The Happiest Ending is Not an Ending at all. (Pentecost 23C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva and Serviceton for Sunday 17th November 2019

Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 12

In Isaiah 65:1-16, so the verses prior to our reading today, we are given the context for what God is saying in our set passage. So, straight off the top, here’s a hint from your preacher: when you set out to read from the Bible read the chapter, not just the verse or two: today’s text has shown it to be true. Today, where God begins to speak to us in Isaiah 65:17 saying I am about to create we have confidence in each of those words because of the page and a half which has gone before, the first sixteen verses of Isaiah 65 and the twin stories which they tell. The I am is God The LORD; and actually I suggest that God is more fully named in the phrase I am about to since God is only knowable by revelation and activity. This I am, this God who is and the God who does, is the One who revealed Godself to the world even before the world began to look. We read that in Isaiah 65:1, and we understand some of that in the story of Christmas where Godself, in all of God’s Godfulness, entered the created world in the form of a created thing to communicate and to pitch a tent amidst humankind. God is ready, God is willing, God is excited about fellowship, and God is present and welcoming even before we’re aware there’s a party about to start. Israel is a hot mess at this point, the exiled ones are well away and the remnant of the old and the broken, whom the Babylonians left behind, have forgotten God and been forgotten by the bulk of God’s people. But God is excited by the thought that there will be a seeking and a finding in the next breath, and God just cannot wait. The God who is, who is the God who does, is about to do what God is first known for, saying I am…about to…create.

For I am about to create new… says The LORD in Isaiah 65:17, new heavens and a new earth; so basically a new everything then, and of such wonder that the old heaven and the old earth (so, this one here) shall not be remembered or come to mind. Who’s up for some of that? Yeah, me too. The best bit within this new everything is the new Jerusalem, a joy, and its people…a delight, in which God will rejoice: and not only “in which” God will rejoice but where God will rejoice, depending how you read Isaiah 65:19. Is it possible, is it true that God will not only rejoice about the new Jerusalem and the restored people, but will God actually do the rejoicing in the actual place, with the actual people? Mm-hmm, yep.

The rejoicing that God does in Jerusalem, where God is actually present in the city, looks like life. Life, doesn’t it? Babies will live to adulthood, and adults will live to 100 and more, so that’s a long life. And people will live in houses they have built, and enjoy the produce of trees they have planted and tended. Everyone will benefit from his or her own work and so these long lives, (long enough to plant and then wait for the maturation of tress from which to enjoy the harvest, long enough to still be considered young at 100), these long lives will be full lives, abundant lives, eternal lives. Big, fat, wide, full, deep, long, tall, complete lives; lives lived in the company of the Presence (big-P) of The LORD.

And not just that, because if that wasn’t enough of a promise there’s more to come. These long and fruitful lives will also be peaceful lives, shalom-ful lives, (BTW shalom-ful is a great word, even if I’m not entirely sure if it existed before now), lives without anxiety or grief, lives where wolves and lambs are safe in each other’s company, where lions don’t eat people and snakes don’t eat at all. This last point, found in Isaiah 65:25, is important when you consider the rest of the picture: this is a new Eden. Long life, full life, abundant life, non-anxious life, worshipful life, a life of companionship with God; this is what Eden was like, until the serpent spoke up and wrecked it all. But in this new Eden the serpent eats dust from the outset, there is no room for a second Fall, this Eden will last forever and will never be corrupted. The happy ending to the long story of Israel and Judah in exile; the story during which the people were taken away to Babylonia and then Persia and their identity as the Chosen people of the Promised Land was destroyed, and the cities and towns and farms and fields they left behind were destroyed, and the temple of God in Jerusalem was destroyed, the happy ending to that story is actually no ending at all. The end of the people’s story is the eternity of God, as wide and high as it is long, and full, so full, so very very full.

Can you imagine what a word of hope that was to the first hearers? Imagine if you were in exile, or you were one of those left behind amongst the ruins because you weren’t worthy even of slavery. Imagine that God said that what is coming next is everything you could never imagine of joy and restoration.

As our Christian calendar moves to its end, where today is the penultimate Sunday in the year, and our last Sunday in this long season in green stretching all the way back to Pentecost, we are closing in on Advent. Advent is more than just a month of daily chocolates and me in a purple shirt, it is the season of preparation for the Church when we think of Jesus coming to Earth as a human child, and of his return one day as the King of Glory. It is a time when we remember that at the Last Day the new Jerusalem will descend from Heaven, that a new Heaven and a new Earth will be completed, and God will again live in our midst (and we will live in the very centre of God’s presence) and that God’s Kingdom will have no end. No end, but also no edges, and no roof, God’s Kingdom is not just a future but it is a wideness in very dimension, a fullness in every conceivable thing. Even without the lived experience of a physical exile, of a life of slavery under a foreign empire, of colonisation and subjugation, even if you haven’t had any of that the promise of what God has in mind and the absolute certainty that it will occur should be thrilling for you. Is it? Do you really grasp what it is that is coming? This is why I get annoyed when Christianity is boxed so tightly around a formula of repentance to guarantee a place above the sky after death. If your Christian expectation is for “a glorious afterlife” then man (woman or child) you are selling yourself so short, and you have missed the whole point of God’s self-revelation through Jesus the Christ.

Lift up your eyes.

Today’s psalm comes to us from Isaiah 12. So yes, it is a psalm, it’s just from a different part of the Bible: same genre though, it’s a song of God. Again, the best place to begin reading is back a page or two, in this case the oracle which occupies all of Isaiah 11 and which in some Bibles carries the subheading “the peaceful kingdom” and in others “the righteous branch”. It’s important to remember that these headings are twentieth (or twenty-first) century additions in English, they’re not in the original text, and they’re there to offer help to understanding the passage. I say this because it’s true, I also say it because I don’t find either of those headings helpful in this case, so I’m going to ignore them. In fact, Isaiah 11, in the Newly Infallible Damien Version, has the title “the ideal king”. This king, upon whom God’s Spirit rests, is wise and just and fair and honourable, he is worthy to be praised. This king calls and the whole of humanity answers, all who are homeless are called home, drawn home indeed, and the home to which they come is filled with love and the generous abundance of every good thing. This home is better than Heaven, this home is the new Jerusalem upon the new Earth, this is Eden in all that it would have become if 6000 years or 6000 million years of what became of God’s good creation had not strayed from the Master’s plan. Good eh? More than.

And so we come to Isaiah 12:1 and the words [y]ou will say in that day: I will give thanks to you O LORD. What day? That day. THAT day. The day when the ideal king summons you home to the better Eden: that day. And what will you say on that day? Well the rest of Isaiah 12 is what you will say; thank you because you saved me, you comforted me, you restored me, I trust in you and I trust you to be my strength and my might. You will say that The LORD is my salvation, (Isaiah 12:2), I am not my salvation and I cannot save myself, salvation is a gift of God, drawn from the wells of God: wells I did not dig fed by aquifers I did not fill. And what else will you say on that day? You will say [g]ive thanks to The LORD, call on God’s name, make known God’s deeds among the nations, proclaim that God’s name is exalted. (Isaiah 12:4.) Good eh? More than.

