Loving God, loving others, in a time of Covid.

In adherence to the federal (Australia) and state (Victoria) government requests for places of worship to close and religious gatherings to cease for a period of time while the nations seek to “flatten the curve” of Covid-19 I sent this pastoral letter to my congregations.  It was to be read by them in their homes on Sunday 29th March alongside a brief liturgy as detailed within the letter.

Good morning Church,

Well, here we all are at home: we’re not quite in lock-down yet and you are free to leave at any time (just don’t go west because there’s a Border Patrol). The Church is still very much active in the World, Australia, Victoria, Kaniva and Serviceton, (Commercial Street East and Baker Street, Elizabeth Street and Kent Street). Whether it is active in any other street is up to you I guess.

I am writing to you today with excitement and with confidence. Our God is good, “large and in charge” one of my ministry friends recently reminded me, and speaking with an eye on pathology our shire is currently Coronavirus free. Praise be to God, and thanks be to everyone who has been diligent in hand washing and in practising social distancing.

I assure you as your pastor: this is not the apocalypse.

God has not sent Covid-19 on the world as a punishment for your sin, my sin, their sin, China’s sin, or America’s immorality. Our reading from John 9 last week makes it clear that whatever happens it happens for the glory of God. If anyone in Kaniva or Serviceton becomes ill with Covid-19 it will be because of a lack of personal hygiene and not because of a lack of personal (or national) righteousness. Australian Christians are not under attack by Australian non-Christians, nor by our governments (state and federal), nor by the dark forces of the hellish realms. We are holding off from gathering on Sunday for a month until such time as we know that people won’t catch each other’s bugs through proximity.

If you saw the Facebook edition of my sermon from last Sunday, delivered outside at Serviceton Recreation Reserve, carna Leeor Bombers, you will have read me writing that “as The Church it is vital that the local Christians get out of their buildings and be the people of God in their communities”. To some extent this directive needs to wait, we are supposed to be practising social distancing so please lay-off the door-to-door evangelism at least until the end of April. (Having said that, anyone who wishes to drop off biscuits at the manse may place them on the white table on the porch, ring the doorbell, and then leave.) But we do have an opportunity as local churches to reset our minds, rethink our ministries, and lead the world in showing practical kindness and social responsibility. In April 2020 that looks like listening to government directives and adjusting to life without the weekly gathering of the congregations; and also being people of integrity and honour in staying away from other social gathering places while the nation practices this short period of quarantine.

My prayer for all of us over April is that we may use this time as a season of refreshing. You will be receiving a weekly worship letter with suggestions of songs and prayers to use on Sunday morning in place of gathering, and a short homily from me. Please make use of it, as well as your own prayer and devotional materials. Put on your worship CDs (or Spotify), read your Bible, spend time praying and just listening to God, sit in your own garden and smell Creation, walk around the Wetlands (leaving at least two metres behind/before other pedestrians) and imagine Jesus walking with you. And by all means ring me for a chat if you’d like.

It was reported last weekend that with social distancing and home isolation taking place in Europe and China that pollution is receding: the smoggy skies above Beijing and Paris are clearing, and the waters of Venice lagoon are too. Stiller waters has equalled cleaner environments. Perhaps a month of solitude in (with) our saviour might do the same in our hearts, minds, spirits, souls, and I daresay bodies too. Again, let’s make the most of our enforced quietness and worship The LORD who has saved all of Creation and is shaping a New Creation.

Above all Church, in a world where we can’t find toilet roll and hand sanitiser at Doyle’s, and no-one may go to Bordertown without a visa, don’t hoard peace. Don’t hoard hope, don’t hoard grace, don’t hoard joy. Ring your friends, meet for coffee in small groups in large spaces (support the take-away food shops and eat in the park). There is more than enough of God for you, be generous in sharing the good news.

And may the peace of Christ, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds secure in the knowledge of his grace. So let the blessing of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit rest upon you now and abide with you always. Amen.

Good Things Happen in The Good Country

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th March 2020.  It was a combined service for Kaniva and Serviceton congregations at Serviceton for the celebration of our Harvest Sunday.  Kaniva and Serviceton are farming communities and there are primary producers in our congregations.

