Wait (Easter 6C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 26th May 2019.

Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67:2; John 14:23-29

In our story from the Christian Traditions this morning we read how Paul heard God speak in the visionary voice of a man of Macedonia, leading Paul to change his direction and go there instead of elsewhere to proclaim the gospel.  Paul headed straight for the capital city, Philippi, by as direct a route as he could find:  Samothrace is a mountainous island and so a bit of a navigational landmark, and Neapolis is the coastal part and maybe the port town for Philippi.  So it looks like he’s in a hurry (and wouldn’t you be if God had called you with such a demonstration) and he has no interest in side-tracks or delays.  And once Paul and his crew get to Philippi they do nothing until Shabbat when they leave town and find a quiet place to pray, probably to ask something like “righto God, we’re, now what?”

So, Paul is not necessarily shunning the synagogue, there probably isn’t one in Philippi so he goes where the Jews go, which is beside the river, and it is there that the crew meets Lydia of Thyatira.  So, who is Lydia?  Well, she is Greek, (her name tells us that), and she’s from Thyatira in the district of Lydia which is later named as host town for one of the seven churches of Revelation.  We know therefore that Lydia is neither Jewish nor Judean, but we are told that she honours God as revealed within Judaism, and one of the Greek words used to describe her is used elsewhere in Acts to describe people who are “devout”, so we can join the dots there, maybe.  Anyway, Lydia receives the missionary’s baptism and she invites Paul’s group into her home.

This is a sort of Paul-version of the conversion of Cornelius under Peter’s  tutelage from Acts 10 which we foreshadowed a few weeks ago when we heard about Tabitha of Joppa.  Where Cornelius was on active duty at Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea and where Pilate and his mates lived most of the time: Philippi is also a military town but is a veterans’ colony, so a soldier settler place.  Lydia is a trader who sells upmarket clothing, probably just the thing for Mrs Centurion in her husband’s retirement, so she’s a great social contact for Paul in Philippi.  But, but, even more important than her entre to “farshion” and society, the fact that Paul does take up her offer of hospitality demonstrates that he accepts her as a sister-in-Christ.  She’s a Christian, and many would say she’s the first European convert.

So that’s all pretty good then.  Lydia accepts Christ, Paul accepts Lydia, and the gospel and its missionaries have an opened door to European soil via a respectable city of good, middle class retirees with disposable income.  But none of that would have been the situation if Paul had hushed the Spirit and pushed into Roman Asia or Bithynia.  So I wonder, has God ever closed a door on you like that?  Has God closed several in a row like that?   Twice the Spirit resisted Paul’s attempts to change state, until God spoke to Paul in this vision and gave him the direction God wanted Paul to go.  Sometimes we hear no (and need to hear no) before we hear yes/go.  So, do you know how to “Praise God in the Hallway” as some would have it; can you walk forward until God opens an eventual door?  How far, or for how long, can you walk that dark corridor of locked doors until you tell God you’ve had enough and you decide to kick one in just to reach the sunlight?

The compositor suggests in Psalm 67:2 that one of the observable signs of God’s blessing is when God’s way is made known; in other words you know God loves you when God actively directs you.  This is good to remember, especially when all God seems to be saying to you is “no, not there,” or “no, not yet,” and it’s never “yes” or “here”.  Sometimes, from experience, I wonder what is worse; is it when God is always saying “no”, or is it when God isn’t saying anything at all?  Experience, again, prefers silence, because at least when God is silent you can sit down in good conscience and wait for instruction.  When God is saying “no” and you’re not even allowed to sit down, so you’re bobbing up and down like a child anticipating the paused soundtrack in a game musical chairs you look and feel like an idiot.  As a preacher I’m supposed to tell you that the clear voice of God is always preferable to the complete silence of God, as a Christian of some life experience I will tell you that that is not true.  But yes, the psalmist is right, if God is talking to you and showing an interest in your way then you know that God is interested in you for you, and that is good: it worked out well for Paul, and for Lydia because Paul was faithful.  It has and always did work out well for me too, but theological hindsight can be a bit arrogant too; waiting is hard, but it’s worth it.

In today’s story from the Jesus Traditions, drawn from John 14:23-29 and Jesus’ last meal with his mates we get to earwig in on Jesus saying much the same thing.  If you love me, he says, then you’ll do what I ask: not because I’m a diva but because I’m speaking the words The Father has given me, and God’s words are good stuff.  This is how Jesus reveals God to the Church and not to the world at large, so to this degree the message is hidden.  Jesus is speaking in this situation to his mates, the twelve around the table, and through the gospel as a book to the Church, the ones who love Jesus and only to them.  The world will not do as Jesus commands, they don’t love him and they don’t know him; so why should we expect them to obey someone they don’t know or love?  Who is God to tell them what to do, God is a stranger to them.  But God is not a stranger to us, just as God was not a stranger to Paul, or Lydia for that matter, and just as Jesus was not a stranger to any of the twelve.  Jesus is lord to us and friend, and how does Jesus know this, well just as the psalmist said, because we listen to the One who speaks to us and we do what God tell us.  And when we do that, and don’t do what God tells us not to do (or do what God has not told us to do), when we do what God tells us to do then God acts through our doing and great stuff, God stuff, gets done.

Well that sounds good doesn’t it?  Do what God tells you to do, because if you know you’re being directed by someone whose love for you is wider than the cross, then you are confident that won’t be told to do something dangerous or stupid.  And God will work in your doing, and great things happen like the coming of the gospel to the continent of Europe: glory to God, kudos to Paul.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be part of what God is doing in the world; does anyone here not want to be involved when God starts doing stuff in Kaniva and Serviceton?  When I’m calling for volunteers on God’s behalf is there anyone who’d rather keep his or her hand down?  Yeah, didn’t think so, so we’re all agreed: God, come and tell us what to do.

And what if God did, and God said…“wait, just sit.”

And what if God did, and God said…“not now.”

And what if God did, and God said…“not there.”

And what if God did, and God said…“no, not there either…or there.”

Last week we spoke a bit about places where it can be hard to be a Christian, but where the hardest of Christians live as a response.  Not the sooky flabby Christians of Australia, people like you and me who need to HTFU, harden the faith up; but proper Christians who deal with persecution and violence and may face a choice between Christ and murder, or denial and release.  Inspiring stuff, and I pray that you are continuing and contending in prayer.  It’s still Ramadan until sundown on 2nd June, and it will still be the twenty-first century in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East well after that.  That kind of horror does hold some fantasy about it, that God might call you not to Macedonia but to The Maldives, or Medina, or…someplace in North Korea that starts with “M”.  Martyrdom and heroism, what a calling!  But to be honest, all of us in this room will probably be called to stay if not in this room then at least in this district, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are absent.  And God will call you “not there, not yet, not now,” blah de blah.  What do we do with that?

Well, we do what Jesus commands via John 14:26, we wait for the Advocate and we lean on God.  Just because the instruction to go is not coming yet does not mean that Godself is absent: Holy Spirit is here, now just as much as Holy Spirit will be with us there, later.  You don’t have to wait for God without God, wait for God with God.  An interesting piece of Christian language is that we “wait on God”.  “On.” Think about that for a sec.  Do we wait on God as if God is a chair or a mat, or a playful Daddy lying on the floor with his toddler sitting on his chest?  Do we wait “on” God?  Meh, why not, that can work, can’t it?  Or do we wait on God as if God is a patron and we are wait staff, waitresses and waiters, maybe Baristas if we’re hip enough.  While God is sitting and waiting, and causing us to not go there and not go now, maybe we can serve God where we are.  Okay God is not in a cafe, but have some imagination in your prayer and worship, what would it look like in real life to “waiter on God”.