So, to recap; in two places in Isaiah we are told that God is about to begin the work of restoration. In fact God has already begun the work of restoration, what is about to happen is that God is about to invite creation to enter the workspace and be the completion of it. It is God who is doing this, the I AM, the Creator, the King who is the root of Jesse (so a Davidic sovereign, a filling of God’s promise to David himself). That’s what we’ve heard so far. What we have also heard so far is that this restoration is not Heaven, it is Eden; but better even than Heaven and Eden it is an Eden WITHOUT THE SERPENT. This is Eden and it will never be withdrawn from us, or we from it, because the King himself, a grandson of David and The LORD God will live amongst us in that Eden. Look at Isaiah 12:6 where it says great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. Where? In our midst! Who? The Holy One of Israel. Now that, that is a promise.

So, what does it all mean? What does it mean for us, Christians of The Wimmera and The Tatiara. Two things I think come to me immediately from the text.

  1. It’s Jesus we’re looking for. Jesus is the root of Jesse, the grandson of David.

  2. It’s God we’re looking for. In the Vulgate, which was an update of earlier Latin translations from koine Greek (the original language of the New Testament and the working language of the Old Testament in the form of the Septuagint) into decent Latin, Isaiah 12:2-3 read God is my saviour rather than my salvation. God was not just the one making the promise and giving the assurance, it was Godself doing the actual saving. Judaism didn’t teach that so explicitly, even in Jesus’ time, but early Christianity did. You’ll find that wording in the New King James Version for example where Isaiah 12:2 reads Behold, God is my saviour and Lord, I will trust in Him and be saved by Him. So it’s personal, not just that I am saved but that God personally did the saving.

  3. And point three is of course the Christian understanding that points one and two intersect, God who does the saving Godself does so through the work of Jesus, the root of Jesse. Isaiah wasn’t saying that, but The Vulgate did, and so am I.

I said two things, and then went to three dot points. But that was only one thing. The second thing, without dot points, is that Jesus has saved us for the new Eden, not for the old Heaven. Now I’m not redefining Christianity here, relax and don’t get upset: if you want to go to Heaven and you are fully confident that Jesus wants you there then you will be there, and you will see me there. (This I know, for the Bible tells me so.) But the point is that God intended creation to be here, where God could walk in the cool of the evening with God’s own friend Adam, and that Adam would be God’s friend and he would not be ashamed of who he was (or was not) in God’s presence. This is what Jesus brought to us through his death and resurrection, not only the golden city above the clouds, but the fullness of what the Earth was always supposed to be, and what it will be again, and more so what it will become in the form of what it should have become, the place of God’s personal dwelling among God’s beloved people. This is the Kingdom of God, not so much a place (although in the fullness of time there will be an Earth location) as the reality that God reigns today, God reigns here, and God’s presence is upon us and amongst us where we love and worship and serve God and each other.

This is the outset of Eternity, not yet as long and wide and high and full as it shall be when God’s presence comes down, but Eternity nonetheless. The reality of Eternity today is the news of Eternity tomorrow, and that is good news indeed. It is tidings of great joy, it is the meaning of Christmas. It is, in every degree, the gospel.

Amen.

Alert to our distress

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 3rd November 2019, the twenty first Sunday in Pentecost, in Year C.

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; Luke 19:1-10

Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? You know you’re probably not heading for a faerie-tale ending with that sort of beginning, don’t you? Habakkuk gets straight into it in Habakkuk 1:2 with that line, and it doesn’t get any better in Habakkuk 1:3-4. Once upon a time in a land ravaged by war and disaster a man was sad about the fact that that time is now, that land is here, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, just more tunnel. This is not the way Bible stories are supposed to go, and as far as Habakkuk is concerned it’s also not how God is supposed to act if God really is God at all.

Habakkuk is one of those books in scripture that deals with the theme of theodicy. I like the word theodicy, (you’se all know that I’m a word-nerd and a theology-nerd so that probably comes as no surprise, even as it is a bit of a random comment). Theodicy as a word means “dealing with how God can be good in a world which is so bad”. I like the word, but I’m not a fan of the experience. I lived for years, years ago in a distant land, where God the Good LORD was distant, seemed absent, and every day was a struggle. So I get Habakkuk’s attitude, and I get the many other stories of exile from Jewish history: I get the experience of the authors and editors of the Hebrew Bible who were writing in the middle of the situation and not at the end. To write about theodicy is not usually a purely academic task, it is always experiential; either you are going through a dark patch in life, or you have been through one (or many) and you’re reflecting on the whole damned journey, probably still leaking plasma and tears into your bandages. As I looked back at my journals from a decade and a half ago I found entries from both of those experiences: I didn’t need the commentaries to tell me much about Habakkuk’s experience because I had Damien’s own journals to tell me about mine. “Yeah God,” I want to say today, and pretty much what I did say in 2003 in the public library in Luton, “why do you make me…look at trouble,” which is also what Habakkuk says in Habakkuk 1:3.

The concern which Habakkuk actually has is outside himself, it’s not his turmoil which bothers him so much as the evil he sees in the world. How could a good God allow so much pain and suffering in the world, let alone that it’s the Chosen People suffering violence in the Promised Land. Is God good at all? Doesn’t God care, and if God does care then why hasn’t God done something yet? The people are not yet in exile, (we know with hindsight that that is coming for Israel and Judah but Habakkuk doesn’t know), so these verses are relevant to anyone who sees a bad world getting more badder and wonders what God is up to in allowing such a thing. This is where we get into Habakkuk 2:1 where we find the prophet, having asked the difficult questions, waiting with expectation of God’s answer. This is also a situation I have been in, and again my journals speak of it. “You don’t owe me an answer,” I wrote, “because you are God and you don’t owe anyone anything: but I trust you to tell me what’s going on because I want to remain faithful.” God spoke to me in my journaling, and God spoke to Habakkuk in his watching with expectation. God tells Habakkuk in Habakkuk 2:2 to write down what he hears, and to write it in plain sentences. He must write briefly so that the words can be carried by a courier (don’t write a book Habakkuk!), and write clearly so that the message can be read clearly and simply so that the hearers will understand. And then in Habakkuk 2:3-4 we get the first part of the message, which is to have faith and wait with patience, trust that God knows what God is doing and that God is acting for the best. Do not be arrogant, do not go ahead of God in your own wisdom, but wait and be confident that God’s answer and activity are coming in the fullness of God’s perfect timing.

