Slowly Relentless (Epiphany 5B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 4th February 2018, the fifth Sunday in Epiphany in Year B.

Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

When I began blogging back in the 2000s I had a few pages on the go.  One blog, which had, (and still only has) one post was called “3Rs”.  No, it was not about my skills in literacy and numeracy; and just as well because Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic are not three Rs at all, but one R, one A, and a W.  I know this because I was once a Primary School teacher, and they learned me that at NTU where I got teached stuff for my Graduate Diploma in Primary Education.  No, my 3Rs were Resolute, Relentless, and Resilient.  After a few tough years, the toughest ever, where my 40 days in the wilderness had lasted four years so far and didn’t look like ending any time soon, I began to write about my desire to see the journey through with blood, sweat, tears, and a few other, less pleasant bodily fluids.  Resolute, Relentless, Resilient.  I was going to push through with all of mine and God’s strength.  The blog never saw a second post because the journey was too painful, complicated, and downright weird to try to put into words.

Today’s message, ten and a bit years later, and posted to my current blog I have entitled “Slowly Relentless”.

In Mark 1:31 we read that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law by taking her by the hand and lifting her up.  Her response to healing is to engage in ministry, diakoneo, the work of a ministering angel.  The same word is used in Mark 1:13 when Jesus is assisted in his recovery after the forty days in the wilderness.  This woman is raised up not to be a mere woman doing “women’s work” or “being a housewife” as if those activities were not important anyway; as if a healed father-in-law could have just moved from bed to chair with Jesus and demanded a beer but the woman must serve and not be served.   No, she is restored to her act of ministry because Jesus’ healings are not just restorative, they are also empowering.

In Mark 1:32-34 we are told about many other women and men in Capernaum who were healed through Jesus’ ministry to weakened bodies, minds, and souls.  I wonder, did Jesus expect the same from these renewed people as he did in the house of Simon?  Imagine that next day in Capernaum, a village filled with active and restored people, buzzing with excitement that God’s grace had been manifested amongst them and how they were now able to do what they had been limited from doing for however long.  What a fabulous day that would have been!

How many of you long for the day when Jesus will take you by your hand and lift you up?  I know I do.

I live with a mental illness, you all know that, and many of you have taken to wearing the beyondblue wrist bands in support of me and my ilk.  And yes, that mental illness came about back in those wilderness days when I needed to be intentionally resolute, relentless and resilient.  Sometimes life today for me is more about mental ill-health for me than actual illness because some days I have the emotional version of a sniffle and some days I have the emotional version of quadriplegia.  Each of these conditions impact on my physical activity (or lack thereof) to that extent.  I’m not always flat on my back, and I’m not always sneezing, mentally speaking, but some days I am one of those two things, or something in the middle.  On many days I’m in mentally good-health; “mental healthy” rather than “mental healthish” as it were.  So, yes, I long for that day when Jesus will take me by my hand and lift me up so that I can go about the work of ministry.  Ministry to him, ministry to you, ministry to myself.

But I’m not so fussed about my failing eyesight.  I’ve worn spectacles for short-sightedness for almost forty years, since I was six, and I now have the reading glasses of a man who was six years old almost forty years ago.  I am not fussed about that,  and I do not long for the day when I have 20/20 vision at last, although I’d take it if it came.  Like many men I’d like to be thinner around my abs, thicker around my quads, biceps and triceps, and more powerful in heart and lungs, although I’m happy with the covering of hair I wear.  So, it’s just the mental thing, and the sleep apnoea connected with it that I want fixed.  I need the lifting-out-of-bed hand of Jesus, and I need it many days a week, because of what happens in my mind.  I would love to have it once-and-for-all, but God’s grace is sufficient, and every morning Jesus helps me make it out of bed.  Some mornings it is before 8:00am, other mornings it is after 11:00am, but it’s always morning and it’s always Jesus.

