Sacred Secret Space

This is the text of the message I prepared for Sunday 23rd July 2017.

Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24.

Our brief journey through Genesis has brought us, this morning, to the place where God repeats to Jacob the promise made to Abraham.  God speaks in Jacob’s sleep and Jacob awakes in awe of the place: he names it Bethel or beit-El which means the house of God in recognition that he has stumbled across consecrated ground.  Jacob is wonderfully aware that he is in the place of “Secret God Business”, whose secret is now shared with the descendants of Abraham.  The stone pillar he erects and anoints is the rock he had used for a pillow, connecting the real presence of God with the physical geology of the place on earth.  So, the point is not primarily the promise, real and secure as that promise is, but that God repeats it to another generation.  God continues to speak; the message of God is not a once-only revelation which then belongs to the prophets to repeat.

The story from Bethel tells us that there are places where God speaks to us, and speaks with us, as women and men.  I think it’s important that we find and remember those places.  As Christians of this expression of Uniting Church, noting the vibe of the room in front of me, we believe that God can and does speak with us anywhere. But the story of Bethel, among others in the scriptures (such as the stories of Sinai) says that there are places where God desires to be found and where our movement toward that place prepares us to listen and respond to what we have heard.

And so, I ask you, where do you hear God?  Where has God spoken to you before?  Where is your Bethel?  Do you even have one?  This may be geographical (the prayer chair in the bedroom) or metaphorical (wherever I am at rest).  It might have been a one-off place in time and location (that worship service in Rosny on 10th September 1996), or it might be a repeated location.  In Genesis God often speaks “in dreams”; we see this here but we also see revelation-by-dream in Genesis 20:3, and Genesis 31:10-11, 24.  What is important to know about Bethel is that it is at the frontier of Canaanite territory.  God is speaking to Jacob as he is on the edge of leaving the land given to Abraham, the border of what has been promised as home.  Does God speak with you at the edges?  Perhaps if we want to hear God, or we want God to hear us, we might need to go to the edges.

Jacob is about to depart Canaan in search of a suitable wife, travelling back to Haran as the servant of Abraham had done to find a wife for Isaac.  God meets with Jacob and promises him that he will indeed return to the land promised by God to Abraham.  Since the promise was to Abraham for his descendants God reminds Jacob that the promise is for him too.  As the favoured son of Isaac, the favoured son of Abraham, the promise of a homeland and of nations and generations like the stars in their number for the blessing of the whole world is for Jacob.

What has God promised you?  Do you know?  Do you remember?  Has there ever been a promise just for you?  As Christians, we all have the promises of God in Christ, promises Jesus made to the Church or that God made through the Holy Spirit revealed in scripture.  I do not believe that the Church has been promised what Abraham was promised, which is to say land, many descendants, and the means to be a blessing to the world, although there are modifications of that if you follow the train of thought that the Church is the new Chosen people.  Blessed to be a blessing is certainly true of the Church, whereas an eternal homeland in Palestine, centred on Jerusalem, is not.  Christianity is not a land-based religion in that way: there is no Aliyah for us, the Jewish call for home, and we have no Mecca or Amritsar.  But, to get back on track, what has God promised you, personally?  Would anyone care to name such a promise?

God promised me one time at the edge, when I was homeless and sleeping in a shelter, that I’d never be without a roof; and specifically, that I’d never have to sleep in the two-storey carpark across the road from the shelter.  God reminded me many times, at the edge, that this was God’s promise.  And so far God has proven faithful to God’s word.  I am confident that God will always prove faithful to this promise.

In Psalm 139 we read what is many people’s favourite psalm.  It’s not my favourite, although it used to be, and it’s not my favourite only because another psalm has supplanted 139 in my heart as the deepest promise of God to me.  But if it’s your favourite then good for you, it’s a gem.

Tradition accords this psalm to the pen of David, and the NRSV has my partial approval in subtitling this poem “The Inescapable God”.   God is inescapable, not that God is unable to escape us, but that we are unable to escape God.  We cannot escape the inescapable one.  Why can’t we escape, well because as the very first words of this poem say, God has searched and has known you who has come to worship.  “I cannot outrun you,” says David, “you’ve got me and you always have had.  You know every movement of every sinew in my body, and every firing of every synapse in my brain.”  Such a God cannot be escaped.

