Mutual Love (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Kaniva Day Centre (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 3rd September 2019.

Hebrews 13:1-8

Let mutual love continue says the writer in Hebrews 13:1. We don’t know for certain who the writer of this sermon was, although we can be pretty certain who it wasn’t: it wasn’t Jesus, or any of the apostles, and it wasn’t Paul. With that in mind I wonder whether we should care who it was, and what he or she said. “Who are you to tell us what to do, who are you to tell us how to live a Christian life?” we might ask. Christianity, indeed all life, is very different in 2019 to how it was in 65 AD; and in Australia to how it was in the Roman Empire; and for people born Christian than people born Hebrew. But I’d advise against getting too upset because if we do we might miss the point. The point is that this is good advice; “let mutual love continue” is a good thing to keep in mind.

The thing about mutual love, and this is especially so in how it related to Christians of Hebrew background, is that we are all in this together. At this point in church history much of the terror to come had not yet come. It’s been about thirty years since Stephen had been martyred and Saul of Tarsus had been locking people up; but then Paul had been converted and life had gone on without much backlash, save the occasional bullying episode. Nero hadn’t arrived on the Roman scene yet, and the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing when Hebrews was written: still, that bullying was going on, and especially so at the local level toward Jewish converts to Christianity. You can read about of that in the stories of Paul’s travels in Acts and his letters. And this is interesting, well, I think it is, because I think this is one of the reasons why Hebrews is relevant to Christians in Australia in 2019. We are not being persecuted like the Christians of later decades, look at what was happening ten years later across the empire and the condition that the Romans left Jerusalem in and you’ll know real pain. But no, for the original hearers of Hebrews the message is not about the struggle against flesh and blood and spiritual authorities, but about being kind to itinerant strangers at the door, and about staying in fellowship and encouraging one another for mutual support when the neighbours start throwing sideways glances and well-aimed fruit as you pass by.

This sermon also addresses the hardships of life away from bullying, specifically the things that all people find hard at times. Again this is as true for Christians today and here as if was for Christians then and there, and for people of all times and places who aren’t Christian for that matter. How do we help our friends who are in gaol, or who need advice from a trusted friend because they struggle in their relationships or with self-confidence, or they are becoming distracted by money and possessions, or with fear and overwhelming concerns? The same message applies, let mutual love continue: consider the suffering of others as if it were your own and offer the help you would desire in that person’s place.

The help that the writer of Hebrews wants us to offer to our troubled friends is twofold:

1. Compassionate inclusion. Show care in whatever way care is required – be that practical hospitality to the stranger or practical wisdom clothed in comfort to the friend, do something and do what needs to be done.

2. Share Christ. Encourage others with the promise that God is faithful and consistent, Jesus Christ s the same yesterday, today and forever, which we read in Hebrews 13:8 is a reminder not that the church needs to be sterile but that God can be utterly relied upon. That’s why we read in Hebrews 13:7 to remember your leaders…and imitate their faith. This is not because the Church demands honour for its clergy,  but because leaders as those who have gone before us in the faith, and who spoke the word of God to you know the story of God. When someone is doubting God, assure him or her that God is faithful and make that assurance by your own story. Say something like “I know this looks hard now, but when I was in a similar situation God pulled me though, and because Jesus is the same today as he was back then then I am sure that God will pull you through too.” The leader speaks encouragement drawn from experience, the wise person heeds that voice.

The book we call Hebrews is really a sermon. It’s not even a letter, it’s a sermon and as a sermon it is directed entirely at Christians. So let’s pay attention to this ancient sermon; let those of us who know Christ as Lord, God as Father, and each other as sister or brother look after each other as family. Let mutual love, love for one another, continue.

Amen.

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New Life (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for chapel at the Day Centre of the West Wimmera Health Service (Kaniva Hospital) for Tuesday 6th August 2019.

Colossians 3:1-11

New life in Christ seems like a great topic for any act of Christian worship: the hope of faith we have in Jesus means that we’re all looking forward to what lies ahead.

Recently I was listening to an ABC podcast which featured three Christians, each from a different tradition, discussing the place of Hell in Christian thought in 2019. One of the key outcomes, perhaps a point of similarity between the three people, was the idea that God is the source of all life, and so whatever Hell is as the place where God is absent so too is life absent to some degree. Maybe there is existence without fulfilment, hardly a “life” at all; or maybe in Hell there is no life of any sort and it’s simply the case that if you don’t make it to Heaven then Hell is place where you go to just cease to exist: you die a second time in being annihilated. Well I don’t want to talk about Hell or annihilation today, I’m sure you’re pleased to hear that, because such a future is not something any healthy person would look forward. It is true that mental illnesses of various kinds might mean that you’ll look forward to ending the struggle and sinking into nothingness, (I have lived with that thought on several brief occasions), but as I say that’s illness and not what God intends for any living creature. However I think that’s a good first point, that God is the source of all life; because if that is true then new life can only come from God in which case new life can only be good.

In Colossians 3:3 Paul suggests that the new life we have in Christ is a replacement for the old life. New life is not an improvement on the old, it is not a renovation, a new lease on life: no the new life is a second, different life because the first life, the old life, has ended. Paul quite plainly says …for you have died, and there you have it, which is why in Colossians 3:5 Paul writes …put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly which he unpacks in a list of unhelpful behaviours and attitudes. We can get bogged down in this list, trying to decide what is sin and which sins entrap us, but we needn’t do. The simple truth, simple in that it isn’t complex even as it is a bit challenging to out in place, is that earthly behaviours belong to earthly lives, and we who are alive in Christ are earthly dead. So don’t act like the life that is past, act like the life that is present, the life that is found in Christ, the new life we live which flows from the source of all life which is God.