So, I get excited when I read that God healed a whole town, or at least all of those who asked it of God, through the ministry of Jesus.  I know how excited I’d be to hear the promise that I’ll never be midday-dozy or fidgety again. I know how excited I’d be if Jesus did that for the whole Latrobe Valley, at the very least the western bit where Moe, Morwell, Narracan, Newborough, Yallourn and Yallourn North are.  I’m excited that Jesus is amongst us, and about us, even though this mass miracle of lifting to minister seems unlikely, simply because it hasn’t happened for a while.  I don’t believe that Jesus can’t heal our whole cluster and the towns in which we live, but I acknowledge that he hasn’t.  Maybe, like those few at Capernaum, we need to ask.  Maybe we need to rock up at sundown and bring all who are sick or possessed with demons and gather around the door.

Or, maybe, we need to look for something else.  Without discounting for a second that God could heal our bit of the City of Latrobe and the Baw Baw Shire, and give us a new energy, there is something else we can rely on from God in the interim.

It’s in Isaiah 40:31, and it is always, ALWAYS EVERY SINGLE TIME quoted incorrectly by Christian card manufacturers, poster makers, and rabble-rousing preachers.  Always until today of course.  After all, you’re not a rabble so why would I want to rouse you?

God has not abandoned the weary, rather God has extended salvation to all who seek God from wherever it is they begin to seek.  In Isaiah’s day the Israelites were in exile, and they were tired, and they were weary, and they were very close to being worn out.  God’s message to these people is that God is aware of the people and their circumstance, and because God is actively directing history (rather than sitting back and letting it unfold while God sits on the couch with divine Tim Tams and a six-pack,  of Victorious Draught), God will intervene presently.  In the meantime as we read in Isaiah 40:28-29 God is present, present at present, and God’s current work is strengthening and upholding the fainting and exhausted.  That’s been said before, and that’s all good; it’s the next bit that Koorong’s suppliers can’t seem to get right.

It’s not about being an eagle.

There you go.  Isaiah 40:31 is not actually about being an eagle, and how God is going to make you into a herculean pterodactyl or whatever.  The renewing of your strength is found in…wait for it…keep waiting…a bit longer…okay now…realising that you have permission to slow down.  Look at Isaiah 40:31, look at the order of the verbs:  you mount up, then you run, then you walk.  If you are a bird then my birdy friend you are coming in to land, you are not taking off.  It’s not wander out of the nest, have a run up and then lift off, no this verse is very much swoop about for a bit, come in to land at a run, and then slow down.  Having flown with God but come out of the skies you will be strengthened in God to land safely, running without weary legs after your wings have become too tired to carry you, and then walking to a standstill on your own feet.  You don’t crash, you don’t collapse.  You land safely.

Yes, of course all that eagle stuff is also true.  There are soaring times in God’s presence, and in God’s strength when you are ministering away from the gathered body.  I have been there, I have “soared with you in the power of your love”, and I hope that you have too.  But I have also heard, and I now teach the wisdom of God, that there is a place in ministry and in discipleship when you need to return to the ground and to the nest.

After all, it’s what Jesus did.

The strength of Jesus’ ministry, and his ability through God’s direction to heal and restore the women and men who came to him as he did, was Jesus’ own ministry.  By that I mean his ministry to himself.  When Jesus needed restoration he went to the source, to the Father, with the advocating assistance of the paraclete, the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus was at the walking stage, which as I say is not a bad stage, he sat, (or perhaps knelt, or lay, or stood still), and there he prayed as Mark 1:35 tells us.  And why did he pray?  Well for the reasons I have just said, he was tired to walking pace, but also because of Mark 1:36.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him as the NRSV says.  They did not “seek” him or “search for him”, the did not “inquire into his whereabouts”, and certainly didn’t “await his return”.  No, the Greek text here, which I use to highlight the specific word chosen by Mark, is the word katadioko.  It means “pursue with hostility” in the sense of “hunted him down”.  The disciples didn’t just try to find Jesus, they sent the dogs out.

I do not wish to imply that this congregation has ever set dogs on me.  You have not: I promise, you haven’t.  But I’m sure you can each relate to what Jesus might have felt.  Perhaps you are or were a parent who couldn’t even use the toilet without having your toddler follow you into the loo, and leave the door open after finding you.  Perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel, late one afternoon after a hectic day at the office, was really your boss with a torch and an overflowing folder of apparently urgent paperwork.  There are times when it is right in The Spirit to not soar, not run, and not even walk, but to stop.