“You search out the way for me,” David goes on to say.  God goes ahead like a scout and then comes beside as a trail guide to set the best path for where you or I walk next.   This verse, Psalm 139:3, is why I’m not enamoured of theologies which speak of Jesus occupying the driver’s seat of someone’s life.  Yes, in the “Footprints in the Sand” moments of life we may need a taxi or ambulance, and then it’s all “Jesus Take The Wheel” for me.  But for the most part I suggest that Jesus wants us to do our own driving while he sits in the other front seat as map-reader, course-plotter, navigator and companion.  Jesus is not a sat-nav, a disembodied voice from the dashboard; neither is he a front-seat passenger, passive as you drive.  No, this verse suggests that Jesus is more like the co-driver in a rally car, one who has travelled the road before and who knows where the tricky corners are, which way they curve, and whether there is sloppy mud or oil or ice or cow muck on the racing line.  Jesus is the one yelling out pace-notes above the roar of the engine as you throttle through those brief stages of life where you must travel with your foot to the floor, trusting him to tell you what to do in the next three bends.  Even in a championship rally, let alone a local car trial, not all the road is competitive: there are cruising stages where you and the navigator sit back a bit and drive to the next timed stage.  This is where Jesus sits with you just being and chatting and enjoying the road, and Psalm 139:4 speaks of this moment in the intimacy and trust that you and Jesus have in each other – he knows what you’re about to say, not because he is God omniscient but because he is your partner and he knows you.  To extend the metaphor, Jesus as co-driver has placed his life in your hands, he trusts you to keep him safely on the road and not to lose the car he is hurtling along in (with his head down to read the pace-notes) into the adjacent gullies, hillsides, and crowds of spectators.  It’s no wonder he is intimately acquainted with your thoughts and actions, he has needs to know you enough to trust you with his life.

That’s certainly not the metaphor David was thinking of, that God needs to know you intimately enough to have life-risking faith in you, but it works for me.  It works for me because the idea of Jesus as navigator rather than driver was revealed to me in my Bethel.  It works for me because if God in Christ is prepared to go to that extent to survey me, to ask about me, to check my references and my CV, and to look up my criminal record for selecting me for a relationship then I trust the news that God is interested in me and wants to know me.  If God knows everything about me and still wants to love me, well that’s amazing, but that’s the story of grace.  While I always celebrate the fullness of the gospel message to a hurting, waiting world, including me, I’ve heard that story before.  But that God would go to all that effort to find out about me, not just from God’s omniscience, but from God’s pursuit of me and God’s work to woo me just for the purposes of love, well that’s different.  Remember from Psalm 139:1 that David specifically says that he was searched and loved, not merely known about and acknowledged.  God is active in chasing you just so you can know how much God loves you.

God knows you.  God made you and so God knows how you were made and the bits used to make you.  We could go on to read that in the paragraph of Psalm 139:13-18.  God is eternal and without limit and for that reason it is not possible to be where God is not, and we have read that in the paragraph of Psalm 139:7-12.  But, again, even as wonderful as that message is, hear it with the insight that this loftiness and majesty of God is active, and is actively attending to you for love and to uphold you.

God chose Abraham and no one else, but God still loved the world.  Then God chose Isaac and not Ishmael, even as God loved and protected Ishmael.  Then God chose Jacob and not Esau, even as God loved and protected Esau (and saw him married to Ishmael’s daughter).  And from Jacob, eventually, comes the Jewish people and the story we continue to read of God blessing one group so that they can bring that blessing to the whole world.

God has also chosen you.  Don’t worry, God has chosen me as well, it’s not all up to you as it was all up to the Patriarchs.  But as God promised to be their God in the hope that they would be God’s people the same promise is made to us.  God promises love for you, guidance for you, protection for you, supervision for you, rescue for you, and peace for you.  Do you know that?  Do you know that because I have told you that, or others before me from behind this and other lecterns?  Do you know that because the Bible, or Joyce Meyer, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer told you that in print?