Beyond the new set of behaviours and attitudes, which doesn’t look at all like the old one which shaped the old life, is a new shape for relationships. In the new life there is no distinction between people, on any basis at all, when it comes to living the life. The new life, sourced from God, channelled through Christ (the only way, truth and life), and lived out in the company of the Church is available to every person. The Jews heard the news first, the Christians are now proclaiming it as a done deal, but you don’t have to have already been a Jew or a Christian to get the new life (although once you get it your Jewishness and Christianity will be transformed). But you can be a male or female, of any age, from any nation and speaking any language, having a shed-load of money or none: so long as you like the idea of the new life you can have it for the asking according to Colossians 3:11.

What can that mean for us, the us who are gathered here today? Well the invitation applies to us as much as anyone else, so if you want the new life of Jesus and you don’t yet have it then now’s as good a time as any. And of course if you do already have that new life, the life that means you’re empowered by the love and grace of Jesus in your daily life, then what you have is the promise that that will remain with you always. Once you have died to the world’s way of doing things, to those earthly attitudes and activities, and accepted the gift of life from Jesus then that is what you have for ever.

We rejoice, Christ is with us and we are with him.

Amen.

Rise in Power (Pentecost 5C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 14th July 2019, the fifth Sunday in Pentecost in Year C.

Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14

The Word for this week has been a delight to peruse.  That sounds happy doesn’t it?  It’s a bit odd really though, because as you know I tend to write my services about three weeks or so ahead, and so even though I’d standing here in front of you today happy and hearty, if not a little dusty after a week at Family Camp with the Servi Church mob, when I actually wrote this I’d just spent a week feel less happy and hearty, and a lot more dusty fighting off my second bout of Man Flu for 2019.  I had missed an important church meeting in Ararat because I’d been a) too sick to want to get up at stupid o’clock and minus stupid degrees Celsius to drive there, b) too sick to be out in public where I might contagion all over other people and make them sick, and c) too sick to pay much attention to what was being said anyway.  I was even too sick to get a Flu jab.  So when I finally sat down on my first day out of bed before ten o’clock, “delighting in the text” wasn’t on the agenda so much as “get something down because you’re going to be at Camp and you’ll not have time to write then”.  It was also KSSM council that evening so not only did I have to get something written that day, I didn’t have all day to do it.  Praise God for great Bible passages and inspiring messages from the Word in all God’s forms.

In our reading from the Hebrew traditions we come across the prophet Amos.  Now when I say prophet that’s more about hindsight than highlight, because Amos was nobody special in his day, and even in the action of what we read this morning he’s still a bit of a nobody.  Anyway, in the course of his being a nobody Amos sees and hears God in the act of testing Israel: God is doing a prophetic thing wherein Israel is being compared to a well-built wall and God is checking the angles and edges with a plumb-line. Bad news for Israel, and for Amos who oversees the examination, God finds that the wall (and hence the nation) is askew and God declares that it shall all be knocked down.  The nation of Israel shall be utterly destroyed, its king shall be slain, and its people shall be exiled.  Israel is broken beyond repair, it cannot be repaired, it never will be repaired, and so God is going to knock it all over and start again.  Cheers for listening Amos, says God, now go and tell the Israelites.  Bad news for Amos eh?  Well yes it is, especially since the religious elites and the professional clergy don’t like all this defeatist language and they tell Amos to take his words of judgement and go pronounce them against some other nation; Judah for example.  He is to clear out of Bethel because Beit-El, literally the House of God is the royal worship space and the religious elites and the professional clergy don’t want the king to be upset.  Amos’ response is that even as a religious nobody God has called him to speak truth, mainly because the religious elites and the professional clergy don‘t listen for God, they refuse to hear and therefore they cannot speak God’s message, and that because of this the whole nation will fall.  So to put all of that into one dot point, God will speak to God’s own people, but if the professional listeners won’t listen then God will tell someone humble enough to listen yet bold enough to speak.  For me as a leader, even a leader with clogged ears and a blogged doze, I need to notice when I am no longer hearing God speak because it might mean God has stopped trying to get though my facade of priestliness and is speaking to one of you, or even one of them, instead.  Good to remember.

Inspiring eh?  Well it was for me in my week of weakness because it reminded me that God has not stopped speaking to the Church, even if God needs to speak through someone lower down the pyramid.

