Watch your step (Pentecost 8B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn  Parish Uniting Church at Yallourn North on Sunday 15th July 2018.

Mark 6:14-29; Ephesians 3:1-14

The passage from the gospel that was read to us this morning is unique in that the hero of this story is not Jesus.  In every other story told by Mark Jesus is the hero by his helping the main character, or Jesus is the main character.  But in Mark 6:17-29 Jesus doesn’t appear, and we read an episode from the past where John the Baptiser is both the major character and the hero.  I wonder why that is, why does Mark make an exception to his rule?

Of course, our set reading does actually begin with Jesus, and in Mark 6:14-16 we read that his fame was so widespread and impressive that even the king had heard of him.  Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Perea and Galilee was both astonished and afraid by the news of Jesus’ ministry: the news of the Kingdom of God was upsetting to the kings of the earth, especially the king with jurisdiction in Galilee.  John had been proclaiming the coming of the king, and now the message of the Kingdom of God was going ahead even though John was dead.  So, if Herod Antipas is afraid that being murdered has only made John Baptiser stronger imagine what he’ll think about Jesus!

Antipas was a bit of a Herod-wannabe, not the man his father was, and since old man Herod The Great had been a Solomon-wannabe and a Messiah-wannabe with his temple building and his sucking up to the Romans, the moral and intellectual challenge set for Antipas by John Baptiser was warranted.  So, since Antipas thinks John was dealt with and silenced, but now he’s back, and in version 2.0 to boot, Antipas is on guard.  This is where it is helpful to consider for whom Mark wrote, and see his story as encouragement intended for the small communities of persecuted believers and potential martyrs in the generation after Jesus.  Mark reminds them that God is stronger than every king, and that Jesus will always win when the Caesars (or Herods) gets knotted up and narky (Mark 6:26).

According to Jewish history the kingship of God is not something to be taken lightly.   In 2 Samuel 6 (1-5, 12b-19) the stories are told of how David went out from Jerusalem to gather and bring the Ark to the place set aside for worship.  The journey began as a military parade with David marching in pageantry; the royal retinue was full of nationalistic pride and treated the Ark as the spoils of war.  You all know that this attitude ended in the death of one of the attendants of the Ark, even as he thought he was being helpful.  Make no mistake in reading this story, we are to rejoice in God’s presence with us, God’s choosing of us, and God’s victorious vindication of our confidence in God.  But God is never a trophy for us to toss around like winning grand finalists on a lap of honour, and neither are the things of God ever “booty”.  The Ark of the Covenant, which I have seen one children’s Bible call “the box of the promise” (grr!) belongs to God.  More than a box, or even an ark, it is a sign of God’s faithfulness to Israel.  The Ark itself is the visible remainder of God’s covenant with Abraham, repeated to Isaac and Jacob, and reminded to all further generations by the prophets.  That the Ark is coming to Jerusalem, and that it is being brought there by David, is a magnificent thing.  But it is a God thing, not a David thing: as great a king as David is and as great a conqueror he was in capturing the city from the Jebusites, God is the hero of this story, not David.   God is stronger than any Caesar and every Herod, and God is more wonderful than David, indeed more wonderful than David can even imagine.

When the journey of the Ark toward the city resumes it is as a celebration of praise and thanksgiving to God.  There are songs of worship and blood sacrifices along the road.  David is stripped back in humility and abandonment before The LORD, even as king, and he is more effusive in praise than all the people.  All of the people are blessed with gifts of food as signs of the abundance and generosity of the God of the covenant and a reminder of what was agreed to in the first place.  The Kingdom of God is at hand, the realm where God is king through the agency of a human intermediary of Abrahamic descent, and those to whom the kingdom has been revealed are receiving the abundance of the king.  Likewise, in Psalm 24 we read earlier that The LORD is the great king, ruler and creator of all the universe.  There is no doubt who is God, and who God is to us.  There is also no doubt of the message of God which is welcome and blessing for those who are blameless in action and thought, who are faithful to God and to their word.  When the pageant celebrating the God of the covenant cries out “lift up the gates and the King of Glory shall come in” God invites us to join the march and enter the city of God with God, and to make our home in the place where the Ark is.

