Alert to our distress

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 3rd November 2019, the twenty first Sunday in Pentecost, in Year C.

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; Luke 19:1-10

Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? You know you’re probably not heading for a faerie-tale ending with that sort of beginning, don’t you? Habakkuk gets straight into it in Habakkuk 1:2 with that line, and it doesn’t get any better in Habakkuk 1:3-4. Once upon a time in a land ravaged by war and disaster a man was sad about the fact that that time is now, that land is here, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, just more tunnel. This is not the way Bible stories are supposed to go, and as far as Habakkuk is concerned it’s also not how God is supposed to act if God really is God at all.

Habakkuk is one of those books in scripture that deals with the theme of theodicy. I like the word theodicy, (you’se all know that I’m a word-nerd and a theology-nerd so that probably comes as no surprise, even as it is a bit of a random comment). Theodicy as a word means “dealing with how God can be good in a world which is so bad”. I like the word, but I’m not a fan of the experience. I lived for years, years ago in a distant land, where God the Good LORD was distant, seemed absent, and every day was a struggle. So I get Habakkuk’s attitude, and I get the many other stories of exile from Jewish history: I get the experience of the authors and editors of the Hebrew Bible who were writing in the middle of the situation and not at the end. To write about theodicy is not usually a purely academic task, it is always experiential; either you are going through a dark patch in life, or you have been through one (or many) and you’re reflecting on the whole damned journey, probably still leaking plasma and tears into your bandages. As I looked back at my journals from a decade and a half ago I found entries from both of those experiences: I didn’t need the commentaries to tell me much about Habakkuk’s experience because I had Damien’s own journals to tell me about mine. “Yeah God,” I want to say today, and pretty much what I did say in 2003 in the public library in Luton, “why do you make me…look at trouble,” which is also what Habakkuk says in Habakkuk 1:3.

The concern which Habakkuk actually has is outside himself, it’s not his turmoil which bothers him so much as the evil he sees in the world. How could a good God allow so much pain and suffering in the world, let alone that it’s the Chosen People suffering violence in the Promised Land. Is God good at all? Doesn’t God care, and if God does care then why hasn’t God done something yet? The people are not yet in exile, (we know with hindsight that that is coming for Israel and Judah but Habakkuk doesn’t know), so these verses are relevant to anyone who sees a bad world getting more badder and wonders what God is up to in allowing such a thing. This is where we get into Habakkuk 2:1 where we find the prophet, having asked the difficult questions, waiting with expectation of God’s answer. This is also a situation I have been in, and again my journals speak of it. “You don’t owe me an answer,” I wrote, “because you are God and you don’t owe anyone anything: but I trust you to tell me what’s going on because I want to remain faithful.” God spoke to me in my journaling, and God spoke to Habakkuk in his watching with expectation. God tells Habakkuk in Habakkuk 2:2 to write down what he hears, and to write it in plain sentences. He must write briefly so that the words can be carried by a courier (don’t write a book Habakkuk!), and write clearly so that the message can be read clearly and simply so that the hearers will understand. And then in Habakkuk 2:3-4 we get the first part of the message, which is to have faith and wait with patience, trust that God knows what God is doing and that God is acting for the best. Do not be arrogant, do not go ahead of God in your own wisdom, but wait and be confident that God’s answer and activity are coming in the fullness of God’s perfect timing.

The righteous live by their faith we read in Habakkuk 2:4c. This verse is quoted by Paul, and reinterpreted in much of his theology and teaching. You are saved by God, and God alone, and nothing you can do in your own strength can save you, or add to your salvation. You can’t become “more saved” by anything you do, or say, or believe; you can’t become “less saved” either. Grace saved you, and once you acknowledged your salvation God was able to make a way for you to live a blessed and abundant life through attention to God. This is what we find Jesus teaching in Luke 19:9, when he tells the crowd that salvation has come to this house because [Zacchaeus] too is a son of Abraham.

So, the question we can ask now is, when is Zacchaeus saved? We know he is saved because Jesus has just told us that. Perhaps the better question is how was Zacchaeus saved, because that also answers the when question.  Well here are a few options:

  1. Maybe Zacchaeus is saved when he decides to seek Jesus. So there’s a good Christian answer: salvation comes at the point when he decides to follow and try to see Jesus, which he puts into action by running ahead and climbing the tree. That happens in Luke 19:4.

