Underneath the lamplight

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 16th July 2017, the sixth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A.

Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11.

This week our visit to Genesis jumps forward twenty years from last week’s reading.  Isaac is now sixty years old and he has been married to Rebekah since he was forty.  In all that time she has not been able to have children, and it appears that the promise made to Abraham and then furthered through Isaac is again under threat.  No son for Isaac means no nation for Abraham.  So Isaac prays for his wife in her barrenness just as his father had prayed for his mother.  (We’ll see the same is true in the next generation with Jacob’s best-loved wife Rachel: this is a common theme throughout Hebrew and Jewish history.)  Consequently Rebekah does become pregnant and her babies, twin boys, wrestle with each other in the womb.  Rebekah asks God about all the fighting inside her belly and God confirms that two great nations (Edom and Israel) are forming, struggling for supremacy.  God also confirms that as it was with Isaac and Ishmael, the younger son will be preeminent.  After they are born and mature into young men Esau (whose name means hairy) is his father’s son and Jacob (whose name means heel) is his mummy’s boy.

What we are presented with in these two men is two ways to live.  There brothers, twin brothers, are as different as men can be, let alone men born on the same day and from the same womb.  If you have been following With Love to the World in your personal Bible studies this week you’ll have read this passage on Tuesday and you would have been presented with the idea that what is going on here is very significant.  Not only is God choosing one son of Isaac over another, one grandson of Abraham to be the one who carries on that great promise made to Abraham to make a great nation of his decadents through Isaac, but God is favouring one way of life over another.  In contrast to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 God chooses the agrarian farmer rather than the nomadic hunter and tracker.  God has elected a settled way for men, and God has preferred men who are smooth-skinned, soft-handed and who work close to home.  God has de-selected the nomadic and ever wandering Neanderthal man who is rough and hairy, who eats only meat and other “red stuff”, and who doesn’t care what he has to give away to get some.

The question our readings ask of us is similar to the question asked of God.  Given two apparently equal options for moving forward, which option will you choose?  And pertinent to us alone, will your choice be the option that God chose?

The Psalmist finds in the Word of God a lamp for light in a time of severe (mental) affliction.  The section between Psalm 119:105-112 offers a plea that God would hear the praises offered by the afflicted one, and to teach her/him the ordinances of God’s chosen way.  “My life is in danger,” says the Psalmist, “but I will hold to God’s truth.  Others try to trip me up but I stay close to God so that I won’t fall, or I will be grabbed and saved if I do”.  The way of God is the way he/ she wants, and wants always, to be the way in which he/she walks.  The Psalmist finds joy, and we might unpack that as peace, rest, delight, hope, in God’s instructions to her/him.  The Psalmist listens to God and orients her- or himself to God’s ways.  The Word of God, like the creeds, is not a hammer to bash us into submission, but a light to illuminate the better way of life and to support those who walk it.  The Word of God brings freedom because in pointing out the dangers along the way the traveller can be confident that nothing will come as a surprising threat.  Remain listening and reflective as you walk, and you’ll be far less likely to walk astray.

In February I told you that I don’t like to use the headings which Bible translators have inserted into the text.  They can be misleading in that they are suggestive of only one, traditional interpretation of the passage to follow.  In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which I use to write my sermons, and you have in the rack in front of you, the heading for today’s passage from Romans 8 reads “Life in the Spirit”.  I’m not unhappy with that heading, because there is room for wriggle within it that perhaps the NRSV translators and the third-wave Charismatics may not have been aware of.  More of that in a sec.

The passage begins with the message that there is no condemnation. This is similar to the message of Psalm 119 but offers this message purely as support for the sake of freedom.  The peace of God towards you is your space to be free, and to move about on the way ahead.  (You are a hiker on a trail, not a tram on a rail.)  And like Psalm 119 there is a qualifier of this confidence, the promise is for those who are in Christ Jesus.  I understand this phrase to refer not to those who have answered an altar call and prayed “The Sinners’ Prayer”, who have walked “The Romans Road of Salvation” and who have learned “The Four Spiritual Laws”, but those who have taken notice of who Jesus said he was at face value, (i.e., that he was who he said he was) and who live and move within the world and its societies in the way that Jesus lived and moved.  Yes this is about your salvation from sin, yours and mine, but it’s not as rigid as a rote recitation of a written prayer of invitation or the memorisation and unwavering devotion to every word of the Nicene Creed might suggest.  The way of Christ is a better way than the way of rigid, legalised faith.  This is what Paul is saying; therefore this is what I am saying.  If you don’t like what I’ve just said, well take it up with Paul.  According to Paul only Jesus can save: the Law can point out error but it cannot do anything save a transgressor.  In response to this revelation, Paul counsels us to live so as to emulate Christ, not so as to avoid sin.  He says this secure in the knowledge that if you live for Christ then sin becomes an unlikely experience for you anyway.  The light of the Word which the Psalmist spoke of in 119:105 is revealed in Jesus, who is the Word made Flesh (John 1:1): not in rigid adherence to the syntax and grammar of the scriptural texts.  This is life in the spirit, as that heading in the NRSV suggests, and we can see it is so in two ways.

