The Reign of God (Christ the King)

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

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

Good morning Church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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The Resilience of God

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva-Serviceton for Sunday 28th October 2018, the twenty-third Sunday in Pentecost in Year B.  This was my first sermon to the people of Kaniva Shared Ministry and the second to the people of Serviceton Shared Ministry.

Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-9

Good morning Church!

Last week at Serviceton we read together the story of God’s interruption of Job in his grumbling and also the false comfort of his three friends; today we hear Job’s response to what God said.  (Hopefully here in Kaniva you know about Job because I don’t want to preach last week’s message again and then give you this week’s as well.  Suffice to say that Job has had a rough time of it in his life and has said some pretty challenging things about God.  Recently God has pulled Job up on those things, asking Job who he thinks he is to speak about Almighty God in such a way.)  Job has had an intense experience of God in that someone he had heard about he has now met in person (Job 42:5-6).  What Job has now seen and heard from God when God spoke to Job personally has somewhat reset Job’s perspective of God and who Job is in comparison to God (Job 42:6).  Last week at Serviceton I made a comment, which a couple of people followed me up on after church, that I sometimes think that studying Theology at University has actually made me know less than more; well today I find myself in that situation.  One of the subjects I studied, and this subject was part of my studies towards my Masters degree rather than my Bachelors degree so it was pretty high level, was “Old Testament Wisdom”.  During that course I studied Job alongside a few other books, so today I’m caught between wanting to bring God’s wisdom to you for this day and place, and teaching you what I was taught about this particular passage, and I wonder how helpful that might be.  So, let’s leave Job’s conversations for a bit and come back after the other reading.

In today’s Psalm, 34:1-9, we read how David responded to God’s deliverance of him from a tricky situation.  Something that is an original part of what was written in the Bible but has not been included in the verses is a note which describes what was going on in David’s life at the time that he wrote this psalm: basically he’s been on the wrong end of a coup and he’s in hiding from a mutinous son who has seized his throne.  David had been captured by his son’s army, but through faking illness he has been able to make his escape and now he is hiding and can praise God who delivered him.  Unlike Job, who in his story is still in trouble and doesn’t know what God is going to do to or for him, David has been saved and he is up to the part of his story where he can say thank you.  And just look at what he says as we read Psalm 34:1-5.  God is magnificent, faithful and true, strong and mighty, compassionate and protective, and to be embraced with all the senses.  David is obviously having a better time of it than Job is right now, but if you look at this Psalm you will notice that it’s actually not addressed to God.  This Psalm is about God, so it’s a testimony or a declaration, rather than a prayer or an act of worship toward God.  Job is talking to God, but David is talking about God.

I wonder, are the stories of David and Job familiar to you?  I don’t mean have you read them in the Bible, but does their story relate to yours?  Can you think of a time when you have been where Job is, where the whole thing went pear-shaped for you and then it got worse?  Can you think of a time where you have been where David is, when everyone and everything turned against you but God did the impossible and got you out, and you were ready to tell everyone how amazing God is?  Can you?  I can.

During much of the first decade of this century I lived in England, specifically the first nine months of 2001 and then from October 2002 until January 2009 with two trips back to Australia in the middle.  That first nine months was great, and I don’t have much to say about it.  The first year of that second visit, so November 2002 until December 2003, was one of the worst seasons of my life.  “Character building” doesn’t come close, “terrifying” and “soul destroying” are closer to the truth, with small doses of “horrific” thrown in.  You will hear a lot about my time in England if you stay on at church in the next few years, but I promise not every story will come from this year of my living dangerously.  But today’s stories do.

So, I had a bit of a Job year.  Funny thing about the pronunciation of his name, and Carla brought this to our attention last week; my year of being Job involved me not having a job.  Also, somewhat unlike Job, my turmoil was kind of deserved, or at least it was my own fault because of reasons I’d rather not go into right now.  It’s not that I’m embarrassed, it’s just that I’m actually still working through what the actual sort of hell was going on and I’m not sure what to say.  But I do admit to being foolish, and I acknowledge that my foolishness lead me to a situation where my life was a mess.  My family was far away, I was in England but my parents were in Darwin and then Pt Lincoln and my siblings were in Hobart.  God was very close, but very, very inactive, at least in the ways I wanted God to act, and I let God know all about it on several occasions.

Let’s look at Job 42:1-3.  Open your Bible if you have one.  (And if you don’t then please be sure to bring one next week; I like to preach from the Bible most weeks, so it’s good if you can read along.)  In the Bible that I use when writing sermons this passage has an added heading, not part of the Bible but part of the editing of the modern book, and this heading says “Job is humbled and satisfied”.  Let’s see shall we as we read Job 42:1-6.

In this passage Job declares straight off the bat that God is sovereign and that nothing any human does or is capable of doing can thwart what God wants to do.  Then Job acknowledges that God’s questions cannot be answered with anything other than humility: Job does not know what God knows and therefore Job is better off not speaking.  When God is speaking, (indeed when anyone who actually knows what he or she is talking about is speaking), it’s a good idea to listen to what is being said so that you can learn.  When Job decides to listen to God rather than yell at God, Job learns about God.  We can see in hindsight that Job learns that he was actually correct about God’s character, that God is just and fair and does not punish the undeserving, but we also see that the way God does this is beyond human understanding and things are neither as simple nor as straightforward as we would like them to be or as Job thought them to be.  But in learning that God is so much bigger, so much more complex, so much far beyond his understanding than he ever imagined, Job actually gets to understand God more.  One way of reading Job 42:6 is for Job to say “I never knew how much about you LORD that I didn’t know, but now that I know how much I didn’t know I actually know you more”.  Does that make sense?  In a way Job is heading toward where David is in Psalm 34, he now has a better idea of just how majestic and awe-inspiring God is.  Job now has a better idea of how God cannot be fit into a box, or plugged into an equation where faith plus obedience equals blessing.  Job’s recent experience was that faith plus obedience equals disaster, but what Job has learned is not that God is false or unreliable, but that the equation was too simple.  It’s the maths that’s broken, not God.  It’s the theology that’s faulty, the way we talk about God and the way that Bildad and Zophar and Eliphaz talked about God that is at fault, not God.  Job doesn’t know what the new equation is, but he does know that the old formula is broken.  So in Job 42:6 he’s decided to stop talking rot and to pull his head in around God.  So, is Job “humbled and satisfied”? Is he?