Deuteronomy 24:19-22; Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Ruth 1:22

The harvest stories told in the Bible are stories of God’s salvation. There are multiple harvests named in the Bible, which is probably no surprise to the farmers amongst us. Wheat was harvested first and according to Exodus 34:22 this was to be celebrated in Spring, when it happened. Seven weeks later is the harvest of barley and we are told in Ruth 1:22 that it was during this harvest festival that Naomi arrived in Bethlehem from Moab. In late summer, (September) came the fruit harvest which is also a cause for celebration according to Exodus 34:22, and it is this event which we read about in Deuteronomy 26:1-11. The loud message is that God is going to provide such an abundance in the Promised Land, from the Land itself, that God’s people had better get ready to say thank you a lot. To be an Israelite in the future (the future from Moses) is to be a recipient of God’s promise of care and the complete benefit of that providence. Never forget whose you are: you are The LORD’s own family.

More than masses of crop the harvest story told by Moses in Deuteronomy 26:1-11 is a story of salvation. It is true that God promises provision through the sweat of the brow and the tilling of the land by Hebrew farmers, but in the history of the people from Jacob to Moses and into the future we learn that this bounty will be for all, including aliens (outsiders) and Levites (while collar workers). The history of the Hebrew people is dated from the “wandering Aramean”, literally the vulnerable climate-refugee who was made destitute by famine: so when Israel’s people return to the land of Jacob they must remember the destitute they find there or who later come there as refugees from other places. As a nation saved by grace, actually fed and watered by The LORD’s own provision in Egypt, it will never be appropriate for Israel to withhold the same from anyone who comes into their land looking for help. Never forget whose you are: you are The LORD’s own ministers.

The commentary I used this week suggests that this passage was edited together late in Israel’s history, possibly around the time of the exile to Babylon or at the very least a time when invasion and occupation by a militarily stronger foe seemed immanent. In this case the return to the covenant and its specific stipulation on charity and compassion would have reminded Israel that they were indeed The LORD’s own people: that The LORD Godself had their back if they remained in covenant with The LORD and the mission of being God’s light to the nations. “Are you being faithful to the covenant?” The LORD asks in the background, “so, if I were to come down and take a look around I would not find poverty and destitution in your streets, yeah?” The land was given by The LORD as a demonstration of grace, and as a visible example for all the nations of what God desires (mercy) and how God blesses (shalom) when God’s ways are honoured. If Israel fails in generosity then God will withhold the abundance, thereby making the same point in a negative way. This is what Israel and Judah were facing as this history was written, what would they do to keep on the side of God? Would they close ranks and resist the Babylonians, or would they open their arms and welcome the asylum seekers and war-torn refugees with grace and food? And what about internally: would they ensure that no Israelite ever went hungry or sick or naked or alone, would they ensure that the women and men set aside by God as priests and worship leaders were fed and housed as well as the farmers and labourers who grew the food and built the houses? The tithe was not just a token payment, without the tithe there was no welfare for the destitute and no support for the priests and worship leaders: without the tithe there was increased poverty and decreased praise for The LORD. What sort of Holy Nation lets its priests starve because they are focused on national worship and can’t farm for themselves? Why would The LORD continue to bless that nation, why wouldn’t The LORD leave them to fall over as an example of the consequences of breaking covenant, while choosing a new nation to serve God’s purposes of demonstrating compassion in the world?

This is why in Ruth’s story and in Deuteronomy 24:19-22 we read that reaping right to the edge was forbidden. The LORD’s provision is for all who need to eat, so even if you grew it that doesn’t mean it’s all yours to eat or to sell. At the same time, if you didn’t grow it you still need to go and gather it yourself if you want to eat it: welfare for the whole community must discourage laziness as much as it condemns selfishness. The priests are fed because they work elsewhere at priesting; the poor are fed so that they can return to health and to work. This is why harvest festivals were to be big and loud community events, because they were community celebrations where everyone gets to eat because every kinsperson played a role in bringing it in. In celebrating the covenant between God and people every time the food was brought in to the storehouse the nation was reminded that in this covenant there is sufficiency for all, even for those whose work never sees them get dirt under their fingernails.

The harvest story told about Ruth is another story of God’s salvation. It is a story of the resilience of women (of faith) working in solidarity, and how God blesses the faithful and upright. In Tanakh Ruth follows Proverbs, she is perhaps the living example of eshet chayil, the Proverbs 31 woman of noble character, virtuous and industrious. Once more God is shown as concerned about the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, even widows who are not Israelite. God is actively involved in directing the play and the accidents of right place at the right time. God drives the women’s movement from emptiness to fullness: God is both guide and provider.