  1. It is life in the spirit of the law, “the vibe of the thing” it as the barrister says in “The Castle”. In the spirit of the law we find the way in which the law was supposed to be read and applied.
  2. It is life in the presence and up-taking of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit our counsellor, advocate, friend, and empowering one. Do not let your obedience of the Law get in the way of your discipleship of God, it says in Romans 8:7.  If your way of being a Christian, obeying the law and practicing the rites and rituals of the faith, leads you to act or think in ways that Jesus did not or would not act or think, then it is your way which is wrong, not the way of Jesus.

If your way is not the way of Jesus, then what does that say about your way?  This is not condemnation from Paul or from me:  Paul desires that the Romans follow Jesus, not him, and I desire the same for you; rather this question is an invitation to reflect upon what your Christian life looks like.  Does your Christian life look like the life of Jesus?  I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

Paul goes on, in the light of this revelation, to remind his readers that they and we are not bound by our ideas of God, but that we have been swept up by God into fellowship with Christ, by the Spirit.  Those who have the Spirit belong to Christ, Paul says in Romans 8:10, and because we have the Spirit we have life and not death.  And if not death then not condemnation either, nor guilt, nor punishment, nor fear.  We have a saviour who can deliver us from the consequences and shame of sin, not just a judge who points out our wrongdoing but is powerless to do anything more than point and frown which is all the Law can do.

So walk in light.  Let the one who is the Word of God, the light and lamp of God, guide your feet along the Way of God.  Choose the way God chose, and be fruitful and useful in that way as you walk within and beside the Spirit who empowers you for service, and cossets you in love.

Amen.

Blink And You’ll Miss It.

This is the message I prepared for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday 9th July 2017, for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church

Genesis 24:40; Song 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I don’t know about you, but I often find when I’m reading my Bible that a verse jumps out from nowhere and has the potential to send me off on a tangent.  I don’t think that this is necessarily a terrible thing, but it can distract me from what the intended purpose of the passage, or indeed the Bible Study, might have been.  In the reading set for today from Genesis 24 we are presented with quite a detailed story of how the servant of Abraham goes back to Abraham’s people in Sumer to find a wife for Isaac.  Abraham does not want his son marrying a Canaanite woman, an indigenous woman of the promised land, rather he seeks a bride from his own people.  During his setting his servant on his way, and assuring the servant that he will be successful in his task, Abraham speaks in Genesis 24:40 of his confidence in the LORD before whom I walk.  That is such a verse for me, and such a lovely phrase, Abraham doesn’t say “God” or “the Lord”, but speaks of a relationship with the One who gives him assurance.  Abraham knows God, daily and holistically.  There is nothing about Abraham that is hidden from God, and nothing about God that Abraham needs to know that is hidden from Abraham.

And then suddenly there we are, or at least there I am.  Rebekah and the whole story of her watering the camels of the servant, her agreeing on the spot to leave her family forever and travel thousands of miles to meet and then marry a stranger, is all forgotten.  The point of the story, indicated by the lectionary’s choice of Psalm, is not a wedding within the genealogy of the Jewish people, for Rebekah will become the mother of Esau and Jacob.  No, the point of the story is that Abraham walks before God, and that that intimacy is the source of all his strength as a patriarch.

A similar thing happened to me when I read the gospel for this week, although this time I saw it coming.  In Matthew 11 Jesus declares the generations of his day to be unaware of the time in which they live, and to be full of contradictions.  Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds says Jesus in Matthew 11:19, some early manuscripts say by her children.  Jesus makes his point, which is to be aware of what is going on around you, and then he prays thanksgiving to the Father that God has made the truth about the world readily seen by children but not by adults.

Blink and you’ll miss it.  One verse can jump out and grab you, regardless of the narrative, and you can learn from what God alone shows you from the written word if you are open and inquisitive.  Be aware, be mindful, of God’s active presence.