And so that is where we are: in the Spirit at least.  We who belong to God by God’s choosing are citizens of the Kingdom of God and we live in the heavenly realm.  We do not live in Heaven, but we live in the realm of which Heaven is the capital and the place from which we take our identity and receive our government.  Even if we are kings in life, as Antipas and David were, we are subject to the rule of God; and even if we are at the bottom of the chain as John was in gaol or the random peasants who grabbed a flying loaf or two from David’s cake-chucking teams, we are beneficiaries of God’s justice.

Today’s set reading from Early Christian history came to us from Ephesians 1:3-14 where we read the larger story of Christian life in faith.  In other words, this is what life in God’s realm looks like, even for us in the borderlands.  Our instructions as citizens begin with an exhortation to bless God for all that God has blessed us with, especially in God’s sending Jesus as king.  The passage fits well with the gospel and Jewish history accounts because it is a declaration of adoration and praise for God’s choosing each and all of us by grace to be God’s agents for missional action for the transformation of Creation.  John the Baptiser served out his days as a prophet of God, and whilst it cost him his head it cost him no more than that.  Jesus praised John as a faithful witness to the coming kingdom and a herald of the almost present king.  David eventually got it right and today he has the honour in history of being the man responsible for seeing the Ark of God placed in the City of God in the very centre of the place occupied by the People of God, a venue where it remained for almost five hundred years. The visible reminder of God’s covenant was there to see (if you were allowed in to see it).  In all of this glory for the heroes of our faith we can be assured that God glorifies us in our celebration of God and our participation in the work of God: the inheritance passed on to us by grace is the transformed Creation.

God’s promise to us, to Christians and to others who follow the Way of Jesus, is the new creation.  We are confident that this will come about because as Paul reminds us we have received the Spirit as deposit.  This is cause for celebration.  Now I’m not expecting you all to start leaping about David-style, stripped to your underwear and throwing cakes of dates at each other, but this is not a message to just sigh at and say “oh yeah, okay” either.  The promises made by God were trusted implicitly by those who went before us.  David was prepared to look like a complete idiot in front of his subjects and his grumpy queen, and John was prepared to go to the block, because of what they each understood about God.  God has promised that God is coming, and coming as king, and coming as saviour with restorative justice and bounteous provision.  God has promised to overthrow all injustice and iniquity, all the Caesars and Herods of the world.  This is good news.

This is the good news we proclaim.  This is the good news the twelve in pairs proclaimed as they went about Galilee proclaiming the kingdom of God and restoring to wellness the sick, the possessed, and the dead.  This is an exciting message because it will transform the world, and it is a true message as well.  God has already begun to do this, God is doing it today, and God will do it wherever we go and introduce the story of God to people who are waiting for liberation.

No matter who the story is about, or who it is told by, the hero is always Jesus.

Amen.

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Adventageous

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Yallourn Parish meeting at Yallourn North Uniting Church on Sunday 17th December 2017, the Third Sunday in Advent in Year B.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; Luke 1:46b-55

Last week when I spoke about God’s word spoken through Isaiah to the exiled Judahite and Israelite nations I said that that passage, found in the first eleven verses of Isaiah 40, was an inauguration text.  I said that God had set aside a new prophet for a new message, and we were coming in at the very beginning of that story.  Today’s reading from Isaiah 61 serves the same purpose in scripture and history.  Today we heard how God was again speaking to a people in distress, and the message of God was hope.  Last week we heard of comfort and assurance, this week we hear of activity and remembrance.  You are not forgotten by me, says God, now go and gather the lost whom you have forgotten.

“The spirit is upon me because God has set me apart to do the work of God” says the prophet.  Unlike last week’s initiation where overheard God speaking to the angels, and the angels speaking to the prophet with a “tell them this” message, today’s reading began with the prophet himself speaking as if he has already received the message.  That’s fine, and you’ve probably seen that already, it’s no big deal that we miss out on Heaven’s conversation today.  But what sets this inauguration apart is that this prophet claims to have the Spirit upon him.  Usually prophets were not anointed, but in a way this prophet claims to have been.  Anointing was for priests and kings, ordination and coronation involved oil, but prophets usually announced themselves simply by beginning to speak.  We heard last week how John the Baptiser seems to appear out of nowhere, the same was true, pretty much, of the Israelite and Judahite prophets back in the day, with no activity of the temple or the palace.  In other words, the Spirit’s presence was conferred by Godself as the evidence of God’s appointment.  That doesn’t mean that the rituals of coronation or ordination are irrelevant in the Kingdom of God, we do still need kings and priests, but the work of a prophet is something different.  Prophets belong to God in a special way, they do not owe tenure to any parliament or synod.

