A Sign on the Highway. (Anniversary of the Uniting Church in Year B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 24th June 2018.  It was a communion Sunday and the closest Sunday to the anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia

Psalm 127:1-2; Ephesians 2:17-22; John 17:1-11

Without wanting to get overtly political, even if a gathering such as this where the congregation is very much minded of justice and equity in the world, I have something profound to tell you: US President Donald Trump is not the Antichrist. However, in light of reading I have undertaken over the past few weeks leading into today’s service I have come to the conclusion, shared by many others of my spiritual persuasion, that Christ Jesus is the anti-Trump. This is especially true today, in June 2018.

Where the leaders of many nations, including our own, wish to erect fences or walls or enforce strict controls to separate families and isolate the much loved but very unwell, Jesus offers citizenship of the greatest realm of all – the Kingdom of Heaven. Where many flee poverty and corruption, and others flee persecution and genocide, we are brought to thought by today’s readings that each of us in this house have fled sin and tribulation. Make of those words what you will, be they literal fire and brimstone to you or simple metaphors of a life lived outside the love of God; II don’t know your past, but I so know mine and both of those apply, the literal and the metaphorical. Paul says that we are all refugees from the world and that God in Christ offers us not only asylum but citizenship wherever God is king.

With respect to the Kingdom of Heaven as it was proclaimed by Christ “Operation Sovereign Borders” is a series of rescue, recovery, and reuniting manoeuvres; it is about expanding the reach of God to include all, rather than erecting barriers to exclude most. In the homeland of the People of God the resources of compassion are never overwhelmed, the earlier arrivals and previously settled are never envious or afraid of the newest arrivals, and the welcome at the door is as effusive for the last one in as it was for the first.

In the Kingdom of Heaven, we are no longer strangers to God in danger of deportation, but citizens with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities, of belonging to the realm. In realm of God those rights and responsibilities include shalom (Ephesians 2:17). Shalom; that deep, soulful, healing, energising, forgiving, cleansing, restoring, satisfying, joy-bringing peace that only perfect love can bring. That’s our experience, and that’s our mission as ambassadors of the Kingdom, not cross-armed bouncers but hospitable welcomers and stewards of the message of peace to the world. In Christ’s love, in the Father’s realm, in the Spirit’s fellowship there is no division because God is equally present everywhere and with everyone (Colossians 3:11). Paul told the Ephesians and by our reading this morning he tells us that the realm of shalom is the kingdom of God, built upon the foundations of those who went before. Paul wrote of the apostles and prophets, women and men who are gifts of God to us and charisms, gifts of the Spirit, women and men who were sent by God and therefore are sources of authority and wisdom with Christ as cornerstone. Jesus is the connection holding all together, this temple who we are is a dwelling place for God. It is the congregation which is the temple, not the individual because as Paul wrote we are built together in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22) to form the place which God inhabits in the world. Where God “lives” on Earth is where we gather when we are gathered. An empty chapel or a single Christian is not “the place”, but the congregation gathered where it is gathered.

I have spoken often in the past nine months about shalom, and about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Reign of God in various combinations of those words. So today, today when we celebrate the anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia and its now 41 years of service to the nation under that name, and close to two hundred in the various forms of Methbytgationalism, I want to touch briefly on the topic of apostles and prophets.

The Uniting Church of itself is not a church of hagiography, the stories of saints. Today’s house at St Luke’s Morwell is named after a first century evangelist, not a twentieth century administrator. We are St Luke’s, not St J. Davis McCaughey. But we do have our cultural heroes in Misters Knox, Wesley, and Brown of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational movements; and we do remember with thanks to God the work of Davis McCaughey and Ronald Wilson. We celebrate the ongoing teaching of Andrew Dutney, Vicky Balabanksi, Chris Budden, Katherine Massam, Geoff Thompson, Deidre Palmer, and foremost, Damien Tann. We are a pilgrim people on the path to salvation on the Way of Christ, and we have been blessed with faithful guides along the way. Today we thank God for the women and men of faith and courage who walk a step or two ahead of us, or who walked a generation ahead of us, and leave us markers.

Turning to today’s set gospel reading in John 17:1 we read Glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you. These are the words of Jesus, and since it’s John 17 you already know that these are among the last words of Jesus. “Glorify your Son” said by Jesus on Maundy Thursday seems obvious, but what do those words mean for us? How can we pray this? Well, in many ways this is a prayer only Jesus can say since he is Son in the way that no other man is – and there are no daughters like him either. Jesus alone is worthy of the glory of God, I’m sure I’ll get no argument from you at this point, however I wonder if “glorify” might also mean “shine the light of world attention” on us so that we might “shine the light of world attention” on God through our glorifying. The Church can certainly pray that, we can and indeed should have the courage to pray that God would make us notable such that we can point to God when people are looking at us. Let the Uniting Church in 2018 be another Statement to the Nation as Assembly issued in 1977 and 1988. Again in the steps of those who walk ahead of us let us give thanks for those times when the Australian society has established justice, equality, and mutual respect among people; has placed care for the people who have least above sectional interests; has welcomed new migrants and refugees; has exercised solidarity and friendship in times of crisis in Australia across divisions of race and culture; and has engaged constructively with the peoples of Asia, the Pacific and the rest of the world as peacemaker. This is what we told Australia in 1988: let us in Morwell be a sign on the highway, a sign of the compassion, grace, justice, and shalom of God. In words addressed by the newly birthed Uniting Church, to Australia, in 1977 let us continue to challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor. I know this is a passion, a flavour, of St Luke’s Morwell and as you gather over lunch to discuss your way ahead I pray that you would continue to hold the wounded world in your eyes even as you keep Christ central in your heart and mind.

Eternal life, the life of the Kingdom of God is the knowledge of God and Christ whom God sent (John 17:3), so it’s about fullness rather than endlessness. Eternal life is not just chronologically infinite, it is broad and expansive. Eternal life is seeing Jesus for who he always was (John 17:5), the one from before time, the glorious God the Son. In Jesus we see God, God is compassionate and self-giving, generous to death, not wrathful. Eternal life is also responding to the complete revelation of Jesus by making Jesus known in the world (John 17:6), especially in the part of the world to which we have been given and has been given to us. As Gippslanders gathered as a Uniting Church on this 24th June we ask who are our people, where is our country, to whom shall we share the glory of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. When we proclaim Christ what we proclaim is what Christ proclaimed to us, they are his words and we have heard them before because they are the words to which we responded in the first place (John 17:8). Jesus prays for us that God will be with us as God has been with him – since Jesus is no longer in the world in himself but only through us (John 17:11).

The believing community has been formed by Christ’s call to each to follow him, and to whom he has displayed God, and by the receivers of revelation and the responders to call becoming brother-sisters with each other in that coming together.

In the context of Psalm 127:1-2 we are the house built by God, and therefore not built in vain. This reminds us to build only for God and in partnership with God, our being a Church and a Christian organisation does not protect us from foolishness and failure if what we do is not directly informed and partnered with God. (We partner with God first, not asking God to partner with us in projects of our choosing – although we are encouraged to be creative in our response to God’s call to meet the world’s need.) Without God all work is a waste of time, even the work of being church and doing faith stuff. Not only must we rely on God we must make known that God is our source – we don’t take God’s help and then take all the credit, neither do we do the work of the gospel yet hide our light. We do what we do with God, and we do what we do to glorify God. Even if it “works”, if we haven’t made God’s fame public in the doing of it then the whole point is not made. It is good to be compassionate, it is better (fullest) to be compassionate and let God be glorified (the illuminated focus of the world’s attention). We don’t serve the world for credit and our own fame, but we do serve the world for God’s credit and God’s fame: our humility (and especially our fear of embarrassment) must not get in the way of God’s glory. We are God’s advertisement, not our own, but not no one’s either.

