He is the King

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 26th November 2017, the Festival of Christ the King in Year A.

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-44

When Ezekiel wrote and spoke of shepherds the readers of his day would have known immediately that he was not addressing the local jackaroos, shearers and roustabouts. In the language of metaphor shepherds represented the kings of Israel: those who lead but also had care for the nation were its shepherds.  The kings in Ezekiel’s day were poor shepherds and evil kings, hence the strength of his words.  They were reaping all the benefits of royalty in terms of luxury and wealth, power and glory, but they weren’t actually governing or holding up the people as a godly leader should, especially a godly leader of God’s own people.  The same might have been said of the priests and elders of the time, too busy being honoured as clergy rather than working defiantly against the wicked regime as advocates of the people of God in the face of the injustices of misplaced majesty.

What was read from Ezekiel 34 this morning is the spoken intent of God to step in as the true shepherd, the true king, the righteous and honourable ruler.  God as King will seek those people who like lost sheep have been allowed to wander astray, and will bring them back into the safety of the flock. Continuing with his metaphor Ezekiel declares that the sheepy Israelites will no longer be prey to ravenous carnivores; no longer will they be exposed to the scorching or freezing elements; no longer will they be endangered by jagged rocks, deep holes, muddy bogs, or clifftops; and no longer will they bleat in desperation in cloudbanks of thick fog or darkness.  The LORD, the good shepherd will seek and will find those whom the poor shepherds have allowed to stray because of their royal indifference and/or ineptitude. The big message, the one you need to write down if you’re taking notes, is that in a world of false shepherds God is the true shepherd of the sheep.

Of course, metaphor can only go so far, and we have always known that God is speaking directly of women and men who have entered exile.  So, through Ezekiel’s narrative God declares righteous intent to restore the populations of Israel and Judah to the God’s own land and the God’s own care under God’s rule.  Like sheep fed on good pasture and near flowing, clean streams so shall the people of The LORD live in their own land, the land assured to them by God’s promise to their ancestors.  The LORD Godself shall be their shepherd, The LORD Godself shall keep them safe while they rest, and The LORD Godself shall keep vigilant lest they wander away again.  And if any wander away, or are hurt in the course of their sheepy lives, The LORD Godself shall find them and bandage them.

But Ezekiel goes further, and I am somewhat astonished by what comes next, because according to the prophet God will neither seek nor save fat sheep; the ones who took their estate into their own hands.  Those sheep, the kings and princes and aristocrats who became fat on the excess stolen from the mob will be left to their own devices by God.  Ezekiel suggests that this will come about because they brought that upon themselves, they don’t deserve saving.  That messes with my idea of grace, which is seen in God’s saving effort for the undeserving.  But the second part of what Ezekiel says does make sense, and that is that fat sheep do not seek assistance from their shepherd.  Feeling themselves to be self-sufficient and clever enough in their wisdom they don’t listen anyway, so God will leave them be, focussing divine attention upon those who seek God and not wasting time and resource on those who will throw it away.  I’d rather face the full wrath of God I think, than have God’s hands washed of me, but that is what Ezekiel suggests.

Connected with Jesus’ story of sheep and goats Ezekiel speaks of fat sheep and lean sheep.  Those alpha rams, who trample the pasture and foul the grass and the clean water with their big boofy feet, will be pulled out of the flock for the benefit of the smaller sheep.  A Davidic shepherd will be set over the new flock, the flock of newly rescued sheep.  He will shepherd the people as God shepherded them.  The Davidic shepherd is like God, a figure of justice, a restorer of the covenant, and a builder up of right relationships between the people and between God and the People.

This is the word of God to God’s people in exile, a People being taught to expect the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel under God’s own reign.  There will be a restoration says Ezekiel, God has promised it.  However, the restoration of the nation will require a transformation of the people, and of the land, so that when The LORD is returned as King and God the situation will be ready.  The exiled people do not know it yet, but the Jewish monarchy will never be restored; there will not be a new royal palace for a son of David ruling in his own authority in Jerusalem, (in fact there will never be such a building because there will never be such a man), but there will be a temple.

