I don’t want to leave a legacy

I have been spending a lot of time in my car in the past month.  This should be surprising since we are supposed to be in Stage Three lockdown and there shouldn’t be too many places I need to go.  Actually, it is not at all surprising because ministry is a weird job at the best of times, and whatever these times of Covidity are right now they are far short of the best.  Anyway, a few trips to Serviceton to record sermons for the YouTube, two trips to Horsham to facilitate some work for VCC Emergencies Ministry, and my weekly Wednesday dash-about delivering copies of Kaniva’s church service to letterboxes has meant that I’ve had some alone time with my Christian CDs.  One album in particular has been “Only Jesus” by Casting Crowns, one song in particular has been the title track.

The song “Only Jesus” does what it says on the tin, and it has been a comfort to me because it speaks to me in a way that other songs in the theme of church-building have left me short.  The refrain reads “I don’t want to leave a legacy; I don’t care if they remember me; Only Jesus. And I, I’ve only got one life to live; I’ll let every second point to Him; Only Jesus”.  Where the later bridge says, “Jesus is the only name to remember” I find my soul rising up like it never did when a previous congregation used to sing along with Delirious “I wanna be a history maker in this land”.  I’m actually not interested in making history, not at all, and I never have been.  I get what Hillsong Church and Delirious were saying, I do, but I have always understood Jesus’s call to me was to make a future where he will be glorified and it doesn’t matter whether I am remembered or forgotten.

I have been in Kaniva two years now, and contractually speaking I have one year to go with Shared Ministry.  I hope that if there is a legacy of “Damien Tann’s tenure” it will be larger lives of deeper disciples, women and men who are so wrapped up in Jesus and with love for their neighbours that “who was that beardy guy in the early twenties decade” is not a question worth answering.

Jesus is the only name to remember.

Overcoming Whinge Culture 1.

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 6th September 2020.  Still in lockdown…

Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-18

Happy Father’s Day everyone.  If you are a father then happy day to you, and if you have a father then happy day to you as well.  If you are not a father but wanted to be, or you didn’t have a father but you wanted one, then I pray that your day will also be a good one and you will not be overshadowed by the delirious and delighted families around you.

I am not a father, but I have one and he’s my best mate.  My brother is a father, my mother and my sister are married to fathers, and I am the cool uncle to a two year old smiley boy and the “oh my God could you just not” embarrassing uncle to a seven year old boy, a eighteen year old woman, and a twenty year old man.  We are a loving and happy family, the Tann Clan, I am blessed.

But I know that not everyone is.  And even in our blessing, my family’s blessing, we are isolated.  My dad and my mum, as well as my sister, brother-in-law and their smiley sons are all in South Australia, just over there but across the Iron Curtain for all it’s worth to me.  I know that my dad will be enjoying his smallest grandsons, and his baby girl (who is not a baby, she’s actually twenty-one years old, for the second time!), but his sons are far from him and he from us.  My brother and his family live in Hobart.  Our family is both very close but very far apart today.  I praise God hourly that what divides my precious family is geography, and only geography.  For some people listening this morning the separation between parents and children is not an accident of living interstate but an event of emotional and psychological pain.  I see you; I hear you; you are welcome too.

Our reading from the Jesus Traditions today finds Jesus speaking, in Matthew 18:15-18, about a broken family relationship.  In passing let me say that this is one of two places in Matthew where Jesus speaks about “the church”, and here he is specifically referring to the local congregation.  (The other place is in Matthew 16:18 where Jesus says he will build his church upon the confession of Peter, a reference to the big idea of church as a universal and eternal body where Jesus is confessed as Christ, The Son of the living God.)  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here because in the situation we’re discussing with Jesus we’re not at that part yet.

Unlike Sister Maria in The Sound of Music we are not going to start at the very beginning because, in this case, it is not at all very good place to start.  We are going start before the beginning with looking at what Jesus has said just prior to this bit of teaching on “when someone sins” as The Good News Bible would have it in a subheading, and we’re going to look at what Jesus says after it too.  In Matthew 18:10-14 Jesus has taught the parable of The Lost Sheep, the one with the 99 who remain, and in Matthew 18:19-22 Jesus speaks about where two or three are gathered in my name and seventy-seven times of forgiveness.  So there’s our bookends to what Jesus says about the work of reconciliation within the local congregation, “the one who sins” (GNB) is one from within the 100, and the 99 gathered into groups of three must each show grace beyond the total of fingers and toes in those groups.

In Matthew 18:15 it is very clear that Jesus is talking about Jews or Christians gathered together.  In various translations the perpetrator of the offence is described as a member of the church (NRSV), another disciple (KNT), and your brother (NAB, GNB, ESV, and NKJV), but in all translations the one who is wronged is the same; you.  In other words the person who has caused the offence against you is someone whose relationship you wish to maintain, and the offence is personal.  This is not some random idiot from another town, or a complete stranger, he (or she) is someone you do church with and might even do life with outside the Sunday house-party.  This fault-line matters, it must be healed because this brother (or sister) is too precious to you to lose.

Jesus advises humility in approaching the breach, and courage as well.  It is the wronged one who makes the first move, and he or she makes that move alone.  You (singular) go and talk to him/her (singular): as The Kingdom New Testament says in Matthew 18:15b, “go and have it out, just between the two of you alone”, and if that’s the end of it then that’s the end of it.  No gossip, no reporting back to me about how gracious you are: resolve, reconcile, resume.  If the 1:1 thing doesn’t work then take a witness or two, and it is “a witness or two” it’s not twelve.  You don’t need a jury, just some back-up having already tried to make peace 1:1 beforehand.  And if not then, then the congregation, which in our case I’m going to suggest is a well-considered letter to the Elders and Deacons rather than a random shout-out during Good News Sharing.