What we advertise is that God is dependable, and that we attest to this because we are dependent upon God and God sustains us. The same power that conquered the grave lives in us and can live in others who want what we have – because of God. Because of God we do not strive, we have no need to. We operate in the world out of shalom, out of eternal (fat) life.

So, whether you trekked alongside the followers of Wesley, Knox, or Brown before 1977, and whether you march amidst the followers of Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson, Justin Trudeau, Richard DiNatale, Angela Merkel, Benedict XVI or Francis or Lyle Sheldon today, the call to you is the same. Walk with Christ, walk his Way, share his love, and invite others to join you on the road to God which already traverses the outlands of the realm of God.

Amen.

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Three (Trinity B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell for Sunday 27th May 2018, Trinity Sunday in Year B.

Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

I don’t know about you, but for me the Doctrine of the Trinity seems like a mixed blessing.  It’s one of the big-ticket items that really sets Christianity apart from Judaism and Islam, let alone the religions that don’t worship the God of Abraham and Moses.  That’s not really a bother for me, that Christianity is unique in this way, it’s good to be unique.  It doesn’t bother me that the Doctrine is somewhat baffling; I want God to be a little bit mysterious because God is apparently all that is and was and ever shall be, and it’s kind of disappointing if I can grasp all of that, even at 46 years old and holding a Masters degree.  So, a God who is beyond my imagining and rationalising is a solid point for me: a God who is beyond is a God who is what a God is supposed to be.  No, the mixed part in the blessing is the question of the point of it all.  So, God is infinite, and God is Three-fold in Unity: but why does that matter?  Why do we actually need a Doctrine of the Trinity, can’t we just let God be God, awesome and eternal?  Why can’t the Church just get on with saving the lost, raising the dead, and healing the sick, and leave what is above the clouds above the clouds?

In this morning’s reading from the scriptures of Israel the vision of God given to the Judahite prophet Isaiah is of God is The LORD high and lofty, the subject of seraph worship and adoration.  Isaiah doesn’t have a vision of God in Heaven; no God is enthroned on earth inside the room which is the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  The seraphim are also present on the earth and they cry out in awe of God, the majestic one.  The whole temple shakes to its foundations with the sound of seraph worship as the seraphim heed the injunction of Psalm 29:1-2.  Now, let’s remember that the foundation of Solomon’s Temple is actually the summit of Mount Zion; so, it seems that the whole mountain and with it the whole city of Jerusalem is rocking at the experience of divine anthems of adoration.  It is not that the seraphim are singing loudly, no, what is occurring is that the response of God to worship is so resounding, and the response of all creation to the display of God’s glory as it fills the whole earth is so violent.  This is God in all of God’s God-ness, this is undeniably God the earthquake and not God the gentle whisper: indeed, we read in Isaiah 6:3-5 that God’s glory is volcanic in its sound, sight and stench, and that it is utterly terrifying for the self-consciously human Isaiah who stands before it.  In the first five chapters of his book Isaiah has been denouncing the sins of Judah, especially of the city, and now here he stands in the first verses of chapter six at centre of Jerusalem in the holiest place on Earth with the memory of his prophecies; he knows that not only is he unworthy to be in the presence of The LORD enthroned he is in a dire predicament as a sinner in the presence of so imposing a display of holiness.  However, he is not in imperilled at all, and with a seraph’s touch Isaiah’s sin departs and is blotted out: Isaiah is justified just as if he’d never sinned, and he is considered worthy not only to stand in the presence of The LORD but to step closer to the throne and volunteer for a mission of proclamation.

Now on Trinity Sunday we can see some obvious links.  The cry of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 is “holy, holy, holy”, so that’s three holies.  Three, eh?  Eh!  And look at Isaiah 6:8a where The LORD asks Whom shall I send, who will go for us?  “Us”, eh?  Eh!

But have you missed what has just happened with Isaiah?  Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God The LORD is personally present in Jerusalem.  And God The LORD forgives and forgets a man’s sin, and God The LORD commissions this renewed man to proclaim the Word of God to Judah.  I mean, wow, that’s a lot more pervasive an idea than a three-fold refrain in the liturgy.  God does what Jesus is supposed to do, but God does this before Jesus gets a chance to do it.  Maybe The LORD God and the messiah are not only on the same team, maybe they are following the same game-plan because today we have seen God act like Jesus.

In today’s prescribed part of the letter to Rome, Romans 8:12-17 Paul is admonishing the Church to be active in the outworking of their faith.  Grace introduces not just a new mood (forgiven), but a new way of being in the world.  Now life is by the Spirit of God and those who heed the Spirit’s wisdom are saved from the desires of the flesh.  It is this Spirit, capital-S, who empowers those who take up godliness to act in this way.  In other words, God is active in the life of the believer, and because of God’s action through the Spirit so the believer is supposed to be active in the work of God, calling upon God as Abba and living as children who serve, worship, and obey.  “God’s spirit in you is God’s voice testifying that you belong to God” is what Paul is saying.  And when the Spirit, big-S, is acting in you and on you when you suffer for Christ then God is in effect suffering with you.

So, another of today’s readings offers obvious connections to the idea that God exists in the plural as a unity rather than in solitude.  The Spirit in you points to God who is your Father, the two are working as one to guarantee your identity as son or daughter of the one you call Abba.  When you, son or daughter of Abba suffer for the sake of Christ who is the true Son, the Spirit who is in you also suffers alongside you.  So, the Spirit within you as you live for Jesus who is called Emmanuel (God-Brings-Salvation and God-With-Us), draws you close enough to God The Father that you can speak of God as Abba, or my own dearest daddy.

In John 3:1-17 the gospel author tells us that Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, recognises in Jesus’ activities the action of God.  Jesus confirms this, and says that all who trust God in the way that he trusts God will do the work of God as they empowered by the Spirit, capital-S.  However, as he makes clear in John 3:13 Jesus is not ordinary disciple, he is The Son of Man who alone has descended from The Father, and he is the vehicle of trust.  To trust in the work and word of Jesus is to trust in the work and word of God, because as John 1:1 reads Jesus himself is The Word of God.  Those who exalt the LORD when Jesus the man is crucified are those whom God is saving through the blessing of a full life: Jesus is making a wordplay in John 3:14-15.  See Jesus lifted up and lift high the name of The LORD as you look at Jesus.  Those who lift high the name of The LORD will live a life of eternity: not just a life that goes to infinity but a life that is literally a “life of the eons”, the biggest, brightest, boldest, most abundant life possible, a life full of God because it is filled with and by the Spirit.

So, what is the point of all of this?  And even if we have somehow proved by this skip across the top of the Bible that God’s essence is expressed as a unity of three co-eternal persons, existing of the same substance distinct from all created things, why does that even matter?  In some ways that’s a deeper question than we can address in the forty minutes remaining in my sermon: some of the greatest minds in Christianity spent their lives examining this question and never got to the end.  The triune nature of God is literally an eternal question: infinite and beyond all proportion of space and time to tell.  So, I won’t even begin, except to say that if you’re keen to follow the theological pathways start in the Bible and go next to the Cappadocian Fathers.