The righteous live by their faith we read in Habakkuk 2:4c. This verse is quoted by Paul, and reinterpreted in much of his theology and teaching. You are saved by God, and God alone, and nothing you can do in your own strength can save you, or add to your salvation. You can’t become “more saved” by anything you do, or say, or believe; you can’t become “less saved” either. Grace saved you, and once you acknowledged your salvation God was able to make a way for you to live a blessed and abundant life through attention to God. This is what we find Jesus teaching in Luke 19:9, when he tells the crowd that salvation has come to this house because [Zacchaeus] too is a son of Abraham.

So, the question we can ask now is, when is Zacchaeus saved? We know he is saved because Jesus has just told us that. Perhaps the better question is how was Zacchaeus saved, because that also answers the when question.  Well here are a few options:

  1. Maybe Zacchaeus is saved when he decides to seek Jesus. So there’s a good Christian answer: salvation comes at the point when he decides to follow and try to see Jesus, which he puts into action by running ahead and climbing the tree. That happens in Luke 19:4.

  2. Maybe Zacchaeus is saved when he responds to Jesus’ invitation. So there’s another good Christian answer: salvation comes at the point when he obeys the call of Jesus, which the first fishermen did when they dropped their nets, or when Matthew Levi did when he walked away from his money-table, and which Zacchaeus does when he climbs down from the tree and takes Jesus home. That happens in Luke 19:6.

  3. Maybe Zacchaeus is saved when he decides to repent. So there’s a third excellent Christian answer, probably the best of them all: salvation comes at the point when having fellowshipped with The Saviour Zacchaeus decides to be generous with his overflow, and tho restore what he stole and defrauded from his neighbours. That happens in Luke 19:8.

So, let’s vote:

  1. who’s for Luke 19:4 and the seeking?

  2. who’s for Luke 19:6 and the responding?

  3. who’s for Luke 19:8 and the repenting?

Okay. Well if you voted at all then you’re wrong: Zacchaeus is saved in Luke 19:9, which refers to a time way before this whole story began. Zacchaeus was already saved because he is a son of Abraham; he was saved by grace and therefore was one of the righteous, but he was not living by faith because he had been excluded from the rest of the community. Maybe Zacchaeus had removed himself from the community, preferring to stay away from all the RWNJs, Leftards, and the goodie-goodies of all flavours because he wanted to make money and influence. Or maybe he wanted to belong but he had been excommunicated and further shunned by the self-righteous, (RWNJs, Leftards, and the goodie-goodies of all flavours), who couldn’t accept the presence of someone “ew, like that” in their fellowship. Jesus reminds everyone, including Zacchaeus, including the raised-eyebrow grumbly mob from Luke 19:7, including us who read Luke’s story this morning, that salvation is by grace alone. Salvation is the free gift of God for everyone whom God loves: no-one has the right to banish anyone from the fellowship of the beloved ones, least of all should you exclude yourself. Now that Zacchaeus knows that he is saved, and now that the people of Jericho know that Zacchaeus is saved, (and that he always was), look at what happens; Zacchaeus begins to live freshly by faith. His trust is in God, not in his possessions, and his identity is in who he is (a son of Abraham), and not in what he is (a tax collector, a shyster, a pawn of the Empire, a small man with the full syndrome) or what anyone other than his LORD thinks he is.

So if Zacchaeus was saved all along, simply because he was born into a Jewish woman’s family (he’s a son of Abraham) what does it mean in Luke 19:10 that Jesus came to seek and save the lost? I mean, was Zacchaeus lost? If no, because he’d been saved all along, (and saved is the opposite of lost), then why would Jesus make this point here? It seems a bit out of context. And if Zacchaeus was lost, even though he’d been saved all along, then what does “lost” really mean?

Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? says Habakkuk. How long must I live as a faithful man, a once-hopeful man, in this world of violent sin? How long will the Babylonians get away with murdering the sons of Abraham, spilling Israelite blood on Israelite soil? Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? says Jeff from Jericho. How long will these blasphemous Romans live in the land promised to the sons of Abraham, and how long will those born to Jewish mothers participate in the extortion of taxation, robbing their own starving people? Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? says Zacchaeus. How long must I be excluded from the synagogue in Jericho and the Temple in Jerusalem just because I’m an accountant by trade? Aren’t I one of the sons of Abraham too? “When will you come and save the lost”, we all cry aloud to God, bringing to The LORD our endless and wearying struggles with life, and finance, and isolation, and illness, and injustice, and malpractice, and helpless hopelessness.

I wonder, maybe we are the lost: “The Lost”, with a big-T and a big-L and talky marks to make the point. Maybe the answer to every question of theodicy and why does God allow blah-de-bloody-bad-stuff is that Jesus came to save us, and the world, from it: therefore Luke 19:10. But that still doesn’t fully answer why there’s bad in the world, but doesn’t it more than fully answer what God has/is/will be doing about it? Or maybe it does, maybe it does fully answer the questions of theodicy: God’s response remains as yet incomplete. There is still work to be done, God is not finished with us or the world and we are not finished.

I am not afraid of the questions theodicy asks. I am not afraid, (perhaps I should clarify and say “I am no longer afraid” because I did used to be), I am no longer afraid when I catch my soul asking God “why”. I am not afraid as a pastor, nor am I afraid as a Christian, when anyone else or their soul asks God “why”. I am not afraid because to ask God these questions is to acknowledge that God is indeed the one to ask. And, I am not afraid because God (who is indeed the one to ask) has an answer: and that answer is “I am already working on it, look at Jesus, look at the Church”. (Okay so maybe that last bit scares me a bit, that God’s answer to hatred and violence in the world is The Church, because The Church…well…hmm.)

Look at Psalm 119:143-144 where the Psalmist exults trouble and anguish have come upon me, but your commandments are my delight. Your decrees are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live. Awesome, that in the midst of trouble and anguish (so bad stuff occurring and the effect it has on me) I can take delight in the commands of God. What God commands, God orders – puts in order. God commands the sun to shine and the moon as well, and even though the sun actually burns and the moon actually reflects, the fact that there is light is enough for me: Scientists are allowed to be correct about the universe and God can still reign. God ordains (commands it to be so and causes it to happen) that blessing flows where there is oneness in mind, we are told in Psalm 133:3. Psalm 119 is actually about Torah, so the “commandments” are literally the big ten, and the 613, in this poem; but they’re not only that. What I read is that when trouble comes we can be confident that God does have it “under command”, and that God’s “decrees” have substance forever, so what we need in such a time is understanding (help me to grasp this LORD) and faith. The righteous live by their faith we read in Habakkuk 2:4c, in other words those in close relationship with God go about their day to day (and your day today) with trust and confidence that God’s got it. Our prayer, as “The Lost”, is that God will continue to be God even when we don’t understand the what and why and where and who and how and when of what is going on, and that by the grace by which we were/are/shall be saved that God would trust us with the message of hope which was entrusted to the prophets years ago.

I know that I am saved. I know that God has “them” safer than they know. I know that “they” don’t know that. So today, may we all join with Jesus to seek and to assure of their gracious salvation, the others who are also lost.