What is it about children that Jesus commends them as a model of understanding?  The parents and teachers amongst us know that children are inquisitive, trusting, hope-filled, straightforward, easy to laugh (or cry), sympathetic and compassionate beings.  Children can be vulnerable and so need caring for.  Jesus might be telling us that revelation is given to such as these, the precious and trusting ones who stay close to the Father as little kids stay close to daddy.  Except that children in Jesus’ day were not the cherished little cherubs of the late Victorian era and into our century: they were perceived by adults to be outsiders to the adult world, and therefore an issue.  Children break easily, so there’s always the danger of a parent’s being bereaved or otherwise inconvenienced.  Children are disruptive, noisy, inappropriate, clumsy, disobedient, cheeky, foolish, and simple-minded in a bad way.  Yet, Jesus says that God reveals the truth to these half-sized terrors, and leaves the civilised, mature, hardworking adults without revelation.

D’uh!  That’s not what we want to know!  Jesus isn’t talking about God favouring the little cuddle-monsters with their wide-eyed delight at whatever mummy says or does.  Jesus says that when showing God’s true nature and revealing the deepest knowledge God overlooks people like you and me, leaving us in the dark, and reveals it all to the boof-heads with ADHD.  So, when Jesus says of himself in Matthew 11:27 that no one knows the Son except the Father, and that only God knows the fullest and most intimate stories of the Son, and that no one knows the Father except the Son, (same deal), and those to whom the Son reveals the Father, what he’s saying is that Jesus’ preferred audience for this revelation is the noisy and disruptive.

Why, on earth, would that be the case?

Jesus answers this question, let’s read on.  Those who come to the Son in need of the Father will lay down their burdens.  They will be yoked to Christ, so he will help in carrying the necessary burdens as the two, Christ and the disciple, push together on the yoke.

So, it is not untrue, neither is it unbiblical, that those who come to God in simplicity, innocence and trust will receive favour and wisdom.  Those who come with a childlike faith will be rewarded by grace with love and the intimate secrets of God.  Abraham walked before God and God blessed Abraham mightily; that is still true.

But better yet, the disruptive, breakable, always in your face and under your feet, the making too much noise and mess ones, the ones who need God, are especially included by God in the wisdom of God.  Wisdom is a chaser, as well as the object of the chase.

Song 2:8-13, as with much of the Song of Songs, is a parable about the chase of Wisdom.  Wisdom is the woman in the story, the beloved; the lover is the pursuer of wisdom, the young scholar.  The romance then is not between two people, but between the scholar and the scholarship, the student and the study, the disciple and the discipline, the talmid and the Talmud.  But with that studious focus look at the words of this poem.  The student is playing peek-a-boo with the object of his studies, the personification of wisdom.  This is no dry academic exercise of a bored man surrounded by mouldy and dusty books, it’s a dance in the meadow at spring.  Show even the slightest interest in God and God will hunt you down like a lover desperate for his beloved, and God will hunger for you like that beloved awaiting her lover’s shadow at the door.  Heady stuff.

But this ancient song does not mean that coming to faith is not arduous.  It can be light and life, an easy yoke, and a personal relationship with the One before whom we walk who hungers after us, but it is not necessarily like that.  As a student, I always liked the metaphorical language of “wrestling with the text”, and since my first degree was in Sociolinguistics I enjoy doing this.  Look at Paul’s struggle with discipleship in Romans 7:15-25.

Sin is an ongoing challenge for Paul, much like those noisy children in the marketplace of Jesus.  I try to do good, says Paul, but I keep tripping over my past.  I try to avoid the evil I once practiced, says Paul, but I keep tripping over the way of the world and being snagged by the temptations which abound in everyday life.  Paul was a scholar, a scholar of scholars in face and had been discipled by one of the greatest rabbis of his day, Gamaliel.  Paul was a Pharisee, these days we’d call him a Conservative Evangelical, so he knew his scriptures and he knew the best interpretations of them to inform a God-honouring life.  He had wrestled with the text, and probably enjoyed himself in that, but the message of the text had left him burdened.  And even when he did adopt the yoke of Christ, and stepped out from underneath the crippling demands of the Fundamentalist view of Law, he still found himself falling short of what God had released him in to.  From his divided self, Paul cries out that Jesus should be glorified because that is the truth which surpasses the lies and duplicity of his experience.

In Abraham, we hear a man about whom God knows everything, and who knows all that he needs to know about God to walk with God in friendship.  Paul is not a friend of God in the way that Abraham was, but as a scholar and a faithful practitioner of the rituals he too knows that God knows him, and Paul knows that what he knows of God is enough to keep him walking the path of discipleship.  Both men fell over on that walk, but both me got up every time and kept walking with God.  From Jesus, we hear that this is the way of God, not that we must fall over, but that it is okay when we do because God is patient and loving and will pick us up like a lover or wait for us while we pick ourselves up like a daddy teaching his child to be independent of his carrying arms.  God is revealed to be like Jesus is, and we read that Jesus was a good bloke who people liked spending time with and who did not fly off the handle when mistakes were made.

