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.

Advent 2A

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th December 2019, the second Sunday in Advent.

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

The one who is coming will come from Jesse’s family, a return to the righteousness of the Davidic inheritance.” A shoot from the stump and a branch from the roots suggests to me regrowth out of what was cut off. Isaiah tells us that such a man is coming, and that God will be upon this man; this man will live according to God’s model of righteous living, and this man will live in a saving relationship with God by God’s grace. This man is an agent, a leader and a catalyst, a restorer of once-broken relationships between God and nation, between nation and land, and between citizens of the nation. God’s king will rule with righteousness, and stand with faithfulness.

In this picture of the kingship of God, and what life is like inside the Kingdom of God, we’re not actually seeing Heaven. All of this shalom in the air and infant herbivores sleeping beside adult carnivores is a description of what Earth will be like once more, when God’s rule is completely restored. Remember, (make sure you remember), that God’s promises about the end of things are not about dead Christians going up to Heaven; no, the promise is actually that The Trinity Godself and the New Jerusalem come down to complete the New Earth, which is the inheritance of the One whose robe is dipped in blood. (But that’s Christianity and we’re getting ahead of ourselves here). As far as Isaiah is concerned he’s writing about a restored King of Israel, the ruler of a nation that includes the people of all twelve tribes living across the full extent of the land promised by God to Abraham, (a land far larger than the land conquered by Joshua’s armies). Isaiah is writing about history as it was supposed to have been, a life where humankind never left Eden, and Isaiah writes with confidence that God will complete this work promised at the outset of humankind’s written history. Everyone who has been scattered will come home. They will know where home is because they will be able to see the root of Jesse standing on the horizon, and they will know that that place is indeed home because the root of Jesse will be calling them in with welcoming voices.

Isaiah preached this during the reign of Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, (we’ll hear more about Ahaz next week), who was a good king of the kingdom of Judah. It’s possible that Isaiah is preaching at the time of Hezekiah’s coronation, so a time in Jerusalem’s history of “a new hope”. Israel to the north has been defeated and overrun by its enemies, so the Samaritan Israelites are not in Samaria but in Assyria as conquered exiles. Some of the Judahites have been taken away too, but Jerusalem held out and has been delivered from the threat of siege. So, the enemies are gone and the old king is dead (bad king, good news), and the new king is righteous and according to Isaiah 11:11 he will summon home all of those who were taken away: the Tanakh says that God will redeem the other part of His people, and the places named are the places where they were taken away to. So, as the Gospel According to Buble reports (Feeling Good lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley © Universal Music Publishing Group):

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

(Hey, it’s not really Christmas without Buble.)

Later in history the Patristic scholars connected the attributes of Isaiah 11:2 with Jesus’ reception of the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit: the idea being that Jesus was and is the foretold Davidic king who brings peace to the world. A similar story is told in Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 and similar to our Isaiah passage the Psalm is not so much a prediction that one day Jesus will come, rather it’s about what the people of God’s nation are praying for then and there about their king. Give us someone righteous, they ask, someone who will open the land to prosperity and blessing, someone who will protect the poor and disadvantaged so that their right to participate in national prosperity is protected and promoted. Give us someone who will reign for a long time and whose rule is refreshing to us all, and may God’s name be blessed because God’s reputation is being upheld. Give us a king who is like God in character, and bring on the kingship of God, The Kingdom of Heaven.