In the meantime, let’s remind ourselves of what we have heard this morning.  In Isaiah 6 we heard God act like Jesus, forgiving sin and commissioning a missionary with the gospel.  In John 3 we heard Jesus speak with patient correction to an expert in scripture, a community leader whose love for law and ritual had misdirected his heart away from those for whom Jesus’ compassion was greatest, the spiritually orphaned.  In Romans 8 we heard Paul instruct a local church to be more like Jesus, especially to live in the world with the fullness of the presence of God, and to love like a brother-sister everyone in the Church and every woman or man who entered the local congregation’s space.

So, in a grossly unfair oversimplification, (but on the other hand why complicate things), the Doctrines of The Trinity tell us that whatever God is made of God is internally and eternally consistent.  God is always the same.  Three points, because of course there must be three.

  1. God is love and God loves. The Father in all God’s glory has the same character of Jesus in all Jesus’ simplicity; Jesus lived and proclaimed love for neighbour, love for friend, and that greater love has no one than Calvary.  That’s God, not just Jesus, that’s all of God who loves with greater love.
  2. Christians who claim to trust Christ for salvation, and who proclaim Jesus as the Way, not only as “the way to Heaven” where the Nicene Creed is the password to unlock the gate that St Peter holds shut, but the Way as in a way of life, should live like Jesus lived. God is abundant and sacrificial love: we should do the same.  We cannot be the love that God is, but we can express the love that God expressed in Jesus.
  3. Christian love, the love that God is and the love that the Church expresses as people who walk in the footsteps of Jesus, is hard. Love cost Jesus his life, and it may well cost us our lives too: or it may cost us something even worse than death, it may cost us embarrassment.  Martyrs sometimes have it easy, they only have to be brave for a few minutes and then they die gloriously even if somewhat messily: we have to stand fast for decades in faithfulness.  It can be a lot lot harder to live for Jesus than to die for him, I am in no doubt of this, but that is where the Spirit comes in.  The paraclete of Pentecost, the helper, counsellor, and advocate, is also God Godself and the Spirit is the one who helps us to call The Father “Abba”, to call Jesus “lord”, and to call others “brother-sister”.  The same one who is God lives in you; equipping, encouraging, and comforting you in the life-long ministries of worship and hospitality.

And that’s why all this Trinity business matters: because not only does God want you to act like Jesus, remembering that God acts like Jesus, but the Spirit who is God is given to you to make it happen.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow: praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Amen.

Welcomed as Family (Easter 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Yallourn Congregation to be presented on Sunday 15th April 2018 at Yallourn North Uniting Church.

Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Today’s reading from Acts puts us straight into action with the first generation of Christians.  We listen in as Peter speaks to the gathering crowd in Solomon’s Porch, a public part of the temple in Jerusalem where the man who had been lame from birth had just been healed by Jesus through the apostles’ prayer.  A man who had asked for alms from Peter and John had received legs from Jesus: the crowds were rushing to see who and what and how.

In the first verse of today’s reading we see Peter grasp the opportunity of the crowd’s amazement at the miraculous healing to point to Jesus in a new and exciting way.   Look at Acts 3:13 and see how Peter refers to God with the names of the Jewish ancestors.  This is the same name by which God introduced Godself to Moses in the burning bush: Peter repeats the phrases of God’s self-identification and connects their ancestral God with Jesus whom the Judeans had had murdered by Pilate.  The one who was lynched by the Judean crowds had been sent to them by God to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  The miracle of the burning-yet-not-consumed-shrub given as a sign to Moses that The LORD was the one whose message was to be proclaimed is mirrored by the miracle of the walking-yet-recently-lame-man.  Once again God is speaking, and once again God chooses and vindicates the choice of the speaker of God’s behalf, the new Moses was Jesus and now in Jesus’ authority Peter and John speak.  Once again “I AM” is speaking to Israel, but this time it is “HE WHOM”; he whom you crucified and is both LORD and prophet whose truth is proclaimed.

So many signs.  In the mystical past God spoke to Moses and proved it was God with a burning bush which doesn’t burn.  In his immediate past God spoke to Peter and proved it was God with a dead man who was not dead.  In his today (today for him) God speaks through Peter to Judea, and proves it is God with a lame man who is not lame.  This is as much a sign for Peter as it is for Jerusalem, Peter who is now understanding that God has a preaching ministry for him, attested to by signs and wonders as had been the preaching ministry of Jesus, has just seen the second sign of his ministry.  First, he and his fellow apostles had spoken in every language needed to proclaim the good news to every adult in the Shavuot crowd in Jerusalem; now he and John see a man born lame begin to walk.  Even as Jesus welcomes Jews of all nationalities into the Kingdom of God, not just the Galileans, Judeans and Idumeans of the Holy Land, so Jesus welcomes Peter and John, and in their model all disciples, into the ministries of the Holy Spirit.

The resurrection is supposed to remind us that God is at work in the world, and that God is at work through us as God had been through Jesus.  What Jesus did, we now do.  What Jesus said, we now say.  How Jesus was given authority to do and say, and was vindicated in the doing and saying, which is the testimony of Godself through the Holy Spirit, so we are authorised and vindicated.

Peter describes Jesus in this sermon as the child of God (Acts 3:13b) which also carries the meaning of very trusted servant: and he reminds the Judeans that they collaborated with the Roman government, against the personal wishes of the governor, to murder this one most dear to God and to secure the release of an assassin and rebel.  “You made Pilate release Barabbas,” says Peter, “a man who you know was a zealot and a killer, and you had Pilate execute Jesus for treason and sedition.  Pause and consider!”  Briefly, we hear Peter go on to describe Jesus as the holy one, (so, God), and the ruler which also carries the meaning of “source” of life, (so, also God).  It is Jesus working through the proclamation of those who believe him who delivered the man from his lameness: short answer, look at the man on his feet here and praise Jesus who is the message of the God of Judaism, the liberator of the Hebrews from Pharaoh.

So that’s all rather spectacular: Jesus is the very trusted servant of God, the child of God, and one who carries the nature of God as holy and sovereign in life.  This is Peter’s introduction to what he goes on to say, first to lambast the Judeans for killing Jesus, and second to announce that with the resurrection the story did not end there.  “New life is available for you,” says Peter, “even you, you murderous scum, just as it is for this man with new life in his long-dead legs.  Believe Jesus, the child of God.”

Now that’s a pretty exciting message, but it gets even more exciting for us.  Where Peter speaks of Jesus as the child of God, John, in 1 John 3:1, speaks of every Christian as a child of God, and all of us together as children of God.  Woohoo!  Peter proclaimed in Acts 3:13-15 that Jesus was like God, now John in 1 John 3:2-3,7 tells us that because of Jesus we will become like God.  Woohoo!  And again, I say woohoo!  But I also want to ask what that means.

I think it’s great that when God’s fullness is revealed to us and we perceive it that we will become like God as we see God.  But I wonder what God is like that we shall become like God.  Of course, the full answer to that is a mystery, the mystery which John explains.  We just don’t know, because we don’t know yet, and when we do know then we will know, and it will all have been done by God.  So, does it matter that we don’t know yet?  After all what we do know now is that we will know later, you know?

Two answers.