In practical terms the stories of redemption in Ruth are stories of restoration. By keeping Naomi close to her Ruth is able to restore to her mother-in-law all that is legally hers which was lost in Moab with the death of her husband and sons, and the ensuing famine. Boaz is the man of the moment, the man who has the covenant responsibility through family to care for Naomi, and like God with Israel he is faithful and complete in his care for the destitute and depressed widow. What Boaz does is contractual and familial, it’s the moral and legal thing to do and there’s nothing specifically religious in it beyond the underlying culture of Israel. However in using this as an example of the right and holy way to live as Israelites the point is made that God also acts as family to us and as a covenant partner. What God does is moral and legal because God is Father, God has chosen to obligate Godself here: how we shall respond as the redeemed sons and daughters is one question posed by the story. At this harvest we are like Naomi, our redemption is brought about by someone else’s grace and not by our own deserving: again, how shall we respond?

In modern Jewish tradition, by modern I mean since about the year 150AD, Ruth is read at Shavuot which is the Festival of Weeks held at the traditional time of Israel’s barley harvest. (That’s Pentecost in the Christian calendar.) The book is interpreted with two key themes; loyalty, and the movement from emptiness to fullness. Ruth begins with a famine in Judah, then the desolation of Naomi’s family in Moab and her vulnerability as she returns to Bethlehem…which is now in full harvest mode and topped off by the provision of Boaz the magnificent young man. Naomi is loyal, Ruth is loyal, Boaz is loyal, The God of Israel is loyal; and the tale which begins in famine and widowing at Ruth 1:5 culminates in a post-wedding pregnancy in Ruth 4:17. A story which begins with death ends with birth, passing through the desperate times where Naomi says in Ruth 1:21 that she went away full, but The LORD has brought me back empty. God’s promise to us in this harvest season is that our story will never end at 1:21, because just like Naomi even when we return empty we return to a land bursting with grain. Indeed, the name Bethlehem means “House of Bread”.

In the Jesus traditions and Christian traditions harvest is used as a metaphor for divine action. Jesus speaks in Matthew 9:37-38 of a great harvest where the fields are ripe but the labourers are absent. In Revelation 14:15-16 weeding is going on, but there is reaping in James 3:18. God is still at work in the world, still honouring the covenant made to Abraham and repeated to Moses, still displaying all grace within God’s glory and the fullness of welcome to any who will answer the invitation to participate. I’m not going to touch on those metaphorical stories at all, partly because I’ve just hit the top of page five in this sermon, but also because I want to focus today on the reality of harvest and the actual events of bringing the crop into storage and then to distribution as food. The metaphors are good, packed with extra meaning in a place like the Tatiara, The Good Country, but they’re for another time.

The real story of the real harvest, more than the gleaning along the fence-line but the full heads from the middle of the fields, is that God provides because God has promised to provide. What we have is God’s own because whose we are is God’s own. Children are a harvest, and actual harvest, (just ask Job) and we are the reaping of what God planted in creation as well as metaphor. You are the abundance of God, and in delivering God’s promises to the Holy Nation you, God’s royal priesthood, are also the recipients of the bounty. This is fact, this is true, this is the theology of harvest. Now comes the application: the doing stuff, the questions for challenge.

1. How will you celebrate the harvest that is you and that has been delivered to you? What will your harvest festival look like, in your life, beyond today’s act of worship and the extortionate rates charged at auction in half an hour’s time?

2. How will you spend the harvest that is yours and that has been delivered to you? What effect will the abundance have in your life, beyond today’s act of worship and the extravagance of our festival today. You have an armful of blessing from God today, will you build a bigger barn, or will you set a longer table?

Amen.

Who May Abide? (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Active Retired group at Kaniva Hospital Day Centre (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 4th February 2020.

Psalm 15

Today’s psalm is a bit of a gift for me because it is one of my favourite passages of scripture. As a pastor I have lots of favourite passages; I know other ministers and preachers who have the same thing. Indeed most Christians have a favourite passage or two, so for those of us who read scripture for a living it seems straightforward that this would happen. But among the many that I like, Psalm 15 comes near the top and I am always happy when it appears in the lectionary.