The Psalm we read this morning is a demand for justice, but it needs to be read carefully.  The first time I read it I missed it, I missed who it was who is actually doing the talking, I didn’t see the 66’s and 99’s where they are and I thought this was another one of those “how long must we wait O Lord” prayers.  You know the ones, c’mon Lord the wicked are getting richer, the faithful are getting poorer, and it’s your job to intervene.  Good stuff, worth praying, is usually relevant.  But not always, and not this time, no this time it’s Godself doing the “how long must I wait O people”, declaring that it’s about time the people of God started to punish sin and wickedness and to vindicate and liberate the innocent and the good of all classes and nations.  This passage is a covenant lawsuit, it’s a contractual claim by God as one party upon the elders and rulers of the Abrahamic tribes as the other party to hold up Israel’s side of the covenant.  “You know better, so why are you allowing this gut-rotting oppression and suppression by the wicked of the faithful to set in?” asks God.  Israel is supposed to be God’s example of a true nation, they’re meant to be just and peaceable and to display the nature and character of God in the world, but God has found them to be corrupt and violent, exploitative and cruel, and certainly no better than the other nations even if they aren’t actually worse.  God has set us apart to set an example for the world, the plumb-line was set against the Church at its inception so as to be a straight and true representation of God in the world and each of us agents of the Kingdom.  What has God seen of Christians in recent times?  Is the Church light and salt?  If not, why not, and what are we going to do about it?  And what would happen if we didn’t?  The connection between Amos 7 and Psalm 82 is the plumbline, not the outcome; I know that many within the wider Uniting Church in particular disagree with me on this, but I don’t think God is about to destroy us and exile us.  However I do think we have got wonky and shifty, and I believe we need God to call us back to order, to attention, to straightness and steadfastness, and we need to listen to those down in the ranks who are declaring the words of God because those at the top echelon are not listening.

Inspiring eh?  Well again yes, God is still speaking to the Church and God is calling us to account for our discipleship.  Our issue is not that we are failing to meet together or that we are not doing enough Bible Study, singing, tithing, or even evangelism, but that we are living in a dark and cold and cruel world and at the very least we are doing little to remedy it and at the very worst we look dark and cruel and cold ourselves.  God’s word to us is simple: love and be more loving in the way you go about it.  That’s a command I’m busting to follow.

Our story from the Christian tradition is the culmination of this push toward faithfulness as evidenced in the brightness of the light we shine.  In the opening thoughts of his letter Paul is thankful to God for the people of Colossae and especially the loving-kindness of the Colossian church (Colossians 1:4).  He speaks to them about their reputation particularly because he has never met them: Paul never went to Colossae, so he’s using his reputation as an apostle to presume to write to them, and he comments in opening on their reputation as a bit of an ice-breaker.  “Okay mob”, he says, “so we’ve never met each other, but we each know about the other and here’s what I know about you, your reputation is a good one and especially so in the areas of hospitality and hope.  I don’t know your actual names and I’ve never been to your town, let alone your church, but I do know this one fact about you, I know that not only have you heard the gospel you are now living it out.  Onya!  The gospel that is flowering all across Asia and Macedonia is flowering also in you: praise be to God and thanks be to Epaphras who told you about Jesus.  You listened, you learned, and now you are living and leading in life.  Onya!  And may the odds be ever in your favour, because trouble will come.”

The key characteristic of the Colossians seems to be their hope, that’s what Paul knuckles down on in his praise of them.  Not only do they love each other and not only are they diligent in the discipleship tasks of prayer and fellowship, they are keenly so as people with everlasting, abundant hope.  The Colossians seem to be to be John 10:10 people, people who are living abundantly because they know that they are loved by God, a God who will never abandon them and who is directing their present toward a glorious future.  This seems especially so, says Paul in Colossians 1:13-14, in the case of sins which might otherwise hold us back in life.  The Colossians alongside all Christians are forgiven people, freed to pursue God and the fullness of life in God because of Christ and their trust in Christ’s word and work.

So what are we to do?  How much of this are we to take to heart here, today, in Kaniva and Serviceton?  I think the answer is all of it, we are to take all of it to heart and we are to overlook none of it.  As I say I don’t think Amos’ prophecy to Israel applies to us directly, God is not about to exile us and slay our kings, but the prophetic symbol of the plumbline and the prophetic declaration of the wall being skewed is noteworthy.  We are not as tall or as square as we should be; the Church is off kilter and it has been for generations.  For all of the vitriol we see in the media, secular and religious, for all that generates vast amounts of heat and chafing but very little light, there are truths in the rumours.  The Church has let down families, let down children, let down Christians, let down the world, let down itself, let down God.  Not every priest in all of Christendom is a paedophile, much as it seems that Twitface seems to suggest it at times, but the gut-ripping truth is that many priests were and some still are.  Sinners are damned without Christ, no matter the nature of their sin, but all are received with grace and such an indescribable bounty of love if all they do is lift their eyes in longing to the one who saves through the cross; but Twitface only reads the first three words (sinners are damned) and the cross is pilloried.  Is this Twitface’s fault?  In the sense of its users, yes, there is a lot of intolerance in the world and the secularists are just as militant as the inquisitors and the crusaders were back in Christian past: but with the stories of the Inquisition and the Crusades, and without the story of the cross and the empty tomb, what do we expect?  Honestly and really, I’m not the black armband type and I don’t believe that the Church has brought upon itself everything it is reaping right now, but when even God holds a plumbline against us and we are found divergent, crooked, bent, and…you get the point…what hope does our light have?

Our only hope is that our light, like the light of Amos and the Colossians, is the light of God.  Shine brightly people of God, do not allow yourself to be extinguished because God demands our luminescence: but God is also our own love and hope, and so long as we shine with Christ then Christ will shine for us.

Amen.

In Sickness and in Health (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Day Centre act of worship at Kaniva Hospital (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 2nd July 2019.  I had been ill all of the previous week with Manflu.

Psalm 13; Luke 9:11; Psalm 27:14

 Illness is one of those things that strikes each of us at times, and because of this it is a common theme in Biblical writing.  I was at a youth conference twenty years ago, (indeed it’s thirty years ago since I was a youth, but that’s beside the point) and one of the speakers there was asked what her favourite Bible story was.  She said she didn’t have one favourite above all others, but she’d have to say her favourite stories, plural, were any place where Jesus does healing.