  1. No, it doesn’t matter. I trust God, I believe God, and that’s enough for now.  It will happen, and when it happens God will do the thing.  As far as I am concerned if God is doing the thing then God can do whatever thing God wants to do when it comes to doing things to me.  You too?  Excellent.
  2. We already know a bit, because we have seen Jesus. Specifically, we have seen the risen Jesus, Jesus at his most like-God-ness, or perhaps Jesus at his most Godlike-ness.  So, we will be like Jesus, like the Jesus of the empty tomb, the vindicated, transformed, child and most trusted servant of God which John says is now our status within creation.  Where Jesus is The Son you and I are each a son or a daughter in the likeness of The Son, who is the image of The Father.  Awesome.

Are you following this? Phew! So, what is The Son like then; that I and some of you as a son, and the remainder of you as a daughter, will be like him?

Well, in Luke 24:36 we pick up one of the stories told about Jesus and his adventures around Judea on the evening of Easter Day.  In his first post-resurrection appearance according to Luke; (there were only angels in the garden to speak with the women and no risen Jesus); Jesus walked the last part of the road with the Cleopases and broke bread with them in Emmaus.  Then Jesus disappeared from their sight, and Cleopas and Mary returned to Jerusalem and told the story of Jesus on the road and at the table.  And then…well and then we get to today’s reading.

Enter Jesus, from nowhere, having only been seen by two people since his death (and even then, he went unrecognised until the final second), suddenly in the middle of the room, declaring “shalom”.

The first thing we can say about Jesus on the night of the day of his resurrection is that he is an embodied life.  And as I am trying to say, this will one day be true of us.  Jesus the risen one is not a spirit in Heaven and a ghost on Earth.  He has a body, he can be touched, and he can eat and breathe do all those things that bodies with a life in them do.  But he can also appear in a locked room without making use of the door.  The presence of Jesus is a presence that belongs in both worlds, the world of Heaven and the world of Earth, without needing change.  There is no border for him, the place where you need to change trains at Albury and get into the NSW carriage with a different set of wheels if you want to go to Sydney.  No, Jesus can pass between Heaven and Earth in a new way, a way he couldn’t have done a week ago (and remember a week ago for Jesus was Palm Sunday).  Even the man heralded as “Hosanna, Son of David” can’t walk into Heaven on human feet – but The Resurrected One can.  That is the Jesus we worship as Lord above all, The Son of God, God’s child, who is also God The Son, Godself.  And we shall be like him, him like that, when we enter eternity.

But for me that it not the best bit.  It’s a pretty good bit, and that would be a great conclusion.  Jesus is Risen, he is risen and returns to show himself in person, in glorious and shining and walking through walls and breaking bread and eating fish with his hands person to his friends and to strengthen their faith and vindicate their hope.  Hallelujah and Amen.  But look also at what Jesus says.  He says “shalom”.  Now, okay, that’s a pretty standard line at first look.  He’s saying “hello”, he’s saying “g’day” in the sense of “good day” or perhaps “good evening” as it is for him.  It’s a greeting, and nothing special in that.  Well okay it’s a bit special because the actual message is also “peace be with you”, so he’s speaking like a Jewish man, like a Christian.  He’s “passing the peace”, well (shrug) good for him, he’s a rabbi and these are his mates, so what?

So what, indeed.  For me it is remarkable that these words are coming from a man whose body, miraculous and glorious as it is, is still in the shape of a body torn apart by nails, flails, sunburn, and a spear.  He is risen, and he has in a sense been healed as he’s no longer dead, he’s no longer bleeding, and he is breathing without difficulty.  The stuff that actually killed him has been fixed, yeah?  But he was killed, and he was betrayed, and it was bloody hard: it was bloody and hard as we heard on Good Friday.  Friday hurt, we heard that on Good Friday too.  What that says to me is that not only was Jesus’ “shape” restored in a glorious new way, this body that can hold bread yet pass through walls, Jesus’ “sense” was restored too.  The man of sorrows, the man who had been broken, abused, mocked, betrayed, abandoned, flayed, crucified, and stabbed walks into a room and says “shalom”.

I think I would have started the conversation, and remember that this is the first conversation Jesus has had with these people since Gethsemane , I would have started with “now listen…about Thursday night…and then Friday…all bloodied day…hmm?”  The new body of Jesus has come with a resurrected spirit.  Jesus does not hold a grudge; indeed, Jesus does not hold anything because he withholds nothing, he gives all he has.  All his love, all his comfort, all his blessing, all his shalom.

When John in 1 John 3 speaks of us as God’s children he is telling us that we have a future in God’s family.  That future looks like the resurrected Jesus, the eternally living one who is also the eternally loving one.  We who live surrounded by sin will sin and live with sin no more, because we will be refashioned for an eternity where we will live with shalom from God and shalom for each other.

This is the story we proclaim.  This Jesus, whose return in Luke’s account seems more interested in comforting his grieving friends than in declaring his own glory and vindication, this Jesus speaks the fullest form of peace and hope to humanity.  The shalom of God which raised Jesus from the dead raised the lame man from the path outside Beautiful Gate, raised Peter from a denier of Christ in a darkened private courtyard to a proclaimer of Christ in the busiest part of the temple at the busiest time of the day, raised two weary travellers who had walked mournfully from Jerusalem to Emmaus to then run all the way back to declare their hope because of who they had seen and what they had heard.

Because he lives, his peace be among you.

Amen.

Slowly Relentless (Epiphany 5B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 4th February 2018, the fifth Sunday in Epiphany in Year B.

Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

When I began blogging back in the 2000s I had a few pages on the go.  One blog, which had, (and still only has) one post was called “3Rs”.  No, it was not about my skills in literacy and numeracy; and just as well because Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic are not three Rs at all, but one R, one A, and a W.  I know this because I was once a Primary School teacher, and they learned me that at NTU where I got teached stuff for my Graduate Diploma in Primary Education.  No, my 3Rs were Resolute, Relentless, and Resilient.  After a few tough years, the toughest ever, where my 40 days in the wilderness had lasted four years so far and didn’t look like ending any time soon, I began to write about my desire to see the journey through with blood, sweat, tears, and a few other, less pleasant bodily fluids.  Resolute, Relentless, Resilient.  I was going to push through with all of mine and God’s strength.  The blog never saw a second post because the journey was too painful, complicated, and downright weird to try to put into words.

Today’s message, ten and a bit years later, and posted to my current blog I have entitled “Slowly Relentless”.

In Mark 1:31 we read that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law by taking her by the hand and lifting her up.  Her response to healing is to engage in ministry, diakoneo, the work of a ministering angel.  The same word is used in Mark 1:13 when Jesus is assisted in his recovery after the forty days in the wilderness.  This woman is raised up not to be a mere woman doing “women’s work” or “being a housewife” as if those activities were not important anyway; as if a healed father-in-law could have just moved from bed to chair with Jesus and demanded a beer but the woman must serve and not be served.   No, she is restored to her act of ministry because Jesus’ healings are not just restorative, they are also empowering.

In Mark 1:32-34 we are told about many other women and men in Capernaum who were healed through Jesus’ ministry to weakened bodies, minds, and souls.  I wonder, did Jesus expect the same from these renewed people as he did in the house of Simon?  Imagine that next day in Capernaum, a village filled with active and restored people, buzzing with excitement that God’s grace had been manifested amongst them and how they were now able to do what they had been limited from doing for however long.  What a fabulous day that would have been!

How many of you long for the day when Jesus will take you by your hand and lift you up?  I know I do.

