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

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

Good morning Church,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Advent of Loss: 2 (Blue Christmas)

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

John 1:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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.

Burn

I was blessed to begin my year second year at KSSM with a time of retreat alongside some of the other pastors from the Churches of Christ in Victoria and Tasmania.  One of the retreat speakers taught us about burnout and how God works with the willing to restore those who have been left in ashes and sawdust by life.  There are four keys to this.

In Acts 3:6 we learn that as a minister you can only give what you have got.  This passage can be read that Peter gave the man what he really needed, rather than what the man had asked for, (and there is that too), but for today let’s look at what Peter said about what he did have to share.  “I don’t have that,” said Peter, “but I do have this and so here’s the best of what I have”.

In Isaiah 40:28-31 we learn to rely on God for strength.  God has more than enough strength for us, we can never exhaust God through relying on The LORD’s strength for our journey.  When ministry has drained you, return to the source.

In Mark 12:30 we learn to return love to God with everything in our heart soul, mind, and strength.  In burnout it might seem counter-productive to be giving everything out, but in worship we are emptied of ourselves so that we can be filled by God.

In John 15:2 we learn that God is a wise gardener who prunes what is dead and useless.  In the same way we need to stop giving energy to things that are dead: we need to commit to activities and relationships which are life-giving and affirming of the gospel.  Sometimes the stuff we have to do to get well again is more about stopping doing stuff.

Within a priesthood of all believers everyone can take these words about ministry to heart: even if you are not ministering in the same way that the elders and deacons do this is wisdom for every disciple of Christ in his or her daily life.  So as November brings the beginning and preparation for the harvest, and the holidays, and the holy days, let’s all remember to draw close to God for refreshing and renewal before we burn ourselves to the ground.  (And then maybe we won’t burn ourselves to the ground.)

Seek (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Day Centre chapel service at Kaniva Hospital (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 22nd October 2019.

Psalm 119:97-104; Luke 18:1-8

When we look into scripture we find a God who is just.

Love for scripture is one of the key identifying marks of the people who call themselves Evangelicals. Even people who don’t identify with that label, or indeed don’t identify with any form of Christianity, recognise that some level of dedication to the Bible and what it says is included within the Christian package. If you’re a Christian then the Bible is important to you; everyone knows that, even Atheists. And that is true of every religion which has a book, every religion has its Fundamentalists, (which can be a good thing where such people are attuned to the fundamental and foundational precepts), and generally fundamentalists love scripture and a focused way of interpreting it.

In Psalm 119:97 we meet a person committed to God’s law, and most commentators understand this man (probably) is speaking specifically about Torah, the Hebrew scriptures at the time when the Psalms were written. “I love the Bible” he says, and in Psalm 119:97b he says that not only does he love the Bible but that he chews it over all day long in his thinking. He wants to know what it means, what it defines, what it allows, what it promotes, what it forbids, and how its teaching should be put into practice; in Psalm 119:98-102 he says as much, and in Psalm 119:103 he says that this is all pleasurable for him. Reading and knowing the Bible promotes growth in this man’s spirit, you might expect that because the Bible is about religion; but he also speaks of growing in social relationships, in learning and applying truth and understanding, and in his emotional maturity. Pretty much everything is better and bigger for this man because of his dedicated reading of the Bible, with the possible exception of his biceps and glutes, but who knows. If this man is to be believed then knowing the Bible, and how to use its wisdom, is the best thing ever.

In our gospel reading today we heard Jesus telling a parable about perseverance. I’d have said nagging and bullying, but Jesus takes the higher road here. The point we are supposed to get is in Luke 18:7 where Jesus says that God honours those who are tenacious in their prayers, especially in their prayers of supplication or the ones where we ask for stuff. The psalmist is tenacious in his study, and I’m going to suggest tenacious in his worship and his prayers of adoration, which also seems to be going well for him in receiving God’s honour, and this is where I think today’s passages intersect. If you persevere in your relationship with God, especially in the conversational parts, God will make you into a bigger person. I’m not saying that growth is a reward, as if God gifts you with bigness just because you say nice to Jesus in your prayers, but that growth is a consequence of your relationship. Just like the consequence of exercise is bigger muscles, and the consequence of reading is a bigger vocabulary and a deeper understanding. God has a role in growing you up in the processes of your prayers and readings, God is not the passive resistance of a piece of gym equipment. Growth through spiritual practices is about engaging with God, not simply about receiving presents or having an inanimate object against which to do your press-ups.

