Love in a time of Coronavirus

This is the text of the message I preapred for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 22nd March 2020.  This was the week when COVID-19 restrictions really hit home in Australia.  Shops were denuded of many basic essentials, and indoor, public gatherings of people had to ensure at least four square metres of floor space per person.  For this reason many church services were cancelled, and ours moved outside to the local football oval.

Psalm 23

 Well, here we are at the footy ground.  I didn’t see this coming and I dare say none of you did either when we gathered to worship last week at the Church of Christ building.  Some of our cohort are in isolation, parents and grandparents to some of you, friends to everyone here.  Others are unable to be here because of the need for us to meet outside, or because of the need to care for family in other parts of South Australia and Victoria.

You may or may not be blessed by the news that the message I had prepared for you, for today, was seven pages long.  Truth!  I think it’s a good word, it’s certainly a solid word, and in view if the quote I have presented previously from Joyce Meyer it is certainly a “now” word even as it also seems to be a “new” word.  The new thing isn’t always relevant, the previous thing and the old paths aren’t always redundant.  Perhaps today those of you who were once Methodist might recall that John Wesley often spoke outdoors to crowds, either when the local parish chapel was too small, or too small-minded, to allow for the now word of God.

The message I have for you, which is the message I had and which you will get when the time is better suited, is that as The Church it is vital that the local Christians get out of their buildings and be the people of God in their communities.  In this past week the Bishops Conference of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia has decreed that there is to be no indoor worship in any Catholic Church until this pestilence is passed.  The Territorial Commander of the Salvation Army (Australia Territory) has sad something similar about Salvo citadels and Sundays, indeed the Kaniva Corps met outside this morning.  Many Anglican diocese have made a similar call, not all of them, and not the one encompassing the West Wimmera; and the Uniting Church Synods of Queensland and NSW/ACT have done so too, but again not the Synods of SA or Vic-Tas.

I do not believe that God sent this Coronavirus on the world to get the Christians to worship at footy grounds: however, the virus does exist and so to do footy grounds, so let’s make the most of it and worship The LORD and proclaim Christ Crucified publicly and openly.  It is Lent after all; Resurrection Day is in 21 days’ time.

So what is to be said on such a day.  Sadly it is just family today, there’s no one to lead to The LORD in a lifegiving way, all of you are saved enough as you are.  Well we can all do with more of Jesus, no matter how much of him you have (or perhaps more importantly how much of you he has), but the point remains, no one here is looking for a saviour because everyone here has found him.  Everyone over there hasn’t, but then they’re over there today.  Our project is to get ourselves over there asap, and to get there with the message of Love in a Time of Coronavirus.  So, don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased to be here with my brothers and sisters in Christ today: but I’d dearly love it if we could have added new siblings this morning.

The news for us, and for the world, whether you have been hoarding toilet-paper, or Glen-20, or Dettol Handwash, or whether you have been generous in your caring and sharing for sibling and neighbour, is that God is with us.  I mean look at us, here, doing church.  Carlton and Richmond played to nobody at all at the MCG on Thursday night, Collingwood and Western Bulldogs had zero spectators at Docklands on Friday.  But come to Leeor Footy ground at twenty-five to midday on a Sunday and wa-hey!

Seriously, I love what today’s lectionary reading has for us in the Psalm.  My original sermon for today focussed on the other three readings so it’s a bit of a delight to be able to hold them over for later and to just sit with our Shepherding lord beside those cool waters and in the sweet grass.

As I was writing this message yesterday I had a new App playing on my phone.  I say “playing” because it’s called “Calming” and is has mindfulness and reflective tracks on it, as well as sleepy and soothing background noise, and other stuff.  So anyway I was a bit stressed, having to redo my sermon and think about how to preach at a footy ground, so the soothing sound of “Mountain Book in Flood” was a wonderful background.  Except that it took me four hours to write these three pages because I had to keep getting up for a wee!!  Twinkle, twinkle, trickle…  But even with that the calm waters did cause stillness in my soul, even as it played havoc with my bladder reflexes.  My shoulders relaxed, my jaw relaxed, my eyes opened a bit wider as the tension soothed away and the aahh! set in.  In Psalm 23:3 we are reminded that this is one of the works of the Shepherd, he restores my soul.  Again I don’t believe God sent Coronavirus to make us all lay down, but the fact that we have had to lay down has meant for example that the skies above Beijing and Paris are clearing, and the waters of Venice lagoon are too.  Stiller waters has equalled cleaner environments.  God did not send this virus to clean out the world, but there is a virus rampant so let’s make the most of our enforced quietness and worship The LORD and proclaim Christ the Redeemer who has saved all of Creation and is shaping a New Creation.  Praise the one who leads me in right paths for his name’s sake as Psalm 23:3 says, celebrate and acknowledge that God has brought good out of this, and that God always will.

In the next sentence, Psalm 23:4a we read the great encouragement for us today.  Even though I walk through the darkest valley I fear no evil says the NRSV, other translations offer the valley of the shadow of death.  Coronavirus is a dark valley, a valley of deathly shadows, there is no doubt.  Thousands have died, hundreds of thousands have been laid low with illness and pain and fever and coughing.  Sadly thousands and hundred of thousands more will go on to experience the same, including people of Australia.  But in all of that, all of that, COVID-19 as a disease is a shadow: God is the light.  We see the shadow because COVID-19 is real and it is blocking the light in some places, throwing its shade like we used to throw toilet-paper at the houses of people we didn’t like.  But it’s the light that matters, God is here, and the light is shining.  The shepherd is here and the grass and the stream and the breeze and the birdsong are inviting.

This is a season of rest for us, I have no doubt.  Our God and our government want us to look inward for a time of self-care, neighbourly care, generous calm, and quietness.  Psalm 23 suggests that none of this is to be seen as a punishment, nor is it a reward, it’s simply a season.  It’s nap time, it’s rest time.

I admit to being frustrated on Friday when I went to Foodland in Boredomtown and it was out of loo rolls.  I don’t need many, I will be okay for a few weeks yet.  But the panic buying, and the hoarding saddened me, saddened me that even the Tatiara ad the Wimmera have it?  The Mighty South Aussies, yeah?  Not this week Foodland.  But it’s got me thinking, what is the church hoarding in this crisis.  Okay so yes there is a secret stash of loo roll in our storage cupboard, our stewards shop ahead and yes we are sharing it (one at a time) with those who have none.  But what of the other stuff of which we have an abundance and others have none.  From a John 10:10 storehouse how are we going proclaiming Psalm 46:10.  The life in abundance for which Jesus came is our promise that it’s safe to be still and know.