In Matthew 3:1 we hear John the Baptiser calling to the Judeans and saying repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Like the psalmist John is calling for social reform, and the fact that he’s preaching in the wilderness and away from the elites and the military is a sign that he knows his message is contentious. When someone is deliberately avoiding the cops and the bosses while he shouts for change you know a revolution is not far away, and that’s exactly what John has in mind. So did the Psalmist. Isaiah was pretty sure it had just happened with Hezekiah newly arrived and ready to take a new broom to old filth. “Change your thinking about the way the world works, begin to think about the way the world was supposed to work, the world of Eden where God is king and Herod and Caesar are not,” screams John, so you can see why the outback was good place for him to be. In Mark 1:15 it’s Jesus himself who says this, in fact it’s Jesus’ first words in that gospel account, the first thing written in red if your Bible does that sort of thing. Jesus has come (in Mark) or is about to come (in Matthew) and the Kingdom stuff from scripture is about to come into being. God has arrived on earth, to be king, and all the shalom is here for the asking. This is why I wonder sometimes whether the comma is in the wrong place in Matthew 3:3, and what it should say is the voice of one crying out: in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, so it’s not so much that John’s cry must come from the back of beyond, but that the cry is that Jesus will come first to the back of beyond and that that is where the way must be prepared for the Lord’s coming. The message of the Lord is scary, Jesus may even end up dead himself if he keeps up with this Kingdom of Heaven chatter, he’d better stay in the wilderness with John and be safe. You can’t live in God’s Kingdom unless you are prepared to follow God’s leading, and God’s instruction for us each is humility before Godself and care for the broken and downcast amongst our sisters and brothers. “Yes you belong to Abraham’s tribe”, says John in Matthew 3:9, “and yes you are saved by grace and not by works or obedience, but if you are not actively working with obedience then has grace really found a home in you”. In other words, Kingdom people live kingdom lives with kingdom values and kingdom actions, not because this sort of thing gets you into the Kingdom but because having entered the Kingdom by grace this is how life should be lived. Leave your muddy sins at the door and use your inside manners: cut out this dirtying the carpets and the squabbling and the name-calling, you’re Israelites, not bogan Gentiles.

So, you pack of bogan Gentiles, how are you feeling now? Well we know that a generation later Paul, alongside Peter and the whole mob of others, came to understand that Jesus called them to include and invite us bogan Gentiles too, showing us how to leave our muddy sins at the door, behind the cross, and to use inside manners. It’s quite plain in Romans 15:7 and Romans 15:5 where we read welcome one another as God welcomed you…and may God grant you to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus. You aren’t saved by obedience, or even by confession, you are saved by grace: but as someone saved by grace you should be living by obedience and confession because that’s what God expects, and the Spirit instructs, of citizens of the Kingdom of God.

The news of Advent, as it points to Christmas and the coming of the king, is that we are each, each one of us, included in the Kingdom of God by God’s own activity. Indeed we are included the same way that every descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is included, by grace. By grace taught in the Torah, and grace taught in the religious and cultural traditions of Judaism. By grace shared and shown by those who extend hospitality for family and strangers; by grace shared and shown by Jesus who died at the hands of broken human people including (but not limited to) the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In Romans 15:12 the rabbinical scholar, a Pharisee turned follower of Jesus, deliberately quoted Isaiah and wrote the root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles, in his the Gentiles shall hope. This is the hope of Advent, he is coming soon, and when he comes he will point us toward home and the Father and family who are waiting for us there with joy-filled expectation.

Amen.

Reputation

This is my ministry message for The Vision, the quarterly newssheet of KSSM, for December 2019.

In the December pew-sheet I wrote about respect and how in Australia the reputation of The Church has suffered with the ongoing news reports of Christians behaving badly. Not only across many channels of TV news and through the print media of newspapers and magazines, but also online through Facebook and Twitter many people of many forms of faith have been making heard their complaint. This is rightly so to some degree. But I made that point in the pew-sheet, and I have made that point in my public prayers on Sundays, so I don’t need to make it again.

What then of the good reputation of Church? Is there still a place, indeed are there many places, where local Christians have a good name and are held in good regard, or at least even regard (rather than negative) in Australia? I say yes.

Thirteen years ago when I was living in London and participating in a local church with a globally recognisable name, (if not brand), one of the annual events was “The Summer Party”. Now this church did parties all the time; it was a church where the majority were in their twenties and thirties, and the minority were those who liked hanging out with people in their twenties and thirties. It was also a church with a large minority of Commonwealth ex-pats, especially from southern hemisphere nations. (The majority of people were in fact British, but with so many Aussie-Kiwi-Saffa-Zim-Canadians around that wasn’t immediately obvious.) Anyway, lots of parties, lots of fun, lots of shared joy; and one big party in August in particular. The Summer Party was formal, but more like a school formal or a wedding reception than a black-tie event with the Queen, and everyone enjoyed sprucing up for the night. As a formal event it was always held at a proper venue; the year I am thinking about was 2006 and we gathered in a nightclub in London Bridge which we had hired out for the night. And we came, we saw, we partied, we had fun, and we went home.

There were two outcomes of that particular party.

1. The management told us that we’d not be invited back. Why not? Well, it was because we hadn’t purchased enough alcohol. The story goes that the venue ran a loss that night; even with 500 of us (a sell-out) paying a cover charge. With a house full of Christians many weren’t drinking alcohol at all, and those who were had two or three drinks rather than ten. The ticket price did not cover the venue’s costs and our alcohol purchases still left them short.