And there is one more thing: which for me is the clincher in this whole scenario. When you persevere in prayer, and when you persevere in scripture and meditation upon it, you discover things about God. God’s character is revealed in conversation just as people discover new and extraordinary things about each other in conversation. What the psalmist and the widow each come to understand about God in these stories is that God is just. God pays close attention to the way the world operates, and God ensures that justice prevails. Even an ambivalent magistrate is no match for the persistence of a wronged woman, and even the enemies of God are no match for the confidence and wisdom of one of God’s beloved.

So, what do you need to know about God? Do you know what God is like? Do you know what God likes? The best way to find answers to all of our God-questions is to ask God those questions. However, you can’t ask God if you don’t know God, and you can’t know God if you haven’t engaged God in conversation. So I encourage you this morning to go, read, pray, sing, adore, ask. Seek, knock, and then you will find. Amen.

Wail

Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; Psalm 137

Well! In all of my years as a Christian in church I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon on Lamentations. That’s not to say it’s never happened; more likely the message as it was didn’t connect with me or appeal to me, so I didn’t take much notice. I hope that today is not like that for you. On the other hand I have heard sermons on Psalm 137:1 with its famous disco riff By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion, popularised by Boney-M; less so on the notoriously misquoted Psalm 137:9 where God commands all Christians to bash out the brains of infants and rip the wings off newborn puppies. Yeah, that got your attention didn’t it!

And, like I did with Philemon last month, when I began my reading for this sermon I wondered why we need Lamentations in the Bible at all. I mean, isn’t there enough moaning and sighing going on in Psalms and all of the prophets, why Israel needs a specific book just to lament I don’t know. Well, I do know now, but I was wondering then. Like Philemon which in one way is about the specific message of reconciliation wherein it would be safe for Onesimus to return home, the big theme of the Jewish Bible is homecoming. You have messed up and you have been kicked out, but God is ready to welcome you home: be you Adam and Eve kicked out from Eden, or Saul kicked out from the kingship, or the entire nation of Judah kicked out from their land and into exile in Babylon. Exodus is about the journey home and Joshua and Judges is about how home is then made homely. Ezra-Nehemiah is a similar story. The stories of Kings explain why the exile happened, the messing up leading to the kicking out, and many prophets take up that story with the words of warning included. This is where Lamentations comes in, it is the sorrowful tale of the sorrowful people sorrowing: it is the explanation of why the people of Psalm 137 wept, and why God’s chosen nation had to remember Zion as a decimated past home rather than living in its glorious present. Sometimes it’s good to remember what was lost so that we appreciate it if we get it back: and even if we don’t get it back we are able to see with hindsight how faithful God has been to us, and we are prompted to worship.

In Lamentations 1:1 we read how the daughter of Zion mourns like a widow, how the much cherished princess is now a servant-girl. Her husband is not dead, rather he has left her and now he is threatening her with divorce, that’s why she’s a widow. All comfort is gone, everyone has betrayed her and abandoned her; the daughter of Zion is alone in her grief, except for her enemies who are abusing her we read in Lamentations 1:3. What a tale of woe for the one whom God has caused to suffer: by taking away all her strength and every means of rebuilding that strength the daughter of Zion has been utterly destroyed by God. The sobbing goes on for a bit, and we take it up again in Lamentations 3:19 where Zion is now characterised as a man, and he is speaking for himself rather than being described by a narrator as the daughter of Zion was. Zion speaks like Job here, bitterness is in his mouth and he is utterly desolate, but even in that there comes a spark of joy. Here, again, is the thought that even if God will not restore what we have lost that it was God who gave all the good things first, and God is faithful to God’s own character. God is worthy of worship, and beginning at Lamentations 3:22 that is what we hear and see. The song of Zion is returning to the mournfully abandoned man and he no longer feels betrayed.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases sings the son of Zion, perhaps with clenched fists and gritted teeth. “I will hope, I will hope,” he says, grasping at that small flicker of light, blowing on that one last bit of red in the coals and ashes of his incinerated life. Like Job he says “I am not cut off”: everyone and everything may be gone, every “thing” and every “one”, but not God. God is here because God is faithful, and not only faithful but steadfast, and not only steadfast but steadfast in love. I have hope, says the son of Zion, I have hope because God always brings the dawn and with the dawn God always brings my portion. Maybe the point has come in time where the son of Zion has confronted his exile, he’s taking account of his sins and recognises why he is in Babylon now and not in Zion. Not every disaster that befalls a believer in God is divine punishment, neither is distress always the plain consequences of sinful behaviour; however in this case it is the truth. God is faithful, and I am faithless: and because I am faithless I am here, in exile, and not in Jerusalem; and because God is faithful I am here, in exile, and not in Hell or otherwise dead. Where there is life there is hope; and even here, by the rivers of Babylon, I am living and I am alive, and God is present. Thanks be to God.