Six hundred years later Paul prayed for the Christians at Ephesus at the commencement of his writing to them.  First, he commends them on their Christlikeness in love and justice, this is a church displaying the early hallmarks of the transformed life spoken of by God in Ezekiel’s oracle.  Paul prays that this may continue, and that the Ephesians may go deeper into the nature and character of God in Christ.  Second, Paul commends this exploration of the nature God to them, so that they may discover the core purpose of God’s mission which is revealed in the coming of Christ and his ministry of proclamation, restoration, and liberation.  The Ephesians are both recipients of and purveyors of this indescribably good grace of God.  It first came to them and it ultimately comes through them to the world currently in the dark about this.  Their saviour, Christ, is King above all other authorities and realms, he has all the power and to him belongs all the adoration and respect of all created things, in eternity as well as in this epoch.  Paul teaches that the way that Jesus exercises his rule is through us, who are both his church and his body.

In the stories of Joshua and Deborah which you have heard in the last two weeks, we are reminded of what Israel was like before the kings, and in today’s reading we are reminded of what the same people were up to six hundred years later and where monarchy had brought them.  Conclusion: monarchy does not work unless it operates within the authority of God.  With God as sovereign it really doesn’t matter who sits on the posh chair at Hebron, Jerusalem, or Buckingham Palace.  Without God as sovereign the same is true.  And this is true also for other human structures of governance.  Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor, Donald Trump, Kim Jong-Un, Robert Mugabe, Peter Cosgrove: we can debate who is the better man (or woman), and who is doing the better job.  We might argue which is the better system. But without God in the ascendency in the heart and the mind of the one whose bum is enthroned does it really matter?  The question is not whether in the twenty-first century we would prefer Jesus to be Governor-of-Governors, President-of-Presidents, Chairperson-of-Chairpersons, or something else less monarchical and mediaeval.  The point is that God has favour for us and God is watching to see how well we are governed and loved.

The light of this has caused me to wonder; of all the gospel readings to go with this festival day, why on earth are we reading about the sheep and the goats?  Yes, we most certainly do see Jesus speaking about his upcoming Last Things role when as King of Kings he makes an ultimate and eternal judgment between the faithful and the unfaithful in the ministries of hospitality, as if care for prisoners matters more to him in Eternity than personal repentance from sin.  (Which is a confusing message in itself for Evangelicals.)  But I see that there is something more, and something which connects with what Ezekiel and Paul say about kingship.

The message of the sheep and the goats is not about how well the Christians and Jews look after the poor.  Undoubtedly there is that meaning, and the good news makes it clear that Christians should be doing that: you here in this body this morning are meant to visit the alone, comfort the distressed, meet the physical and emotional needs of the needy where you find them, and go looking for any of the above so as to find them in the first place.  All of that is true, and necessary, within discipleship.  But that’s not all that there is to this story; and you will not lose your salvation as a Christian in the Latrobe Valley just because you never paid a social visit to Fulham or Kilmany.

Jesus’ message of the sheep and the goats is also a warning to the world not to treat the flock of Jesus with disdain.  Like Ezekiel speaking of the evil kings who did not care for the people, other than as a source of slaves and taxes, Jesus is speaking against the systems of the day (his and ours) which cause even one of Jesus’ brothers or sisters to be imprisoned, abandoned, destitute, starving, terminally ill, or sad.  “He’s mine” as my great grandmother was quoted to say when other people spoke derisively of a particularly naughty great uncle of mine, her son.  Don’t you dare mess with the person of the family of God, says the God of Israel, says God the Son.

Today we speak of Christ as King.  We do so in the context of many sermons and comments about the Reign of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.  We know that God is king, we sing about it, learn about it, pray about it.  What we are to be mindful of this morning is that God in Christ is our King, and our king is a good king who governs and cares for us as God’s own.

Amen.

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Sheepish Goats

A Confession centred on Matthew 25:31-44

 

Son of Man in your glory,

Does the inheritance of the Kingdom really belong

only to those who engaged in social justice?

Does it not also belong to the Marys,

those who sat with you in rapt attention and listened at your feet

when as Jesus you walked the earth?

