The Call (Second Sunday after Epiphany: Year B)

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

When I was living in England the last job that I had, before I returned to Australia, was in a prison where I worked as an Operational Support Grade officer or OSG.  One day I was outside the prison, doing some work near the gatehouse, when a voice yelled across from the visitors’ carpark.  “Oi screw!” came the voice.  I ignored it.  “Oi!  Oi screw!” came the voice again.  I looked up, and could see a man looking in my direction, but standing thirty metres away and near the door to the visitors’ centre, the place where visiting family and friends wait before being allowed into the prison on visiting days.  I looked down again.  “Screw!” came the demand, “oi screw I’m talking to you!”  Still nothing from me.  “Screw!  Feckin screw, screw!”  Nothing.  Eventually the man gave up.  I didn’t see where he went, whether he entered the prison or went back to his car; I didn’t look.

Why did I not answer, you might ask.  Well it’s simple really, he wasn’t talking to me; and I believe that if you’re not talking to me then it is rude of me to answer you.  I know he wasn’t talking to me because my name is not, nor has it ever been, “Screw”.  My name certainly isn’t “Oi Screw”.  The fact that I was the only other person in the area, and that I was wearing the Queen’s uniform of HM Prisons Service, is beside the point.  Had he wished to speak to me I’m sure he would have come over to me and politely said “excuse me OSG”.  But since he didn’t, he can’t have been speaking to me.

Oddly enough this isn’t the first time I’ve heard someone not speaking to me.  Often students at the school I told you about two weeks ago would yell “Oi Squeak”, or “Oi Aussie”, or occasionally “Oi Tanny” on campus.  I don’t know who those people are, if they are people at all, but since my name is “Mr Tann” or “Sir” the students can’t have been speaking with me, so I didn’t get involved.  Similarly, here in Australia, I’m not sure who “Oi blind maggot” is, but since my name is “goalie” or “umpie” again I am polite enough to stay out of other people’s conversations, especially when they already sound rather cross.

As was read to us this morning from 1 Samuel 3:3 the lamp of God, the light which symbolised the presence of God in the sanctuary, was still alight when Samuel laid down to rest in preparation for sleep when God spoke.  Since The Voice of The LORD was rarely heard in those days Samuel, who was in the actual sanctuary and lit by the lamp of presence, responded to his name believing it had come from the priest.  Maybe Samuel thought that even if The LORD did speak that God would only address the priest, so the voice he heard could not have been The Voice of The LORD since it was directly addressed to him, Samuel, by name.  Three times the voice came, three times Samuel responded promptly by running in to Eli’s presence.  Kind of like me waiting for a polite summons to listen to someone, any my ignoring any impolite tone or name as indicating that the voice could not have been directed toward me, Samuel knew the inverse; that he couldn’t have been hearing The Voice of The LORD because The LORD doesn’t speak to small boys.   Unlike me, Samuel was called by name, and at last he recognised The LORD’s summons, or at least he followed Eli’s instruction, and God spoke to him.

Did you notice, right at the beginning of this reading, that Samuel was already engaged in ministry when he was called to?  In the second part of 1 Samuel 3:1 it says that he was singled out for a rare honour because visons were not widespread and in 1 Samuel 3:2 we are told that the sparsity of visions did not matter much since Eli was going blind anyway.  When The LORD spoke to the boy, and bypassed the priest in doing so, Samuel’s work of priestly ministry was expanded to encompass the work of prophecy.  The Voice of The LORD spoke, out of the blue, to a boy, and thereafter The LORD spoke through Samuel because Samuel was willing to be used as an amplifier.  Samuel showed his willingness to be used by God, even in his ignorance of The Voice of The LORD, by engaging in priestly ministry.  The one who had amplified God’s ministry in ministering would be used to amplify God’s message in prophesying.

What are you doing now, in God’s work, that God can ask you to do something else for the Kingdom?

I know that I have been called by God.  I do not say that to boast, or to make myself superior to you.  As all are called to ministry within the Kingdom of God, those who belong to that Kingdom at least, I am called.  I am a Christian, I am a Christ worshipper and Christ follower, and part of that is lived out in what I do for Christ in the world.  I hope you can say the same, even though none of you do what I do.  One of the things that gives me confidence to follow God in the footsteps of Jesus, and also in the footsteps of those who walked in the footsteps of Jesus, is that I know that God knows what I am capable of.  God will often take me beyond what I think I can do, but God has never taken me beyond what God can do through me nor beyond where God can save me if I stumble.

Early in my time in England things were not going well and my life was equal parts adventure and adversity, sometimes unequal parts in fact with adversity in the majority.  One time when I was crying into the phone to Australia my mum, in her regular attempts to get me to come home, said to me, “I don’t know what to do Damie, God has taken you out of my depth.”  I remember that being a turning point, one of many and not the final one, but a turning point nonetheless when I realised that God might have taken me out of my mother’s depth, and she was struggling as a loving mother with the distress her darling boy was undergoing, but God had not actually taken me put of my depth.  I was on tiptoe for sure, and in fact I had to swim after that, but I can swim, and I did swim and God swam me into deeper water where I learned to swim harder.  What we read from Psalm 139 this morning is the same message.  God knows me.  God knows me “in the Biblical sense”, for all of the intensity band passion that phrase suggests.  Before I was knit together in my mother’s womb, 32 years before the anguished phone calls between the mouth attached to the heart attached to that same womb and my adult ears, God knew what God was doing.  Because I have swum hard, very hard, but never have I drowned, I am confident, utterly confident in God.

Sort of like Samuel, but sort of not, when God took me from the ministry of pastoral care as a school chaplain on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia and reset me through five years and two more degrees at university to minister as a preacher and pastor, currently in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria, I followed God without question.  The one who knows me in the Psalm 139 sense has my permission to call me in the 1 Samuel 3 sense because I am so well known, so thoroughly understood.  I don’t say that to boast in my prestige as a minister, a lay preacher with a long-term contract, not at all.  I boast in the Lord Jesus Christ and the empowering grace of The Holy Spirit with the word of my testimony.  My life’s story is that God is dependable.  I was ministering, and God called me to minister bigger, and I trusted God to go with that because God had proved Godself faithful way, way ago.