In all things Christians should seek to be reconciled to each other as each of us was reconciled to God through Christ; this is why the nature of the offence also matters.  Not only must we be as gracious and forgiving as Christ is to each of us, but we must call the brother or sister to account as Holy Spirit does us if the offence could cause harm.  I can forgive a harsh look or an angry word, assume that someone is having a bad day even if they are intentionally rude to me; but as a Christian (if not as Pastor) if something is said or done in my presence which I believe could cause damage to The Unity of The Body or the proclamation of The Gospel then I will be pulling whomever aside and having a quiet word.  This is what Jesus is actually saying, so it’s not just “suck it up royal priestess” in red ink in your Bible; in fact, it is very much not that at all.  Where there is hurt in the body you are to address it, with grace and humility for sure, but with attention and intention as well.  The idea of binding and loosing in Matthew 18:18 applies just as much to bandages as it does to heavenly authority for forthtelling: don’t leave open wounds unattended.

And sometimes the best way to close a wound is to remove the thing that’s keeping it open, such as the unrepentant (and therefore quite damaging) sister or brother.  Such a person is to be treated as if she or he were an unbeliever, which is to say not included in the councils of the congregation but included in the mission work as someone in need of salvation.  Unity matters to Jesus, even the unity of two as he says in Matthew 18:19; deliberately divisive people are to be offered every chance to join the church, but if they refuse every gracious invitation to restore the relationship then the church in good conscience may desist from extending those invitations.

In Romans 13:8 we read where Paul tells the Christians to owe nothing but love to one another, for whomever loves has fulfilled the lawLove does not harm, Paul says in Romans 13:10, therefore love is the fulfilment of the Law, and going backwards through the text to Romans 13:9 we see that this is obvious because no one can break a commandment against causing harm (murder, theft, adultery, lying, covetousness) if he/she is engaged in love for others.  A loving person does not keep a fight going, he/she does not prattle on about an open wound; a loving person seeks restoration and peace where there has been hurt.  If you love others you will never do them wrong is how The Good News Bible presents Romans 13:10, likely with the focus on intent than error since even loving people can make mistakes.  The point is that a loving person is never spiteful or malicious, but is always looking out for the best interests of the neighbour.

Two things are at play in the Romans reading: Christian morality and good citizenship.  A person who acts from love will fill every commandment of Judaism without even trying, and that person will also emulate Jesus by walking the Way of Christ.  At the same time to be debt free in all but love is to be a responsible citizen of the Roman world, and your local community, again this is an exemplary person and someone that others might look up to.  To live by love, within your economic means, is held up by Paul to be a great example to everyone as well as being the best way to live a good life.  Such a life presents a strong witness for Christ; who doesn’t want to do that?

My dad was and is a great example to me.  As a man he is one of the best men that I know, and as a dad he is no doubt the best one that I know.  One of the things that I value about my dad as a person is that he doesn’t hold a grudge.  He has carried pain, his upper lip has been too stiff at times in the face of personal and professional insult, but my dad has never been a gossip, a sook, or a back-stabber.  I want to be that same sort of man.

I am very aware that some of my childhood and young adulthood peers are envious of me that I have Rob Tann as my dad.  But as awesome as my dad is the most awesome thing he did for me was to raise me to love Jesus in the knowledge and wisdom that I am loved by Jesus even more than I am loved by my dad.  I’ve said it before, I find it very easy to live as a son of God because I have been the son of Rob for almost fifty years: Rob is a godly man who as father models himself on Father and he has never got in the way of God’s work in me.  Maybe your dad was not like my dad, but your God is like my God.  If you haven’t been shown the best example of Father then I invite you to cuddle into Jesus, our brother The Son, and let him and the church show and then teach you to be the best example.

Amen.

Rips Given

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

 Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Ewe First

This is the text of my ministry message for the August 2020 pewsheet at KSSM.

I don’t remember when it was, the last time that I flew on a commercial aircraft, but it was certainly more than five years ago. The way things are going it may be another five years before I get the chance to fly again.  Anyway one thing I do remember from the many flights that I have taken in the dimly receding Past is the safety briefing on the larger planes, and especially the part about putting on your own Oxygen mask before assisting other passengers or random offspring with theirs.  There’s no point in you passing-out from hypoxia before you’ve got Junior’s mask on properly, but if yours is on and Junior passes out then the flow from the mask you fit next (Junior’s) will bring revival.

In his time of diminished air travel and excessive anxiety it can be easy for those of us with a compassionate bent to focus our attention on the stragglers and strugglers around us.  This is good, it is both a gift and a ministry of God’s Spirit at work in us and through us; however it can lead to a type of hypoxia if we aren’t careful for ourselves.  In the same way that you must fit your own mask first in an emergency, (and life jacket too I’d suggest), self-care is important for the carers of others in days like these.

As August comes and then goes, and hopefully our last month in lockdown (which I’ve been saying here every month since May, yes I noticed it too), I urge you all to take some time away for yourself.  When you are baking for me and for others (please and thankyou) don’t forget to have a cuppa and a bickie for yourself, first. When you are praying for me and for others  (please and thankyou) don’t forget to spend some time settling in The Father’s embrace as God’s own daughter or son, sister or brother of The Son, and allow God to refresh and revive (and resuscitate) you with the fullness of Shalom.  And please, if you ring the manse or text the pastor this month, and you don’t get an immediate answer, consider that I might just be fitting my own mask and I shall be with you presently and with full capability.

Homeward Bound 2.

This is the text of my ministry message to KSSM for May 2020.  Covid-19 restrictions in Victoria kept us home-bound for another month.