God knows, and I know, and your mental health specialist will also tell you, that that is true.  Where Psalm 46:10 says “be still and know” the sense of the Hebrew there is “Freeze!  Hear and understand!” This message is no less (and no more) a Biblical imperative than “Onward Christian Soldiers”, or “an as I wait I’ll rise up like an eagle and I will soar with you, your spirit leads me on”.  There is power in God’s love, and more often than we might like to think that power is the wing under which the hen gathers and shields her sleepy chicks.

God alone can raise you up on eagle-like wings, God alone can take your hand and lift you up to minister again.  If that is what you need to do today, then do that

Let God.

Amen.

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Hear The Word Speak (Epiphany 4B)

This is the text I prepared for a cluster service for the Yallourn and Morwell Uniting Churches for Sunday 28th January 2018.  It was the final cluster service for the summer and was held at Morwell.  Holy Communion followed the sermon.

Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Hear The Word speak.  In days ago when the Hebrews were still across the Jordan and not yet near the land of the Canaanites Moses assured them that God was going to raise up a new prophet, one like Moses from amidst the Israelites.  This prophet would speak in the Name of the God of Israel and with all the authority of the LORD.  But, this prophet will have come from amidst the people of Israel, so he would not be terrifying like The LORD is in his presence.  This prophet would not arise, (or descend), from a Mountain Which May Not Be Touched, he would come from amongst the people, he would be one of them but with a special task.  This prophet would be identifiable by his speaking the same message that Moses spoke, which is to say the words of YHWH Godself in a form understandable by women and men who want to know God’s way.  The words and actions of this prophet will give glory to YHWH and will conform to the pattern of YHWH’s previous prophets, especially Moses.

So says Moses himself; so reads the Old Testament lectionary story for today.

The Psalm set for today is a wholehearted, public, declaration of praise for God’s work and the God who works.  God is faithful, and the faithful One’s works are majestic in that they are works of mercy, redemption and salvation.  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding says Psalm 111:10. Henry Handel Richardson said something similar in her story of that “Wondrous Fair” Laura Tweedle-Rambotham of Melbourne’s PLC, so as Australians, nay as Victorians and somewhat-Presbyterians we know it to be true. This whole psalm is the context of Moses’ message to the listening Hebrews: praise for the wonderful acts of the covenant God must be the content of any declaration or oracle of “the prophet”, or anyone claiming to speak for God.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1, and sadly many of us Victorians and somewhat-Presbyterians know this also to be true.  The cure for being a clever-bottom according to Paul, (but not so much according to the somewhat self-important “Tweedle-Dum-Ram’s-Bum” as her nemesis calls her), is to be known by God.  Those who are known by God, who know God and who follow in God’s ways, do their things the way God does things.  Jesus knew a lot of things and he said a lot of things, but he always taught those desiring his wisdom with love and patience.  Jesus was never a clever-bottom and he never came across as a know-it-all.  In Mark 1:22 we read how Jesus spoke with authority, but more than that he told the truth.  Jesus did not only speak with love, but also with depth and profound patience.  To say that he taught “but not as the scribes” doesn’t mean that he was a liberal theologian, (or that they were), but that he wasn’t arrogant about his ability to exegete and hermeneut with academic insight.

In the first part of 1 Corinthians 8 Paul begins to address an issue in the Christian community at Corinth, but that issue is not the issue food offered to idols.  Paul is aware of the need to guard one’s shopping choices in the market, and the reasons why one might refuse a dish when out for dinner; but what he is addressing is the attitude behind the behaviour of Christians toward other Christians, Christians who are conscientiously working through their theology regarding these sorts of meals.  “I know and some of you know”, he says, “that the only god is God, and so food offered to idols is nothing.  Eat it, nothing has defiled this food and there are no Greek-germs upon it since the Greek gods are non-existent.”  Of course, you and I might say.  However, Paul goes on, “but if people new to faith are struggling over this and they see a problem with Greek-germs in their food because they haven’t yet heard the full message of liberty, don’t you be mocking them for it.”  Supposedly leading Christians engaging in idolatry, sin, and defiantly public disloyalty to the God of Israel by engaging in the worship of the Olympians or the Roman deities, can be a real moral distraction to new converts.  So don’t do it, says Paul: don’t flaunt your freedom in such a way as to distract a new Christian from his or her growth.  And if you are asked by a young believer the reason for your behaviour, don’t be a clever-bottom about it.  In view of the sermon of Moses and the model of the Psalm, what do you think Jesus would do?  Jesus knows that idols have no power over meat, but Jesus also knows that a bad example has power over new believers.  So, says Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:13: in this instance be a good brother-sister and go vegetarian in company because this is a good example of love.

