Rips Given

This is the text of the message I prepared for email sharing amongst God’s people at Kaniva Shared Ministry for Sunday 2nd August 2020.  Still we were in Covid lockdown..

 Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit, (Romans 9:1)  Well that’s a good way to begin an address, kind’a wish I’d thought of it actually.  Of course Paul isn’t beginning anything here, other than a new paragraph, but since we’re taking up where we left off last week it’s a good place for us to start.  This is the truth as confirmed by The Spirit says Paul.  It’s not the truth as Paul sees it, it’s not the truth as Paul would like to think the truth to be, it’s the truth that Godself confirms to be true, the truth of the one who says I am The Truth, (John 14:6b) or perhaps I AM, Truth.  When I AM speaks, or sends a messenger on God’s behalf to tell the truth of I AM it’s a jolly good idea to pay attention to what I AM is saying.  In Romans 9:2 what Paul says, with The Spirit attesting to the truth, is that he (Paul) has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart.  This cry of grief from a truthful man, we are told in Romans 9:3-5, is Paul’s weeping before the LORD for the lost nation of the Jewish people, his own people. I wonder, how often do we weep with great sorrow and unceasing anguish in heart for our people?  Are you gutted by the lack of response by your fellow Australians, Victorians, people of West Wimmera?  Does grief stir your bowels at the presence of lost souls in your street, town, district and nation?  Or are you a bit disappointed but not much more.  Maybe you’re not bothered, because after all if you are saved and the unsaved are…well…unsaved, then that’s their problem and not yours.

I have told the story before so I shan’t share it in full again, but for those of you who have been listening to me for a while you might remember that I used to belong to Hillsong Church London, and specifically to the “New Christians Team”.  I’ve told you of the one service where I was “on” and there wasn’t a single hand raised in the congregation during the call to repentance, not one salvation for Christ in a room of 600 people.  I’ve told you of the desperation amongst “Team” as we looked for that lost soul; “even if there’s just one, Father, Oh God let there be even one,” but there was not even one.  I’ve told you of the desolation amongst “Team” after the service, of hot tears and real wailing that no one had “come to Christ” or even “come back to Christ”.  I’ve also told you that that is what, for me, makes Hillsong Church the church that Hillsong is; not for its smoke and mirrors, its loud riffs and even louder drums, its happy-clappy mezzanine and its bouncy-shouty downstairs (no jumping in the balconies!!), but the fact that it gives a rip for the lost of London and is abject in disarray when the gospel is proclaimed to six hundred people and not one responds to grace afresh.

I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed, and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people. Do you remember praying like that?  “Oh God I’ll give up my own salvation if it means that Australia can be saved.”  Do you remember praying like that?  Nah, me neither actually, (and not just because I’d rather England be saved instead, not true).  But following from last week and last month really this is the groaning of Holy Spirit in us for the world.  If Australia were to be entirely saved by God then I would be saved along with it; even if we follow the Abrahamic method in Genesis 18 and only Victoria were saved, or West Wimmera, or Kaniva, or Commercial Street East, or just the odd numbered houses in the 90s, I’d be swept up amongst those I’m praying for – God does not need my salvation back so as to save my neighbours.  So if their salvation won’t actually cost me mine, then why can’t I just TELL THEM ABOUT JESUS????

Mea culpa as the Roman Catholics say, it’s my guilty fault.  I’ve neglected to “give a rip”: I am no longer being desolated hourly and hourly again that not one, not even one, has been saved by the ministry of Kaniva and Serviceton Churches of Christ and Uniting Church since before 1st October 2018 (the day my contract began).

Phew!  Now before we go too far and start bring self-flagellation into the order of worship, (although that could be something new to try after we get back to church in September, and flails are currently 30% off at Koorong), God does not want us desolating ourselves hourly at the condition of Australia’s soul.  Some groaning in intercession is required, no doubt; more groaning from more of us in the present is warranted, but we’re not to build a Kingdom out of Romans 9:1-3 as if it were the entirety of scripture or even the complete package for discipleship.  We should grieve for the lost, we should seek for the lost, we should comfort the found (who were lost) and we should bring the found home where Jesus waits to meet them (where he wasn’t already with them keeping them company until we arrived).  What we should also do is celebrate our own found-ness, delight that we were each once the one and Jesus joined us to the 99; we should work on being the 99 to whom Jesus adds the ones, and twos, (and thousands if you’re a Hillsong franchise).

