Celebrating The City (Pentecost 18C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Sunday 13th October 2019, the 18th Sunday in Pentecost in Year C.  This was a combined service with all of the churches in Kaniva in celebration of Kaniva Agricultural Show which had been held the previous day.  We gathered in the Shire Hall in Kaniva for church: I was the preacher and a youth band from The Salvation Army in Geelong lead us in worship and song.  That band had been performing at the Show.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-12; 2 Timothy 2:8-15

One of the great themes of the Hebrew scriptures is the story of God’s continued deliverance of Jews from their gentile enemies. There’s the whole story of the Exodus to start with, the many victories of the Judges, then the kings Saul, Solomon, and especially David, and Esther, who whilst a queen was actually a queen-consort in a foreign land. Outside the centuries covered by the Jewish scriptures, but well within Jewish history, is the Maccabean overthrow of the Syrians in 167 BC. Maybe we could add Israel’s wars in 1967 and 1973 to our list. One description I have heard of the Jewish festivals like Passover (Exodus) and Purim (Esther) is the phrase “they tried to kill us, but God delivered us, so let’s eat!” Jewish history inside and outside the Bible is the story of deliverance repeated.

So what happens when God does not deliver? What happens when God’s people are in the minority, in decline, in exile, and specifically not in Canaan? In Jeremiah 29 we can read Jeremiah’s letter which he addressed to the whole community of the first and second exiles, specifically including the priests and prophets amongst the people. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem at this stage so we’re talking around the year 597 BC, but he’ll be in Babylon within a decade when Nebuchadnezzar’s armies return for another cartload or three of Judahites. Surprisingly in the context of all those stories where God has saved the people from their enemies, what Jeremiah says is that Babylon is the correct place for the People of God right now, and that it was God’s plan all along that they be there. It is always God’s desire that God’s own people are actively completing God’s work in the world, that is what discipleship is all about. God’s instruction to the Judahites of Jeremiah’s day was to settle down and live abundant lives: they were to engage with their Babylonian neighbours and build homes and families of their own, make new and deeper friendships and relationships, and not hide away in ghettos. In other words the Judahites and Israelites were to grow in every way imaginable, and to make sure that Babylonia grew because of them. Jeremiah encourages them to practice domestic life according to Jewish cultural patterns and to remain faithful to God, but they were not be isolated and angry. This is also true of us, the people of God’s nation should keep their faith and their religious and cultural identity, but they should share an abundant life with the people around them, especially those who badger and malign the faithful out of spite and ignorance, so that everyone may come to understand the grace and love of God.

In Jeremiah 29:7 we read in some English translations that God desires the peace and prosperity of the city to which the exiles have been sent, but in Hebrew this is “shalom” in all that that word conveys. Shalom is more than peace, it is restful and complete well-being, not only the absence of war but the absence of anxiety. “You are to work towards and intercede with me for the shalom of Babylon” says The LORD, because in Babylon’s shalom is the exiles’ shalom. More so Jeremiah adds in 29:8b that the exiles and the remnant in Judah are not to listen to anyone who tells them otherwise: this message of shalom is the correct Word of The LORD, as opposed to what the other prophets are saying. The truth is that the apparently bad news of exile is actually God’s news, and the supposedly good news of a near release is false hope and false prophecy. Hananiah says that the exile will be over in two years’ time, but he’s an idiot so don’t listen to him, and don’t go setting up a partisan resistance movement to overthrow the oppressors. Settle petals.

No, the correct response to recognising the place where God has put you is to sing praise and thanksgiving to God because of what God has done: for you and for us all. In Psalm 66 we are encouraged to actively remember and proclaim aloud the glorious history of the salvation of out nation; specifically how God rescued us (including each of us) from oppression and oppressors. This might seem an odd response to exile, but God is the true king and every other king and president is less than God is. God will overrule governments to preserve God’s people. God has kept us from death and destruction in the past and God has used hard times to refine us and to bring us through and make us better people than we would have been had we had an easier life. In Psalm 66:4 we read that all the earth bows down…sings praises, and the chosen nation is asked to pause and reflect (Selah) on this. What God has done for us God has done for all humankind (Psalm 66:5), but so far we are the only ones who know. Since God has caused us to grow, has growed us up, we must be adult about this and we must no longer be selfish: we must share the news, share the joy, invite everyone we know to the concert of adoration and thanksgiving. After a time of walking through the hard places, where God actually opened up a road through the sea, Psalm 66:8 tells us to “drop to your knees in adoration” and “shout out God’s glory” so that everyone knows about it. Like the exiles we were bound up and dragged away, we went through hell and high water (Psalm 66:12a) but we have been brought through, and we have been brought to a place of plenty (Psalm 66:12b). That is worth celebrating with songs of praise, isn’t it?