Those of you who are Facebookers will know, depending upon your regularity on Facebook, that much is being done in that community to alleviate our collective boredom during the Covid-19 lockdown. Recently I have been posting each day the cover art of one album (of music) which influenced my taste in music, and as someone born in 1972 my formative experiences range between the 1980s and 2010s decades so there’s a bit to say.  Today I’m reflecting on those choices, and I notice that on many of those and other formative albums there are songs about home and homecoming.  “Going Home” by Don Henderson (© Elektra) reads: I’m going home (I’m going home)/ I’m a long time overdue,/ I’m going back (I’m going back)/ To the place that I once knew./ It’s a long time since I left,/ And things have changed a lot,/ And I don’t really know if I’m/ Going home or not.

There’s a lot that’s covered in those lines, not least for me is my memories of the place I was in my life when I heard that song and sang along to it.  It’s a song from my childhood (it was written in 1978) and I have memories of singing along on family road trips to dad’s cassette, (remember cassettes?), or in various parks and gardens around Melbourne at live concerts.  The house we had in 1978 is no longer in my family’s care, (we left there in 1986 when dad went to UFT in Melbourne to study for ministry), and it looks very different today.  Even though I claim on Facebook that Mulgrave is my hometown, if ever I was “going home” it wouldn’t be to there.

Church will be different, and things will have changed a lot, when we get back inside our buildings in a month or so’s time.  We’re now online through YouTube and Zoom, even email, I’ve spent more time on the phone and especially writing text messages, and my email load has increased in both directions (in and out) in ways that I don’t think will be seeing a reduction.  “Above All” by Paul Nevison (© Integrity’s Hosanna Music, Hillsong Music Publishing Australia) reads: How blessed are those who dwell in Your house,/ Whose lives become roads that you travel,/ They wind through the valleys to the light of the sun./ One day in this beautiful place to worship,/ Your house is our home,/ Where our faces will shine in the light of the son.

Our home is in God’s house, which metaphorically and literally is the local church building, but it is more than that too.  Home is changing, just as much as the Middle Pub did a few months ago, we are not going back to the place we left.  Throughout May let’s think about what we want home to look like when we get back there, back to God’s house, and back to the place where we feel “at home” in The Lord.  There will be some things familiar, unlike the Middle Pub the furniture and the decorations have not changed (don’t worry!); where we find that what is new is not as effective as we thought it might be we can change it back, not unlike the Middle Pub (don’t worry!).

The Christian Church, of which we are a small but integral part, is constantly changing;  but we do not change only for change’s sake.  Just because we now can does not mean we will be livestreaming the Shared Ministry to the world every Sunday.  At the same time, now that we have been forced to think inclusively of those who cannot attend church on a Sunday (which right now is everyone), we will not be forgetting how to do this, or why we do it, when most of us can go to church but some of us still cannot.  The house is already different, as it must be.  But the house will always be home, therefore it must not be too new or strange either.  I look forward to seeing you all soon, in person, but Zoom will do for as long as it must.

Damien.

Oh whatevs!

This is the text of my ministry message for the monthly newsletter for Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry.

You all know that I once worked as a school teacher, and I know that many of you have done so too. In fact several of you still do. One of the questions I was often asked by my pupils was whether they would use this skill or topic as adults; a sometimes tricky question to answer. I suppose it depends upon what sort of adult the child would become and what sort of job he or she would have. I have made use of most subjects I learned at school primarily because I then went on to teach them; that‘s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy I guess. But Algebra in umpiring football: 6g+b=t (when g is number of goals, b is number of behinds, and t is total score), Syntax and Grammar in writing, reading, and preaching, and History and Geography in background to preaching have all come in handy at various times. Right now I‘m learning to read the New Testament in Greek, which I hope will be useful in study and not just as a distraction during this incarceration.

So imagine this situation: You‘re at ministry college in 2009 where you are learning to be a pastor and in your Preaching unit an assignment question reads Your Congregation is unable to meet on Sundays due to a pandemic, how do you continue to provide worship and instruction to a dispersed and homebound congregation? My first response would probably have been the title of this. Oh whatevs! as if that‘s gonna happen in Australia! My written response, much more respectful (and Distinction grade worthy), would probably have been something about home visitation for communion with shut-ins, emails with Bible study links, lots of Facebook posts, and regular updates of the church blog. Or maybe that‘s hindsight: in 2009 there was no thought about churches having their own YouTube channel (unless they were Hillsong), and a pastor could not assume that everyone in his congregation had access to the Interwebs anyway, even email.

Primary School prepares us for the wider world, and the world of the future, by teaching us basic skills which can be implemented and connected in new ways. Some of these connections are made at Secondary School, others in University (or TAFE), and others by experience in the world. I was never specifically taught how to minister in a global pandemic, and my plan above is unworkable because I am expressly forbidden from visiting you in your home with communion. We do not have a church blog, but while we do have a church Facebook page not all of you are online to read it. But college did equip me with skills to manage (and thrive) in this situation and I am honestly excited at the opportunity to see Church done in this new way. You also have been equipped for this, if you‘re ready, by the discipleship that Christ himself has been guiding you through in the past days and decades. Like homeschooling where we do not expect kids to sit at the kitchen table for six hours a day as if they were at school (an hour each of literacy, numeracy, reading, and home-cooking is probably enough) there is no expectation that you take hours today to do church stuff. What matters most to Christ, and to me, is that you are learning to love him and to follow him. Spend time with your Bible, use the notes I have prepared if they help or don‘t; spend time in prayer, again follow the KSSM plan or not; walk in your garden, or around the block, or a lap of the wetlands and enjoy Creation; drink good coffee and eat your favourite biscuits at 10:35 each morning; be a child of God who is also a woman or man of faith.