I have lived with illness in some form or another for all of my adult life.  At age eighteen I contracted what was then called Chronic Fatigue Immunodeficiency Syndrome, and it has gone by other names since.  I had a rough year completing my HSC, and dropped out of Uni after one semester to take half a year off before returning to try again.  At some point that CFIDS became a series of mental health conditions and I have lived with Anxiety and Depression, but not fatigue, since my early thirties.  I’m now forty-seven if anyone is keeping count.  So I like those stories where Jesus does healing too, and I like even more so that Jesus defines the big-picture work of ministry as having healing at its core.

In Luke 4:18-19 in Jesus first recorded episode of him teaching he reads from the prophet in the local synagogue meeting.  In paraphrase we can say that Jesus says of himself “I have come to bring healing and to heal”.  Later, in Luke 9:11, in a verse that can be overlooked as we rush into the bigger story of the Feeding of 5000 we read that Jesus welcomed the crowd, and spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.  I like that neat phrase, “healed those who needed healing”; there’s nothing worthy or deserving about them, just that they needed healing for whatever ailed them, and Jesus healed them.  And there’s the work of ministry again; teaching the Kingdom and aiding the weak.

Jesus did four things in his ministry as an itinerant rabbi: he healed the sick, he raised the dead, he cast out demons (which is to say he freed the oppressed), and he proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, the time when the Father would come to Earth to reign as king in the New Jerusalem.  This is what the Church is supposed to do now, and to be honest and fair this is what the Church is doing.  It’s easy to be hard on the Church and disappointed in our local congregations and ministries, and perhaps more so in our structures and hierarchy, but across the majority of the planet in the majority of the faith communities Jesus’ work is being gone about quietly and in Holy Spirit’s power.

So, in the past few weeks I’ve been especially sick.  Not mortally wounded, but in addition to my ongoing struggles with Anxiety and Sleep Apnoea I’ve had a cold.  I would love it if Jesus would walk up Commercial Street East so that I could rush out and touch the hem of his cloak, or that he would turn up at Shared Ministry on Sunday and heal those who need healing, but that’s not the reality of Australia in 2019.  So I have had to rely on my own immune system, (remembering that my body and its systems were ravaged by an Immunodeficiency Syndrome for thirteen years), my own common sense, (remembering that my mind and its systems have been ravaged by a mental illness for the past sixteen years), and the best efforts of the local health care practitioners.  I’m not sleeping well, I’m coughing like an Australian (everything is coming out green and gold), my head aches, my ears buzz, and I need it all to stop.  But in all of this I know that God is good, that Jesus is Lord, and that I am a long way from death’s door.

Not so much a Bible story, but a Bible verse which leads into my own story, (but a story for another time perhaps) is Psalm 27:13-14.  This passage was my anchor in my dark and mad days of a decade ago: I am confident of this; I will see the goodness of The LORD while I am alive; be strong, take heart, and wait for The LORD.  My hope in all things, be it the depth of suicidal madness, or the triviality of a snotty nose, or even the best of physical health available to this ravaged jar of clay, is that God has promised an end to suffering: and that end is not a quick death and then a harp on a cloud, but it is the restoration of the complete and sovereign rule of The LORD Almighty upon the renewed Earth for all of the ages to come.  That’s a happy ending, and that’s worth waiting out a cold for.

Amen.

Ascension (WWHS)

This is the text of the reflection I perpared for the West Wimmera Health Service (Kaniva Hospital) Day Centre service of worship on 4th June 2019.  I didn’t present it as I was called away that morning for a pastoral need.

Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11

 Have you ever been told a story that has left you wanting more?  You know, the broad brush-strokes are there, and maybe the point of the story has actually been shared, so you do know what’s going on; but somehow you’re still left wanting more?  Is that a familiar experience for you, do you know what I’m talking about?

Thursday last week was the feast of the Ascension in the calendars of those churches which celebrate such things.  It’s not a big deal in the Uniting Church, and it’s no deal whatsoever in the Churches of Christ, but the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and the various national forms of Eastern Orthodoxy tend to get excited about such things.  If you don’t know what ascension is then let me tell you, it’s the anniversary of the day when Jesus returned to Heaven for the final time after his resurrection.  Ascension is forty days after Easter, and ten days before Pentecost, and since both of those vents are always on a Sunday Ascension is always on a Thursday.  So it’s easy to overlook if you’re not looking for it especially, it’s never a Sunday thing so it can be left alone.  But I think that’s a shame, because I like ascension.

It seems that Theophilus, the addressed recipient of the gospel according to Luke also liked ascension, because the accounts of it appear in both Luke and Acts.  It’s as if there was a reply to the first book where old mate Theo said “ta for the Jesus story, but I’m a bit confused about the end part: what happened when he went back to Heaven the last time?”  Then the author, maybe Luke, wrote a bit more detail in the first chapter of Acts before going on to describe the coming of the Spirit on the Church at Pentecost in Acts 2, and then on with the rest of the book as a rundown on the activities of some of the apostles.

In the first story, recorded in Luke 24:50-53 and describing an event that takes place in the evening of Easter Day, Jesus simply steps away from the group and then goes up.  Previously on that day Jesus had walked out of the tomb and bypassed the garden, (it’s actually angels who speak to the women), and appeared on the Emmaus road.  After walking to Emmaus he vanishes, only to reappear in Jerusalem where he eats some fish, leads a Bible study, and then takes the group out to Bethany where he speaks a blessing over the disciples and then steps out of view. It’s no wonder that Theophilus needs a bit more information.