Psalm 15:1 begins with a question, and depending upon which English translation you use the words say something like who shall dwell in your tabernacle, who shall live in your holy mountain, or words to that effect. I love the one which reads Lord who can rest in your tent, it sounds so welcoming and inviting; so much more than Lord, who dares to dwell with you, who presumes the privilege of being close to you, living next to you in your shining place of glory. You really know where you stand with each of those, yet both are translations into English from the Greek text used in the time of Jesus, how can they be so different?

I think the answer to that question, how can they be so different, comes back to how we think about God in the first place. One of the commentators I read suggested that Psalm 15 is David’s (earlier) version of the Beatitudes, and the lectionary seems to agree because this Psalm was matched with Matthew 5:1-12 last Sunday. How do you think of the Beatitudes, how do you think of the instructions here? Do you believe that God has set a minimum standard of perfection and that the only way to live in fellowship with God is to live a perfect life? Does this mean for you that imperfect people are kicked out of God’s tent and thrown down the mountain? Is it enough to try your best and rely on God to honour your effort? Or does salvation by grace through faith mean that you don’t have to try at all, and that God will save you and invite you in regardless? All of those options, and others besides them, have been offered by Christian scholars since the time of Jesus; and since it’s Christian scholars who translate the Bible into common languages they will let their bias-slash-theology-slash-interpretation show.

For example, the scholar who wrote who dares and who presumes has a very high view of God’s glory, and he (the scholar) is trying to encourage Christians to be passionate about their faith. The grace of God is not something to be taken for granted, something to be nonchalant about as if it’s your right or entitlement as an Israelite or Judahite. Or a Gentile sinner saved by grace we might add today. God is holy and you can’t just wander in to the Presence of The LORD like that, so this Psalm is full of majesty and challenge. If you want to enter God’s house then you need to be righteous and awestruck.

Yet there is a welcome in God’s grace, and a patience, and a reaching-down to meet the broken and the lost who is dead inside (and maybe outside) and completely unable to do anything. Here is where we can rest in God’s tent and then live in God’s house as people who have been rescued. What follows then is about how God transforms us as we learn the rules of the house, and take on the character of the host. Righteousness and awe are requirements, but they are attributes of those who already live in the house, they are not the tickets for access.

And this is why I like Psalm 15. I like it because it is the double story of how holy and righteous God is, The LORD Almighty, but in the same passage we find God The Father, fatherly in God’s meeting us in the gutter and taking us limp and bleeding into the tent for triage and then into the palace as adopted sons and daughters who become what God is, awe-inspiring and righteous, through the ministry of Christ and his grace.

Those who dwell in the place where God is, who are welcome in God’s presence are those who have been welcomed into God’s presence and who are attentive to God’s attributes so much that they are learning to emulate God’s character. By grace we are saved, and by love we are instructed to follow the Way of The LORD which is the best way to live. God’s desire for the Church is lives which the world recognises as good citizenship; blamelessness, truth-telling, incorruptible, generous, just, and steadfast in faith and obedience.

In my way of thinking, Psalm 15 is not primarily a challenge (although there is that), it is first and foremost a promise of who we are becoming so long as we stay close to Jesus. Amen.

2020 Vision

This is the text of my newsletter ,message for the January 2020 pewsheet at KSSM.  I was on leave for all of January so this is all the people heard from me.

All over the Twitface these past few weeks the pastors‘ networks which I follow have been abuzz with jokes around 20/20 vision, and local leaders‘ vision for their churches in 2020AD. As someone who has worn glasses for shortsightedness since age 6, and now has a pair of old-man glasses for reading, I‘ve never had 20/20 or 6/6 vision in either eye. But that hasn‘t stopped me learning to read, and then reading to learn, and every week I write around 1750 words of sermon after several hours of Bible and commentary study, mixed with a fair bit of imagination. The reason I can read without clear vision is of course because of my old-man glasses.

What is our vision for 2020 as the Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry? The question we might ask is what can we see (since vision is about sight, not hope), and how is what we are seeing affected by what we are looking through. I continue to ask what God is saying to the West vWimmera and to the churches of Kaniva and Serviceton; today as I write this (wearing my old-man glasses) I‘m interested by what we see locally and how we think God sees it. Do we wear lenses supplied by God? Do we see what God sees and do we see how God sees: that the slave is our brother as the old hymn goes.

My prayer for us all for January is that we wil take a month of rest after Christmas and harvest and school and whatever else, and take time to refocus our eyes on the year ahead. Lift your heads Church, look up from the books and adjust your focus to look at the horizon: what can you see in the distance. And if you do that, come find me in February and tell me what you saw, and how you feel about that.