In two weeks’ time we will have reached the end of the Christian season of Easter, and the Feast of Pentecost will be upon us.  I’ll be in red, you’re welcomed to join in, and we’ll talk about fire and wind and power and spirit and language and it will be awesome.  But do we have to wait another fortnight for awesome?  Do we have to wait only another fortnight for awesome?  What if we wait a fortnight and the only awesome thing is my red shirt, and it’s an otherwise “Sunday in West Wimmera”.  These are not rhetorical questions, I do want you to answer them, but not now and not here.

Two weeks after Pentecost we enter the Christian season of Creationtide, and I’ll be in green until the Sunday before Lent.  That period in Christian thinking is about growth and newness, so yes there is some waiting involved but as all of you who are farmers know, or know someone who is a farmer know, if you just wait for growth and do nothing then nothing will grow.  I have asked the Shared Ministry council, so the Uniting Church elders and councillors and the Church of Christ deacons together, to ask God what God is saying to Kaniva and Serviceton, and what God is saying to the Shared Ministry church.  I invite you to join them, join us really because I’m on that council too.  Ask God, what do you want from us, and what do you want for us?  What do you want for our towns, Lord?

Maybe there’s another Paul somewhere who tonight will see a vision of a “Man of Wimmera” begging him to come.  Maybe there’s a man or woman in Wimmera who tonight will see a vision of a “Man from ‘someplace in North Korea starting with M’”, or “Melbourne”, or “Merretts South Road”.

Let’s be ready, whether we are Paul or Lydia in the coming story, let’s be ready.

Amen.

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A Dedicated Faith (Praying with “Open Doors Australia” during Ramadan)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva Unting Church for Sunday 19th May 2019.  It was a special service of prayer and reflection for the Church under Persecution and for Muslims seeking God during Ramadan.

Sirach 2:10; Romans 12:12; Hebrews 12:1; Ephesians 6:18

Two weeks ago, (on my birthday would you believe it), I was in tears at the end of the service.  I was crying not because it was my birthday, (47 years is nothing to be ashamed or desolate about), but because one of my heroes of faith had died.  A young woman who had authored four books alongside countless blog posts, emails, and tweets; a young wife and mother with a three year old and a one year old child at home, and only thirty seven years old, passed away in hospital after complications following treatment for an otherwise ordinary, unrelated health complaint.  The shock of her death caught me off guard and I wept for her, for her family, and for her legacy.  Sometime when we lose a hero of the faith we lose something few others understand.

Today I want to speak about two more heroes of the faith, one thirty years dead and another old but alive in this life, heroes of the Christian Church in the twentieth century.  I do that in honour of the work that the Church is doing at the edge of its world, which nonetheless is the centre of God’s attention.

One of these great heroes, someone perhaps better known to you than the recently called home Rachel Held Evans, the young mother of my opening paragraph, is the Dutch survivor of the Nazis Cornelia Arnolda Johanna ten Boom.  Corrie, as she is known, passed away in 1983, (the year I turned 11), and I remember her story from a cartoon version of her book “The Hiding Place”.  I’m sure I saw a movie version around the same time too.  After her release from penal detention in a German camp, a place where her sister had died of illness and neglect, a place to which all the ten Boom women had been sent for the crime of keeping Jews hidden from the Gestapo, Corrie travelled widely speaking of God’s grace to her and her family.  She was and is remembered for her love, and her attempts at forgiveness, even when met by a former camp guard at one of her rallies.  Corrie proclaimed for all of her days that God is always good, even in Ravensbruch.  Corrie’s was a story of dedicated faith and the message was inspiring to me as a church-going Aussie kid who liked to read. I suspect it may have been for you too.

Another cartoon book hero of my Christian childhood, and another Dutch person of dedicated faith, is Andrew van der Bijl.  Brother Andrew and his Beetle full of Bibles is a legend of our religion, taking his chances with the Communists who routed the Nazis from Eastern Europe only to plant their own special kind of restrictiveness.  Unlike Corrie, Brother Andrew is still with us, although he’s just had his 91st birthday last week so we take nothing for granted.  Brother Andrew is no longer smuggling Bibles under the Iron Curtain, not because he’s old, but because the need is no longer there.  However, his Open Doors organisation is still involved in supporting the Church and proclaiming the gospel in places where it is dangerous and difficult to do so.  In fact Andrew had already pulled back from his work in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 so as to focus on an area of greater and ongoing need: the Muslim World.

We are currently in the Islamic month of Ramadan.  Okay maybe “we” aren’t, but that’s the month our Muslim neighbours are living in at the moment, and it is a time of daylight fasting and prayer for them.  In view of this, Open Doors in Australia and New Zealand is encouraging local churches in our countries where it is relatively easy and safe to do so, indeed places where it is downright cushy, to join in prayer for two key things.  First, that Muslims in their dedicated acts of devotion this month, in their prayer and fasting, in their searching and beseeching, are met by the Living Word of God who is Jesus.  Oh God, let those who seek God earnestly find God completely: let them see Jesus.  So that’s first, and that’s awesome.  Isn’t is awesome?  Yes, it is.  And second, that we would pray safety and protection upon the Church, and local churches, in nations where Ramadan is a central event.  There’s no baiting here, but there is reality, that when Ramadan comes around some believers in the Quran seek to purge the world of infidelity and impurity by knocking over the Christians.  Maybe they’re tired and hungry, maybe they’re radicalised by the nature of their devotion, but Ramadan can be an especially bad time to be a Christian.  So we stand with our brother-sisters in Christ that they are protected from violence, and that they take up opportunities to show love and compassion for their neighbours who are seeking God with fervour.

In many of the countries where Islam is the majority religion, and in some where it is the official or state religion, there was once a vibrant Christianity.  Islam is about 600 years younger than Christianity, and in the days between Jesus and Mohammed the countries that are now Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria (to name only four) had numerous bishops and cathedrals.  I am not here to talk about the destruction of those cultures in the seventh century, or the ways in which Christianity fought back in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries in Crusades and the Reconquest of Spain: but I am going to point to what has gone.

In recent weeks, since Easter really, we’ve had a few readings from Revelation.  We have heard how Revelation was addressed as a letter of encouragement and sent to seven churches as a prophetic act for the building up of all people toward the end of the first Christian century.  The question I’m asking today is what happens to Churches who do not overcome?  Churches can die; look at the seven churches today and you will see that many are no longer places of Christian worship.  Yes they were finished off by the Muslim invasions, but they were on their way out long before.  If churches like Ephesus and Colossae (near Laodicea), fellowships founded by St Paul and governed by St John as bishop can be gone in a couple of generations how can we presume this will not happen to us?  Brother Andrew’s counsel is “strengthen what remains,” which is why we must pray now for the Church where it is under assault.  Paul wrote to one group of Christians undergoing hard times and external pressure saying rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, check out Romans 12:12.  To another group he wrote pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication…to that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints, see Ephesians 6:18.  If you’re suffering then pray, if you are not suffering but you are aware of others who are suffering then pray.  Whether we are in the first group or the second, and I hope it’s obvious where we are today, the call to prayer for the saints is non-negotiable, and I encourage you to heed the invitation of Open Doors and Brother Andrew to hold up our sister-brothers in prayer.

The other question raised by Open Doors’ call, at least as far as I see it, is what does Christianity have to say to people who seemingly have nothing to lose?  What is the Christian response to Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps?  What about entire families of Pakistani Christians living almost as slaves making bricks because they can’t get better jobs without denying their Lord?  What about the widows and orphans or the child-less parents made across Sri Lanka after resurrection services were bombed and terrorised on Easter Day?  What does our religion say to such as these, and if it can’t speak coherently to Christians standing against the crimson tide of martyrs’ blood, what can it possibly offer to Muslims seeking God during Ramadan?