It seems likely that we will not be gathering as congregations until September, that will be six months of household worship (Acts 16:31). I pray that you can use this time to explore your faith and your hope in God in quietness and solitude with Christ. Not everyone is an introvert like me, so quietness might be uncomfortable for you; but that‘s okay because Christianity is a social religion and we are supposed to do it in groups. So please do get on the phone, or the social media, and share what you‘ve found about God.

It‘s April, and that means it‘s Easter. Today (if you‘re reading this new) is Palm Sunday, next week is Good Friday and then Resurrection Sunday. Then its seven weeks until Pentecost, (so you‘ll need to wear a purple top today, white thereafter, and red on 31st May, white on 7th June, then green), and who knows how long after that until we can gather. I encourage you to make use of the lectionary New Testament readings from Acts; they tell the exciting story of the Christians from the week after Jesus‘ ascension until the raising up of the second and third generations. Maybe we, like them, are pioneering a new way of being the Body of Christ in the dispersion. I look forward to the day when we can gather as one once more.

Damien.

Love in a time of Coronavirus

This is the text of the message I preapred for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 22nd March 2020.  This was the week when COVID-19 restrictions really hit home in Australia.  Shops were denuded of many basic essentials, and indoor, public gatherings of people had to ensure at least four square metres of floor space per person.  For this reason many church services were cancelled, and ours moved outside to the local football oval.

Psalm 23

 Well, here we are at the footy ground.  I didn’t see this coming and I dare say none of you did either when we gathered to worship last week at the Church of Christ building.  Some of our cohort are in isolation, parents and grandparents to some of you, friends to everyone here.  Others are unable to be here because of the need for us to meet outside, or because of the need to care for family in other parts of South Australia and Victoria.

You may or may not be blessed by the news that the message I had prepared for you, for today, was seven pages long.  Truth!  I think it’s a good word, it’s certainly a solid word, and in view if the quote I have presented previously from Joyce Meyer it is certainly a “now” word even as it also seems to be a “new” word.  The new thing isn’t always relevant, the previous thing and the old paths aren’t always redundant.  Perhaps today those of you who were once Methodist might recall that John Wesley often spoke outdoors to crowds, either when the local parish chapel was too small, or too small-minded, to allow for the now word of God.

The message I have for you, which is the message I had and which you will get when the time is better suited, is 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.  In this past week the Bishops Conference of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia has decreed that there is to be no indoor worship in any Catholic Church until this pestilence is passed.  The Territorial Commander of the Salvation Army (Australia Territory) has sad something similar about Salvo citadels and Sundays, indeed the Kaniva Corps met outside this morning.  Many Anglican diocese have made a similar call, not all of them, and not the one encompassing the West Wimmera; and the Uniting Church Synods of Queensland and NSW/ACT have done so too, but again not the Synods of SA or Vic-Tas.

I do not believe that God sent this Coronavirus on the world to get the Christians to worship at footy grounds: however, the virus does exist and so to do footy grounds, so let’s make the most of it and worship The LORD and proclaim Christ Crucified publicly and openly.  It is Lent after all; Resurrection Day is in 21 days’ time.

So what is to be said on such a day.  Sadly it is just family today, there’s no one to lead to The LORD in a lifegiving way, all of you are saved enough as you are.  Well we can all do with more of Jesus, no matter how much of him you have (or perhaps more importantly how much of you he has), but the point remains, no one here is looking for a saviour because everyone here has found him.  Everyone over there hasn’t, but then they’re over there today.  Our project is to get ourselves over there asap, and to get there with the message of Love in a Time of Coronavirus.  So, don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased to be here with my brothers and sisters in Christ today: but I’d dearly love it if we could have added new siblings this morning.

The news for us, and for the world, whether you have been hoarding toilet-paper, or Glen-20, or Dettol Handwash, or whether you have been generous in your caring and sharing for sibling and neighbour, is that God is with us.  I mean look at us, here, doing church.  Carlton and Richmond played to nobody at all at the MCG on Thursday night, Collingwood and Western Bulldogs had zero spectators at Docklands on Friday.  But come to Leeor Footy ground at twenty-five to midday on a Sunday and wa-hey!

Seriously, I love what today’s lectionary reading has for us in the Psalm.  My original sermon for today focussed on the other three readings so it’s a bit of a delight to be able to hold them over for later and to just sit with our Shepherding lord beside those cool waters and in the sweet grass.

As I was writing this message yesterday I had a new App playing on my phone.  I say “playing” because it’s called “Calming” and is has mindfulness and reflective tracks on it, as well as sleepy and soothing background noise, and other stuff.  So anyway I was a bit stressed, having to redo my sermon and think about how to preach at a footy ground, so the soothing sound of “Mountain Book in Flood” was a wonderful background.  Except that it took me four hours to write these three pages because I had to keep getting up for a wee!!  Twinkle, twinkle, trickle…  But even with that the calm waters did cause stillness in my soul, even as it played havoc with my bladder reflexes.  My shoulders relaxed, my jaw relaxed, my eyes opened a bit wider as the tension soothed away and the aahh! set in.  In Psalm 23:3 we are reminded that this is one of the works of the Shepherd, he restores my soul.  Again I don’t believe God sent Coronavirus to make us all lay down, but the fact that we have had to lay down has meant for example that the skies above Beijing and Paris are clearing, and the waters of Venice lagoon are too.  Stiller waters has equalled cleaner environments.  God did not send this virus to clean out the world, but there is a virus rampant so let’s make the most of our enforced quietness and worship The LORD and proclaim Christ the Redeemer who has saved all of Creation and is shaping a New Creation.  Praise the one who leads me in right paths for his name’s sake as Psalm 23:3 says, celebrate and acknowledge that God has brought good out of this, and that God always will.