This is why Paul finds it possible to proclaim the gospel even in chains. The chains of imprisonment will not silence him and they cannot silence the good news of Jesus the liberator, because Paul’s task is to continue to proclaim salvation to those who do not yet know that they are saved. God is faithful to Godself, Paul knows and he says that God will never go back on a promise or fail to deliver those whose trust is in God. God is worthy of praise because God is faithful toward those who persevere for the sake of the good news. In 2 Timothy 2:14-15 we read why it is so important that Timothy teaches the message of perseverance directly to the church he pastors, and why Christians must never get caught up in jargon. Let every person who trusts God for deliverance plainly speak the truth that the world needs to hear, because that is the task set by God for each one of us. It’s not the job of the overseers to silence the people, but to instruct them in the good news (of what the gospel actually is) and to empower them to proclaim it by the word of their own story and testimony. Be zealous for the truth so that the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of David) is proclaimed, and nothing else. Paul specifically reminds Timothy about false teachers, and like Jeremiah six hundred years earlier he counsels him to stay away from the self-seeking idiots who have a different agenda. Listen to God, hold fast to the good news of salvation, and trust in God’s timing for the completion of the work which God has been conducting since time began.

Well that’s all great; God is faithful even in the hard times, and even if there seems to be more tunnel than light we are encouraged to stay faithful and not be looking for a sneaky, early exit. But what do we actually do about it? I can honestly say that I do not feel that my life in Kaniva is a form of exile: I hope you don’t either. Okay, so compared with Serviceton and Broughton it’s a bit of a dive, but I like Kaniva and I enjoy living amongst the Kanivan people. As Christians we might say that all life on earth is exile because Heaven is the home for which we long to return: I think that’s a bit simplistic in light of what we’ve heard from scripture this morning, but there is some truth in it. It’s not the whole truth, but it’s not wrong. But even if the Wimmera and the Tatiara, let alone Corio, are not exactly places of exile, they are places where God is not so central as God was in Jerusalem, or shall be in the New Jerusalem. Since we live in a place which is not all that God wants for us so we must pray for the shalom of our cities.

This morning, as many of the Church in Kaniva who have wanted to gather have gathered in this place. There is only one Church in Kaniva even though it meets in six buildings with six different surnames. There is a common purpose and a shared culture amongst us. Yesterday our town was filled with visitors, and today we have the mob from Geelong participating as sisters and brothers in Christ. As Church (singular with a capital-C) and churches (plural with a small-c) we are the God’s light in the world, in Kaniva and its districts. As Victorians whose state motto is “Peace and Prosperity” we pray for the shalom of our home. We pray for the shalom of Melbourne our capital, for Kaniva our town, for Servi and Broughton and Nhill and all the other places we live, for Geelong. We pray that God would bless us and our neighbours, somewhat anxious that God will want to bless our neighbours through us, thereby giving us jobs, yet hopeful that God will indeed look with favour on our homes and industries.

So together in Kaniva this morning we celebrate God’s goodness to us recalling that God’s record for coming through is 100%. The Jewish exiles from the land may have lasted for decades, centuries, and millennia at a time, but God always called the people home and we know from scripture that the call to all the world is still there. One day soon we will be home, but this day we pray for the place where we are today and we sow into this. Today as we pray we build homes, we build lives and families, we build and plant and put down foundations in the place where we are because the place where we are is the place where God is, and God is with us here.

Go, sow, build, grow, pray and praise: they need to see it and hear it so that they will know it, and grow and sow and build and worship too.

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.