For another example of clever-bottom discussion we can go back to the gospel reading for this one and see how Jesus himself handled it.  In Mark 1:23-26 we read about Jesus’ first healing miracle as recorded by Mark, and it’s an exorcism.  In Mark 1:24 the unclean spirit calls Jesus by name, correctly identifies his home town, and calls out Jesus on his hidden identity.  In other words he shows off what a smarty he is in the company of the none-the-wiser natives of Capernaum.  Jesus answers the spirit directly in Mark 1:25 saying “shut up windbag, nick off”.  (It probably sounds better in Aramaic.)  In Mark 1:26 the unclean spirit spits the dummy, and then goes, embarrassed and sooking back to wherever it is unclean spirits come from.

The unclean spirit had tried to outmanoeuvre Jesus, trying to trick him into showing his hand and acting Messianically before he was ready.  The spirit called Jesus by name, trying to show its power by demonstrating something supernatural.  “Ooh look at me, I have insight because I am a spirit, I know you’re really the messiah and these dopey peasants do not.  La-li-la-lala-pthth!”  Notice how Jesus doesn’t get into the game: Jesus doesn’t name the spirit, and Jesus doesn’t try to out-power it with a declaration of divine will such as “you’re just an unclean spirit, whereas I, I AM!”  No, Jesus just says “shut up and nick off”, and up the chastened spirit shuts, and off the humiliated spirit nicks.

One of the more recent manifestations of the Kingdom of God in Australia has come about through a group called Common Grace.  One of its leaders, a pastor named Jarrod McKenna, says that the intent of the group is to be “more like Jesus, less like jerks.”  This is the intent of a group striving for humility, if that isn’t an oxymoron, (and it isn’t).  Common Grace are a public group in that they appear on television news, often in custody, occasionally in their underwear, (and occasionally in their underwear in custody, but not actually in custody because they are in their underwear if you follow).  They are not hidden, they do not intend to be.  But then, Jesus wasn’t hidden either; he was a public figure, but he never big-noted himself like the unclean spirit wanted to do and wanted Jesus to do.  Like Jesus, Common Grace stands up publicly for grace foremost and for God’s preference for salvation and homecoming rather than piety and prejudice and elitism disguised under religious activity.  God will be glorified, and the captives will be freed, if Common Grace gets their way.

This then is the message of reconciliation to which we are called as Christians.  This is what the table of grace is about.  Make no mistake, you are welcome at this table whether you are or are not a clever-bottom.  However, we do hope you won’t be one as you leave.

Amen.

 

It’s Not About You (Epiphany 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for a cluster service of the Yallourn and Morwell Uniting Churches, for Sunday 21st January 2018.  The congregations were gathered at Yallourn North.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20

In Mark 1:14-20 we read Mark’s account of where and how Jesus began his ministry.  This is an important text because alongside the story of Jesus calling the first four to the ministry of discipleship and men-fishing we hear the first declaration of the gospel message according to The Son of Man.  Jesus says that the time of the revelation of God’s Way has come, so turn to God and hear the good news.

In Jesus’ day to call someone to believe carried the meaning of that person committing him/herself toward a special relationship marked by loyalty: it did not carry the meaning that the person should accept a special set of statements to be true.  Belief in the coming Kingdom of God in Jesus’ mind was about an insatiable commitment to God and a passion to bring about the realisation of the kingship of God on the Earth in the same way that God is king in Heaven.  So, Jesus’ call to the fishermen in Mark 1:16-20 is a call to attention, repentance and belief in the way of the Kingdom in the perfect tense (continuous present, once and future).  Jesus goes on in the gospel stories to exhibit the arrival of the Kingdom by teaching, healing and exorcism, and private prayer.  We’ll see Jesus in action next week, so I’ll leave Mark 1:21-45 until then, but that’s what it’s about, the activity of the Kingdom once revealed.