Meh-yeah, I’m not sure.  One thing I have learned from reading Job, and not just at university, is that with God you are allowed to be not sure: indeed much of my life experience as a Christian, and my devotional and academic work, has pointed me toward understanding that we are allowed to be not sure far more often and about far more stuff than we think.  So I don’t think Job actually is satisfied at all, I think he’s just agreed to disagree, and I think this because of two things.

So, thing one is that God never actually answers Job’s complaint: Job actually doesn’t get from God what Job wants from God.  You see, Job never actually asked God “what did I do to deserve this?” because he knew all along and with absolute certainty that he didn’t deserve the calamity of his life.  Self-righteous Zophar, Eliphaz and Bildad were happy to ask Job what he did to deserve this, and they pressed him to find an answer, but Job kept telling them the same story.  And Job didn’t tell them “I don’t know, I can’t remember how I sinned”, no, Job said “there is nothing, this is all completely undeserved”.  Job’s question is not “what did I do to deserve this,” which God does answer, telling the friends that Job did nothing to deserve this, Job’s question is…anyone??…Job’s question is “why did this happen at all?” and God never answers that question.  God doesn’t even acknowledge that question: what God says is “who are you to question me?”  So Job is humbled, God has got right into Job’s face and shown how awe-inspiring God is, but Job is not actually satisfied.

Thing two is that Job never actually apologises.  Read closely; throughout the big story of Job and not just in the last two weeks of readings Job says “why all this?” right?  Last week God said “who are you to ask me questions?” and this week Job said “God you are too big to argue with, so please let me learn from you instead.”  What Job never says anywhere in the big story is “sorry Adonai, forgive me for my presumption”, and what God never says anywhere in the big story is “I forgive Job”.  God does call the three friends to repentance, and to ask Job to intercede for them, but Job is never pronounced guilty and Job never repents.

Which makes Job 42:6 interesting, doesn’t it?  We are Christians reading a Jewish text, but even so we can assume, I believe, that God would not leave Job unforgiven if he’d asked for forgiveness, right?  So since we never read of God forgiving Job, this verse cannot mean an apology.  But we don’t want to know what this verse doesn’t mean; we want to know what it does mean, don’t we.  Don’t we?  (Yes Damien, tell us.)  Well you already know what I’m going to say: I don’t know.  Well I don’t know enough to build a doctrine out of it at least, but here’s what life in Hertfordshire in 2003 and some book-learnin’ in Adelaide in 2016 learned me.  I’m not sure what the original Hebrew, or the Greek of Jesus’ day would have said, and my Church-History-specific Latin lets me down here so I’m gonna have to tell you in English, what Job 42:6 means is “there’s no point sooking about it.” Job acknowledges that God is not going to answer his question, God is not going to give an explanation, and that even if God would explain Godself to me (which God won’t) I’d probably not understand it anyway.  So it’s time to get up off the dirt, have a bath, put on some fresh clothes and the kettle, and get on with what comes next.  In other words perhaps a bit more in line with how the Bible puts it, “after taking a good long look at myself I see that I’m a bit of a dill, so I’ll go forward in humility but without further humiliation.”

And that’s where I got to in December 2003.  I’m not sure that my theology was that well developed then, but my Christian faith got to the stage of saying, literally, “thank God that’s over with now, now let’s move on with the new thing now that I’m safe”.  So, basically where David was in the cave where he wrote Psalm 34.

So, what does this mean for you?  Well what this means for you is up to you, I can’t tell you how you are supposed to respond.  What I hope you’ve heard is that God is bigger and wiser than you could ever imagine, and that all of that is good.  I’m not going to give you the gooey message that all that God is, in all of that exceeding abundance, is focussed entirely upon you or even upon creation, because I think that God is not limited in attention to just us.  But I do think that God is attending to us, in all of our life’s turmoils and celebrations, and that God is good.

So if you are in the mood to celebrate God, celebrate God with all that you have for all that God is.  If your mood for celebration comes out of a recent story of deliverance then all the better – go hard!  And if your mood is lament and confusion, then chase God with all that you have for all that God is.  If you are still in the midst of trial, if your future is pregnant with possibilities but it’s only the second trimester, drill in to God and be held.  Ask God whatever you want to ask, and trust whatever answer God gives you.  Even if what God gives you is silence.

Amen.

 

The Honour of God

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 21st October 2018, the twenty-second Sunday in Pentecost, Year B.  It was my first sermon in my new placement.

Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Good morning Church!  It’s good to be with you at last.  Today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (to give it its full title), a series which I see KSSM follows because it is published on the newssheet, come from Job, Hebrews, and Mark.  Two of those books are anonymously attributed in that Bible scholars are undecided about who wrote them, and some traditions say that the other one was written by a secretary.  Regardless of who wrote what, and whether the writers wrote on behalf of some specific patron or another, the points made by these writers intersect beautifully.  You will hear as we get to know each other better that I am a fan of the lectionary; not just because it encourages me as your primary preacher to make use of the Bible each week, but because the women and men who chose which readings go with which week, and which readings go with each other, set us up with some interesting ideas.  So it is today when we read about God speaking to Job and Job’s friends, about Jesus speaking with his disciples, and about who Jesus is with regard to the Jewish God in the mind of a Jewish person who has come to see Jesus as a unique revelation of God.

