, God came close and God lived amongst humankind, pitching a tent and hanging around for more than thirty years of anonymity and about three and a half years of modelling the God-oriented life and revealing God-directing truth.

In our prayers this morning we heard how Psalm 1 speaks of happiness, which is delight in the ways of God and not in the way of human wisdom or arrogance.  More fully it means the delight of blessing arising from being in a right relationship with God and living as one whose steps are laid upon the right path.  “Blessed are those who walk with God” might be the theme of the entire Psalter, and here it is found in the very first of the Psalms.  Those who feed on God will not wither says Psalm 1:3, rather they will flourish and be fruitful.  Fullness of life, stability and productivity are found in a life oriented towards God.  The wise person Psalm 1:2 tells us is the one who studies Torah, who hears and reads and meditates on the precepts of God.  The Orthodox tradition sees Psalm 1 as an accurate description of the life of Jesus prior to his coming, a prophecy of Jesus who is “the man” of Psalm 1:1.  This is the testimony of John Chrysostom and St Augustine and this passage sets out how Jesus the blessed man was different to all other men.  In Psalm 1 we therefore get a clear example of how to live, and how not to live.  I’m not entirely convinced by the Orthodox argument, which probably why I’m, preaching here today and not across the river with the Serbian Orthodox congregation; I don’t think the Psalmist in the tenth century before Christ was primarily writing about Christ, but the idea of parallel ways to live where Jesus is the ikon pointing towards the way of illumination rather than the way of darkness seems like a good fit.  So, if you want to fulfil 1 John 5 you could do worse than emulate Psalm 1, but you probably couldn’t do much better.

Or could you?

How could we possibly be better followers of God than by emulating scriptural imperatives for the holy and blessed life?  Well it’s quite simple, we read the gospels and we emulate Jesus.  Don’t get me wrong, Psalm 1 is a brilliant model, but since we are Christians why don’t we take it a step further and model ourselves on John 17 and the Jesus we find there?

Jesus made God known to everyone God brought into Jesus’ life (John 17:6) by speaking the truth of what Jesus knew about God (John 17:8).  Then, having done that and everything else that he did, Jesus prayed one last time for his band of brothers, the eleven of them who remained, before he lead them all into Gethsemane where the will of God took over.  The task of making God known was given to the eleven, and to those to whom the eleven preached.  The whole life of Jesus was about proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven, or we might say today the Commonwealth of God.  God desires shalom for the world; unity, peace, grace, restoration of what has been lost and broken and damaged and hurt.  Jesus taught this, and he modelled it by his compassion and his miracles.  But Jesus’ work was left incomplete in that he did not speak to every living member of creation.  Jesus’ death and resurrection as a means of grace was sufficient for all, but the lived-out message of proclamation and example was left to the Church, the beneficiaries of redemptive love and revelatory life.

So, in grasping all that let go of none of it.  As 1 John 5:13 says, having obtained eternal life through grace you must maintain your obedience.  You will not lose eternity through disobedience, but you will lose fullness and depth in life through apathy toward God’s instruction.  Christian life is not a one-off moment where you do the altar call thing with Billy Graham or Brian Houston, and then go on with nothing changed except an “Admit One” ticket to Heaven in your spiritual pocket.  You who have heard the story of Jesus and believed the story of Jesus must live the story of Jesus and be Emmanuel to someone else: God-with-him or God-with-her as the case may be.  Remember that God-with-us is God-with-you, for you and for those with whom you live and move and have your being.

So, get about it, for love’s sake.

Amen.

Resurrexit B

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell and Yallourn Cluster of the Uniting Church for Easter Day 2018, Sunday 1st April.  On this day they gathered at Yallourn North.

Isaiah 25:6-9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Mark 16:1-8

The disciples who gathered (and scattered) on Holy Saturday did not know it was a day of vigil.  They did not know Sunday was coming: they thought it was all over.  When the women approached the tomb just after sunrise, whispering amongst themselves about how they were going to move that huge stone, they were doing so because they hade no expectation that the stone had been moved.  They were carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ corpse because that is what they expected to find, if they were actually able to move that huge stone in the first place.  No-one was expecting the stone to be moved and the body to be gone, and even when they arrived and found it thus their first thoughts would not have been resurrection but desecration and grave robbery.  Do not be mistaken, the women’s first impressions of the empty tomb were not joy and worship, but heartbroken desolation.  “First, they crucify him, and then this.  They open his grave and steal his battered body to do God-knows-only what horrific things to him.”  It was with this mindset, this anguish and agony, this anxiety tinged with outrage, that the women meet the young man dressed in white.