In the second story, recorded in Acts 1:1-11, there’s a brief recap of the whole of Luke in Acts 1:1-2, and then we get a bit more info about that final few hours.  The first thing we are told, in Acts 1:3, is that the ascension takes place forty days after the resurrection and does not occur on Easter Day evening at all.  This isn’t necessarily a contradiction, the two books have different points to make and the emphasis on events is different.  Jesus commands the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes with baptism, and they ask when the Kingdom will come, and he says that that’s not their concern but that they will be involved in its arrival.  Then, as in the first story, Jesus goes up, and again like the Easter story angels appear and ask why the disciples are looking for someone who obviously isn’t there: Acts 1:11 and Luke 24:5b.

So, two stories with basically the same plot, told by the same teller to the same hearer: the second story filling in some of the gaps left by the first, but making the same point.  And what is that point?  The point is that Jesus is bodily removed from Earth now, he’s no longer here like he was before the crucifixion, and he’s no longer here in his risen form which can eat fish and appear in locked rooms or alongside open highways at will.  But God is still with us, in the form of the Holy Spirit who came and filled these same men ten days after and who has never returned to Heaven without returning again to Earth.  The ascending Christ, risen and glorified, is seen in the descending Spirit, powerful and glorious, and that experience, that vision, that presence and comfort will never be taken from the Earth until the fullness of the Kingdom comes to complete the work of Christ.

The message is lift up your heads, not to look at the empty sky, but to look away from the sorrowful ground.  There is no need to fear, there is no need to despair, there is no need to feel alone or abandoned.  The risen one now sits enthroned in Heaven it is true, but the king on his throne is a good thing; and the blessing of Father, Son, and Spirit almighty which Jesus prayed over his friends in his final human words on earth remains upon us always.

Amen.

Wait (Easter 6C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 26th May 2019.

Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67:2; John 14:23-29

In our story from the Christian Traditions this morning we read how Paul heard God speak in the visionary voice of a man of Macedonia, leading Paul to change his direction and go there instead of elsewhere to proclaim the gospel.  Paul headed straight for the capital city, Philippi, by as direct a route as he could find:  Samothrace is a mountainous island and so a bit of a navigational landmark, and Neapolis is the coastal part and maybe the port town for Philippi.  So it looks like he’s in a hurry (and wouldn’t you be if God had called you with such a demonstration) and he has no interest in side-tracks or delays.  And once Paul and his crew get to Philippi they do nothing until Shabbat when they leave town and find a quiet place to pray, probably to ask something like “righto God, we’re, now what?”

So, Paul is not necessarily shunning the synagogue, there probably isn’t one in Philippi so he goes where the Jews go, which is beside the river, and it is there that the crew meets Lydia of Thyatira.  So, who is Lydia?  Well, she is Greek, (her name tells us that), and she’s from Thyatira in the district of Lydia which is later named as host town for one of the seven churches of Revelation.  We know therefore that Lydia is neither Jewish nor Judean, but we are told that she honours God as revealed within Judaism, and one of the Greek words used to describe her is used elsewhere in Acts to describe people who are “devout”, so we can join the dots there, maybe.  Anyway, Lydia receives the missionary’s baptism and she invites Paul’s group into her home.

This is a sort of Paul-version of the conversion of Cornelius under Peter’s  tutelage from Acts 10 which we foreshadowed a few weeks ago when we heard about Tabitha of Joppa.  Where Cornelius was on active duty at Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea and where Pilate and his mates lived most of the time: Philippi is also a military town but is a veterans’ colony, so a soldier settler place.  Lydia is a trader who sells upmarket clothing, probably just the thing for Mrs Centurion in her husband’s retirement, so she’s a great social contact for Paul in Philippi.  But, but, even more important than her entre to “farshion” and society, the fact that Paul does take up her offer of hospitality demonstrates that he accepts her as a sister-in-Christ.  She’s a Christian, and many would say she’s the first European convert.

So that’s all pretty good then.  Lydia accepts Christ, Paul accepts Lydia, and the gospel and its missionaries have an opened door to European soil via a respectable city of good, middle class retirees with disposable income.  But none of that would have been the situation if Paul had hushed the Spirit and pushed into Roman Asia or Bithynia.  So I wonder, has God ever closed a door on you like that?  Has God closed several in a row like that?   Twice the Spirit resisted Paul’s attempts to change state, until God spoke to Paul in this vision and gave him the direction God wanted Paul to go.  Sometimes we hear no (and need to hear no) before we hear yes/go.  So, do you know how to “Praise God in the Hallway” as some would have it; can you walk forward until God opens an eventual door?  How far, or for how long, can you walk that dark corridor of locked doors until you tell God you’ve had enough and you decide to kick one in just to reach the sunlight?

