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.

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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.

Melchizedek (Lent 5B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation, gathered at Yallourn North, on Sunday 18th March 2018.  It was the fifth Sunday in Lent.

Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

When the writers of the text we now call “The Letter to the Hebrews” sat down to get their thoughts together it seems that one of their primary concerns was the authority of Jesus.  Probably written around the year 65CE and written to be read by Christ-worshippers in Rome, the issues addressed by this text include who Jesus was and why these writers felt confident to make the claims about him that they did.  They also sought to answer questions about what the point of Jesus’ life and ministry was, to clarify what Jesus accomplished.  The Roman Empire continued to occupy Jerusalem: God had not delivered the Israelites from oppression, and the temple continued to function for Judaism as it had done since the days of Ezra.  How can the Jewish Messiah have come, and nothing has changed?  Who was Jesus?

In today’s section we are told quite plainly that the work of Jesus as high priest was authorised by God: Jesus did not appoint himself divine intermediary, nor did he steal the role from the rightful Levitical clansmen in Jerusalem.  Furthermore, say the authors, the evidence that Jesus was authorised by God is plain because he did the work of a priest properly, praying and interceding while he was alive.  Jesus prayed with confidence, knowing the Father and knowing the Father’s capability and the Father’s will.  Jesus asked God to do only what God wanted done: Jesus was qualified to be high priest because Jesus was faithful to God.

But this is only part of the answer, and Hebrews 5:8-9 speaks of Jesus’ life on earth as a time of struggle and of learning.  As God the Son, and the Son of God, life in God’s creation might have been cushy for Jesus: descending from a cloud and floating about Creation he could have kept himself clean and dry by not touching anything or being touched by anyone.  But that’s not how Jesus came and that’s not how he lived: Jesus was qualified to be high priest because Jesus was faithful to humanity.

Jesus was born in the part of the house where the animals were kept.  Despite what you’ve heard about that cosy manger I have no doubt that little lord Jesus loud crying did make.  And probably lots of times afterwards.  Jesus grew up in an ordinary village in an ordinary family where his tradesman father taught Jesus his trade.  Jesus was the Son of God, but when he was apprenticed to his father to learn the family business he matured into a fitter and joiner, not as Master of the Universe, the divine and sovereign creator.  Jesus’ feet got dirty, we know that because a woman washed them.  Jesus got tired, we know that because he fell asleep in the boat.  Jesus got hungry, we know that because satan was able to tempt him with food, even though Jesus resisted the temptation.  Jesus got lonely, we know that because he cried out that even God had forsaken him, twelve hours after his friends couldn’t remain awake for even an hour.  It’s never mentioned but I am sure that Jesus must have relieved himself at times, perhaps having to hold it in, perhaps having to “nip off” in a hurry.  I am sure Jesus got sick, and I imagine that Mary had to cuddle him and wipe him down and kiss it better when he was small.  Jesus was a tradesman, traditionally described as a carpenter it’s likely that he was a builder alongside that: so, did he never hit his thumb with a hammer, or catch his fingers on a saw blade?  Will anyone suggest that Jesus never got a splinter from the wood, or a stone chip?  Did he never trip over, or stub a toe?  Did he never bang his head on a low door or overhanging branch?  Did he never drop something on his foot, or get dust in his eye?  Did he never step in dog or camel or donkey poo?  Jesus learned what it was like to live on earth as a person: baby, toddler, child, teen, youth, and man.  Jesus was made complete and perfect we read in Hebrews 5:9 in that he experienced all that there was to experience as an adult Galilean Jew in Roman-occupied Judea.  Jesus lived the whole picture and he learned the full story of humankind in action.  God The Son had first-hand experience of the world in its fallen state, and he grieved with God The Father over what had been lost and over what had become of that wondrously good Eden that God had made.

So, the fully human Jesus got dirty and smelly, hurt and tired at times.  Of course, he also had friends and family and I am sure he laughed quite a bit.  Jesus experienced joy and love and companionship, he was not only a man of sorrows.  Jesus ate and drank, and he probably spewed and pooed too.  And the fully divine Jesus grieved for the world, but he also rejoiced in the company of the worshippers of God and in the news or presence of their devotion and godliness where he experienced it.  Not that he desired worship for himself, but that he experienced God being worshipped by his companions in the room, and that delighted him as the Son of God amongst women and men.