2. The staff wanted to know who the dickens we all were. Five hundred Aussie/Kiwi/Saffa/Zim/Can and British twenty-somethings went on the tear in London-Town on a summer’s night and there was barely any cigarette smoke (and what there was was tobacco), there was drinking but no drunkenness, there was not a single fight, and no-one spewed. Most of all, and this is what they really emphasised, the girls were safe. There was no groping, no leering, no lewd talk: it was as if everyone was out with their best mates, and their sisters and brothers; every one of the 500 was comfortable and not one of the 500 felt threatened.

You mayn’t come back here, but please, tell us when your next party is, and may we come too?” Imagine if that was the reputation The Church had in society. (You know what, in some places it still does.) May we in Kaniva and Serviceton in 2019 be like Ebeneezer Scrooge at the end of his story, may we be a people of such reputation that it is said of us that we always did Christmas well.

Damien.

Respec’

This is the text of the ministry message I wrote for KSSM for the monthly pewsheet in December 2019.

I‘m sure you‘ve noticed that the reputation of religious institutions in Australia, particularly professional forms of Christianity, have taken a huge dive toward disrepect in 2019. The Royal Commission into Intsitutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse didn‘t only review Church organisations, but the fact that it did, and that it found error amongst us, is sonmething for which we must repent. I find it hard to repent of this sort of thing, especially since I am not a perpertator, and most especialy since I have first hand experience with a survivor‘s story: but the fact remains that The Church did wrong and we are The Church so we must do right. That other groups did wrong does not remove from us the burden of The Church‘s guilt; neither that wrong was also done to us does it lessen the guilt we have earned. In fact, even if we were 99% right and only 1% wrong, we would still be 100% responsible for that 1%, and so the sad truth that many in The Church continue to resist redress and regress, and fight to maintain reuptation and standing, has left many Australians with a bad taste of God.

The first centuries Church never had this issue. True they were hated and persectued, martyred to death and exile, but never because they were lacking charity. That the Christians looked after their widows and orphans, and assisted their neighbouring widows and orphans who had been rejected and overlooked the Greek and Roman world earned them the respect of their neighbours. What happened to that?

As Christmas fills the world with the news of God becoming boy, and the profound gift of Heaven being present amongst us in personal glory, may we as The Church live out God‘s desire for a world of shalom: a world that starts in humility and apology from the wrong, and grace and acceptance from the wronged.

Christ The King

This is the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 24th November 2019, the Sunday of Christ’s Kingship in Year C.  It was a communion service in both Kaniva and Serviceton in the Churches of Christ tradition, and I was presider

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Well, the kingship of Christ is one of those ideas that divides many in today’s church. The use of such powerful language to describe such a humble man has caused offence for some, and the taking offence by those in contradiction to a clear and Biblical teaching has caused offence in others. It seems to me that to call Christ “King” sparks the same angst as to call God “Father”; what you think of kings depends upon your experience of monarchical government and what you think of fathers depends upon the relationship you had with your own dad. I’m happy with the idea of Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords; I think him being President of Presidents or perhaps Mayor of Mayors is a bit pathetic really, Creation is not a democracy and we are not worse off for living in the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s own realm.

So there’s your introduction: Jesus is King and that’s a good thing in my view.

But what do we actually mean by this statement: Jesus is King, or perhaps Jesus is Lord? Is this just metaphorical language, suggesting that as we acknowledge Christ’s authority in the world we see him as superior to ourselves? If we want to say that Jesus is somehow better than us or above us in rank then why not just call him “teacher” (Rabbi as his mates called him), or even “boss”? Why king? Why lord?

Why not shepherd? Okay that might be a metaphor that even fewer modern people would enjoy, the logic suggesting that all Christians are sheep, but there are shepherd stories in circulation. Indeed the Roman Catholic parish in my hometown, the actual town where I was a child, is called “Christ the Good Shepherd”. Why does Jesus have to be a monarch, why can’t he be something more pasture-pastoral? In he opening verses of Jeremiah 23 The LORD who speaks through the prophet suggests that that is a useful framework for thinking about how God governs the people. In Jeremiah 23:3,4 God says that I myself will gather…and I will bring them back…and they shall not fear any longer…nor shall any be missing. That sounds like a God-thing, it certainly echoes the Good Shepherd motifs of Jesus’ teachings; and if we read on in Jeremiah we find that Jesus is apparently foretold as the king who will come, a descendent of David and one who will rule with wisdom, justice, and righteousness. Jesus will be king, and the sort of king he will be is this sort, the shepherding sort. The sort of king that Jesus will not be is the sort the Judahites and Israelites have already seen; the extortionate tyrant, the poor manager, the disinterested lush, the cashed-up bogan. That might be the style of Israel and Judah’s past, it may even be the style of Europe’s mediaeval, pre-Modern, pre-Revolutionary Past in our thinking, but it is not the way of the Kingship of God.