I live with a mental illness, you all know that, and many of you have taken to wearing the beyondblue wrist bands in support of me and my ilk.  And yes, that mental illness came about back in those wilderness days when I needed to be intentionally resolute, relentless and resilient.  Sometimes life today for me is more about mental ill-health for me than actual illness because some days I have the emotional version of a sniffle and some days I have the emotional version of quadriplegia.  Each of these conditions impact on my physical activity (or lack thereof) to that extent.  I’m not always flat on my back, and I’m not always sneezing, mentally speaking, but some days I am one of those two things, or something in the middle.  On many days I’m in mentally good-health; “mental healthy” rather than “mental healthish” as it were.  So, yes, I long for that day when Jesus will take me by my hand and lift me up so that I can go about the work of ministry.  Ministry to him, ministry to you, ministry to myself.

But I’m not so fussed about my failing eyesight.  I’ve worn spectacles for short-sightedness for almost forty years, since I was six, and I now have the reading glasses of a man who was six years old almost forty years ago.  I am not fussed about that,  and I do not long for the day when I have 20/20 vision at last, although I’d take it if it came.  Like many men I’d like to be thinner around my abs, thicker around my quads, biceps and triceps, and more powerful in heart and lungs, although I’m happy with the covering of hair I wear.  So, it’s just the mental thing, and the sleep apnoea connected with it that I want fixed.  I need the lifting-out-of-bed hand of Jesus, and I need it many days a week, because of what happens in my mind.  I would love to have it once-and-for-all, but God’s grace is sufficient, and every morning Jesus helps me make it out of bed.  Some mornings it is before 8:00am, other mornings it is after 11:00am, but it’s always morning and it’s always Jesus.

So, I get excited when I read that God healed a whole town, or at least all of those who asked it of God, through the ministry of Jesus.  I know how excited I’d be to hear the promise that I’ll never be midday-dozy or fidgety again. I know how excited I’d be if Jesus did that for the whole Latrobe Valley, at the very least the western bit where Moe, Morwell, Narracan, Newborough, Yallourn and Yallourn North are.  I’m excited that Jesus is amongst us, and about us, even though this mass miracle of lifting to minister seems unlikely, simply because it hasn’t happened for a while.  I don’t believe that Jesus can’t heal our whole cluster and the towns in which we live, but I acknowledge that he hasn’t.  Maybe, like those few at Capernaum, we need to ask.  Maybe we need to rock up at sundown and bring all who are sick or possessed with demons and gather around the door.

Or, maybe, we need to look for something else.  Without discounting for a second that God could heal our bit of the City of Latrobe and the Baw Baw Shire, and give us a new energy, there is something else we can rely on from God in the interim.

It’s in Isaiah 40:31, and it is always, ALWAYS EVERY SINGLE TIME quoted incorrectly by Christian card manufacturers, poster makers, and rabble-rousing preachers.  Always until today of course.  After all, you’re not a rabble so why would I want to rouse you?

God has not abandoned the weary, rather God has extended salvation to all who seek God from wherever it is they begin to seek.  In Isaiah’s day the Israelites were in exile, and they were tired, and they were weary, and they were very close to being worn out.  God’s message to these people is that God is aware of the people and their circumstance, and because God is actively directing history (rather than sitting back and letting it unfold while God sits on the couch with divine Tim Tams and a six-pack,  of Victorious Draught), God will intervene presently.  In the meantime as we read in Isaiah 40:28-29 God is present, present at present, and God’s current work is strengthening and upholding the fainting and exhausted.  That’s been said before, and that’s all good; it’s the next bit that Koorong’s suppliers can’t seem to get right.

It’s not about being an eagle.

There you go.  Isaiah 40:31 is not actually about being an eagle, and how God is going to make you into a herculean pterodactyl or whatever.  The renewing of your strength is found in…wait for it…keep waiting…a bit longer…okay now…realising that you have permission to slow down.  Look at Isaiah 40:31, look at the order of the verbs:  you mount up, then you run, then you walk.  If you are a bird then my birdy friend you are coming in to land, you are not taking off.  It’s not wander out of the nest, have a run up and then lift off, no this verse is very much swoop about for a bit, come in to land at a run, and then slow down.  Having flown with God but come out of the skies you will be strengthened in God to land safely, running without weary legs after your wings have become too tired to carry you, and then walking to a standstill on your own feet.  You don’t crash, you don’t collapse.  You land safely.

Yes, of course all that eagle stuff is also true.  There are soaring times in God’s presence, and in God’s strength when you are ministering away from the gathered body.  I have been there, I have “soared with you in the power of your love”, and I hope that you have too.  But I have also heard, and I now teach the wisdom of God, that there is a place in ministry and in discipleship when you need to return to the ground and to the nest.

After all, it’s what Jesus did.

The strength of Jesus’ ministry, and his ability through God’s direction to heal and restore the women and men who came to him as he did, was Jesus’ own ministry.  By that I mean his ministry to himself.  When Jesus needed restoration he went to the source, to the Father, with the advocating assistance of the paraclete, the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was at the walking stage, which as I say is not a bad stage, he sat, (or perhaps knelt, or lay, or stood still), and there he prayed as Mark 1:35 tells us.  And why did he pray?  Well for the reasons I have just said, he was tired to walking pace, but also because of Mark 1:36.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him as the NRSV says.  They did not “seek” him or “search for him”, the did not “inquire into his whereabouts”, and certainly didn’t “await his return”.  No, the Greek text here, which I use to highlight the specific word chosen by Mark, is the word katadioko.  It means “pursue with hostility” in the sense of “hunted him down”.  The disciples didn’t just try to find Jesus, they sent the dogs out.

I do not wish to imply that this congregation has ever set dogs on me.  You have not: I promise, you haven’t.  But I’m sure you can each relate to what Jesus might have felt.  Perhaps you are or were a parent who couldn’t even use the toilet without having your toddler follow you into the loo, and leave the door open after finding you.  Perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel, late one afternoon after a hectic day at the office, was really your boss with a torch and an overflowing folder of apparently urgent paperwork.  There are times when it is right in The Spirit to not soar, not run, and not even walk, but to stop.

God knows, and I know, and your mental health specialist will also tell you, that that is true.  Where Psalm 46:10 says “be still and know” the sense of the Hebrew there is “Freeze!  Hear and understand!” This message is no less (and no more) a Biblical imperative than “Onward Christian Soldiers”, or “an as I wait I’ll rise up like an eagle and I will soar with you, your spirit leads me on”.  There is power in God’s love, and more often than we might like to think that power is the wing under which the hen gathers and shields her sleepy chicks.

God alone can raise you up on eagle-like wings, God alone can take your hand and lift you up to minister again.  If that is what you need to do today, then do that

Let God.

Amen.

It’s Not About You (Epiphany 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for a cluster service of the Yallourn and Morwell Uniting Churches, for Sunday 21st January 2018.  The congregations were gathered at Yallourn North.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20

In Mark 1:14-20 we read Mark’s account of where and how Jesus began his ministry.  This is an important text because alongside the story of Jesus calling the first four to the ministry of discipleship and men-fishing we hear the first declaration of the gospel message according to The Son of Man.  Jesus says that the time of the revelation of God’s Way has come, so turn to God and hear the good news.