So as your brother in Christ, a simple yet dedicated Christian, and in no way your senior pastor (which I’m not) or the ordained priest (which I am so, so not), again I ask you: what are you doing now, in God’s work, that God can ask you to do something else for the Kingdom?

Perhaps your answer is that you aren’t doing anything.  Now that is not true because I know you; not in the Biblical sense but I’ve been here four months now and I am familiar enough with each of you to know that there are no passengers on our mission bus in Yallourn and Morwell.  So, you are each doing something.  So, we’ve sorted that one.

Perhaps your answer now, because I didn’t let you get away with the first one, is that you aren’t interested in doing more.  “Yes, okay Damien I am doing, but I’m happy with what I’m doing, and God is more than welcome to ask someone else to step up.  Don’t let me stand in God’s way of asking someone who is not me.  No, no really, you first mate.”  And you know what, that’s fine with me.  It’s not fine in the sense that I am defeatist, or that I don’t have confidence in you, that’s not what I’m saying.  It’s fine because I am confident to the extent of my ministry to leave your ministry up to God.

I don’t know you in the Psalm 139 way, but I know that God knows you like that.  So,

  • If God is calling you onward today then my job is to open opportunities for you to serve in this place, a job I share with the elders at Yallourn and Morwell.
  • If God is calling you to sit and rest, as in “well done good and faithful servant”; and you see out your days as an active worshipper and a retired missionary then praise God.
  • If God is calling you to sit and rest, as in “take a breather, I’ll be back for you in the fullness of time and it’s going to be epic”; and you spend a season here as an active worshipper, active in private prayer and discernment, and a recuperating missionary then praise God.

Just let me know eh, but please be polite and call me Damien won’t you.

Amen.

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Love Re-Advented

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell Uniting Church for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B.  It was Sunday 24th December 2017

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55

The story that Christianity tells about Advent and Christmas is about many things, but one of the main things is newness.  God did a new thing when “Word became Flesh”, God in all God’s God-ness came into the world as a male human baby.  But that new thing was not without precedent, since God was honouring a promise and God was faithful to the world in the way that God had always been, and how God has always been since the ascension of Jesus.  So, there’s another thing about Advent, God’s new thing is about God’s long-term faithfulness.

The story found in today’s Psalm is a reminder that God has loved humankind in very practical ways through the ministry work of Israel, and God has remained faithful to all the promises of the covenant.  The prophets through the ages from Samuel who anointed David, Nathan who advised David, and the prophets who spoke to later kings, all proclaimed God’s faithfulness and God’s desire that the people remain faithful, (Psalm 89:3-4).  God who is consistent, who we declare to be the same yesterday, today and forever, is also constantly changing, working with each new king in the best way for that king and his situation.  So, by the time of Ethan, the Ezrahite, who re-wrote an earlier song of Israel’s king to suit his circumstance as a hope-filled exile, Ethan can find much for which to praise God.  Even though the people’s unfaithfulness and disobedience has caused their downfall as a nation, Ethan can declare that God is no less worthy of praise because God is still faithful, (Psalm 89:1-2).

Looking back on Ethan’s song today; and as Christians we are looking back through the life of Jesus, we see that in the baby in the manger is the fulfilment of God’s promises.  In Jesus the Israelites were given a king directly descended from David and the royal family, (Psalm 89:19-20).  Israel was given a man who would lead them in worship, and a man who would point them towards a new and complete revelation of God as a faithful and loving father: something they had always known but had also tended to forget, (Psalm 89:26, 28).  The exiled Israelites believed that they had been forgotten; they were confused and felt abandoned and betrayed in Babylon and Persia.  But God had remembered the people even if they had forgotten that God was faithful.  And four hundred years after the last prophet spoke, and when the Judeans and Samaritans were living under Roman occupation and were feeling forgotten again, God spoke through a baby’s cry.  Jesus as the son of Joseph of Bethlehem was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David, and God’s promise to the Israel through David.

God’s new thing is only a new way of keeping God’s age-long promises.

Jesus is a child of the impossible, and one of many in the history of Israel.  The significance of the virgin birth of Jesus is seen as miraculous, and so it should be, since it is impossible for any virgin animal to give birth to male offspring.   (Even if Mary had somehow fertilised one of her own ova, which is theoretically possible but very improbably, the baby would have been XX and a clone of the mother.)  But I think it is more significant to Luke that in Mary we see the messiah born to a young and fresh mother rather than an old and barren one.  Any woman could have been the mother of Jesus, and any birth might have been miraculous: but God chose twelve-year-old Mary.  In his telling of the story of Jesus Luke immediately sets Mary beside Elisabeth, the post-menopausal mother of John the Baptiser.  John’s conception is no less a miracle than Jesus’, even when you consider that Zechariah was involved in a way that Joseph was not.  But by doing it this way, and having the messiah born of a girl, Jesus is presented as the bringer of a new covenant.  John, born of an old-and-barren woman is presented as the last in the line of the old covenant.  Both conceptions are miracles of God since both covenants testify to God.  Mary is a new Hannah, and Elisabeth a new Sarah.

Luke goes further in his presentation of the new-born king, and this is something often missed in the retelling of the Christian stories of Christmas.  In fact, the gospel accounts are inflammatory, and each one challenges the legends of the day.  Are you aware of how much the Christmas stories in the three gospels in which they appear blatantly contradict and mock the stories told about the origins of Caesar Augustus?  The legendary conception of Octavian, as he was known before he became Emperor, also took place under the shadow of infanticide: in Octavian’s case the senate was fearful of the foretold, newborn king.  (Matthew speaks of a jealous Herod.)  Octavian was considered to have been of divine origin since he was the son of Apollo through the human mother Atia.   The way in which God overshadowed Mary is both like and unlike the Roman and Greek stories, since Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit but the human girl Mary, unlike Leda and Atia among other heroines, was not seduced and raped by her god.  Mary was not harmed, and whilst she did become pregnant she remained a virgin after conception.  Jesus, unlike Octavian, was conceived in love and peace, not violence and fear; Mary is a willing recipient of the angel’s grace and God’s activity.  The actual son of the chief god, (and Jews would say the only true God), who was born from a human woman, and born to bring divinely-attested peace to the world, is too close to the Empire’s propaganda to be allowed to exist.  Of course, this all comes later, the written down stories of Jesus’ birth do not come for another seventy years or so, but you can see how the story of Jesus is a threat to the story of Augustus and every Caesar who followed.  The actual presence of the God of the Jews, on earth as a man, just adds to this.