All of that is true and meaningful.  But what carries the most weight, at least as I see it, is what we read in Hebrews 5:7: Jesus experienced fear.  Jesus got scared and Jesus drew back momentarily from the great act of the cross.  What makes Jesus the best high priest, allowing for all that I have said about his being chosen by God rather than taking the mantle upon himself, and that he lived a human life of dirt and fun, and that his spirit grieved at the fallenness of Creation, no what makes him the best is that he saw how ugly the cross was going to be and he called “time-out”.  Gethsemane is no secret to us, and apparently it was no secret to the writers of Hebrews 5:7: Jesus pleaded in cries and tears that God would use any other way to complete the work, anything else than the brutality of Good Friday.  This is a man, a human; a flesh and bones and blood and sensory neurones person.  This is a man who knows that what is coming is going to be all kinds of worlds of hurt in his body, mind, soul, and spirit.  This is a man just like us; this is the one God chose to do this great work.  Not an angel, not an alien, not a golem, not even a quadriplegic with no sense of pain below the neck.

And he knew it was coming from well beforehand because one day Philip and Andrew brought Gentiles to meet him.  The great act of service of a seed is that it dies, anonymously and underground, to cause a new tree with thousands of new seeds to grow in that place.  Jesus’ death was neither anonymous nor underground, but it was his great act of service, and his life’s end brought about the beginning of billions of lives in every land on the planet.  With the request of these Greeks for an introduction Jesus knew that the time to embark upon his greatest service was at hand.  Jesus’ response to the coming moment, John 12:27 tells us, is that he was troubled.  He knew that the cross would break him, it would kill his body and it would take his mind and spirit over the edge of human capability too.  And Jesus knew that in the activity and immediate aftermath of the cross his disciples would be broken by confusion, grief and doubt.

And he went through with it.

(But only after he had called a time-out to get his head around it.)

Jesus knows our every pain and weakness, he has been there.  Jesus knows every pain and weakness of The Father, he has been there too.  This is what makes Jesus the greatest of great high priests, the ultimate and unsurpassable intermediary between Holy God and Fallen Creation.

So, what does this mean for us?  I see two outcomes of this message, two things we can do with this revelation of who Jesus was regarding this special role of intercessor and advocate.

  1. We take courage. Jesus to whom we pray, and through whom we pray to The Father, knows what it is like down here and he understands.  Jesus will never call you a wimp or deride you as unfaithful and unworthy of him when the thought of pain and suffering causes you to pause.  He gets it, he paused too, and then he went on.  If he went on alone, then you or I can go on with him beside us.  Whatever God is calling you to, or whatever life has thrown up in your path, Jesus knows about it and wants you to do well.  Maybe its public speaking and evangelism, maybe its standing up for the oppressed or is dispossessed where you work or live; maybe it’s a mozzie bite or some dog poo on your shoe.  No human experience, no make-or-break call to disciplined action is below Jesus’ attention or above Jesus’ capacity to support you.
  2. We worship. Last month we heard the story of the Transfiguration and of how Jesus was glorified by God in the presence of Moses and Elijah, and the special needs class from amongst his followers.  This is the one who we killed, the transfigured one is also the crucified one.  We need not be afraid of Jesus, he loves us, and his death is the ultimate act of love for us; nonetheless the Fear of The LORD, our great regard and honour for who Jesus is as Son of God, should drive us to our knees or faces, or maybe to our feet with our hands aloft.  But we can’t just sit there, indifferent, any longer.

Jesus was afraid to die for us, that’s how we know he’s human and that’s how we know that he loves us.  He understands pain.  Nonetheless Jesus died for us.  We may be afraid to live for him, after all we are human and that’s how he knows that we love him.  He understands the threat we may be inviting, discipleship is not easy.  Nonetheless we live for him.

But we live for him, with him beside us.

Amen.