In today’s reading from the Jesus Traditions, from Matthew 14:13-21, we read of Jesus feeding 5000 men.  It’s a well told story, the only miracle performed by Jesus that all four gospels record, so I’m sure you’ve heard it before and from Matthew as well as his mates.  So yes, blah-de-blah 5000 men doesn’t include women and children so probably 20,000 mouths in total; blah-de-blah twelve baskets for the twelve tribes of Israel; blah-de-blah fish and loaves because Jesus is lord (LORD) of both sea and land; blah-de-blah leftovers because in Christ there is always more than enough; blah-de-blah a living parable because it actually happened in real life but it carries symbolic and metaphorical meaning as well; blah-de-blah-de blah.  Does this sound like the preaching of someone who gives a rip?  Well it should, because I do, because here’s how the otherwise blah-de-blah story fits with Paul’s anguish.

In Matthew 14:13a, we are told that when Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  Heard of what?  Heard of the murder of John the Baptiser, Jesus’ prequel in prophecy and his cousin in flesh.  So he’s just heard about this, John is dead because Herod thinks with his pelvis and is an idiot of a king anyway, so Jesus withdraws for some alone time.  Maybe Jesus went off to pray so his alone time is also “Quiet Time” where The Son is with The Father, or maybe he went off deliberately so as to be in private when he pulled the wings off some newborn kittens and lined up a few torpedo punts from outside-50 in his grief and anger.  More likely the first option, but Matthew doesn’t tell us.  What Matthew does tell us is that the news of John’s death was the cause for Jesus to step away, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  Now he’s alone in the boat, the Greek words “by himself” literally mean that no one was with him at all.  (Actually I have no idea about Greek words, but it’s clear enough in English isn’t it?)  What we do know is that a tradie from inland Nazareth goes out on the sea specifically without his fisherman mates from lakeside Capernaum; duh, maybe he wants to be alone (except for the kittens…).  Anyway the crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns, and not only did they do that none of the men (or women for that matter) bought any food with them.  So, Jesus is distraught with grief, he’s held it together just long enough to get the boat moving before he breaks his grieving heart out before The Father, and when he gets to the place of solitude he’s met by eleventy thousand people who have walked all day and between them have two sardine sandwiches and a scone.  So Jesus (after putting down the kittens) entered the vast crowd and with a heart moved with pity for them…he cured their sick.  We haven’t even got to the miraculous picnic yet but we can already see that Jesus gives a rip…about 20,000 actually (give or take an unaccompanied minor).

God’s message to us today is to give a rip, to care for the lost as Jesus himself cared for the lost, (and the hungry, and the wildly inconsiderate).  Are you tired?  God knows this.  Are you grieving? God knows this.  Do you have a bag of kittens nearby?  God knows this (and soon shall the RSPCA also know).  It is Covid season still, and whilst we are (more than) conquerors we are Victorians; where even Bordertown has thumping church-life today we have desolation.  I’m missing church so hard today that I don’t even feeling like going to church even if it was on, I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit.  God knows this.  We cannot emulate Jesus fully: I could not have ministered to that crowd on that day that Jesus did, not with what Jesus had just been told; but Jesus did sustain that crowd and he’ll sustain our crowd too.

In Christ’s strength I am prepared to step up, in grief for Australia and fed-upness for Victoria’s lockdown, to minister where I am called.  Are you?

Give a rip, groan in prayer a little, and share your lunch.

Amen.

Alert to our distress

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 3rd November 2019, the twenty first Sunday in Pentecost, in Year C.

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; Luke 19:1-10

Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? You know you’re probably not heading for a faerie-tale ending with that sort of beginning, don’t you? Habakkuk gets straight into it in Habakkuk 1:2 with that line, and it doesn’t get any better in Habakkuk 1:3-4. Once upon a time in a land ravaged by war and disaster a man was sad about the fact that that time is now, that land is here, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, just more tunnel. This is not the way Bible stories are supposed to go, and as far as Habakkuk is concerned it’s also not how God is supposed to act if God really is God at all.

Habakkuk is one of those books in scripture that deals with the theme of theodicy. I like the word theodicy, (you’se all know that I’m a word-nerd and a theology-nerd so that probably comes as no surprise, even as it is a bit of a random comment). Theodicy as a word means “dealing with how God can be good in a world which is so bad”. I like the word, but I’m not a fan of the experience. I lived for years, years ago in a distant land, where God the Good LORD was distant, seemed absent, and every day was a struggle. So I get Habakkuk’s attitude, and I get the many other stories of exile from Jewish history: I get the experience of the authors and editors of the Hebrew Bible who were writing in the middle of the situation and not at the end. To write about theodicy is not usually a purely academic task, it is always experiential; either you are going through a dark patch in life, or you have been through one (or many) and you’re reflecting on the whole damned journey, probably still leaking plasma and tears into your bandages. As I looked back at my journals from a decade and a half ago I found entries from both of those experiences: I didn’t need the commentaries to tell me much about Habakkuk’s experience because I had Damien’s own journals to tell me about mine. “Yeah God,” I want to say today, and pretty much what I did say in 2003 in the public library in Luton, “why do you make me…look at trouble,” which is also what Habakkuk says in Habakkuk 1:3.