What is going on in today’s reading carries the message that the proclamation of the Reign of God precedes the ministry of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The first thing Jesus does is declare God’s arrival; Jesus does not begin by healing or saving, he begins by proclaiming.  In other words, the key to the gospel is that you get aboard the Kingdom before the stuff of ministry happens, so that the stuff is put in context.  Healing and saving are activities of the Kingdom, a display of what life is like under God’s reign, or better said within God’s realm.

When Jesus invites the two sets of brothers to join him there is a deliberate echo of God’s invitation to Abram – leave your father and the family business and follow God to a new place and a very different future to the one predicted by the generations.  As Abrahamitic men these Galileans would have had confidence in their place in God because of their ancestry, their obedience to the Law of Moses, their attendance at the local synagogue, and their respect for their parents and family ties.  But Jesus calls them to the Kingdom of Heaven, and they are required to leave all that social and religious confidence behind.  What Jesus is saying is that they have nothing to rely on, nothing to take confidence in except the hope that God is on their side.  If you are not hitched to God’s wagon it doesn’t matter who your grandparents were or which religious centre you attend on which day, even if it is a synagogue on Shabbat.  This is the eternal invitation of Jesus, even today, even to Christians.  The only thing you can rely on is grace, and by grace alone can you act and serve in the world as if it is “on Earth as it is in Heaven”.

In our Hebrew story this morning we hear how Jonah prophesied to Nineveh and the Ninevites turned to God.  Unlike Jesus, and hopefully unlike you, Jonah does not want the hearers of his gospel, the Ninevites, to repent.  Jonah doesn’t like the Ninevites, and he doesn’t like what they represent; so, his message is as brief as he can possibly make it.  He obeys God just enough to stay out of trouble, and remember his recalcitrance has already cost him three days lost at sea, but he does the barest of bare minima so that he is seen to be obedient yet be unsuccessful in God’s mission.  In fact, Jonah’s whole message is five Hebrew words in length.  Five.  And there’s no hope in it, no call to repentance, no instruction about what to do; Jonah is practically boasting to these people, whom he intensely dislikes, that they are going to get splattered.

If one of you had come to me with this message for the Latrobe Valley I’d probably have rejected it as not having come from God.  I believe that God’s prophetic messages always have hope in them, so I’d have asked you to go away with your epic judginess and come back when you had the complete message, the “…but if you turn back and repent then…” part.  And I’d probably be right in doing that, since for much of Western Christian history the story has changed, and the rumour of God is widespread.  But in Jonah 3 something different is going on, and as a filter of God’s prophetic message I’d need to be very careful.  The prophecies of disaster tinged with hope as are always addressed to God’s own people.  “Repent,” says God, “and if you do then I will restore you and bless you.”  The consequence of not hearing God is that the disobedient go further into their own dilemma.  It’s not that God causes evil against them, it’s that God does not intervene to prevent the evil they have brought upon themselves.

But the Ninevites know none of this.  They don’t know God and they are not participants in the covenants of Abraham and Moses.  They are not lapsed Christians who have heard the message but have fallen away from salvation by grace through faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross.  No, the Ninevites have no relationship with The LORD upon which to call.  They’ve had no previous warning of divine wrath precipitating disaster, or which behaviours that wrath is directed towards.  They are unaware, and therefore in shock when Jonah speaks his five words.  And so, the people do the best they can with what they know about gods, they act with penitence in the only way they know, by sackcloth and ashes (mourning) and by fasting.  By completely embracing self-humiliation the once proud city hopes to be saved from external calamity.  And the humbled city is saved.  Nineveh knows it cannot “return to The LORD” since it was never “with The LORD” in the first place: however, it can turn from its wickedness and embrace wholesomeness, and it does that with such fervour that The LORD relents and the city is saved.

The word declared is enough.  God acts through prophecy and a call to repentance, and then through signs.  In the case of Nineveh, the sign would have been destruction, and it is averted by the people’s response to grace.  In the case of Galilee, the sign is healing, exorcism, and resurrection, and it is manifested by the people’s response to grace.