Don’t hoard peace this week Church, don’t hoard hope.  There is more than enough for you, be generous in sharing it.

Amen.

What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 2nd February 2020.  It’s not a lectionary reading.

Psalm 116

Recently I had the privilege of not only attending, but actively participating in the ordination of a dear friend. For reasons beyond her control this ordination took place on Australia Day; but that set up a happy coincidence, for me at least. The happy coincidence is that one of the readings which my good friend had chosen to be read on her special day was the entirety of Psalm 116, a special set of verses for her. As her friend I know that a good deal of her testimony is replayed in those words of scripture. Okay, great; so January 26 and Psalm 116 are coincidental: how exactly? Any takers? Well actually the coincidence comes tomorrow, because on Sunday 3rd February 1788 Rev Richard Johnson, inaugural chaplain of the penal settlement at New South Wales preached the first Christian sermon in Sydney and Psalm 116:12-13 was his text. As it reads in the Authorised version which he used, What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. Johnson’s appointment was largely the work of John Newton and William Wilberforce, have you heard of them? Yes, well as you’d expect they were keen that an evangelical would take on the chaplaincy of New South Wales and so Johnson was appointed as minister and educator, and with his wife Mary he sailed with the First Fleet.

The news which comes later, after the landing at Port Jackson and that first service of worship under a tree at Sydney Cove, is that Johnson was not well attended to by the governors. Governor Phillip had more important things to focus upon than the building of a chapel, what with trying to house a starving population, so church took place out in the open. Later governors and lieutenant-governors were even less helpful, so in 1793 Johnson built a 500 seat chapel himself; at his own expense and with his own hands. With that building in place Richard and Mary were better able to run a school and as many as 200 children were in class. That building was destroyed by fire in 1798, probably arson, and in 1800 the Johnson family (now four of them with two Australia-born children) returned to England on a furlough, from which they did not return.

So you may or may not have heard the story of Richard Johnson before, and of course there is a lot more to tell. Much of their woe occurred during life in the colony and therefore after that first sermon was spoken out. But I’m sure that as Australians, even not as Sydney-siders, you have some understanding of The First Fleet and what went on to get those eleven ships into Botany Bay and then Port Jackson. It was not a fun time by any means; and there were no doubts aboard ship among anyone, marines and freemen included, that life in Sydney would be easy. As far as journeys go the First Fleet wasn’t the worst, the Second and Third Fleets were disease ridden and most unpleasant, but it was bad enough. So I wonder what Johnson was thinking, and more importantly what he was seeing (envisioning) as he prepared and then delivered that first sermon to the prison colony. Just think about it, imagine yourself if you’d like as a convict or a marine, or the surgeon, or the governor himself, or the tag-along wife of someone, imagine you’re Mary Johnson, and Richard gets up and says what shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me? I’m not entirely certain, and in this instance my background in sociolinguistics lets me down, but I’d say that was the first instance that the derogatory use of the word “mate” was used in Straya. I mean, you’ve been at sea since May 1787 and it’s now February 1788, not to mention (but I probably will) whatever prison-hulk or barracks-and-orders rigmarole went on before sailing. You’re standing under a gum tree in February, and you’re wearing rags (as a convict) or prissy England clothes (as a free person or marine), so you’re probably sweating like mad. You’ve been sleeping in a tent, or on the ground, or maybe you’re still going back to the ships to sleep. You’re here forever, or at least seven years, or at least until you’re re-called for re-deployment by the Admiralty, and even that is at least a year and a half away by the fastest ships. The last year has sucked, this year looks desolate and hungry, and next year might see us starving if we even make it that far. So, ah Rev, Richard-mate, what are these benefits unto me which the Lord has rendered? Maaate? Psh!

How’s your year looking Kaniva/Serviceton? How was 2019? What does 2020 have in store for you? Are you hopeful of even reaching 2021? Hopefully you’re feeling better than that mob who were standing on Eora Country 232 years ago, but just because a town exists here and you slept in sheets last night that doesn’t mean your future is rosy. My friend’s story, the friend who was ordained last Sunday, her story is hers to tell so I won’t even touch it: but it’s a doozy. You all know some of my story and many of the doozy bits (but not all of them) and I tell that in drabs. What’s your story, and how does this Psalm speak to you?

I’m going to ask that again, what’s your story, and how does this Psalm speak to you? In my research this week I discovered something which I think is every interesting, in Tanakh (the actual Jewish Bible rendered into English and used by some Jewish traditions, rather than one of the Old Testament translations of the Christian traditions) there’s a variant reading in Psalm 116:1-2. In the New International Version it reads I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me I will call on him as long as I live. Positive, praiseworthy, comfortable and comforting. In the Good News Bible (which is in your pew) it reads I love the LORD because he hears me, he listens to my prayers. He listens to me every time I call to him. More of a shift to continuing present tense, not only did The LORD hear my voice but God hears my voice: all good so far. In the Tanakh it reads I love the LORD for He hears my voice, my pleas; for He turns His ear to me whenever I call. Pretty similar to the Good News Bible, but without that “because” statement from the NIV. But, here’s the variant, Tanakh footnotes suggest this one I would love that the LORD hear my voice, my pleas; that He turn His ear to me whenever I call. Hmm. Anyone been there? “I’d love it if God would listen and could hear me right now”. Anyone there now: don’t put your hand up but do let me know later if I can pray with you. Maybe some of Sydney’s first congregation were thinking that, maybe Rev Richard was thinking that himself, just quietly. Or maybe you’re with the Orthodox Church where the translation reads I have loved, because the Lord shall hear the voice of my supplication; for He inclined His ear to me. And in my days I shall call upon Him. (Athanasius Academy Septuagint found in The Orthodox Study Bible). I have loved because… that’s something different again, and suggests that we love God because God loves us (true) and that by God’s love for us we become mature through carrying that love even in the dark places, and finding strength in it. That points us toward Psalm 116:12-13 which we looked at earlier, with the understanding that even with the depths of Sheol, and the depths of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans The LORD has been good thus far and we can be confident. We can be confident because we have trusted The LORD and The LORD has come through for us; therefore whatever lay ahead of New South Wales in 1788, and whatever lies ahead of the Wimmera and Tatiara in 2020, we can celebrate God and be thankful in advance. Interesting to me is that according to its lectionary the Orthodox Church reads this psalm on Palm Sunday, and we read it on Maundy Thursday.