This may sound inspiring, and it should do, but it is also heavy with meaning.  Quite simply if you do not have the Spirit, and the Spirit is a gift of God which cannot be earned or acquired through study or seniority, then you are not equipped for the work of God.  I believe that this is true for all Christians and Jews, not just those called to the unique office of prophet.  I do not claim to be a prophet in the way that John the Baptiser or Isaiah were, but I hope that you recognise that what I say is said because of the Spirit of God working through me as a preacher and in me as a Christian.  Without the Spirit you cannot do the work of God.  You can do public speaking, you might even be able to preach a decent Bible study.  You can do pastoral visiting and listen attentively to the sick and lonely.  And those are good things.  But without the insight of the Spirit those jobs will always lack something, they will be incomplete as ministries.

And, of course, the reverse is true.  If you have been equipped by the Spirit to do the work of God, but you do not do the work, then what use is the Spirit to you?  Maybe some people are not doing the work of God because the Spirit is not with them, and that is the evidence that the Spirit is absent from their lives.  I don’t care if you don’t speak in tongues, there are other signs of God’s individual presence.  But if you don’t do anything as a disciple, then I wonder about your relationship with the saviour.

No Spirit of God, no work of God.  Without the Spirit we can do nothing.  But no work of God, no Spirit of God?  If your faith is not seen in action aligned to the mission of God, then what evidence does the world and the church have that you are with God at all?

So, as a pastor-teacher here, and someone you have chosen in the short-term at least to fill a leadership role, what am I looking for?  How do I know that you are each and all a Christian?

When I was a primary school teacher I used to write two names on the whiteboard at the beginning of each lesson, and these were our learning friends.  One was W.A.L.T., and the other was W.I.L.F.  “WALT” told us “we are learning to”, and “WILF” told us “what I’m looking for”.  For example: We Are Learning To…use adjectives.  What I’m Looking For…is good describing words. It was very clear to the pupils, be they grade two or grade seven, what the lesson was about.  Just so, I want to be clear for you today.  As the one acting in the role of your “Minister”, W (am) ILF?

Isaiah, and Jesus who quotes him later and at the outset of his own ministry, offers that God’s work is good news to the oppressed, bandaging for the broken, liberty to the captive, release for the imprisoned, declaration of God’s favour to the abandoned, and comfort for the mourning.  That sounds like a pretty clear “WILF” on God’s behalf, so let’s go with that, and make that our “WALT”.  In Isaiah 61:8 God’s own voice declares repair and restoration of that which was destroyed and thought lost forever.  God through Isaiah promises restoration of what was stolen, full restoration with the right of inheritance.  Isaiah has great cause to rejoice in God who has called him and equipped him with resource and blessing and joy.  Isaiah among the Israelites has been restored and healed, perhaps he has been among the first to have been so and now he is telling his story to encourage those awaiting the Spirit’s arrival in their lives.  The blessing of God is natural and once the channels are unblocked what should flow naturally, God’s favour, will flow in abundance.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20, 24 we read Do not quench the spirit.  Do not despise the words of the prophets…. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do this. As I hope you’ve already picked up, but now I’m going to say it blatantly, the work of the Spirit is to make us more like Jesus.  Jesus was the one who was most guided by the Spirit, so if we are guided by the Spirit and attentive to God’s “WILF” and “WALT” then we’ll be more like him.  Through all Jewish history the prophets were the custodians of the nation’s greatest hopes, desires and dreams.  When the actions of the people lead the nation away from these great thoughts, the work of the prophet was to remind them of the picture of the future to call them back.  As Christians we don’t have a nation in the way that the Jews do, we have a Kingdom which is made evident in the work of the Church.  The Spirit moves on some people to speak out, and the Spirit moves on all people to respond, to draw the Church back to the hopes, desires, and dreams of God and the Christians who have gone before us.