Amen.

In Sickness and in Health (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Day Centre act of worship at Kaniva Hospital (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 2nd July 2019.  I had been ill all of the previous week with Manflu.

Psalm 13; Luke 9:11; Psalm 27:14

 Illness is one of those things that strikes each of us at times, and because of this it is a common theme in Biblical writing.  I was at a youth conference twenty years ago, (indeed it’s thirty years ago since I was a youth, but that’s beside the point) and one of the speakers there was asked what her favourite Bible story was.  She said she didn’t have one favourite above all others, but she’d have to say her favourite stories, plural, were any place where Jesus does healing.

I have lived with illness in some form or another for all of my adult life.  At age eighteen I contracted what was then called Chronic Fatigue Immunodeficiency Syndrome, and it has gone by other names since.  I had a rough year completing my HSC, and dropped out of Uni after one semester to take half a year off before returning to try again.  At some point that CFIDS became a series of mental health conditions and I have lived with Anxiety and Depression, but not fatigue, since my early thirties.  I’m now forty-seven if anyone is keeping count.  So I like those stories where Jesus does healing too, and I like even more so that Jesus defines the big-picture work of ministry as having healing at its core.

In Luke 4:18-19 in Jesus first recorded episode of him teaching he reads from the prophet in the local synagogue meeting.  In paraphrase we can say that Jesus says of himself “I have come to bring healing and to heal”.  Later, in Luke 9:11, in a verse that can be overlooked as we rush into the bigger story of the Feeding of 5000 we read that Jesus welcomed the crowd, and spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.  I like that neat phrase, “healed those who needed healing”; there’s nothing worthy or deserving about them, just that they needed healing for whatever ailed them, and Jesus healed them.  And there’s the work of ministry again; teaching the Kingdom and aiding the weak.

Jesus did four things in his ministry as an itinerant rabbi: he healed the sick, he raised the dead, he cast out demons (which is to say he freed the oppressed), and he proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, the time when the Father would come to Earth to reign as king in the New Jerusalem.  This is what the Church is supposed to do now, and to be honest and fair this is what the Church is doing.  It’s easy to be hard on the Church and disappointed in our local congregations and ministries, and perhaps more so in our structures and hierarchy, but across the majority of the planet in the majority of the faith communities Jesus’ work is being gone about quietly and in Holy Spirit’s power.

So, in the past few weeks I’ve been especially sick.  Not mortally wounded, but in addition to my ongoing struggles with Anxiety and Sleep Apnoea I’ve had a cold.  I would love it if Jesus would walk up Commercial Street East so that I could rush out and touch the hem of his cloak, or that he would turn up at Shared Ministry on Sunday and heal those who need healing, but that’s not the reality of Australia in 2019.  So I have had to rely on my own immune system, (remembering that my body and its systems were ravaged by an Immunodeficiency Syndrome for thirteen years), my own common sense, (remembering that my mind and its systems have been ravaged by a mental illness for the past sixteen years), and the best efforts of the local health care practitioners.  I’m not sleeping well, I’m coughing like an Australian (everything is coming out green and gold), my head aches, my ears buzz, and I need it all to stop.  But in all of this I know that God is good, that Jesus is Lord, and that I am a long way from death’s door.

Not so much a Bible story, but a Bible verse which leads into my own story, (but a story for another time perhaps) is Psalm 27:13-14.  This passage was my anchor in my dark and mad days of a decade ago: I am confident of this; I will see the goodness of The LORD while I am alive; be strong, take heart, and wait for The LORD.  My hope in all things, be it the depth of suicidal madness, or the triviality of a snotty nose, or even the best of physical health available to this ravaged jar of clay, is that God has promised an end to suffering: and that end is not a quick death and then a harp on a cloud, but it is the restoration of the complete and sovereign rule of The LORD Almighty upon the renewed Earth for all of the ages to come.  That’s a happy ending, and that’s worth waiting out a cold for.

Amen.

Ascension (WWHS)

This is the text of the reflection I perpared for the West Wimmera Health Service (Kaniva Hospital) Day Centre service of worship on 4th June 2019.  I didn’t present it as I was called away that morning for a pastoral need.

Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11

 Have you ever been told a story that has left you wanting more?  You know, the broad brush-strokes are there, and maybe the point of the story has actually been shared, so you do know what’s going on; but somehow you’re still left wanting more?  Is that a familiar experience for you, do you know what I’m talking about?

Thursday last week was the feast of the Ascension in the calendars of those churches which celebrate such things.  It’s not a big deal in the Uniting Church, and it’s no deal whatsoever in the Churches of Christ, but the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and the various national forms of Eastern Orthodoxy tend to get excited about such things.  If you don’t know what ascension is then let me tell you, it’s the anniversary of the day when Jesus returned to Heaven for the final time after his resurrection.  Ascension is forty days after Easter, and ten days before Pentecost, and since both of those vents are always on a Sunday Ascension is always on a Thursday.  So it’s easy to overlook if you’re not looking for it especially, it’s never a Sunday thing so it can be left alone.  But I think that’s a shame, because I like ascension.

It seems that Theophilus, the addressed recipient of the gospel according to Luke also liked ascension, because the accounts of it appear in both Luke and Acts.  It’s as if there was a reply to the first book where old mate Theo said “ta for the Jesus story, but I’m a bit confused about the end part: what happened when he went back to Heaven the last time?”  Then the author, maybe Luke, wrote a bit more detail in the first chapter of Acts before going on to describe the coming of the Spirit on the Church at Pentecost in Acts 2, and then on with the rest of the book as a rundown on the activities of some of the apostles.

In the first story, recorded in Luke 24:50-53 and describing an event that takes place in the evening of Easter Day, Jesus simply steps away from the group and then goes up.  Previously on that day Jesus had walked out of the tomb and bypassed the garden, (it’s actually angels who speak to the women), and appeared on the Emmaus road.  After walking to Emmaus he vanishes, only to reappear in Jerusalem where he eats some fish, leads a Bible study, and then takes the group out to Bethany where he speaks a blessing over the disciples and then steps out of view. It’s no wonder that Theophilus needs a bit more information.

In the second story, recorded in Acts 1:1-11, there’s a brief recap of the whole of Luke in Acts 1:1-2, and then we get a bit more info about that final few hours.  The first thing we are told, in Acts 1:3, is that the ascension takes place forty days after the resurrection and does not occur on Easter Day evening at all.  This isn’t necessarily a contradiction, the two books have different points to make and the emphasis on events is different.  Jesus commands the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes with baptism, and they ask when the Kingdom will come, and he says that that’s not their concern but that they will be involved in its arrival.  Then, as in the first story, Jesus goes up, and again like the Easter story angels appear and ask why the disciples are looking for someone who obviously isn’t there: Acts 1:11 and Luke 24:5b.