Are you confident for what lies ahead? Maybe today you are in Sheol, or at least in fear of being there soon: feeling grave and overcome with tomb-like concerns. Maybe today you are in Cadi (Sydney Cove), and wondering how this place could ever be what London is, even Newgate Prison. Or maybe you are in the good place, with the harvest harvested and sent away to wherever the trucks and trains take the various outcomes of your work, and you are in the mood for exuberant praise and thanksgiving for the abundance of grace that The LORD has just poured over your head. Most likely you’re somewhere in between those poles, since most of the time we just live with contentment, without fear but also without celebration. The Psalmist says that a worthy response to all of those conditions is thanksgiving and praise. I would say the same, not only as a theologian who has just written a sermon on this but also as a man with a doozy of a story about Sheol and another about the Heavenlies.

And so, what shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits towards me? How can I repay The LORD for all His bounties to me? Well, as scripture exhorts us let us raise the cup of deliverance and invoke the name of The LORD. Tell people what has been done for you, show it to their own eyes, and tell them that it was The LORD Godself who did it for you. If you are in the mood to celebrate then celebrate: rejoice like the shepherd who recovered one of one hundred sheep, host a party like the widow who recovered one of ten coins, feast and drink like the father who received back one of two sons. And if you are not in the mood to celebrate then remember what The LORD has already brought you through, and trust that The LORD who is the same Lord will do it again and again. In all of those stories told by Jesus, and all of the doozy stories we tell of ourselves, the focus is on a corporate response to an individual crisis. I was in peril, now I will tell the whole congregation how amazing The LORD is to me. This is actually the point of the Psalm, not that the snares of death encompassed me, the pangs of Sheol laid hold on to me, (Psalm 116:3) woe is me I have a truly salty story; not even that gracious is The LORD and righteous, (Psalm 116:5); but I will pay my vows to The LORD in the presence of all his people (Psalm 116:14), and I will pay my vows to The LORD in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of The LORD, in your midst O Jerusalem (Psalm 116:18-19).

And so it is. Maybe Richard Jonson did feel like a bit of a dill preaching on The LORD’s providence under that tree at Sydney, barely a week after the tall ships had arrived: perhaps he spoke too soon when you consider all that he went through in the next twelve years, and all that Sydney has seen in the past 232. Or maybe he was on the right track, considering that all who gathered on that day had survived the journey to gather on that day, considering that as an evangelical he knew where and how to look for the goodness of The LORD and to find much for which to be thankful in song and word. May it ever be so with us. We no longer cry God save the King, okay mainly because we actually have a queen, but let us remember that God’s saviour is King, and that we have the responsibility to glorify his saving work and his reign in song and word, confident in him in all circumstances.

Amen.

The Advent of Loss: 2 (Blue Christmas)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the community Blue Christmas service in Kaniva for 2019.  The service was hosted by the Uniting Church on behalf of all of the town churches.

John 1:1-14

Imagine a Christmas without all the pageantry. In a field of loss that might be nice, and December 25th itself might pass in quietness, another Wednesday in the world, with nothing to set it apart. Imagine if Christmas Day was just another birthday, someone else’s birthday, and joy to them and all of that, but good that I wasn’t invited, or even aware, because I’m not in the mood for celebration. In fact, even if it was my birthday, and it isn’t, but even if it was I’m just not into it.

Do any of you know what date of the year my birthday is? It’s okay, I don’t know when yours are either. It’s probably no surprise to you that your birthday this year was just another day for me, unremarkable, I don’t even remember what I was doing: unless it was a Sunday of course, in which case I was probably preaching, but then I preach most Sundays anyway so I’m sorry if I didn’t notice your special day. Or was it a Saturday in winter and I was at the footy, same answer, sorry I didn’t notice.

There are days like that for all of us. Not just birthdays, but other significant days and the anniversaries of significant days. There are people in this room, at the very least in this town, who lost friends and family to death this year: but what was I doing on the day that that happened? Can’t say. Others observed days of anniversary: a year, two, ten, perhaps fifty since a loved one died, again days unremarked by me or the rest of you, for the most part. And generally that’s okay, we often don’t need the whole world party to our personal grief, especially when healing has begun and the years have made the memories more fond for what was had and less sharp for what was lost.

But then, then there’s Christmas. I know two people for whom Christmas Day is the anniversary of a father’s passing. But even without that, Christmas Day is a loud and bright day, especially in Australia where it’s all-but midsummer, so the parties are outside with cricket in the street and barbeques in the back yard and it’s hard to hide from celebration even if you want to. That’s not to say that there aren’t lonely people, grieving people, distressed people even on the Day when we celebrate Santa’s coming to earth in human form, it’s just that those sad-sacks get their noses rubbed in by their boisterous neighbours and their cordial-powered, remote-control wielding children.

In John’s gospel and the opening chapter, which is really a prologue to the story than the opening of the story itself, we have Christmas without the paraphernalia. No wise men, no shepherds, no angels; no star, no animals, no manger; no baby. What we have is light and a word; a word which is a who (and not a what), a word who is glorious and alive, a word who is light whom banishes the darkness. I wonder what a Christmas pageant would look like if we based it on John’s account rather than Matthew’s or Luke’s. Would it actually be less boisterous if there was no bunch of kids dressed as a flock of lambs, and one solitary boy was dressed as everlasting light instead? I never got to be Joseph when I was a child, although I did play him in a monologue when I was about 42. I wonder how I would have felt had I been chosen to play the real light – the light that comes into the world and shines on all mankind as John 1:9 puts it.

The Good News Translation overlooks the phrase, but in the New American Bible (amongst others) we read in John 1:12 that to those who did accept him he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name. Now is not the time for a full theology of the Name of Jesus, but briefly, at Blue Christmas, let me say this. The name of the Word who came as light, is Jesus, and that name means “God Saves”. It’s the same Hebrew name as Joshua (Yehu’shua), the one who fit de battle of Jericho and the walls come a tumblin’ down. The phrase “in his name” also means to accept Jesus for all he is and all he stands for: the whole being of Jesus and his story. If you acknowledge and receive Jesus, the one who exists and proclaims the salvation of God, then you will become a son or daughter of God. Many did not accept Jesus when he came, during his life between 4BC and 30AD or whenever exactly it was, John 1:11 tells us that and we know it from other parts of the New Testament too. Many since then and right up to today have also not accepted him, either they have heard the story and rejected it for whatever reason, or they haven’t heard the story properly told at all for whatever reason. That’s why John 1:12 specifically says to those who did accept him, because in John 1:11 we’ve just been told that many didn’t.