An interesting insight which I don’t think I’ve preached on, and which I have certainly never heard in a sermon, is that Emmaus was a Roman garrison town in the time of Jesus.  Now of course there were Judeans living there too, it was a town with a base and not a base in and of itself, but I wonder…I wonder, were the two on the road on the night of Easter Day hoping to change sides?  Yes, great, we know the story of Jesus appearing on the road and explaining the whole Bible from page one and Genesis 1:1 to page two thousand and twenty and The Map of Paul’s Journey to Rome.  We know about the breaking of the bread and Jesus disappearing without even a cloud of smoke or unleavened flour.  But were Cleopas and his friend (his wife) simply returning home after a disastrous Passover in the big smoke, or were they doing a Judas (or a Josephus of the next generation) and getting their names on the safe list with the local constabulary?  Tired apostles, or trying apostates?  And how do we feel about that sort of thing now; the Christian father for whom it is all too hard to live another day for Jesus in Baghdad or Beirut or Bishkek, and who converts to Islam to save his family from poverty and murder?  Words from the Hebrew Tradition just prior to the time of Jesus remind us to consider the generations of old and see: has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed? Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord and been forsaken? Or has anyone called upon the Lord and been neglected?  You’ll find that in Sirach 2:10, if you have a Bible with Sirach in it.  It’s a great encouragement, but it might not be enough if Jesus doesn’t meet you on the road and come in for tea.  In Hebrews 12:1 we are reminded that since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we can lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and…run with perseverance the race that is set before us.  But what if there are no witnesses where you are, no great stadium filled with the athletes who have already finished the marathon to cheer you on over that last 400 metres of your own race?  What if you are running for Jesus, but you’re running alone, and the weight of expectation is too much to bear, so you drop all Christian expectation and try to run life unencumbered rather than dropping out of life entirely?  We must pray for them, and more importantly pray with them.

So, two things, the same two things that the New Testament writers and editors, along with Andrew, Corrie, and Rachel have said.

  1. Run in a group. Stay close to Jesus by staying close to those of your friends who are staying close to Jesus.  Pray for your own strength, ask God to strengthen what remains of your dwindling energy.  Seek God until you find God, then keep going in deeper in the confidence that God is good, even in Ravensbruch.
  2. Be the group that others run with. Exclude no one from the pack, no matter what condition or colour their shirt (or all colours).  It is good to pray for those who persecute you, and pray for those who are persecuted, that’s Jesus stuff, but do more than pray.  You can petition for change, post letters and tweets of encouragement, be one of the great crowd of witnesses who yells the same story as Sirach of how God came through for you.  This is not just a local thing, being faithful to the Christians of the Wimmera, be the group that is The One holy catholic and apostolic Church: run with the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and let them know too.

And one more thing, pray with those who experience violence and resistance, not only praying for them.  Pray for them in the words they pray for themselves; they do not pray what we might think they pray, or even how we might pray if we were them.  Pray with Christians in Muslim-majority communities that the persecutors would come to see Jesus as saviour and master, not that the persecution would stop.  As iron sharpens iron the Church in these places doesn’t want to become safe: they grieve for us in Australia because in our faith we have become fat and lazy, our prosperity is a bigger barrier against Christ than their persecution in their view.  So we pray that Muslims would see Christ and turn to him because Christ is the better option for life, not because we want the bullying will cease.  That is the prayer of a dedicated faith.

This week, indeed from the evening of May 5th (on my birthday, would you believe it) until the evening of June 2nd, more than one and a half billion people will spend every daylight hour fasting and praying for guidance from God, and wisdom for a God-honouring life.  Some of them will make mistakes and go and kill Christians in their misguided piety, but think of the thousand million crying out for a revelation of God, a revelation we have seen.  Open your heart and open your mouth, let them know that you are with them in the name of Emmanuel, God with us.

Two weeks ago I wept in exhaustion because a channel of the voice of God was rendered silent by a medical complication.  This week I am tired of weeping over the many channels through whom the voice of God has never spoken; voices never released to proclaim the Father’s glory, the Son’s compassion, the Spirit’s comfort, the soul’s rest.  Open your heart to God and ask that those mouths will be opened by grace to declare all praise to God, the merciful and compassionate one.

Amen.

Mighty to Save 2 (Easter 4C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for proclamation on Sunday 12th May 2019.

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; John 10:22-30

In today’s story from the Jesus traditions the writer makes the point that these events take place in winter.  But it’s not about it being cold, it’s about the setting of the event during the Festival of Dedication.  Hanukkah goes for eight days, usually in December (depending how the Jewish and Roman calendars line up), and it recalls the rededication of the temple by the Maccabeans after their revolt against Syria in 167-160 BCE.  The centre of the celebration, other than the routing of the invaders and the rededication of God’s temple to God, is that it was followed by a century of Jewish independence which flowered between 160 BCE and 63 BCE.  In 63 BCE the Romans had arrived, and by the time we take up the story of Jesus in Solomon’s Portico they had been present in Judea for nearly one hundred years. That’s why it’s important to know that it is winter.  “Winter is coming” we might say; there is a “game of thrones” afoot.  So, is Jesus about to do a Judas Maccabeus and throw off the foreign oppressors; is he the Messiah or not?  That’s the actual question the Judeans are asking him in John 10:24; “Jesus if you are ‘Messiah’ then where is the army coming from and when is the uprising?”  And what does Jesus respond?  He says (and you can read it for yourself in John 10:25) I have told you and you do not believe.  So what does that mean in the context of this story?  Well it means two things actually: a) yes I am ‘Messiah’, and b) I keep saying that the Messianic plan is not about an army but you’re not listening.  Let’s keep reading from John 10:25, the works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.  Jesus ends his response with the claim that he and The Father are “one”.  If we were to read on we would find that the Judeans are ready to stone Jesus, right there in the temple according to John 10:31, because of this claim.

This story is the only place in John’s gospel where Jesus is directly asked to name himself as “Messiah”, in other places he’s asked if he’s “one whom we might expect” or words to that effect.  And Jesus does not say “I am the Messiah” in language as plain as that, but rather than what Jesus does not say let’s look again at what he does say.  He says I have told you, so the question has already been answered, and he says the works I do in my Father’s name testify to me…The Father and I are one, which he offers as interpretation and evidence of that answer.  Jesus is not saying that he is God, but as I’ve said just now that is what the Judeans hear him say and they are ready to kill him: no, what Jesus is saying is that his work, the things he has been doing, are indistinguishable from the work of The Father.  Jesus is not The Father, they are not the same person, but these two individual identities have one agenda and one mindset; they are completely united.  For me, when Jesus speaks like this at Hanukkah and a Hanukkah when there are centurions in Jerusalem, he’s probably baiting the Judeans even more with what he really is saying.  Claiming to be God is blasphemy, fair point: but claiming to be the 100% embodiment of the agenda of God in the world, and then living that out by non-violent anonymous activities of prayerfully casting out illness, death, and demonic spirits, and specifically not casting out the Romans…well that needs shutting right down right now!

I wonder, what has Jesus told us about God’s agenda?  How has Jesus demonstrated God’s agenda, God’s heart to us in West Wimmera and Tatiara?  What do we want to shut Jesus up about before the message gets too far: what is he telling us to do instead of engaging in the fight we’ve been brewing for a hundred years?  Who, or what are we not supposed to overthrow?  Who are we supposed to not kill and kick out but deliberately welcome and serve because we are Church?