  2. Maybe Zacchaeus is saved when he responds to Jesus’ invitation. So there’s another good Christian answer: salvation comes at the point when he obeys the call of Jesus, which the first fishermen did when they dropped their nets, or when Matthew Levi did when he walked away from his money-table, and which Zacchaeus does when he climbs down from the tree and takes Jesus home. That happens in Luke 19:6.

  3. Maybe Zacchaeus is saved when he decides to repent. So there’s a third excellent Christian answer, probably the best of them all: salvation comes at the point when having fellowshipped with The Saviour Zacchaeus decides to be generous with his overflow, and tho restore what he stole and defrauded from his neighbours. That happens in Luke 19:8.

So, let’s vote:

  1. who’s for Luke 19:4 and the seeking?

  2. who’s for Luke 19:6 and the responding?

  3. who’s for Luke 19:8 and the repenting?

Okay. Well if you voted at all then you’re wrong: Zacchaeus is saved in Luke 19:9, which refers to a time way before this whole story began. Zacchaeus was already saved because he is a son of Abraham; he was saved by grace and therefore was one of the righteous, but he was not living by faith because he had been excluded from the rest of the community. Maybe Zacchaeus had removed himself from the community, preferring to stay away from all the RWNJs, Leftards, and the goodie-goodies of all flavours because he wanted to make money and influence. Or maybe he wanted to belong but he had been excommunicated and further shunned by the self-righteous, (RWNJs, Leftards, and the goodie-goodies of all flavours), who couldn’t accept the presence of someone “ew, like that” in their fellowship. Jesus reminds everyone, including Zacchaeus, including the raised-eyebrow grumbly mob from Luke 19:7, including us who read Luke’s story this morning, that salvation is by grace alone. Salvation is the free gift of God for everyone whom God loves: no-one has the right to banish anyone from the fellowship of the beloved ones, least of all should you exclude yourself. Now that Zacchaeus knows that he is saved, and now that the people of Jericho know that Zacchaeus is saved, (and that he always was), look at what happens; Zacchaeus begins to live freshly by faith. His trust is in God, not in his possessions, and his identity is in who he is (a son of Abraham), and not in what he is (a tax collector, a shyster, a pawn of the Empire, a small man with the full syndrome) or what anyone other than his LORD thinks he is.

So if Zacchaeus was saved all along, simply because he was born into a Jewish woman’s family (he’s a son of Abraham) what does it mean in Luke 19:10 that Jesus came to seek and save the lost? I mean, was Zacchaeus lost? If no, because he’d been saved all along, (and saved is the opposite of lost), then why would Jesus make this point here? It seems a bit out of context. And if Zacchaeus was lost, even though he’d been saved all along, then what does “lost” really mean?

Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? says Habakkuk. How long must I live as a faithful man, a once-hopeful man, in this world of violent sin? How long will the Babylonians get away with murdering the sons of Abraham, spilling Israelite blood on Israelite soil? Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? says Jeff from Jericho. How long will these blasphemous Romans live in the land promised to the sons of Abraham, and how long will those born to Jewish mothers participate in the extortion of taxation, robbing their own starving people? Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? says Zacchaeus. How long must I be excluded from the synagogue in Jericho and the Temple in Jerusalem just because I’m an accountant by trade? Aren’t I one of the sons of Abraham too? “When will you come and save the lost”, we all cry aloud to God, bringing to The LORD our endless and wearying struggles with life, and finance, and isolation, and illness, and injustice, and malpractice, and helpless hopelessness.

I wonder, maybe we are the lost: “The Lost”, with a big-T and a big-L and talky marks to make the point. Maybe the answer to every question of theodicy and why does God allow blah-de-bloody-bad-stuff is that Jesus came to save us, and the world, from it: therefore Luke 19:10. But that still doesn’t fully answer why there’s bad in the world, but doesn’t it more than fully answer what God has/is/will be doing about it? Or maybe it does, maybe it does fully answer the questions of theodicy: God’s response remains as yet incomplete. There is still work to be done, God is not finished with us or the world and we are not finished.

I am not afraid of the questions theodicy asks. I am not afraid, (perhaps I should clarify and say “I am no longer afraid” because I did used to be), I am no longer afraid when I catch my soul asking God “why”. I am not afraid as a pastor, nor am I afraid as a Christian, when anyone else or their soul asks God “why”. I am not afraid because to ask God these questions is to acknowledge that God is indeed the one to ask. And, I am not afraid because God (who is indeed the one to ask) has an answer: and that answer is “I am already working on it, look at Jesus, look at the Church”. (Okay so maybe that last bit scares me a bit, that God’s answer to hatred and violence in the world is The Church, because The Church…well…hmm.)

