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.



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.


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.


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.



This is the text of the message I prepared for Narracan Uniting Church for Sunday 1st October 2017.

Matthew 21:23-27

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this episode where the question of Jesus’ authority to teach was raised with him in the temple.  The Pharisees ask who has authorised the message of Jesus.  After all they are the recognised religious and legal leaders and scholars, so in part it is a question of patronage and in part it is a question of academic integrity.  “Whose model of teaching are you following”, they ask, “we don’t know of any substantial scholarship which supports your interpretation of the scriptures and the religious laws/lore”.  In more straightforward language they ask Jesus “who told you that you could preach, and who told you to preach what you are preaching”.

Jesus answered their question with another question.  Since Jesus seemed to do this a lot you’d think they’d have seen it coming.  “You tell me first,” Jesus says, “who told John the Baptiser that he may preach, and who instructed him to preach the message which he preached?”  It is the same question – but it is a loaded question since John was held in high regard by the crowds.  The Pharisees see the trap and deftly step out of it: “um, dunno” they say.  It probably sounds better in Hebrew, but basically they shrug their shoulders at Jesus.  Jesus shrugs back and says, “well if you ‘dunno’, then I’m not the one to tell you.”

The question of authority is an important one when something new is taking place.  This is in part the case for me as the new Ministry Supply Agent in Yallourn Parish, but the answer to the question of my authority is straightforward.  I have been asked to speak by the Parish in conjunction with the Presbytery, and the content of my sermons is the good news of Jesus Christ as the Uniting Church in Australia understands it.  I have no authority to go it alone, or to make stuff up.

A few years ago, I worked in a prison.  Ordinarily I tell people in a new town that “I spent two years in an English prison”, but I’ll make it quite clear to you from the start, since you are the first people I have told in Morwell-Yallourn Cluster and I don’t want any misheard news going out.  I was in prison, and it was in England, but I was there as an employee of HM Prison Service and I went home every night.  (That was unless I was on night duty, in which case I went home in the morning.)  I carried authority in the prison, even though I was on the bottom rung of the ranks of uniformed women and men, and my authority was indicated by two things.  Can you guess what they were?

  1. I wore the Queen’s uniform, which was plain black and white and it had a “crown” logo on it in various places.
  2. I carried keys.

Most people in England’s prisons are not allowed to carry keys inside the prison.  Some people in prisons in England are not allowed to wear plain black and white clothes.  So, the fact that I was allowed, indeed instructed, to do both was a sign of my authority.

Like my authority in this pulpit, my authority in prison was delegated to me.  Ultimately, I was a representative of HM The Queen, via the Governor of the Prison, the Duty Governor (V-2), the Duty Principal Officer (O-1) and the Duty Officer in the Gatehouse.  If I asked a prisoner, any visitor, or indeed any civilian employee of the prison to do something and they wished to question who I was to say what I said the answer was obvious: I am wearing the Queen’s uniform and I am carrying keys.  You go (or don’t go) where I tell you, and you go (or don’t go) when I tell you.  I remember one episode where a builder brought his truck in to do some maintenance work in the prison and I was his escort.  Once he had parked he gave me the keys from the ignition, which was protocol.  When we went to leave we discovered that his truck had become bogged.  After a short period of failed extraction, he said to me, “I have another appointment so I’ll need you to give me back my keys and let me out of the yard to walk back.”  I told him, politely yet firmly, that he was going nowhere an escort, and that I was going nowhere without that truck.  (You don’t just leave motor vehicles abandoned inside a prison, mate.)  In the end, he had to wait until a tractor was brought in to tow him out of the bog, and then for me to accompany the truck back to the gate.

Jesus spoke the Father’s message with the Father’s authority.  I think Jesus was pointing to John the Baptiser having done the same.  Like the driver of that truck in the prison the Pharisees might have wanted to question Jesus’ right to express authority, and the form of the authority he expressed, but ultimately Jesus was a servant of God even as I was an officer of the Queen.  With that in mind, that Jesus was authorised by God to speak and to speak what he spoke, let us always pay attention to the one whom John (1:1) calls the Word of God.


Amongst your eyes

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 1st October 2017.  Immediately after this service I drove to and then preached at Narracan Uniting Church in the (neighbouring) Yallourn Parish.

Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13

Sheesh, this is getting to be a habit.  Once again, we find Moses having to deal with the quarrelsome people of Israel; only this time they need water.  God has already got them out of Egypt, leaving dead Egyptian sons behind.  Then God got them across the sea, leaving dead Egyptian soldiers behind.  Then God fed them manna and quail every day, except the Sabbath, leaving no dead anybody behind.  Now Moses is asked to provide water, as if the tears of one and a half million sooky Israelites aren’t provision enough.  I mean, what’s a prophet gotta do to get some respect around here? Mary Pearson wrote in this week’s “With Love To The World” that the problem seems to be that Israel believes that Moses is their saviour, not God.  If Moses is a man like them, even if in several remarkable ways he is not a man like them, but still, then Moses needs reminding of his job as leader.  In today’s story, we read how the Israelites very helpfully point out to Moses that they are in a desert and there isn’t any water where they’ve made camp.  In response Moses names the place “test” (Massah) and “quarrel” (Meribah) because the people asked whether the LORD was among them or not.  In other words, this is the location, to be known for all of time, where the quarrelsome people put God to the test.