When Peter is invited to Joppa, and to the death-bed of Tabitha, we are given an insight into Jesus’ preferred options of discipleship.  In Acts 9:36 Tabitha is specifically called a disciple, (the Greek word specifies that she is a disciple and that she’s female), and her discipleship is proven by her reputation for good works and acts of charity.  Later, in Acts 9:39 personal testimony is added to reputation as all the widows wept and showed clothes that Tabitha had made.  Tabitha had served the poor and the marginalised, with practical help, and not one had been overlooked: all the widows had been made tunics.  It is likely that Tabitha was herself a widow, perhaps living in a communal house of widows, so she’s not just some charitable socialite giving her Cup Day hats to the Op Shop, Tabitha is herself poor and marginalised but that doesn’t stop her from showing love for others.  This is a woman in Christ’s image, truly a disciple as much as Peter himself.

But let’s not overlook Peter himself, look at his discipleship here.  He goes with the two men, who come to him at Lydda and bring him to Joppa, and he enters the house of weeping women.  That the widows are showing him their tunics and other stuff suggests to me that Peter took the time to be with them in their grief, he didn’t rush through the sook-fest of sobbing biddies and he didn’t think to see the room as that at all.  No, Peter deliberately stopped, and he comforted these distraught sisters, and he understood their loss.  Then he sends them all out of the room, and he goes across to Tabitha, and he greets her by her name. This is important because she’s been referred to as “Dorcas” in the story, which is not her name but a Greek language nickname.  So, calling her by her name he says “Tabitha, get up”, so a bit like when Jesus said talitha arise in Mark 5:41, and then he helps her up and he showed her to be alive to the widows whom he has invited back into the room.  See how much he has the heart of Jesus: not only the agenda of The Father outworked in healing the sick and raising the dead, but Peter basically follows Jesus’ dot points from Jairus’ house.  And having done as Jesus did Peter then stays in Joppa, he doesn’t return to Lydda, and more that that he stays at the house of Simon the Tanner we are told in Acts 9:43.  Simon works with leather and with chemicals to turn flesh into leather: so he’s handling dead animals, and he’s using ammonia drawn from urine to tan the leathers.  I wonder, how fragrant was Simon’s house?  How popular was it as a social hub do you think, a place of flesh, piss and vinegar?  Not only was Simon considered unclean by his profession, his house would have stunk: so why did Peter stay there?  We aren’t told, but I can guess.  Why, why do you think Peter stayed with Simon Tanner? Because he was invited?  Maybe having done the Jesus-and-Jairus episode Peter goes on to the Jesus-and-Zacchaeus thing.  No Pharisaic or Puritanic piety for old mate Pete, (who grew up stinking of fish anyway, let’s be fair), no Peter takes Jesus at his word and example to stay where he is invited and to leave only when the work is done.  Peter had more to do in Joppa, have a look at Acts 10 and see what God did next.  This is a man in Christ’s image, truly a disciple as much as Tabitha herself.

And so we get to my favourite thing about writing and preaching a sermon; no, not the end (bad luck, sucks to be you, I’ve still got a page and a half to go), no, we are at the bit where we look at a very familiar reading in a new way because of the other readings attached to it by the Lectionary.  So, with Jesus at Hanukkah in mind; and Tabitha and Peter and Simon Tanner in mind; what is God saying to us from “The Twenty Third Psalm”.

Discipleship of Jesus living out the agenda of God in quietly miraculous ways of healing, blessing, kindness, restorative action, justice, and with an example lived out through Peter and Tabitha; discipleship that is not about overthrowing the Romans, looks like Psalm 23.  How?  How?  How about confidence that there is no need to struggle for liberty when God meets all your wants with rest and lush pasture, still water, right guidance and restorative rest as we read in Psalm 23:1-3.  There’s nothing militaristic about that; but it’s not weak.  Psalm 23:4-5 speaks of confidence in the dark places, maybe even battle where into the valley of death rode the six hundred; confidence that there will be an “after battle” when there will be a meal and a good soak and a glass of red.  Good things will pursue you, God will come at you with mercy and healing and the offer of hospitality and a place to live forever in God’s house, we are encouraged to believe in Psalm 23:6, if only we live with trust.  This is not about Heaven for disciples, although there is that, it is about a life of calm trust that God is your provision and that if you are a disciple, a student, a follower, a pilgrim in the master’s mob, then you’ll be right.

Look, it won’t always be nice.  Just today we have been told how Jesus was very close to getting himself pelted to death with rocks, Peter slept in a house that smelled like the public toilet at an abattoir, Tabitha died from illness, and the widows were bereft and bereaved by her loss.  These are not nice adventures, and they were not one-off events either.  Jesus was threatened with death more than once, and he was brutally murdered in a way where stoning would have been a mercy.  Peter grew up stinking of fish, he too died by crucifixion, and he was left bereft and bereaved by Jesus’ death.  Tabitha was raised to life, but the fact that she was a widow suggests that she was married to a man who died at some point and then stayed dead.  And the would-be Maccabeans did kick up in 70CE, and Joppa would not have been any more fun a place to live as a houseful of widows than Jerusalem when the Romans out of Caesarea fought back.  For anyone living in such times, stuck and feeling abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death, the table set before enemies would have seemed like an impossible dream.  But the hope of the gospel says that it is not so, and that there is a resurrection, and there is a pursuing Christ with healing and happiness in his hands.

There is no need to fight.  Trust, acknowledge, rest.

Amen.

Mighty to Save (Easter 3C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry, gathered at the Church of Christ, on Sunday 5th May 2019.

Acts 9:1-19a; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Today’s psalm speaks of one man’s lamentation and then vindication: the one who cries out to God from the place of death, calling upon The LORD to save, was rescued and restored.  More than simply lifted out of bed, or commanded to pick up his mattress and walk home, the man of the psalm was specifically delivered from Sheol, and he responds to God’s gracious intervention by summoning his community to join his declaration of praise of God.  An early indicator of what this song is about is that only in despair do we truly know who God is and where God can be found: when we are in “prosperity” (Psalm 30:6) we forget to look for God and God is hidden from us; maybe God hides or maybe God is obscured by our stuff and nonsense.  But God is there when we re-/turn and God is faithful in welcoming us home with joy: God is always more ready to love and restore than to withhold and punish.

I wonder, do you have such a testimony?  We’ll come back to that, but keep your story in mind as we hear more about this man’s story.

There are two subheadings in the New Revised Standard Version added this psalm on the page: one says that Psalm 30 was associated in Jewish tradition with David and utilised in the annual rituals of dedication of the temple at Hanukkah.  The other subheading which comes from the twentieth century editors suggests that Psalm 30 is a song of thanksgiving for one man’s recovery from a grave illness.  I like that it can be both of things, it’s such a wonderful tribute to our God and to those who worship God.  I mean, why not both?  Why not praise for what God did for me as part of a greater festival of setting up the house of community worship for a great festival of God’s deliverance of the whole nation in a time of war and oppression. This is true of Judaism then and now, and also of Christianity, that God is interested in you for who you are and also in the whole congregation as a unity, indeed the whole of Creation as a unity: it doesn’t have to be either/or.

This is why Psalm 30 is a great psalm to read in the weeks after Easter.  Just have a look at Psalm 30:1-3 and focus on the individual story, the one man in his song of deliverance, and how he exalts and extols The LORD for drawing him up, the downcast one, and for lifting him above the scorn of the mockers.  They, (remember “they” from Easter Day?), “they” had thought the faithful man had been deserted by God, but God came all the way down into Sheol, down beyond the platform of the living and into the place of the dead to rescue the man who cried out, to rescue him from falling even further down and into “the Pit” as the psalm puts it.  God lifted him above all the scorn and all the pain and restored him to God’s presence, above the platform of the living, where there is healing and recovery.  Of course when I say “faithful man” this is no less true of a woman who cries out to God; but I also think it true of women and men we might consider not to be “faithful”, people who cry out in desperation even if they haven’t previously been religious or even Evangelical to our liking.