In the next sentence, Psalm 23:4a we read the great encouragement for us today.  Even though I walk through the darkest valley I fear no evil says the NRSV, other translations offer the valley of the shadow of death.  Coronavirus is a dark valley, a valley of deathly shadows, there is no doubt.  Thousands have died, hundreds of thousands have been laid low with illness and pain and fever and coughing.  Sadly thousands and hundred of thousands more will go on to experience the same, including people of Australia.  But in all of that, all of that, COVID-19 as a disease is a shadow: God is the light.  We see the shadow because COVID-19 is real and it is blocking the light in some places, throwing its shade like we used to throw toilet-paper at the houses of people we didn’t like.  But it’s the light that matters, God is here, and the light is shining.  The shepherd is here and the grass and the stream and the breeze and the birdsong are inviting.

This is a season of rest for us, I have no doubt.  Our God and our government want us to look inward for a time of self-care, neighbourly care, generous calm, and quietness.  Psalm 23 suggests that none of this is to be seen as a punishment, nor is it a reward, it’s simply a season.  It’s nap time, it’s rest time.

I admit to being frustrated on Friday when I went to Foodland in Boredomtown and it was out of loo rolls.  I don’t need many, I will be okay for a few weeks yet.  But the panic buying, and the hoarding saddened me, saddened me that even the Tatiara ad the Wimmera have it?  The Mighty South Aussies, yeah?  Not this week Foodland.  But it’s got me thinking, what is the church hoarding in this crisis.  Okay so yes there is a secret stash of loo roll in our storage cupboard, our stewards shop ahead and yes we are sharing it (one at a time) with those who have none.  But what of the other stuff of which we have an abundance and others have none.  From a John 10:10 storehouse how are we going proclaiming Psalm 46:10.  The life in abundance for which Jesus came is our promise that it’s safe to be still and know.

Don’t hoard peace this week Church, don’t hoard hope.  There is more than enough for you, be generous in sharing it.

Amen.

Good Things Happen in The Good Country

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th March 2020.  It was a combined service for Kaniva and Serviceton congregations at Serviceton for the celebration of our Harvest Sunday.  Kaniva and Serviceton are farming communities and there are primary producers in our congregations.

Deuteronomy 24:19-22; Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Ruth 1:22

The harvest stories told in the Bible are stories of God’s salvation. There are multiple harvests named in the Bible, which is probably no surprise to the farmers amongst us. Wheat was harvested first and according to Exodus 34:22 this was to be celebrated in Spring, when it happened. Seven weeks later is the harvest of barley and we are told in Ruth 1:22 that it was during this harvest festival that Naomi arrived in Bethlehem from Moab. In late summer, (September) came the fruit harvest which is also a cause for celebration according to Exodus 34:22, and it is this event which we read about in Deuteronomy 26:1-11. The loud message is that God is going to provide such an abundance in the Promised Land, from the Land itself, that God’s people had better get ready to say thank you a lot. To be an Israelite in the future (the future from Moses) is to be a recipient of God’s promise of care and the complete benefit of that providence. Never forget whose you are: you are The LORD’s own family.

More than masses of crop the harvest story told by Moses in Deuteronomy 26:1-11 is a story of salvation. It is true that God promises provision through the sweat of the brow and the tilling of the land by Hebrew farmers, but in the history of the people from Jacob to Moses and into the future we learn that this bounty will be for all, including aliens (outsiders) and Levites (while collar workers). The history of the Hebrew people is dated from the “wandering Aramean”, literally the vulnerable climate-refugee who was made destitute by famine: so when Israel’s people return to the land of Jacob they must remember the destitute they find there or who later come there as refugees from other places. As a nation saved by grace, actually fed and watered by The LORD’s own provision in Egypt, it will never be appropriate for Israel to withhold the same from anyone who comes into their land looking for help. Never forget whose you are: you are The LORD’s own ministers.

The commentary I used this week suggests that this passage was edited together late in Israel’s history, possibly around the time of the exile to Babylon or at the very least a time when invasion and occupation by a militarily stronger foe seemed immanent. In this case the return to the covenant and its specific stipulation on charity and compassion would have reminded Israel that they were indeed The LORD’s own people: that The LORD Godself had their back if they remained in covenant with The LORD and the mission of being God’s light to the nations. “Are you being faithful to the covenant?” The LORD asks in the background, “so, if I were to come down and take a look around I would not find poverty and destitution in your streets, yeah?” The land was given by The LORD as a demonstration of grace, and as a visible example for all the nations of what God desires (mercy) and how God blesses (shalom) when God’s ways are honoured. If Israel fails in generosity then God will withhold the abundance, thereby making the same point in a negative way. This is what Israel and Judah were facing as this history was written, what would they do to keep on the side of God? Would they close ranks and resist the Babylonians, or would they open their arms and welcome the asylum seekers and war-torn refugees with grace and food? And what about internally: would they ensure that no Israelite ever went hungry or sick or naked or alone, would they ensure that the women and men set aside by God as priests and worship leaders were fed and housed as well as the farmers and labourers who grew the food and built the houses? The tithe was not just a token payment, without the tithe there was no welfare for the destitute and no support for the priests and worship leaders: without the tithe there was increased poverty and decreased praise for The LORD. What sort of Holy Nation lets its priests starve because they are focused on national worship and can’t farm for themselves? Why would The LORD continue to bless that nation, why wouldn’t The LORD leave them to fall over as an example of the consequences of breaking covenant, while choosing a new nation to serve God’s purposes of demonstrating compassion in the world?