And that’s where we find ourselves on Blue Christmas, and others find themselves blue at Christmas, because the story is unacceptable. Here’s a story about eternal light entering the world. Here’s a story about the Word of God, so God’s creative power (remember God created by “saying”) and God’s authority, entering the world. Here’s a story about a man who embodies all of the above and his name is literally “God Saves”, if not “God’s Salvation” as if the man is himself the saviour, and not just a living prophecy whose name is a message, he himself with the name is also the means of salvation. And yet here I am, on Thursday night 19th December 2019 (or Wednesday morning 25th December), and here I am mourning because God did very much NOT save. If God saves then why am I a widow, or an orphan, or a divorcee, or a bankrupt, or a quadriplegic, or a neurotic? Why? All this light you’re speaking about just makes my darkness even more obvious, and it’s just as painful as the noise of children on their new bikes and the sound of their dads on their fourth beer.

You say “God saves”, but I say that’s very hard to accept, let alone believe.

As a pastor I hear that, and I will not trample it. Yes I am a pastor, but only because I am a survivor in life,; and I’m a survivor in life only because I am a Christian. I’m not saying that you cannot survive life without Christianity, but I am saying that I would not have made it this far without Jesus. My story is that I have lost a lot. My grandparents have all died, so my parents (whom I dearly love) have lost their parents (whom they dearly loved). I have lost friends to death, and friends to distance. I have also lost friends to hatred, people who once were close who have turned against me and my family. I have lost health, and poor health has stolen decades of my life; in fact I’m going to say that much of my adulthood has been lost to sickness and disability. I was sexually molested as a child and I have lost most, if not all, of what it means to be in a romantic relationship. So, when you say that God’s salvation is very hard to accept, let alone believe, I believe you, and I accept your story as accurate and true.

But so is John’s story, accurate and true, and I know this because it is also my story. That I am here, after all of that, to tell my story and even more to tell John’s story from the Christian Bible, is all down to the fact that God does save, did save, will save, and that Jesus is the means by which that is accomplished. I am a Christian, a recipient of salvation, because God saved me and not because I saved myself. When I stopped trying to save myself and faced the overwhelming tide of death, because I was out of energy and motivation, that is when God has lifted me out and up and away. If you aren’t there yet well I’m not going to gloat, or accuse, or deny your pain. I will be respectful this Christmas of you in the way that I missed in Christmases past when others denied, excluded, and accused me.

Imagine a Christmas without all the pageantry: in a field of loss that might be nice, and December 25th itself might pass in quietness, another Wednesday in the world, with nothing to set it apart. You know, you are allowed to have it that way, you really are. But if you don’t want to, we’ll be here at 9:00am next Wednesday, and we’ll be telling the stories of how Jesus is God’s Salvation. And we’ll be nice about it too.

Amen.

Advent 2A

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th December 2019, the second Sunday in Advent.

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

The one who is coming will come from Jesse’s family, a return to the righteousness of the Davidic inheritance.” A shoot from the stump and a branch from the roots suggests to me regrowth out of what was cut off. Isaiah tells us that such a man is coming, and that God will be upon this man; this man will live according to God’s model of righteous living, and this man will live in a saving relationship with God by God’s grace. This man is an agent, a leader and a catalyst, a restorer of once-broken relationships between God and nation, between nation and land, and between citizens of the nation. God’s king will rule with righteousness, and stand with faithfulness.

In this picture of the kingship of God, and what life is like inside the Kingdom of God, we’re not actually seeing Heaven. All of this shalom in the air and infant herbivores sleeping beside adult carnivores is a description of what Earth will be like once more, when God’s rule is completely restored. Remember, (make sure you remember), that God’s promises about the end of things are not about dead Christians going up to Heaven; no, the promise is actually that The Trinity Godself and the New Jerusalem come down to complete the New Earth, which is the inheritance of the One whose robe is dipped in blood. (But that’s Christianity and we’re getting ahead of ourselves here). As far as Isaiah is concerned he’s writing about a restored King of Israel, the ruler of a nation that includes the people of all twelve tribes living across the full extent of the land promised by God to Abraham, (a land far larger than the land conquered by Joshua’s armies). Isaiah is writing about history as it was supposed to have been, a life where humankind never left Eden, and Isaiah writes with confidence that God will complete this work promised at the outset of humankind’s written history. Everyone who has been scattered will come home. They will know where home is because they will be able to see the root of Jesse standing on the horizon, and they will know that that place is indeed home because the root of Jesse will be calling them in with welcoming voices.

Isaiah preached this during the reign of Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, (we’ll hear more about Ahaz next week), who was a good king of the kingdom of Judah. It’s possible that Isaiah is preaching at the time of Hezekiah’s coronation, so a time in Jerusalem’s history of “a new hope”. Israel to the north has been defeated and overrun by its enemies, so the Samaritan Israelites are not in Samaria but in Assyria as conquered exiles. Some of the Judahites have been taken away too, but Jerusalem held out and has been delivered from the threat of siege. So, the enemies are gone and the old king is dead (bad king, good news), and the new king is righteous and according to Isaiah 11:11 he will summon home all of those who were taken away: the Tanakh says that God will redeem the other part of His people, and the places named are the places where they were taken away to. So, as the Gospel According to Buble reports (Feeling Good lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley © Universal Music Publishing Group):

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

(Hey, it’s not really Christmas without Buble.)

Later in history the Patristic scholars connected the attributes of Isaiah 11:2 with Jesus’ reception of the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit: the idea being that Jesus was and is the foretold Davidic king who brings peace to the world. A similar story is told in Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 and similar to our Isaiah passage the Psalm is not so much a prediction that one day Jesus will come, rather it’s about what the people of God’s nation are praying for then and there about their king. Give us someone righteous, they ask, someone who will open the land to prosperity and blessing, someone who will protect the poor and disadvantaged so that their right to participate in national prosperity is protected and promoted. Give us someone who will reign for a long time and whose rule is refreshing to us all, and may God’s name be blessed because God’s reputation is being upheld. Give us a king who is like God in character, and bring on the kingship of God, The Kingdom of Heaven.