Can I invite you to say yes to those, but can I also invite you to develop and inhabit your own Bethel?  Can I encourage you to find a space, place, and time, to be where God is and to watch and learn as God goes about the work of grace right in front of you?  Find a chair, or a wardrobe.  Find a minute or twenty.  Fall asleep and dream if that works for you, (it often does for me).  Whatever you do, find God where God is and listen and ask about the promise made to you for your life.  Not just for salvation from sin, not just for Heaven when you die, not just for the promises made in Christ to the whole Church (although those too, those too).  But listen and ask for God’s personal, timely promise for you.  And then, in the confidence that the God who knows you in the Psalm 139 way is also with you in the fresh promise of today, go out and change the world.

Amen.

Blink And You’ll Miss It.

This is the message I prepared for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday 9th July 2017, for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church

Genesis 24:40; Song 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I don’t know about you, but I often find when I’m reading my Bible that a verse jumps out from nowhere and has the potential to send me off on a tangent.  I don’t think that this is necessarily a terrible thing, but it can distract me from what the intended purpose of the passage, or indeed the Bible Study, might have been.  In the reading set for today from Genesis 24 we are presented with quite a detailed story of how the servant of Abraham goes back to Abraham’s people in Sumer to find a wife for Isaac.  Abraham does not want his son marrying a Canaanite woman, an indigenous woman of the promised land, rather he seeks a bride from his own people.  During his setting his servant on his way, and assuring the servant that he will be successful in his task, Abraham speaks in Genesis 24:40 of his confidence in the LORD before whom I walk.  That is such a verse for me, and such a lovely phrase, Abraham doesn’t say “God” or “the Lord”, but speaks of a relationship with the One who gives him assurance.  Abraham knows God, daily and holistically.  There is nothing about Abraham that is hidden from God, and nothing about God that Abraham needs to know that is hidden from Abraham.

And then suddenly there we are, or at least there I am.  Rebekah and the whole story of her watering the camels of the servant, her agreeing on the spot to leave her family forever and travel thousands of miles to meet and then marry a stranger, is all forgotten.  The point of the story, indicated by the lectionary’s choice of Psalm, is not a wedding within the genealogy of the Jewish people, for Rebekah will become the mother of Esau and Jacob.  No, the point of the story is that Abraham walks before God, and that that intimacy is the source of all his strength as a patriarch.

A similar thing happened to me when I read the gospel for this week, although this time I saw it coming.  In Matthew 11 Jesus declares the generations of his day to be unaware of the time in which they live, and to be full of contradictions.  Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds says Jesus in Matthew 11:19, some early manuscripts say by her children.  Jesus makes his point, which is to be aware of what is going on around you, and then he prays thanksgiving to the Father that God has made the truth about the world readily seen by children but not by adults.

Blink and you’ll miss it.  One verse can jump out and grab you, regardless of the narrative, and you can learn from what God alone shows you from the written word if you are open and inquisitive.  Be aware, be mindful, of God’s active presence.

What is it about children that Jesus commends them as a model of understanding?  The parents and teachers amongst us know that children are inquisitive, trusting, hope-filled, straightforward, easy to laugh (or cry), sympathetic and compassionate beings.  Children can be vulnerable and so need caring for.  Jesus might be telling us that revelation is given to such as these, the precious and trusting ones who stay close to the Father as little kids stay close to daddy.  Except that children in Jesus’ day were not the cherished little cherubs of the late Victorian era and into our century: they were perceived by adults to be outsiders to the adult world, and therefore an issue.  Children break easily, so there’s always the danger of a parent’s being bereaved or otherwise inconvenienced.  Children are disruptive, noisy, inappropriate, clumsy, disobedient, cheeky, foolish, and simple-minded in a bad way.  Yet, Jesus says that God reveals the truth to these half-sized terrors, and leaves the civilised, mature, hardworking adults without revelation.

D’uh!  That’s not what we want to know!  Jesus isn’t talking about God favouring the little cuddle-monsters with their wide-eyed delight at whatever mummy says or does.  Jesus says that when showing God’s true nature and revealing the deepest knowledge God overlooks people like you and me, leaving us in the dark, and reveals it all to the boof-heads with ADHD.  So, when Jesus says of himself in Matthew 11:27 that no one knows the Son except the Father, and that only God knows the fullest and most intimate stories of the Son, and that no one knows the Father except the Son, (same deal), and those to whom the Son reveals the Father, what he’s saying is that Jesus’ preferred audience for this revelation is the noisy and disruptive.

Why, on earth, would that be the case?