In Genesis 1:26 we read that humankind was made in the image and likeness of God, and St Augustine wrote in the fifth Christian century that humankind was made by God to be recipients of love.  If Jesus’ conception and birth is supernatural then it is only because it is very natural: it is in God’s nature that things take place like this.  We can call it miraculous, we can, but really, it’s just doing what God does the way God does it.  Baby Jesus was created in the image and likeness of God, much like baby everyone else was.  This is ordinary divinity: it’s manger faith.

And so, with all this talk of the miraculous I am lead to ponder two things.  Maybe these things haven’t occurred to you, maybe you’ll not think much of them after I’ve said them anyway and think them irrelevant, but for now let me plant a couple of seeds of manger faith.

Number One.  Back in the day there wasn’t the understanding of human biology that we have now; specifically, there was no understanding of the ovum.  There was also no understanding of the sperm, which are too small to see, but there was some understanding that the man put something in the woman during sexual activity and that thing made babies.  So, I ask you this: did the Holy Spirit fertilise one of Mary’s ova with a holy spermatozoon, or did God plant an entire zygote, a fertilised ovum in Mary?  Luke can’t tell us because he didn’t have that understanding of conception: God certainly did the man’s part in making the baby, but in a world which didn’t understand the woman’s contribution, other than as incubator, what happened?  Did Jesus come from Mary’s egg?

Number Two, and why number one matters.  Who, if anyone, did Jesus look like?  Even if we allow for Mary’s biological contribution, and that her ovum was used by God, did Jesus look like his mum?  And allowing that everyone knew in Bethlehem, as I’m sure they’d know just as easily in Morwell, that Mary was pregnant before Joseph had had his manly way with her, did Jesus look like Joseph?  Was there room for doubt that the baby asleep in Mary’s arms belonged also to the man in whose arms Mary rested?  Was Mary’s boychild the image and likeness of his father, both upper-case F and lower-case f father?  You can all see today, because he is here, that I look like my dad: did Jesus look like his?  Since my dad was more involved in my conception than Joseph was in Jesus’ conception that would be another act of manger faith.

I have no doubt that whoever Jesus looked like, he was the image of his father.  Fathers, plural, as I am the image of mine, both.  The faithfulness of God to the promise made to David, which came about by same means that God sealed God’s promise to Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elisabeth allows for God to be faithful to Mary that her son looked like her husband, and shame was averted.  The Christian story of Christmas is that even when God is doing mighty and divine stuff, like saving the world by sending the messiah into the world via the virgin fiancée of a direct descendent of King David, in Bethlehem, God can still be personal enough to make sure that there was at least a stable and that the baby looked like his daddy.  Our faithful God is more than dependable, our God is considerate and kind.

The message of Christmas, this year at least, is that each of us who was born to be loved by God, created in the image and likeness of our Father in Heaven should be faithful, considerate, and kind too.  The best way to share God at Christmas is to act like God at Christmas.

Amen.

And Vent!

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Parish Uniting Church, meeting in Newborough, for Sunday 10th December 2017.  It was the Second Sunday in Advent.

Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

This year, beginning last week on Advent Sunday and running through until we celebrate Christ the King on the last Sunday in November 2018, we shall be reading primarily from The Gospel According to Mark.  This is one of my favourite gospels, and if it’s not my absolute favourite it’s definitely top four.  I especially enjoy how brief and to the point Mark’s writing is, everything is so sudden and there’s no padding.  Today’s reading, the first eight verses of the book, is just like that.  Bang – here it is in Mark 1:1 and then straight in to the coming of John the Baptiser in Mark 1:2 to prepare the way for Jesus, who appears in Mark 1:9.  Matthew and Luke each take until chapter three of their gospels to get to the arrival of John in the desert: Matthew in 48 verses and Luke in an astonishing 132 verses.  Mark takes one.

So, Mark immediately opens the story at the best starting place: the arrival of an adult Jesus on the day he begins his ministry, the day he is commissioned by the Holy Spirit in the presence of John the Baptiser, the prophesied one who would announce his coming.  Mark grounds the story of Jesus immediately in the salvation history of the Israelites, connecting the appearance of John to the prophetic speech of Isaiah, and to the mission of Israel’s God in history which had always been about reconciliation.  As God had constantly called Israel and Judah back to the covenant, offering forgiveness and mercy time and time again if only they would return, so John offers a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins as he says in Mark 1:4.  It’s the same thing, he’s calling the people to make an about face, be released from debt, and move forward in God’s direction.

So, given that Mark quotes him so early in the piece I wonder, what did Isaiah actually say?  Well we find in Isaiah 40:1-11 that God has taken Isaiah aside and prepared him with a new message for the Israelites who are living in exile.  “Speak comfort to the people”, says the LORD, “because the people have served their sentence”.  Their saviour is coming along the wilderness road, levelling the road and making a way of travel.  Repentance is not complex, and while it is not easy because it is so confronting to human pride, it is simple.  God has seen that human life is temporary and that women and men are inconsistent in their ways because of this limitation upon them.  Individuals die but the story of God lives on.  God tells Isaiah, and we can presume that God also tells John the Baptiser, to go, get up on a high place and proclaim that story loudly.  The instruction to Isaiah and to John is to tell the Jerusalemites the story of salvation so that they can then get about telling every citizen of the world that God is present.  God is coming, God has come, and when God comes the good leader will feed the hungry, clothe the exposed, and carry the broken ones close.