Does it not also belong to the Marthas,

those who made a home within their own homes for you

when as Jesus you walked the earth?

Does it not also belong to the Lazaruses,

those who you saved from death by hand and voice

when as Jesus you walked the earth?

Does it not also belong to the Pauls,

those you saved from self-destruction by voice and vision

when as Christ you spoke from Heaven?

Isn’t awe of you

and obedience enough?

Isn’t grace by faith

and godliness enough?

Why must we also get our hands

bloodied and bruised,

dirty and chaffed,

spat upon and impaled?

ou who did that for us, why can’t you do it for

the likes of them,

the least of them,

(lesser than the least of us),

without bothering us?

Saviour forgive us when we

neglect to live your desired response,

and get upset when you call us to

more than praise and worship.

Saviour forgive us when we

forget to live your desired response,

and get upset when you remind us that

we were once the least of these.

Receive us Lord,

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus types,

Paul, Peter, and James types too.

Revive us to see the life

that you offered for us to take up

and to which we have become so accustomed,

that we have forgotten than it was given by sharing.

Amen.

Show us yer Talents

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn North on Sunday 19th November 2017.

Judges 4:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

The tradition of sermons around the Parable of the Talents connect it with the messages we heard from Jesus and Paul last week, of how we need to be living out our discipleship to the full since none of us knows when Christ shall return and the opportunity to serve God has passed.  Jesus is represented in today’s gospel story by the character of the Master, and the disciples (including us) are the worthy slaves to whom are entrusted the talents, the property of the master, which for us is the mission of the Kingdom of God.

In our reality Jesus has died and has been resurrected and ascended.  Today we eagerly await his return.  We heard this from 1 Thessalonians 4 last week, which was probably written around the year 49 or 50 and we are still waiting today in 2017.  The popular interpretation of the Parable of the Talents goes that when Christ returns those who are found to have been faithful in the Lord’s absence are rewarded with Heaven, and those who have been found unfaithful (lazy, afraid, defiant) are punished with exile from Heaven.  So where the wise bridesmaids taught us to be vigilant while our Lord is delayed, the wise servants teach us to be diligent.

Last week I suggested that most half-hearted Christians no longer attend church.  In the same way I want to suggest to you that the work that goes undone in the Church is undone because of a lack of youth and person-power rather than a lack of wisdom or desire.  I am sure there is more that can be done by us, you and me, in the Yallourn Cluster, but we need not beat ourselves up about it or fear that Christ will disown us when he comes.  We can only do what we can do, and for the most part that is being done.  We would do more if we had more, but we are being pretty faithful with what we have.  Nonetheless the call of God is individual and we must each do what God has called us to each do.  And we must each do it with all the strength God gives.  The lesson of the talents is that the more you do for God the more God will give you to do: the reward for diligence is greater responsibility.  This may sound like a punishment rather than a reward, but if you think of new responsibilities as the evidence of God’s trust in you, and your work is a display of additional opportunities to give God glory and worship, (which as a Christian is the desire of the heart), then it is reward upon reward.

So, I think Yallourn Cluster is perhaps the second servant, the one with less than the first servant, but the one who still managed to employ what was given and turned a profit for the Master.

The third servant in the parable, the one who is cast out, has buried his talent.  To bury something is to treat it as if it is dead.  But the Lord’s resource is never dead, it is alive and should therefore be exhibited in the world and opened to the elements of light and heat and air to grow.  To bury a borrowed thing is a breach of trust when it has been entrusted by its master for ongoing, practical use.  To bury is to betray.

We are wise to remember that this parable comes toward the end of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, we are in chapter 25.  Palm Sunday was back in Matthew 21, Jesus will be arrested in Matthew 26, murdered in Matthew 27, and resurrected and ascend in Matthew 28.  Jesus “the master” is about to leave “for a long time”.  My chronology suggests that Jesus here is speaking on the Tuesday before Good Friday; in light of the story he is making sure his servants are up to speed with the need to continue his work while he is away.

We are the people of light.  What a privilege we have to be the people of light and the ones with the responsibility to display that light to the world.  What a loss it is to God then, and to the world, if we do not share that light.