This is why in Ruth’s story and in Deuteronomy 24:19-22 we read that reaping right to the edge was forbidden. The LORD’s provision is for all who need to eat, so even if you grew it that doesn’t mean it’s all yours to eat or to sell. At the same time, if you didn’t grow it you still need to go and gather it yourself if you want to eat it: welfare for the whole community must discourage laziness as much as it condemns selfishness. The priests are fed because they work elsewhere at priesting; the poor are fed so that they can return to health and to work. This is why harvest festivals were to be big and loud community events, because they were community celebrations where everyone gets to eat because every kinsperson played a role in bringing it in. In celebrating the covenant between God and people every time the food was brought in to the storehouse the nation was reminded that in this covenant there is sufficiency for all, even for those whose work never sees them get dirt under their fingernails.

The harvest story told about Ruth is another story of God’s salvation. It is a story of the resilience of women (of faith) working in solidarity, and how God blesses the faithful and upright. In Tanakh Ruth follows Proverbs, she is perhaps the living example of eshet chayil, the Proverbs 31 woman of noble character, virtuous and industrious. Once more God is shown as concerned about the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, even widows who are not Israelite. God is actively involved in directing the play and the accidents of right place at the right time. God drives the women’s movement from emptiness to fullness: God is both guide and provider.

In practical terms the stories of redemption in Ruth are stories of restoration. By keeping Naomi close to her Ruth is able to restore to her mother-in-law all that is legally hers which was lost in Moab with the death of her husband and sons, and the ensuing famine. Boaz is the man of the moment, the man who has the covenant responsibility through family to care for Naomi, and like God with Israel he is faithful and complete in his care for the destitute and depressed widow. What Boaz does is contractual and familial, it’s the moral and legal thing to do and there’s nothing specifically religious in it beyond the underlying culture of Israel. However in using this as an example of the right and holy way to live as Israelites the point is made that God also acts as family to us and as a covenant partner. What God does is moral and legal because God is Father, God has chosen to obligate Godself here: how we shall respond as the redeemed sons and daughters is one question posed by the story. At this harvest we are like Naomi, our redemption is brought about by someone else’s grace and not by our own deserving: again, how shall we respond?

In modern Jewish tradition, by modern I mean since about the year 150AD, Ruth is read at Shavuot which is the Festival of Weeks held at the traditional time of Israel’s barley harvest. (That’s Pentecost in the Christian calendar.) The book is interpreted with two key themes; loyalty, and the movement from emptiness to fullness. Ruth begins with a famine in Judah, then the desolation of Naomi’s family in Moab and her vulnerability as she returns to Bethlehem…which is now in full harvest mode and topped off by the provision of Boaz the magnificent young man. Naomi is loyal, Ruth is loyal, Boaz is loyal, The God of Israel is loyal; and the tale which begins in famine and widowing at Ruth 1:5 culminates in a post-wedding pregnancy in Ruth 4:17. A story which begins with death ends with birth, passing through the desperate times where Naomi says in Ruth 1:21 that she went away full, but The LORD has brought me back empty. God’s promise to us in this harvest season is that our story will never end at 1:21, because just like Naomi even when we return empty we return to a land bursting with grain. Indeed, the name Bethlehem means “House of Bread”.

In the Jesus traditions and Christian traditions harvest is used as a metaphor for divine action. Jesus speaks in Matthew 9:37-38 of a great harvest where the fields are ripe but the labourers are absent. In Revelation 14:15-16 weeding is going on, but there is reaping in James 3:18. God is still at work in the world, still honouring the covenant made to Abraham and repeated to Moses, still displaying all grace within God’s glory and the fullness of welcome to any who will answer the invitation to participate. I’m not going to touch on those metaphorical stories at all, partly because I’ve just hit the top of page five in this sermon, but also because I want to focus today on the reality of harvest and the actual events of bringing the crop into storage and then to distribution as food. The metaphors are good, packed with extra meaning in a place like the Tatiara, The Good Country, but they’re for another time.

The real story of the real harvest, more than the gleaning along the fence-line but the full heads from the middle of the fields, is that God provides because God has promised to provide. What we have is God’s own because whose we are is God’s own. Children are a harvest, and actual harvest, (just ask Job) and we are the reaping of what God planted in creation as well as metaphor. You are the abundance of God, and in delivering God’s promises to the Holy Nation you, God’s royal priesthood, are also the recipients of the bounty. This is fact, this is true, this is the theology of harvest. Now comes the application: the doing stuff, the questions for challenge.

1. How will you celebrate the harvest that is you and that has been delivered to you? What will your harvest festival look like, in your life, beyond today’s act of worship and the extortionate rates charged at auction in half an hour’s time?

2. How will you spend the harvest that is yours and that has been delivered to you? What effect will the abundance have in your life, beyond today’s act of worship and the extravagance of our festival today. You have an armful of blessing from God today, will you build a bigger barn, or will you set a longer table?

Amen.

Eternal Happiness 2

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 9th February 2020.  It is modified from the message I prepared for Kaniva in that Serviceton was having its Sunday School picnic, an outside event with lots of children present.  This message was in no way dumbed-down, but it has been childed-up.

Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1:-12; Matthew 5:13-20

A lot of the Bible is made up of what people who speak Hebrew call “Midrashim” (eww, that sounds like a red and sore tummy!) and in English we call commentary or interpretation. Usually this is a bit like a sermon where a teacher (rabbi) takes a Bible reading and then explains what it means and gives an example about its usefulness for his or her disciples. So maybe Psalm 112 which we looked at today is a midrash of Psalm 111:10 where it says [t]he fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice them have a good understanding, because we read in Psalm 112:1, [h]appy is [the one] who fears the LORD, the one who delights in his commandments. We can ask what is so happy about these people and what blessings come on them, and then we hear the answer that their children will be winners, happy and shiny for starters. In other words the children of God’s people have good reputations. But even in their own lives the people who respect God will have God’s grace and compassion, because even in darkness light dawns says Psalm 112:4. Things are good if you behave like God behaves and you stick with God even in the hard times. People who do this will be generous and other people will think and say good things about them.