I have not been here in the past weeks; you know this, so I don’t know how much of Job’s story you have been told since the beginning of October.  So I hope you know who Job is, and the basic gist of his story, because I don’t want to go into it now.  Suffice to say that Job has had a hard life of late, and his God-fearing friends have not been entirely helpful in their well intentioned support, wisdom and counsel.  In today’s reading, from assorted bits of Job 38, we get to hear God’s response to all that has been said by Job and by Elihu, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar: and God is immediately on the offensive.  “Who are you?” asks The LORD over and over again; “who are you to question the Creator, the Almighty One”, and “what do you know about anything”.  Job 38:1 makes it clear that what God says is addressed to Job, but I wonder whether God speaks to Job while Job’s friends are still there, and God means for them to also hear what God says.  God somewhat takes the role of barrister for the defence and cross examines the prosecution witnesses, looking for humility in their responses.  Not only is Job brought to account for his constant whining, but God’s “who are you” questions are pointed at the friends.  “Who are you to presume to speak on my behalf,” asks God, “do you really know more about divine will and justice than Job?”  God makes it clear who The LORD is, and who isn’t The LORD.  God alone is God, God is the only god in the room, and not one of the five men in the room is correct in his own theology.

Last week at the induction service I said in my brief remarks that I’d been to the Salvation Army corps that morning.  A song that we sang was “I am a friend of God”, a song I’d not sung in Australia but which was familiar to me from my time at Hillsong Church London a decade ago.  Today I am reminded that even though the song is written about you and me and our relationship with God through Jesus, and that the song uses the language God used of Abraham, that Job was also friend of God.  All that God says to Job is true, correct and trustworthy as every word from God is, and so too are the words overheard by the friends.  God is not who you religious types think God is; suffering is not a sign of divine displeasure and grief is not a deserved condition for sin elsewhere.  The word of The LORD to Job is the same as the word to the four, and that word is “pull your head in, mortal one”, but the application is different.  Job was questioning God’s character, but the four friends were presuming to speak on God’s behalf to rebut Job’s complaint.  Job says that God is unjust, the friends say God is just and Job is a sinner, but God says that God is just and Job is not a sinner, but that God is God sometimes what God does is incomprehensible to human rationale.  If you don’t know how to make it rain, the how do you presume to comment upon the way that God does it, when only God knows how to do it?  You don’t know what you’re talking about, so stop talking about it, all of you…yes him, but especially youse mob.  That’s rather humbling to hear as a leader of faith: as it should be.

The Psalm set for us today, 104, declares that God is all that God claims to be.  The LORD who spoke to Job is indeed divine creator and the one who sustains all that was made, and The LORD is wise beyond human understanding.  Furthermore, Creation is for its own sake, not primarily for the purposes of humankind, and is an act of wisdom and an activity of the Spirit.  God’s care for creation is ongoing; humanity has stewardship of the world, but God retains ownership and abiding love.  God also retains control; the creation continues to exist because God continues to uphold it.  The messages of the Psalmist are clear when we think of Job, firstly that God is God and no one else is, but also that God remains interested and involved, there is no divine watchmaker here who set the world going by clockwork and then walked off.  God is just, God does care, and all that God does is done with wisdom and love.  This is the bit that the other four seem to have forgotten.

So when we get to Mark 10, where we read of James and John asking for places of honour beside the throne of Jesus, we have been brilliantly set up by the compositors of the lectionary.  I mean, who chooses this story as a match for the interruption of God into Job’s lament?  I am a preaching nerd, proudly so, and this kind of thing makes me excited about God’s message to the Church.  God is awesome and above any responsibility to answer to human complaint, and God is creator and sustainers of the Universe for God’s own pleasure and the Universe’s own purpose, and here two random Galileans ask to be Deputy Messiah in the caucus of the Kingdom of God.  The temerity of it!  The utter arrogance!  Or did they really not know what they were asking?  I hope they were confused about God rather than thinking that they were actually worthy of such an honour.

It can be a comfort that this story tells us that the other ten disciples were enraged and indignant at the request of James and John.  At least they know who Jesus is and what an insult to his majesty the brothers’ request was; unless of course they were actually angered by Jesus’ response.  I wonder, did they assume thrones in the Kingdom by virtue of their being the first disciples, first as earliest and first as superior, and now Jesus has dashed that assumption.  If you understand that the time when Jesus came into his glory was when he was lifted upon the cross, it is interesting that in Mark’s account that at the right and left of Jesus were two criminals who mocked his glory from their own crosses.  In today’s reading from Mark 10:42-44 Jesus speaks of what lay ahead of him and of those who followed him: discipleship of the Messiah is not a life of thrones and lording it over heathens but of service and suffering.

So what does this mean for us?  What should it mean?  I like the way that the writer in Hebrews 5:1-10 has reminded us that everybody who serves God serves at God’s invitation.  As someone God has chosen, and who the Church has confirmed, and someone for whom there was a very recent reminder of these two callings within the past week, it’s good to remember that.  In all of the congratulatory emails and phone calls from family and friends I am reminded that, yes, congratulations are in order and I have been given the great privilege of ministering in my first placement as a pastor.  A good thing has happened to me, and congratulations are in order, but where some people have kindly offered that this placement is “much deserved” I’m taking that with more than a grain of grace.  I acknowledge and agree with what they are saying, yes I have worked hard and yes I have completed my university courses and practical ministry experiences with diligence and long hours.  Yes I have stuck with the Church and particularly with the system when it seemed that I was facing roadblocks and detours, and the occasional dead-end.  But do I deserve this role?  Do I deserve you?  (Do you deserve me?) No matter how hard I have worked, no matter how much I have stayed the course and run the race thus far, I am here because it is God’s pleasure that I am here, and when God moves me then I will move.  I am here because I offered myself to God, and God gave me to you, because God loves you.  So my first thought is not that I am “God’s gift” in the arrogant sense of that phrase, but that if I am an offering of God’s grace to you then I’d better make sure I stay under God’s lordship and instruction while I am here.  The author of Hebrews reminds us all that God chooses the fallible to mediate between humankind and God lest the priestly overestimate their worth and abilities.  I am here as your pastor because I possess certain gifts, gifts appropriate for the exercise of ministry within the Uniting Church as we heard last week from Marjorie.  Yes I have worth and abilities, and yes I have worked hard to increase those; but I am here because God chose me and not because I have earned this place.  I wouldn’t be here if I’d not worked so hard, but that’s not why I’m here.  I’m here because God is gracious and generous and God chose me for you and you for me for the next three years or so.