In Matthew 3:1 we hear John the Baptiser calling to the Judeans and saying repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Like the psalmist John is calling for social reform, and the fact that he’s preaching in the wilderness and away from the elites and the military is a sign that he knows his message is contentious. When someone is deliberately avoiding the cops and the bosses while he shouts for change you know a revolution is not far away, and that’s exactly what John has in mind. So did the Psalmist. Isaiah was pretty sure it had just happened with Hezekiah newly arrived and ready to take a new broom to old filth. “Change your thinking about the way the world works, begin to think about the way the world was supposed to work, the world of Eden where God is king and Herod and Caesar are not,” screams John, so you can see why the outback was good place for him to be. In Mark 1:15 it’s Jesus himself who says this, in fact it’s Jesus’ first words in that gospel account, the first thing written in red if your Bible does that sort of thing. Jesus has come (in Mark) or is about to come (in Matthew) and the Kingdom stuff from scripture is about to come into being. God has arrived on earth, to be king, and all the shalom is here for the asking. This is why I wonder sometimes whether the comma is in the wrong place in Matthew 3:3, and what it should say is the voice of one crying out: in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, so it’s not so much that John’s cry must come from the back of beyond, but that the cry is that Jesus will come first to the back of beyond and that that is where the way must be prepared for the Lord’s coming. The message of the Lord is scary, Jesus may even end up dead himself if he keeps up with this Kingdom of Heaven chatter, he’d better stay in the wilderness with John and be safe. You can’t live in God’s Kingdom unless you are prepared to follow God’s leading, and God’s instruction for us each is humility before Godself and care for the broken and downcast amongst our sisters and brothers. “Yes you belong to Abraham’s tribe”, says John in Matthew 3:9, “and yes you are saved by grace and not by works or obedience, but if you are not actively working with obedience then has grace really found a home in you”. In other words, Kingdom people live kingdom lives with kingdom values and kingdom actions, not because this sort of thing gets you into the Kingdom but because having entered the Kingdom by grace this is how life should be lived. Leave your muddy sins at the door and use your inside manners: cut out this dirtying the carpets and the squabbling and the name-calling, you’re Israelites, not bogan Gentiles.

So, you pack of bogan Gentiles, how are you feeling now? Well we know that a generation later Paul, alongside Peter and the whole mob of others, came to understand that Jesus called them to include and invite us bogan Gentiles too, showing us how to leave our muddy sins at the door, behind the cross, and to use inside manners. It’s quite plain in Romans 15:7 and Romans 15:5 where we read welcome one another as God welcomed you…and may God grant you to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus. You aren’t saved by obedience, or even by confession, you are saved by grace: but as someone saved by grace you should be living by obedience and confession because that’s what God expects, and the Spirit instructs, of citizens of the Kingdom of God.

The news of Advent, as it points to Christmas and the coming of the king, is that we are each, each one of us, included in the Kingdom of God by God’s own activity. Indeed we are included the same way that every descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is included, by grace. By grace taught in the Torah, and grace taught in the religious and cultural traditions of Judaism. By grace shared and shown by those who extend hospitality for family and strangers; by grace shared and shown by Jesus who died at the hands of broken human people including (but not limited to) the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In Romans 15:12 the rabbinical scholar, a Pharisee turned follower of Jesus, deliberately quoted Isaiah and wrote the root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles, in his the Gentiles shall hope. This is the hope of Advent, he is coming soon, and when he comes he will point us toward home and the Father and family who are waiting for us there with joy-filled expectation.

Amen.

Christ The King

This is the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 24th November 2019, the Sunday of Christ’s Kingship in Year C.  It was a communion service in both Kaniva and Serviceton in the Churches of Christ tradition, and I was presider

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Well, the kingship of Christ is one of those ideas that divides many in today’s church. The use of such powerful language to describe such a humble man has caused offence for some, and the taking offence by those in contradiction to a clear and Biblical teaching has caused offence in others. It seems to me that to call Christ “King” sparks the same angst as to call God “Father”; what you think of kings depends upon your experience of monarchical government and what you think of fathers depends upon the relationship you had with your own dad. I’m happy with the idea of Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords; I think him being President of Presidents or perhaps Mayor of Mayors is a bit pathetic really, Creation is not a democracy and we are not worse off for living in the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s own realm.

So there’s your introduction: Jesus is King and that’s a good thing in my view.

But what do we actually mean by this statement: Jesus is King, or perhaps Jesus is Lord? Is this just metaphorical language, suggesting that as we acknowledge Christ’s authority in the world we see him as superior to ourselves? If we want to say that Jesus is somehow better than us or above us in rank then why not just call him “teacher” (Rabbi as his mates called him), or even “boss”? Why king? Why lord?

Why not shepherd? Okay that might be a metaphor that even fewer modern people would enjoy, the logic suggesting that all Christians are sheep, but there are shepherd stories in circulation. Indeed the Roman Catholic parish in my hometown, the actual town where I was a child, is called “Christ the Good Shepherd”. Why does Jesus have to be a monarch, why can’t he be something more pasture-pastoral? In he opening verses of Jeremiah 23 The LORD who speaks through the prophet suggests that that is a useful framework for thinking about how God governs the people. In Jeremiah 23:3,4 God says that I myself will gather…and I will bring them back…and they shall not fear any longer…nor shall any be missing. That sounds like a God-thing, it certainly echoes the Good Shepherd motifs of Jesus’ teachings; and if we read on in Jeremiah we find that Jesus is apparently foretold as the king who will come, a descendent of David and one who will rule with wisdom, justice, and righteousness. Jesus will be king, and the sort of king he will be is this sort, the shepherding sort. The sort of king that Jesus will not be is the sort the Judahites and Israelites have already seen; the extortionate tyrant, the poor manager, the disinterested lush, the cashed-up bogan. That might be the style of Israel and Judah’s past, it may even be the style of Europe’s mediaeval, pre-Modern, pre-Revolutionary Past in our thinking, but it is not the way of the Kingship of God.

In today’s reading from the gospel we find ourselves at the crucifixion as Luke records it, and specifically the execution of the one the Romans called “The King of the Jews”. You’ll find those words in Luke 23:37-38. The implications of Jesus’ death are best left for another time, we’ll hear more about that at Easter, because today I want us to focus on the idea that this man is “The King of the Jews” and what it means that this king is being crucified.

You don’t need to be much of a scholar to know that lots of kings throughout all of history have ended up dead at the hands of their enemies. I’m not sure whether Jesus was the only foreign king ever crucified, but Rome would often murder the captured, defeated rulers of the lands they conquered after displaying them in triumphal parades through the city. Such kings or chieftains were usually strangled in a place called the Carcer, which is why many did not allow themselves to be “incarcerated” and would suicide or at least go down fighting on the battle field. Think of Cleopatra. But the Romans didn’t actually consider Jesus a king, did they? No, he was not King of Judea or King of Israel, he was not defeated in battle and he was not taken to Rome as part of a conqueror’s triumph: he was considered a rabble-rouser, a partisan, a rebel, and he was brutally killed in full public view to serve as an example for other trouble makers. Jesus was garbage according to the Romans, and even if Pilate thought Jesus himself harmless, Jesus was not worth upsetting the Sanhedrin over and so he was expendable. The sign above Jesus head was a taunt, a taunt of him and also a taunt of the Jewish people. And yet, and yet it is a title that Christians have invested with prophetic meaning almost since the day of crucifixion itself. Jesus really is the King of the Jews, and that is why his resurrection 36 hours later is such a victory for God’s Chosen People.