Look at Psalm 119:143-144 where the Psalmist exults trouble and anguish have come upon me, but your commandments are my delight. Your decrees are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live. Awesome, that in the midst of trouble and anguish (so bad stuff occurring and the effect it has on me) I can take delight in the commands of God. What God commands, God orders – puts in order. God commands the sun to shine and the moon as well, and even though the sun actually burns and the moon actually reflects, the fact that there is light is enough for me: Scientists are allowed to be correct about the universe and God can still reign. God ordains (commands it to be so and causes it to happen) that blessing flows where there is oneness in mind, we are told in Psalm 133:3. Psalm 119 is actually about Torah, so the “commandments” are literally the big ten, and the 613, in this poem; but they’re not only that. What I read is that when trouble comes we can be confident that God does have it “under command”, and that God’s “decrees” have substance forever, so what we need in such a time is understanding (help me to grasp this LORD) and faith. The righteous live by their faith we read in Habakkuk 2:4c, in other words those in close relationship with God go about their day to day (and your day today) with trust and confidence that God’s got it. Our prayer, as “The Lost”, is that God will continue to be God even when we don’t understand the what and why and where and who and how and when of what is going on, and that by the grace by which we were/are/shall be saved that God would trust us with the message of hope which was entrusted to the prophets years ago.

I know that I am saved. I know that God has “them” safer than they know. I know that “they” don’t know that. So today, may we all join with Jesus to seek and to assure of their gracious salvation, the others who are also lost.

Amen.

Wail

Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; Psalm 137

Well! In all of my years as a Christian in church I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon on Lamentations. That’s not to say it’s never happened; more likely the message as it was didn’t connect with me or appeal to me, so I didn’t take much notice. I hope that today is not like that for you. On the other hand I have heard sermons on Psalm 137:1 with its famous disco riff By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion, popularised by Boney-M; less so on the notoriously misquoted Psalm 137:9 where God commands all Christians to bash out the brains of infants and rip the wings off newborn puppies. Yeah, that got your attention didn’t it!

And, like I did with Philemon last month, when I began my reading for this sermon I wondered why we need Lamentations in the Bible at all. I mean, isn’t there enough moaning and sighing going on in Psalms and all of the prophets, why Israel needs a specific book just to lament I don’t know. Well, I do know now, but I was wondering then. Like Philemon which in one way is about the specific message of reconciliation wherein it would be safe for Onesimus to return home, the big theme of the Jewish Bible is homecoming. You have messed up and you have been kicked out, but God is ready to welcome you home: be you Adam and Eve kicked out from Eden, or Saul kicked out from the kingship, or the entire nation of Judah kicked out from their land and into exile in Babylon. Exodus is about the journey home and Joshua and Judges is about how home is then made homely. Ezra-Nehemiah is a similar story. The stories of Kings explain why the exile happened, the messing up leading to the kicking out, and many prophets take up that story with the words of warning included. This is where Lamentations comes in, it is the sorrowful tale of the sorrowful people sorrowing: it is the explanation of why the people of Psalm 137 wept, and why God’s chosen nation had to remember Zion as a decimated past home rather than living in its glorious present. Sometimes it’s good to remember what was lost so that we appreciate it if we get it back: and even if we don’t get it back we are able to see with hindsight how faithful God has been to us, and we are prompted to worship.