When in later times the editors of Exodus named the place “Rephidim”, which means both “refresh” and “support”, they believed that God was indeed among the people, and that the one among the people was The LORD I am encouraged by the thought that there were editors in later times because it means that the story had kept on being told.  In Psalm 78, as has been the case in Psalm 105 which was read last week and on two of the Sundays in August, the story of God’s provision and companionship with Israel in the hard days of the wilderness is reminded to the people.  God The LORD is the true leader of Israel and God always displays goodness in doing that leading.

Paul writes to the church in Philippi from gaol.  There isn’t agreement among scholars where Paul was imprisoned at the time, but all agree that he was in gaol somewhere.  He is concerned by the news of infighting in the congregation around two sources.  One is the potentially divisive message of several visiting leaders who were not proclaiming the gospel as it was understood by Paul but were instead preaching their own opinions and agenda.  Paul is also concerned by disputes within the congregation and the cliques being formed around two vocal women.  So, with that background we read today’s call to unity beneath the leadership of Christ, Christ the humblest man and Christ the LORD Godself, with added insight.  With many different opinions going around and many little groups forming, look at what Paul says about his desire for the church.

  1. Show unity through setting your mind on the same thing.
  2. Act out of humility and obedience.
  3. Hold the needs and interests of others in high regard.

And why does Paul say that’s the best way?  Because according to Philippians 2:5 that’s the Jesus way.

Jesus always had the purpose of God foremost in his mind: Jesus and the Father were united in this way.  Jesus did not have to prove himself, indeed he actually shrugged the Godness from his being so that he could preach more effectively: this is both the nature and the will of God.  There was nothing grandiose about Jesus, nothing about him was inflated because almost everything about him was hidden; he knew that people needed God to be accessible if they were going to be saved and so he made himself as friendly and approachable as possible.  Jesus could have come as the cloud of fire seen over Sinai, or as the Lord of Eternity riding across the clouds on a white stallion, but his work was better suited to the one in dusty sandals in small villages.  That’s how you’re supposed to be, says Paul.

This passage is a well-known one, and as such it has had many interpreters and scholars pay very close attention to it.  I am not interested today as to whether this scripture points to trinitarian ideas about God; I don’t think Paul was trying to make that point anyway.  I certainly don’t think the way to read this is “if you are humble like Christ then you will be exalted like Christ” because that goes against what Paul is saying.  What I read today is that the most effective way for Christians inside a local church to behave is for each person to show the humility of Christ toward one another, and the unity of Christ and the Father in all that they say and do as Christians together.  We are reminded in Philippians 2:13 that God is at work; that work is not only taking place amongst us but within us.

The Lord is amongst us, but the Lord is here quietly and patiently, feeding and guiding us in the every day.  There is no need to complain, God knows what you need and God is already there to provide it for you.  As God waited for Moses and the elders at Horeb so God waits for us to obey the command to come and see: and when we come then we do see.


Crossing The Sea, Seeing The Cross

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Morwell-Yallourn Cluster service at Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 17th September 2017.  It was my first service with this people and was also a communion service.

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

I wonder, have you ever crossed a sea?  These days most sea crossings are done by air rather than ship, and unless you are in the company of Moses (or you are Jesus) seas are never crossed on foot.  In our day sea crossings are not uncommon.

ore important to today’s theme; to those of you who have crossed a sea I ask did you cross that sea under God’s protection and with God’s guidance?

I have crossed many seas.  Some of them had the word “sea” in their title, while others were named “ocean”, “strait”, “passage” or “channel”.  Whether by ferry or ocean liner, light or heavy aircraft, every crossing of sea which I have made has been done with my feet entirely dry.  I hope your experience has been similar.

On every occasion God has protected me, and I have survived every crossing unscathed, undrowned, and unconcerned by the water.  Some of the events of my life on the other side of the sea have not been the best, but the crossings themselves have always been successful, with allowances made for airline food poisoning and the occasional rough-sea puke.

When Moses followed God’s direction and lead the Israelites into, across, and out of the Red Sea he was in no doubt that God was at work.  The great pillar of cloud and fire which had gone before the massed migration moved to the back of the group, and the angel leading the Israelite army moved to a rear-guard position as the people of Jacob neared the coast.  At God’s command and by the agency of Moses’ prophetic action the sea formed a wall on the right and left, leaving a great channel of dry land between these two massive walls.  We are told by the writers of Exodus 14 that the good guys walked across the gulf on dry land, but that the chariots of the bad guys got bogged.  We are told that once every Israelite was safely across, and after Moses stretched out his hand, the Egyptians were drowned in the returning sea.  Every Egyptian died, every Israelite was saved.  The moral of the story in perpetuity is that Israel at once saw what the Lord had done and they were awestruck and began to trust God; so therefore, should we who read this story from within the traditions which worship the LORD.