And let’s go deeper still.  The sin of the unfaithful servant goes further than merely not using the resource given to him: he actually blames the master for being a bully.  “I did the right thing by keeping your investment intact,” he says.  “If I had invested in this opportunity and lost the lot then you’d have received nothing back and I’d have been punished.  At least here you’ve not lost anything.”  Do you think that is a fair response?  Some might think so, depending upon the character of their master; but our master is Jesus and he is not like this.   One of my commentators this week suggested that laziness is being portrayed as virtuous, where in fact it is an abuse of privilege.  I like this.

Paul reminded the Thessalonians that the return of Christ will come unexpected and unannounced.  Like labour pains out of nowhere will come immediate and great, debilitating distress.  This is a great metaphor, because two things are going on here.  One, known to those of you who are mothers, or indeed the loving husbands of mothers, is that labour is very painful and that it can come on suddenly.  I am neither a mother nor a husband, but I know this to be true, even in theory.  The other aspect of the metaphor is that labour is somewhat predictable: when 40 weeks have passed you know you’re “due”, and you’d be on guard from 35 weeks.  I know that when my sister was pregnant with my nephew she had her “due date” marked on the calendar months out: and do you know what, she was right.

But the unannounced and sudden return of Christ is of no concern to us since we are alert and not asleep.  We are people of the light, people of the day, and not of the darkness.  Let us live with faith and love as our protection and hope as our assurance.  When the terror comes it will not come for us, we have been chosen to be saved and have been prepared in advance to be armoured and ready.  Once again Paul’s message is not to be afraid of what is to come but to rest assured in God’s sufficiency in protection.  Live out your faith confident that when the Lord returns he will find you doing so, like the slave with two talents.  Do not fear judgement, only live in the light and you have nothing to fear.  Only those who are asleep on duty, live the foolish bridesmaids or the slave with one talent, will be caught off guard and have need to be afraid; but we are not them.

But here’s the rub, if we are people of the light, and other people have never seen the light and so will be caught off guard when Christ returns, whose fault will that be?  As faithful disciples of Christ and investors of his talents you are assured of Heaven’s welcome; but what of your friends who are not?  Is your own salvation enough for you?  Are you shining so that others can see, or have you shaded your light?  Have you kept yourself so pure for God that all of your devotional and worshipping activity is hidden from those who might need to overhear?

Our reading from Judges this morning spoke of Israel in the time of Deborah and Barak and of how the Israelites were doing evil in God’s sight.  The conquest of the land had not been completed under Joshua, the people had just settled when they were ready.  The people had not held to the promise made under Joshua to choose only the Lord as God.  God allowed the people to be overrun by an insurmountable Canaanite king, but then delivered them from that king when they cried out for mercy.  When God was ready to act God spoke through the prophetess Deborah to the military commander, not to Barak directly.    So, if not for Deborah, Barak would not have heard the Lord’s command or been ready to act where and when the Lord’s timing was prime.  My commentary says that this was the first time an Israelite force had overcome a plains people: all previous victories had been against mountain people or city states.  So, because of Deborah’s faithfulness to the message of God, and to her “talents” as judge and prophet the armies of Israel were confident to try something new, and they were successful at it.

Who are we denying the word of encouragement and direction from God?  What new thing is to be done in the Latrobe Valley which we know but they out there do not?  This congregation, including those members of it who live in Newborough and Moe, are faithful in worship, faithful in giving financially, and faithful in care of each other.  For the most part.  I do not believe that this congregation is under threat of judgement from the returning Lord.  But I appeal to your conscience: is there more light, more power, more love that you could expend in the service of God and the people God loves in Gippsland, the people who don’t know how much they are loved?

This is a challenge to each of you, and not an accusation for any of you.  So, be challenged, invest your talents, and see what the Lord will do.

Amen.

Talents

(A confession centred on Matthew 25:14-30)

Lord, through Matthew and the story of the lazy servant

you taught the crowd and your disciples

to be busy at the work of the Kingdom

after you had gone.