Unique among the four gospel writers Mark relates only an empty tomb story and not a resurrection.  Jesus is not in the tomb, the tomb is open and empty, but unlike Matthew, Luke and John Jesus is never seen alive.  In one way we should not expect to see Jesus there, since in Mark 14:28 we read how he instructed the disciples to meet him in Galilee; so that’s where he will be.  To see the risen Jesus the disciples must go to Galilee, to the home of Jesus the Nazarene as Mark and the young man in white tell us in Mark 16:6.  Strangely, uniquely, Mark doesn’t tell us about that event and he finishes his story here.

Jesus’ final instruction to his followers in Mark’s gospel is to go home: to his and their home, which Mark 1:16-20 tells us is Galilee and the place where it all began.  Jesus will appear again, but he will do so away from Jerusalem, in private, and among the “True Believers”.  The message is reiterated at the empty tomb to the women; and these women are also Galilean.  The next big thing in God’s plan of coming into the world in creaturely form is given to three women; Galilean females far from home, standing in front of a tomb which has been ransacked, and if they are seen there, women who are liable to prosecution and execution on suspicion of being the grave-robbers themselves.

I bet you weren’t expecting that from the first page of your Easter Sunday sermon, were you?  So baffling, so threatening, so many unanswered questions, so abrupt a conclusion to the story of Immanuel that it hardly constitutes a conclusion at all.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 says what Mark 16:1-8 does not, which is what happened on and after that first Easter Sunday morning.  Jesus does appear in person to Peter and then the twelve, and to a crowd of 500, and to his brother James, and to the apostles, and then to Paul himself.  So, not to the women then: and since Paul doesn’t actually say where all of this took place then perhaps it did all happen in the Galilee somewhere.  Maybe the women did eventually tell Peter what they saw, and maybe he lead the group back to the lake where he and they found Jesus waiting for them.  Perhaps this is where the 500 were, and James as well.  Maybe James as the next brother in the family has assumed the duties of the eldest with the death of Jesus and he has taken the grieving Mary home to Nazareth.  Thanks to Paul, we get a sort of seventeenth chapter of Mark in 1 Corinthians, and all is good with the world.  All is good for the moment at least.

You don’t need me to tell you that for Christians the resurrection of Jesus is a central idea in our religion. It’s arguably the central idea, and the fact that you have each come to congregate in this building on this morning suggests that you get that.  The idea that Jesus returned to Earth in human likeness yet newly different; not as a disembodied and enlightened soul but as a real-yet-not-like-us person, is what 1 Corinthians 15 is all about.  The facts and faith of the resurrection of Jesus is the future of the Church; and that God is the one who does it is central to our understanding.  By God I am not saying that Jesus had inherent power to raise himself, but that The Father displays Jesus to whomever The Father chooses to reveal him, and hides Jesus from whomever The Father chooses to hide him.  God’s promise to the Church and to all who believe in Jesus is new life, a fuller life which is still recognisable as human life.  When Jesus appeared to each of the groups described by Paul, and those described by Matthew, Luke, and John in their gospels, and Peter in his testimony, he is not a ghost.  The resurrected one is not a phantom, neither is he an angel; he is a man transformed by the power of God.  When we leave this life and enter the next, fuller life in the perfection of the Kingdom of God neither will we be ghosts or angels: like Jesus we will be men and women transformed, transfigured even, by the power of God.  The resurrected Jesus is for Christians the definitive sign and the visible evidence of the promise of the Reign of God.  We shall become what Jesus became when Christ returns as king.

This is what it means when Paul writes that we are being saved through the good news we have heard (1 Corinthians 15:1-2).  This is the good news, this is the message to which we hold firm, this is the promise where if we don’t get it then all else of our faith is in vain.  Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and was raised to life in accordance with the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  Christ Jesus was vindicated by the resurrection: the prophets had said centuries before that the victory of justice over violence was coming, it came, and now we hold to it as true and valuable.  Jesus really did live, really did die, and really was revealed by God as a resurrected and transformed man.  The Christian gospel in its entirety is proved right by this, and it is shown to have power to transform the world, starting with our self-identification as sinners and traitors (1 Corinthians 15:3).

So, what does this mean for us?  Our Old Testament reading offers that with the resurrection of Christ the promises made to Israel to bless all nations through them came into effect.  Isaiah 25:6-9 speaks to how what was first promised to Judahites is released into the world for all to take benefit.  In the Kingdom of God celebration will replace mourning, comfort shall replace disgrace, and restoration will replace destruction and all who choose to attend will be welcomed at the place of God’s revelation.  Just as Jesus was restored and vindicated in the resurrection so the hope of deliverance for all who gripped on to faith with tenacity and desperation as all else faded shall be vindicated when they are brought home to God and to freedom.