In today’s reading from the gospel we find ourselves at the crucifixion as Luke records it, and specifically the execution of the one the Romans called “The King of the Jews”. You’ll find those words in Luke 23:37-38. The implications of Jesus’ death are best left for another time, we’ll hear more about that at Easter, because today I want us to focus on the idea that this man is “The King of the Jews” and what it means that this king is being crucified.

You don’t need to be much of a scholar to know that lots of kings throughout all of history have ended up dead at the hands of their enemies. I’m not sure whether Jesus was the only foreign king ever crucified, but Rome would often murder the captured, defeated rulers of the lands they conquered after displaying them in triumphal parades through the city. Such kings or chieftains were usually strangled in a place called the Carcer, which is why many did not allow themselves to be “incarcerated” and would suicide or at least go down fighting on the battle field. Think of Cleopatra. But the Romans didn’t actually consider Jesus a king, did they? No, he was not King of Judea or King of Israel, he was not defeated in battle and he was not taken to Rome as part of a conqueror’s triumph: he was considered a rabble-rouser, a partisan, a rebel, and he was brutally killed in full public view to serve as an example for other trouble makers. Jesus was garbage according to the Romans, and even if Pilate thought Jesus himself harmless, Jesus was not worth upsetting the Sanhedrin over and so he was expendable. The sign above Jesus head was a taunt, a taunt of him and also a taunt of the Jewish people. And yet, and yet it is a title that Christians have invested with prophetic meaning almost since the day of crucifixion itself. Jesus really is the King of the Jews, and that is why his resurrection 36 hours later is such a victory for God’s Chosen People.

Jesus is not the sort of king who gets assassinated after a public rebellion, like Louis XVI of France or Charles I of Great Britain were. He’s never been overthrown and exiled as were Victor Emmanuel III of Italy or Alfonso XIII of Spain. After Jesus was killed Jesus returned; and Jesus was never de-throned. Look at how Jesus acts from the cross, he still has authority in his power to ask God to forgive sins (Luke 23:34) and to promise salvation to a repentant sinner (Luke 23:43); Jesus is King on the cross, not an ex-king or a deposed king, Jesus never relinquishes his kingship and it is never lost to him, even as he dies and is buried. And look at the people, in Luke 23:35 they stand watching at a distance while the Jewish leaders come close to mock Jesus’ kingship, the people are not following the leaders, which makes me wonder who has lost whose prestige at this point. Here’s a hint, you can’t call yourself a leader if you don’t have any followers.

When Paul speaks through his writing to Colossae about the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son I think this is the Son that Paul has in mind. Not just that Jesus is the Son of God, but that Jesus the Son is this crucified and raised King of the Jews. Look at Colossians 1:11-12 where Paul prays may you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father. Our strength, God’s power, our preparation to endure with patience are gifts of God which Jesus lived out as an example on the cross. I’m not certain how Jesus felt in the moment, but if he knew that his work was for the salvation of the world (and he did) then he knew that it would bring delight to God, and that would have buoyed him I think. The same is true of us, who are followers of Jesus and as disciples are literally his students, and as Paul adds in Colossians 1:13 as citizens of the Kingdom of the Son. Our followship of Jesus, our community of discipleship, is founded on the nature and example of the king who endured the cross and displayed God’s power throughout all things (time, space, language) by rising again. That is the story of a king; to call Jesus “boss” or “mayor” is kinda pathetic really.