So, two stories with basically the same plot, told by the same teller to the same hearer: the second story filling in some of the gaps left by the first, but making the same point.  And what is that point?  The point is that Jesus is bodily removed from Earth now, he’s no longer here like he was before the crucifixion, and he’s no longer here in his risen form which can eat fish and appear in locked rooms or alongside open highways at will.  But God is still with us, in the form of the Holy Spirit who came and filled these same men ten days after and who has never returned to Heaven without returning again to Earth.  The ascending Christ, risen and glorified, is seen in the descending Spirit, powerful and glorious, and that experience, that vision, that presence and comfort will never be taken from the Earth until the fullness of the Kingdom comes to complete the work of Christ.

The message is lift up your heads, not to look at the empty sky, but to look away from the sorrowful ground.  There is no need to fear, there is no need to despair, there is no need to feel alone or abandoned.  The risen one now sits enthroned in Heaven it is true, but the king on his throne is a good thing; and the blessing of Father, Son, and Spirit almighty which Jesus prayed over his friends in his final human words on earth remains upon us always.

Amen.

Mighty to Save 2 (Easter 4C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for proclamation on Sunday 12th May 2019.

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; John 10:22-30

In today’s story from the Jesus traditions the writer makes the point that these events take place in winter.  But it’s not about it being cold, it’s about the setting of the event during the Festival of Dedication.  Hanukkah goes for eight days, usually in December (depending how the Jewish and Roman calendars line up), and it recalls the rededication of the temple by the Maccabeans after their revolt against Syria in 167-160 BCE.  The centre of the celebration, other than the routing of the invaders and the rededication of God’s temple to God, is that it was followed by a century of Jewish independence which flowered between 160 BCE and 63 BCE.  In 63 BCE the Romans had arrived, and by the time we take up the story of Jesus in Solomon’s Portico they had been present in Judea for nearly one hundred years. That’s why it’s important to know that it is winter.  “Winter is coming” we might say; there is a “game of thrones” afoot.  So, is Jesus about to do a Judas Maccabeus and throw off the foreign oppressors; is he the Messiah or not?  That’s the actual question the Judeans are asking him in John 10:24; “Jesus if you are ‘Messiah’ then where is the army coming from and when is the uprising?”  And what does Jesus respond?  He says (and you can read it for yourself in John 10:25) I have told you and you do not believe.  So what does that mean in the context of this story?  Well it means two things actually: a) yes I am ‘Messiah’, and b) I keep saying that the Messianic plan is not about an army but you’re not listening.  Let’s keep reading from John 10:25, the works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.  Jesus ends his response with the claim that he and The Father are “one”.  If we were to read on we would find that the Judeans are ready to stone Jesus, right there in the temple according to John 10:31, because of this claim.

This story is the only place in John’s gospel where Jesus is directly asked to name himself as “Messiah”, in other places he’s asked if he’s “one whom we might expect” or words to that effect.  And Jesus does not say “I am the Messiah” in language as plain as that, but rather than what Jesus does not say let’s look again at what he does say.  He says I have told you, so the question has already been answered, and he says the works I do in my Father’s name testify to me…The Father and I are one, which he offers as interpretation and evidence of that answer.  Jesus is not saying that he is God, but as I’ve said just now that is what the Judeans hear him say and they are ready to kill him: no, what Jesus is saying is that his work, the things he has been doing, are indistinguishable from the work of The Father.  Jesus is not The Father, they are not the same person, but these two individual identities have one agenda and one mindset; they are completely united.  For me, when Jesus speaks like this at Hanukkah and a Hanukkah when there are centurions in Jerusalem, he’s probably baiting the Judeans even more with what he really is saying.  Claiming to be God is blasphemy, fair point: but claiming to be the 100% embodiment of the agenda of God in the world, and then living that out by non-violent anonymous activities of prayerfully casting out illness, death, and demonic spirits, and specifically not casting out the Romans…well that needs shutting right down right now!

I wonder, what has Jesus told us about God’s agenda?  How has Jesus demonstrated God’s agenda, God’s heart to us in West Wimmera and Tatiara?  What do we want to shut Jesus up about before the message gets too far: what is he telling us to do instead of engaging in the fight we’ve been brewing for a hundred years?  Who, or what are we not supposed to overthrow?  Who are we supposed to not kill and kick out but deliberately welcome and serve because we are Church?

When Peter is invited to Joppa, and to the death-bed of Tabitha, we are given an insight into Jesus’ preferred options of discipleship.  In Acts 9:36 Tabitha is specifically called a disciple, (the Greek word specifies that she is a disciple and that she’s female), and her discipleship is proven by her reputation for good works and acts of charity.  Later, in Acts 9:39 personal testimony is added to reputation as all the widows wept and showed clothes that Tabitha had made.  Tabitha had served the poor and the marginalised, with practical help, and not one had been overlooked: all the widows had been made tunics.  It is likely that Tabitha was herself a widow, perhaps living in a communal house of widows, so she’s not just some charitable socialite giving her Cup Day hats to the Op Shop, Tabitha is herself poor and marginalised but that doesn’t stop her from showing love for others.  This is a woman in Christ’s image, truly a disciple as much as Peter himself.

But let’s not overlook Peter himself, look at his discipleship here.  He goes with the two men, who come to him at Lydda and bring him to Joppa, and he enters the house of weeping women.  That the widows are showing him their tunics and other stuff suggests to me that Peter took the time to be with them in their grief, he didn’t rush through the sook-fest of sobbing biddies and he didn’t think to see the room as that at all.  No, Peter deliberately stopped, and he comforted these distraught sisters, and he understood their loss.  Then he sends them all out of the room, and he goes across to Tabitha, and he greets her by her name. This is important because she’s been referred to as “Dorcas” in the story, which is not her name but a Greek language nickname.  So, calling her by her name he says “Tabitha, get up”, so a bit like when Jesus said talitha arise in Mark 5:41, and then he helps her up and he showed her to be alive to the widows whom he has invited back into the room.  See how much he has the heart of Jesus: not only the agenda of The Father outworked in healing the sick and raising the dead, but Peter basically follows Jesus’ dot points from Jairus’ house.  And having done as Jesus did Peter then stays in Joppa, he doesn’t return to Lydda, and more that that he stays at the house of Simon the Tanner we are told in Acts 9:43.  Simon works with leather and with chemicals to turn flesh into leather: so he’s handling dead animals, and he’s using ammonia drawn from urine to tan the leathers.  I wonder, how fragrant was Simon’s house?  How popular was it as a social hub do you think, a place of flesh, piss and vinegar?  Not only was Simon considered unclean by his profession, his house would have stunk: so why did Peter stay there?  We aren’t told, but I can guess.  Why, why do you think Peter stayed with Simon Tanner? Because he was invited?  Maybe having done the Jesus-and-Jairus episode Peter goes on to the Jesus-and-Zacchaeus thing.  No Pharisaic or Puritanic piety for old mate Pete, (who grew up stinking of fish anyway, let’s be fair), no Peter takes Jesus at his word and example to stay where he is invited and to leave only when the work is done.  Peter had more to do in Joppa, have a look at Acts 10 and see what God did next.  This is a man in Christ’s image, truly a disciple as much as Tabitha herself.