Jesus answers this question, let’s read on.  Those who come to the Son in need of the Father will lay down their burdens.  They will be yoked to Christ, so he will help in carrying the necessary burdens as the two, Christ and the disciple, push together on the yoke.

So, it is not untrue, neither is it unbiblical, that those who come to God in simplicity, innocence and trust will receive favour and wisdom.  Those who come with a childlike faith will be rewarded by grace with love and the intimate secrets of God.  Abraham walked before God and God blessed Abraham mightily; that is still true.

But better yet, the disruptive, breakable, always in your face and under your feet, the making too much noise and mess ones, the ones who need God, are especially included by God in the wisdom of God.  Wisdom is a chaser, as well as the object of the chase.

Song 2:8-13, as with much of the Song of Songs, is a parable about the chase of Wisdom.  Wisdom is the woman in the story, the beloved; the lover is the pursuer of wisdom, the young scholar.  The romance then is not between two people, but between the scholar and the scholarship, the student and the study, the disciple and the discipline, the talmid and the Talmud.  But with that studious focus look at the words of this poem.  The student is playing peek-a-boo with the object of his studies, the personification of wisdom.  This is no dry academic exercise of a bored man surrounded by mouldy and dusty books, it’s a dance in the meadow at spring.  Show even the slightest interest in God and God will hunt you down like a lover desperate for his beloved, and God will hunger for you like that beloved awaiting her lover’s shadow at the door.  Heady stuff.

But this ancient song does not mean that coming to faith is not arduous.  It can be light and life, an easy yoke, and a personal relationship with the One before whom we walk who hungers after us, but it is not necessarily like that.  As a student, I always liked the metaphorical language of “wrestling with the text”, and since my first degree was in Sociolinguistics I enjoy doing this.  Look at Paul’s struggle with discipleship in Romans 7:15-25.

Sin is an ongoing challenge for Paul, much like those noisy children in the marketplace of Jesus.  I try to do good, says Paul, but I keep tripping over my past.  I try to avoid the evil I once practiced, says Paul, but I keep tripping over the way of the world and being snagged by the temptations which abound in everyday life.  Paul was a scholar, a scholar of scholars in face and had been discipled by one of the greatest rabbis of his day, Gamaliel.  Paul was a Pharisee, these days we’d call him a Conservative Evangelical, so he knew his scriptures and he knew the best interpretations of them to inform a God-honouring life.  He had wrestled with the text, and probably enjoyed himself in that, but the message of the text had left him burdened.  And even when he did adopt the yoke of Christ, and stepped out from underneath the crippling demands of the Fundamentalist view of Law, he still found himself falling short of what God had released him in to.  From his divided self, Paul cries out that Jesus should be glorified because that is the truth which surpasses the lies and duplicity of his experience.

In Abraham, we hear a man about whom God knows everything, and who knows all that he needs to know about God to walk with God in friendship.  Paul is not a friend of God in the way that Abraham was, but as a scholar and a faithful practitioner of the rituals he too knows that God knows him, and Paul knows that what he knows of God is enough to keep him walking the path of discipleship.  Both men fell over on that walk, but both me got up every time and kept walking with God.  From Jesus, we hear that this is the way of God, not that we must fall over, but that it is okay when we do because God is patient and loving and will pick us up like a lover or wait for us while we pick ourselves up like a daddy teaching his child to be independent of his carrying arms.  God is revealed to be like Jesus is, and we read that Jesus was a good bloke who people liked spending time with and who did not fly off the handle when mistakes were made.

The story of the tangent, of that one verse that can grab you even in the middle of a love story told over thousands of miles, is that God’s love evident in God’s desire to share all that God is and all that God has is true for the deepest of deep disciples, and for the rattiest of noisy ratbags in the world.  I don’t need to ask which one is you, because it doesn’t matter.

Come, says the Lord, I will tell you marvellous things, and I will give you rest.

Amen.

 

Just If I’d…By Faith (Romans 5:1-8)

A Prayer of Confession

 O Lord, how we love a good boast!

As Christians, we love how our boasting brings you glory!!

We suffer with patience,

and are patient in our endurance.

Our hope is that our character

will prove this intolerable suffering

was worthwhile.

 

We are proud of our scars Lord,

the evidence of trials unseen,

(but oh, let me testify to how brave

I was…umm…of course for Jesus’ sake.  Of course.)