The compositor suggests in Psalm 67:2 that one of the observable signs of God’s blessing is when God’s way is made known; in other words you know God loves you when God actively directs you.  This is good to remember, especially when all God seems to be saying to you is “no, not there,” or “no, not yet,” and it’s never “yes” or “here”.  Sometimes, from experience, I wonder what is worse; is it when God is always saying “no”, or is it when God isn’t saying anything at all?  Experience, again, prefers silence, because at least when God is silent you can sit down in good conscience and wait for instruction.  When God is saying “no” and you’re not even allowed to sit down, so you’re bobbing up and down like a child anticipating the paused soundtrack in a game musical chairs you look and feel like an idiot.  As a preacher I’m supposed to tell you that the clear voice of God is always preferable to the complete silence of God, as a Christian of some life experience I will tell you that that is not true.  But yes, the psalmist is right, if God is talking to you and showing an interest in your way then you know that God is interested in you for you, and that is good: it worked out well for Paul, and for Lydia because Paul was faithful.  It has and always did work out well for me too, but theological hindsight can be a bit arrogant too; waiting is hard, but it’s worth it.

In today’s story from the Jesus Traditions, drawn from John 14:23-29 and Jesus’ last meal with his mates we get to earwig in on Jesus saying much the same thing.  If you love me, he says, then you’ll do what I ask: not because I’m a diva but because I’m speaking the words The Father has given me, and God’s words are good stuff.  This is how Jesus reveals God to the Church and not to the world at large, so to this degree the message is hidden.  Jesus is speaking in this situation to his mates, the twelve around the table, and through the gospel as a book to the Church, the ones who love Jesus and only to them.  The world will not do as Jesus commands, they don’t love him and they don’t know him; so why should we expect them to obey someone they don’t know or love?  Who is God to tell them what to do, God is a stranger to them.  But God is not a stranger to us, just as God was not a stranger to Paul, or Lydia for that matter, and just as Jesus was not a stranger to any of the twelve.  Jesus is lord to us and friend, and how does Jesus know this, well just as the psalmist said, because we listen to the One who speaks to us and we do what God tell us.  And when we do that, and don’t do what God tells us not to do (or do what God has not told us to do), when we do what God tells us to do then God acts through our doing and great stuff, God stuff, gets done.

Well that sounds good doesn’t it?  Do what God tells you to do, because if you know you’re being directed by someone whose love for you is wider than the cross, then you are confident that won’t be told to do something dangerous or stupid.  And God will work in your doing, and great things happen like the coming of the gospel to the continent of Europe: glory to God, kudos to Paul.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be part of what God is doing in the world; does anyone here not want to be involved when God starts doing stuff in Kaniva and Serviceton?  When I’m calling for volunteers on God’s behalf is there anyone who’d rather keep his or her hand down?  Yeah, didn’t think so, so we’re all agreed: God, come and tell us what to do.

And what if God did, and God said…“wait, just sit.”

And what if God did, and God said…“not now.”

And what if God did, and God said…“not there.”

And what if God did, and God said…“no, not there either…or there.”

Last week we spoke a bit about places where it can be hard to be a Christian, but where the hardest of Christians live as a response.  Not the sooky flabby Christians of Australia, people like you and me who need to HTFU, harden the faith up; but proper Christians who deal with persecution and violence and may face a choice between Christ and murder, or denial and release.  Inspiring stuff, and I pray that you are continuing and contending in prayer.  It’s still Ramadan until sundown on 2nd June, and it will still be the twenty-first century in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East well after that.  That kind of horror does hold some fantasy about it, that God might call you not to Macedonia but to The Maldives, or Medina, or…someplace in North Korea that starts with “M”.  Martyrdom and heroism, what a calling!  But to be honest, all of us in this room will probably be called to stay if not in this room then at least in this district, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are absent.  And God will call you “not there, not yet, not now,” blah de blah.  What do we do with that?

Well, we do what Jesus commands via John 14:26, we wait for the Advocate and we lean on God.  Just because the instruction to go is not coming yet does not mean that Godself is absent: Holy Spirit is here, now just as much as Holy Spirit will be with us there, later.  You don’t have to wait for God without God, wait for God with God.  An interesting piece of Christian language is that we “wait on God”.  “On.” Think about that for a sec.  Do we wait on God as if God is a chair or a mat, or a playful Daddy lying on the floor with his toddler sitting on his chest?  Do we wait “on” God?  Meh, why not, that can work, can’t it?  Or do we wait on God as if God is a patron and we are wait staff, waitresses and waiters, maybe Baristas if we’re hip enough.  While God is sitting and waiting, and causing us to not go there and not go now, maybe we can serve God where we are.  Okay God is not in a cafe, but have some imagination in your prayer and worship, what would it look like in real life to “waiter on God”.

In two weeks’ time we will have reached the end of the Christian season of Easter, and the Feast of Pentecost will be upon us.  I’ll be in red, you’re welcomed to join in, and we’ll talk about fire and wind and power and spirit and language and it will be awesome.  But do we have to wait another fortnight for awesome?  Do we have to wait only another fortnight for awesome?  What if we wait a fortnight and the only awesome thing is my red shirt, and it’s an otherwise “Sunday in West Wimmera”.  These are not rhetorical questions, I do want you to answer them, but not now and not here.

Two weeks after Pentecost we enter the Christian season of Creationtide, and I’ll be in green until the Sunday before Lent.  That period in Christian thinking is about growth and newness, so yes there is some waiting involved but as all of you who are farmers know, or know someone who is a farmer know, if you just wait for growth and do nothing then nothing will grow.  I have asked the Shared Ministry council, so the Uniting Church elders and councillors and the Church of Christ deacons together, to ask God what God is saying to Kaniva and Serviceton, and what God is saying to the Shared Ministry church.  I invite you to join them, join us really because I’m on that council too.  Ask God, what do you want from us, and what do you want for us?  What do you want for our towns, Lord?