Two servants who were known to be diligent

were given great responsibility

and were proven to be trustworthy when at last the master returned.

They were commended for their diligence and trustworthiness.

and each was welcomed into the celebration.

We want to be like these men when you come.

When you ask how faithful we have been

with the resources you entrusted to us

we want to be proven as diligent.

But often Lord, like that third man

we are afraid,

knowing that the responsibility which you confer

upon even the least of us is still great.

We do not want to be untrustworthy,

but we are anxious.

We do not want to be lazy,

but we are paranoid.

God of mercy and second chances,

do not throw us out of your house

if we fall short undertaking the tasks that you have given.

Enable us and encourage us to do as you have asked,

and forgive us when we do not do as you have asked.

Amen.

Make your Choice.

This is the text of the message I prepared for Newborough Uniting Church for Sunday 12th November 2017.  It was the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost in Year A.

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Today’s reading from the book of Joshua jumps us straight into an episode in the conquering history of the Hebrew peoples.  Of course, if we had spent the last few weeks reading Joshua on a Sunday we’d be better informed of what is going on, but the lectionary and my choosing to not preach from the lectionary for most of October anyway did not allow for that.  Anyway, the Hebrews have reached the point where they are preparing to seal the conquest of the land.  The armies have been as far as they wish to have gone, and each tribe or half-tribe has a satisfactory allotment of land.

So, in today’s reading Joshua has gathered the leaders of the tribes and of the armies as well at Shechem in Ephraimite territory.  Joshua is an Ephraimite so perhaps he has gathered them on his own land.  Joshua’s address to the leaders reminds them of The LORD’s work among the Hebrews since the call of Abraham, and he cleverly asks them to declare their loyalty for The LORD one way or the other.  As leaders they are to choose now and forever as they settle in the land promised to Abraham what they will do with the benefits of the covenant they have inherited.  Joshua calls the nation to choose between worship of The LORD the God of Abraham, worship of the Egyptian gods from their slave days, and worship of the Canaanite gods whose worshippers have been overcome.  Choose the lesser gods if you will, invites Joshua, but choose one way or the other with deliberate action.  As for Joshua he chooses The LORD as his God.

The leaders respond on behalf of the nation that they too will choose The LORD: but Joshua warns them that The LORD will take them at their word in this and that if they fall away they will face the consequences of disloyalty since that is a breaking of the covenant.  Once you have chosen The LORD he says, you cannot back out, so be very careful before committing your way to The LORD.  Again, the leaders say that The LORD will be their God, and that they reject the Egyptian and Canaanite gods.  Joshua erects a monument in that place as a physical and visible reminder of the promise.

In a place of pluralism, during a time of rapid societal transition Joshua seeks to ground the people on the firm foundation of worship of and trust in Israel’s God.  Today we face a similar situation.  Today as Christians we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves, (and therefore to love ourselves), but we must never fail to worship God foremost.  We are to be compassionate and hospitable, but we are first to be faithful to the God of compassion and hospitality, the God of salvation and grace for all the world.

The Kingdom of Heaven is described by Jesus in a parable of ten bridesmaids waiting for a delayed bridegroom.  The hour is unknown, but will be at hand: do not be unprepared.  The task of the bridesmaids in this story is bearers of light; oil is a metaphor for faithfulness in discipleship which keeps the light aflame.  The wise bridesmaids do not share their oil with the foolish because discipleship cannot be borrowed.  You may have heard it said that “God does not have grandchildren”, we cannot rely on the beliefs of others to earn us salvation.  In the same way each woman or man can only source her or his own light from her or his own faithfulness.  The message of Jesus is that always faithful are always ready, the half-hearted or negligent in faith will be caught off-guard.

This parable has been used in the past to point toward lukewarm faith in the congregation.  Much like the sheep and goats, or the wheat and weeds, this story points to how only some people in the Church are true disciples of Jesus while others who come on Sundays are just going through the motions.  Like the foolish girls some Christians only have enough goodness to keep their lamps lit on a Sunday, going dark or at least growing dull during the week.  Other Christians may not shine as brightly on Sunday, but they do shine all week.  So, don’t be one of the blazing hypocrites, instead burn brightly for every hour of every day since you never know when God is watching or when Jesus might return a second time.