So while I am here I want to act and think like Jesus.  Jesus did not presume the commissioning of God, as if his selection for ministry was a foregone conclusion and God would be stupid not to choose him, so why should any of us?  In the same way that God questioned the arrogance in the philosophising of Job’s friends, and their distance from understanding his suffering, the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus does understand human suffering.  Our high priest would never spout platitudes or half-baked theologies of prosperity for righteous.  Jesus whose greatest glory was seen in his greatest suffering, his greatest identification with all who have been rejected, abused, insulted, and murdered by systems and corrupted powers, is the great model for Christian life and Christian leadership.  I sincerely hope that in 3 or 5 or 10 years time I get to drive away from Kaniva & Serviceton to move to my next placement within the Church, wherever that may be, and that my time here will not end with me crucified somewhere public, painful and embarrassing.  But if I’m not willing to die for Christ here, then I’m not worthy of the calling God and the Presbytery and you have trusted me with.

But then, as the Church in this place, neither are you.

So as the Church in this place let us each and all listen for God, obey God, and speak for God only when the Spirit is speaking through us, and not from our memories of Christian clichés.  Let us ask Jesus how we can bring him honour rather how he can honour us, and let us live in and enjoy the world created by God for God, but a world in which we have a place as the apple of God’s eye.

Amen.

Tongue Tired

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered at Narracan as the Yallourn Parish and Morwell Parish Uniting Churches, clustered for the purposes of ministry on Sunday 16th September 2018.

Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12

Hopefully you aren’t sick of the stories from my time living in England just yet.  If you are that’s fine, I don’t care and I’m going to tell you another story this morning anyway, but as far as you are concerned there’s only today and two weeks to go before I leave Gippsland, so you just hang in there.  Today’s story takes place at the Education Support Centre where I worked as a specialist teacher, and an episode where something seemed to change.

For those of you new to my stories, or who have heard about my time in gaol but not my time in school, let me give you some background.  Between December 2003 and October 2004, and again between February 2005 and February 2006 I taught at an Education Support Centre north of London.  In very much an oversimplification this a school for high school kids who had been expelled from their “normal school”, or who were in danger of being so.  Onsite I taught one class of year seven to nine students and another class of year ten and eleven.   I taught a broadly defined subject called Humanities, which was made up of bits of the Geography, History, Civics, and Religion curricula as stipulated in the National Curriculum for England.  Offsite or on “outreach” I went into local high schools and worked 1:1 with boys (because I’m a boy) from those same age groups who were on their “last chance”.  At outreach I was liked, and the boys looked forward to my sessions.  Onsite I was disliked, and I was regularly sworn at, spat at, threatened with violence and arson, and I was assaulted in class on four occasions.  The onsite cohort called me “Squeak” because my large front teeth and my then goatee beard made me look like a mouse, apparently.  There was a loose confederation of students charged with the responsibility of “getting Squeak out”, trying to bully me into resigning.  Eventually they gave up, I wasn’t going anywhere, and they had run out of ideas.  They still didn’t like me, they found my resilience unnerving, but the conspiracy and the all-out attacks died out.  So, there’s your background.

And here’s the story.  One Friday afternoon, when classes for the week had ended and the students were about to go home, as was our regular practice, the whole school gathered in the big classroom to count up the week’s merits.  Merits earned you points, and points bought you food.  So anyway, we’ve added up the merits and points, and determined who has earned and who will be rewarded.  And then there’s a race for the kitchen were the food it kept and one of the girls is in there and into the cupboard and into the potato chips and grabbing her allocation of packets.  I was the first teacher into the room, and seeing her there I called out, “Sarah (not her real name), please don’t take all those chips, we need to share the flavours.”  Sarah (not her real name) rolled her eyes, gave a big huff in the way that only a sixteen-year-old girl can do, and said “Oh my god Sir, this is England not Australia, they’re called crisps!!”

I was shocked: are you shocked?  Did you catch it?  Sarah (not her real name) had called me…sir.  Not “Squeak”, not “effin’ Stuart Little”, (which I once copped in class, with “effin’” given its less polite pronunciation).  Sarah had called me “sir”.

“Umm, Sarah, did you just call me ‘sir’?”

“Umm, ummm…”

By this time the kitchen’s other inhabitants were laughing at the joke.  “Oh, my effin’ word Sarah, you showed respect to Mister Tann innit?  You has brought shame upon your entire family now.”

I can’t say that the ice entirely thawed that day, or that Sarah (not her real name, she was actually called Melissa) and I became best mates after that, but it did mark a positive change.  Even so, when I read James 3:1 where Jacob writes not many of you should aspire to become teachers I do not think only of the added responsibility that God places upon the shoulders of pastors and preachers.  Teaching is a rewarding job in church as well as school; but it is also, almost, insurmountably treacherous at times, in church as well as school.

In the first twelve verses of James 3 set for us today we read where Jacob turned his attention to leadership in the community of faith.  Now, remember that Jacob is the brother of Jesus, the second son of Joseph and Mary and possibly Jesus’ first ever best friend.  We read in the gospels how Jacob along with his younger siblings thought that Jesus had lost the plot: now we find him with a fresh revelation of the Messiah and undertaking pastoral responsibility for the nascent Church in Jerusalem.  Jacob is probably a solid man to write about leadership and teaching, so let’s take a look and what he wrote.

