A Call To Prophesy (Epiphany 5C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry on Sunday 10th February 2019.  We met at Serviceton Uniting Church for holy communion and at Kaniva Church of Christ also for holy communion.

Isaiah 6:1-8, 9-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Today is one of those good days for a preacher, because the message contained in each of the four lectionary readings is well structured and exciting to preach.  It’s all about God’s call and the story of how each of three men first heard God saying to him, “go and tell”.  It’s a great message for a church of eager disciples such as this one, so the sermon shouldn’t take very long at all.

Let’s start with the passage read to us this morning.  In the opening words of today’s reading from the Hebrew traditions we read how Isaiah dates his call to ministry to a specific time and place; he knows his origin as a prophet and teacher.  In the activity of the story Isaiah overhears The LORD calling for volunteers to take the message of God to humankind, and Isaiah steps up for the job (Isaiah 6:8).  Oftentimes when this story is read in church this is where we end our reading; we hear how great and holy God is, we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” before the sermon and “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky” after it, and we all go home.  Even today Isaiah 6:1-8 is listed to be read, with Isaiah 6:9-13 in brackets, as if you don’t have to read on if you don’t want to.  See what I’m saying, easy message, familiar concept, fast sermon is a good sermon, let’s go home.

Meh-yeah-nah.  Sadly for you if you were hoping for an early minute, this is a red rag to a brown bull for me; I mean what are those lectionary writers trying to hide?  Why don’t they want us to read on?  Well maybe it’s because in these optional verses what we get is God’s actual word to the world, the text of what is to become Isaiah’s message, and it’s not very nice; in fact it’s very not nice.  In essence Isaiah’s job is to make the people stubborn and hard-headed because God has decided in advance of Isaiah’s mission to punish the people.  This is not like Jonah where God sent the prophet to seek repentance so that God could relent; this is where God is baiting the people to further resistance to the gospel so that when divine wrath falls it is more fully deserved.  That’s harsh.

A strong comparison with Isaiah 6:2-3 is offered in Psalm 138:1 where the spiritual beings gathered around God’s throne hear a man, let’s call him David, singing his praise and thanksgiving to God.  Instead of God the holy, holy, holy One asking in the hearing of the cherubim and seraphim for a volunteer to carry a message of wrath and devastation, here we see a man in the same company thanking God for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.  (That’s in Psalm 138:2.)  God tells Isaiah to make the people resistant to God’s voice; but David tells the seraphim that the moment he began praying with distress God came close and answered him (Psalm 138:3).  It’s as if we’re speaking about two different gods here, or at least about the one God dealing with the Chosen People on one hand and the pagan and heathen nations on the other.  But no, and you know it’s no, this is Adonai on both occasions, and Israel on both occasions.  What is going on?

At this point let me interrupt myself and say that this is my favourite type of Bible study.  So often our evenings of fellowship and study revolve around opening a letter of Paul or a gospel and reading around the circle from a familiar story, looking for the obvious answers to the reading comprehension questions posed by IVP or Scripture Union.  This sort of Bible study, the one we’re doing today, looks at unfamiliar texts and searches out the hard questions.  Awesome fun, I hope you’re enjoying this as much as me.  Let’s get back to it.

In today’s set reading from the Jesus traditions we read Luke’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples.  And it is one of those intensely familiar stories: Jesus teaches a pressing-in crowd from a boat, then he asks the boat-owner (who is a stranger at this point) to put out and go fishing.  Twenty-seven trillion fish are caught in just under four minutes, causing that fisherman to recognise that a miracle worker has turned up in his boat and that he utterly unworthy to be in such a lord’s presence; kinda like Isaiah in Isaiah 6:5 and his “woe is me, man of uncleanness” lamenting.  And our familiar story continues, Jesus says to Simon “get up,” and he says “don’t be afraid,” and he says “you will no longer fish for men, but for people,” and without a second thought Simon, and James, and John from the next boat walk away with Jesus and into the sunset.  So there’s nothing heard-headed or confusing about that; okay the “fishers of men” reference is a little opaque, but we trust Jesus, he seems nice, and so we leave everything behind and just walk away and follow him.  As Christians we get that; no biggie, Jesus is worth dropping everything else for, there’s no stubbornness amongst us to the voice of God calling us to discipleship.