And so we get to my favourite thing about writing and preaching a sermon; no, not the end (bad luck, sucks to be you, I’ve still got a page and a half to go), no, we are at the bit where we look at a very familiar reading in a new way because of the other readings attached to it by the Lectionary.  So, with Jesus at Hanukkah in mind; and Tabitha and Peter and Simon Tanner in mind; what is God saying to us from “The Twenty Third Psalm”.

Discipleship of Jesus living out the agenda of God in quietly miraculous ways of healing, blessing, kindness, restorative action, justice, and with an example lived out through Peter and Tabitha; discipleship that is not about overthrowing the Romans, looks like Psalm 23.  How?  How?  How about confidence that there is no need to struggle for liberty when God meets all your wants with rest and lush pasture, still water, right guidance and restorative rest as we read in Psalm 23:1-3.  There’s nothing militaristic about that; but it’s not weak.  Psalm 23:4-5 speaks of confidence in the dark places, maybe even battle where into the valley of death rode the six hundred; confidence that there will be an “after battle” when there will be a meal and a good soak and a glass of red.  Good things will pursue you, God will come at you with mercy and healing and the offer of hospitality and a place to live forever in God’s house, we are encouraged to believe in Psalm 23:6, if only we live with trust.  This is not about Heaven for disciples, although there is that, it is about a life of calm trust that God is your provision and that if you are a disciple, a student, a follower, a pilgrim in the master’s mob, then you’ll be right.

Look, it won’t always be nice.  Just today we have been told how Jesus was very close to getting himself pelted to death with rocks, Peter slept in a house that smelled like the public toilet at an abattoir, Tabitha died from illness, and the widows were bereft and bereaved by her loss.  These are not nice adventures, and they were not one-off events either.  Jesus was threatened with death more than once, and he was brutally murdered in a way where stoning would have been a mercy.  Peter grew up stinking of fish, he too died by crucifixion, and he was left bereft and bereaved by Jesus’ death.  Tabitha was raised to life, but the fact that she was a widow suggests that she was married to a man who died at some point and then stayed dead.  And the would-be Maccabeans did kick up in 70CE, and Joppa would not have been any more fun a place to live as a houseful of widows than Jerusalem when the Romans out of Caesarea fought back.  For anyone living in such times, stuck and feeling abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death, the table set before enemies would have seemed like an impossible dream.  But the hope of the gospel says that it is not so, and that there is a resurrection, and there is a pursuing Christ with healing and happiness in his hands.

There is no need to fight.  Trust, acknowledge, rest.

Amen.

Recall The Story (Lent 1C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM to be proclaimed on Sunday 10th March 2019.

Deuteronomy 26:5b-10a; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

In this morning’s set reading from the Hebrew traditions Moses addresses the Hebrew People on the edge of the Promised Land, and he tells them about the future.  This People who had been slaves for 400 years and asylum seekers for 40 years would find rest.  When, in generations to come, the people who have become farmers will, in the context of the annual festival of harvest thanksgiving, bring in the tithes and the offerings of first fruits, the Jews were to recite this liturgy.  The liturgy is a poem, the story in verse of “a wandering Areamean”, and how God was faithful to him and to all descendent generations according to the promise.  Remember, none of this has happened yet, Moses is preaching in the Jordanian wilderness and no one has set foot in Israel for a generation.  This song was to become a reminder of who God is in the daily life of the individual and the national life of the settled Hebrews.

I wonder how that went.  Did the Hebrews, who then became Israelites and Judahites, and then Jews in exile, and then Samarians and Judeans in an occupied land under various empires, and then Jews in exile once again, and in our day are known as Israelis who live amongst Palestinians (who used to be called Philistines) actually do this?  Were there actual harvest festivals like God had decreed and Moses explained, and did the tithes and first fruits ever come into the temple?  The Biblical and historical records suggest yes; it seems that as late as the time of Jesus there was a living memory, recited at least, of who Israel was and who Israel’s God was.  History also tells us that the temple was destroyed in 70, and that it has never been rebuilt.  There has never been a tithes and offerings festival at the temple Jerusalem since then, yet Judaism remains and the calendar remains, and the right time for the festival rolls around every year when the harvest of whatever land the Jews live in is gathered.  There seems to be something in this story, a story that has been told for almost three and a half millennia, (since 1500 BCE) and which was written down two and a half millennia ago, which has continued to enrich the culture whose story it is.  God is faithful, God provides in season, and God is worthy to be praised; so the Jews have learned.  But this is not some rote piece of creed or a memory verse, it is the moral of the story, and the story is (the man) Israel as a metaphor for all who are destitute and placeless until God intervenes.  The Jews have always known that God is faithful because they have never failed to continue to tell their children the nationally personal story, even in foreign lands and foreign languages.

Recently I was invited to speak into the life of a young writer.  When I say young she is younger than me, but she is also of my cohort, so she’s no teenager.  Anyway this young woman has been journaling and worshipping and she sought my advice, amongst the advice of other trusted friends, about publishing her work and going on with God into a writing and teaching career: seminars and the like.  I’m not going to tell you her story, that’s for her to tell; and I’m not going to tell you how her story and my story run parallel and why the advice I gave her was especially pertinent.  I am going to tell you what my advice was, because I think it fits the story told by Moses and the Jews as well.  The advice is this: tell the story of God in your life, don’t tell the story of your life where God occurred.  The actual wording I used for her was tell the story of Jesus and quote yourself as a source, don’t tell the story of you.  In every faith story Jesus is the hero, you are the narrator and the researcher.  Looking at Deuteronomy 26:5c-9 the story is really about God’s faithfulness that we know about because it was us and our ancestors that God was faithful.  The story is not about us the downtrodden slave-mob for whom God intervened.  We are in the story, we are telling the story, but it is God’s story because it is about God.

When we look at a story about Jesus, and we did that earlier in Luke 4:1-13, things get interesting.  Who is the hero of Jesus’ story, is it Jesus or is it God the Father?  If the hero of my story is actually Jesus, and every story I tell is testament to his glory, who is supposed to be the hero of Jesus’ story?  What we read in Luke 4, and this is as much the case in Matthew 4 where he tells a similar but not identical story, is that Jesus lived a life of thanksgiving and humble adoration of Father, even from the outset.  In knocking down the accuser’s attacks on his character and calling Jesus made it quite clear that he didn’t need to test God to prove God to himself, and he had no interest in spectacular activities to show off God or his own faith to prove God to others.  Jesus already knew he was saved by grace through the covenant between God and Abraham, and Jesus knew as Paul would later write in Romans 10:10-11 that his salvation was evident through his trust in God.  Throughout his ministry Jesus encouraged other Jews (participants in the covenant) to trust God and know God as Father.  So even for Jesus, at least as far as he was a man from Nazareth, the hero of the story is God the faithful one, not Jesus the brave and hungry one.