Jesus is not the sort of king who gets assassinated after a public rebellion, like Louis XVI of France or Charles I of Great Britain were. He’s never been overthrown and exiled as were Victor Emmanuel III of Italy or Alfonso XIII of Spain. After Jesus was killed Jesus returned; and Jesus was never de-throned. Look at how Jesus acts from the cross, he still has authority in his power to ask God to forgive sins (Luke 23:34) and to promise salvation to a repentant sinner (Luke 23:43); Jesus is King on the cross, not an ex-king or a deposed king, Jesus never relinquishes his kingship and it is never lost to him, even as he dies and is buried. And look at the people, in Luke 23:35 they stand watching at a distance while the Jewish leaders come close to mock Jesus’ kingship, the people are not following the leaders, which makes me wonder who has lost whose prestige at this point. Here’s a hint, you can’t call yourself a leader if you don’t have any followers.

When Paul speaks through his writing to Colossae about the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son I think this is the Son that Paul has in mind. Not just that Jesus is the Son of God, but that Jesus the Son is this crucified and raised King of the Jews. Look at Colossians 1:11-12 where Paul prays may you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father. Our strength, God’s power, our preparation to endure with patience are gifts of God which Jesus lived out as an example on the cross. I’m not certain how Jesus felt in the moment, but if he knew that his work was for the salvation of the world (and he did) then he knew that it would bring delight to God, and that would have buoyed him I think. The same is true of us, who are followers of Jesus and as disciples are literally his students, and as Paul adds in Colossians 1:13 as citizens of the Kingdom of the Son. Our followship of Jesus, our community of discipleship, is founded on the nature and example of the king who endured the cross and displayed God’s power throughout all things (time, space, language) by rising again. That is the story of a king; to call Jesus “boss” or “mayor” is kinda pathetic really.

Paul goes on in his next paragraph, which our Bibles bookend as Colossians 1:15-20, in much the same way. The New Revised Standard Version subtitles this section “The Supremacy of Christ” which I think is a good take on it, even as I don’t really like subtitles. The one who is king, this saviour who saved through his own death and resurrection, the king of The Kingdom of God, is supreme. You’d better believe he’s supreme, he’s the image of God (well aren’t we all?) but he’s the prize of creation for whom all things were created, and he sits over every creature and every form of power and influence. Christ is king above every other king then, king of kings for sure. But more than above all things in rank he is amongst all things in shape, he’s between the sub-atomic spaces and he drives every bond and force of Physics and Chemistry. Christ is valency, Christ is gravity, Christ is inertia and magnetism. Christ is osmosis and reduction. Christ is the top, and in Christ is the whole made whole. Christ is source, Christ is purpose, Christ is fullness and Christ is incarnation through whom God in all God’s Godfulness acts in and on and with the created order. So, more than a president eh: so much more than a president, so much.

Jesus is pretty important then. Immense. But also close. Look at the last words of our Christian tradition reading today: through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things in all dimensions by making shalom through the blood of Jesus’ cross. That’s Colossians 1:20. And think about it, Selah, pause and consider the blood of his cross. Did the cross bleed? Did the cross bleed? No. The blood of his cross is the blood of himself. There is no artificial miracle here of a cross bleeding true blood, there is no falsehood whereby sap was oozing and the illiterate peasants got all sweaty-faced about the magic. We all know what was going on here, Jesus, (Christ, the Supreme One, King of kings and all other things…) bled and died and through that God reconciled all things on Heaven and Earth and made peace. No king has ever done that before. Sure there have been abdications in world history, some rulers have surrendered immediately at the gates in the face of an overwhelming invasion force rather than have his (or her) city besieged and pillaged. But no king has ever died in such a way, at the hand of his own people, so as to bring about God’s completion. The greatest king died the most humble death, the least glorious death, nailed up naked and in public to a tree beside the main highway, having been thrashed to a pulp first, all on the twin crimes of treason and blasphemy, pronounced by a puppet governor and a selfish priesthood.

This is the king we have. Even if he were not king of kings and lord of lords (and he is, let’s not diminish that), but even if he wasn’t, even if there were a number of kings and Jesus-land was but one of a number of nations with constitutional monarchs in whose country we might live, wouldn’t you chose it anyway? I mean I like Elizabeth, Australia’s queen, but given a choice between the UK and the KOG I know where I’d be brexiting to…and it wouldn’t take me three years to make up my mind either.

The Kingship of Jesus seems to be to be the heart of the gospel. Even more than the lamb of God who was slain, even more than the great high priest who knows our every weakness, even more than the friend (what a friend) we have in Jesus, of most central importance to the good news of God is that God is King in the Kingdom of The Son, and that the king is the image of the invisible God. If God is king, and if God is like Jesus, and if Jesus is like this King of the Jews, then the Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of the most wonderful, most adorable, most loving and most welcoming king; a king who is all of that and strong, and authoritative, and commanding, and redeeming.

This, this is the God we adore; this, this is the God we serve.

Amen.

Useful

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th September 2019, the thirteenth Sunday in Pentecost.  I used only one of the four lectionary readings, so this is a sermon on the entire letter to Philemon.

Philemon 1-21

Paul’s letter to Philemon may seem like an odd text upon which to preach, I mean, what does it actually say about anything? It’s more like the sort of message you’d leave on voicemail than an epistle of scripture, don’t you think? “Yeah hi Phil, it’s me, Paul here. Yeah mate your brother’s actually here and says he’s been a bit of a ratbag. Has he? Yeah, well anyway he’s on his way back to P-town now so if you could just be kind to him that’d be great, ‘cos it sounds like he’s had a bit of a rough trot. And look, if he has caused some actual damage then, yeah, just fix it up and send us the bill. Or you could just knock it off the tab you owe me, yeah, ha. Anyway, cheers mate. Oh, and Ephaphras and the mob they say g’day too, yeah. Uhm, yeah, so righto, seeya-mate-bye.” Hmm, hardly words to build you life on are they? I mean, you won’t find anything from Philemon on a coffee mug at Koorong.

