Borderlands

This is the text of my Minister’s Message for The Vision which is Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry quarterly news letter, for December 2018-February 2019.

In my travels out to an evening Bible Study group a few weeks ago I suddenly discovered myself in South Australia.  I was not surprised to find myself in SA, that often happens when you live in Kaniva or Serviceton and you all know that better than me.  What surprised me was that there was no road sign to indicate the change of state.  No big red one facing a big blue one, no smaller blue and gold one facing an orange one, not even a matched pair of little white ones suggesting movement between districts.  My sat-nav lost half an hour, and the cement cylinders of Victoria turned into the steel and concrete “stobie” poles of SA, but otherwise there was nothing to say I had moved into an area of authority governed from Adelaide rather than from Melbourne.

The Kingdom of God is a bit like this.  Sometimes it is obvious where we are, whether we are in or out: Kaniva and Bordertown have different state flags flying, and you know the exact point that the Western Highway becomes the Dukes Highway, even if it’s always the A8.  At other times you just get a sense that something has shifted by observing the signs that are there, which are not the signs you were expecting to see, which you will see if you have wisdom behind your eyes.

My point is that The Church is not the capital city of the Kingdom of God; it is the service town and the border town.  We as the people of God actually live in the border lands, the frontier of the reign of God, knowing that at times we are in one realm (perhaps when we are in worship and fellowship) and at other times in another realm (perhaps when we are engaged in everyday events).  This is okay; this is actually what God intends for us as the ambassadors of the Kingdom: the Bible clearly reads that Heaven is the place of completion and fulfilment so it’s okay to be a Christian in the world and not be in blissful adoration of His Majesty 24/7.  What we must not forget is that, like Serviceton, (named after Mr Service rather than its function), we are to serve those who are coming into the Kingdom.  Church is the “welcome home” at the gate, the “have some water and a nice sit down” in the lounge, the “ladies this way, gents that” next to the rock next to the highway.  And because The Church lives at the edge of The Kingdom sometimes we find ourselves in another state.

Much has been said about Christianity, about Christians, and about our formal institutions in Australia in recent months.  The government launched an inquiry into our caring ministries and we were found wanting.  (The fact that non-Church organisations were seen to be just as guilty is not the point, although it is worth noting.)  Stories of hurting people inside and outside Christian communities where that community was the perpetrator of hurt are not uncommon.  Sometimes the Church has been seen to be of the world but not in it, squabbling in our ecclesiastical corners about things that are beside the point of the gospel.  These things are not okay, but they are not unexpected in a human system trying to engage with the world.

In 2019 let us all seek to live with Christ’s heart, even when we find ourselves suddenly across the border.

Advertisements

The Reign of God (Christ the King)

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

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

Good morning Church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Watch your step (Pentecost 8B)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Who is a King? (Pentecost 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Parish, gathered at Newborough, on Sunday 10th June 2018.

1 Samuel 8:4-20; Psalm 138

I am not a parent.  This news is not a surprise to you since those of you who know me know that I have never been married and I have never had any children of my own.  It is impossible that I would have had flesh of my flesh until this point, and whilst as a man of middle age my clock is not ticking as fast as those of my female friends of middle age, the idea that I might be a father to one of my own is receding in possibility with each passing year.  Nonetheless it cannot be said that I don’t have children: I am an uncle, I was a “big cousin”, and I was once a school teacher.  So, I know more than a little bit about children and their reasoning.  And I know that there is one fail-proof argument that a child can fall back whenever he or she is not getting his or her way.  There are modifications on this argument, it can be adapted for the circumstances, but basically it goes like this: “ohnh! everyone else is allowed to!!” or “ohnh! (insert name of another adult) lets us!!”

Who’s heard that before?  Who’s said that before?  Hopefully you said it when you were a child and not in the last few days, but still.  “Ohnh Damien!  Our last minister used to let us put our feet up on the pews during the sermon, and drink beer for morning tea!!”  I doubt that Newborough, I doubt it.

Well in today’s Old Testament reading we find the people of Israel doing the whingeing thing, and sadly they are all adults as they do it.  The leaders of Israel have come to Samuel, who is both prophet and judge, and they demand that a king be appointed to reign over them so that they can be like all the other nations.  In other words, “ohnh, but Philistia and Egypt have kings”, and “ohnh, but Baal and Osiris let their countries have kings”.