Damien.

Born is the King

This is the text of my message for Christmas Day 2019.  KSSM (Kaniva Uniting Church) hosted the eccumenical Christmas Day service in Kaniva.

Luke 2:1-14; Titus 3:4-7

Jesus is a truly puzzling figure in history, there really is nothing straightforward about him. The stories we tell about Jesus can be pretty simple, how he was born in a manger and died on a cross, how he fed 5000 men plus their wives and kids from a single lunch-pack, how he taught the rich to look after the poor and how he taught the poor to trust God. Not everyone is convinced that the stories are true, but the way the stories are told is pretty straightforward, it’s plain storytelling. But the puzzle comes in how believable the stories are, and what their deeper meaning is. I mean, how can a baby born in a food-trough be God? How can any baby born anywhere be God? Simple tales told simply, but baffling meanings.

The story of Jesus’ birth is pretty well know, even if you aren’t religious. In fact you can be religious in another religion, but if you live in Australia you’ve probably heard about the manger and the three kings and the shepherds and the little drummer boy and the angels from the realms of glory. The story as it is actually told by the Bible is a little bit different, mainly because there are three versions of Christmas in the Bible but Australia like the rest of the world tells only one, which is a sort of mish-mash of the three to form a complete story. In our story this morning, which is only the one from Luke 2, we are told that Joseph and Mary, who we met in Luke 1, have to travel from Nazareth where they live to Bethlehem which is Joseph’s family’s home town. It’s possible that Joseph has never been to Bethlehem and that his grandfather’s grandfather emigrated to Galilee a hundred years ago; it’s also possible he grew up there and moved to Nazareth to find work, either way it doesn’t matter because he has to go there now. So, Joseph and his pregnant wife walk down to Bethlehem over the course of a few days, (the Bible says nothing about a donkey), and Luke 2:6 tells us that while they were there the time came, and Mary was delivered of her firstborn, a son. It’s highly unlikely from this wording that our common idea of Christmas is correct: Joseph and Mary certainly did not arrive in Bethlehem just in time for the birth, but too late for a motel room, and that Mary was left to deliver her baby alone and in the car-park barely hours after arriving. More likely is that the couple arrived in plenty of time and were camping outside the village, probably with Joseph’s cousins and brothers and so forth who would also have had to go back to Bethlehem. When Mary began to feel the pangs of labour Joseph might have gone in to town to find a guesthouse for the night, just to be a bit more comfortable, and unable to offer them some space in the crowded upstairs part where the people slept the landlord offered Joseph a quiet corner in the downstairs room where the animals were kept. It strikes us as a bit primitive, but we’re talking 4BC here so it’s probably nothing really out of the ordinary for Joseph and his family.

So, Jesus’ actual birth was pretty normal in and of itself. The fact that his mother was a virgin and his conception was by The Holy Spirit is unique, but the boy in the manger isn’t terribly remarkable. Having said that, the remarkable kicks in a few hours later.

Back outside the village, most likely in a camp not dissimilar to that shared by Joseph’s extended family, is a mob of shepherds. So these guys are locals, and they’re doing their job. In Luke 2:8 we read that they are lying in the fields, as you do when you’re a shepherd and there’s no barn, but then as Luke 2:9 tells us the glory of The LORD shone around them, and they were terrified. The baby in the manger is the one they’re looking for, and when they find him they will know that good news has come. That’s all well and good, but the question I want to ask this morning is “why shepherds?” Well, why anyone really? I mean, why can’t the paparazzi just let Jesus grow up anonymously and then announce himself as an adult, when he’s ready? After all, that’s pretty much what happens in Mark and John where their stories begin with John the Baptist saying “hey, look over there”.

I think it is significant that we hear about Jesus’ birth, and that Heaven drew attention to it at the time with angels and stars and visiting Magi and shepherds. There’s a message in the baby, and that message is that when God chose to enter the world’s reality as a baby God was saying that there is no rush. Sometimes we’d love it if God would just zap! or kapow! stuff into being, especially if that means the destruction of evil or the triumph of good, but God does not work that way. Christmas shows us that God is careful and slow; not ponderous and creaky slow, but not slap-dash and hasty: God’s way is the way of growth and as those of you who are farmers know growth takes time, conditions, and care if it is to occur in the best way. In Luke 2:13-14 we read about the angels singing and so we have no doubt that this event, the one with the baby in the manger, is a God-directed event and that this child really is something special, someone special, indeed the most special someone there ever will be. And this someone is a baby, only hours old, so there will be years involved in the revealing of this plan, the unwrapping of God’s story which has begun its telling but has a long way to go until its conclusion.