Nisi per gratiam per fidem (Lent 4B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation gathered at Newborough on Sunday 11th March 2018, the fourth Sunday in Lent.

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21; John 6:28-40

Today’s reading from the Jewish tradition is one of those texts that causes me bafflement.  I do not claim to have the full picture on this, and I challenge any of you who think you do to explain it to me later.  So, in this story the Hebrews are in the desert with Moses, somewhere between Egypt and Canaan, and they are sooking again about hunger, thirst, and poor leadership from God and from Moses.  So, God sends snakes, and those snakes bite some people, and some of the bitten people die.  The not dead people catch on that God is upset about their sooking, so they wisely repent of their sookiness, and God responds to their repentance by mandating a means of healing.  In a tick we shall hear how the bronze snake lifted in the desert for healing is an image used by Jesus in John to speak of his own being lifted on the cross as a means of healing: it’s a great image.  But for now, for the Hebrews their specific sin, the lesson that we are supposed to take away is that thing that needs healing even more than the venomous attack is the people’s speaking against God and against God’s appointed leader.  Death by reptilian poison is merely a symptom of the Hebrews’ shoddy attitude toward God their deliverer: once they understand that they repent and ask their embattled leader to intercede for them.  And Moses prays, and the snakes leave, and the people rejoice.

But did God really have to send actual deadly snakes for all that to happen?  Other times when the people complained of hunger God sent manna and quail and water from a rock.  So, what’s with all the bitey vipers?  That’s not very Jesusy of God, even taking consideration for it being 1200 BC at this stage.

Today’s psalm declares that all of God’s healing for the sick and stupid comes by God’s word, literally a diagnosis of “all clear” from the specialist.  The God of steadfast love delivers God’s people, so let them rejoice with sacrifices of praise says this psalm.  The Christian writer Selwyn Hughes once described the sacrifice of praise as “thanksgiving with blood on its hands”, a phrase I like.  This suggests that sometimes praise is hard fought, hard won, and worth hanging on to.  These are the songs of an overcomer sung toward the God who has delivered victory to him or her at long last.   Perhaps this sort of sacrifice of praise is the one sung by the Hebrews who received a harsh lesson in discipleship and who heeded that lesson to now stand and sing with awe of God’s power and deliverance.  Confronted by the one who can destroy, but who chooses instead to deliver, the people understand that God desires praise as a response to grace, but it is not a prerequisite.

Paul picks up the theme of Torah in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus writing in Ephesians 2:4-5 that debt has left them dead, but God has made them alive with Christ by grace.  All who belong to God are saved by grace through faith, not by faith itself he writes in Ephesians 2:8.  In other words you are not saved by what you accept as true about the universe, neither are you saved by what you accept as true about the Bible.  You are not saved by signing your name beneath or reciting every week the Creed of Nicaea; as if by saying “this document details what I agree to be the facts of Christianity” is what will get you into Heaven.  It won’t.  None of those things will.  It doesn’t matter what you accept as true says Paul, it matters only what God has done by grace, and by grace alone.

Salvation in the Christian tradition is by trust in Jesus and that what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross is sufficient.  The Christian tradition teaches that if you don’t trust the sufficiency of Jesus then you are un-saving yourself because you are taking yourself out of the hands of God who only ever saves by grace.  Jesus says this in John 3:17-18.  Every other means of salvation falls short, and salvation that falls short is salvation that doesn’t succeed in saving.  When a method of salvation doesn’t save then the thing is lost, or to use Jesus’ words the thing is left in the dark.

The message of Jesus who brought light to the world is choose not to walk out of the light; stay in the light and be saved.  To think and act as if you must earn your salvation is to walk away from God’s initiative which is the free gift of salvation by grace.  To receive salvation by grace through faith is not about praying a certain way or saying a certain formula, or even by being baptised, or by any other liturgical or traditional thing.  Salvation by grace is a trust exercise, it’s the heart’s acceptance that “Jesus did it” evident in the attitude that “I am safe because Jesus”.  Everything else we do as Christians can be only be because of one of two things: assured discipleship which is living freely within the reign of God, worshipping and serving out of gratitude and loving delight; or anxious despair wherein the cross is insufficient, and one must earn salvation through spiritual disciplines and altar-specific formulas.