In Jesus’ day to call someone to believe carried the meaning of that person committing him/herself toward a special relationship marked by loyalty: it did not carry the meaning that the person should accept a special set of statements to be true.  Belief in the coming Kingdom of God in Jesus’ mind was about an insatiable commitment to God and a passion to bring about the realisation of the kingship of God on the Earth in the same way that God is king in Heaven.  So, Jesus’ call to the fishermen in Mark 1:16-20 is a call to attention, repentance and belief in the way of the Kingdom in the perfect tense (continuous present, once and future).  Jesus goes on in the gospel stories to exhibit the arrival of the Kingdom by teaching, healing and exorcism, and private prayer.  We’ll see Jesus in action next week, so I’ll leave Mark 1:21-45 until then, but that’s what it’s about, the activity of the Kingdom once revealed.

What is going on in today’s reading carries the message that the proclamation of the Reign of God precedes the ministry of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The first thing Jesus does is declare God’s arrival; Jesus does not begin by healing or saving, he begins by proclaiming.  In other words, the key to the gospel is that you get aboard the Kingdom before the stuff of ministry happens, so that the stuff is put in context.  Healing and saving are activities of the Kingdom, a display of what life is like under God’s reign, or better said within God’s realm.

When Jesus invites the two sets of brothers to join him there is a deliberate echo of God’s invitation to Abram – leave your father and the family business and follow God to a new place and a very different future to the one predicted by the generations.  As Abrahamitic men these Galileans would have had confidence in their place in God because of their ancestry, their obedience to the Law of Moses, their attendance at the local synagogue, and their respect for their parents and family ties.  But Jesus calls them to the Kingdom of Heaven, and they are required to leave all that social and religious confidence behind.  What Jesus is saying is that they have nothing to rely on, nothing to take confidence in except the hope that God is on their side.  If you are not hitched to God’s wagon it doesn’t matter who your grandparents were or which religious centre you attend on which day, even if it is a synagogue on Shabbat.  This is the eternal invitation of Jesus, even today, even to Christians.  The only thing you can rely on is grace, and by grace alone can you act and serve in the world as if it is “on Earth as it is in Heaven”.

In our Hebrew story this morning we hear how Jonah prophesied to Nineveh and the Ninevites turned to God.  Unlike Jesus, and hopefully unlike you, Jonah does not want the hearers of his gospel, the Ninevites, to repent.  Jonah doesn’t like the Ninevites, and he doesn’t like what they represent; so, his message is as brief as he can possibly make it.  He obeys God just enough to stay out of trouble, and remember his recalcitrance has already cost him three days lost at sea, but he does the barest of bare minima so that he is seen to be obedient yet be unsuccessful in God’s mission.  In fact, Jonah’s whole message is five Hebrew words in length.  Five.  And there’s no hope in it, no call to repentance, no instruction about what to do; Jonah is practically boasting to these people, whom he intensely dislikes, that they are going to get splattered.

If one of you had come to me with this message for the Latrobe Valley I’d probably have rejected it as not having come from God.  I believe that God’s prophetic messages always have hope in them, so I’d have asked you to go away with your epic judginess and come back when you had the complete message, the “…but if you turn back and repent then…” part.  And I’d probably be right in doing that, since for much of Western Christian history the story has changed, and the rumour of God is widespread.  But in Jonah 3 something different is going on, and as a filter of God’s prophetic message I’d need to be very careful.  The prophecies of disaster tinged with hope as are always addressed to God’s own people.  “Repent,” says God, “and if you do then I will restore you and bless you.”  The consequence of not hearing God is that the disobedient go further into their own dilemma.  It’s not that God causes evil against them, it’s that God does not intervene to prevent the evil they have brought upon themselves.

But the Ninevites know none of this.  They don’t know God and they are not participants in the covenants of Abraham and Moses.  They are not lapsed Christians who have heard the message but have fallen away from salvation by grace through faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross.  No, the Ninevites have no relationship with The LORD upon which to call.  They’ve had no previous warning of divine wrath precipitating disaster, or which behaviours that wrath is directed towards.  They are unaware, and therefore in shock when Jonah speaks his five words.  And so, the people do the best they can with what they know about gods, they act with penitence in the only way they know, by sackcloth and ashes (mourning) and by fasting.  By completely embracing self-humiliation the once proud city hopes to be saved from external calamity.  And the humbled city is saved.  Nineveh knows it cannot “return to The LORD” since it was never “with The LORD” in the first place: however, it can turn from its wickedness and embrace wholesomeness, and it does that with such fervour that The LORD relents and the city is saved.

The word declared is enough.  God acts through prophecy and a call to repentance, and then through signs.  In the case of Nineveh, the sign would have been destruction, and it is averted by the people’s response to grace.  In the case of Galilee, the sign is healing, exorcism, and resurrection, and it is manifested by the people’s response to grace.

In Psalm 62:9-10 we read how confidence in anything other than The LORD comes to nothing.  We are not self-sufficient. And we cannot make ourselves self-sufficient by wickedness, as if God keeps us subordinate by the law but we could be powerful if we ignored God and tried for ourselves.  We have tried, it doesn’t work.  What does work is found in Psalm 62:5-8; trust and rest in God.  God alone has power, and God alone can be trusted to wield power since God does so with love and justice foremost (Psalm 62:11-12).  Jonah didn’t have love, so he couldn’t be trusted to judge Nineveh.  God loved the Ninevites, even as God detested their behaviour, and because God loves God is mighty to save.

God’s intent is always to save and not destroy.  God warned Nineveh, even though Jonah didn’t like it, and Jesus warned Judea even though they didn’t like it.  Often when Christians speak of Hell as the deserved end for the enemies of God we miss the point that the message of Jesus is better read as repeated warnings against the self-destructive practices of violent society and personal sin.  Hell, for sinners and the destruction of Nineveh are not predestined, the message is not “this is where you’ll end up if you are naughty”, but “this is where your self-destructive behaviours are leading you”.  The message of the Kingdom, to change your life and your mind and live as if God is king and LORD, and Nebuchadnezzar, or Trump, or Turnbull, or Molech, or Baal, or Nathan Buckley are not.  As proclaimers of the Way of Jesus and the gospel of Immanuel we must always make sure that grace has the final word.

When Jesus spoke of hell and judgement he did so with the backdrop of his message of God’s grace and the world’s terror.  Judgement for Jesus was not so much about sinners going to damnation as it is being about rabble-rousers and plotters bringing down the wrath of the Romans.  Jerusalem was Hell in 70 CE, there was fire and brimstone, death and horror, and the temple was destroyed: Jesus saw it coming in the escalating violence of the Zealots and the inevitability of the religious resistance movements.  This is what God saw in Nineveh, and even though Jonah saw something different God’s message was put across and the self-destructive behaviours of the Ninevites were stopped and decline into hell was averted.

The Way of God is non-violent resistance to the evil in the world, and following the destruction of the temple Judaism and Christianity caught that.  That had been the message of Jesus from that first day beside the lake, and that was in the message of Jesus as he approached those two boat crews and called for disciples.  Unlike Jonah there is no delight for God or Jesus in seeing people go through Hell, so how can there even be the slightest shade of that in the Church?

Our job is to let the world know that the King is coming, not so much as to warn them against divine wrath in the tribulation following our Rapture, but to prepare them for the better way of life on Earth when the King of Glory, the grace-abounding healer, saviour, redeemer and reconciling Lord takes the crown.

There is no greater thing than knowing Jesus, just because he’s Jesus.

Amen.