So I ask you again, how does this psalm fit with your story?  Have you ever cried out to God from “the place of death”, from “the grave” as it were?  If you haven’t then I assume it’s because you’ve never been to the lowest place; I assume this because if you have been to the lowest place and you did not cry out to God then how is it you are here today?  Seriously!  I can’t say I’ve been to Hell and back, because my journey took me through the middle of Hell and out the other side, and without God I’d be dead.  In fact without God I might have been dead on any one of multiple occasions, so if you’ve done it without God then either you’re lying, or you need to step up here and I need to sit down.  Anyone?  So we’re left with two options: either you’ve never been to Sheol; or you, like me and like the faithful man, have been down there, and the only reason you are here now, and not there now, is that God delivered you.  I hope none of you have been there, because Sheol, but if you have then you know why God is worthy of all honour and glory.

In Revelation 5 we read about another faithful man, one man who went to Sheol, even to the deepest depths of its Pit, and who returned because of God.  This man is the source and object of the community’s praise in Heaven: Jesus is worthy because he was victorious over death and all that leads to death, be that sin, illness, isolation, exposure, or shame.  In the eyewitness account of the recipient of the revelation it’s not just a choir of angels and a few assorted cherubim and seraphim who sing, but every created being that has a voice.  Every angel, every cherub, every seraph, every woman and every man, every beast, fish, bird, sheesh every rock and stone cries glory, because Jesus was vindicated by God in the sight of all creation for the benefit of all creation.  The cry begins under the earth, resounds across the earth, and culminates above the earth as even the Eldership of Heaven falls face-down.  That’s some adoration, massive praise and worship, glory and honour; but is not Jesus worthy of it?  All who have been to and thorough Sheol say “Amen!”, or as it translates into Australian, “oath mate!”

One of the commentators I use regularly describes Revelation 5:13 as “a song of praise to the Redeemer of all”, and I have to agree.  As it should be, really, given all that Jesus did and all he went through physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially, spiritually, and I’m going to suggest geographically as well.  Worthy is he, blessing and honour and glory and might, and power forever and ever.  I add my voice to that today, and if Revelation is a picture of the future then I’ll be singing my lungs out on that day too.  Glory to the one who came below the dirt and pulled me out of Sheol, lifting me above the sky to wipe me down, stand me up, and set me off on a new life.

Among the voices that will sing with me, and the psalmist, and maybe some of you, are those of Peter and Paul.  Their stories are told in the gospels and epistles at large; Acts 9:1-19a and John 21:1-19 are the set readings for today.  We haven’t read them this morning but I am sure you are familiar with these stories.  Can anyone remember what stories these passages tell?  Well, very briefly Acts 9 is the Damascus experiences of Saul the Christianophobe, and John 21 is the lakeside experience of Peter the wuss.  Both of these men have recently been through Sheol, in fact Saul is still on his way out.  Common to their stories is that their descent to the place where only Christ can save has happened because they let down Jesus.  Peter has denied knowing his best friend at the hour of greatest need; and Saul, well Saul just been very silly in general hasn’t he.  I’m not going to go into those stories now, you can read them for yourselves later, but I will say this; they were redeemed by Jesus.  Now of course we have all been redeemed by Jesus, that’s the cross and that’s Melody Green’s “thank you oh my Faaaather”.  But think specifically of Peter and Paul: these two nutjobs basically go on to found Christianity.  That’s a big and loose claim I know, and I’m not interested in debating it at all because you know what I’m saying; what I am saying is that these men were saved not only from suicide, (think of Judas in his despair), but from wasted lives because of wasted opportunities.  Christ meets them both and gives them what they need at the time, reassurance, forgiveness, friendship, and a mission.  “Feed my flock” says Jesus to Peter in John 21:15-17, and then in John 21:19 “ follow me”.  “Get back on your horse and go to the church, they’ll tell you what to do” Jesus tells Saul in Acts 9:8, and by Acts 9:20 he’s proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus the Christ.

Where are you today?

  • I’d be sad to hear that you’re in Sheol today; primarily because I’m your pastor and I didn’t know, but if you are then let me know, please. There’s no shame in being in Sheol today, and since I’ve already been there a few times I can show you the way out if you’d like.
  • Maybe you’re heading for Sheol; the bottom has fallen out of the world and you are falling and tumbling, and heading for a spreading that you know is imminent, so you’re bracing for impact. Again, please come and tell me.
  • Maybe you are climbing out; with God’s help assured because that is not a climb you can make on your own. Again, let me know, I won’t take your hand because you’ll need both of them to hang on to God, but I’m happy to rub your back.
  • Maybe, hopefully, you’re in a good place today. I’d like that to be true for each of you, because I don’t want disaster for any of you, but it’s okay if you’re not.  But it’s okay if you are, Jesus has risen and God is faithful and if life is blessing you today then praise God.  But if you have memories of your time in the shadowlands, I ask you to let those memories stir you to two activities.  One, show extreme and practical compassion to your sisters and brothers who are near the Pit right now, regardless of their theology and whether you’d accord them the status of “faithful”.  Even if they are not faithful, and who are we to say, but even if they are not, we are, and our job is compassion and support.  Don’t be the one kicking at the fingers of the climbing, which is never your job.  And two, which should be one because it is first, but is ongoing so I’ll say it last, worship and adore God the saviour, the redeemer, the healer and restorer and sanctifier.  Jesus is worthy of all praise, glory and adoration.

Bloody oath he is!

Amen.

Palm Sunday

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Palm Sunday 2019.

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 19:28-40

Palm Sunday is one of those days when you’d think the sermon, and the Bible readings, would be obvious.  Maybe that’s true, but then you all know me well enough now to know that the obvious sermon topic is very unlikely to appear when I am preaching, and even if it does appear it will be given a surprising slant.  So no, today we heard from Isaiah and Paul rather than Luke, but don’t worry, the donkey is on his way.

Today’s passage from the Hebrew Tradition, from Isaiah, is the third of four so called “servant songs”; in this song the servant is speaking directly to those Israelites who have strayed from God’s ways while they have been exiled.  The teacher in this case is not so much one person as he is a representation of the true Israel, the nation (and the group of people within it) who have stood their ground amidst abuse and disrespect from The Fallen because they know that The LORD is Israel’s companion and vindication.  The advice is to the straying people of Israel, but also to the Babylonians, and it is to say that God is faithful and dependable and so all hope is far from lost, even in this dire situation.  The teacher’s task, as it is in all four servant songs, is to take the word of God which God has spoken to him and to proclaim that word to the world, beginning with the fallen within Israel, the ones described as weary in Isaiah 50:4.  Conversely it is this mob of weary and disheartened who rise up and beat up the prophet with all the spitting and sneering and beard-pulling action; but even this has not disheartened the prophetic voice, since it shows to him how much his message of deliverance is required.  The servant says in Isaiah 50:8, he who vindicates me is near: who will contend with me.  In other words, God has my back, so bring it on, and let’s argue this thing out.  At the same time the teacher knows that scorners are gonna scorn, so he’s aware that even though God will vindicate him as a teacher and God will vindicate his message, he will still be beaten up and worn down in the work of teaching.