Turning briefly to the Christmas story I want to suggest that the evidence that Mary the Virgin and John the Baptiser were doing God’s work was that the Spirit was with them, even though the work they were doing was new.  In Christian tradition God had not spoken to the Israelites through a prophetic man for over four hundred years, until suddenly John appeared in the wilderness quoting Isaiah amongst the other prophets, yet denying the charge of being a new Elijah.  He didn’t fit the preconceived idea, and his style was four hundred years out of date, but the Spirit was all over him so whatever he was doing and saying it must have been God.  And think of Mary, God had never sent a messiah before, so Mary’s pregnancy was unique; it still is.  Yet hear her song of “tell out my soul” and look at the life of the boy-became-a-man born from her womb.  Do you see the Spirit of God upon her, upon Jesus, in this new thing?  Then it is God, and “WALT…do something new”.

How do we know that God is speaking through the voices of the people on the margins of our tradition, our society?  How do we know that this message is true if it comes without precedent?  We look for the Spirit.

Again, in Mary the Spirit was seen in her celebration and her song of worship and delight filled praise; so much so that her very presence caused the prophet John to leap in praise in utero.  In John the Spirit was seen in this leap, a second trimester foetus who prophesies to the coming Christ.

In John the Spirit was seen again in his proclamation of the message of God in accordance with the Jewish tradition.  The great test of any prophet is found not so much in what he says but in whether what he says will happen does happen.  That Jesus came and was seen to be all that John had foretold and more is evidence that John was a man sent by God.

I have no doubt that the Spirit is with this congregation, by which I mean the whole Yallourn Parish.  God is with and on and in each of you people here this morning, and those who are sometimes here but not today.  And with the mob at Morwell listening to Cathy Halliwell this morning.  And with Cathie.  I know these things because I have seen the Spirit at work amongst you in your care for each other and for the care-needing people of your towns.  I do not believe that we are in danger of losing the Spirit or of disappointing God, but I hasten to add that we can never take our ministry for granted.  We are engaging in a work which is a privilege, and if we lapse then that privilege will be taken from us and given to someone else.  Let’s not allow that.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, to do God’s good works.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

And Vent!

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Parish Uniting Church, meeting in Newborough, for Sunday 10th December 2017.  It was the Second Sunday in Advent.

Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

This year, beginning last week on Advent Sunday and running through until we celebrate Christ the King on the last Sunday in November 2018, we shall be reading primarily from The Gospel According to Mark.  This is one of my favourite gospels, and if it’s not my absolute favourite it’s definitely top four.  I especially enjoy how brief and to the point Mark’s writing is, everything is so sudden and there’s no padding.  Today’s reading, the first eight verses of the book, is just like that.  Bang – here it is in Mark 1:1 and then straight in to the coming of John the Baptiser in Mark 1:2 to prepare the way for Jesus, who appears in Mark 1:9.  Matthew and Luke each take until chapter three of their gospels to get to the arrival of John in the desert: Matthew in 48 verses and Luke in an astonishing 132 verses.  Mark takes one.

So, Mark immediately opens the story at the best starting place: the arrival of an adult Jesus on the day he begins his ministry, the day he is commissioned by the Holy Spirit in the presence of John the Baptiser, the prophesied one who would announce his coming.  Mark grounds the story of Jesus immediately in the salvation history of the Israelites, connecting the appearance of John to the prophetic speech of Isaiah, and to the mission of Israel’s God in history which had always been about reconciliation.  As God had constantly called Israel and Judah back to the covenant, offering forgiveness and mercy time and time again if only they would return, so John offers a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins as he says in Mark 1:4.  It’s the same thing, he’s calling the people to make an about face, be released from debt, and move forward in God’s direction.