It is true that Israel was not like other nations at this point; other nations did have kings and Israel did not, but that was because God was Israel’s king and God reigned through the agency of judges as and when required. Israel was the holy nation, set apart from all other nations by God to serve as an exemplary nation and the demonstrate the Kingdom of God, literally the kingship of God, on earth.  So, when Israel asks for a human king they are not only asking to give up their unique status as first nation of the earth, they are specifically rejecting God’s kingship, seceding from the Kingdom of Heaven, and rejecting God’s lordship as their God.  Samuel only addresses the executive part of this rejection and he warns the people that human kings are oppressive.  God has set these people free, saved them from Pharaoh, and now they are choosing to enter servitude under their own military autocrat. Samuel doesn’t address their blasphemy, only their mutiny, and the people reject his advice and repeat their demand to be treated like all the pagan nations, the not-Chosen nation, and to have a narcissistic, bureaucratic, corruptible, nepotistic war-lord like the nations they have conquered.  The king they got was Saul.

Samuel was the last judge over Israel.  We can read of the exploits of the judges in the book named after them and what we read is that they were not a constant presence.  In times of peace there was no need for a national leader holding together an alliance or coalition of armies, the people of Israel just got on with cropping and parenting and going about life as they knew it.  When a threat arose then God would intervene in history and call forth a judge – names like Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson.  A man or woman born for such a time as that, who lead Israel to military victory and restored the worship of God in place or Baal or Astarte or whomever it was.  Then when the need was met, and the peace was restored, everyone went home again, and they lived happily ever after, for a short time anyway.

A king on the other hand, warns Samuel, will always be present.  Even when there is no need for national defence the monarchy will continue taxing the people and holding a standing army thereby being an unnecessary burden in times of peace and prosperity.  (And no, a king does not preserve peace and prosperity, that’s the Lord’s work.)  Dynastic kings are takers, there are six “takes” in 1 Samuel 8:11-17, whereas God’s appointed judges are givers and saviours.  “Don’t go there”, says Samuel, “God has given Israel a better way”.  But, sigh, Israel does go there, and they get Saul, and Saul gets them into fights.

This story raises questions for us about the phrase “what God intends”, especially when it comes to who our rulers are.  Sometimes things happen that are not the will of God, and God does not intervene when human systems driven by selfish men drive against what is best for humanity.  God does not desire a kingship in Israel, but God chose not to intervene other than to send a prophet to speak the truth.  In 2018 some of the nations have rulers whom God has raised up, other nations have rulers in place because they were elected by people who ignored God’s wisdom and the voice of the prophets.  The trouble is we often don’t know which leader has which story, who is God’s woman or man and who is not, and some proclaim a leader to be God’s appointed while others see that same leader as a threat to God’s people and mission.  This is as true for Joel and Abijah the corrupt sons of Samuel who Samuel tried to set up as hereditary judges, as it is for Saul who became king.

In Psalm 138 we read a song traditionally thought to have been composed by David who was king after Saul and who took on the rule of God’s people around forty years or so after the story told in 1 Samuel 8.  In King David’s song of personal thanksgiving and praise to God who is his Lord we hear how God is good, generous and glorious, and how God will be worshipped and adored by every one of the Earth’s kings because God is gracious and wise in majesty.  God is the protector and God’s presence is the assurance of safety in a dangerous world.  The promises of God are certain, and the plans of God are good.  True kingship is found in God: the best human kingship follows God’s methods of rule and all human kings, queens, presidents and governors attest to that.  We read in Psalm 138:5 that God is the exemplary king, and that this is personally attested to by the greatest ever of human kings, David of Israel.  In Psalm 138:7 we read David’s remembrance of his personal history and the history of Israel, including the circumstances of Saul’s coronation and the military threat posed by Israel’s coastal neighbours from Philistia.  God is the safeguard of Israel’s security, not David himself nor the thousands of men and bows and chariots at his command.  All the security, all the governance Israel needs is found in God, so says the king.  I don’t think David sees himself redundant at this point, what I see is that God as king is ruling through David, and David acknowledges and welcomes this development.  Where the LORD had to work around Saul, and around most of the later kings of the divided kingdoms, the LORD can work with and through David, the good and godly king, just as God had worked through Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and Samuel.

Well that’s great for all of those kings, but what does it mean for us?

As I listen to God and for what God is saying to Yallourn and Moe-Newborough I hear the message for us as stay close to God.  The Kingdom of God was Jesus’ great topic, it’s the first thing he says as an adult in his first sermon and it remain his great theme.  Jesus was not specifically talking about the Kingdom as a literal Heaven for Christians who die in faith: although there is a literal Heaven for Christians who die in faith.  No, the point of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Reign of God is as I have often told you before: live today as if God was the king of Australia and the sovereign of you.  That doesn’t mean you show disrespect for Elizabeth Windsor, Peter Cosgrove, or Linda Dessau who you did not elect but who reign over you in various degrees of authority.  Neither should you be unduly disparaging for Malcolm Turnbull or Daniel Andrews, whom you also did not elect but for whom others voted.  The regard God as king is to show respect for those who serve us as rulers, no one is called to mutiny or rebellion in ordinary circumstances, but we are called to honour God above all else.  God above the queen, as she herself does.  God above the parliaments and councils, as they claim to do.  But most importantly, God above our own ideas of what we would like and how we think the world should be done.