As far as Isaiah is concerned this is a commissioning passage, a personal call to prophetic ministry much like the ones recorded in Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 61.  If you read closely you’ll see that the call to comfort and speak is given to the angels, one of whom commands (Isaiah 40:3) the opening of the way home: a second ex-hodos through the wilderness like the first one was through the sea.  But Isaiah’s and John’s message is that this will be an easy road, unlike the trek of Moses, since the land will fall flat, and the road will be straight and direct.  This is a road without wandering or struggling.  Another angel commands Isaiah to proclaim the message of God’s constancy (Isaiah 40:6) to God’s people who are dead grass (Isaiah 40:6-8).  As the Korahites sang in Psalm 80:10-13, (which I read as our call to worship), God is constant regarding the promises of the covenant, and the people’s hope of restoration is secure.  Six hundred years later John is telling the same story, and soon enough Jesus will repeat God’s message over and over.

Peter reminds us in his letter that God is beyond age and epoch.  God is not slow, God is not limited, God has chosen to be patient and God is not feeling pressured to act or be rushed.  Even as the Israelites and Judahites waited for God in exile, even as the Judeans of Jesus’ day suffered under Roman occupation and cried out for God to restore a king from the Davidic line, (rather than an Idumean puppet appointed by Caesar), the God of Abraham waited.  Jesus had come and gone in Peter’s lifetime, but the Romans remained.  But Peter remembered God’s promise to return to earth and he trusted God to come in the fulness of God’s time.  Peter reminds his readers, the people of his church but also any to whom he had ministered in the past, that when God arrives you’ll not miss it because it will be bright and loud and violent.

Advent is the time in the Christian calendar when we remember that Jesus is the Once and Future King, to borrow a phrase from the legends of Avalon and Camelot.  Peter’s story of light and sound is obviously not a retelling of the night in Bethlehem when shepherds watched, and three wee kings arrived.  Like the exiles, the Judeans, the Romans, and the Antiochenes we wait for God to return for us and lead us home along that straight, wide, and flat road.  We believe the word of God when his disciples remind us that all that surrounds us is finite and that it will be swept away when God returns. We believe the word of God and are reminded that finite does not mean without value:  Peter is saying we must not hold onto the world or depend upon it for our safety, but we are to utilise it for the work of proclaiming the gospel.  Use it, use it up, but don’t waste it.  Demonstrate the same patience that God shows, and model your life on the generous and unhurried flow of Jesus, the one who was often busy but never hassled.  Live with integrity in a world which is mocking your trust.

The first words of Mark read “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the son of God”.  In the light of all we know about Jesus and his ministry, and all that Peter reminded us of, must this sentence refer only to Mark 1:1 as some Greek version of “Once upon a time in a land far far away”, or even “In the beginning”?  Or is the whole book of Mark only the beginning of the good news, and further instalments of the gospel are not to be found in Mark 1:2, Mark 2:1, or even in Mark 16:9, but in what we say and do with the message in our day?  Where Advent reminds us that the one who came to Bethlehem is coming again, and to Yallourn and Moe this time I think it’s more of the second, that the gospel continues in us.  Now the mandate given to the prophets, the psalmists, and the apostles is given to us.  Our task is to speak comfort to the city, not Jerusalem or Rome but the City of Latrobe, and to assure them of the coming grace of peace and restoration.  Our Christmas message to the community is that when the Lord comes he is coming for them to welcome them home.

Just as he did the first time he came.

Amen.

Adventure

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 3rd December 2017, the first Sunday in Advent.

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80 1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37

Well, happy new year!  As I indicated last week, today is the first day of a new year in the rolling calendar of the church.  We have entered a new season of the lectionary: today is Advent Sunday, the first day in Advent and the season of purple which will take us up to the morning of Christmas Eve.  Today is also the first day in the second year of our three-year perpetual cycle, we are now in the indescribably beautifully named “Year B”, better called “The Year of Mark”.    This year the bulk of our gospel reading will come from the Gospel According to St Mark.  Since Advent Sunday a year ago and until last week we were primarily interested in Matthew, and from this day in twelve months’ time we will be reading Luke.  So, again, happy new year.

With the new liturgical year comes the opportunity to refresh ourselves in God, and to perhaps reconsider our patterns of engaging with God.  One of the things which I have taken up as of today, with some preparation work in the last few weeks, is a new pattern of Bible reading. For the next twelve months or so, every Monday at 9:30 am before I sit down to work on my sermon for the following Sunday I will take the time to read a chapter from my new book.  This book is designed to assist my spiritual formation for my development of faith as a Christian, and my development of depth as a minister.  And this week’s reading, written to be read in the first week in Advent, has already born fruit.

Each of today’s prayers were drawn directly from scripture, indeed from today’s set Old Testament readings and from the Psalm.  I read to you from Isaiah 64:1-5a, and then Isaiah 64:5-9, so, Isaiah 64:5a was read twice; it acts as a hinge between two thoughts.

In the second prayer, of adoration we heard the prophet’s heart-sung desire that God would split the heavens and descend in personal display of holy majesty.  Let the name of God, the authority and reputation of God, be so well promoted in the Earth that it would be like fire under a kettle.  Come down God and remind us of how awesome you are, remind us how awestruck we should be at the very thought of you.

In the third prayer, of confession, we heard the prophet’s heart-wrung sorrow that if God were to descend God would find a people broken by sin.  God’s people no longer call on God’s name or celebrate God’s glory, not even one person.  God’s chosen people are defiled, and to use Isaiah’s own image which is not made clear in English translation but which my commentator noted in Isaiah 64:6, they are “filthy cloth”, literally, a used tampon.  Yuck eh?  Certainly, this is less than what God deserves from us, far, far less.  Yet God is the creator, the potter for whom we are clay, and we are assured that God has not forgotten us, and God will deliver us from the mess we have made of ourselves.

The writer of my new spiritual formation book said of the Israelite prophets that they were the custodians of Israel’s greatest hopes, desires and dreams.  When the actions of the nation lead them away from these great thoughts the prophets spoke out to remind them of the picture of the future to call them back.  God promises all that we adore God for, but if we ignore God or refuse God then all we are good for in the future is to put in the bin next to the toilet.  I know which future I’d prefer.  (And yeah, continuing thanks for that mental picture Isaiah: Yuck!)