Paul goes on in his next paragraph, which our Bibles bookend as Colossians 1:15-20, in much the same way. The New Revised Standard Version subtitles this section “The Supremacy of Christ” which I think is a good take on it, even as I don’t really like subtitles. The one who is king, this saviour who saved through his own death and resurrection, the king of The Kingdom of God, is supreme. You’d better believe he’s supreme, he’s the image of God (well aren’t we all?) but he’s the prize of creation for whom all things were created, and he sits over every creature and every form of power and influence. Christ is king above every other king then, king of kings for sure. But more than above all things in rank he is amongst all things in shape, he’s between the sub-atomic spaces and he drives every bond and force of Physics and Chemistry. Christ is valency, Christ is gravity, Christ is inertia and magnetism. Christ is osmosis and reduction. Christ is the top, and in Christ is the whole made whole. Christ is source, Christ is purpose, Christ is fullness and Christ is incarnation through whom God in all God’s Godfulness acts in and on and with the created order. So, more than a president eh: so much more than a president, so much.

Jesus is pretty important then. Immense. But also close. Look at the last words of our Christian tradition reading today: through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things in all dimensions by making shalom through the blood of Jesus’ cross. That’s Colossians 1:20. And think about it, Selah, pause and consider the blood of his cross. Did the cross bleed? Did the cross bleed? No. The blood of his cross is the blood of himself. There is no artificial miracle here of a cross bleeding true blood, there is no falsehood whereby sap was oozing and the illiterate peasants got all sweaty-faced about the magic. We all know what was going on here, Jesus, (Christ, the Supreme One, King of kings and all other things…) bled and died and through that God reconciled all things on Heaven and Earth and made peace. No king has ever done that before. Sure there have been abdications in world history, some rulers have surrendered immediately at the gates in the face of an overwhelming invasion force rather than have his (or her) city besieged and pillaged. But no king has ever died in such a way, at the hand of his own people, so as to bring about God’s completion. The greatest king died the most humble death, the least glorious death, nailed up naked and in public to a tree beside the main highway, having been thrashed to a pulp first, all on the twin crimes of treason and blasphemy, pronounced by a puppet governor and a selfish priesthood.

This is the king we have. Even if he were not king of kings and lord of lords (and he is, let’s not diminish that), but even if he wasn’t, even if there were a number of kings and Jesus-land was but one of a number of nations with constitutional monarchs in whose country we might live, wouldn’t you chose it anyway? I mean I like Elizabeth, Australia’s queen, but given a choice between the UK and the KOG I know where I’d be brexiting to…and it wouldn’t take me three years to make up my mind either.

The Kingship of Jesus seems to be to be the heart of the gospel. Even more than the lamb of God who was slain, even more than the great high priest who knows our every weakness, even more than the friend (what a friend) we have in Jesus, of most central importance to the good news of God is that God is King in the Kingdom of The Son, and that the king is the image of the invisible God. If God is king, and if God is like Jesus, and if Jesus is like this King of the Jews, then the Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of the most wonderful, most adorable, most loving and most welcoming king; a king who is all of that and strong, and authoritative, and commanding, and redeeming.

This, this is the God we adore; this, this is the God we serve.

Amen.

The Happiest Ending is Not an Ending at all. (Pentecost 23C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva and Serviceton for Sunday 17th November 2019

Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 12

In Isaiah 65:1-16, so the verses prior to our reading today, we are given the context for what God is saying in our set passage. So, straight off the top, here’s a hint from your preacher: when you set out to read from the Bible read the chapter, not just the verse or two: today’s text has shown it to be true. Today, where God begins to speak to us in Isaiah 65:17 saying I am about to create we have confidence in each of those words because of the page and a half which has gone before, the first sixteen verses of Isaiah 65 and the twin stories which they tell. The I am is God The LORD; and actually I suggest that God is more fully named in the phrase I am about to since God is only knowable by revelation and activity. This I am, this God who is and the God who does, is the One who revealed Godself to the world even before the world began to look. We read that in Isaiah 65:1, and we understand some of that in the story of Christmas where Godself, in all of God’s Godfulness, entered the created world in the form of a created thing to communicate and to pitch a tent amidst humankind. God is ready, God is willing, God is excited about fellowship, and God is present and welcoming even before we’re aware there’s a party about to start. Israel is a hot mess at this point, the exiled ones are well away and the remnant of the old and the broken, whom the Babylonians left behind, have forgotten God and been forgotten by the bulk of God’s people. But God is excited by the thought that there will be a seeking and a finding in the next breath, and God just cannot wait. The God who is, who is the God who does, is about to do what God is first known for, saying I am…about to…create.