Today’s Psalm, 91, speaks with the same theme.  At first glance it appears to be directed to people rather than God, as if it’s advice for believers or perhaps even a priestly blessing or benediction rather than a hymn of praise.  It’s something that I might say to you as a reminder of who you are to God, rather than a prayer which I recite to God on your behalf as your worship leader.  Well it’s actually that at second glance too, advice to people, and a longer reading demonstrates that this is a story about God told by the psalmist and the leader of worship as a lesson of personal experience.  Again it’s not “I was faithful and God rewarded me by blah-de-blah-blah”, it’s “God is faithful in this way, and in brackets I should know”.  And the message itself is consistent with what Moses has already told the Hebrews; and Jesus and Paul would tell the later generation of Jews; that you will find shelter and trust in The LORD, the great refuge who keeps you from harm.  God holds me above danger (and perhaps Jesus might interject “even in the midst of the greatest temptation”), and gifts me the fullness of life.

So by the time we get to Paul, and to his letter to the Roman Christians, we have the beginning of faith in Jesus as The LORD.  Paul speaks of Jesus as Jesus spoke of the Father, but remember that he is speaking of the exalted and resurrected one who reigns at the right hand of the throne of Heaven. This Jesus can be the hero of your story, even as the itinerant rabbi of Nazareth wasn’t the hero of his own story, because the one we follow is God-made-Human, Word-made-Blood.  We follow The Son; we don’t merely adhere to the teachings of a wise guru who demonstrated incredible perseverance in the Outback.  Jesus will tell you that what sustained him in the wilderness was his faith in God, not his faith in himself.  Now that Jesus has returned to God, to be God once more in company with The Father and The Spirit, and to take up all that which was laid down (according to Philippians 2:5-11), we can have confidence in him.  Our salvation is “made effective” to use a liturgical phrase, that is to say it is evident (you can see it for yourself) and it is efficacious (it actually does the thing) when we declare the truth, which comes out of the heart.  It’s Romans 10:10 which says that, and Romans 10:13 can be paraphrased into the language of Psalm 91 to add that all who declare their shelter to be God will be saved.  If you can name God as shelter then you also know in your heart (i.e. by instinct and to the extent of muscle-memory) where your shelter is when you need one.  I don’t even have to think, when there is trouble I run to God, and then I am safe (and therefore I am saved).  What is unique in Paul, something he alone says and that the Psalmist and Moses did not say, is that you don’t have to be a blood descendent of Jacob to have this: if you trust God and you call upon God you will be saved by God, (or you are safe in God).  The sentences that make up Romans 10:12-13 are a direct pull from Joel 2:32, Paul is quoting Hebrew scripture, in this instance “The Prophets” part of “The Law and The Prophets” to make a point, that in Christ all are welcome in God’s safe house.

So, where does this put us?

Well, it puts us in the place of witness.  With all that God has said to us about proclamation and the need to speak the hard truth into the present day, this message is somewhat easier to follow, I hope.  Speak about God, tell of God’s glory, and tell of how God has rescued and blessed you.  In a church with a strong theology of the priesthood of all believers you should all be bringing your offerings to God.  I am your pastor, not your priest: you don’t need me to burn a sheep on your behalf.  I am the lead preacher in this place, the only one paid to preach and with a certain responsibility to go deeper than those of you who volunteer to speak once in a while, but that doesn’t mean that my testimony is more effective than yours, merely that I am better trained in public speaking and theology than you.  You and I preach the same Jesus, and we can all share the story of how God has saved us individually.  If we want God’s Church to grow in the Wimmera, and if we want there to be a Christian Church in Kaniva and Serviceton in the generations to come, it is the responsibility of each one of us to tell the story of God to our children and to our neighbours.  If you’re not sure how to do that, well let me teach you.  If you don’t need teaching that’s great, but what are you waiting for?

Have at it, go and tell.

Amen.

The Reign of God (Christ the King)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 25th November 2018, the Sunday of Christ the King in Year B.

2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-12; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

Good morning Church.

About a month ago I asked the members and leaders of Kaniva Youth Group who were gathered at Serviceton what they thought the world would be like if God was its boss.  We talked about how the world would be different if Jesus was in charge and President Trump, Prime Minister Morrison, Premier Marshall of South Australia and then-Premier Andrews of Victoria were not.  This is a particularly relevant question for today, the first day of the final week in the Christian year, the Sunday of Christ the King.

In 2 Samuel 23 we read the dying words of David and what we read is a psalm and a set of proverbs about kingship and about David’s experience of being a king.  In his last words the king praises how God spoke through him to the nation of Israel, a nation for whom God remains steadfast and secure as Israel’s hope.  According to 2 Samuel 23:2-3 the good king is not just a governor; he is also an oracle, prophet, and intercessor.  God says that the good king is like the dawn of daylight in a bright sky.  Like the psalms and proverbs of later Hebrew writing we see the common theme that the good men are blessed and succeed for generations and the evil men are cursed and die quickly.  So, is this what David sees as he looks back over his reign, his life, on his last day?  I wonder whether this is how the nation will remember David, was he like a bright sun on a dewy morning?  Is this how they speak of him already?  Is this how he was thought of back in the day, not with the damp eyes of hindsight and eulogising but in the cut and thrust of palace life, battle ground, and village life far from Hebron or Jerusalem three decades previous?  David says in 2 Samuel 23:5 that he does have such a reputation, and he is confident that his house, which is to say his dynasty, will have the same relationship with God and with the nation.  Sadly the history of the family of David will not be so great, and the stories we read in the books of Kings and 2 Chronicles sadden us when we recall who David was and the covenant that God made with him.  Indeed those kings seem to fit better inside 2 Samuel 23:6-7.  Jesus, a descendant of David was perhaps a good king.  I say “perhaps” because on earth Jesus did not have the power of governance; but he certainly was a prophet and intercessor, and God prospered Jesus in his work.

So, a faithful king is God’s blessing to the people, and God’s faithfulness is a blessing to the king.  Today’s psalm provides an example of this where David promises to establish a permanent home for the Ark in Jerusalem, and God promises to establish a permanent kingship in Israel through one of David’s sons.  One of the commentators I read this week suggests that Psalm 132 might have been a celebration psalm, sung as part of a ceremony of remembrance and thanksgiving to God for David and for David’s capture of Jerusalem and his bringing the ark into the capital city.  A good king is to be cherished and celebrated.