Love Re-Advented

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell Uniting Church for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B.  It was Sunday 24th December 2017

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55

The story that Christianity tells about Advent and Christmas is about many things, but one of the main things is newness.  God did a new thing when “Word became Flesh”, God in all God’s God-ness came into the world as a male human baby.  But that new thing was not without precedent, since God was honouring a promise and God was faithful to the world in the way that God had always been, and how God has always been since the ascension of Jesus.  So, there’s another thing about Advent, God’s new thing is about God’s long-term faithfulness.

The story found in today’s Psalm is a reminder that God has loved humankind in very practical ways through the ministry work of Israel, and God has remained faithful to all the promises of the covenant.  The prophets through the ages from Samuel who anointed David, Nathan who advised David, and the prophets who spoke to later kings, all proclaimed God’s faithfulness and God’s desire that the people remain faithful, (Psalm 89:3-4).  God who is consistent, who we declare to be the same yesterday, today and forever, is also constantly changing, working with each new king in the best way for that king and his situation.  So, by the time of Ethan, the Ezrahite, who re-wrote an earlier song of Israel’s king to suit his circumstance as a hope-filled exile, Ethan can find much for which to praise God.  Even though the people’s unfaithfulness and disobedience has caused their downfall as a nation, Ethan can declare that God is no less worthy of praise because God is still faithful, (Psalm 89:1-2).

Looking back on Ethan’s song today; and as Christians we are looking back through the life of Jesus, we see that in the baby in the manger is the fulfilment of God’s promises.  In Jesus the Israelites were given a king directly descended from David and the royal family, (Psalm 89:19-20).  Israel was given a man who would lead them in worship, and a man who would point them towards a new and complete revelation of God as a faithful and loving father: something they had always known but had also tended to forget, (Psalm 89:26, 28).  The exiled Israelites believed that they had been forgotten; they were confused and felt abandoned and betrayed in Babylon and Persia.  But God had remembered the people even if they had forgotten that God was faithful.  And four hundred years after the last prophet spoke, and when the Judeans and Samaritans were living under Roman occupation and were feeling forgotten again, God spoke through a baby’s cry.  Jesus as the son of Joseph of Bethlehem was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David, and God’s promise to the Israel through David.

God’s new thing is only a new way of keeping God’s age-long promises.

Jesus is a child of the impossible, and one of many in the history of Israel.  The significance of the virgin birth of Jesus is seen as miraculous, and so it should be, since it is impossible for any virgin animal to give birth to male offspring.   (Even if Mary had somehow fertilised one of her own ova, which is theoretically possible but very improbably, the baby would have been XX and a clone of the mother.)  But I think it is more significant to Luke that in Mary we see the messiah born to a young and fresh mother rather than an old and barren one.  Any woman could have been the mother of Jesus, and any birth might have been miraculous: but God chose twelve-year-old Mary.  In his telling of the story of Jesus Luke immediately sets Mary beside Elisabeth, the post-menopausal mother of John the Baptiser.  John’s conception is no less a miracle than Jesus’, even when you consider that Zechariah was involved in a way that Joseph was not.  But by doing it this way, and having the messiah born of a girl, Jesus is presented as the bringer of a new covenant.  John, born of an old-and-barren woman is presented as the last in the line of the old covenant.  Both conceptions are miracles of God since both covenants testify to God.  Mary is a new Hannah, and Elisabeth a new Sarah.

Luke goes further in his presentation of the new-born king, and this is something often missed in the retelling of the Christian stories of Christmas.  In fact, the gospel accounts are inflammatory, and each one challenges the legends of the day.  Are you aware of how much the Christmas stories in the three gospels in which they appear blatantly contradict and mock the stories told about the origins of Caesar Augustus?  The legendary conception of Octavian, as he was known before he became Emperor, also took place under the shadow of infanticide: in Octavian’s case the senate was fearful of the foretold, newborn king.  (Matthew speaks of a jealous Herod.)  Octavian was considered to have been of divine origin since he was the son of Apollo through the human mother Atia.   The way in which God overshadowed Mary is both like and unlike the Roman and Greek stories, since Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit but the human girl Mary, unlike Leda and Atia among other heroines, was not seduced and raped by her god.  Mary was not harmed, and whilst she did become pregnant she remained a virgin after conception.  Jesus, unlike Octavian, was conceived in love and peace, not violence and fear; Mary is a willing recipient of the angel’s grace and God’s activity.  The actual son of the chief god, (and Jews would say the only true God), who was born from a human woman, and born to bring divinely-attested peace to the world, is too close to the Empire’s propaganda to be allowed to exist.  Of course, this all comes later, the written down stories of Jesus’ birth do not come for another seventy years or so, but you can see how the story of Jesus is a threat to the story of Augustus and every Caesar who followed.  The actual presence of the God of the Jews, on earth as a man, just adds to this.

In Genesis 1:26 we read that humankind was made in the image and likeness of God, and St Augustine wrote in the fifth Christian century that humankind was made by God to be recipients of love.  If Jesus’ conception and birth is supernatural then it is only because it is very natural: it is in God’s nature that things take place like this.  We can call it miraculous, we can, but really, it’s just doing what God does the way God does it.  Baby Jesus was created in the image and likeness of God, much like baby everyone else was.  This is ordinary divinity: it’s manger faith.

And so, with all this talk of the miraculous I am lead to ponder two things.  Maybe these things haven’t occurred to you, maybe you’ll not think much of them after I’ve said them anyway and think them irrelevant, but for now let me plant a couple of seeds of manger faith.

Number One.  Back in the day there wasn’t the understanding of human biology that we have now; specifically, there was no understanding of the ovum.  There was also no understanding of the sperm, which are too small to see, but there was some understanding that the man put something in the woman during sexual activity and that thing made babies.  So, I ask you this: did the Holy Spirit fertilise one of Mary’s ova with a holy spermatozoon, or did God plant an entire zygote, a fertilised ovum in Mary?  Luke can’t tell us because he didn’t have that understanding of conception: God certainly did the man’s part in making the baby, but in a world which didn’t understand the woman’s contribution, other than as incubator, what happened?  Did Jesus come from Mary’s egg?

Number Two, and why number one matters.  Who, if anyone, did Jesus look like?  Even if we allow for Mary’s biological contribution, and that her ovum was used by God, did Jesus look like his mum?  And allowing that everyone knew in Bethlehem, as I’m sure they’d know just as easily in Morwell, that Mary was pregnant before Joseph had had his manly way with her, did Jesus look like Joseph?  Was there room for doubt that the baby asleep in Mary’s arms belonged also to the man in whose arms Mary rested?  Was Mary’s boychild the image and likeness of his father, both upper-case F and lower-case f father?  You can all see today, because he is here, that I look like my dad: did Jesus look like his?  Since my dad was more involved in my conception than Joseph was in Jesus’ conception that would be another act of manger faith.

I have no doubt that whoever Jesus looked like, he was the image of his father.  Fathers, plural, as I am the image of mine, both.  The faithfulness of God to the promise made to David, which came about by same means that God sealed God’s promise to Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elisabeth allows for God to be faithful to Mary that her son looked like her husband, and shame was averted.  The Christian story of Christmas is that even when God is doing mighty and divine stuff, like saving the world by sending the messiah into the world via the virgin fiancée of a direct descendent of King David, in Bethlehem, God can still be personal enough to make sure that there was at least a stable and that the baby looked like his daddy.  Our faithful God is more than dependable, our God is considerate and kind.