For I am about to create new… says The LORD in Isaiah 65:17, new heavens and a new earth; so basically a new everything then, and of such wonder that the old heaven and the old earth (so, this one here) shall not be remembered or come to mind. Who’s up for some of that? Yeah, me too. The best bit within this new everything is the new Jerusalem, a joy, and its people…a delight, in which God will rejoice: and not only “in which” God will rejoice but where God will rejoice, depending how you read Isaiah 65:19. Is it possible, is it true that God will not only rejoice about the new Jerusalem and the restored people, but will God actually do the rejoicing in the actual place, with the actual people? Mm-hmm, yep.

The rejoicing that God does in Jerusalem, where God is actually present in the city, looks like life. Life, doesn’t it? Babies will live to adulthood, and adults will live to 100 and more, so that’s a long life. And people will live in houses they have built, and enjoy the produce of trees they have planted and tended. Everyone will benefit from his or her own work and so these long lives, (long enough to plant and then wait for the maturation of tress from which to enjoy the harvest, long enough to still be considered young at 100), these long lives will be full lives, abundant lives, eternal lives. Big, fat, wide, full, deep, long, tall, complete lives; lives lived in the company of the Presence (big-P) of The LORD.

And not just that, because if that wasn’t enough of a promise there’s more to come. These long and fruitful lives will also be peaceful lives, shalom-ful lives, (BTW shalom-ful is a great word, even if I’m not entirely sure if it existed before now), lives without anxiety or grief, lives where wolves and lambs are safe in each other’s company, where lions don’t eat people and snakes don’t eat at all. This last point, found in Isaiah 65:25, is important when you consider the rest of the picture: this is a new Eden. Long life, full life, abundant life, non-anxious life, worshipful life, a life of companionship with God; this is what Eden was like, until the serpent spoke up and wrecked it all. But in this new Eden the serpent eats dust from the outset, there is no room for a second Fall, this Eden will last forever and will never be corrupted. The happy ending to the long story of Israel and Judah in exile; the story during which the people were taken away to Babylonia and then Persia and their identity as the Chosen people of the Promised Land was destroyed, and the cities and towns and farms and fields they left behind were destroyed, and the temple of God in Jerusalem was destroyed, the happy ending to that story is actually no ending at all. The end of the people’s story is the eternity of God, as wide and high as it is long, and full, so full, so very very full.

Can you imagine what a word of hope that was to the first hearers? Imagine if you were in exile, or you were one of those left behind amongst the ruins because you weren’t worthy even of slavery. Imagine that God said that what is coming next is everything you could never imagine of joy and restoration.

As our Christian calendar moves to its end, where today is the penultimate Sunday in the year, and our last Sunday in this long season in green stretching all the way back to Pentecost, we are closing in on Advent. Advent is more than just a month of daily chocolates and me in a purple shirt, it is the season of preparation for the Church when we think of Jesus coming to Earth as a human child, and of his return one day as the King of Glory. It is a time when we remember that at the Last Day the new Jerusalem will descend from Heaven, that a new Heaven and a new Earth will be completed, and God will again live in our midst (and we will live in the very centre of God’s presence) and that God’s Kingdom will have no end. No end, but also no edges, and no roof, God’s Kingdom is not just a future but it is a wideness in very dimension, a fullness in every conceivable thing. Even without the lived experience of a physical exile, of a life of slavery under a foreign empire, of colonisation and subjugation, even if you haven’t had any of that the promise of what God has in mind and the absolute certainty that it will occur should be thrilling for you. Is it? Do you really grasp what it is that is coming? This is why I get annoyed when Christianity is boxed so tightly around a formula of repentance to guarantee a place above the sky after death. If your Christian expectation is for “a glorious afterlife” then man (woman or child) you are selling yourself so short, and you have missed the whole point of God’s self-revelation through Jesus the Christ.

Lift up your eyes.

Today’s psalm comes to us from Isaiah 12. So yes, it is a psalm, it’s just from a different part of the Bible: same genre though, it’s a song of God. Again, the best place to begin reading is back a page or two, in this case the oracle which occupies all of Isaiah 11 and which in some Bibles carries the subheading “the peaceful kingdom” and in others “the righteous branch”. It’s important to remember that these headings are twentieth (or twenty-first) century additions in English, they’re not in the original text, and they’re there to offer help to understanding the passage. I say this because it’s true, I also say it because I don’t find either of those headings helpful in this case, so I’m going to ignore them. In fact, Isaiah 11, in the Newly Infallible Damien Version, has the title “the ideal king”. This king, upon whom God’s Spirit rests, is wise and just and fair and honourable, he is worthy to be praised. This king calls and the whole of humanity answers, all who are homeless are called home, drawn home indeed, and the home to which they come is filled with love and the generous abundance of every good thing. This home is better than Heaven, this home is the new Jerusalem upon the new Earth, this is Eden in all that it would have become if 6000 years or 6000 million years of what became of God’s good creation had not strayed from the Master’s plan. Good eh? More than.