The story which Christians tell about Jesus does not begin at Christmas and end at Easter. It doesn’t even begin at Annunciation and end at Ascension for those of you who know those events in our calendar. The story of Jesus begins before Creation and Genesis 1, and it’s still being told today: it hasn’t finished yet because Jesus is still going. And that story is not just the biography of a carpenter who grew up in the north of Israel but who was born and died in the south: the story of Christmas and the story of Christianity is the story of the angels in Luke 2:14, God is glorified in the exchanges of peace amongst and between humankind.

In Titus 3:4-7 we read Paul’s take on Jesus’ birth. This is not actually a Christmas story, but it does say that Jesus the man, who once was that baby, came as a representation of God’s goodness and mercy. Jesus was not a representative of God, Jesus was God in all that God is; however Paul especially draws attention to the characteristics of Jesus to tell us what God is like. God is good, loving, kind and merciful, and not that Paul says it but its obvious from these other characteristics, God is patient.

This Christmas morning as we rush home to presents, food, family, and the fun of the day (and don’t worry, I’m nearly finished preaching), it’s good to be reminded that God is patient and never rushed. God takes the time to love us, to protect us as we grow, and to be patient as we stumble along towards maturity. Jesus was active in ministry for between one and three years, depending how you read the Bible’s seasons, and these were the last years of his life. Jesus didn’t start preaching and healing until her turned 30, so he was 31 or 33 when he died, and then he was back to Heaven seven weeks later. God didn’t rush Jesus into action; God let Jesus grow up and learn a trade and get some life skills, and then Jesus did what he had to do as a teacher and a healer, an example to the world, and then he died as a sign of God’s love and then he rose again as a sign of God’s authority. Then Jesus went home. No rush, just a well placed, well-paced life.

Let’s remember Jesus the saviour, and God the patient one, this Christmas. Let’s take the time away from the tinsel, even if only a few minutes, and slow down and be present and notice where God has grown us up to and where God is pointing us toward. There’s no rush, there’s only breath and inertia, but let’s not miss the quiet and gentle movement forward by frantically sitting with the flashy and the noisy.

Celebrate with joy, the Lord is come: do you have space to receive him?

Amen.

The Advent of Loss: 2 (Blue Christmas)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the community Blue Christmas service in Kaniva for 2019.  The service was hosted by the Uniting Church on behalf of all of the town churches.

John 1:1-14

Imagine a Christmas without all the pageantry. In a field of loss that might be nice, and December 25th itself might pass in quietness, another Wednesday in the world, with nothing to set it apart. Imagine if Christmas Day was just another birthday, someone else’s birthday, and joy to them and all of that, but good that I wasn’t invited, or even aware, because I’m not in the mood for celebration. In fact, even if it was my birthday, and it isn’t, but even if it was I’m just not into it.

Do any of you know what date of the year my birthday is? It’s okay, I don’t know when yours are either. It’s probably no surprise to you that your birthday this year was just another day for me, unremarkable, I don’t even remember what I was doing: unless it was a Sunday of course, in which case I was probably preaching, but then I preach most Sundays anyway so I’m sorry if I didn’t notice your special day. Or was it a Saturday in winter and I was at the footy, same answer, sorry I didn’t notice.

There are days like that for all of us. Not just birthdays, but other significant days and the anniversaries of significant days. There are people in this room, at the very least in this town, who lost friends and family to death this year: but what was I doing on the day that that happened? Can’t say. Others observed days of anniversary: a year, two, ten, perhaps fifty since a loved one died, again days unremarked by me or the rest of you, for the most part. And generally that’s okay, we often don’t need the whole world party to our personal grief, especially when healing has begun and the years have made the memories more fond for what was had and less sharp for what was lost.

But then, then there’s Christmas. I know two people for whom Christmas Day is the anniversary of a father’s passing. But even without that, Christmas Day is a loud and bright day, especially in Australia where it’s all-but midsummer, so the parties are outside with cricket in the street and barbeques in the back yard and it’s hard to hide from celebration even if you want to. That’s not to say that there aren’t lonely people, grieving people, distressed people even on the Day when we celebrate Santa’s coming to earth in human form, it’s just that those sad-sacks get their noses rubbed in by their boisterous neighbours and their cordial-powered, remote-control wielding children.