John in his letter to the seven churches calls Jesus the ruler of the kings of the earth; you can see that in Revelation 1:5.  As I said a few weeks ago when we heard about Christians who suffer extreme persecution in our day Revelation was likely written at a time when Christians were being murdered for their faith under the emperor Domitian.  For the writer to claim that Jesus is ruler of all the kings is a big and dangerous claim in a world with a Caesar.  It’s a big and dangerous claim in a North Korea with a Kim and in a China with a Communist Party.  It was a big and dangerous claim in the Soviet Union with Stalin, Germany with Hitler, Uganda with Idi Amin, and Cambodia with Pol Pot.  It was and is, and always will be a threatening idea anywhere where there is a tyrannical president, a local drug boss, or a warlord.  This is why it is good to remember that Revelation actually is a letter written to seven specific cities in the Roman province of Asia at the turn of the first century.  It is a personal note of encouragement from a friend of Jesus to a group of specific, unique, neighbouring congregations.  This is not purely doctrine; it is not just theory it is application and pastoral care; and the whole thing was to be read to each congregation in the place where it met.  In other words the news that Jesus is the king of kings is not something to be filed away as a Christian belief; it is supposed to be an encouraging word in the moment.  In this verse, and the next one, so Revelation 1:5-6 we see Jesus described as the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, him who loves us and frees us from our sins by his blood, him who made us to be a kingdom, him who made us to be priests serving his God and Father, the one to whom be glory and dominion forever and ever.  So, Christians of Asia, do you remember him? Yeah him, well that’s the him who is on our side.  So, what were you saying about Caesar and/or the local procurator?  This is not to say that persecution isn’t painful, or that martyrdom is pleasant, there is no sugar-coating of the world against us here; but it does ask us to lift our eyes and to remember the one to whom we belong and the one whom we serve.

In John 18:33-37 we read where Jesus is speaking to Pilate immediately before the crucifixion.  Do you see in John 18:35 that Pilate asks Jesus what crimes he is guilty of, “what have you done?” Pilate asks because it seems that Jesus’ accusers cannot get even that straight.  In view of the confused accusation the two speak about kingship and Jesus says that his kingdom is not from this world but that if it were then his loyal armies would have prevented their king from being handed over to the Jews.  Interesting that, so is the kingdom of Jesus is not a Jewish kingdom either?  Is Jesus claiming that he is not King of The Jews, and that he is innocent of the accusation of promoting insurrection?  Or was this story written by an anti-Semitic man who wanted to distance the Christian saviour from the rabid mob of circumcised blasphemers at Pilate’s door?  Regardless, Jesus’ kingdom is not from here he says in John 18:36.  Jesus’ power comes from God, not from conquering armies nor cabinet-room shuffles.  Jesus’ kingship is theological, so his kingdom is too: Jesus’ authority is his power to speak and define truth.

So that’s how the Bible reads, but what do we think; what is “the Kingdom of God”?  In our twenty-first century world where absolute monarchy is seen as a bad thing, and most first world nations are parliamentary democracies with elected heads of government and heads of state, it can be challenging to speak of a kingdom.  Perhaps we’d prefer to use words like “realm” or “sovereignty”; maybe “zone of governance”, “area of authority” or even “arena of control”.  God’s kingdom is not about there being a place with demarcated border walls to keep the foreigners out and the citizens in, so much as it is the experience of God’s control.  When Pilate asked Jesus whether he was a king Jesus’ responded yes and no; yes I have authority to reign, no my kingdom is not a place on earth and I don’t have an army.  Jesus refutes the militaristic claim to be King of The Judean people.  Jesus does not offer an earthly challenge to the Herod family or the Roman Empire occupying and colonising the land; nonetheless his cross is adorned with the famous “INRI” sign as an accusation, Jesus from Nazareth who is King of the Jews.

Like Pilate we must acknowledge who Jesus is when we speak of the Kingdom of God.  We cannot speak of God’s influence without speaking about Jesus, there is no kingdom without a king and the king of God’s kingdom is Jesus.  Our conversation is not about power for its own sake, but about the power of Jesus: the miracles of Jesus are the display of his power, pointing toward God’s expectation of what the Lifestyle of God-followers looks like.  Where John the Baptiser proclaimed that the Kingdom was coming Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom had begun to arrive.  And that tense is important, “begun to arrive” is what we see.  The Kingdom is among us in present and future tense, the reign of God is underway but it is not yet complete for fulfilled.  The power of God, the influence and equipping of the Holy Spirit upon the Church and each disciple was “inaugurated in the incarnation”, in other words it started when Jesus was born as a human child, but it continues through the Church as we get amongst the work of faithful ministry carrying the authority, the blessing, and the equipping of Emmanuel.

So the concept of a Kingdom of God, and of Christ as King, need not be a scary nor outdated idea.  We are not mediaevalists for thinking and speaking in these terms, and we don’t do ourselves or anyone else any favours by updating God’s identity as “President of Presidents”.  Instead we can use these phrases to enhance our excitement at what is underway, God came to earth and lived amongst us, sharing divine secrets and authority with all of Creation.  God likes us and wants to be near us; God has no intention of “watching us from a distance” and does not sit on a lofty throne.  King Jesus is not Louis XIV, Henry VIII, or Ivan the Terrible.

The question therefore is not what our ideas of monarchy and democracy are, but what we think God is like.  When I asked Kaniva Youth Group what the world would be like if God was the boss they responded with words and ideas about God.  “The world would be more kind,” was one response, presumably because the girl who said it thought that Jesus was kind or is kind.  Her thinking was that with Jesus in charge kindness would become the way things are done.  What do you think?  What do you think the people of the West Wimmera and The Tatiara think?  If the world under God’s authority would be like God, then what if God is like the Christians we heard about from the Royal Commission?  What if God is like some people’s Old Testament ideas of God?  What if God is like some people’s New Testament ideas of God?  I wonder whether when we talk about a Kingdom of God people think not so much about a world operating under the broadly beneficial ideas of The Sermon on The Mount, but a world of Trump’s Evangelical America, or the modern State of Israel, or something like Saudi Arabia, or Iran, or North Korea, with the pope in charge.  Is that what they think?

God said to David that the good king is like the dawn of daylight in a bright sky – is that how we see Jesus?  Is that how our neighbours see Jesus?  Is that how strangers to us living in the district see Jesus?  Are the Kanivans and the Servicetonians as stoked at the idea of Jesus as the Ephesians and the Philadelphians?  Would they be prepared to swap ScoMo for Jesus?  Okay maybe ScoMo, but what about Elizabeth?  QEII or JC, place your bets.

The last Sunday before Advent is a good time to rethink our ideas of Jesus.  In five Sundays’ time we’ll be welcoming “Christ the newborn king” – so it’s good in this time before we get tinsellated to ask what sort of king we think he is.  Is a king who is like God in character and power truly welcome?  First century Christians might have said that anyone is a better option than Domitian; we might think the same of Trump, Putin, or Kim.  But if King Jesus is really a compromise candidate, or the lesser of two evils, is Christmas really worth celebrating?  Really?

O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Amen.