The same theme is seen in today’s Psalm, 31, which reads as a prayer for deliverance in the midst of distress.  Read, indeed hear how the psalmist complains to God how worn out with trying and with sorrowing he is.  This worshipper comes to God and tells The Father that he is mocked, shunned, abandoned, and shamed by his neighbours.  The psalmist has no friends except for God, but God is trustworthy and faithful, God is listening and compassionate, and God is his God who has eternity in sight.  No matter what other people say or do or think, the man or woman who remains faithful to God and to the calling of prophecy and teaching will be saved because God is steadfast in love.

Many of you know that I used to work as a schoolteacher.  I once might have said “I used to be a teacher”, but that’s not true: I still am a teacher, I just don’t work in schools any more.  So, as a teacher still, and one of God’s people set apart by God and the Church to bring the word from God to the people of God, I have some insights into this.

The first is that teaching can be physically dangerous.  Regardless of what we read in Isaiah, I can tell you that I have been assaulted at schools where I have taught.  I have been spat at and spat on, I have been kicked, punched, pushed, wrapped in sticky tape, had furniture thrown at me, had nuisance phone calls threatening me with arson, and I have been the subject of graffiti and emotional bullying.  (And that was just in the staffroom…)   And whilst no one has had a go at my physical person at church, yet, I have been emotionally beaten up in my teaching ministry in congregations through gossip, derision, and agendas pushed through councils of the church to have me banned from preaching because my words (which I  maintain were God’s) pricked somebody’s pimple.  I get why the Pharisees were angry at Jesus, and the exiles angry at Jeremiah and the suffering servant, I’ve been there on the receiving end and I’ve had my theology and my mental stability questioned by people who were offended by the gospel as I proclaimed it.  I know that I can also get shouty and sarcastic in my speech, and because of that I’m focussing today’s thoughts on those few times when I was not in the wrong.

The second is that teaching as an activity is useless if no one is learning.  For example, I could pause here for a moment and give you a twenty minute run down on how to add numbers across the tens barrier.  If you have enough fingers you can add three and five to make eight; but how do you add three more to eight when you run out of fingers.  I can teach you how to do that, I can teach you a number of ways how to do that, but you wouldn’t actually learn anything.  Why not?  Well because you all know, already, how to do that.  Even as I gave this example, of adding three to eight, many of you went, “yup, eleven”,  in your head, and none of you needed to remove a shoe to get enough digits.  What is the point of my teaching if you are not learning?  In fact if you are not learning then I would argue that whatever it is that I am doing up here, it isn’t actually teaching at all.  In the same way I could give you an excellent sociolinguistics lecture on Russian Formalism and the concept of ostranenie, as developed by Viktor Shklovksy.  You would all be amazed, no doubt, but would you be educated, would you actually learn anything?  Or would you be confused?  Even if I translated ostranenie into English as “defamiliarisation” would that help?  Even if I tell you that this is more of a narratological concept than a sociolinguistic one, and ask whether any of you noted the deliberate mistake three sentences ago, would that help?  Again, if you’re not learning, then I’m not teaching.

And perhaps putting points one and two together, if you don’t want to learn from me, then I’m not teaching you.  I cannot teach you if you don’t want to learn, and since this is church and not school I can’t force you to learn and keep you in your seat until you do.  In fact the last time I tried to force someone to stay in his seat until he learned something he stood up and threw the chair at me.  But, again, this is church and you can’t do that.  I hope I’ve made my point though, even if I am not in physical danger of immanent assault, and even if I pitch my sermons and Wednesday Bible studies at your level rather than at child or postgraduate speciality level, if you don’t want to learn then you won’t.  And if you don’t want to learn then I can’t teach you.  That’s okay, maybe you don’t need me to teach you, maybe you already know everything there is to know and so nothing that I say, even with eloquence and a sound pedagogical structure, will interest you in the slightest.  Maybe you don’t need to be here at all, or I don’t.  Maybe that’s what the exiles in Babylon and the Pharisees in Jerusalem thought about the bearers of God’s word.

Jesus wasn’t like that.  From Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi we read how the mindset of Christ Jesus, an attitude of humility and self-emptying, complete trust even in death lead to his exaltation and glory.  In a congregation where many of you hold the doctrinal position of “no creed but Christ”, here in Philippians 2:5-11 is a manifesto for us to proclaim, the complete words of scripture telling the life story of Jesus from incarnation to resurrection.  What it means to be like Christ, to be a Christian, is to be humble in humanity and obedient toward God.  We know this is the right way because the man who acted most fully in this way was exalted by God to the highest possible glory.  This is the attitude and the conduct that God rewards, because this is the human life by which God is most fully blessed.  Blessed are the teachable, for they will hear God most clearly and therefore obey God most fully.  The existence of Jesus, (more than his shape or his attitude) his very being is one not of grasping but of surrender.  More than what Christ does or even who Christ is, this is what Christ is as Christ, God the Son.  Christ is open-handedness, Christ is letting go, and Christ is unambiguous and unlimited trust in The Father, even as Christ is The LORD.  When all of that was accounted for in the incarnation and death of Jesus, at the resurrection the God-ness of Christ was restored.  Both are the real Christ, God the Son was no less God for being Jesus from Nazareth, the Son of Man.  Neither are we or anyone else any less the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) for being alive as women and men today.  Godliness is not about how much of a spiritual presence you are, rather than flesh-and-bone, godliness is about how much like God you are when God was flesh-and-bone.  Are you humble, do you know who you are and who you are not?  Are you teachable, do you know what you need to learn, and are you willing to listen to whichever teacher God sends you, be that a preacher, a podcast, a book, a shared experience with a mate, or an epiphany at the end of your bed.  And if you want God to speak to you in a book or a podcast, and God speaks to you in a sermon or a song, will you listen, or not?

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Friday on which he died, Luke tells us that Jesus was riding a colt.  Previously two disciples had been sent ahead to find the colt and to inform anyone who asked that the Lord needed the colt and that they should be allowed to take it.  The fact that Jesus was actually riding the colt shows that the colt was allowed to be taken to Jesus, and for him to ride it.  Someone was listening to God at that point, even when God spoke in the accent of some random Galilean who was sprung in the middle of untying the beast.  When Jesus (and the colt) rode into Jerusalem the people cried out “blessed is the king who comes!” and “peace in heaven and glory!”  Again, they had been listening for God and were ready to hear the word of Heaven however it came.  The ordinary Judeans heard God speak, even in their own voices, and even when the highly educated and rigorously theological scholars could not.  How ambivalent do you need to be to the coming of the Word of God that you are dull to the sounds of worship, dull to the presence of the Word Incarnate (even in humble form) standing in front of you, so dull that even the singing or rocks would probably escape you?

Seriously, how dull?  Dull enough that within a week you’ll hang the King of Kings for treason, and the God of Gods for blasphemy?  Today is Palm Sunday, open your ears, open your eyes, open your hearts; let worship alone open your mouths.  And in the name of every teacher who has ever lived to help you learn, please, resist every urge to be dull.

Amen.

Yeah-yeah! (Yeah-nah)

This is the text of the message I prepared for proclamation at Kaniva Church of Christ on Sunday 24th March 2019, the Sunday of Annunciation.  It was a combined, ecumenical service with the Anglican, Church of Christ, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, and Uniting Churches of Kaniva gathered.

Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 40:5-10; Luke 1:26-38; Hebrews 10:4-10

I am blessed to be able to address you all today.  By “all” I mean a gathering of Christians beyond my regular congregation; and by “today” I really mean tomorrow.  (Except that none of you would have come tomorrow, so today will have to do.)  What’s so special about tomorrow you might ask?  Well if you don’t know, find an Anglican or a Roman Catholic and let that person tell you.  (And if that person doesn’t know, tell me and then I’ll dob them in to Fr Nagi.)  Tomorrow, in those flavours of Christianity who pay attention to such things, is the Feast of the Annunciation; the day upon which we celebrate the messenger Gabriel and his news to Mary that she has become pregnant by God.  So, for those of you from Protestant traditions, for whom this is not a central event, have a think about it; it’s nine months tomorrow until Christmas day.  Have you heard of that idea before?  March 25th as the date of Jesus’ conception, yeah?  Yeah.