In today’s set reading from the Christian traditions we find ourselves at the other end of Jesus’ mission to earth, and Paul’s explanation to the churches of Corinth how the resurrection works as a theological and soteriological truth.  In other, less-greeky words, how the facts and understandings we have around the resurrection make us think about God, and how they make us think about what it means to be “saved”.  Very recently, on Vision Radio in fact (which is broadcast on 88.0 FM into Kaniva from a small box and a big aerial in my back yard), I heard someone describe 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 as a perfect distillation of the whole gospel.  It was a passing comment, with no further discussion, but I remembered it as I wrote this sermon down at 03:38 am this morning.  We have just heard the passage read, do we agree?  Is this all you need to know about Christian doctrine in one handy-to-open box, no easy payments, no postage and handling?  Indeed could we sum the whole Christian story up in one line, 1 Corinthians 15:3b-5a which plainly says that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to... well a lot of people actually.  That’s all you need to know isn’t it?  I’d argue no, that there is more to the whole gospel than that, but I acknowledge that any telling of the whole gospel must include that.  The thing is that in some ways this passage, what I’ve just read, is not actually the point of the paragraph you find it in.  The real point of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is found in 1 Corinthians 5:8-11, where Paul uses the brief nub of the gospel to explain how he too is an apostle, just like Cephas in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and the twelve also in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and the many living witnesses in 1 Corinthians 5:6, and James and all the “apostles” in 1 Corinthians 5:7.  So “yeah-yeah, yada-yada, died, buried, rose again, Jesus awesome” is there, but the point is that Paul is allowed to say that because he’s just as much a follower of God, and a bearer of divine ordination as Simon (aka Cephas), and by extension David and Isaiah.  Paul has been called; Paul is an apostle, an individually dispatched messenger of God’s light about Godself to a world in darkness.

So, that might have been a good place to move to a paragraph on how we apply Paul’s and Peter’s stewardship of the apostolate to our own lives, and how we too are called to carry light into the world.  I could say that even though God has not spoken to any of us like God spoke to Isaiah (in a vision in a temple), or Simon-Peter (literally as a flesh and blood man asking us for a favour after a long night at work), or Saul-Paul (blinded and yelled at in the middle of a highway on a multi-day road-trip), God still calls some of us to be witnesses and prophets today.  Paul may have been the last on his list to see Jesus in person and to be commissioned by a lordly figure in a vision, but he is not the last in all history: you need to watch and be ready for Jesus to appear in your dreams-slash-windscreen.  And all of that would be true, and neat, and good, and we could move on to the benediction and beverage service.  But we can’t do that: there’s a loose end.

So, yay! let’s get back to the awesome fun of finding hard questions.  Well, we’ve already found the hard question, and now we’ve put some shape around it to make the question even harder.  With all that Isaiah, David, Jesus, and Paul have said about God and the call of God to tell the good news of salvation, (case in point the cross and empty tomb), why did God send Isaiah to make the ninth century BC Israelites and Judahites resistant to that story?  If Christ died for all, and if Christ died for sin, why would God a) deliberately exclude Jews, and b) deliberately make them sin more badly so they would deserve the punishment already lined up?  God effectively says to Isaiah, “ look, I really want to smack them, but they don’t deserve it yet, so stir them up to rebellion and I’ll wait until I can really smack them so they stay smacked”.  I mean, where’s the grace?  Where’s the honour for the covenants with Abraham and with David?  And if the situation really is that dire for the people of God why does God make them wait another 800 years for the Messiah?  Don’t send Isaiah to harden their hearts LORD, send Jesus to redeem them!  I mean, you’d think God had never even opened a Bible the way this is going.

So, what’s the answer?  Anyone?  Do you need the question again?  The question is, with all that we know of God in Christ, and all that we know of David, Jesus, Peter and the twelve, and Paul, why did God send Isaiah to make the Israelites more naughty rather than more repentant, just so that God could snap them with a backhand as well?  So, what’s the answer?  Anyone?