Well that sounds good, but what exactly are these nice people doing? How is their religion helping them to be good people? I don’t think it’s actually about trying to obey the Ten Commandments like rules, but about realising that they are good advice: so it’s not about trying very hard to obey God because you’ll get a smack if you don’t, but about being grown up about it and thinking that these rules are actually good anyway. If you are polite and friendly then people will treat you well and you’ll have lots of friends; if you’re a bully or a sneaky person then people won’t like you and you’ll be left out, whether you are religious or not. Try to act like Jesus, behave kindly, and you will be popular with the people who like kindness, and hopefully people will think nice things about you. That doesn’t mean that you can just be nice and ignore God’s word, but it means if you focus on being nice and acting like Jesus acted then you’ll be following God anyway. So it’s not about trying not to be naughty, because you should try, but it’s more about always trying to be good, because if you focus on being good all the time then you won’t be naughty anyway.

In the next few weeks we’re going to be reading about Paul and how he tried to gently teach the Christians in Corinth to act more like Jesus, less like snobby religious people or puffed up smarty-pantses. If you look at 1 Corinthians 2:1-3 you can see that Paul says, “you all know that I am actually quite clever, but I tried not to act like a smarty-pants when I visited you. My whole message was about Christ who lives the same way God lives, even though Jesus was a real man, and so the best way for Christians to live is to try to live like Jesus, and that’s it.” I really hope you’ve heard me say that too. I know I’ve told you that I went to four university degrees, but I told you that not because I’m a snob about being clever but because when I lived my life I spent a lot of time at school, so that’s part of my story and who I am. But my sermons aren’t supposed to be about how clever Damien is, no what I want you to learn is that Jesus is nice, God is like Jesus, and God wants us to act like Jesus in the world. Be nice: that’s the midrash for you about the whole Bible. It’s true that the Bible says other things, my midrash doesn’t include the message about salvation, but I have just told you everything you need to know about being a disciple. Act like Jesus, because when you look at Jesus you is actually see what God is like.

So, let’s see what Paul actually says here. We jump in at 1 Corinthians 2:6 where Paul begins to use the wisdom he has to speak to clever people on their level. The message of the gospel is very simple, God loves you and you should love each other. It sounds easy, but those words are wiser than anything Professor Wisey McWiseface ever wrote or said. “Clever as they are,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:8, “they don’t get it.” Jesus, who was God as a person, taught that people who want to be most like God should be loving and generous, and the world’s leaders killed him because he said it. There is a word for that sort of behaviour and “wise” is its opposite, says Paul.

When we look at 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 we can see that God has such brilliance in store for the people who are like Jesus that it makes the Wisey McWisefaces upset. But Paul keeps going and he says in 1 Corinthians 2:11 that they are the foolish ones, because God says in 1 Corinthians 2:11b-12 “let me tell you who you really are and what you are really like.”

In the words of Jesus which are in Matthew 5:1-12 Jesus describes eight groups of people that he calls “blessed”. In one church, I used to belong to our pastor used to define “blessed” as “happy and to be envied”; I think that fits very well. People who follow Jesus and act like him are happy, and they are to be envied. We can read in Matthew 5:13-16 where Jesus said his disciples are like salt and light on the earth, in a looking and tasting example of God. Our job as disciples, like it was for Jesus personal friends 2000 years ago, is to live a life that reminds people what God is really like. When we think about the people Jesus was talking about we can see that God responded to them by recognising how they were:

Matthew 5:3 declaring their need for spiritual insight;

Matthew 5:4 declaring their need for spiritual comfort;

Matthew 5:5 declaring their need for spiritual strength;

Matthew 5:6 declaring their desire to see the way of God become universal in the world;

Matthew 5:7-11 declaring their love for God and the ways of God even when they are actively and viciously opposed.

Jesus promised that Heaven would come to you (and you would go to Heaven) because if you are being treated like the prophets of old then you’re probably showing people God’s life like they did, and also making the world think about its lack of goodness. Keep bringing up God-colour and God-flavour wherever your life is: talk about how the Ten Commandments are promises that God ill lift you up and keep you safe. We can say that Jesus is teaching a midrash about religion here: “everything is valid” he says, “as long as you think about it in the right way.” And what is the right way? Well behave like God does, with kindness and love. In Genesis 1 it says that all people were created in the image and likeness of God, so just go back to being normal like God made you with your behaviour and your attitude. Be generous, be wise about God, act with righteousness because if you’re being attacked it’s only because your example is making the wicked upset about their own wickedness. The way the world does things is not normal says the Bible: it’s not normal to the stingy, conceited, or self-interested, it’s normal to be like Jesus. So, be yourself, the person God made you to be.

Amen.

Born is the King

This is the text of my message for Christmas Day 2019.  KSSM (Kaniva Uniting Church) hosted the eccumenical Christmas Day service in Kaniva.

Luke 2:1-14; Titus 3:4-7

Jesus is a truly puzzling figure in history, there really is nothing straightforward about him. The stories we tell about Jesus can be pretty simple, how he was born in a manger and died on a cross, how he fed 5000 men plus their wives and kids from a single lunch-pack, how he taught the rich to look after the poor and how he taught the poor to trust God. Not everyone is convinced that the stories are true, but the way the stories are told is pretty straightforward, it’s plain storytelling. But the puzzle comes in how believable the stories are, and what their deeper meaning is. I mean, how can a baby born in a food-trough be God? How can any baby born anywhere be God? Simple tales told simply, but baffling meanings.