So, given that Mark quotes him so early in the piece I wonder, what did Isaiah actually say?  Well we find in Isaiah 40:1-11 that God has taken Isaiah aside and prepared him with a new message for the Israelites who are living in exile.  “Speak comfort to the people”, says the LORD, “because the people have served their sentence”.  Their saviour is coming along the wilderness road, levelling the road and making a way of travel.  Repentance is not complex, and while it is not easy because it is so confronting to human pride, it is simple.  God has seen that human life is temporary and that women and men are inconsistent in their ways because of this limitation upon them.  Individuals die but the story of God lives on.  God tells Isaiah, and we can presume that God also tells John the Baptiser, to go, get up on a high place and proclaim that story loudly.  The instruction to Isaiah and to John is to tell the Jerusalemites the story of salvation so that they can then get about telling every citizen of the world that God is present.  God is coming, God has come, and when God comes the good leader will feed the hungry, clothe the exposed, and carry the broken ones close.

As far as Isaiah is concerned this is a commissioning passage, a personal call to prophetic ministry much like the ones recorded in Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 61.  If you read closely you’ll see that the call to comfort and speak is given to the angels, one of whom commands (Isaiah 40:3) the opening of the way home: a second ex-hodos through the wilderness like the first one was through the sea.  But Isaiah’s and John’s message is that this will be an easy road, unlike the trek of Moses, since the land will fall flat, and the road will be straight and direct.  This is a road without wandering or struggling.  Another angel commands Isaiah to proclaim the message of God’s constancy (Isaiah 40:6) to God’s people who are dead grass (Isaiah 40:6-8).  As the Korahites sang in Psalm 80:10-13, (which I read as our call to worship), God is constant regarding the promises of the covenant, and the people’s hope of restoration is secure.  Six hundred years later John is telling the same story, and soon enough Jesus will repeat God’s message over and over.

Peter reminds us in his letter that God is beyond age and epoch.  God is not slow, God is not limited, God has chosen to be patient and God is not feeling pressured to act or be rushed.  Even as the Israelites and Judahites waited for God in exile, even as the Judeans of Jesus’ day suffered under Roman occupation and cried out for God to restore a king from the Davidic line, (rather than an Idumean puppet appointed by Caesar), the God of Abraham waited.  Jesus had come and gone in Peter’s lifetime, but the Romans remained.  But Peter remembered God’s promise to return to earth and he trusted God to come in the fulness of God’s time.  Peter reminds his readers, the people of his church but also any to whom he had ministered in the past, that when God arrives you’ll not miss it because it will be bright and loud and violent.

Advent is the time in the Christian calendar when we remember that Jesus is the Once and Future King, to borrow a phrase from the legends of Avalon and Camelot.  Peter’s story of light and sound is obviously not a retelling of the night in Bethlehem when shepherds watched, and three wee kings arrived.  Like the exiles, the Judeans, the Romans, and the Antiochenes we wait for God to return for us and lead us home along that straight, wide, and flat road.  We believe the word of God when his disciples remind us that all that surrounds us is finite and that it will be swept away when God returns. We believe the word of God and are reminded that finite does not mean without value:  Peter is saying we must not hold onto the world or depend upon it for our safety, but we are to utilise it for the work of proclaiming the gospel.  Use it, use it up, but don’t waste it.  Demonstrate the same patience that God shows, and model your life on the generous and unhurried flow of Jesus, the one who was often busy but never hassled.  Live with integrity in a world which is mocking your trust.

The first words of Mark read “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the son of God”.  In the light of all we know about Jesus and his ministry, and all that Peter reminded us of, must this sentence refer only to Mark 1:1 as some Greek version of “Once upon a time in a land far far away”, or even “In the beginning”?  Or is the whole book of Mark only the beginning of the good news, and further instalments of the gospel are not to be found in Mark 1:2, Mark 2:1, or even in Mark 16:9, but in what we say and do with the message in our day?  Where Advent reminds us that the one who came to Bethlehem is coming again, and to Yallourn and Moe this time I think it’s more of the second, that the gospel continues in us.  Now the mandate given to the prophets, the psalmists, and the apostles is given to us.  Our task is to speak comfort to the city, not Jerusalem or Rome but the City of Latrobe, and to assure them of the coming grace of peace and restoration.  Our Christmas message to the community is that when the Lord comes he is coming for them to welcome them home.

Just as he did the first time he came.

Amen.