 

Thank you for your endurance, Lord.

For the ways in which you were patient

as we noisily endured,

racking up our Frequent Martyr Points.

 

Thank you for peace with God,

made obvious to us by the work of Jesus Christ

in revealing God’s truest nature as love beyond dimension.

 

Thank you that while we were sinners,

that God died for us,

thinking only of us,

and that the words of Christ from the cross

were of pity for us and not for himself.

 

Thank you for the assurance,

that you’d do it again if it were necessary,

which it isn’t,

but you’d never know from all the

pious whining.

Amen.

Through Matthew (Matthew 9:35-38)

Father, through Matthew you tell us that

Jesus went out:

teaching and preaching,

healing and raising,

revealing and praising.

And then he went to the next town and did the same again.

 

Father, through Matthew you tell us that

Jesus had compassion.

Enduing the crowds

and curing the crowded.

Shepherding the lost

and gathering the blest.

 

Father, through Matthew you tell us that

Jesus needs assistance.

Here we are: send us.

 

Amen.

In the Shadows

This is the text of my minister’s message for the June 2017 newssheet at Lakes Parish Uniting Church.

Several weeks ago, I became part of a conversation on the topic of “getting over” trauma.  The man with whom I was speaking has had a rough life, rougher at some points in his life than others, and he has a few memories that he is struggling to move past.  My life’s story is similar, not that I have experienced what this man has experienced, but that I have memories which needed healing, and troubling relationships with organisations and people in my past which proved difficult to move beyond.

In Psalm 23:4 David writes of the truest source of security in his life, a steadfast knowledge which gives him the confidence to walk through the darkest valley without fear of evil: the confidence that the LORD is with him and that the LORD carries all that is needed to keep David safe.  In Psalm 27:13-14 David declares his steadfast belief that he will see the LORD’s goodness while he lives, if only he takes heart in the wisdom that the LORD will come through for him.  David is not expecting vindication of his faith after his death, as if Heaven is the answer and reward to all of life’s problems.  That might be true, but for David the sure promise of God is that David will not die until David has seen God act for David’s benefit and God’s own Glory.

Experience has taught me, and then my studies in theology have supported this understanding, that God does not expect or require us to “get over” anything.  If the life and songs of David tells us anything it is that God takes the faithful woman or man “through”, not “over”.  We are to walk through the valleys of shadows, we are to continue through life with patient confidence, and we are to do so in the company of the shepherd who walks beside us or sometimes a step ahead of us with his crook and staff.

I have a book mark which reads “Patience is not to sit with folded hands but to learn to do as we are told.” There was a time in my life when what I was told was to sit and wait for God, and I obeyed and sat.  But much of the time the call to trust and obey requires that we continue moving forward, even when it is dark and even when the shadows creep towards us.  His presence, assured to us in scripture, is Christ’s blessing upon all Christians in the world.

Dem stones, dem stones…

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Unitingt Church on 14th May 2017, the fifth Sunday after Easter in year-A.

Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10.

Several weeks ago, I described myself to you as “a preaching-nerd” when I spoke about how I enjoy discovering the ways that the lectionary has set up the weekly passages of scripture for the purposes of establishing a theme.  Today’s set of readings present us with the theme that the Bible suggests a variety of understandings of stones.  For Stephen who was executed by stoning, stones are bad things.  For the Psalmist who calls upon God as his rock, rocks are good things.  So, rock equals good, and stone equals bad?  Got that?  Well…well unfortunately, it’s not that simple since Peter speaks of Christ as the living stone; one who was rejected by mortal beings but is exalted by God.

In today’s reading from the Psalms we read of how God is a rock of refuge for the worshipper (Psalm 31:2), and “indeed” God is a rock and fortress (Psalm 31:3).  My commentary points out that the Hebrew word translated as “indeed” is used seven times in Psalm 31 to introduce a new verse.  This God, the rock, is one who can be relied upon and trusted in, this word is solid, and solid indeed!  Standing on this assurance it is no wonder to me that the psalmist is confident to say in Psalm 31:5 “into your hand I commit my spirit”. We know that this statement is not the famous last words of the psalmist, especially since even this psalm has twenty-four verses and this is only verse five.  The assurance that God is worthy of our trust, worthy to hold our spirits in safekeeping, is assured by the wisdom that God is both the rock and the proven deliverer.  “God has saved me before; more than once in fact, so here and now I take the step of faith to commend my whole life into God’s hands and safekeeping.”  What a word of confidence that it, and what an example to us all!   The psalmist asks of God in Psalm 31:15 that in God’s steadfast love that God would “save me from my persecutors”.  Not only do I trust God in my own life and its adventures says the psalmist, but I trust God where it comes to other people and their potentially harmful interactions with me.  It is no wonder then that in the very moment of his murder by his persecutors each of two men pray the words in Psalm 31:5, and with his final breath commits his spirit to God.