So, Jacob unpacks what it means to be a leader by returning to the themes we have encountered in the last two weeks, especially around the ways in Christians should speak.  True wisdom, true discipleship is shown by speaking well – not just as a discipline in itself but also as an indication that what else is going on in the Christian’s life is under the blessing of God.  One of the things that really messed with Sarah and her cohort at the ESC was that I was generally kindly spoken.  Anyone can say nice things, many people can be nice even in the face of meanness, but something about the way that I seemed genuinely unfazed by the ways in which the students plotted my downfall, and over about six months of their best efforts, unnerved them.  These teens knew that I was a Christian, in fact of the five classroom teachers onsite three of us were strong in our faith, but there was something else about me, something they couldn’t break, something they needed to destroy because it was a threat to them.  That they didn’t destroy me or the thing inside me has everything to do with the grace of God, which of course was the thing inside me.  I am not claiming anything other than a vast supply of grace from my Lord in this one; but when unbreakable kindness, even in sadness, confronted them even violent, vicious bullying was left undone.  As a teacher, as a leader, as an adult, I was a grace-bearer; carrying grace inside me and sharing it with my students.

The scriptures teach that a fool cannot speak wisdom and a sinner cannot teach righteousness.  Again, almost anyone can fake pretty much anything for a short time; but longevity and perseverance cannot be built upon weakness and falsehood.  The wise and good can make mistakes, but that is seen as an aberration: the stupid and evil cannot speak true wisdom by accident.  As a pastor-teacher living alongside temporarily you I invite you to look for the signs of grace in yourself and in your leaders: and if you want to be a leader then be ready for examination.  Maybe the examination will come (as it did for me) with violence and hatred, maybe it will come in seduction and flattery, maybe it will come as damned hard work and lots of it.  If you’re not ready for the test amongst the people then you’re not ready to be their teacher or a leader.  If no one is ready for the test then the whole community will be leaderless, teacherless, and heading for calamity.  Pray for your leaders and teachers, and if you don’t know who they are then pray that God will send you some.

In the last portion of  James 3:6 Jacob sets out a frame for understanding how the ways in which members of a local church (body) speak about each other can destroy the church for generations.  Maybe this is a mixing of theologies; Paul writes more about the body as a metaphor for the Church, it’s perhaps not Jacob’s first thought, but it rings true for the big-C Church, the whole collection of Christians from Jacob to now, and it rings especially true for the local church.  I have been in congregations where there is implicit and explicit enmity – these congregations do not grow, they die.  Gossip, whispers, half-truths, complete lies, all are destructive to friendship communities, how much more so the people of God?  If Paul’s metaphor is good, and we are the body where Jesus is the head, and some of us are hands and some of us are feet, if you are a tongue then Jacob warns you to be very careful.

One of my commentators suggested, and I agree, that Jacob’s key learning outcome in this short passage is consistency.  Consistency in purity for sure, no one wants a consistent evil, although at least that would be easier to manage – there’s no deception there.  No, speak with the voice coming up from your depths, from your heart and guts, be consistent with yourself.  If you like what you hear, then honour God and stay on course, and consider offering yourself to the church as a teacher or leader.  If you don’t like what you hear, then honour God and seek healing.  “I don’t like the way I speak,” or, “I don’t like how I get so angry so quickly”, or “I don’t like that I use so many swear words without thinking.”  All are good, if they are honest.  So, seek God and look for the teachers and leaders who can help you – that’s why God has raised them up amongst you.  As was read to us this morning from Proverbs 1:20-33 heed wisdom’s warning, in other words let yourself be taught by the best teachers.

Lest you think me worthy of a double portion of Frequent Martyr Points following my story about Sarah and her classmates, let me tell you about one of the times I stuffed up.  Sarah was in the room on this, an earlier occasion, back when the scheme was still underway.  So, there were five students, all in that older group so 15 or 16 years old, and two of them were heaping the insults on me.  “Oh, my days Squeak why is you even here?  No one likes you, no one respects you, no one is listening to you, your whole life is a mess man.”  Maybe it was late in the day, or late in the week.  You know, Thursday afternoon when it’s not yet Friday and it’s been one of those days for the last nineteen days in a row.  Anyway, I snapped.  Not angry and shouty snapped, just let my guard down.  “You have got to be joking,” I said, in my normal classroom voice, “I am the most sorted person here.”  That was all I said, and I said it and didn’t yell it, and I said it and I didn’t sneer it.  In hindsight I probably said it more for my own benefit that theirs, a reminder to myself that whilst the first three points were undoubtedly true amongst the kids themselves, and some of the staff – that I was not liked, respected, or listened to – my whole life was not, in fact, a mess at all.  All I did in fact was annoy the other, silently hateful, students.  Suddenly all five of them were shouting, “Oh my days man, I was just sittin’ here and now you says I’m a mess?  You’re an effin’ mess you effin’ rat look-alike.  An’ why can’t you even speak English and why don’t you jus’ go back to effin’ Australia,” and so forth.  I didn’t lose any friends, I didn’t have any; not in that room anyway, but I lost my teacherly and leaderly for a moment.  One slip in my internal dialogue and I was set back a few weeks’ worth of slow progress toward shalom.

So, I urge you, heed Wisdom’s advice and the wisdom of Jacob.  Look for leaders amongst you and pray earnestly for them, especially if your search for a leader points to you.  Do not lose heart, stay close to God and follow God’s way as Jesus did and as Jacob and Paul and the Proverbalist taught.

And above all else remember this: in England they are called crisps.

Amen.

We stand together

This is the text I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn Uniting Church at Newborough on Sunday 9th September 2018.  It is the second in a series of five sermons on James and as such much of the text is repeated from the first week since this is a different congregation.  I have added below only what was new, so if you want the first part then look at last week’s text.

James 2:1-10, 14-17

The third thing humanity needs in a messy world is love.  God’s first gift to each of us was life and with life came the gifts of an abundant life.  Live abundantly, which is to say generously, with love.  Listen before you speak says Jacob, and don’t be fast about anger.  (Fast anger is the response to being offended, so work on not being so easily offended – really listen to what is being said and then respond from the love of God.  If you are in any doubt about the place of “righteous anger” in the godly life then hear how The New Jerusalem Bible reads James 1:20 that God’s saving justice is never served by human anger, and The Passion Translation renders the same verse as human anger is never a legitimate tool to promote God’s righteous purpose.  There is a place for righteous anger, and injustice is that place, but shouting at other fallen, human people to make God’s point is not the way to do it.  Hear Jacob, human anger does not bring about the righteousness which God desires all to have; humble submission to God and humility in conversation with others does.  Love is active, and Jacob encourages those of us who are religious to practise faith as well as talking about it.  By all means do talk about your faith, talk theology, talk ministry, talk devotion and worship, but remember that activity breeds memory and creates a habit of goodness.  Those who actively carry out what God has instructed will be blessed in the doing.