The concern which Habakkuk actually has is outside himself, it’s not his turmoil which bothers him so much as the evil he sees in the world. How could a good God allow so much pain and suffering in the world, let alone that it’s the Chosen People suffering violence in the Promised Land. Is God good at all? Doesn’t God care, and if God does care then why hasn’t God done something yet? The people are not yet in exile, (we know with hindsight that that is coming for Israel and Judah but Habakkuk doesn’t know), so these verses are relevant to anyone who sees a bad world getting more badder and wonders what God is up to in allowing such a thing. This is where we get into Habakkuk 2:1 where we find the prophet, having asked the difficult questions, waiting with expectation of God’s answer. This is also a situation I have been in, and again my journals speak of it. “You don’t owe me an answer,” I wrote, “because you are God and you don’t owe anyone anything: but I trust you to tell me what’s going on because I want to remain faithful.” God spoke to me in my journaling, and God spoke to Habakkuk in his watching with expectation. God tells Habakkuk in Habakkuk 2:2 to write down what he hears, and to write it in plain sentences. He must write briefly so that the words can be carried by a courier (don’t write a book Habakkuk!), and write clearly so that the message can be read clearly and simply so that the hearers will understand. And then in Habakkuk 2:3-4 we get the first part of the message, which is to have faith and wait with patience, trust that God knows what God is doing and that God is acting for the best. Do not be arrogant, do not go ahead of God in your own wisdom, but wait and be confident that God’s answer and activity are coming in the fullness of God’s perfect timing.

The righteous live by their faith we read in Habakkuk 2:4c. This verse is quoted by Paul, and reinterpreted in much of his theology and teaching. You are saved by God, and God alone, and nothing you can do in your own strength can save you, or add to your salvation. You can’t become “more saved” by anything you do, or say, or believe; you can’t become “less saved” either. Grace saved you, and once you acknowledged your salvation God was able to make a way for you to live a blessed and abundant life through attention to God. This is what we find Jesus teaching in Luke 19:9, when he tells the crowd that salvation has come to this house because [Zacchaeus] too is a son of Abraham.

So, the question we can ask now is, when is Zacchaeus saved? We know he is saved because Jesus has just told us that. Perhaps the better question is how was Zacchaeus saved, because that also answers the when question.  Well here are a few options:

  1. Maybe Zacchaeus is saved when he decides to seek Jesus. So there’s a good Christian answer: salvation comes at the point when he decides to follow and try to see Jesus, which he puts into action by running ahead and climbing the tree. That happens in Luke 19:4.

  2. Maybe Zacchaeus is saved when he responds to Jesus’ invitation. So there’s another good Christian answer: salvation comes at the point when he obeys the call of Jesus, which the first fishermen did when they dropped their nets, or when Matthew Levi did when he walked away from his money-table, and which Zacchaeus does when he climbs down from the tree and takes Jesus home. That happens in Luke 19:6.

  3. Maybe Zacchaeus is saved when he decides to repent. So there’s a third excellent Christian answer, probably the best of them all: salvation comes at the point when having fellowshipped with The Saviour Zacchaeus decides to be generous with his overflow, and tho restore what he stole and defrauded from his neighbours. That happens in Luke 19:8.

So, let’s vote:

  1. who’s for Luke 19:4 and the seeking?

  2. who’s for Luke 19:6 and the responding?

  3. who’s for Luke 19:8 and the repenting?

Okay. Well if you voted at all then you’re wrong: Zacchaeus is saved in Luke 19:9, which refers to a time way before this whole story began. Zacchaeus was already saved because he is a son of Abraham; he was saved by grace and therefore was one of the righteous, but he was not living by faith because he had been excluded from the rest of the community. Maybe Zacchaeus had removed himself from the community, preferring to stay away from all the RWNJs, Leftards, and the goodie-goodies of all flavours because he wanted to make money and influence. Or maybe he wanted to belong but he had been excommunicated and further shunned by the self-righteous, (RWNJs, Leftards, and the goodie-goodies of all flavours), who couldn’t accept the presence of someone “ew, like that” in their fellowship. Jesus reminds everyone, including Zacchaeus, including the raised-eyebrow grumbly mob from Luke 19:7, including us who read Luke’s story this morning, that salvation is by grace alone. Salvation is the free gift of God for everyone whom God loves: no-one has the right to banish anyone from the fellowship of the beloved ones, least of all should you exclude yourself. Now that Zacchaeus knows that he is saved, and now that the people of Jericho know that Zacchaeus is saved, (and that he always was), look at what happens; Zacchaeus begins to live freshly by faith. His trust is in God, not in his possessions, and his identity is in who he is (a son of Abraham), and not in what he is (a tax collector, a shyster, a pawn of the Empire, a small man with the full syndrome) or what anyone other than his LORD thinks he is.