So that’s what today is all about, because that is what Christianity is all about.  The central message of Jesus was the inconceivably generous and gargantuan love of God for creation, particularly for women and men, and the eternal plan for reconciliation and the restoration of God’s rule on Earth as it is in Heaven.  That is what “repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand” means, the first words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel.  Change your mind about God, because overwhelming love is coming, and when it comes you will still be you, but you will never be the same again.

Amen.

So, you good?

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell and Yallourn Cluster for Good Friday, 30th March 2018.

Psalm 22; Hebrews 5:7-9

So, you good?  How’s your Friday been so far?  How’s it looking for this arvo?  Good Friday can be one of those days when you can’t get your head around much else, if you really get in to it.  It can also be one of those days that is best skipped over.  Go to church, sing “The Old Rugged Cross”, look sad for a bit and then go home to watch Channel Seven for the Royal Children’s Hospital Telethon, or since 2017 some AFL.  It’s a day of mixed emotions: bewildering and contradictory to say the least.

Psalm 22 begins with a cry of desolation in the midst of an episode of feeling forsaken.  Why is God acting so much out of character as to abandon the one who is screaming out to the deliverer, with faith, for deliverance as we read in Psalm 22:1-2.  Yet, there is praise and acknowledgement that God is exalted in Psalm 22:3-5, and humanity is not, even at the best of times, let alone from the place of despair we are told in Psalm 22:6.  So, despite how its opening line has been perceived this is actually a prayer of faith and confidence in God.  The desperate one is so confident in God’s ability to deliver that he is ashamed of his own situation because it is causing God to be mocked.  The unbelievers see the believer shamed, the deliverer has patently not delivered, and blasphemy is arising we read in Psalm 22:6-8.  Think of the Pharisees with their “he saved others, why doesn’t he save himself” taunts.  Today Christians face similar mockery when life stumbles for us and the secularists cry “ha-ha, he believes in the flying spaghetti monster, but now he’s bereft and there’s no pasta-ral care forthcoming for him.  Wattanidjit!”  Still, according to Psalm 22:9-11 the desperate man believes, and he believes because of God’s prior record of faithful deliverance.  On and on the man describes his predicament, and on and on he reasserts his praise for God and his absolute confidence in God’s faithfulness to deliver.  This is seen in Psalm 22:12-21a. God is capable, and God is willing, and I shall be delivered, and when I am delivered I shall praise you all the more says the man in Psalm 22:21b-31.

When Jesus prayed Psalm 22:1 out loud from a Roman cross every Jew who heard him would have been reminded of the Psalm, even the positive bits.  I wonder what it means that this whole prayer is in the mouth of Jesus as he crucified.   I wonder what is actually going on for Jesus here, and what we are supposed to learn from this.  Well, in Hebrews 5:7-9 we read that while Jesus was alive as a man he prayed boldly and loudly to God, with passion and volume, and that because of his faith God was faithful to Jesus and responded to Jesus prayer.  Jesus was a Psalm 22 sort of person, a man of relentless, resilient, resolute hope in God. And we are assured that Jesus understands humanity because he lived as a man among women and men; Hebrews 5:8 clearly says that Jesus learned about human life through living a human life of his own. So, the perfection in Jesus that we read about in Hebrews 5:9 is not only that Jesus completed the work of salvation; that he submitted to God at Gethsemane and held that commitment right through all that occurred at Golgotha, and that by dying on the cross as a bloody sacrifice and representation of all created things he opened a path to human reconciliation with God and the possibility that we might be made perfect.  Yes, there is that, but there is more because Jesus understands perfectly. Jesus has completed and perfect experience of all created things because he lived like a created thing, a man.  So, the message of Hebrews 5 is that we are perfected by redemption because Jesus perfectly understands us; and he understands us because he was one of us.  See?  Do you see?

To think of God as “friend of sinners” is to assert that the pure and righteous God is not so far removed from the impure and unrighteous. We don’t need to protect God or God’s reputation from dirt, as if God lives in some Oxy-Action brightness and turns into a Dickensian gentlewoman at the sight of dust: the crucifixion tells us how God in Jesus got right down into the mud with us so as to lift us out.  That’s what the cross is about; the holy one who embraced lepers and allowed unclean women to embrace him, the foot-washing rabban, got bloody and muddy to rescue us from the grot and snot; even the grot and snot of our own making.