Today we read where Jacob in James 2:1-9 wrote about justice in interpersonal relationships, writing that God does not favour anyone by human standards of wealth or health so neither should the Church.  We should not exclude anyone from full participation when we meet as Church, and as Christians in our individual dealings with people in the world we should show respect.  Human justice is not trustworthy: many among the rich are exploitative and are therefore unfit to be favoured over the poor anyway, and in Jacob’s experience it is the self-satisfied who speak against the glorious name into which we were baptised.  Think about the wealthy people mocking equitable healthcare on those TV ads, the Church is not to act like that with regard to social justice.  Rather the  Church is to display the love of neighbour as for self as the scriptures used by Jacob clearly state in Leviticus 19:18.  If it’s good enough for Moses it’s good enough for me, and that Jesus said exactly the same thing leaves me in no doubt.

What we read in James 2:10-13 connects these ideas with the greater truth of keeping God’s law.  To act unjustly is to go against everything God says and is about; to follow the world in this is just as sinful as to murder or fornicate.  You can’t pick and choose which parts of the Way of God to focus on and be righteous in, it’s all-or-none, and because of this Jacob wrote in James 2:14-26 that the way Christians live is as important as the way Christians think.  A follower of Jesus cannot have one without the other.

Be in no doubt that practical help is a necessity when injustice is seen, not just well-wishes.  Your theology is important, but it must not get in the way of your work for the Kingdom in the world and the mission of extending the influence of God’s will in the world.  Jewish heroes, male and female, showed their belief in God by obeying God in action and not only in #thoughtandprayers.  A faith without action is no faith at all, and religious action without understanding is no faith at all.  As plainly as Jacob can make it he goes right to the heart of Judaism and says that even the core creedal activity, the one thing above all things that makes you a Jew, to recite Shema, is not enough.  Read the words of James 2:14 in The Passion Translation, faith without works is useless for saving anyone.

So, get on with it.  Amen.

It’s time to stand (Pentecost 15B)

This is the text I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 2nd September 2018.  It is the first in a series of five messages I wrote for the parish over September.

James 1:17-27

In the five Sundays in September I want to walk us through The Letter of James, portions of which have been set as the lectionary Epistle reading for each week in this month.  So first, an introduction.

James has had  a troubled time in Church history, and the letter was in danger on more than one occasion of not being included within the New Testament when the Church’s scholars decided what the Christian scriptures would be.  Despite the fact that this text was attributed to Jacob the brother of Jesus, which is really what got it across the line and into the top twenty-seven, there are a number of big issues with it even for Christians today.  James does not speak about Christ’s cross or resurrection, at all, and it doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit.  And, other than identifying himself as a belonger to Jesus Christ in two places, James 1:1 and James 2:1, Jacob doesn’t actually mention Jesus at all in the text.  This is a letter about God, the Adonai of the Israelites.

James is a general letter, addressed to everyone at large and nobody in particular, unlike Paul’s letters which were addressed to newly born churches in specific cities or regions.  As a general letter James is not as personal as Paul’s writings, it offers a few bits of generalist advice rather than answering the questions of one specific location.  James was written within a contemporary Greek and Hebrew literary style called paranesis which means it offered admonitions and exhortations; it’s all about “everyone should…” and “no one should…” and the like.  And James jumps around a bit, there’s no clear flow from one point to another, there’s no development, there’s just a bunch of ethical points, almost like dot points, and then having made all his points Jacob stops writing.  There’s no “farewell to the brethren and tell Sophie I said hi”, there’s just stop.  In this way Jacob’s writing is more like Jesus’ preaching than it is Paul’s writing.

So, James is in the Bible primarily because Jacob ben Joseph, the second son of Mary the former Virgin, wrote it, apparently, and somewhat in spite of it not talking about Jesus much and not talking about Calvary at all.  But the main reason that James nearly didn’t get into the Bible is because it seems to contradict Paul.  Paul is all about salvation by grace, and James is all about faith revealed by works, right?  Well one of my commentators describes the solution this way: that Paul’s key message is indeed that our salvation comes about from the sheer generosity in grace expressed by God who welcomes us home.  There is nothing to be earned or achieved, Christ has opened the way through his death and resurrection and we are invited simply to open our arms and receive the gift.  But Jacob in James did not dispute or refute this, which many have thought he did, (including Martin Luther who thought James was a very dodgy piece of work), what Jacob emphasises is that God-faith is not true faith unless it mirrors God in producing a radically generous and grace-filled life.  James does not say we must earn our salvation, James says that our salvation should prompt us to action in a world desperate for truth and love.  In other words, Paul writes about how salvation comes about, and Jacob writes about not becoming fat and lazy in the salvation you were gifted, but rather live out your faith for the good of the world, just like Moses and the prophets said.  After all, what is the point of being saved if you’re just going to be gossipy and ignore the dire plight of your widowed neighbour, or be rude to the shabby man who comes to church looking for salvation?  Jacob says that we can live generous lives safe in the knowledge that God who has already saved us (and the prophets) and is eternally faithful to Israel continues to have our back.  Jacob is actually saying that if you’re saved, drop the nervous religious pretence and live freely and openly as an ambassador of the rolling-out Reign of God.