In John’s gospel and the opening chapter, which is really a prologue to the story than the opening of the story itself, we have Christmas without the paraphernalia. No wise men, no shepherds, no angels; no star, no animals, no manger; no baby. What we have is light and a word; a word which is a who (and not a what), a word who is glorious and alive, a word who is light whom banishes the darkness. I wonder what a Christmas pageant would look like if we based it on John’s account rather than Matthew’s or Luke’s. Would it actually be less boisterous if there was no bunch of kids dressed as a flock of lambs, and one solitary boy was dressed as everlasting light instead? I never got to be Joseph when I was a child, although I did play him in a monologue when I was about 42. I wonder how I would have felt had I been chosen to play the real light – the light that comes into the world and shines on all mankind as John 1:9 puts it.

The Good News Translation overlooks the phrase, but in the New American Bible (amongst others) we read in John 1:12 that to those who did accept him he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name. Now is not the time for a full theology of the Name of Jesus, but briefly, at Blue Christmas, let me say this. The name of the Word who came as light, is Jesus, and that name means “God Saves”. It’s the same Hebrew name as Joshua (Yehu’shua), the one who fit de battle of Jericho and the walls come a tumblin’ down. The phrase “in his name” also means to accept Jesus for all he is and all he stands for: the whole being of Jesus and his story. If you acknowledge and receive Jesus, the one who exists and proclaims the salvation of God, then you will become a son or daughter of God. Many did not accept Jesus when he came, during his life between 4BC and 30AD or whenever exactly it was, John 1:11 tells us that and we know it from other parts of the New Testament too. Many since then and right up to today have also not accepted him, either they have heard the story and rejected it for whatever reason, or they haven’t heard the story properly told at all for whatever reason. That’s why John 1:12 specifically says to those who did accept him, because in John 1:11 we’ve just been told that many didn’t.

And that’s where we find ourselves on Blue Christmas, and others find themselves blue at Christmas, because the story is unacceptable. Here’s a story about eternal light entering the world. Here’s a story about the Word of God, so God’s creative power (remember God created by “saying”) and God’s authority, entering the world. Here’s a story about a man who embodies all of the above and his name is literally “God Saves”, if not “God’s Salvation” as if the man is himself the saviour, and not just a living prophecy whose name is a message, he himself with the name is also the means of salvation. And yet here I am, on Thursday night 19th December 2019 (or Wednesday morning 25th December), and here I am mourning because God did very much NOT save. If God saves then why am I a widow, or an orphan, or a divorcee, or a bankrupt, or a quadriplegic, or a neurotic? Why? All this light you’re speaking about just makes my darkness even more obvious, and it’s just as painful as the noise of children on their new bikes and the sound of their dads on their fourth beer.

You say “God saves”, but I say that’s very hard to accept, let alone believe.

As a pastor I hear that, and I will not trample it. Yes I am a pastor, but only because I am a survivor in life,; and I’m a survivor in life only because I am a Christian. I’m not saying that you cannot survive life without Christianity, but I am saying that I would not have made it this far without Jesus. My story is that I have lost a lot. My grandparents have all died, so my parents (whom I dearly love) have lost their parents (whom they dearly loved). I have lost friends to death, and friends to distance. I have also lost friends to hatred, people who once were close who have turned against me and my family. I have lost health, and poor health has stolen decades of my life; in fact I’m going to say that much of my adulthood has been lost to sickness and disability. I was sexually molested as a child and I have lost most, if not all, of what it means to be in a romantic relationship. So, when you say that God’s salvation is very hard to accept, let alone believe, I believe you, and I accept your story as accurate and true.

But so is John’s story, accurate and true, and I know this because it is also my story. That I am here, after all of that, to tell my story and even more to tell John’s story from the Christian Bible, is all down to the fact that God does save, did save, will save, and that Jesus is the means by which that is accomplished. I am a Christian, a recipient of salvation, because God saved me and not because I saved myself. When I stopped trying to save myself and faced the overwhelming tide of death, because I was out of energy and motivation, that is when God has lifted me out and up and away. If you aren’t there yet well I’m not going to gloat, or accuse, or deny your pain. I will be respectful this Christmas of you in the way that I missed in Christmases past when others denied, excluded, and accused me.