So why do we have it? Why’s it in the Lectionary for today, and why’s it even in the Bible? If you’ve done any sort of study in New Testament at a Bible College you will know that there are other letters and gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament. Things like Didache which means “The Teaching” and is a basic summary of Christian doctrine of salvation against the life of sin, like a two column breakdown, followed by instructions around how to run a worship service, I mean, that’d be helpful. Or The Acts of Peter since what we actually have as The Acts of The Apostles is really just the activities of Paul after Acts 9; again you’d think that’d be a useful read. So, how come something like The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians didn’t make it in, but this letter to Philemon of Colossae did? The reasons why Philemon is in the Bible and Polycarp isn’t might become clear, but really it’s the reasons why Philemon is in church today rather than more from Hebrews is what I want to talk about.

One of the key things we know about Philemon as a letter is that Paul wrote it. Unlike many of the letters with Paul’s name attached to them, some which are probably not his actual work and three which are definitely not his at all, Philemon is agreed to be genuinely from Paul’s own hand, or at least his dictation to a scribe. So that counts for something, indeed that’s the key reason why Philemon is in the Bible, because Paul actually did write it. (We don’t know who wrote Didache, but we know it wasn’t an apostle. Actually we don’t know who wrote Hebrews either, but it probably was an apostle.)

Paul very likely wrote this letter from gaol in Ephesus, so that puts it around 56 AD and it puts Paul in his mid forties, so around my age. This is very early in the history of Christianity, it’s foundational stuff in that it is some of the first stuff written down and it is being written down personally by the actual founders of Christianity. (I say “founders” plural because Timothy has a hand in this, see it in Philemon 1a.) It’s also personal correspondence, we get the idea that Paul and Philemon are friends if not colleagues, and Apphia and Archippus are Philemon’s wife and adult son. The letter is actually addressed to a house church of which Philemon is the leader and the host; so even though it’s personal correspondence it’s not actually private. Paul writes to the group, via the dad, to teach them all something about Christian fellowship and the central place of reconciliation in the gospel story.

There are varying opinions about who Onesimus was with regard to Philemon. Most scholarship suggests that Onesimus was a slave of Philemon, but not all scholars agree. One key set of scholars present that Onesimus is actually Philemon’s younger brother, maybe like the prodigal from the gospels. Regardless of the foundation of the relationship the facts are that the relationship has been strained or even broken: when Paul sends Onesimus back he does so with the hope that he and Philemon will be reconciled. Maybe they were brothers, but even if they were not they are now Brothers-in-Christ, and that is what Paul wants to say to that little fellowship in Colossae.

So what is Paul saying? Well, we can start by saying that whatever Paul is saying he is not saying it with arrogance. “I could demand this of you as an apostle and a prophet, Philemon”, says Paul in Philemon 8, “but I’d rather appeal to your good conscience and the outworking of your discipleship as my Brother-in-Christ”. Remember that this is way way early in Christianity and Paul has never been to Colossae; he seems to know Philemon, so maybe they met elsewhere, maybe even in Ephesus before Paul was gaoled. So this is making-it-up-as-we-go-along stuff, where the theory of brothers- and sisters-in-Christ and the story of Jesus in Luke 8:21 where him saying these are my brothers and sisters, the ones who do my Father’s will, and even the prodigal’s parable of Luke 15:11-32, have been told around the fellowship but not yet written down. This might be the first time any of them has actually had to do the hard work of reconciling a broken human relationship, in the name of a new kind of Christian relationship, where everyone is family. What does it mean, how does it actually work when all men are brothers even (and not sixth cousins), and returned slaves and prodigals are to be welcomed. What, exactly, is Philemon supposed to do when Onesimus arrives, and stays, and participates in fellowship around the table? Well, here’s some tips from Paul, glory be to God.

So, again, (get to the point Damien), what is Paul saying? Well here’s a list, to stop me getting side-tracked.

1. According to Philemon 6-7 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally a life lived together: Christian fellowship is partnership. As local Christians we are to do more than associate together, we are to move beyond casual (and even regular) socialising and into businesslike association for the Gospel but also for our strength. Unity is not optional, we are to do it in groups, and we are to hold each other up. This is love from the guts stuff, which is why it hurts so much when we are betrayed by another Christian. But it’s supposed to hurt, (so don’t betray, stay.)

2. According to Philemon 10-16 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally set upon the bedrock of reconciliation. The work of the Church very much includes mediation within itself, the unity of believers is not just about everyone sucking-it-up and walking around on broken toes. We live together as siblings, and our close quarters often means that others will be hurt. When hurt occurs don’t ignore it and don’t shake it off, don’t hand around teaspoons full of cement and tell each princess to harden herself up; actively seek restoration and healing, including (but not limited to) forgiveness.

3. According to Philemon 12-22 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally about mutual obligation. Living in unity, actively welcoming and rehabilitating trespassers and those who have been trespassed upon, requires everyone working and them working together. It is within the rights and responsibilities of leaders to tell followers what to do, we have leaders so that the work is co-ordinated according to the shared goal and the talents and input of each person: but it’s so much better if everyone just gets on with his or her work for Christ out of love and obedience to him. Again, get your guts in the game and give God your best; don’t wait to be told what to do when you already know what to do, and you’re confident enough to go with God in trust and faith. I believe my job as a leader here is to help you when you get stuck, and to train you for what comes next: I’m not here to micro-manage what God has given you to do because of God’s trust in you. Don’t wait for me to tell you, just go for it!

You are now Christians, says Paul, and Onesimus has joined us as a brother-in-Christ. As Christians please do the hard work of welcoming the young man home with a prodigious welcome: and live together, heal together, and pull together. That’s how churches work, and how churches grow. I reckon that’s a pretty good message and I’m stoked that Philemon is in the Bible. I’d have liked Didache in there too, and to be honest some of Clement’s stuff (Clement was the fourth pope), and Polycarp’s story (he was bishop in Smyrna, the same Smyrna we read about in Revelation 2, and he was possibly appointed bishop by John himself), are excellent reading too, but then you can buy those in Penguin Classics if you’re really interested.

So, the message is the same for us as local Christians. As two parts of the six-part Church in Kaniva and Serviceton, and the local branches/franchises of the Uniting Church in Australia and the Churches of Christ in Victoria and Tasmania, we have committed ourselves to building the Church in our towns. We’re not here solely for friendship or to be seen with the in-crowd, the days of people attending church for just that are long gone. No, we’re here to work, and if we are serious as I believe we are then the message is clear: do the hard work of welcoming the lost and wayward, welcome them each home with abundant welcome. For those who come in and for those who are here now, the message of God through Paul is that we live together, heal together, and pull together in unity. That’s how our churches will grow.

And with God’s help, we will.

Amen.