Maybe there’s another Paul somewhere who tonight will see a vision of a “Man of Wimmera” begging him to come.  Maybe there’s a man or woman in Wimmera who tonight will see a vision of a “Man from ‘someplace in North Korea starting with M’”, or “Melbourne”, or “Merretts South Road”.

Let’s be ready, whether we are Paul or Lydia in the coming story, let’s be ready.

Amen.

A Dedicated Faith (Praying with “Open Doors Australia” during Ramadan)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva Unting Church for Sunday 19th May 2019.  It was a special service of prayer and reflection for the Church under Persecution and for Muslims seeking God during Ramadan.

Sirach 2:10; Romans 12:12; Hebrews 12:1; Ephesians 6:18

Two weeks ago, (on my birthday would you believe it), I was in tears at the end of the service.  I was crying not because it was my birthday, (47 years is nothing to be ashamed or desolate about), but because one of my heroes of faith had died.  A young woman who had authored four books alongside countless blog posts, emails, and tweets; a young wife and mother with a three year old and a one year old child at home, and only thirty seven years old, passed away in hospital after complications following treatment for an otherwise ordinary, unrelated health complaint.  The shock of her death caught me off guard and I wept for her, for her family, and for her legacy.  Sometime when we lose a hero of the faith we lose something few others understand.

Today I want to speak about two more heroes of the faith, one thirty years dead and another old but alive in this life, heroes of the Christian Church in the twentieth century.  I do that in honour of the work that the Church is doing at the edge of its world, which nonetheless is the centre of God’s attention.

One of these great heroes, someone perhaps better known to you than the recently called home Rachel Held Evans, the young mother of my opening paragraph, is the Dutch survivor of the Nazis Cornelia Arnolda Johanna ten Boom.  Corrie, as she is known, passed away in 1983, (the year I turned 11), and I remember her story from a cartoon version of her book “The Hiding Place”.  I’m sure I saw a movie version around the same time too.  After her release from penal detention in a German camp, a place where her sister had died of illness and neglect, a place to which all the ten Boom women had been sent for the crime of keeping Jews hidden from the Gestapo, Corrie travelled widely speaking of God’s grace to her and her family.  She was and is remembered for her love, and her attempts at forgiveness, even when met by a former camp guard at one of her rallies.  Corrie proclaimed for all of her days that God is always good, even in Ravensbruch.  Corrie’s was a story of dedicated faith and the message was inspiring to me as a church-going Aussie kid who liked to read. I suspect it may have been for you too.

Another cartoon book hero of my Christian childhood, and another Dutch person of dedicated faith, is Andrew van der Bijl.  Brother Andrew and his Beetle full of Bibles is a legend of our religion, taking his chances with the Communists who routed the Nazis from Eastern Europe only to plant their own special kind of restrictiveness.  Unlike Corrie, Brother Andrew is still with us, although he’s just had his 91st birthday last week so we take nothing for granted.  Brother Andrew is no longer smuggling Bibles under the Iron Curtain, not because he’s old, but because the need is no longer there.  However, his Open Doors organisation is still involved in supporting the Church and proclaiming the gospel in places where it is dangerous and difficult to do so.  In fact Andrew had already pulled back from his work in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 so as to focus on an area of greater and ongoing need: the Muslim World.

We are currently in the Islamic month of Ramadan.  Okay maybe “we” aren’t, but that’s the month our Muslim neighbours are living in at the moment, and it is a time of daylight fasting and prayer for them.  In view of this, Open Doors in Australia and New Zealand is encouraging local churches in our countries where it is relatively easy and safe to do so, indeed places where it is downright cushy, to join in prayer for two key things.  First, that Muslims in their dedicated acts of devotion this month, in their prayer and fasting, in their searching and beseeching, are met by the Living Word of God who is Jesus.  Oh God, let those who seek God earnestly find God completely: let them see Jesus.  So that’s first, and that’s awesome.  Isn’t is awesome?  Yes, it is.  And second, that we would pray safety and protection upon the Church, and local churches, in nations where Ramadan is a central event.  There’s no baiting here, but there is reality, that when Ramadan comes around some believers in the Quran seek to purge the world of infidelity and impurity by knocking over the Christians.  Maybe they’re tired and hungry, maybe they’re radicalised by the nature of their devotion, but Ramadan can be an especially bad time to be a Christian.  So we stand with our brother-sisters in Christ that they are protected from violence, and that they take up opportunities to show love and compassion for their neighbours who are seeking God with fervour.

In many of the countries where Islam is the majority religion, and in some where it is the official or state religion, there was once a vibrant Christianity.  Islam is about 600 years younger than Christianity, and in the days between Jesus and Mohammed the countries that are now Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria (to name only four) had numerous bishops and cathedrals.  I am not here to talk about the destruction of those cultures in the seventh century, or the ways in which Christianity fought back in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries in Crusades and the Reconquest of Spain: but I am going to point to what has gone.