The writer of 1 Peter says of Jesus that he was rejected by humanity, yet was chosen by God and is precious and that the same can be said of us if we follow Jesus.  The world outside sees our faith as wasted and our activities as irrelevant and inconsequential.  But in God’s economy the worthless rocks and scattered gravel that the world sees is revealed to be living stones which build a spiritual house.  Where the world sees a pile of broken brick God sees and experiences a house of worship whose cornerstone is Christ himself.  God sees the other stones of that house, that house with Christ as cornerstone and capstone, as you and me, him and her, and them over there making another wall in that other denomination’s house today.  God sees unity and worth in who we are and in what we do when we are connected to each other and connected through each other to Christ who is our sure foundation.  1 Peter says that if the cornerstone of your belief is in Jesus then you will be part of what God builds upon the foundation of your belief: but if you don’t believe then that same stone becomes a barrier, a stumbling block, and you’ll be tripped up in your disbelief.  It is made even more plain by 1 Peter, those who stumble do so because of disobedience; but those who believe, those who are part of what God is building upon the foundation of belief in Jesus Christ, become a royal and holy gathering tasked with the proclamation of God in speech and action.  We who were once a bunch of rubble, boulders and bluemetal are now a single unified, strong tower and palace, a temple and a house with a common identity and a unified task.  This is monumental stuff church, pun intended, because the Church is a monument to God’s glory, and it is true in metaphorical speech because the Church takes on the identity given to the Jewish nation.  We, the Christians of 2017, are a royal and holy community: we have received the same promise made to the tribes of Hebrews a thousand years before Jesus’ life.  What was spoken over them is spoken over us alongside them two thousand years after Jesus.  And more so this is true because of Jesus, and is true for us because of our belief in Jesus.

So, to summarise what we have so far:

  1. God is a rock.
  2. You are a living stone. With the rest of us, you form a monument which has its foundation upon God, the rock.

The manner in which Stephen met his death mirrors the death of Jesus in many details.  The rock of which 1 Peter speaks as being rejected by humanity is shown here in the first murder of a Christian for being a Christian.  To put it somewhat ironically the one who trusts in rock of Israel is being stoned to death by the priests and Levites of the Pharisees.

When Stephen cries out with his final breath in Acts 7:59 he says two things of Jesus; that the life of Jesus is worthy of emulation, and that Jesus is the Lord Godself.  I’ll unpack that a little bit for you, and in my unique and peculiar style I’ll give you the second one first.  So, secondly, Stephen speaks of Jesus in language that Jesus himself, and the psalmist, used of God.  Where Jesus and the psalmist commit their spirit to God in prayer Stephen commits his spirit to Jesus.  Stephen prays as if he believes that Jesus is God, or at least worthy of the same ascription to majesty as the Father.  Of course, we know this, this is why he is being executed in the first place, but there it is in black and white on page 891 of the Bible in front of you.  And firstly, Stephen’s last words are almost word for word the last words of Jesus.  What Jesus did is what Stephen does.  If asked “WWJD?” Stephen would answer “in your final breath commend your spirit to God.”  And that is what Stephen did, with the unique extrapolation at that stage, of naming the LORD in this circumstance as Jesus.

In my persona as preaching-nerd, and a man who finds the lectionary fascinating, I am delighted that our reading set for today ends at Acts 7:60.  Whenever I have seen this passage marked in a Bible, or heard it read aloud, the block of text typically continues to 8:1.  Stephen dies, but somewhat more importantly it seems, Saul approves of the murder.  But not today.  Not today, thank you lectionary.  Today the focus is not on Saul the persecuting Pharisee who will go on to cause havoc amongst the Christians before being knocked off his horse and then going on as Paul the preaching Christian to cause havoc amongst the Pharisees.  No, today the focus, by ending at Acts 7:60, is the last words of Stephen and his ascription that amidst and amongst the flying stones of his murderers it is God in Jesus who is the rock which is steadfast and sure.