You can perhaps see why Asaph, the writer of today’s psalm (and of our first prayer and call to worship today), felt the need to pray restore us God…God of hosts…LORD God of hosts, let your face shine that we may be saved in Psalm 80:3, 7, 19.  This prayer for Israel’s restoration may well have been composed after the Kingdom of Israel, the one situated on Samaria, had been conquered and the people carried away.  God’s patience had run out and the people had been overcome by their enemies.  Like Isaiah, Asaph is calling upon God to come in might and power, specifically as Lord of Hosts which is to say supreme marshal of the armies of Heaven, and deliver the people with divine and military intervention.  The nation has not heeded the word of the prophets, and now they’re in that bin and wrapped in tissues.  What is to be done for them?

In Mark 13:24-37 which was read to us we find Jesus speaking about the day when the Son of Man will come in glory.  Hear how the images presented by Jesus echo those presented by Isaiah, when the LORD comes the earth will be shaken and there will be a display of great power and glory.  The signs of the times are there; God is always ready to come because the glory of God is not diminished in the time between epiphanies, there is no need for God to be girded up ready because God is never not God. Humankind, however, is not always ready and God’s action occurs more often than it should as a surprise to the Israelites.  Be on your guard, says Jesus.  As Jesus has taught us through Matthew 25 in these past three weeks the Master will return, and he will be displeased to find us sleeping like the five girls, or lazy like the man with the one talent, or ambivalent to the world like the goatish people.

The prophets have told you, God is close by and God is powerful and mighty.

Your own history has taught you that God is incredibly faithful to those who heed God, obey God, and serve God in loving worship and acts of justice.

And now the Son of Man, the messiah, is telling you in your hearing that the time of God’s appearing in fullness is very, very close.  Wake up!  Watch out!  Repent because the Kingdom is at hand and the King Godself is just over the horizon!  Can you not see the dawning glory already?

If you are awake and all of that then the work Jesus has for you is simple: tell others.  What I say to you I say to you all says Jesus in Mark 13:37. In other words everyone needs to know this message, everyone needs to be awake when God comes in glory, even if it happens in the graveyard shift.  If you are alert and alive to the possibilities tell others who are not, so that they will be.  If you are a friend to someone don’t let your friend sleep through the coming of God, or let God find him or her sleeping, or lazy, or indifferent.  When God comes for you to draw you into a loving relationship with the Father, don’t allow that your friends will instead go into that bin with all the other biohazardous things of the world.

Today is our New Year’s Day: let it be a fresh start in your relationship with God.  Let it also be a fresh start in your relationship with the world within your reach.  Perhaps today and on to this week is your chance to be a prophet to your own people; speaking to them as the custodian of your tribe’s greatest hopes, desires and dreams.  Call your friends and their attention away from the actions and attitudes which inhibit this future.  The child has come, the king is coming, the time is now.

Amen.

He is the King

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 26th November 2017, the Festival of Christ the King in Year A.

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-44

When Ezekiel wrote and spoke of shepherds the readers of his day would have known immediately that he was not addressing the local jackaroos, shearers and roustabouts. In the language of metaphor shepherds represented the kings of Israel: those who lead but also had care for the nation were its shepherds.  The kings in Ezekiel’s day were poor shepherds and evil kings, hence the strength of his words.  They were reaping all the benefits of royalty in terms of luxury and wealth, power and glory, but they weren’t actually governing or holding up the people as a godly leader should, especially a godly leader of God’s own people.  The same might have been said of the priests and elders of the time, too busy being honoured as clergy rather than working defiantly against the wicked regime as advocates of the people of God in the face of the injustices of misplaced majesty.

What was read from Ezekiel 34 this morning is the spoken intent of God to step in as the true shepherd, the true king, the righteous and honourable ruler.  God as King will seek those people who like lost sheep have been allowed to wander astray, and will bring them back into the safety of the flock. Continuing with his metaphor Ezekiel declares that the sheepy Israelites will no longer be prey to ravenous carnivores; no longer will they be exposed to the scorching or freezing elements; no longer will they be endangered by jagged rocks, deep holes, muddy bogs, or clifftops; and no longer will they bleat in desperation in cloudbanks of thick fog or darkness.  The LORD, the good shepherd will seek and will find those whom the poor shepherds have allowed to stray because of their royal indifference and/or ineptitude. The big message, the one you need to write down if you’re taking notes, is that in a world of false shepherds God is the true shepherd of the sheep.

Of course, metaphor can only go so far, and we have always known that God is speaking directly of women and men who have entered exile.  So, through Ezekiel’s narrative God declares righteous intent to restore the populations of Israel and Judah to the God’s own land and the God’s own care under God’s rule.  Like sheep fed on good pasture and near flowing, clean streams so shall the people of The LORD live in their own land, the land assured to them by God’s promise to their ancestors.  The LORD Godself shall be their shepherd, The LORD Godself shall keep them safe while they rest, and The LORD Godself shall keep vigilant lest they wander away again.  And if any wander away, or are hurt in the course of their sheepy lives, The LORD Godself shall find them and bandage them.

But Ezekiel goes further, and I am somewhat astonished by what comes next, because according to the prophet God will neither seek nor save fat sheep; the ones who took their estate into their own hands.  Those sheep, the kings and princes and aristocrats who became fat on the excess stolen from the mob will be left to their own devices by God.  Ezekiel suggests that this will come about because they brought that upon themselves, they don’t deserve saving.  That messes with my idea of grace, which is seen in God’s saving effort for the undeserving.  But the second part of what Ezekiel says does make sense, and that is that fat sheep do not seek assistance from their shepherd.  Feeling themselves to be self-sufficient and clever enough in their wisdom they don’t listen anyway, so God will leave them be, focussing divine attention upon those who seek God and not wasting time and resource on those who will throw it away.  I’d rather face the full wrath of God I think, than have God’s hands washed of me, but that is what Ezekiel suggests.

Connected with Jesus’ story of sheep and goats Ezekiel speaks of fat sheep and lean sheep.  Those alpha rams, who trample the pasture and foul the grass and the clean water with their big boofy feet, will be pulled out of the flock for the benefit of the smaller sheep.  A Davidic shepherd will be set over the new flock, the flock of newly rescued sheep.  He will shepherd the people as God shepherded them.  The Davidic shepherd is like God, a figure of justice, a restorer of the covenant, and a builder up of right relationships between the people and between God and the People.