So, with the background in place let’s look at what James actually says in today’s readings.  We’re starting at James 1:17 so very briefly let me tell you that in the first sixteen verses Jacob writes about God’s understanding that humans are basically good creatures who do dumb things.  There’s no total moral depravity for Jacob in the fallen world, Jacob takes the mainstream Jewish view that Adam was a perfect creation of God, but Adam made a mess of things and that mess continues today.  But God is still God, humanity is still the image of God, and God desires a reconciliation between Godself and humanity.  Furthermore, God understands Godself needs to get about this because humanity can’t.  Basic, simple, Jewish and now Christian stuff.

The first thing that humanity needs in a messy world is wisdom and Jacob says in the mode of the Jewish scriptural wisdom writers that we should just ask God for it.  There’s no shame in asking God for wisdom, just be confident when you do.

The second thing humanity needs in a messy world is guts.  It takes bravery and perseverance to live well in a messy world, and since Jacob tells us to be bold in living out our faith then we need to be brave against the condition of the world, and brave against those who prefer the world in its current state and will resist our desire for godly transformation.  God does not send temptation, (this is very clear in James 1:12),  but God does send hope to stand when temptation comes from desire for something other than God’s provision.  Temptation leads to death because temptation leads away from God, who is life. James 1:14 in The Complete Jewish Bible reads each person is being tempted whenever he is dragged off and enticed by the bait of his own desire.  In Jewish rabbinical wisdom, only repentance can halt the vicious sequence of hezer hara (the evil inclination).

Now we come to today’s lectionary portion, with all of the above in mind, and we read in James 1:17-18 that God’s response to our lack of wisdom and lack of perseverance is generosity.  The first gift God gave us was life, and then with life came the gifts of an abundant life.  There is nothing dark or hidden about God, God is holy and good and the more you get to know God the more beautiful God is for you (the more you see God’s beauty, the less you can doubt God is duplicitous).  Jacob counsels us that the best response to God’s gift of life is that we live fruitful lives which display God’s dependability and eternal goodness.  As I said in the introduction, this is Jacob’s main point, and it’s the reason why I for one am happy that James is actually in the Bible.  Jacob continues in James 1:19-21 where he writes about lovingkindness and patience with regard to anger.  Listen before you speak, he says, and don’t be fast about anger.  (Fast anger is the response to being offended, so work on not being so easily offended – really listen to what is being said and then respond from the love of God given through an abundant life.  We have already read that God does not send temptation, now we read that when the world does send temptation we have the opportunity of God to respond with abundance.  If you are in any doubt about the place of “righteous anger” in the godly life then hear how The New Jerusalem Bible reads James 1:20 that God’s saving justice is never served by human anger, and The Passion Translation renders the same verse as human anger is never a legitimate tool to promote God’s righteous purpose.  There is a place for righteous anger, and injustice is that place, but shouting at other fallen, human people to make God’s point is not the way to do it.  Furthermore, we must actively purge our lives of sordidness, immorality and growing wickedness.  James 1:21 in The New Jerusalem Bible reads do away with all impurities and remnants of evil; we must pursue the Way of God with meekness because the Way of God revealed in scripture is powerful to save.  Hear Jacob, human anger does not bring about the righteousness which God desires all to have; humble submission to God and humility in conversation with others does.

Finally, for this morning, in James 1:22-25 we read about activity in faith and we are encouraged to practise religion as well as talk about it.  By all means do talk about your faith, talk theology, talk ministry, talk devotion and worship, but remember that activity breeds memory and creates a habit of goodness.  Those who actively carry out what God has instructed will be blessed in the doing.  In James 1:26-27 this is taken further to specify good use of speech.  Speak with self-discipline and put into practice what you hear of grace, especially to your marginalised neighbours who are helpless, homeless, loveless and comfortless, and non-belonging ones in your community.  Show grace towards yourself and encourage yourself to live with resilience and perseverance in the face of temptation.  Jacob suggests that good speech is an outward sign of a good heart, so if you hear yourself speaking badly see that as an indication that you need to examine your motives and attitudes.  The best way to avoid pollution from the world is through practising wise hearing and action.

So, get on with it.

Amen.

If Today Was Your First Day (Pentecost 10B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn and Morwell gathered at Yallourn North on Sunday 29th July 2018.

2 Samuel  11:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21

Last Monday was an anniversary for me.  Actually, it was two on the same day.  On Sunday 23rd July 1972 I was baptised, and Monday 23rd July 2007 was my first day in prison.  I’m still baptised, and my last day in prison was Friday 30th January 2009, but I’d never really connected those two “first days” in my mind before.  I knew they were the anniversaries, but I tend to have remembered only one or the other, not both, but this past week I did.

Something that drew that connection even closer for me this year was the titles of two of the commentaries I chose for this week.  One book was called “Letters from Heaven” and the other was called “The Prison Letters”.  Of course, these books each in their own special way refer to the same letters; specifically, for me the pastoral Letter to the Church in Ephesus, attributed to Paul.  That Paul could write words of such heavenly encouragement from a prison cell is not a surprise to me, but we must not breeze past that fact either.  Even in the twenty-first century a gaol is not the sort of place you want to make a life, despite what you may have heard of its creature comforts boasting three square meals a day, a warm bed at night, and a 14’ TV in every cell.  The gaols where Paul spent time were a far cry from that, but even if they were of today’s standard they’re still not the sort of place you want to stay in if you have any other option.  And yet, the hope of Christ is found there, perhaps strength in weakness as I alluded to a few weeks ago.  When all you have left is Christ then, and perhaps only then, can you discover just who Christ is.  That revelation is truly a communique from Heaven, the message of salvation, friendship to sinners.

This news seems particularly relevant to me in the light of what I have just told you.  I have spent time in gaol, and I was baptised as an infant. For some people that news is scandalous, either piece of news an issue in need of remediation.  Of course, you all know that there is more to the story of my being in prison, a far less scandalous explanation, and I dare say many of you were ritually sprinkled or poured upon as babies and have never been submerged as adults, so you will see no problem in the story of my Presbyterian infancy.  Nonetheless, the finer details of my life are not the issue; the subject of Christ as saviour is a great theme.