I pray that none of us, you or I, face death by judicial stoning nor by any other form of avalanche.  But I do pray that each of us, you and I, would cry out to God when the time comes and commit our dying selves into the hands of the steadfast God.  May it be for us that our last words can be “into your hands, my Lord I commend my all”.

And that would have been a wonderful place to finish this sermon.  But there is more to say.  Just a paragraph, so relax.  As much as I hope that you will emulate Jesus in death, as Stephen emulated the dying Jesus in Stephen’s own death, my prayer for you is that your prayer of commitment to God’s surety as rock is uttered well before your final breath.  The time is NOW to commit your spirit into God’s hands, and then to live for years and decades with that surety at your back and on your heart and mind.  As beautiful as the picture is of Stephen dying with Jesus, and dying for Jesus, he only got there because he lived for Jesus first.

So, live for Jesus.  God is your rock, and is your rock right now.  Commit your spirit today.

Amen.

 

That Shy Hope (Easter 2A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 23rd April 2017.  This was the first Sunday after Easter.

Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Last week in course of my bringing you God’s word for Holy Friday I used a phrase which has garnered a great deal of feedback.  In speaking of what the day of our Lord’s death might mean for us I quoted C. Manning Clark and his description of the spirituality of Australians as “a shy hope in the heart”.  As Australians, we are not known to blow our trumpet in the world too much; unless it involves the Ashes or the Bledisloe Cup, but since neither of those trophies belong to us at present there’s little to say on the world stage.  Mostly we are a people who like to go unnoticed in the world; we don’t like tall poppies and we don’t like being told what to do.  Australia is not a shy nation, we never have been, but as a nation in the world we are far less brash than our nasal accents and the boisterous singing of our countrymen in European pubs might suggest.  We live in a lucky country, (a phrase which was originally an insult, as if such people of us don’t deserve what we have been given), and we like to think of ourselves as a nation of battlers, pioneers, diggers, and vanquishers only so far as we have made a go of it.  We are hard-fought survivors not empire builders; we are not flashy and we dislike those who are.  It is in view of this that Clark addressed the spirituality of Australia.  We are not a nation of flashy preachers, we are not Americans.  We are not a nation of lofty cathedrals and bells and smells, we are not Europeans.  Even as we have both of those things, Australia’s largest single congregation is Hillsong Church and we do of course have our cathedrals of the Roman, Anglican, and Orthodox varieties, for the most part the churchgoing of Aussies is local and hidden.  We are quietly confident that we are on the side of right: like Crocodile Dundee we believe in a Jesus who has fishermen mates and we reckon he’d like us because of that.  How much of this view of Australia is true, how much of it is stereotype, and how much of it was once true but is no longer so in an Australia which now resembles the culture northern hemisphere than it does the culture of the Northern Territory is not mine to say.  I’ll leave that to the sociologists, I’m a theologian and a narratologist.  But I think it’s an image worth looking at, and after the feedback I have had in this past week it seems like more than a few of you agree with me.

So, what is this shy hope in our hearts?  Is it permissible that Christianity be “a shy hope” at all?  After all isn’t Christianity all about witnessing and boldness?  Isn’t our call to extroversion, extravagance, and exaltation?  Aren’t Christians supposed to be the Strayan tourists in the world, loud, brash, bold, and publicly celebrating in season and out of season?

Maybe not.

I believe the story of the Christian scriptures is that the people of Jesus are to be confident but not showy.  The writer of Psalm 16, whom Peter quotes in his sermon on the day of Pentecost and names as David, has penned a song of trust and security in God.  Those who trust in the Lord in reliant assurance will live lives of delight, confidence and joy.  This is how we are to be: this confident reliance upon God is the Australia of the shy hope.