Well if you did know that, well done, but do you also know the tradition that the actual Good Friday upon which Jesus died was March 25th?  The theory goes that Jesus died on the anniversary of his conception; thereby completing the cycle of God the Son’s incarnation all rather neatly.  I must admit that I am radically unconvinced by this theory, for many reasons, but it is a rather nice puzzle even if it is all conjecture.  And hey, “Christ was born for thi-is, Christ was born for this” as we “good Christians all rejoice” back in December.

So tomorrow is potentially the two thousand and twenty third anniversary of the annunciation, and possibly the one thousand nine hundred and eighty-ninth anniversary of the real “Good Friday”.  It probably isn’t, but that doesn’t matter: it’s a good opportunity to be reminded that Jesus really was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried.  We may not all say the creed, but we all acknowledge the truth of Christ Jesus who is The Word Incarnate.

But what’s the point?  Well other than showing that “I is well ecumenical” and that even as a Uniting Church minister in a Church of Christ house I am on the ball with the varied flavours of Protestants, Anglicans, and Catholics in my town at large and congregation this morning, (and in my personal history as a worshipping Christian in this country and the United Kingdom), I believe that annunciation is actually worth celebrating just for what it commemorates.

So what does it commemorate?  Well it commemorates God choosing someone ordinary and anonymous for the most amazing act in all of global history.  Jesus is God the Son: on earth he lived as the Son of God and the Son of Man; exalted today in Heaven he reigns with the Father and the Spirit as Christ the Lord, King and Messiah.  But Mary?  Nah, Mary was just Miriam the teenager from Nazareth.  God did not choose Mary because she was special; Mary was special because God chose her.

And if God chose Mary, God can choose you.

But that’s not the whole story, is it?  Is it?  Well I’ve just told you it isn’t, so “no” is the answer I’m looking for here.

Take a look at Ahaz, whom God also chose.  We find part of his story in today’s set text from the Hebrew tradition, specifically Isaiah 7:10-14.  So as far as choosing proof-texts for annunciation goes this is a good one because we read where God previews the name and character of Jesus’ birth in the days of pre-exilic Judah: a young woman will give birth to a son who shall be named Immanuel, a name which means God with us.  But remember that Isaiah who spoke this word didn’t think he was addressing a peasant family in Galilee seven hundred and thirty years later; he is speaking to the king of his day in the culture of his day.  That Matthew 1:23 quotes this verse as proof to Joseph that the baby in Mary’s womb is God’s own is appropriate, I’m not saying it isn’t, but the point that Isaiah was making is very important and must not be overlooked in our rush toward Christmas.

The story around Ahaz, king of Judah, direct descendant of David and ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:9), is that Jerusalem is in peril from military attack and siege.  As king Ahaz has a few options, one is to form an alliance with Assyria which is the local superpower, and thereby come under its protection (in brackets “protraction racket”).  Another option is to seek to maintain Judah’s national independence and integrity by trusting in Jehovah and the promises made to Abraham and David of an eternal home from the Judahites and an eternal throne for the Davidic family.  Jehovah personally intervenes in the decision making process, speaking through the court prophet Isaiah, to say “I am God and here’s a tangible event to show that I’m with you, or even I AM (YHWH) is with you”, and then the baby thing.  That girl, yes that one, will have a child, which will be a boy, who shall be named “God is with us” because…well…I AM God and I am with you.  Isn’t that great?  A personal message from God to a leader in distress, with real evidence.  And just look at how this son of David, a son of Abraham, responds to this declaration of God’s faithfulness.  “Ahm, yeah-nah.” It probably sounds more epic in Hebrew, but essentially Isaiah 7:12 reads “yeah-nah”.

Yeah-nah.  Yeah-nah?  I mean, what the actual is “yeah-nah”?  God says “ask me for anything you wish as evidence that I am with you” and Ahaz says…well you know what Ahaz says.  The point is not the piety of Ahaz, “do not put the Lord to the test” is in Deuteronomy and is also one of the things Jesus says to the accuser during his temptations, so it sounds good.  But it’s not good.  No, it’s not good because Ahaz isn’t really saying what Jesus said.  Jesus said “I don’t need miracles to trust God, I trust God because God is trustworthy”: Jesus is no Gideon, no fleece required.  What Ahaz is actually saying is, “no, I’ve already made up  my mind to choose the Assyrian option, the alliance where the Holy Nation of God becomes a vassal to the evil empire, and I don’t want God to interfere.”  I’ve made up my mind, I’m going to do it my way, shut up and go away Jehovah.

Is that a statement of faith?  Is that a statement of submission and piety?  Yeah-nah.

And so we get back to Miriam the Galilean teen.  She was nobody special, but God chose her.  Ahaz was somebody special, and God chose him.  But Miriam did not become special because God chose her, just as Ahaz did not become special when God chose him.  Ahaz was already special, Miriam was still a peasant.  Miriam became special, became “The Blessed Virgin” and all that we read her say about herself in the Magnificat, and all that Elizabeth says about her, and all that the jumping Baptist in-utero pronounced, and all that the angel said to her and Joseph about her, when she said “yes” as we read in Luke 1:38.  (And effectively Ahaz lost his specialness when he said “yeah-nah” and walked away from God’s anointing.)

Today’s psalm, which is echoed in today’s reading from the Christian tradition, is about obedience to the call of God.  In Psalm 40:6-10, and quoted by the apostle on behalf of Jesus in Hebrews 10:5-7, we read how God is more impressed, indeed most impressed by attention to the Word which leads to obedience.  Ritual and the trappings of religion are not in themselves bad things, God does desire them and God ordained them as the means of grace for Jews.  Do not misread the scripture here, the call to worship is good.  But when God speaks to you and singles you out for a ministry, then your calling and your responsibility are to that beyond the duty to go to church.  The other girls of Nazareth were not damned for not being the mother of Jesus: by continuing to do what obedient Jewish daughters do, and by continuing to worship God within their households their obedience and worship were accounted to them as righteousness.  But Mary had a unique call, and her faith-filled response to God above worship and her relationship with her husband and family was accounted to her righteousness.  And look at what she did, having heard from the angel and accepting God’s invitation, the first thing she does is praise God and the second thing she does is nick off to Judea to be midwife for her cousin.  Mary the beloved of God, highly favoured and blessed amongst women is no less a good Jewish girl for her calling, she is all of that and more.

So, liturgically minded or not, user of ocker phrases or not, how do you respond to God’s call to you today?  Whether your response is “yeah-righto Jesus, I’ll give it a burl” or “be thou to me as thou wouldst desirest it sovereign Lord”, I pray that you would respond with delight, joy, excitement, obedience, humility, and love.

Today is the day to say yes.  Say yes today, so that when the Annunciation is made tomorrow you can tell the messenger of the Lord “I said yes yesterday, and it’s yes today as well”.

Amen.

Recall The Story (Lent 1C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM to be proclaimed on Sunday 10th March 2019.

Deuteronomy 26:5b-10a; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

In this morning’s set reading from the Hebrew traditions Moses addresses the Hebrew People on the edge of the Promised Land, and he tells them about the future.  This People who had been slaves for 400 years and asylum seekers for 40 years would find rest.  When, in generations to come, the people who have become farmers will, in the context of the annual festival of harvest thanksgiving, bring in the tithes and the offerings of first fruits, the Jews were to recite this liturgy.  The liturgy is a poem, the story in verse of “a wandering Areamean”, and how God was faithful to him and to all descendent generations according to the promise.  Remember, none of this has happened yet, Moses is preaching in the Jordanian wilderness and no one has set foot in Israel for a generation.  This song was to become a reminder of who God is in the daily life of the individual and the national life of the settled Hebrews.