The story of Jesus’ birth is pretty well know, even if you aren’t religious. In fact you can be religious in another religion, but if you live in Australia you’ve probably heard about the manger and the three kings and the shepherds and the little drummer boy and the angels from the realms of glory. The story as it is actually told by the Bible is a little bit different, mainly because there are three versions of Christmas in the Bible but Australia like the rest of the world tells only one, which is a sort of mish-mash of the three to form a complete story. In our story this morning, which is only the one from Luke 2, we are told that Joseph and Mary, who we met in Luke 1, have to travel from Nazareth where they live to Bethlehem which is Joseph’s family’s home town. It’s possible that Joseph has never been to Bethlehem and that his grandfather’s grandfather emigrated to Galilee a hundred years ago; it’s also possible he grew up there and moved to Nazareth to find work, either way it doesn’t matter because he has to go there now. So, Joseph and his pregnant wife walk down to Bethlehem over the course of a few days, (the Bible says nothing about a donkey), and Luke 2:6 tells us that while they were there the time came, and Mary was delivered of her firstborn, a son. It’s highly unlikely from this wording that our common idea of Christmas is correct: Joseph and Mary certainly did not arrive in Bethlehem just in time for the birth, but too late for a motel room, and that Mary was left to deliver her baby alone and in the car-park barely hours after arriving. More likely is that the couple arrived in plenty of time and were camping outside the village, probably with Joseph’s cousins and brothers and so forth who would also have had to go back to Bethlehem. When Mary began to feel the pangs of labour Joseph might have gone in to town to find a guesthouse for the night, just to be a bit more comfortable, and unable to offer them some space in the crowded upstairs part where the people slept the landlord offered Joseph a quiet corner in the downstairs room where the animals were kept. It strikes us as a bit primitive, but we’re talking 4BC here so it’s probably nothing really out of the ordinary for Joseph and his family.

So, Jesus’ actual birth was pretty normal in and of itself. The fact that his mother was a virgin and his conception was by The Holy Spirit is unique, but the boy in the manger isn’t terribly remarkable. Having said that, the remarkable kicks in a few hours later.

Back outside the village, most likely in a camp not dissimilar to that shared by Joseph’s extended family, is a mob of shepherds. So these guys are locals, and they’re doing their job. In Luke 2:8 we read that they are lying in the fields, as you do when you’re a shepherd and there’s no barn, but then as Luke 2:9 tells us the glory of The LORD shone around them, and they were terrified. The baby in the manger is the one they’re looking for, and when they find him they will know that good news has come. That’s all well and good, but the question I want to ask this morning is “why shepherds?” Well, why anyone really? I mean, why can’t the paparazzi just let Jesus grow up anonymously and then announce himself as an adult, when he’s ready? After all, that’s pretty much what happens in Mark and John where their stories begin with John the Baptist saying “hey, look over there”.

I think it is significant that we hear about Jesus’ birth, and that Heaven drew attention to it at the time with angels and stars and visiting Magi and shepherds. There’s a message in the baby, and that message is that when God chose to enter the world’s reality as a baby God was saying that there is no rush. Sometimes we’d love it if God would just zap! or kapow! stuff into being, especially if that means the destruction of evil or the triumph of good, but God does not work that way. Christmas shows us that God is careful and slow; not ponderous and creaky slow, but not slap-dash and hasty: God’s way is the way of growth and as those of you who are farmers know growth takes time, conditions, and care if it is to occur in the best way. In Luke 2:13-14 we read about the angels singing and so we have no doubt that this event, the one with the baby in the manger, is a God-directed event and that this child really is something special, someone special, indeed the most special someone there ever will be. And this someone is a baby, only hours old, so there will be years involved in the revealing of this plan, the unwrapping of God’s story which has begun its telling but has a long way to go until its conclusion.

The story which Christians tell about Jesus does not begin at Christmas and end at Easter. It doesn’t even begin at Annunciation and end at Ascension for those of you who know those events in our calendar. The story of Jesus begins before Creation and Genesis 1, and it’s still being told today: it hasn’t finished yet because Jesus is still going. And that story is not just the biography of a carpenter who grew up in the north of Israel but who was born and died in the south: the story of Christmas and the story of Christianity is the story of the angels in Luke 2:14, God is glorified in the exchanges of peace amongst and between humankind.

In Titus 3:4-7 we read Paul’s take on Jesus’ birth. This is not actually a Christmas story, but it does say that Jesus the man, who once was that baby, came as a representation of God’s goodness and mercy. Jesus was not a representative of God, Jesus was God in all that God is; however Paul especially draws attention to the characteristics of Jesus to tell us what God is like. God is good, loving, kind and merciful, and not that Paul says it but its obvious from these other characteristics, God is patient.

This Christmas morning as we rush home to presents, food, family, and the fun of the day (and don’t worry, I’m nearly finished preaching), it’s good to be reminded that God is patient and never rushed. God takes the time to love us, to protect us as we grow, and to be patient as we stumble along towards maturity. Jesus was active in ministry for between one and three years, depending how you read the Bible’s seasons, and these were the last years of his life. Jesus didn’t start preaching and healing until her turned 30, so he was 31 or 33 when he died, and then he was back to Heaven seven weeks later. God didn’t rush Jesus into action; God let Jesus grow up and learn a trade and get some life skills, and then Jesus did what he had to do as a teacher and a healer, an example to the world, and then he died as a sign of God’s love and then he rose again as a sign of God’s authority. Then Jesus went home. No rush, just a well placed, well-paced life.

Let’s remember Jesus the saviour, and God the patient one, this Christmas. Let’s take the time away from the tinsel, even if only a few minutes, and slow down and be present and notice where God has grown us up to and where God is pointing us toward. There’s no rush, there’s only breath and inertia, but let’s not miss the quiet and gentle movement forward by frantically sitting with the flashy and the noisy.

Celebrate with joy, the Lord is come: do you have space to receive him?

Amen.