But don’t believe that this wasn’t hard.  Even with the faith that Jesus expresses and how he never drops his dependence and confidence in God The Father, Friday hurt.  The word “excruciating” was invented for this day, ex-Crucis literally means out of (or from) the cross.  Jesus died of shock and asphyxiation after six hours of excruciating pain as he hung all his bodyweight from nails through his wrists and ankles.  “Ouch” doesn’t come close.  His back from neck to knees had been torn open to the bone from the Roman flagellator, and you’d better believe that that would not have been comfortable.  Add to that the psychological, emotional pain of anguish and shame of hanging naked and alone while the whole city spits abuse at you and your sobbing woman friends (including your mum) who scream with broken hearts at the foot of your cross.  It was hard, bloody hard, bloody and hard for Jesus to die like that.

And God The Father?  Evangelicals like us often sing of how “the Father turns his face away”, but I cannot believe that.  I have no doubt, no doubt and every confidence, because I am a Psalm 22 person, that The Father watched every livid second of Jesus’ last 24 hours of mortal life. I am sure you’ve been told before about the torn veil in the temple, shredded at the very moment of Jesus’ last breath, as a prophetic sign of access.  Our traditions teach that with Christ’s death we can meet the Father at any time, and God is now on the loose in the world never again to be domesticated behind a curtain.  We have access to the holiest place, and God has access to the rest of the world: we can enter in and God can run amok. But perhaps the tearing of the veil was also a prophetic sign, or even an actual physical manifestation of our interventionist God’s anguish as the grieving Father, Abba Daddy, rends his garments in grief at the sight of what has been done to his beautiful and best-beloved son.

Or maybe it means that on a day like Good Friday that no place is holy, no place at all.  After all, how can our priests conspire to murder God yet hope to maintain a holy of holies in the temple of the holy city?  And if our priests can’t maintain a temple, how on earth can we scum-of-the Earth poor sinners lay people manage to achieve such a thing?

It’s a day of mixed emotions: bewildering and contradictory to say the least.

So, how’s your Friday going?

Amen.

Palm Sunday B (Annunciation)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 25th March 2018, which was Palm Sunday and also the Feast of the Annunciation.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 11:1-11

Today is Palm Sunday, I’m sure you already knew that without my having to tell you.  I wonder however, did you know today is also the day of the Feast of the Annunciation, the day upon which we celebrate the messenger Gabriel and his news to Mary that she has become pregnant by God?  Think about it, it’s nine months today until Christmas day.  Have you heard of that idea before?  March 25th, yeah?  That would be why we’ve just read from Isaiah 7 and sung “O come, O come Emmanuel”, yeah?  Clever.

 Well if you did know all of that, well done, but did you also know the tradition that the actual Good Friday upon which Jesus died was March 25th?  The theory goes that Jesus died on the anniversary of his conception; thereby completing the cycle of God the Son’s incarnation all rather neatly.  I must admit that I am radically unconvinced by this theory, for many reasons, but it is a rather nice puzzle even if it is all conjecture.  And hey, “Christ was born for thi-is, Christ was born for this” as we good Christians all rejoiced back in December.

Mark tells us that Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Passover festival; they have come to participate in one of the three great pilgrimage festivals in Judaism.  In John’s gospel Jesus comes and goes from Jerusalem quite a bit over his three years of ministry, but Mark (and Matthew and Luke who base their gospels on Mark’s) has Jesus coming to Jerusalem only one time, this time, and have Jesus ministering for less than a year.  So, this event is a big deal for Mark, and this passage describes the day that the Messiah enters the city for the first time.  Now, since it was expected of Jews from around the world that they would make their way to Jerusalem for the festival Jesus had probably been to Jerusalem before.  Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents brought him several times when he was a boy, to have him dedicated to God as a newborn firstborn, and again when he was a twelve-year-old.  So, Jesus has been before, but today he is coming as Messiah, not as a pilgrim.

 Passover was a time of celebrating the special identity of the Jewish religion and the Israelite people; of the three big festivals Passover was the biggest and it was a time of heightened awareness of nationalism and the pride that there was in being Jewish.  As Australians we might imagine Anzac Day with an added tradition that everyone gathers in Canberra for the dawn service at the War Memorial, and then moves across to the lawns of Parliament House for a massive barbeque breakfast.  Okay, that’s big, and it’s sacred.  However, unlike Canberra today Jerusalem in the first century took a bit of getting to.  Without aircraft, buses or cars pilgrims in Jesus’ time would have walked for days or even weeks to reach the city.  They would have travelled in groups with friends, neighbours and families walking and working together to entertain and protect each other.  Along the way the pilgrims would have stayed in designated campsites or hostels where they would have met up with other groups of pilgrims to eat and sleep together but also pray, sing and tell stories as well.  By the time they approached Jerusalem there would have been a mounting excitement and a buzz of expectation.  Songs like Psalm 118 which was read this morning, and other “songs of ascent”, would have been sung along the road and then would have formed part of the worship during the festival itself.  Happy and to be envied is the one who comes in the name of the LORD they sing to one another, reminding each other that this psalm had been composed as a victory hymn in celebration of a great triumph.  It’s “all hail the great, returning, and all conquering king” and all that. This is a song of deliverance and thanksgiving: think VE Day or a parade of gold medallists.  The roads to Jerusalem in the days before Passover were an exciting place to be and Jesus on his donkey is arriving right in the middle of it all.