This is the word of God to God’s people in exile, a People being taught to expect the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel under God’s own reign.  There will be a restoration says Ezekiel, God has promised it.  However, the restoration of the nation will require a transformation of the people, and of the land, so that when The LORD is returned as King and God the situation will be ready.  The exiled people do not know it yet, but the Jewish monarchy will never be restored; there will not be a new royal palace for a son of David ruling in his own authority in Jerusalem, (in fact there will never be such a building because there will never be such a man), but there will be a temple.

Six hundred years later Paul prayed for the Christians at Ephesus at the commencement of his writing to them.  First, he commends them on their Christlikeness in love and justice, this is a church displaying the early hallmarks of the transformed life spoken of by God in Ezekiel’s oracle.  Paul prays that this may continue, and that the Ephesians may go deeper into the nature and character of God in Christ.  Second, Paul commends this exploration of the nature God to them, so that they may discover the core purpose of God’s mission which is revealed in the coming of Christ and his ministry of proclamation, restoration, and liberation.  The Ephesians are both recipients of and purveyors of this indescribably good grace of God.  It first came to them and it ultimately comes through them to the world currently in the dark about this.  Their saviour, Christ, is King above all other authorities and realms, he has all the power and to him belongs all the adoration and respect of all created things, in eternity as well as in this epoch.  Paul teaches that the way that Jesus exercises his rule is through us, who are both his church and his body.

In the stories of Joshua and Deborah which you have heard in the last two weeks, we are reminded of what Israel was like before the kings, and in today’s reading we are reminded of what the same people were up to six hundred years later and where monarchy had brought them.  Conclusion: monarchy does not work unless it operates within the authority of God.  With God as sovereign it really doesn’t matter who sits on the posh chair at Hebron, Jerusalem, or Buckingham Palace.  Without God as sovereign the same is true.  And this is true also for other human structures of governance.  Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor, Donald Trump, Kim Jong-Un, Robert Mugabe, Peter Cosgrove: we can debate who is the better man (or woman), and who is doing the better job.  We might argue which is the better system. But without God in the ascendency in the heart and the mind of the one whose bum is enthroned does it really matter?  The question is not whether in the twenty-first century we would prefer Jesus to be Governor-of-Governors, President-of-Presidents, Chairperson-of-Chairpersons, or something else less monarchical and mediaeval.  The point is that God has favour for us and God is watching to see how well we are governed and loved.

The light of this has caused me to wonder; of all the gospel readings to go with this festival day, why on earth are we reading about the sheep and the goats?  Yes, we most certainly do see Jesus speaking about his upcoming Last Things role when as King of Kings he makes an ultimate and eternal judgment between the faithful and the unfaithful in the ministries of hospitality, as if care for prisoners matters more to him in Eternity than personal repentance from sin.  (Which is a confusing message in itself for Evangelicals.)  But I see that there is something more, and something which connects with what Ezekiel and Paul say about kingship.

The message of the sheep and the goats is not about how well the Christians and Jews look after the poor.  Undoubtedly there is that meaning, and the good news makes it clear that Christians should be doing that: you here in this body this morning are meant to visit the alone, comfort the distressed, meet the physical and emotional needs of the needy where you find them, and go looking for any of the above so as to find them in the first place.  All of that is true, and necessary, within discipleship.  But that’s not all that there is to this story; and you will not lose your salvation as a Christian in the Latrobe Valley just because you never paid a social visit to Fulham or Kilmany.

Jesus’ message of the sheep and the goats is also a warning to the world not to treat the flock of Jesus with disdain.  Like Ezekiel speaking of the evil kings who did not care for the people, other than as a source of slaves and taxes, Jesus is speaking against the systems of the day (his and ours) which cause even one of Jesus’ brothers or sisters to be imprisoned, abandoned, destitute, starving, terminally ill, or sad.  “He’s mine” as my great grandmother was quoted to say when other people spoke derisively of a particularly naughty great uncle of mine, her son.  Don’t you dare mess with the person of the family of God, says the God of Israel, says God the Son.

Today we speak of Christ as King.  We do so in the context of many sermons and comments about the Reign of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.  We know that God is king, we sing about it, learn about it, pray about it.  What we are to be mindful of this morning is that God in Christ is our King, and our king is a good king who governs and cares for us as God’s own.

Amen.

Show us yer Talents

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn North on Sunday 19th November 2017.

Judges 4:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

The tradition of sermons around the Parable of the Talents connect it with the messages we heard from Jesus and Paul last week, of how we need to be living out our discipleship to the full since none of us knows when Christ shall return and the opportunity to serve God has passed.  Jesus is represented in today’s gospel story by the character of the Master, and the disciples (including us) are the worthy slaves to whom are entrusted the talents, the property of the master, which for us is the mission of the Kingdom of God.

In our reality Jesus has died and has been resurrected and ascended.  Today we eagerly await his return.  We heard this from 1 Thessalonians 4 last week, which was probably written around the year 49 or 50 and we are still waiting today in 2017.  The popular interpretation of the Parable of the Talents goes that when Christ returns those who are found to have been faithful in the Lord’s absence are rewarded with Heaven, and those who have been found unfaithful (lazy, afraid, defiant) are punished with exile from Heaven.  So where the wise bridesmaids taught us to be vigilant while our Lord is delayed, the wise servants teach us to be diligent.

Last week I suggested that most half-hearted Christians no longer attend church.  In the same way I want to suggest to you that the work that goes undone in the Church is undone because of a lack of youth and person-power rather than a lack of wisdom or desire.  I am sure there is more that can be done by us, you and me, in the Yallourn Cluster, but we need not beat ourselves up about it or fear that Christ will disown us when he comes.  We can only do what we can do, and for the most part that is being done.  We would do more if we had more, but we are being pretty faithful with what we have.  Nonetheless the call of God is individual and we must each do what God has called us to each do.  And we must each do it with all the strength God gives.  The lesson of the talents is that the more you do for God the more God will give you to do: the reward for diligence is greater responsibility.  This may sound like a punishment rather than a reward, but if you think of new responsibilities as the evidence of God’s trust in you, and your work is a display of additional opportunities to give God glory and worship, (which as a Christian is the desire of the heart), then it is reward upon reward.