In a Jewish devotional work written around the time of Jesus The Wisdom of Solomon 16:5b-7 says that it is not the symbol of the snake or even faith in the symbol that saved the Hebrews back in the day, rather it was God’s activity.  Today we might go on to add that God acted by grace to preserve the people.  When we look at images Jesus crucified, be that a crucifix or a painting, or a mental image since none of us were eyewitnesses, we see the evidence of our salvation.  God has saved us, and by grace alone are we saved.  Look at the cross and see how much you are loved: look at God hanging dying, and don’t doubt that you are overtly and utterly beloved.  But don’t think that hanging a cross on your wall or around your neck will do anything other than remind you of how much you are loved: possessing a renaissance sculpture or a piece of cruciform jewellery won’t save you any more than those formulaic prayers.

Flip over your Bible, if you’ve got one there, and have a look at a conversation Jesus had with the crowds.  In John 6:28 a Jewish crowd is listening to Jesus speak about salvation and they ask Jesus “what must we do?”  Judaism is a religion centred on practice and belonging rather than doctrine and belief: what makes a person a Jew is that he or she behaves like one and is accepted into the group who is behaving like Jews.  In other words, you are a Jew if you do Jewish stuff and other Jews invite you to join in.  You can’t earn salvation as a Jew, you don’t need to: you are saved because you are chosen, saved by grace just by being a descendent of Abraham.  As a saved one, a chosen one, you live that out by doing Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic things.  So, in that framework the crowd asks Jesus “what’s your kosher? your circumcision? your ritual? your psalms?” to which Jesus says in John 6:29 “trust me”.  Nothing else, no instruction for action, just “trust me”.  He doesn’t even say “accept these facts to be true, agree to the following doctrinal statements”, he just says…what does he say?  Trust me.  So, the crowd says in John 6:30-31 “okay, you want us to trust you?  Why should we trust you unless you prove it?  Abraham made us reshape our sex organs, Moses gave us laws, David wrote us songs with theology in them.  Give us something tangible so that we know you are telling us the truth: do something” they say, “or at least ask us to do something for you” they might have added.  And Jesus says in John 6:32-33, 38 “no.  It’s all about God’s generous grace and not about performance, indeed it isn’t even about my (messianic) performance,” and in John 6:40 Jesus says again “trust me and live abundantly and confidently, and I will look after you.”

What if Jesus said that to us?

What if our reasons for believing ourselves to be saved weren’t the reasons Jesus offers?  “But Jesus, I was converted at 27 when I repeated the special prayer line-by-line with Billy Graham-slash-Brian Houston.” Or “but Jesus, I was baptised because of my Christian parents at 3 months of age, confirmed in my local congregation at 12 years of age, hit with the Holy Spirit at a Charismatic Renewal convention at 13 years of age, and I’ve prayed in tongues since I was 35 after specifically asking my Pentecostal megachurch cell group leader to pray for me one night.”  What do you think Jesus would say to that?  My reading of John 3, John 6, and Ephesians 2, is that Jesus would say “doing those things didn’t get you saved, being saved lead you to do those things.”

Huh?  So, how then were we saved if not by a prayer of invitation and confession, or the waters of baptism following vows of obedience and faithfulness?  How were we saved?  How were we saved?  By grace.  Grace alone.  We know we were saved because God has told us, and also because we are actually safe.  If we weren’t saved then we’d be unsafe, wouldn’t we?  But we’re not unsafe, so we know we are saved.

So, here’s a big statement for you.  Don’t let your faith get in the way of your salvation.  By this I mean as soon as you try to work out what it is you did which actually got you saved, which specific belief, which specific action, you’ve missed the point.  It is grace that saved you, God did it all and you did nothing.  That you received the message that you are loved, and that you responded with joy or relief or whatever, and that you accepted the story of grace to be true, made your salvation effective and it put you on the path of growing in discipleship.  But the actual deliverance was all God’s work.

So, remember that.  And make sure that when you share your faith, and you should, that what you share is the free gift of grace given by God because of love.  And nothing less than love.

Amen.