The story of the tangent, of that one verse that can grab you even in the middle of a love story told over thousands of miles, is that God’s love evident in God’s desire to share all that God is and all that God has is true for the deepest of deep disciples, and for the rattiest of noisy ratbags in the world.  I don’t need to ask which one is you, because it doesn’t matter.

Come, says the Lord, I will tell you marvellous things, and I will give you rest.

Amen.

 

The Scholarly Man

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Parish for proclamation on Sunday 21st May 2017, the sixth Sunday in Easter, year A.  I had just returned to Lakes Entrance after a week in Adelaide where I received my Master of Theological Studies degree at a service of celebration at Adelaide College of Divinity.

Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20.

Well there he is: as promised I have produced a photograph of me from the service of celebration I attended at Adelaide College of Divinity on May 8th this year.  So yes, there’s me in my flat hat and Geneva gown, wearing the hood of a Master of Theological Studies in the Flinders University tradition.  You can’t see it very well there but my hood is blue, with a pale blue lining of satin and edged with a ribbon of violet.  This degree in no way makes me “official”, other than as a graduate of Flinders University.  A degree in ministry or theology, and I now have one of each, (plus degrees in Education and Arts) does not confer ordination upon anyone, that’s a separate process.  A degree in ministry or theology does not make anyone any more or any less a minister; I was commissioned for ministry at my baptism, as were you.  Does this outfit make me a scholar?  Arguably if I weren’t a scholar I’d not have made it so far as to wear this particular outfit, but I’d suggest having completed the path leading to my graduation that the outfit indicates that I once was a student.  I should hope that even though I am now finished with formal education for at least twenty years that I shall continue to learn and study, so maybe I’ll always be a student.Damo Graduate

In our reading from Acts this morning we eavesdropped into Paul’s address to the Areopagus on the topic of an unknown god.  Paul is both a scholar and a student, he has credentials from the Pharisees and rabbis he studied Jewish Law with and he remains open to the Holy Spirit to teach him further.  The men to whom Paul is speaking are Greeks, not Jews, but they too are masters and students of philosophy and theology, so Paul addresses his remarks in the style of a scholar.   Paul, in this place of the study of gods, speaks of the God to whom he belongs as the sole creator who exists beyond temples such as these.  The God of Paul created humankind and needs nothing from us in the way of resources as offerings.  The God of Paul is the bringer and sustainer of life, and this God created the world with order and structure, God made place within space, and such order makes it possible for God to be found in the pursuit of order and study.  You’re on a right track Paul might have said, God can be found through reflective study.  Paul speaks of all men and women deriving from one nation established by God, a lone source.  This means that all people are the offspring of God exactly as the philosopher Aratus said in the 200s BCE, and that it is indeed in God in whom we exist and function as Epimenides said in the 500s BCE.  Paul then uses the words of the Greek philosophers to point to where their pursuit of the rational God has fallen off course, because if humankind have been made by God and from God then it follows that God cannot be made from gold or stone.  So, what’s with all these statues and temples as objects of worship?  Once, Paul says, God allowed us our human ignorance but now God is calling us to repent and to see the truth revealed in the man sent by God to show us the way to God.  If you want to know God then you need to pay attention to the real world of created things, not manufactured ones.  Gold cannot tell you about God, only a man can do that since men (and women) are made by God but idols are made by men.  But, says Paul, there is good news.  God has sent such a man with the gospel that God is waiting to be found and wanting to be found.  God, in the spoken revelation of the one who came from God enjoins you to the undertake the chase through repentance from ignorance and trust in the revelation of God.

So, this speech has a context, it is addressed to academics in an academic place.  Paul is philosophising with the philosophers in the philosophy club, that’s where he is.  I find it interesting that Paul doesn’t actually say very much about Jesus, or the message that Jesus proclaimed other than to say that God is accessible through any concerted, well-directed effort to find God.  Paul’s message to the Areopagus is not Jesus Christ band him crucified as it was to the Jews, but God the rational and personal essence which both transcends and engages with the physical “real” world.