I wonder how that went.  Did the Hebrews, who then became Israelites and Judahites, and then Jews in exile, and then Samarians and Judeans in an occupied land under various empires, and then Jews in exile once again, and in our day are known as Israelis who live amongst Palestinians (who used to be called Philistines) actually do this?  Were there actual harvest festivals like God had decreed and Moses explained, and did the tithes and first fruits ever come into the temple?  The Biblical and historical records suggest yes; it seems that as late as the time of Jesus there was a living memory, recited at least, of who Israel was and who Israel’s God was.  History also tells us that the temple was destroyed in 70, and that it has never been rebuilt.  There has never been a tithes and offerings festival at the temple Jerusalem since then, yet Judaism remains and the calendar remains, and the right time for the festival rolls around every year when the harvest of whatever land the Jews live in is gathered.  There seems to be something in this story, a story that has been told for almost three and a half millennia, (since 1500 BCE) and which was written down two and a half millennia ago, which has continued to enrich the culture whose story it is.  God is faithful, God provides in season, and God is worthy to be praised; so the Jews have learned.  But this is not some rote piece of creed or a memory verse, it is the moral of the story, and the story is (the man) Israel as a metaphor for all who are destitute and placeless until God intervenes.  The Jews have always known that God is faithful because they have never failed to continue to tell their children the nationally personal story, even in foreign lands and foreign languages.

Recently I was invited to speak into the life of a young writer.  When I say young she is younger than me, but she is also of my cohort, so she’s no teenager.  Anyway this young woman has been journaling and worshipping and she sought my advice, amongst the advice of other trusted friends, about publishing her work and going on with God into a writing and teaching career: seminars and the like.  I’m not going to tell you her story, that’s for her to tell; and I’m not going to tell you how her story and my story run parallel and why the advice I gave her was especially pertinent.  I am going to tell you what my advice was, because I think it fits the story told by Moses and the Jews as well.  The advice is this: tell the story of God in your life, don’t tell the story of your life where God occurred.  The actual wording I used for her was tell the story of Jesus and quote yourself as a source, don’t tell the story of you.  In every faith story Jesus is the hero, you are the narrator and the researcher.  Looking at Deuteronomy 26:5c-9 the story is really about God’s faithfulness that we know about because it was us and our ancestors that God was faithful.  The story is not about us the downtrodden slave-mob for whom God intervened.  We are in the story, we are telling the story, but it is God’s story because it is about God.

When we look at a story about Jesus, and we did that earlier in Luke 4:1-13, things get interesting.  Who is the hero of Jesus’ story, is it Jesus or is it God the Father?  If the hero of my story is actually Jesus, and every story I tell is testament to his glory, who is supposed to be the hero of Jesus’ story?  What we read in Luke 4, and this is as much the case in Matthew 4 where he tells a similar but not identical story, is that Jesus lived a life of thanksgiving and humble adoration of Father, even from the outset.  In knocking down the accuser’s attacks on his character and calling Jesus made it quite clear that he didn’t need to test God to prove God to himself, and he had no interest in spectacular activities to show off God or his own faith to prove God to others.  Jesus already knew he was saved by grace through the covenant between God and Abraham, and Jesus knew as Paul would later write in Romans 10:10-11 that his salvation was evident through his trust in God.  Throughout his ministry Jesus encouraged other Jews (participants in the covenant) to trust God and know God as Father.  So even for Jesus, at least as far as he was a man from Nazareth, the hero of the story is God the faithful one, not Jesus the brave and hungry one.

Today’s Psalm, 91, speaks with the same theme.  At first glance it appears to be directed to people rather than God, as if it’s advice for believers or perhaps even a priestly blessing or benediction rather than a hymn of praise.  It’s something that I might say to you as a reminder of who you are to God, rather than a prayer which I recite to God on your behalf as your worship leader.  Well it’s actually that at second glance too, advice to people, and a longer reading demonstrates that this is a story about God told by the psalmist and the leader of worship as a lesson of personal experience.  Again it’s not “I was faithful and God rewarded me by blah-de-blah-blah”, it’s “God is faithful in this way, and in brackets I should know”.  And the message itself is consistent with what Moses has already told the Hebrews; and Jesus and Paul would tell the later generation of Jews; that you will find shelter and trust in The LORD, the great refuge who keeps you from harm.  God holds me above danger (and perhaps Jesus might interject “even in the midst of the greatest temptation”), and gifts me the fullness of life.

So by the time we get to Paul, and to his letter to the Roman Christians, we have the beginning of faith in Jesus as The LORD.  Paul speaks of Jesus as Jesus spoke of the Father, but remember that he is speaking of the exalted and resurrected one who reigns at the right hand of the throne of Heaven. This Jesus can be the hero of your story, even as the itinerant rabbi of Nazareth wasn’t the hero of his own story, because the one we follow is God-made-Human, Word-made-Blood.  We follow The Son; we don’t merely adhere to the teachings of a wise guru who demonstrated incredible perseverance in the Outback.  Jesus will tell you that what sustained him in the wilderness was his faith in God, not his faith in himself.  Now that Jesus has returned to God, to be God once more in company with The Father and The Spirit, and to take up all that which was laid down (according to Philippians 2:5-11), we can have confidence in him.  Our salvation is “made effective” to use a liturgical phrase, that is to say it is evident (you can see it for yourself) and it is efficacious (it actually does the thing) when we declare the truth, which comes out of the heart.  It’s Romans 10:10 which says that, and Romans 10:13 can be paraphrased into the language of Psalm 91 to add that all who declare their shelter to be God will be saved.  If you can name God as shelter then you also know in your heart (i.e. by instinct and to the extent of muscle-memory) where your shelter is when you need one.  I don’t even have to think, when there is trouble I run to God, and then I am safe (and therefore I am saved).  What is unique in Paul, something he alone says and that the Psalmist and Moses did not say, is that you don’t have to be a blood descendent of Jacob to have this: if you trust God and you call upon God you will be saved by God, (or you are safe in God).  The sentences that make up Romans 10:12-13 are a direct pull from Joel 2:32, Paul is quoting Hebrew scripture, in this instance “The Prophets” part of “The Law and The Prophets” to make a point, that in Christ all are welcome in God’s safe house.

So, where does this put us?

Well, it puts us in the place of witness.  With all that God has said to us about proclamation and the need to speak the hard truth into the present day, this message is somewhat easier to follow, I hope.  Speak about God, tell of God’s glory, and tell of how God has rescued and blessed you.  In a church with a strong theology of the priesthood of all believers you should all be bringing your offerings to God.  I am your pastor, not your priest: you don’t need me to burn a sheep on your behalf.  I am the lead preacher in this place, the only one paid to preach and with a certain responsibility to go deeper than those of you who volunteer to speak once in a while, but that doesn’t mean that my testimony is more effective than yours, merely that I am better trained in public speaking and theology than you.  You and I preach the same Jesus, and we can all share the story of how God has saved us individually.  If we want God’s Church to grow in the Wimmera, and if we want there to be a Christian Church in Kaniva and Serviceton in the generations to come, it is the responsibility of each one of us to tell the story of God to our children and to our neighbours.  If you’re not sure how to do that, well let me teach you.  If you don’t need teaching that’s great, but what are you waiting for?

Have at it, go and tell.

Amen.