In our reading for Jewish history this morning we find David not doing what a king should do and what every other king does.  David has gone home part way through the campaign of battle and is in Jerusalem and enjoying the comforts of his cedar-lined palace while his armies are in the field under the command of generals.  David’s conduct is contrary to that of the faithful Uriah who refuses on several occasions to spend even one night with Bathsheba, even when drunk.  Look at David in 2 Samuel 11:1 and compare him with Uriah in 2 Samuel 11:11, 13.  So, while the army is under canvas and in the midst of military manoeuvres David is at home, first having a nap and then having a perve.

Now, we need to understand that just because David can see her bathing that doesn’t mean that Bathsheba is showing off.  Remember that David is on his palace’s roof, potentially the highest point in this city which does not have a permanent temple.  Bathsheba might be innocently going about her bathing in the privacy of an inside courtyard, not anticipating at all that anyone would be looking down from the roof, or if they happened to do so that they would stay there leering at her.  David is in the wrong here.

What I most liked about the story as I read it this week, and like you I have read this story many times before, but what struck me as fresh information is that the Bible gives Bathsheba a full identity.  So, a Feminist reading might object to her being the daughter of some man and the wife of another rather than a woman in her own right, and fair enough actually, but at least she is identified.  This woman does have a name, a named father, and a named husband.  Bathsheba even has a calendar and we are told that it is the end of that week of the month for her.  The Bible identifies this woman by name, by relationship, and by care for her welfare.  King Leer on the other hand, David the just-awoke-from-his-nap-time sees her only as an assortment of curvaceous lumps of sexy meat.  The Bible tells us that she has just had her period, that’s why she’s in her ritual and hygienic bath, which means that in the coming week she will ovulate and be fertile.  David, obviously, could not care less.

In Ephesians 3:1 Paul calls himself a prisoner of Jesus.  He was also a prisoner of conscience at the time, probably in Rome.  Paul credits his imprisonment for the sake of the Gentiles; he understands that he’s been locked up for preaching and specifically for preaching what it is he has actually preached: but as far as he is concerned what choice does he have?  The gospel itself compels him, the news is too great not to share and the call of Jesus to apostleship is not something that Paul would ever refuse (Ephesians 3:3,7).  “Keep the faith, but don’t keep it to yourself” is his motto.  God has order in all things because all things are in God’s keeping, even if they are not all in God’s plan (Ephesians 3:8-13).  So, where the reading this morning began with for this reason the reason is all of the above; that the gospel is compelling, and that Christ’s own ordination is upon one so undeserving.  In Christ, from the Father, we are given a name and an inheritance which is being delivered now through divine blessing and resource for the work of the Kingdom (Ephesians 3:14-16).  All of this is delivered by love, and by the Spirit of Christ dwelling within each of us (Ephesians 3:17-18).  Paul is so assured that he has made a telling point that Ephesians 3:20 reads as a benediction; Paul might just as well have ended the letter there.

The writers of 2 Samuel 11 tell us that David denies Bathsheba’s and Uriah’s humanity: the woman is sexy meat and the husband is a barrier between David and the sexy meat.  Paul in Ephesians 3 on the other hand tell us that The Father, in Jesus declares and provides identity, lifting up nameless nobodies to kinship with God and ultimately to perfection.  Uriah was a great bloke cut down, Bathsheba was a victim of rape, and Paul was a bully transformed.  David is a bully right now, his transformation will come later, and Bathsheba will one day become Queen Mother.

Today’s message from scripture is that identity is personal.  Personal not that it is private, and not just that it is “you-specific”, but personal in that that it is meaningful to each individual.  When I was baptised and then as a more mature believer made confirmation of that baptism I was entering into a specific, recognisable covenant with God.  When I was three months old my parents made a loving choice on my behalf, and twelve years and three months further on I chose to confirm their intention, that I would follow God and God alone for all of my life.  God, who had already chosen me before I was knot together in my mother’s womb, indeed before my mother was knit together in her mother’s womb and so forth back in time, the God who chose me became my God by my choosing.  Even though God had no vows in the Presbyterian liturgy of baptism as was current in 1972, nor in the Anglican liturgy of confirmation as was current in 1984, I’m pretty sure God actively engaged with those processes and continued to choose me as a son and disciple.

I can also tell you that identity is important in gaol; you might expect this, maybe you didn’t.  You all know that my time in gaol between 23rd July 2007 and 30th January 2009 involved me wearing mostly black clothes and a pair of epaulettes with a blue band on them.  I also carried a numbered a set of keys and a radio with a unique callsign.  I was an OSG, an “Operational Support Grade” member of staff: not a prisoner in my prison, but a gaoler in my gaol.  I had a unique name and specific grade “OSG Tann”, a unique number (MT264), and set roles each day.  This made me distinct in the system; no other person in Her Majesty’s Prisons Service was me.  And, importantly, I was not a prisoner.  Prisoners also had specific colours to wear, maroon if they were especially difficult and green if they were especially amenable.  Prisoners also had their own name, usually their own surname prefaced by “Mr”, and a number.  Each prisoner is unique in the system and any prisoner “on the estate”, which is to say anyone incarcerated in England and Wales, could be located and identified to his or her specific cell.

My identity as a Christian, and as an OSG, were given to me.  I chose to be a Christian, and I chose to be an OSG, but how I was identified after those decisions was given to me.  Your identity today is both your choice and decision of the places into which you have been included.  In this cluster as a whole and in each of two parish congregations, you are called “sister” or “brother”, you are one of us not only in Christianity and the family of God but in our gathering as Yallourn and Morwell.

God sees you as unique and as part of the whole body.  You are you and you are part of us: this is an important distinction missed by David who saw only a whole mob of which he was shepherd.  David did not understand how one sheep here or there would be missed in the grand scheme, big picture of the flock.  A cute girl here, a random soldier there, who was to tell Israel’s king otherwise?  Well, God was to say otherwise, and so was Nathan (on God’s behalf) in his story of one ewe lamb amongst the mobs.

If you are a Bathsheba or a Uriah to God, then so may you be to me.  One, unique, irreplaceable one.

Amen.