Well what I’m going to do right now is keep you in suspense, but let you off the hook.  And I am also going to wrap up, so here’s the final paragraph.  As great and profound a question as that is, and would be on a Tuesday night, it’s not a question for Sunday morning.  A good teacher, a good pastor, a good preacher knows that.  And you don’t only have a good teacher, pastor and preacher, you have a great one.  You’re blessed.  No the question for a Sunday is, given all that, given David and Jesus and Paul and yada-yada-yada, how do you respond in Isaiah’s place when God calls you to prophetic witness and sends you to the Church with such a message of desolation.  Again, anyone?  You proclaim it.  For me the question is not why God wants to do this to my people, but how do I go about telling the leaders who need to know what God intends for us.

As your pastor let me say this: I know God is calling some of you to ministries of proclamation, and God is calling all of us to witness and fishing-for-men.  So, whatever God tells you to tell me, and to tell us, please just tell us.  Be brave, for The LORD your God is with you.

Amen.

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Who is a King? (Pentecost 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Parish, gathered at Newborough, on Sunday 10th June 2018.

1 Samuel 8:4-20; Psalm 138

I am not a parent.  This news is not a surprise to you since those of you who know me know that I have never been married and I have never had any children of my own.  It is impossible that I would have had flesh of my flesh until this point, and whilst as a man of middle age my clock is not ticking as fast as those of my female friends of middle age, the idea that I might be a father to one of my own is receding in possibility with each passing year.  Nonetheless it cannot be said that I don’t have children: I am an uncle, I was a “big cousin”, and I was once a school teacher.  So, I know more than a little bit about children and their reasoning.  And I know that there is one fail-proof argument that a child can fall back whenever he or she is not getting his or her way.  There are modifications on this argument, it can be adapted for the circumstances, but basically it goes like this: “ohnh! everyone else is allowed to!!” or “ohnh! (insert name of another adult) lets us!!”

Who’s heard that before?  Who’s said that before?  Hopefully you said it when you were a child and not in the last few days, but still.  “Ohnh Damien!  Our last minister used to let us put our feet up on the pews during the sermon, and drink beer for morning tea!!”  I doubt that Newborough, I doubt it.

Well in today’s Old Testament reading we find the people of Israel doing the whingeing thing, and sadly they are all adults as they do it.  The leaders of Israel have come to Samuel, who is both prophet and judge, and they demand that a king be appointed to reign over them so that they can be like all the other nations.  In other words, “ohnh, but Philistia and Egypt have kings”, and “ohnh, but Baal and Osiris let their countries have kings”.

It is true that Israel was not like other nations at this point; other nations did have kings and Israel did not, but that was because God was Israel’s king and God reigned through the agency of judges as and when required. Israel was the holy nation, set apart from all other nations by God to serve as an exemplary nation and the demonstrate the Kingdom of God, literally the kingship of God, on earth.  So, when Israel asks for a human king they are not only asking to give up their unique status as first nation of the earth, they are specifically rejecting God’s kingship, seceding from the Kingdom of Heaven, and rejecting God’s lordship as their God.  Samuel only addresses the executive part of this rejection and he warns the people that human kings are oppressive.  God has set these people free, saved them from Pharaoh, and now they are choosing to enter servitude under their own military autocrat. Samuel doesn’t address their blasphemy, only their mutiny, and the people reject his advice and repeat their demand to be treated like all the pagan nations, the not-Chosen nation, and to have a narcissistic, bureaucratic, corruptible, nepotistic war-lord like the nations they have conquered.  The king they got was Saul.

Samuel was the last judge over Israel.  We can read of the exploits of the judges in the book named after them and what we read is that they were not a constant presence.  In times of peace there was no need for a national leader holding together an alliance or coalition of armies, the people of Israel just got on with cropping and parenting and going about life as they knew it.  When a threat arose then God would intervene in history and call forth a judge – names like Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson.  A man or woman born for such a time as that, who lead Israel to military victory and restored the worship of God in place or Baal or Astarte or whomever it was.  Then when the need was met, and the peace was restored, everyone went home again, and they lived happily ever after, for a short time anyway.