The reign of God says that you don’t get to decide anything, except to follow God. God is king and not only a judge, God is always in charge and does not pop up for danger and pop away for peace, and to treat God like an emergency service is not honouring.  But neither is God a king like Saul who taxes your produce and takes your children as slaves.  God’s rule is good and of benefit.  Why would you want a king other than God?  Today’s message therefore is not about avoiding making Saul king of your life, but about allowing anyone else to take God’s place.

And that includes you.  You are not the best boss of you: God is.

Well may we say “God save the King”: because God alone is the saviour king.

Amen.

One Day in The Temple (Lent 3B)

This is the text of the message I wrote for the people of Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 4th March 2018, the third Sunday in Lent.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

I am an uncle to three magnificent children with whom I caught up in South Australia last weekend, but I am not a father.  However, in the light of today’s reading from the gospel I want to start with a “dad joke”.  Are you ready, is your excitement building?  Okay, here it is: what is the highest jump recorded in history?  What was it, do you know?  Are you ready for this, are you sure?  Okay, here it is: it’s when Jesus cleared the temple.  Bahahaha!

Okay, you’re not laughing but I get it, it’s okay.  It probably sounds better in Aramaic.  No worries.

In all seriousness Jesus clearing the temple is one of the surprisingly few stories which occurs in all four gospels, but it is unique even among those stories because of its timing in the life of Jesus.  Mark, Matthew and Luke each locate this story specifically on Monday in Holy Week, the day after Palm Sunday, whereas John puts it right at the start of Jesus’ public ministry.  Did he actually do it twice, did Jesus throw a hissy in the courtyard two times, three years apart?  That’s a good question; it’s not one I’m going to answer today, but it’s still a good question.

Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggests that in clearing out the traders Jesus did not actually “cleanse the temple” as the language about this episode often goes, in fact Jesus symbolically abolished the temple[1] and the temple-way of doing things.

Borg and Crossan make this claim regarding the activity of Jesus in the week before he was murdered, so it fits better with the time of the year we are in now rather than the time of John 2, but it’s worth making the point for that since we are in Lent right now.  I’m not going to get into the depths of what these theologians say, but the basic story is that Jesus is not bothered by the different ways people worship God: be that by sacrifice or by praise; by sitting or standing; by singing or silence; in Aramaic or Latin or Shakespearian or Australian English.  Activities of the religious community presented to God for God’s pleasure are never of themselves a problem for Jesus, no matter how strange they might appear to Protestant Gippslanders.  However, when any supposedly worshipful act becomes a substitute for activities of justice and gracious-welcome then that act is a problem for God.  Our God, the God of our people, is the God of All Nations; so, if our church-stuff excludes other types of people from God’s company then we shouldn’t be surprised when the Word-became-Flesh, God-with-us immediately shuts down this counterfeit worship.  To sing to God, to pray, to sacrifice, yet to resist and not allow justice is not pleasing to God; therefore, whatever goes on in church must empower disciples for acts of justice, it must never excuse them from it.

The blaze of Jesus’ anger in the temple therefore had nothing to do with merchants doing honest business, or even with merchants doing dishonest business.  Jesus is not bothered by a parish fete making use of this room, (although I am), and he’s not fussed if our fundraising garage sale takes place on this property.  That’s not the issue here, and it never has been.  Rather the issue at hand, and the reason behind Jesus suddenly going boonta in Jerusalem’s holiest building, it is the shift in emphasis of the temple authorities away from prayer to cosy up to the imperial oppressors.  Borg says in another book, one written without Crossan, that it’s not the sacrificial-animal sellers and coin merchants who Jesus names and flogs as thieves, it’s the priestly collaborators who are using their social status to cosy up with Rome[2].

The people of God are supposed to stand away from the rulers of the world: not to ignore them or to rebel against them, but to make sure that we are never implicated in human schemes of oppression and greed.

As with almost all Christians who will allow the name “Evangelical” to be pointed at them I understand and proclaim as truth that Jesus was crucified because of human sin.  But this is not as obvious a statement as it might seem.  It’s not just that Jesus died as a sacrifice for us, it’s that he was murdered by individual sinful men acting sinfully.  Jesus died because of the envy and corruption of a group of Jewish religious leaders, and the cowardice and injustice of the Roman imperial governor.  These men who were supposed to care for God’s people as God’s appointed leaders instead established a system in which religion and government, high priest and governor, temple and empire operated in life-destroying ways.  Jesus was killed by the powerful men of his day.  Part of the story of Easter is that like Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero, and millions of brutally silenced other men and women of God, Jesus was assassinated by the powers that be in an attempt to shut down his God-centred summons to their repentance.