 And that is part of the problem:  Jesus is coming on a mission of peace and reconciliation, riding a colt and not a stallion, but the crowds are shouting for Jewish victory.  The first part of Psalm 118:24, which was read to us as this is the day The LORD has made can also be translated this is the day on which The LORD takes action:  the pilgrims have reached Jerusalem and are ready to kick some Roman heads.  In a similar vein Hosanna means “save us” and was a general cry of praise, but in the heightened tension of the festival it also came to mean “get on with saving us (and kick the Romans back into Italy)”.

 So, I wonder whether in throwing down their cloaks and taking up the palm fronds the crowds acted spontaneously; already hyped up by being so near to Jerusalem did they see Jesus and go mental?  Did the Jerusalemites, swept up in the arrival of so many excited tourists to their city allow themselves to be swept along in the mob?  There may have been mixed emotions in the crowd, everyone using the same words but with very different agendas.  Some were crying out in ecstatic praise at reaching their destination at Jerusalem and the temple courts themselves.  Others were no doubt happy to see that nice healing-working prophet from Galilee.  Others still were crying out to the long-awaited Messiah with a demand for action, hopeful that Jesus might just be that Messiah.  Regardless of the intricacies, everyone was saying “God, continue saving us and make us victorious!”  But just like the crowds around Jesus we must take care to enter the celebration yet remain focussed on the meaning of the festival.  The message of Palm Sunday and the lead in to Holy Week may well be don’t get swept along in all the hype or you’ll miss Jesus’ point!

 In Psalm 118:22 we read that the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.  This wording was also used by Jesus (Matthew 21:42) to describe himself, and by Paul (Ephesians 2:20) to describe Jesus.  At this point in the story it is not Jesus who has been rejected by the Jewish leaders so much as what he represents.  Jesus is the cornerstone and foundation of Christianity, but more than the man or his teaching it is Jesus’ act of submission and trust to the point of deep humiliation and suffering that our hope is based on.  Yes, celebrate the man who is king but look closer at what is right in front of you: see what everyone else has missed.  The saviour king is riding a foal amongst the rabble, rather than a charger at the head of a parade, or a cloud at the head of the host of angels.  God is not who you think God is and the messiah was never intended to come as a new David conquering the Jebusites, or another Judas Maccabaeus recovering Jerusalem from the Seleucids.   It was never ever God’s intention that Jesus would overthrow the Roman colonial governors.

 Mark helps us out because he is more interested in presenting the humility and the lowliness of Jesus than the triumphalism of the crowd.  This is where we too must look.  For Mark this is not a triumphal entry at all, see how he tells the story.  After arriving in the city amongst the pilgrims Jesus takes a quick look at the temple, then turns right around and leaves Jerusalem for the night.  He doesn’t do anything.  He doesn’t address the crowd, he doesn’t speak to anyone, and he doesn’t even stay in the city.  Is this a deliberate anticlimax?  Mark’s story of the Sunday before Easter is a story of meekness and majesty, humiliation and vindication.  All four words describe Jesus at various points across the day.

The instruction to us, as we look to this coming week towards Thursday, Friday and Sunday, is that grace, mercy, and hope are Jesus’ meaning.  Jesus is Lord and King; and that is why he alone can offer grace, mercy and hope.  This week our focus needs to be on Jesus as “the least of these”, the meek one who allowed himself to be arrested and murdered by people and ideas far weaker than himself so that his glory, and his revelation of God as the God of all, could be displayed in the strongest way possible.  Christians alone of all religious people have a God who is prepared to die for them at their own hands.  On this Palm Sunday and Annunciation day I suggest that we dishonour God when we get all triumphal and energetic when God’s own nature is to be humble and anonymous.  Or, as Paul said, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in Heaven and on Earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

That’s what we want isn’t it, that Jesus would be worshipped and adored?  So, let’s have the mind of Christ and see him glorified.

Amen.