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.

Palm Sunday

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Palm Sunday 2019.

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 19:28-40

Palm Sunday is one of those days when you’d think the sermon, and the Bible readings, would be obvious.  Maybe that’s true, but then you all know me well enough now to know that the obvious sermon topic is very unlikely to appear when I am preaching, and even if it does appear it will be given a surprising slant.  So no, today we heard from Isaiah and Paul rather than Luke, but don’t worry, the donkey is on his way.

Today’s passage from the Hebrew Tradition, from Isaiah, is the third of four so called “servant songs”; in this song the servant is speaking directly to those Israelites who have strayed from God’s ways while they have been exiled.  The teacher in this case is not so much one person as he is a representation of the true Israel, the nation (and the group of people within it) who have stood their ground amidst abuse and disrespect from The Fallen because they know that The LORD is Israel’s companion and vindication.  The advice is to the straying people of Israel, but also to the Babylonians, and it is to say that God is faithful and dependable and so all hope is far from lost, even in this dire situation.  The teacher’s task, as it is in all four servant songs, is to take the word of God which God has spoken to him and to proclaim that word to the world, beginning with the fallen within Israel, the ones described as weary in Isaiah 50:4.  Conversely it is this mob of weary and disheartened who rise up and beat up the prophet with all the spitting and sneering and beard-pulling action; but even this has not disheartened the prophetic voice, since it shows to him how much his message of deliverance is required.  The servant says in Isaiah 50:8, he who vindicates me is near: who will contend with me.  In other words, God has my back, so bring it on, and let’s argue this thing out.  At the same time the teacher knows that scorners are gonna scorn, so he’s aware that even though God will vindicate him as a teacher and God will vindicate his message, he will still be beaten up and worn down in the work of teaching.

The same theme is seen in today’s Psalm, 31, which reads as a prayer for deliverance in the midst of distress.  Read, indeed hear how the psalmist complains to God how worn out with trying and with sorrowing he is.  This worshipper comes to God and tells The Father that he is mocked, shunned, abandoned, and shamed by his neighbours.  The psalmist has no friends except for God, but God is trustworthy and faithful, God is listening and compassionate, and God is his God who has eternity in sight.  No matter what other people say or do or think, the man or woman who remains faithful to God and to the calling of prophecy and teaching will be saved because God is steadfast in love.

Many of you know that I used to work as a schoolteacher.  I once might have said “I used to be a teacher”, but that’s not true: I still am a teacher, I just don’t work in schools any more.  So, as a teacher still, and one of God’s people set apart by God and the Church to bring the word from God to the people of God, I have some insights into this.

The first is that teaching can be physically dangerous.  Regardless of what we read in Isaiah, I can tell you that I have been assaulted at schools where I have taught.  I have been spat at and spat on, I have been kicked, punched, pushed, wrapped in sticky tape, had furniture thrown at me, had nuisance phone calls threatening me with arson, and I have been the subject of graffiti and emotional bullying.  (And that was just in the staffroom…)   And whilst no one has had a go at my physical person at church, yet, I have been emotionally beaten up in my teaching ministry in congregations through gossip, derision, and agendas pushed through councils of the church to have me banned from preaching because my words (which I  maintain were God’s) pricked somebody’s pimple.  I get why the Pharisees were angry at Jesus, and the exiles angry at Jeremiah and the suffering servant, I’ve been there on the receiving end and I’ve had my theology and my mental stability questioned by people who were offended by the gospel as I proclaimed it.  I know that I can also get shouty and sarcastic in my speech, and because of that I’m focussing today’s thoughts on those few times when I was not in the wrong.

The second is that teaching as an activity is useless if no one is learning.  For example, I could pause here for a moment and give you a twenty minute run down on how to add numbers across the tens barrier.  If you have enough fingers you can add three and five to make eight; but how do you add three more to eight when you run out of fingers.  I can teach you how to do that, I can teach you a number of ways how to do that, but you wouldn’t actually learn anything.  Why not?  Well because you all know, already, how to do that.  Even as I gave this example, of adding three to eight, many of you went, “yup, eleven”,  in your head, and none of you needed to remove a shoe to get enough digits.  What is the point of my teaching if you are not learning?  In fact if you are not learning then I would argue that whatever it is that I am doing up here, it isn’t actually teaching at all.  In the same way I could give you an excellent sociolinguistics lecture on Russian Formalism and the concept of ostranenie, as developed by Viktor Shklovksy.  You would all be amazed, no doubt, but would you be educated, would you actually learn anything?  Or would you be confused?  Even if I translated ostranenie into English as “defamiliarisation” would that help?  Even if I tell you that this is more of a narratological concept than a sociolinguistic one, and ask whether any of you noted the deliberate mistake three sentences ago, would that help?  Again, if you’re not learning, then I’m not teaching.