In recent weeks, since Easter really, we’ve had a few readings from Revelation.  We have heard how Revelation was addressed as a letter of encouragement and sent to seven churches as a prophetic act for the building up of all people toward the end of the first Christian century.  The question I’m asking today is what happens to Churches who do not overcome?  Churches can die; look at the seven churches today and you will see that many are no longer places of Christian worship.  Yes they were finished off by the Muslim invasions, but they were on their way out long before.  If churches like Ephesus and Colossae (near Laodicea), fellowships founded by St Paul and governed by St John as bishop can be gone in a couple of generations how can we presume this will not happen to us?  Brother Andrew’s counsel is “strengthen what remains,” which is why we must pray now for the Church where it is under assault.  Paul wrote to one group of Christians undergoing hard times and external pressure saying rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, check out Romans 12:12.  To another group he wrote pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication…to that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints, see Ephesians 6:18.  If you’re suffering then pray, if you are not suffering but you are aware of others who are suffering then pray.  Whether we are in the first group or the second, and I hope it’s obvious where we are today, the call to prayer for the saints is non-negotiable, and I encourage you to heed the invitation of Open Doors and Brother Andrew to hold up our sister-brothers in prayer.

The other question raised by Open Doors’ call, at least as far as I see it, is what does Christianity have to say to people who seemingly have nothing to lose?  What is the Christian response to Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps?  What about entire families of Pakistani Christians living almost as slaves making bricks because they can’t get better jobs without denying their Lord?  What about the widows and orphans or the child-less parents made across Sri Lanka after resurrection services were bombed and terrorised on Easter Day?  What does our religion say to such as these, and if it can’t speak coherently to Christians standing against the crimson tide of martyrs’ blood, what can it possibly offer to Muslims seeking God during Ramadan?

An interesting insight which I don’t think I’ve preached on, and which I have certainly never heard in a sermon, is that Emmaus was a Roman garrison town in the time of Jesus.  Now of course there were Judeans living there too, it was a town with a base and not a base in and of itself, but I wonder…I wonder, were the two on the road on the night of Easter Day hoping to change sides?  Yes, great, we know the story of Jesus appearing on the road and explaining the whole Bible from page one and Genesis 1:1 to page two thousand and twenty and The Map of Paul’s Journey to Rome.  We know about the breaking of the bread and Jesus disappearing without even a cloud of smoke or unleavened flour.  But were Cleopas and his friend (his wife) simply returning home after a disastrous Passover in the big smoke, or were they doing a Judas (or a Josephus of the next generation) and getting their names on the safe list with the local constabulary?  Tired apostles, or trying apostates?  And how do we feel about that sort of thing now; the Christian father for whom it is all too hard to live another day for Jesus in Baghdad or Beirut or Bishkek, and who converts to Islam to save his family from poverty and murder?  Words from the Hebrew Tradition just prior to the time of Jesus remind us to consider the generations of old and see: has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed? Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord and been forsaken? Or has anyone called upon the Lord and been neglected?  You’ll find that in Sirach 2:10, if you have a Bible with Sirach in it.  It’s a great encouragement, but it might not be enough if Jesus doesn’t meet you on the road and come in for tea.  In Hebrews 12:1 we are reminded that since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we can lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and…run with perseverance the race that is set before us.  But what if there are no witnesses where you are, no great stadium filled with the athletes who have already finished the marathon to cheer you on over that last 400 metres of your own race?  What if you are running for Jesus, but you’re running alone, and the weight of expectation is too much to bear, so you drop all Christian expectation and try to run life unencumbered rather than dropping out of life entirely?  We must pray for them, and more importantly pray with them.

So, two things, the same two things that the New Testament writers and editors, along with Andrew, Corrie, and Rachel have said.

  1. Run in a group. Stay close to Jesus by staying close to those of your friends who are staying close to Jesus.  Pray for your own strength, ask God to strengthen what remains of your dwindling energy.  Seek God until you find God, then keep going in deeper in the confidence that God is good, even in Ravensbruch.
  2. Be the group that others run with. Exclude no one from the pack, no matter what condition or colour their shirt (or all colours).  It is good to pray for those who persecute you, and pray for those who are persecuted, that’s Jesus stuff, but do more than pray.  You can petition for change, post letters and tweets of encouragement, be one of the great crowd of witnesses who yells the same story as Sirach of how God came through for you.  This is not just a local thing, being faithful to the Christians of the Wimmera, be the group that is The One holy catholic and apostolic Church: run with the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and let them know too.

And one more thing, pray with those who experience violence and resistance, not only praying for them.  Pray for them in the words they pray for themselves; they do not pray what we might think they pray, or even how we might pray if we were them.  Pray with Christians in Muslim-majority communities that the persecutors would come to see Jesus as saviour and master, not that the persecution would stop.  As iron sharpens iron the Church in these places doesn’t want to become safe: they grieve for us in Australia because in our faith we have become fat and lazy, our prosperity is a bigger barrier against Christ than their persecution in their view.  So we pray that Muslims would see Christ and turn to him because Christ is the better option for life, not because we want the bullying will cease.  That is the prayer of a dedicated faith.

This week, indeed from the evening of May 5th (on my birthday, would you believe it) until the evening of June 2nd, more than one and a half billion people will spend every daylight hour fasting and praying for guidance from God, and wisdom for a God-honouring life.  Some of them will make mistakes and go and kill Christians in their misguided piety, but think of the thousand million crying out for a revelation of God, a revelation we have seen.  Open your heart and open your mouth, let them know that you are with them in the name of Emmanuel, God with us.

Two weeks ago I wept in exhaustion because a channel of the voice of God was rendered silent by a medical complication.  This week I am tired of weeping over the many channels through whom the voice of God has never spoken; voices never released to proclaim the Father’s glory, the Son’s compassion, the Spirit’s comfort, the soul’s rest.  Open your heart to God and ask that those mouths will be opened by grace to declare all praise to God, the merciful and compassionate one.

Amen.