This story can cause concern in the modern day.  Back when it was written the vindication of the victims of slavery and maltreatment by the God faithful to the generational promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph made perfect sense.  God saved lowly “us” from horrible “them”, and that “they” got what was coming in the drowning thing is only what “they” deserved.  Today we might show more compassion, even when we think of the Al-Qaeda or the ISIS or the Boko Haram terrorists in our world.  The books of Moses do not address this issue; the issue at hand for the Israelites between the first day of Adam and the last day of Moses is the story of God’s deliverance of Israel by whatever means are necessary.

As our call to worship this morning I read to you from Psalm 114 and the song of worship directed to the God who secured the release of the house of Jacob from a people of strange language as verse Psalm 114:1 puts it.  God made these people God’s own, so again the focus is on the saving power of The LORD, the faithful covenant partner of the patriarchs rather than the destructive power of the vindicator of God’s people.   Such a God, the God of us, is so awe-inspiring, so awesome, that nature fled before the Israelites because The LORD was with them.  This passage speaks as if the presence of God was enough for the Red Sea to withdraw in terror at the mere presence of the Chosen People, let alone the prophetic action of Moses raising his staff.  No wonder Jesus says in the gospels that those who believe in the Word Incarnate can order mountains to move – the mountains are terrified of us and will not disobey us because of the One with whom we walk.  No wonder Jesus says that the rocks and stones will cry out if the children of God are silenced – the glory of the presence of God is so obvious in the world.  Rock turns to water, strength turns to floods of tears (and maybe even wet undies), at the sight of The LORD and the ones The LORD secures in divine covenant.  Such is the effect upon creation of observing the presence of God among the people of God when the people are present in one locality.

Such power.  Such awesome majesty.  Such response to the presence of the people of God, the people amongst whom God is present.  I don’t know about you, but to me this speaks of the esteem in which I can hold myself as a man of God and a son of God.  I am truly the pinnacle of creation when even seas will shrink and rocks will wet themselves when I come close in the power of God.

But, lest we get too ahead of ourselves as masters and mistresses of this planet where God alone is Master of the Universe, we are met by Paul and his commentary along the theme of great power and great responsibility.

It is not the task of the Christian Church, nor any Christian woman or man within it, to stomp around terrifying Creation.  Rather we are told explicitly in scripture and by the arguably first great human teacher of the Christian tradition that as a local church we are to welcome the weak to encourage them. (In your own time, you might like to compare Romans 14:1 with Psalm 114:3-7 and consider what God might be saying about our authority.)  Welcome everyone to the household of God as if he or she were a member of God’s own family, and do not quarrel over peripheral matters.  We are called to be in the world but not of it, living amidst the world but with our identity in the One who calls us to faith: yet often we live as if we are of the world not in it.  How often it seems that Christians engage very nastily over things which are entirely irrelevant to the interests of the world.  Who are you to pass judgement on the servants of another, [since] it is before their own lord that they stand or fall asks Paul in Romans 14:4-5.  Paul asserts that the ones we might put down will be upheld by their master, the one who pushed back the sea and makes water come from rock.  For all that glorious assurance I have just spoken of, of how God protects God’s own, do you want to be on the side of the Egyptians or the Assyrians? Paul suggests that if you take a sister or brother to task over trifling things you may well find yourself there.  Each woman or man of faith must act according to her or his revelation and conscience, serving God fully and passionately as God is revealed to her or him.   Each must live and die, feast or fast, to the Lord’s desire and the Lord’s glory.  Each of us is accountable to God, for as the Lord has said every knee shall bow before God and every tongue shall confess God notes Paul in Romans 14:11-12, quoting God’s own words from Isaiah (45:23b).  Instead of becoming nasty over trivialities let us set aside all “speaking the truth in love” and instead encourage one another in ever more evident acts and speech of Christlikeness.

But should we really give up “speaking the truth in love”?  If the lord of our weaker siblings is also our lord, shouldn’t their conscience match ours?  Isn’t it the same revelation, and if so then we can be assured that they are in the wrong because we are in the right.  Paul would ask why that is your primary concern.  If they are wrong, but in the church, then leave it to The LORD.  Think of Matthew 18:33 and the mercy shown but not passed on.  What has God not held against you that you are holding against your sister?  What great thing has God redeemed you from, yet you feel entitled to belittle your brother over something inconsequential?

Maybe the journey of faithful Christianity is not so much about crossing the sea as it is about seeing the cross.  Perhaps the glories of the Red Sea and the other miracles we have witnessed in the presence of the LORD have blinded us, as grace had blinded the unmerciful servant, to the LORD who is the director of all things.  Let us not fall into the error of thinking of ourselves as anything more than servants of the one who has called us to Godself, even as we steer clear of the error of forgetting that we are called, chosen and seen as precious by God.