And perhaps putting points one and two together, if you don’t want to learn from me, then I’m not teaching you.  I cannot teach you if you don’t want to learn, and since this is church and not school I can’t force you to learn and keep you in your seat until you do.  In fact the last time I tried to force someone to stay in his seat until he learned something he stood up and threw the chair at me.  But, again, this is church and you can’t do that.  I hope I’ve made my point though, even if I am not in physical danger of immanent assault, and even if I pitch my sermons and Wednesday Bible studies at your level rather than at child or postgraduate speciality level, if you don’t want to learn then you won’t.  And if you don’t want to learn then I can’t teach you.  That’s okay, maybe you don’t need me to teach you, maybe you already know everything there is to know and so nothing that I say, even with eloquence and a sound pedagogical structure, will interest you in the slightest.  Maybe you don’t need to be here at all, or I don’t.  Maybe that’s what the exiles in Babylon and the Pharisees in Jerusalem thought about the bearers of God’s word.

Jesus wasn’t like that.  From Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi we read how the mindset of Christ Jesus, an attitude of humility and self-emptying, complete trust even in death lead to his exaltation and glory.  In a congregation where many of you hold the doctrinal position of “no creed but Christ”, here in Philippians 2:5-11 is a manifesto for us to proclaim, the complete words of scripture telling the life story of Jesus from incarnation to resurrection.  What it means to be like Christ, to be a Christian, is to be humble in humanity and obedient toward God.  We know this is the right way because the man who acted most fully in this way was exalted by God to the highest possible glory.  This is the attitude and the conduct that God rewards, because this is the human life by which God is most fully blessed.  Blessed are the teachable, for they will hear God most clearly and therefore obey God most fully.  The existence of Jesus, (more than his shape or his attitude) his very being is one not of grasping but of surrender.  More than what Christ does or even who Christ is, this is what Christ is as Christ, God the Son.  Christ is open-handedness, Christ is letting go, and Christ is unambiguous and unlimited trust in The Father, even as Christ is The LORD.  When all of that was accounted for in the incarnation and death of Jesus, at the resurrection the God-ness of Christ was restored.  Both are the real Christ, God the Son was no less God for being Jesus from Nazareth, the Son of Man.  Neither are we or anyone else any less the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) for being alive as women and men today.  Godliness is not about how much of a spiritual presence you are, rather than flesh-and-bone, godliness is about how much like God you are when God was flesh-and-bone.  Are you humble, do you know who you are and who you are not?  Are you teachable, do you know what you need to learn, and are you willing to listen to whichever teacher God sends you, be that a preacher, a podcast, a book, a shared experience with a mate, or an epiphany at the end of your bed.  And if you want God to speak to you in a book or a podcast, and God speaks to you in a sermon or a song, will you listen, or not?

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Friday on which he died, Luke tells us that Jesus was riding a colt.  Previously two disciples had been sent ahead to find the colt and to inform anyone who asked that the Lord needed the colt and that they should be allowed to take it.  The fact that Jesus was actually riding the colt shows that the colt was allowed to be taken to Jesus, and for him to ride it.  Someone was listening to God at that point, even when God spoke in the accent of some random Galilean who was sprung in the middle of untying the beast.  When Jesus (and the colt) rode into Jerusalem the people cried out “blessed is the king who comes!” and “peace in heaven and glory!”  Again, they had been listening for God and were ready to hear the word of Heaven however it came.  The ordinary Judeans heard God speak, even in their own voices, and even when the highly educated and rigorously theological scholars could not.  How ambivalent do you need to be to the coming of the Word of God that you are dull to the sounds of worship, dull to the presence of the Word Incarnate (even in humble form) standing in front of you, so dull that even the singing or rocks would probably escape you?

Seriously, how dull?  Dull enough that within a week you’ll hang the King of Kings for treason, and the God of Gods for blasphemy?  Today is Palm Sunday, open your ears, open your eyes, open your hearts; let worship alone open your mouths.  And in the name of every teacher who has ever lived to help you learn, please, resist every urge to be dull.

Amen.