In Lamentations 1:1 we read how the daughter of Zion mourns like a widow, how the much cherished princess is now a servant-girl. Her husband is not dead, rather he has left her and now he is threatening her with divorce, that’s why she’s a widow. All comfort is gone, everyone has betrayed her and abandoned her; the daughter of Zion is alone in her grief, except for her enemies who are abusing her we read in Lamentations 1:3. What a tale of woe for the one whom God has caused to suffer: by taking away all her strength and every means of rebuilding that strength the daughter of Zion has been utterly destroyed by God. The sobbing goes on for a bit, and we take it up again in Lamentations 3:19 where Zion is now characterised as a man, and he is speaking for himself rather than being described by a narrator as the daughter of Zion was. Zion speaks like Job here, bitterness is in his mouth and he is utterly desolate, but even in that there comes a spark of joy. Here, again, is the thought that even if God will not restore what we have lost that it was God who gave all the good things first, and God is faithful to God’s own character. God is worthy of worship, and beginning at Lamentations 3:22 that is what we hear and see. The song of Zion is returning to the mournfully abandoned man and he no longer feels betrayed.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases sings the son of Zion, perhaps with clenched fists and gritted teeth. “I will hope, I will hope,” he says, grasping at that small flicker of light, blowing on that one last bit of red in the coals and ashes of his incinerated life. Like Job he says “I am not cut off”: everyone and everything may be gone, every “thing” and every “one”, but not God. God is here because God is faithful, and not only faithful but steadfast, and not only steadfast but steadfast in love. I have hope, says the son of Zion, I have hope because God always brings the dawn and with the dawn God always brings my portion. Maybe the point has come in time where the son of Zion has confronted his exile, he’s taking account of his sins and recognises why he is in Babylon now and not in Zion. Not every disaster that befalls a believer in God is divine punishment, neither is distress always the plain consequences of sinful behaviour; however in this case it is the truth. God is faithful, and I am faithless: and because I am faithless I am here, in exile, and not in Jerusalem; and because God is faithful I am here, in exile, and not in Hell or otherwise dead. Where there is life there is hope; and even here, by the rivers of Babylon, I am living and I am alive, and God is present. Thanks be to God.

As someone who loves God fiercely, and who knows that he is loved by God with even greater ferocity, I like that the language of the Bible is bold. And as a man who has lived with illness and disability for all of his adult life, and much of that psychological and emotional, I like that the language is not only bold but dead-set blunt. Lamentations is honest in its grief, as is much of Job, and many of the psalms including Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion; and it’s no wonder when you consider what we have just heard. They didn’t just weep, they lamented like the darling daughter who is shut out in the cold not only by daddy but by her fiance. They grieved like the king who has lost everything and everyone, and all he has is cold ashes and boiling memories. That’s what’s going on for them, so when the Babylonians say “hey, gissa song then, how about one of those songs where you boast about how awesome your God is and how Zion is impregnable, bahahaha”, they are not laughing. No, they are seething. First they whinge, and rightly so, about how it’s all a taunt and that even if it wasn’t there is no mood for joy and celebration when you’re living in exile. Then they grieve when they think of the songs themselves, songs about the land God gave them and the land they filled with crops and children, a land that is now desolate and abandoned. No-one wants to be reminded of what was once glorious but is now a ruin, yet these are hymns of praise to God and isn’t God worthy of praise even if the people have sinned and the land has been wrecked? Yes, God is worthy, and in signing God’s praises the memory of what has been lost comes to the forefront. Look at Psalm 137:4 and Psalm 137:7 where the poet refuses to forget God but the memory of God is also the memory of defeat. God’s beautiful city was destroyed by bogan pagans, and as a royal priest and a holy citizen that triggers rage in the poet, which is why he wants everyone and everything associated with the Babylonians dead. Again this is raw, honest, blunt language: but because it is these things it is also worship. To pray like this is to trust God completely, to trust God with your emotions and your vulnerability, to have the greatest respect for God, the God who laid you low in Exile but who hears your righteous rage at what has become of Israel.

The commentaries that I read all said about Psalm 137:9 that it’s good to vent. God doesn’t really want you caving in the skulls of toddlers and God is not going to be doing that sort of thing on your behalf: no children were harmed in the making of this story. If you’re that upset then have a good yell and a good spit and get it out there; however there’s more to it than that, and the commentators say more. The point is not only that it’s good to be raw and honest with God, although it is, but that God is not violent like that. Remember that God is steadfast in love; love doesn’t kill children, even the children of enemies, even the children of the Babylonians who had killed Judahite children. Even exile and slavery are not good reasons to kill people, says God.

To kill children is to kill hope. We see this in the church today where we wonder about the next generation; we wonder whether there will even be a next generation. God who is steadfast in love and alongside us in presence is the source of hope, and the promise to Abram back in the day was not only the land of Canaan but also the millions of descendants who would occupy it. What if God engineered the return of Israel and Judah from exile, just as God had caused the exodus from Egypt in the first place, but the nations had no children and so the nations died out in the land. “That’s not who I am,” says God, God is not the sort of personality to cut off hope from anyone, even from Babylon: neither is God the sort who repays an eye for an eye. As Christians we know that God is faithful to all who place their hope and trust in God, you don’t have to have had a Jewish mother for God to love you as one of the chosen: it seems this love and invitation extends even to the Babylonians. Hope must not be killed, babies must be allowed to live, God is to be glorified even in the depressing place of mockery and isolation.