And so we come to Isaiah 12:1 and the words [y]ou will say in that day: I will give thanks to you O LORD. What day? That day. THAT day. The day when the ideal king summons you home to the better Eden: that day. And what will you say on that day? Well the rest of Isaiah 12 is what you will say; thank you because you saved me, you comforted me, you restored me, I trust in you and I trust you to be my strength and my might. You will say that The LORD is my salvation, (Isaiah 12:2), I am not my salvation and I cannot save myself, salvation is a gift of God, drawn from the wells of God: wells I did not dig fed by aquifers I did not fill. And what else will you say on that day? You will say [g]ive thanks to The LORD, call on God’s name, make known God’s deeds among the nations, proclaim that God’s name is exalted. (Isaiah 12:4.) Good eh? More than.

So, to recap; in two places in Isaiah we are told that God is about to begin the work of restoration. In fact God has already begun the work of restoration, what is about to happen is that God is about to invite creation to enter the workspace and be the completion of it. It is God who is doing this, the I AM, the Creator, the King who is the root of Jesse (so a Davidic sovereign, a filling of God’s promise to David himself). That’s what we’ve heard so far. What we have also heard so far is that this restoration is not Heaven, it is Eden; but better even than Heaven and Eden it is an Eden WITHOUT THE SERPENT. This is Eden and it will never be withdrawn from us, or we from it, because the King himself, a grandson of David and The LORD God will live amongst us in that Eden. Look at Isaiah 12:6 where it says great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. Where? In our midst! Who? The Holy One of Israel. Now that, that is a promise.

So, what does it all mean? What does it mean for us, Christians of The Wimmera and The Tatiara. Two things I think come to me immediately from the text.

  1. It’s Jesus we’re looking for. Jesus is the root of Jesse, the grandson of David.

  2. It’s God we’re looking for. In the Vulgate, which was an update of earlier Latin translations from koine Greek (the original language of the New Testament and the working language of the Old Testament in the form of the Septuagint) into decent Latin, Isaiah 12:2-3 read God is my saviour rather than my salvation. God was not just the one making the promise and giving the assurance, it was Godself doing the actual saving. Judaism didn’t teach that so explicitly, even in Jesus’ time, but early Christianity did. You’ll find that wording in the New King James Version for example where Isaiah 12:2 reads Behold, God is my saviour and Lord, I will trust in Him and be saved by Him. So it’s personal, not just that I am saved but that God personally did the saving.

  3. And point three is of course the Christian understanding that points one and two intersect, God who does the saving Godself does so through the work of Jesus, the root of Jesse. Isaiah wasn’t saying that, but The Vulgate did, and so am I.

I said two things, and then went to three dot points. But that was only one thing. The second thing, without dot points, is that Jesus has saved us for the new Eden, not for the old Heaven. Now I’m not redefining Christianity here, relax and don’t get upset: if you want to go to Heaven and you are fully confident that Jesus wants you there then you will be there, and you will see me there. (This I know, for the Bible tells me so.) But the point is that God intended creation to be here, where God could walk in the cool of the evening with God’s own friend Adam, and that Adam would be God’s friend and he would not be ashamed of who he was (or was not) in God’s presence. This is what Jesus brought to us through his death and resurrection, not only the golden city above the clouds, but the fullness of what the Earth was always supposed to be, and what it will be again, and more so what it will become in the form of what it should have become, the place of God’s personal dwelling among God’s beloved people. This is the Kingdom of God, not so much a place (although in the fullness of time there will be an Earth location) as the reality that God reigns today, God reigns here, and God’s presence is upon us and amongst us where we love and worship and serve God and each other.

This is the outset of Eternity, not yet as long and wide and high and full as it shall be when God’s presence comes down, but Eternity nonetheless. The reality of Eternity today is the news of Eternity tomorrow, and that is good news indeed. It is tidings of great joy, it is the meaning of Christmas. It is, in every degree, the gospel.

Amen.