In Psalm 62:9-10 we read how confidence in anything other than The LORD comes to nothing.  We are not self-sufficient. And we cannot make ourselves self-sufficient by wickedness, as if God keeps us subordinate by the law but we could be powerful if we ignored God and tried for ourselves.  We have tried, it doesn’t work.  What does work is found in Psalm 62:5-8; trust and rest in God.  God alone has power, and God alone can be trusted to wield power since God does so with love and justice foremost (Psalm 62:11-12).  Jonah didn’t have love, so he couldn’t be trusted to judge Nineveh.  God loved the Ninevites, even as God detested their behaviour, and because God loves God is mighty to save.

God’s intent is always to save and not destroy.  God warned Nineveh, even though Jonah didn’t like it, and Jesus warned Judea even though they didn’t like it.  Often when Christians speak of Hell as the deserved end for the enemies of God we miss the point that the message of Jesus is better read as repeated warnings against the self-destructive practices of violent society and personal sin.  Hell, for sinners and the destruction of Nineveh are not predestined, the message is not “this is where you’ll end up if you are naughty”, but “this is where your self-destructive behaviours are leading you”.  The message of the Kingdom, to change your life and your mind and live as if God is king and LORD, and Nebuchadnezzar, or Trump, or Turnbull, or Molech, or Baal, or Nathan Buckley are not.  As proclaimers of the Way of Jesus and the gospel of Immanuel we must always make sure that grace has the final word.

When Jesus spoke of hell and judgement he did so with the backdrop of his message of God’s grace and the world’s terror.  Judgement for Jesus was not so much about sinners going to damnation as it is being about rabble-rousers and plotters bringing down the wrath of the Romans.  Jerusalem was Hell in 70 CE, there was fire and brimstone, death and horror, and the temple was destroyed: Jesus saw it coming in the escalating violence of the Zealots and the inevitability of the religious resistance movements.  This is what God saw in Nineveh, and even though Jonah saw something different God’s message was put across and the self-destructive behaviours of the Ninevites were stopped and decline into hell was averted.

The Way of God is non-violent resistance to the evil in the world, and following the destruction of the temple Judaism and Christianity caught that.  That had been the message of Jesus from that first day beside the lake, and that was in the message of Jesus as he approached those two boat crews and called for disciples.  Unlike Jonah there is no delight for God or Jesus in seeing people go through Hell, so how can there even be the slightest shade of that in the Church?

Our job is to let the world know that the King is coming, not so much as to warn them against divine wrath in the tribulation following our Rapture, but to prepare them for the better way of life on Earth when the King of Glory, the grace-abounding healer, saviour, redeemer and reconciling Lord takes the crown.

There is no greater thing than knowing Jesus, just because he’s Jesus.

Amen.

And Vent!

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Parish Uniting Church, meeting in Newborough, for Sunday 10th December 2017.  It was the Second Sunday in Advent.

Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

This year, beginning last week on Advent Sunday and running through until we celebrate Christ the King on the last Sunday in November 2018, we shall be reading primarily from The Gospel According to Mark.  This is one of my favourite gospels, and if it’s not my absolute favourite it’s definitely top four.  I especially enjoy how brief and to the point Mark’s writing is, everything is so sudden and there’s no padding.  Today’s reading, the first eight verses of the book, is just like that.  Bang – here it is in Mark 1:1 and then straight in to the coming of John the Baptiser in Mark 1:2 to prepare the way for Jesus, who appears in Mark 1:9.  Matthew and Luke each take until chapter three of their gospels to get to the arrival of John in the desert: Matthew in 48 verses and Luke in an astonishing 132 verses.  Mark takes one.

So, Mark immediately opens the story at the best starting place: the arrival of an adult Jesus on the day he begins his ministry, the day he is commissioned by the Holy Spirit in the presence of John the Baptiser, the prophesied one who would announce his coming.  Mark grounds the story of Jesus immediately in the salvation history of the Israelites, connecting the appearance of John to the prophetic speech of Isaiah, and to the mission of Israel’s God in history which had always been about reconciliation.  As God had constantly called Israel and Judah back to the covenant, offering forgiveness and mercy time and time again if only they would return, so John offers a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins as he says in Mark 1:4.  It’s the same thing, he’s calling the people to make an about face, be released from debt, and move forward in God’s direction.