In John 20, following from last Sunday’s reading and speaking initially of the evening of Easter Day, Jesus appears to the ten, greets them with shalom and breathes the Holy Spirit onto them, imparting to the Church the power to forgive.  The purpose of the gospel is later summarised as being that those who hear it (without seeing) will believe that Jesus is Messiah, and that having heard and believed the message the life of trust in Christ brings an abundance of life.  In view of this Thomas, who meets Jesus a week after Easter, (which is to say today), does not deserve his title of “doubter”.  Thomas is no different to the others; recall that the men had not believed the testimony of Mary, indeed they had locked themselves away in terror until they saw Jesus personally (and somewhat miraculously) enter their locked room.  Jesus demonstrated grace in showing himself 1:1 to Thomas, as he had done on Easter day to the other ten.  In the same way that the revelation was given to eyewitnesses who then went and spoke of what they had seen to others who were never given the opportunity to see so now we have the gospel according to John to tell us that even though Jesus has ascended (which John does not record at all) all who hear can still believe in the written and spoken words of the evangelists.

Seven weeks after that first appearance of Jesus to the ten Peter stands up on the day of Pentecost, the Jewish festival celebrating the giving of the ten commandments at Sinai, and addresses the people he calls Israelites.  In Peter’s day, and indeed in our own day, the Israelites were native Jews who were not priests or Levites.  So, Peter is literally addressing the crowd, the common people when he tells them the story of Jesus and how his ministry amongst them had carried the evidence of God’s favour in deeds of power (dynameis).  God was obviously blessing and in favour of the work of Jesus, says Peter, but you Israelites, you mob of common man, you handed him over to Rome and Rome killed him.  Peter is pulling no punches here.  Perhaps he is bold in the Holy Spirit’s anointing, perhaps he’s an unschooled fisherman and doesn’t know how to be polite in public address so he’s calling a “manually operated, blunt-edged, single user excavating apparatus” a “bloody spade”.  It’s probably a bit of both, but at least he’s speaking plainly.  He goes on to say in his straightforward manner that the same power that worked through Jesus in his life, God’s power, the power which then raised him from death, (and thereby continued to attest to his identity), that same power now courses through Peter and the 120.  By that power, God’s direct empowering, the Jesus group proclaims Jesus as Messiah even as David in his day proclaimed the messiah as the message of the Lord God.  The power of God in Jesus the Christ, makes his disciples bold, confident, joyous in the face of continued life on earth.  We have seen Jesus raised, says Peter, therefore, we are confident (and no longer hiding in locked rooms afraid of what the Priests, Levites, and you Israelites might do to us).

This is supposed to be true of us today.  As an Australian (Strayan) Christian living in Gippsland in 2017 I live without the terror of Jewish authorities.  I live without terror of any authorities.  In part that is because of how Australia operates as a nation in my generation, but it is also because I am filled with the spirit of God and I am living a life of freedom and confidence because of “Christ who liveth in me”. As I said a few weeks ago about the Tanakh, the scriptures used by Jews, having the overarching message of the fulfilment of a promise for home so God has showed to Peter’s Israelite audience (who knew that tradition) an instance of this in God’s faithfulness to Jesus.  Jesus has been redeemed from the exile of death, into everlasting life in the land of promise.

In the letter attributed to him Peter extends the promise of God revealed in the resurrection (rebirth) of Jesus to all who trust in Jesus.  We, like Christ risen, are reborn into a living hope, and into the promise of abundance in Heaven and protection on Earth.  Life will be hard in days to come, there is no hiding from that fact, but God has your back and you can trust with full confidence in the promise given to you.  Let the fires of the world burn away the rubbish, let that happen because you know that there is something precious within you just waiting to get out.  Although you have not seen him you love him says the writer in 1 Peter 1:8, fulfilling what Jesus said in John 20:29.  As early therefore as the middle of the first century the discipleship thing is seen to be working: there really are second generation believers who have heard about Jesus from the eyewitnesses and believed in their testimony.  Peter and the eleven, plus the other members of that first 120 on the day of Pentecost, plus Paul and others who saw the risen Christ, went on to tell the story to others who never saw Jesus and those others believed what they were told.  And they told others, and they, and they, until in our day we have none who saw the risen Jesus, or even met the apostles in person, but have believed the message of Jesus in our billions.

This is the shy hope in our hearts.  We have been told that God loves the world, our world, our 2017 world, and that the evidence of that love was seen in a Bethlehem barn, a Roman cross, a garden tomb, and the eyes of the woman or man who told you that story and you believed it.  It is a shy hope, almost unbelievable, but it is a sure hope too.

Amen.