In the light of this different view of the death of Jesus, a view which expands what we were taught about the cross and sin but in no way undermines it, the New Testament writers offer another way of responding to Jesus.  Salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection is not about life inside a broken system of injustice and corrupt self-interest but with a new and handy reset button called “confession and repentance”.  No, Calvary says that the world is broken and a completely new way of doing life which turns domination on its end and affirms God’s Kingdom justice above human imperial injustice is required.  If you follow the Easter story through Mark, Matthew or Luke what you find out is that it was this activity that lead directly to Jesus’ death.  When Jesus called out the injustice and corruption of the temple and shamed the Jewish leaders as collaborators with the Romans, that was the last straw.  “He needs to be shut up and shut down: let’s kill him embarrassingly” says the Sanhedrin first to each other and then to Pilate.

The Bible’s story of salvation, and this is evident in the message of Jesus is not primarily concerned with life after death, but with life on a transformed Earth within the Kingdom of God.  Salvation is therefore about the life of the world to come, meaning this world in its restored state.  Salvation is Genesis 2, but better.  But this world, the Kingdom of God which Jesus inaugurated, must be healed.  The new Earth, by which the whole Bible means this Earth made new rather than an entirely different planet to replace the current, old one, is a place of completion rather than fragmentation, and wholeness and healing rather than brokenness, because of grace.  Salvation runs right through the Bible as a healing story, moving the people of God (and the persons within the body) from slavery under Pharaoh to the land of milk and honey with lots of walking and being upheld by grace in between.  Then Israel falls apart, becomes too corrupt for its own good, and the people are exiled.  Then God brings them back and starts again in a rebuilt Jerusalem.  Then Israel falls apart and God leaves them in Jerusalem but the Greeks, then the Romans arrive.  When Jesus comes he is the saviour in this repeated Jewish pattern.  Like God through Moses Jesus is the liberator who sets the captives free.  As he says of himself, and like the prophets in the model of Elijah who we met at Transfiguration three weeks ago Jesus is The Way who points the exiles toward home and gives navigation to homecoming.  And like the temple itself, and as reiterated by the authors and editors of the New Testament book Hebrews Jesus is the Sacrifice who once for all fulfilled and made obsolete the temple and its rituals for atonement, guaranteeing acceptance and forgiveness for all from God.

Beyond the gospels we read from the early Church how Jesus, the one murdered by Rome has been vindicated by God.  Peter says this in his great sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:23-24, 36.  Throughout his letters Paul repeatedly says that his primary purpose, his life’s work as a writer and a public speaker is Christ crucified.  Christ is wisdom where the world is foolish we began to read today in 1 Corinthians.  This story goes past where we finished today and for the full effect read 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16 where for the first time in his life Paul writes about the cross from a theological perspective, not just an episode of history.  Where Paul sets up a comparison between the wisdom of the world practiced by some of the Christian factions of Corinth (that is to say, the broad way) and the wisdom of God (the narrow way which is foolishness to the academia of the Greeks and a stumbling block to the religiosity of the Jews) he does it within the framework of Christ as the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-24, 30).

The human way of doing things is broken and it leads to brokenness.  The People of God: the people who honoured Abraham, Moses, Elijah and the prophets, David and the good kings, and Samuel and the faithful hearers and doers of the word of God; this People executed the Messiah for Blasphemy and the King of Kings for Treason.  Tell me how that’s a good system, if you can.  Calvary says that the human system is broken.  Jesus’ anger at how the system had pervaded and corrupted the very heart of God’s own nation’s worship shows how much that hurt him.  That the religious and national leaders of God’s own nation chose to murder and humiliate Jesus for calling them out is all the evidence and more that we are up against it if we choose to stand with Jesus.

This is a dangerous message, after all according to Mark, Matthew and Luke this is the message that got Jesus killed.  Yet in that we hear the heart-felt cry of the Word of God.

Resist evil, but do not rebel.  Let me be clear in saying that I have not heard calling us to storm the council chambers in Traralgon, or the parliaments in Melbourne or Canberra.  God is not calling us to picket the Uniting Church offices of Assembly, Synod, Presbytery, or Cluster.  Do not burn your flags, just don’t worship them either.  Listen to God, follow Jesus, and pray without ceasing for the Church and our nation.  Just don’t be surprised if when the world continues in the way that is going, without God, we who live according to the Way of Christ find ourselves headed for the high jump.

Amen.

[1] Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final days in Jerusalem. (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 48.

[2] Marcus J Borg. Meeting Jesus in Mark: Conversations with Scripture. (London: SPCK, 2011). 93