But in 2017, and alongside what Joshua said to the gathered tribes, I’m not so sure.  Perhaps those half-lights are no longer in church at all.  Churches these days are much smaller than they were a generation or two generations ago.  Like many of you I wonder why that is: I have concluded that perhaps some of the decline is due not to society’s recalcitrance or the indifference of “the young people today”, but to the honesty of society.  Many of the people my age, and younger, with whom I have spoken about faith say that they are no-longer prepared to live a lukewarm life, and so they don’t bother coming to church at all.  “I’d come if I actually believed more strongly,” they say, “but I’m not interested in going through the motions any more”.  Maybe the reason that there’s less than twenty of us here this morning is that we are the only ones with sufficient oil to last the week.  The others who have only a day’s or an hour’s supply didn’t bother to come at all.

So, what do we do with that?  Whilst we cannot share our oil, (our own relationship with God in Christ), since it is our own, the news of where to get more oil is in our hands.  Rather than sending the foolish girls away in the dark, our job as bridesmaids and brides-mates is to make sure that everyone has enough oil before we set out.

The challenge extended by Joshua can be thought of as a choice for the best source of oil, and of the best oil too.  All gods provide opportunities for worship, and all gods provide benefits to their worship.  All oil burns, but some oils burn better than others.  In terms of religion I’ve only ever been a Christian, so I have no personal experience of Buddha or Krishna, let alone Ba’al or Horus.  However, I know that when I have allowed myself to put Jesus second for short periods of time, say for the Geelong Football Club, or a particular band and its CD, or a nice bottle of ale or shiraz, that there has been short-term pleasure in that.  Joshua challenges the Hebrews to see that The LORD is the only source of filling, lasting joy.  In our world of many gods we can say the same; but we must proclaim it with one caveat.  To have the fullness of The LORD, to receive the overabundant filling of the Lord, we must give ourselves totally to The LORD.  Someone coming to church at Christmas, or Easter Day, or an especially meaningful funeral, wedding, or baptism might get some temporary joy from church, even as I get temporary joy from the Cats winning a premiership or from my second glass of that amazing red.  But if that person is not encouraged to seek more of God by seeking God more often, then she or he will assume that all there is to God is seasonal or short-lived.

When Paul wrote to the Christians at Thessaloniki he answered a question from some Christians there.  They were concerned about loved ones who had died before the news reached them of the salvation won by Jesus on the cross, and others who had died in faith but would miss out on the immanent second coming of the saviour.  Aren’t Christians who die before Christ returns just like the foolish bridesmaids?  Will they be left rotting in their graves while the rest of us get Raptured away to Heaven?  Paul assures the Thessalonians that all who die are safe in God’s hands.  The grace of God is not limited by time or place: God can and will intervene to save whomever wherever and whenever God chooses to do so, even in the past.  In all things rest assured that your hope is safe in God.  Faith is empty without hope, so hear the words of God through Paul’s pen, you are safe to hope in God because God can and will deliver on the promise of salvation for all.

Paul’s response is good oil.  Where the news of the depth of the gospel had not pervaded the Thessalonian Christians Paul proclaims the fullness of grace, and therefore puts more oil and better oil into their jars.

And so, this is our work too.  We are not to lament that we have less bums on seats here today than we did a generation ago.  We are not to lament that our friends and our children and grandchildren are spending Sunday mornings elsewhere than here, including sleeping of hangovers or a late night’s return from the Speedway or the MCG.  Yes, there are legitimate concerns here, I’m not saying we ignore those situations.  But our work is to speak to those living with less oil than us, and oil of a lesser quality than that provided by The LORD through the saving and salving grace of Jesus Christ.  The way of Christ is a better way: choose now.  Do you want to be full of Jesus?  Then worship him.  Or do you want to be full of Collingwood, or Holden, or VB?  Make no mistake that if you do then you will worship those.  Today I invite you to make your choice, make it stick, once and for all, and then tell others about the best choice.

But as for me, and for my house, we will worship The LORD.

Amen.