A king on the other hand, warns Samuel, will always be present.  Even when there is no need for national defence the monarchy will continue taxing the people and holding a standing army thereby being an unnecessary burden in times of peace and prosperity.  (And no, a king does not preserve peace and prosperity, that’s the Lord’s work.)  Dynastic kings are takers, there are six “takes” in 1 Samuel 8:11-17, whereas God’s appointed judges are givers and saviours.  “Don’t go there”, says Samuel, “God has given Israel a better way”.  But, sigh, Israel does go there, and they get Saul, and Saul gets them into fights.

This story raises questions for us about the phrase “what God intends”, especially when it comes to who our rulers are.  Sometimes things happen that are not the will of God, and God does not intervene when human systems driven by selfish men drive against what is best for humanity.  God does not desire a kingship in Israel, but God chose not to intervene other than to send a prophet to speak the truth.  In 2018 some of the nations have rulers whom God has raised up, other nations have rulers in place because they were elected by people who ignored God’s wisdom and the voice of the prophets.  The trouble is we often don’t know which leader has which story, who is God’s woman or man and who is not, and some proclaim a leader to be God’s appointed while others see that same leader as a threat to God’s people and mission.  This is as true for Joel and Abijah the corrupt sons of Samuel who Samuel tried to set up as hereditary judges, as it is for Saul who became king.

In Psalm 138 we read a song traditionally thought to have been composed by David who was king after Saul and who took on the rule of God’s people around forty years or so after the story told in 1 Samuel 8.  In King David’s song of personal thanksgiving and praise to God who is his Lord we hear how God is good, generous and glorious, and how God will be worshipped and adored by every one of the Earth’s kings because God is gracious and wise in majesty.  God is the protector and God’s presence is the assurance of safety in a dangerous world.  The promises of God are certain, and the plans of God are good.  True kingship is found in God: the best human kingship follows God’s methods of rule and all human kings, queens, presidents and governors attest to that.  We read in Psalm 138:5 that God is the exemplary king, and that this is personally attested to by the greatest ever of human kings, David of Israel.  In Psalm 138:7 we read David’s remembrance of his personal history and the history of Israel, including the circumstances of Saul’s coronation and the military threat posed by Israel’s coastal neighbours from Philistia.  God is the safeguard of Israel’s security, not David himself nor the thousands of men and bows and chariots at his command.  All the security, all the governance Israel needs is found in God, so says the king.  I don’t think David sees himself redundant at this point, what I see is that God as king is ruling through David, and David acknowledges and welcomes this development.  Where the LORD had to work around Saul, and around most of the later kings of the divided kingdoms, the LORD can work with and through David, the good and godly king, just as God had worked through Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and Samuel.

Well that’s great for all of those kings, but what does it mean for us?

As I listen to God and for what God is saying to Yallourn and Moe-Newborough I hear the message for us as stay close to God.  The Kingdom of God was Jesus’ great topic, it’s the first thing he says as an adult in his first sermon and it remain his great theme.  Jesus was not specifically talking about the Kingdom as a literal Heaven for Christians who die in faith: although there is a literal Heaven for Christians who die in faith.  No, the point of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Reign of God is as I have often told you before: live today as if God was the king of Australia and the sovereign of you.  That doesn’t mean you show disrespect for Elizabeth Windsor, Peter Cosgrove, or Linda Dessau who you did not elect but who reign over you in various degrees of authority.  Neither should you be unduly disparaging for Malcolm Turnbull or Daniel Andrews, whom you also did not elect but for whom others voted.  The regard God as king is to show respect for those who serve us as rulers, no one is called to mutiny or rebellion in ordinary circumstances, but we are called to honour God above all else.  God above the queen, as she herself does.  God above the parliaments and councils, as they claim to do.  But most importantly, God above our own ideas of what we would like and how we think the world should be done.

The reign of God says that you don’t get to decide anything, except to follow God. God is king and not only a judge, God is always in charge and does not pop up for danger and pop away for peace, and to treat God like an emergency service is not honouring.  But neither is God a king like Saul who taxes your produce and takes your children as slaves.  God’s rule is good and of benefit.  Why would you want a king other than God?  Today’s message therefore is not about avoiding making Saul king of your life, but about allowing anyone else to take God’s place.

And that includes you.  You are not the best boss of you: God is.

Well may we say “God save the King”: because God alone is the saviour king.

Amen.