Imagine a Christmas without all the pageantry: in a field of loss that might be nice, and December 25th itself might pass in quietness, another Wednesday in the world, with nothing to set it apart. You know, you are allowed to have it that way, you really are. But if you don’t want to, we’ll be here at 9:00am next Wednesday, and we’ll be telling the stories of how Jesus is God’s Salvation. And we’ll be nice about it too.

Amen.

Were we even given a choice? (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva Day Centre (WWHS) for the chapel service on Tuesday 10th December 2019.  This was the final service for 2019.

Luke 1:26-38

Today’s story is often told on 25th March, or at least the Sunday closest to it, and it is the story that some Christian traditions call “The Annunciation” and other Christian traditions seem to ignore. It is the story of Gabriel coming to a twelve year old peasant, Mary, with the news of Emmanuel and her role in the LORD’s own coming.

Well, there’s a lot that can be said about this episode, and a lot has been said, on various 25th of March in years past. So this morning, 10th December of all days, I want to focus on one thing. Or rather not a thing but a person: a man. Joseph.

Every year it annoys me that I can’t remember what it was called, because I’d love to find it and be able to have a copy. Anyway, about 15 years ago while I was living in England, the BBC put on a story of the Passion, a mini-series which they had made, and it was shown on BBC One at Easter. In a particular episode the adult Jesus is talking with Mary, and he’s explaining what God is calling him towards in the coming week, so the crucifixion and all that. However distressing it is for Mary, she must understand that he must follow the will of The Father. You can imagine it, “yeah sorry Mum, but God says there’s a cross for me Friday week, and you’ll just have to accept it because I’m the Christ, yeah”. It’s not quite that direct, or Cockney, but anyway the important thing is what Mary responds with, and this I remember pretty much verbatim. She says “don’t you presume to tell me what the will of The Father entails, I know the call of The Father. Don’t you think, can you even imagine, what if Joseph had said no.”

What if Joseph had said no.

Not everyone who is called by God, not even everyone who is specifically and uniquely set aside by God, follows God. Think of Jonah who was called east and so he went west. Think of all the kings of Israel and Judah who inherited the throne promised to David’s line (and in Judah they were David’s grandsons) but who did evil in the LORD’s sight. We are blessed that Mary said yes, and her song Magnificat expresses the depth of her yes. In Luke’s gospel account Joseph doesn’t get a say, Mary meets Gabriel and the next thing she’s at Elizabeth’s house for six months. It’s only in Matthew 1:18-25 that we are told that Joseph has the opportunity to do the honourable thing and divorce Mary, (so that she can then marry the unborn child’s real father before it’s too late), and God’s messenger tells him the real story. We are blessed that Joseph said yes, and that Joseph did not say no.

What then happens within Mary’s body we are not expressly told. Did God fertilise one of Mary’s ova, or was Emmanuel a fully established zygote implanted in Mary as a surrogate? We know Joseph had no part in this, but I wonder whether Jesus actually looked like his dad growing up. I look like my father, and I have a baby nephew who looks like me because he looks like his mum, my sister. Jesus could have looked like anyone really, if he wasn’t genetically the son of his parents. That’s a bit deeper than we need to go now, the nature of the incarnation and the form that God The Son took as The Son of Man has been argued for as long as Jesus has been proclaimed LORD. But I’d like to think that Jesus bore a family resemblance to his dad and mum, and to his younger brothers and sisters; not because it matters to theology or salvation doctrine but just because in a world where Joseph might have said no, God said yes and gave the Carpenters of Nazareth a boy who fitted in.

But it is a little bit important, I think. Not significant for salvation, Jesus could have been angelically blonde and blue eyed and his death as messiah still would have cured our sins. But significant in that we can trust God to do right by us when we place our lives in God’s hands to do God’s will. God chose Mary, and by choosing Mary God also chose Joseph, and in choosing Joseph God did not set him up for embarrassment by allowing Mary to give birth to a boy so remarkable that he was obviously not the son of Joseph, setting off a scandal.

The story of the annunciation is the story of a trustworthy, faithful God. It is safe to follow The LORD’s leading, God will not abandon you to shame and God is considerate of what you will face in God’s name. This is not to say that discipleship is easy, Jesus died and Mary watched it happen, but God was kind as far as God could be, and the story of God with us, Emmanuel, remains so. God gets what it is to live amongst men and women, Jesus lived amongst men and women, and God has got your back if you have got God’s mission.

Amen.