So, I think Yallourn Cluster is perhaps the second servant, the one with less than the first servant, but the one who still managed to employ what was given and turned a profit for the Master.

The third servant in the parable, the one who is cast out, has buried his talent.  To bury something is to treat it as if it is dead.  But the Lord’s resource is never dead, it is alive and should therefore be exhibited in the world and opened to the elements of light and heat and air to grow.  To bury a borrowed thing is a breach of trust when it has been entrusted by its master for ongoing, practical use.  To bury is to betray.

We are wise to remember that this parable comes toward the end of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, we are in chapter 25.  Palm Sunday was back in Matthew 21, Jesus will be arrested in Matthew 26, murdered in Matthew 27, and resurrected and ascend in Matthew 28.  Jesus “the master” is about to leave “for a long time”.  My chronology suggests that Jesus here is speaking on the Tuesday before Good Friday; in light of the story he is making sure his servants are up to speed with the need to continue his work while he is away.

We are the people of light.  What a privilege we have to be the people of light and the ones with the responsibility to display that light to the world.  What a loss it is to God then, and to the world, if we do not share that light.

And let’s go deeper still.  The sin of the unfaithful servant goes further than merely not using the resource given to him: he actually blames the master for being a bully.  “I did the right thing by keeping your investment intact,” he says.  “If I had invested in this opportunity and lost the lot then you’d have received nothing back and I’d have been punished.  At least here you’ve not lost anything.”  Do you think that is a fair response?  Some might think so, depending upon the character of their master; but our master is Jesus and he is not like this.   One of my commentators this week suggested that laziness is being portrayed as virtuous, where in fact it is an abuse of privilege.  I like this.

Paul reminded the Thessalonians that the return of Christ will come unexpected and unannounced.  Like labour pains out of nowhere will come immediate and great, debilitating distress.  This is a great metaphor, because two things are going on here.  One, known to those of you who are mothers, or indeed the loving husbands of mothers, is that labour is very painful and that it can come on suddenly.  I am neither a mother nor a husband, but I know this to be true, even in theory.  The other aspect of the metaphor is that labour is somewhat predictable: when 40 weeks have passed you know you’re “due”, and you’d be on guard from 35 weeks.  I know that when my sister was pregnant with my nephew she had her “due date” marked on the calendar months out: and do you know what, she was right.

But the unannounced and sudden return of Christ is of no concern to us since we are alert and not asleep.  We are people of the light, people of the day, and not of the darkness.  Let us live with faith and love as our protection and hope as our assurance.  When the terror comes it will not come for us, we have been chosen to be saved and have been prepared in advance to be armoured and ready.  Once again Paul’s message is not to be afraid of what is to come but to rest assured in God’s sufficiency in protection.  Live out your faith confident that when the Lord returns he will find you doing so, like the slave with two talents.  Do not fear judgement, only live in the light and you have nothing to fear.  Only those who are asleep on duty, live the foolish bridesmaids or the slave with one talent, will be caught off guard and have need to be afraid; but we are not them.

But here’s the rub, if we are people of the light, and other people have never seen the light and so will be caught off guard when Christ returns, whose fault will that be?  As faithful disciples of Christ and investors of his talents you are assured of Heaven’s welcome; but what of your friends who are not?  Is your own salvation enough for you?  Are you shining so that others can see, or have you shaded your light?  Have you kept yourself so pure for God that all of your devotional and worshipping activity is hidden from those who might need to overhear?

Our reading from Judges this morning spoke of Israel in the time of Deborah and Barak and of how the Israelites were doing evil in God’s sight.  The conquest of the land had not been completed under Joshua, the people had just settled when they were ready.  The people had not held to the promise made under Joshua to choose only the Lord as God.  God allowed the people to be overrun by an insurmountable Canaanite king, but then delivered them from that king when they cried out for mercy.  When God was ready to act God spoke through the prophetess Deborah to the military commander, not to Barak directly.    So, if not for Deborah, Barak would not have heard the Lord’s command or been ready to act where and when the Lord’s timing was prime.  My commentary says that this was the first time an Israelite force had overcome a plains people: all previous victories had been against mountain people or city states.  So, because of Deborah’s faithfulness to the message of God, and to her “talents” as judge and prophet the armies of Israel were confident to try something new, and they were successful at it.

Who are we denying the word of encouragement and direction from God?  What new thing is to be done in the Latrobe Valley which we know but they out there do not?  This congregation, including those members of it who live in Newborough and Moe, are faithful in worship, faithful in giving financially, and faithful in care of each other.  For the most part.  I do not believe that this congregation is under threat of judgement from the returning Lord.  But I appeal to your conscience: is there more light, more power, more love that you could expend in the service of God and the people God loves in Gippsland, the people who don’t know how much they are loved?

This is a challenge to each of you, and not an accusation for any of you.  So, be challenged, invest your talents, and see what the Lord will do.

Amen.

Make your Choice.

This is the text of the message I prepared for Newborough Uniting Church for Sunday 12th November 2017.  It was the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost in Year A.

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Today’s reading from the book of Joshua jumps us straight into an episode in the conquering history of the Hebrew peoples.  Of course, if we had spent the last few weeks reading Joshua on a Sunday we’d be better informed of what is going on, but the lectionary and my choosing to not preach from the lectionary for most of October anyway did not allow for that.  Anyway, the Hebrews have reached the point where they are preparing to seal the conquest of the land.  The armies have been as far as they wish to have gone, and each tribe or half-tribe has a satisfactory allotment of land.

So, in today’s reading Joshua has gathered the leaders of the tribes and of the armies as well at Shechem in Ephraimite territory.  Joshua is an Ephraimite so perhaps he has gathered them on his own land.  Joshua’s address to the leaders reminds them of The LORD’s work among the Hebrews since the call of Abraham, and he cleverly asks them to declare their loyalty for The LORD one way or the other.  As leaders they are to choose now and forever as they settle in the land promised to Abraham what they will do with the benefits of the covenant they have inherited.  Joshua calls the nation to choose between worship of The LORD the God of Abraham, worship of the Egyptian gods from their slave days, and worship of the Canaanite gods whose worshippers have been overcome.  Choose the lesser gods if you will, invites Joshua, but choose one way or the other with deliberate action.  As for Joshua he chooses The LORD as his God.