As someone who loves God fiercely, and who knows that he is loved by God with even greater ferocity, I like that the language of the Bible is bold. And as a man who has lived with illness and disability for all of his adult life, and much of that psychological and emotional, I like that the language is not only bold but dead-set blunt. Lamentations is honest in its grief, as is much of Job, and many of the psalms including Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion; and it’s no wonder when you consider what we have just heard. They didn’t just weep, they lamented like the darling daughter who is shut out in the cold not only by daddy but by her fiance. They grieved like the king who has lost everything and everyone, and all he has is cold ashes and boiling memories. That’s what’s going on for them, so when the Babylonians say “hey, gissa song then, how about one of those songs where you boast about how awesome your God is and how Zion is impregnable, bahahaha”, they are not laughing. No, they are seething. First they whinge, and rightly so, about how it’s all a taunt and that even if it wasn’t there is no mood for joy and celebration when you’re living in exile. Then they grieve when they think of the songs themselves, songs about the land God gave them and the land they filled with crops and children, a land that is now desolate and abandoned. No-one wants to be reminded of what was once glorious but is now a ruin, yet these are hymns of praise to God and isn’t God worthy of praise even if the people have sinned and the land has been wrecked? Yes, God is worthy, and in signing God’s praises the memory of what has been lost comes to the forefront. Look at Psalm 137:4 and Psalm 137:7 where the poet refuses to forget God but the memory of God is also the memory of defeat. God’s beautiful city was destroyed by bogan pagans, and as a royal priest and a holy citizen that triggers rage in the poet, which is why he wants everyone and everything associated with the Babylonians dead. Again this is raw, honest, blunt language: but because it is these things it is also worship. To pray like this is to trust God completely, to trust God with your emotions and your vulnerability, to have the greatest respect for God, the God who laid you low in Exile but who hears your righteous rage at what has become of Israel.

The commentaries that I read all said about Psalm 137:9 that it’s good to vent. God doesn’t really want you caving in the skulls of toddlers and God is not going to be doing that sort of thing on your behalf: no children were harmed in the making of this story. If you’re that upset then have a good yell and a good spit and get it out there; however there’s more to it than that, and the commentators say more. The point is not only that it’s good to be raw and honest with God, although it is, but that God is not violent like that. Remember that God is steadfast in love; love doesn’t kill children, even the children of enemies, even the children of the Babylonians who had killed Judahite children. Even exile and slavery are not good reasons to kill people, says God.

To kill children is to kill hope. We see this in the church today where we wonder about the next generation; we wonder whether there will even be a next generation. God who is steadfast in love and alongside us in presence is the source of hope, and the promise to Abram back in the day was not only the land of Canaan but also the millions of descendants who would occupy it. What if God engineered the return of Israel and Judah from exile, just as God had caused the exodus from Egypt in the first place, but the nations had no children and so the nations died out in the land. “That’s not who I am,” says God, God is not the sort of personality to cut off hope from anyone, even from Babylon: neither is God the sort who repays an eye for an eye. As Christians we know that God is faithful to all who place their hope and trust in God, you don’t have to have had a Jewish mother for God to love you as one of the chosen: it seems this love and invitation extends even to the Babylonians. Hope must not be killed, babies must be allowed to live, God is to be glorified even in the depressing place of mockery and isolation.

Our hope lives because our God lives: this is the message of Lamentations and of Psalm 137. That we live in a hole of human construction is not God’s fault, but it is God’s concern. God is concerned because God’s people are suffering, and God’s remedy is coming just as sure as it did last time, in Egypt.

Even in a time of lamentation, of anger and bitterness and shame, we can rejoice in the steadfast love of God.

Amen.

Sunday 6th October 2019

Serviceton Church of Christ

A Rite of Welcome

Good morning Church: know that you are welcome.
 
Know that you are welcome if this is your first time among us,
or your first time in a long time
or your first time since last week.
Know that you are welcome if you have been here since 8:59
or 9:29
or you’re not here yet but are on your way.
Know that you are welcome if you have arrived with peace,
or you have arrived with rush,
or you have not arrived at all.
Know that you are welcome if you have come alone,
or with friends,
or with family, including an untidy child.
Good morning Church: know that you are welcome.