Our hope lives because our God lives: this is the message of Lamentations and of Psalm 137. That we live in a hole of human construction is not God’s fault, but it is God’s concern. God is concerned because God’s people are suffering, and God’s remedy is coming just as sure as it did last time, in Egypt.

Even in a time of lamentation, of anger and bitterness and shame, we can rejoice in the steadfast love of God.

Amen.

Sunday 6th October 2019

Serviceton Church of Christ

Where There’s Smoke

This is the text of my ministry message for the September 2019 edition of The Vision, which is the quarterly newsletter of Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry.

How many of you are purveyors of social media I don’t know, although I am aware that some of you are attached to Facebook and Twitter because you are connected with me on those platforms. You may then be aware via The News According to Twitface that several high profile Christians are declaring a loss of faith, or perhaps the realisation that there never was faith for them in the first place. Among the several is Marty Sampson, one time lead worshipper at Hillsong Church Sydney and lead singer with the band Hillsong United. A decade and a half ago Marty wrote the words: “I want to live, I want to love you more, I want to be used, Father, in all of the world, may your word be heard, and may it stay on my lips, to live what I speak, until your kingdom come”, (“Shine For You” © Hillsong Publishing, 2003). I remember this song fondly, and particularly this bridge as it has been my own prayer for some time, probably since 2004 when I was participating in Hillsong Church London. But for Marty all the shazam of Hillsong has not been enough, and he thinks (and says) that the issues within Christianity have put his faith on shaky ground. Marty has not renounced Christ, but he is expressing the raw honesty of a young man (he’s 40) struggling with a Bible which is self-contradicting, and a church which proclaims miracles as reality yet does not see them evident in worship contexts. His central soundbite is “no-one is talking about it”, suggesting that in his church experience the issues with Christianity are being ignored, or papered over.

Whether this is a legitimate critique of Hillsong Church or of Pentecostalism in general is not for me to say, but I do think it’s a fair point for Christianity in Australia. It is appropriate for us to look into our own church and not just point fingers at the happy-clappies (and jumpy-shouties). Is Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry prepared to engage with going deeper into Christian doctrine: do we acknowledge Marty’s concerns and see what he sees? How are we addressing the struggles of believing and trusting a 2000 year old message, a message that includes talking donkeys and massacred enemies as “facts”? How do we answer Marty’s question about a God of grace and love who sends the majority of humans to a fiery, eternal Hell simply because they haven’t said a certain prayer at some point during their earthly life? Or do we just concentrate our attention on singing “All I need is you Lord”, (“All I Need Is You” ©Capitol Christian Music Group, 2005), louder and louder in an effort to shout down the screaming crescendo of doubt until such time as we find we actually do need more from Jesus than a bunch of unquestionable doctrines?

Inside KSSM right now doubt is welcome. (I wanted to say “under my ministry” but I’m not the “above” type of minister; however if you need your senior pastor to say that then he just did, even in brackets.) I do not want anyone drifting away from Christ because of unanswered questions, unaddressed fears, or squashed doubts. Curly questions are welcome in our family: trite answers are not. I think it sad, and more than sad, that Marty heard no-one addressing these concerns in his Christian home, (especially since I lived in that same home for six years and I did hear such conversation), but it would be for me an absolute tragedy if someone looking back at KSSM in 2019 from years in our future were to say the same.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith: doubt is a necessary part of faith, and doubt addressed is what creates trust. Without doubt there is only certainty, and certainty is the condition where learning stops happening and smugness and self-reliance set in. I have no interest in participating in a congregation which is smug and self-reliant, and I will resist with every part of my being the development of such a congregation where I am in leadership. In view of that the invitation stands: talk to me, ask me, bring The Spanish Inquisition if you must (so long as they bring coffee with them…), but do not be afraid or ashamed of your doubt or your questions. As your pastor I am primarily the one who is responsible for your spiritual care and your spiritual health, I am here to teach you and to love you: I hope you feel safe enough in my care to talk to me first before you walk out the door and leave church and/or faith behind.

My front door is always open so that the church’s back door is kept closed. Please stay.