The message of Christmas, this year at least, is that each of us who was born to be loved by God, created in the image and likeness of our Father in Heaven should be faithful, considerate, and kind too.  The best way to share God at Christmas is to act like God at Christmas.

Amen.

Carna Saints! (All Saints’ Day A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 5th November 2017.

Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; Matthew 5:1-12

You know, all was once fine with me and the story beginning at Matthew 5:1, but after I attended theology college and studied the Synoptic Gospels (of which Matthew is the second), it almost makes me want to smirk.  Like you, I have heard more than one sermon on “The Sermon on the Mount”, and I have seen more than one film where this episode from Jesus’ life is shown in cinematic form.  You know how it rolls, the crowds gather, and Jesus stands atop a mountain declaring “Blessed art thou when…” and so forth.  Even Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” features a scene where “blessed are the cheesemakers” is proclaimed to the impatient multitudes.  But I ask you, how many people are recorded in Matthew’s gospel as having heard Jesus speak that day? Anyone?  C’mon, I know that Matthew does not give an exact number, but it is inferred from the verses immediately before this passage.  No?  Four.  Simon the brother of Andrew, Andrew, James, and John the brother of James, these are the disciples of Jesus as recorded by Matthew in 4:18-22Matthew 5:1-2 plainly and in NRSV English says that after Jesus saw the crowds he went up the mountain: and after he sat down his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak and taught them… In other words, having seen the crowds Jesus withdraws and sits with his disciples, and of disciples we know of only four so early in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Now I’m not here to change your theology, well not until I’ve been here a bit longer anyway, but it does make for an interesting idea.  Jesus takes his dearest followers, his disciples, in other words his student-slash-apprentices away from the crowd to begin their lessons where Jesus can speak freely, and he won’t be interrupted.

Is that significant?  Does it matter that there were only four men listening that day, or am I just being a smart-alec with my theology degree?  Well, it’s probably a bit of both but I hope it’s more about the first.  For me it is significant as we speak about the saints today that sometimes saints gather in small groups as well as large.  Sometimes, as in Revelation 7 the saints are the whole crowd; sometimes, as in Psalm 34 one saint is alone and isolated; and sometimes, as in Matthew 5 the saints are a small group called aside from the crowd.

From Revelation we read today of the great multitude gathered in Heaven at the end of days (we spoke of that last week).  They testify that salvation belongs to The LORD God enthroned, and to the Lamb.  Heaven’s company responds by falling face down in worship and crying blessing and honour, according God and the Lamb with everlasting power and might.  The one to whom this story is revealed is told that the multitude are the once living who have endured and come through: in other words, their testimony is the story of individual and corporate human lived experience.  These are the conquerors, the victorious martyrs, the undefiled witnesses (Revelation 7:14b).  Now they are home and safe, never again to be hungry or terrorised, and never again to weep.  The fact that this is a multitude can and should encourage us as a small congregation that we are not alone.  Like we prayed last week as a cluster for the ones and twos and tens of the persecuted church, so we can be encouraged even as a handful in the Latrobe Valley that we are not alone either.  We are the heritage and current expression of two millennia, seven continents, and billions of lives of tradition and praise.  Where, according to the commentator I read this week the church in John’s day represented 1 in 625 people in the Roman world, today we are 1 in 3 people in the whole planet.  And as Revelation 7:9 assures, the diversity of the Church is our strength.

The solitary singer of today’s selected Psalm declares boldly that The LORD is worthy of praise because The LORD is the one who saved the distressed one when he cried out for salvation.  The LORD protects and surrounds, and we can rejoice that it is so and feel safe and held in God’s love and protection.  Live into the experience of God, it is all good under God’s hood. Taste and see is a double invitation and an example of God meeting with us as multiple intelligences. (The LORD can be learned of in various ways).    No one will be permanently lost, and no one will be left totally and permanently harmed.  Psalm 34 speaks about God, but it is addressed to the people hearing it; it is not addressed to God (although we can assume that God is earwigging in on the worship). So, unlike what was read to us from Revelation 7 the section of Psalm 34 set for us today is a testimony of praise and thanksgiving for deliverance, and an invitation to join.  This is the testimony of a man who is living in a dark space yet is trusting that God will deliver him.  This is the testimony of a man speaking to the shadows around him, “I am not afraid” he says, “because The LORD is faithful and mighty to save”.  This Psalm for the alone, the “poor one” (Psalm 34:6) speaks encouragement and understanding to any who are alone and bereft and needing assurance.  Again, that scripture records and the lectionary demands that we read the song of one man on the run should encourage us that we are not alone.  Like the persecuted ones we can be encouraged that we are not unaided or forgotten even when we are isolated because God knows us each.

Blessed, “happy and to be envied” as one commentator put it, is the true disciple who displays all eight of the characteristics listen in Matthew 5:3-12.  This list does not refer to eight different types of people who will be blessed, no, like the fruit of the spirit (which is one fruit with eight characteristics) this short list is to be the biography of every saint.

  • Jesus says that when you recognise your need and turn it towards dependence upon God you will be granted all of this and more. Rely on God for provision and you shall lack no good thing, in other words.  Does this verse refer only to some people in the Church?  No, it is a promise for everyone, even if it is not the primary promise for every time.  All Christians, all disciples, are supposed to rely on God and to bring our needs to God.
  • When a woman or man of faith laments the state of the world she or he will be assured by God that the end is not “the end”. As we heard from Ecclesiastes 3 last month, everything has a season and mourning will give way to rejoicing over the new thing, and the promise that God’s goodness is everlasting.
  • Disciples of today, like Joshua and Caleb of old, who are trustingly humble and submitted to God, but not submissive in the face of hardship, will inhabit the promises of God. All are called to persevere, and all who call on the name of The LORD will be saved.
  • Those whose lives are lived fully conformed to the will of God will receive God’s filling response. Is there any Christian woman or man whose life is not required to be lived fully conformed to the will of God?  Again no, so this is an expectation and a promise for everyone in the Church.
  • Those who are gentle and patient, empathising and quick to render comfort to others will receive the same from God.
  • Those who are single-minded in their loyalty towards God will see God, the subject of their desire.
  • Those who work for friendship in the world will be recognised as having the nature of God and will be beacons of God’s own character.
  • And those who persevere with these characteristics even though the world is against them will be welcomed by the God whom they championed. Jesus said that if the world takes issue with you then you’re probably on the right track as that is what happened to the true prophets of ages past.  Today we might add that that is what happened to the Lord Jesus too, so why should we expect any different.

And to set your minds somewhat at rest, it does say in Matthew 7:28 that when Jesus had finished saying these things the crowds were astonished at his teaching, so yes, Jesus probably did speak to more than four men.  Or, he spoke directly to four men, but he was overheard by the multitude.

And so, as we move toward the prayer life of the church and into communion this morning what have we heard that is relevant to All Saints Day and to all of you, saints of today?  God is with you whether you are one of the majority, one of the minority, or alone and isolated.  God desires that your character and life reflect the character and life of Jesus, and of Godself the compassionate and merciful one who is everlasting and entirely faithful.  Perfection is not expected, only God is perfect, and even the saints of old and the ones whose names appear on special days or coloured glass had their downtimes.  But where God is faithful the saints of God will be upheld, and the story of the welcome of Heaven extended to us and through us will be proclaimed in all the world.

Let the world be on notice: the saints are coming.

Amen.