During my studies, I undertook a unit in The Acts of the Apostles in 2015, and during that series of lectures I heard that this passage is set piece speech on how to proclaim the story of God to pagans.  My lecturer and his commentators understood that this speech is not the exact words of Paul, rather it was drafted by the writer of Acts as one of five key speeches which form a framework for the whole book. Whether it really was Paul’s word reported back to the writer, or whether it is a literary invention conceived by the author of Acts to make a point is not the point here, but it’s still good to know.  These are not random words spoken off the cuff, there is intent and thought gone into this speech.  We hear Paul speaking to a pagan audience at the Areopagus of Athens about how Jesus does not need a temple or priesthood to be set up in his honour since God acts in the world.  This is a counter-argument to the interpretations of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, and indeed the idea that the “unknown god” needs an altar to his honour lest he be offended by the oversight.  If anything, God is dishonoured by the plinth, since its presence limits the creator’s influence to this one small place.   Jesus is the evidence of what God is doing, and he is attested to by his being raised from the grace by the power of the creator.

We can draw four messages from this.

  1. God loves and wants to be reconciled with the academics and with all pagan leaders, as well as the worshippers and all Jewish priests, Levites, and Israelites.
  2. God’s means of outreach can be culturally specific so as to be inclusive. An Areopagus message would sound like useless wordy worldliness to the Sanhedrin, and a Sanhedrin message would sound like ethereal superstitious babble to the Areopagus.  There is only one God, and only one way to God, but there are countless ways of speaking of God so as to elicit a response from the hearer of the news of salvation.
  3. The gospel stands up to academic scrutiny, even in the presence of the most learned of learned men.
  4. God was doing the work through the Jews before God was doing it through the Christians. Paul has not discovered a new thing about God, and Paul has not invented cross-cultural; evangelism.

Bless our God, O peoples says the NRSV, on page 459 of the Bible in front of you.  The NKJV says “Gentiles” which makes it even more obvious what is going on.  The Hebrews are calling the world to bless the God of the Hebrews (Psalm 66:8).  God established [each living thing] in life according to Psalm 66:9, just as the Greek philosopher Epimenides said.  The nations have tried to destroy us says the Psalmist; in other words, God may be not made of gold and stone but the people of God have been refined and refreshed as if we are, (Psalm 66:10), but we have come through because of our God’s faithfulness.  So now, says the Psalmist, I (singular) will worship with Hebrew worship, and I call upon you all now to listen to my story of what God has done for me.  And what has God done for me? Well God heard my prayer.  Now I call upon the world to come and hear (Psalm 66:16) me say that when I cried out to God, God came and heard (Psalm 66:19).

The messages of the Psalmist and of Paul are not entirely the same, but there is a common theme.  The God of the Israelites is the God of the world, and the only true God.  The One for whom the entire world is searching can be found amongst the Israelites in the personal testimony of individual Jews and in the disciplined and applied study of the Jewish cultural traditions.  Whatever your way of searching for meaning is, however it is that you bet understand your need for something greater than yourself, God has provided a way in Jesus Christ.

So how does this apply to you or me?  Some of us fit into both models, even if it does require some stretching.  I was raised in a Christian home so, like Paul and the Psalmist, I learned the stories of God as a child from my parents and many of the other adults in my life at church and school.  I am not a Jew, but I am a Christian, and so I know about God from inside the culture of God’s own people.

But, like Paul and the Psalmist I am also a student.  I don’t like being thought of as a scholar or an academic since my desire is to be approachable in ministry.  I am clever and well read, I have degrees in Arts, Education, Ministry and Theology, but I hope I’m not lofty.  I can debate with other university graduates, but I’d rather sit and listen to people living daily lives and I hope I never become too grandiose to do that, even if I do use words like “grandiose” in my preaching.

The gospel speaks to the ordinary person who just wants to thank God for what God has done, and to the no-less ordinary person who enjoys a well-written book and relates to a God of crosswords and sudoku.  If finding God is a puzzle to be mastered for you, a journey to be walked by you, a lover to be wooed for you, a parent to be rediscovered in your adulthood, or any other image there is room in God for all those ways to lead to satisfaction.

My job, all our jobs, as ministers is to make sure that the Church does this too.

I have now completed all the formal study I want to do, and at the end of my studies in theology, ministry, leadership, and scripture I am more in love and awe of God, and more in love and awe of the Church.  I did not lose my faith in learning about other ways of approaching God, in fact when I read all the books and articles, and distilled the information into essays and seminars, I discovered a real God who expresses real love through the real man Jesus Christ and the Church which carries his name.  Tertiary studies might not be your path further into God, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work for anyone else.

So, whether you meet God and go deeper with God in books, gardens, or solitary or with your beloved walks along the beach; whether in singing in the car or at church, in hanging out with Christian friends on Sunday mornings or Tuesday afternoons, I encourage you to do more of it.  Continue to pursue God, continue to go deeper into your relationship and God’s love.  Whatever it is that you do to know God more is what God has set before you entirely for that purpose.  So, go on, keep going on, and be ignorant of the depth of love no more.

Amen.