The leaders respond on behalf of the nation that they too will choose The LORD: but Joshua warns them that The LORD will take them at their word in this and that if they fall away they will face the consequences of disloyalty since that is a breaking of the covenant.  Once you have chosen The LORD he says, you cannot back out, so be very careful before committing your way to The LORD.  Again, the leaders say that The LORD will be their God, and that they reject the Egyptian and Canaanite gods.  Joshua erects a monument in that place as a physical and visible reminder of the promise.

In a place of pluralism, during a time of rapid societal transition Joshua seeks to ground the people on the firm foundation of worship of and trust in Israel’s God.  Today we face a similar situation.  Today as Christians we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves, (and therefore to love ourselves), but we must never fail to worship God foremost.  We are to be compassionate and hospitable, but we are first to be faithful to the God of compassion and hospitality, the God of salvation and grace for all the world.

The Kingdom of Heaven is described by Jesus in a parable of ten bridesmaids waiting for a delayed bridegroom.  The hour is unknown, but will be at hand: do not be unprepared.  The task of the bridesmaids in this story is bearers of light; oil is a metaphor for faithfulness in discipleship which keeps the light aflame.  The wise bridesmaids do not share their oil with the foolish because discipleship cannot be borrowed.  You may have heard it said that “God does not have grandchildren”, we cannot rely on the beliefs of others to earn us salvation.  In the same way each woman or man can only source her or his own light from her or his own faithfulness.  The message of Jesus is that always faithful are always ready, the half-hearted or negligent in faith will be caught off-guard.

This parable has been used in the past to point toward lukewarm faith in the congregation.  Much like the sheep and goats, or the wheat and weeds, this story points to how only some people in the Church are true disciples of Jesus while others who come on Sundays are just going through the motions.  Like the foolish girls some Christians only have enough goodness to keep their lamps lit on a Sunday, going dark or at least growing dull during the week.  Other Christians may not shine as brightly on Sunday, but they do shine all week.  So, don’t be one of the blazing hypocrites, instead burn brightly for every hour of every day since you never know when God is watching or when Jesus might return a second time.

But in 2017, and alongside what Joshua said to the gathered tribes, I’m not so sure.  Perhaps those half-lights are no longer in church at all.  Churches these days are much smaller than they were a generation or two generations ago.  Like many of you I wonder why that is: I have concluded that perhaps some of the decline is due not to society’s recalcitrance or the indifference of “the young people today”, but to the honesty of society.  Many of the people my age, and younger, with whom I have spoken about faith say that they are no-longer prepared to live a lukewarm life, and so they don’t bother coming to church at all.  “I’d come if I actually believed more strongly,” they say, “but I’m not interested in going through the motions any more”.  Maybe the reason that there’s less than twenty of us here this morning is that we are the only ones with sufficient oil to last the week.  The others who have only a day’s or an hour’s supply didn’t bother to come at all.

So, what do we do with that?  Whilst we cannot share our oil, (our own relationship with God in Christ), since it is our own, the news of where to get more oil is in our hands.  Rather than sending the foolish girls away in the dark, our job as bridesmaids and brides-mates is to make sure that everyone has enough oil before we set out.

The challenge extended by Joshua can be thought of as a choice for the best source of oil, and of the best oil too.  All gods provide opportunities for worship, and all gods provide benefits to their worship.  All oil burns, but some oils burn better than others.  In terms of religion I’ve only ever been a Christian, so I have no personal experience of Buddha or Krishna, let alone Ba’al or Horus.  However, I know that when I have allowed myself to put Jesus second for short periods of time, say for the Geelong Football Club, or a particular band and its CD, or a nice bottle of ale or shiraz, that there has been short-term pleasure in that.  Joshua challenges the Hebrews to see that The LORD is the only source of filling, lasting joy.  In our world of many gods we can say the same; but we must proclaim it with one caveat.  To have the fullness of The LORD, to receive the overabundant filling of the Lord, we must give ourselves totally to The LORD.  Someone coming to church at Christmas, or Easter Day, or an especially meaningful funeral, wedding, or baptism might get some temporary joy from church, even as I get temporary joy from the Cats winning a premiership or from my second glass of that amazing red.  But if that person is not encouraged to seek more of God by seeking God more often, then she or he will assume that all there is to God is seasonal or short-lived.

When Paul wrote to the Christians at Thessaloniki he answered a question from some Christians there.  They were concerned about loved ones who had died before the news reached them of the salvation won by Jesus on the cross, and others who had died in faith but would miss out on the immanent second coming of the saviour.  Aren’t Christians who die before Christ returns just like the foolish bridesmaids?  Will they be left rotting in their graves while the rest of us get Raptured away to Heaven?  Paul assures the Thessalonians that all who die are safe in God’s hands.  The grace of God is not limited by time or place: God can and will intervene to save whomever wherever and whenever God chooses to do so, even in the past.  In all things rest assured that your hope is safe in God.  Faith is empty without hope, so hear the words of God through Paul’s pen, you are safe to hope in God because God can and will deliver on the promise of salvation for all.

Paul’s response is good oil.  Where the news of the depth of the gospel had not pervaded the Thessalonian Christians Paul proclaims the fullness of grace, and therefore puts more oil and better oil into their jars.

And so, this is our work too.  We are not to lament that we have less bums on seats here today than we did a generation ago.  We are not to lament that our friends and our children and grandchildren are spending Sunday mornings elsewhere than here, including sleeping of hangovers or a late night’s return from the Speedway or the MCG.  Yes, there are legitimate concerns here, I’m not saying we ignore those situations.  But our work is to speak to those living with less oil than us, and oil of a lesser quality than that provided by The LORD through the saving and salving grace of Jesus Christ.  The way of Christ is a better way: choose now.  Do you want to be full of Jesus?  Then worship him.  Or do you want to be full of Collingwood, or Holden, or VB?  Make no mistake that if you do then you will worship those.  Today I invite you to make your choice, make it stick, once and for all, and then tell others about the best choice.

But as for me, and for my house, we will worship The LORD.

Amen.