So, given that Mark quotes him so early in the piece I wonder, what did Isaiah actually say?  Well we find in Isaiah 40:1-11 that God has taken Isaiah aside and prepared him with a new message for the Israelites who are living in exile.  “Speak comfort to the people”, says the LORD, “because the people have served their sentence”.  Their saviour is coming along the wilderness road, levelling the road and making a way of travel.  Repentance is not complex, and while it is not easy because it is so confronting to human pride, it is simple.  God has seen that human life is temporary and that women and men are inconsistent in their ways because of this limitation upon them.  Individuals die but the story of God lives on.  God tells Isaiah, and we can presume that God also tells John the Baptiser, to go, get up on a high place and proclaim that story loudly.  The instruction to Isaiah and to John is to tell the Jerusalemites the story of salvation so that they can then get about telling every citizen of the world that God is present.  God is coming, God has come, and when God comes the good leader will feed the hungry, clothe the exposed, and carry the broken ones close.

As far as Isaiah is concerned this is a commissioning passage, a personal call to prophetic ministry much like the ones recorded in Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 61.  If you read closely you’ll see that the call to comfort and speak is given to the angels, one of whom commands (Isaiah 40:3) the opening of the way home: a second ex-hodos through the wilderness like the first one was through the sea.  But Isaiah’s and John’s message is that this will be an easy road, unlike the trek of Moses, since the land will fall flat, and the road will be straight and direct.  This is a road without wandering or struggling.  Another angel commands Isaiah to proclaim the message of God’s constancy (Isaiah 40:6) to God’s people who are dead grass (Isaiah 40:6-8).  As the Korahites sang in Psalm 80:10-13, (which I read as our call to worship), God is constant regarding the promises of the covenant, and the people’s hope of restoration is secure.  Six hundred years later John is telling the same story, and soon enough Jesus will repeat God’s message over and over.

Peter reminds us in his letter that God is beyond age and epoch.  God is not slow, God is not limited, God has chosen to be patient and God is not feeling pressured to act or be rushed.  Even as the Israelites and Judahites waited for God in exile, even as the Judeans of Jesus’ day suffered under Roman occupation and cried out for God to restore a king from the Davidic line, (rather than an Idumean puppet appointed by Caesar), the God of Abraham waited.  Jesus had come and gone in Peter’s lifetime, but the Romans remained.  But Peter remembered God’s promise to return to earth and he trusted God to come in the fulness of God’s time.  Peter reminds his readers, the people of his church but also any to whom he had ministered in the past, that when God arrives you’ll not miss it because it will be bright and loud and violent.

Advent is the time in the Christian calendar when we remember that Jesus is the Once and Future King, to borrow a phrase from the legends of Avalon and Camelot.  Peter’s story of light and sound is obviously not a retelling of the night in Bethlehem when shepherds watched, and three wee kings arrived.  Like the exiles, the Judeans, the Romans, and the Antiochenes we wait for God to return for us and lead us home along that straight, wide, and flat road.  We believe the word of God when his disciples remind us that all that surrounds us is finite and that it will be swept away when God returns. We believe the word of God and are reminded that finite does not mean without value:  Peter is saying we must not hold onto the world or depend upon it for our safety, but we are to utilise it for the work of proclaiming the gospel.  Use it, use it up, but don’t waste it.  Demonstrate the same patience that God shows, and model your life on the generous and unhurried flow of Jesus, the one who was often busy but never hassled.  Live with integrity in a world which is mocking your trust.

The first words of Mark read “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the son of God”.  In the light of all we know about Jesus and his ministry, and all that Peter reminded us of, must this sentence refer only to Mark 1:1 as some Greek version of “Once upon a time in a land far far away”, or even “In the beginning”?  Or is the whole book of Mark only the beginning of the good news, and further instalments of the gospel are not to be found in Mark 1:2, Mark 2:1, or even in Mark 16:9, but in what we say and do with the message in our day?  Where Advent reminds us that the one who came to Bethlehem is coming again, and to Yallourn and Moe this time I think it’s more of the second, that the gospel continues in us.  Now the mandate given to the prophets, the psalmists, and the apostles is given to us.  Our task is to speak comfort to the city, not Jerusalem or Rome but the City of Latrobe, and to assure them of the coming grace of peace and restoration.  Our Christmas message to the community is that when the Lord comes he is coming for them to welcome them home.

Just as he did the first time he came.

Amen.