So if Zacchaeus was saved all along, simply because he was born into a Jewish woman’s family (he’s a son of Abraham) what does it mean in Luke 19:10 that Jesus came to seek and save the lost? I mean, was Zacchaeus lost? If no, because he’d been saved all along, (and saved is the opposite of lost), then why would Jesus make this point here? It seems a bit out of context. And if Zacchaeus was lost, even though he’d been saved all along, then what does “lost” really mean?

Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? says Habakkuk. How long must I live as a faithful man, a once-hopeful man, in this world of violent sin? How long will the Babylonians get away with murdering the sons of Abraham, spilling Israelite blood on Israelite soil? Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? says Jeff from Jericho. How long will these blasphemous Romans live in the land promised to the sons of Abraham, and how long will those born to Jewish mothers participate in the extortion of taxation, robbing their own starving people? Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? says Zacchaeus. How long must I be excluded from the synagogue in Jericho and the Temple in Jerusalem just because I’m an accountant by trade? Aren’t I one of the sons of Abraham too? “When will you come and save the lost”, we all cry aloud to God, bringing to The LORD our endless and wearying struggles with life, and finance, and isolation, and illness, and injustice, and malpractice, and helpless hopelessness.

I wonder, maybe we are the lost: “The Lost”, with a big-T and a big-L and talky marks to make the point. Maybe the answer to every question of theodicy and why does God allow blah-de-bloody-bad-stuff is that Jesus came to save us, and the world, from it: therefore Luke 19:10. But that still doesn’t fully answer why there’s bad in the world, but doesn’t it more than fully answer what God has/is/will be doing about it? Or maybe it does, maybe it does fully answer the questions of theodicy: God’s response remains as yet incomplete. There is still work to be done, God is not finished with us or the world and we are not finished.

I am not afraid of the questions theodicy asks. I am not afraid, (perhaps I should clarify and say “I am no longer afraid” because I did used to be), I am no longer afraid when I catch my soul asking God “why”. I am not afraid as a pastor, nor am I afraid as a Christian, when anyone else or their soul asks God “why”. I am not afraid because to ask God these questions is to acknowledge that God is indeed the one to ask. And, I am not afraid because God (who is indeed the one to ask) has an answer: and that answer is “I am already working on it, look at Jesus, look at the Church”. (Okay so maybe that last bit scares me a bit, that God’s answer to hatred and violence in the world is The Church, because The Church…well…hmm.)

Look at Psalm 119:143-144 where the Psalmist exults trouble and anguish have come upon me, but your commandments are my delight. Your decrees are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live. Awesome, that in the midst of trouble and anguish (so bad stuff occurring and the effect it has on me) I can take delight in the commands of God. What God commands, God orders – puts in order. God commands the sun to shine and the moon as well, and even though the sun actually burns and the moon actually reflects, the fact that there is light is enough for me: Scientists are allowed to be correct about the universe and God can still reign. God ordains (commands it to be so and causes it to happen) that blessing flows where there is oneness in mind, we are told in Psalm 133:3. Psalm 119 is actually about Torah, so the “commandments” are literally the big ten, and the 613, in this poem; but they’re not only that. What I read is that when trouble comes we can be confident that God does have it “under command”, and that God’s “decrees” have substance forever, so what we need in such a time is understanding (help me to grasp this LORD) and faith. The righteous live by their faith we read in Habakkuk 2:4c, in other words those in close relationship with God go about their day to day (and your day today) with trust and confidence that God’s got it. Our prayer, as “The Lost”, is that God will continue to be God even when we don’t understand the what and why and where and who and how and when of what is going on, and that by the grace by which we were/are/shall be saved that God would trust us with the message of hope which was entrusted to the prophets years ago.

I know that I am saved. I know that God has “them” safer than they know. I know that “they” don’t know that. So today, may we all join with Jesus to seek and to assure of their gracious salvation, the others who are also lost.

Amen.