By Faith

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 18th August 2019, the tenth Sunday in Pentecost.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, 29-12:2

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen: for it was by faith that our ancestors received approval. So we are told, in the phrasing of the New Revised Standard Version in Hebrews 11:1-2. This verse has been of great comfort and rousing sustenance for many, including me, but a nagging question has arisen for me in recent years, and especially in recent days: what exactly is faith? Specifically, what does this word mean in this case?

I have mentioned more times than I’d like to, and I’m name-dropping it here again, that the first of my four university degrees was in Sociolingustics. I mention this now, and all times previously, to tell you why it is that I am so nerdy about language. I’m a words-nerd, as well as a preaching-nerd, and I love the way that language works. In the way that some people get all sweaty about number patterns, or galaxies, or the intricate dance of sub-atomic particles I cannot get enough of how sounds and scribbles make meaning, and the different messages conveyed by the same words in different situations. So that’s me, and my personality, and my interest. So it’s not that I have a university degree in something the rest of you have never even heard of and that that is a reason for me to boast, no it’s an excuse for why I’m such a nerd about words. It’s an apology really; but probably less than full-hearted because here I am doing it again.

So, “faith”; what is this word and what does it mean in Hebrews 11 and in my-slash-our today?

Well, I have come to the conclusion that oftentimes when Biblical authors and editors write of faith the key outcome is always about trust or hope. Christian Faith (and Jewish Faith for that matter) is not about a list of doctrines or proofs for truth, faith is trust is the one who is inescapably more and who is therefore utterly dependable and trustworthy. This is why I like the way the New Revised Standard Version uses the phrase faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen because assurance and convictions are words about trust: whereas the more common (at least to my ears) phrasing that faith is the evidence of these things is more about proof of truth. So, maybe you are scientifically or mathematically minded and for you God is a puzzle to be solved or an equation to be…equated…whatever, and for you evidence is an important word. That’s fine, I’m not saying it isn’t. But for me, a sociolinguist (someone who looks at language as it is used in society) and a narratologist (someone who look at how stories are put together) God is a story to be read, and Christianity is an autobiography to be lived. I don’t look for evidence to prove a theory and make a law; I look for assurance and conviction to keep going toward the next chapter, it’s how I am.

I hope I haven’t lost you. Have I? No? Good. My point is that Christianity is a personal thing and God works with us, the us who we are not only as sinners in need of grace but women and men with unique personalities and distinct interests, and that because of that the words we use can have different implications depending upon where we have come from in life.

I believe truth. So there’s a statement for you, just in case you were wondering about all my talk of assurance rather than evidence. I have read where Jesus calls himself the Way, Truth, and Life, and I have assurance and conviction that Jesus is the Truth, and that if I follow Jesus and get close to him through discipleship then I will be where Truth is. So let me tell you something true, something I have found to be true by following Jesus for more than forty years.

The deepest truth of Christianity is that we are not saved by faith.

Wow, weren’t expecting that were you? Actually as the congregations where I preach regularly (or as readers of my blog, hello!!) you might well have been. No, here’s the tricky linguistic bit: we are saved by grace through faith.

The deepest truth of Christianity is that we are saved by grace.

This is actually the deepest truth of Judaism too, salvation by grace: Jews are saved simply because God chose Abraham (seemingly at random) and promised him the salvation of his descendants simply because God wanted to do it. Yes there were covenants and so forth, but the fact that Abram was offered a covenant out of nowhere, and no-one else in Sumer was offered such a covenant, is significant. The realisation of that promise came because of Abram’s response, and that story is summarised for us at Hebrews 11:8-12. The significance of that story today is that Abram knowing nothing about God, having no set doctrine or a Romans Road of Salvation set before him, chose to say “yes” and to trust the God who addressed him. Grace saved Abram, and he allowed himself to be saved by trusting the One who held out a hand to him.

So as for Abram and the heroes of Jewish History, so for us that salvation is entirely and solely through the free gift of God who is Father to us. Those of you hearing me this morning (or reading me later) and who are saved were not saved according to how well you acceded to doctrine, I mean how much of Christianity you believe to be true, or how complicit you are in the idea that faith is belief without evidence. No, salvation is by grace: and your part in it, the faith aspect, is that you trust that Jesus did it all on the cross and therefore there is nothing else you can do or say that will add to your salvation.

Salvation by grace means that no matter how else you try to save yourself you will fail: only the blood of Christ can save. Even if you are trying to save yourself through the work of belief and gathering evidence which demands a verdict in favour of The Gospel argument, that work in itself will not save you. God’s grace is not a trial to be won but a gift to be received, a gift which is all-sufficient and needs nothing else. Salvation by Christ’s blood needs no batteries, no patch, no 2.0, and neither does it need help from you or your creeds. As was read to us in Hebrews 11:13-16 there are options to return to safety and to stop trusting God, you may well have been there where it’s a bit “whoa God, slow down eh, this one’s too deep for me” and you are wondering whether God’s sat-nav is out when you’re slipping all over Kane Swamp Road all the while knowing that Yarrock Road is bitumen and would have got you there more safely. I think the point here is that God’s way is trustworthy, even if Subaru’s installation of Tom Tom and/or your own sense of direction and expediency is not. Jesus who is the Truth is also the Way after all. This is why assurance, in my thinking, is better than evidence.

But what about the legitimate place of evidence: I mean, just because I personally am a word-nerd it doesn’t make Science wrong. In other words, what’s the point of faith and creeds? Is there any point to these? Yes, the point of creeds and beliefs is discipleship; in other words how your salvation directs your life of gratitude and thanksgiving, and worship and service.

In Hebrews 11:29-12:2 we read a summary of a summary, how by faith (which is to say with complete trust in God’s goodness and ability) God’s people went from the condition of enslaved, landless Hebrews in Egypt to established Israelites in Israel with David of Judah as king. Look at the record of history and scripture, hear the traditions of the elders and scribes passed down in word and deed, remember how faithful God is and know, always know, that God is to be trusted. God is so good that God saved us by grace, and by God’s grace we live in confidence and trust that by God’s grace we will never be shamed or destroyed. It’s only when trust in God’s grace is misplaced and we try to save ourselves that things go pear-shaped: that is when we end up in a divided kingdom without an heir of David to reign over us, and then the whole twelve tribes end up landless and enslaved again, this time in Babylon, where Jeremiah waits for us with a wagging finger and a plaintive cry of “if only!!”

Trust-derived discipleship looks like many things for me, but here’s one as an example. I believe that I was created in the image of God, and I believe that because that’s what it says in Genesis 1:26. That belief won’t save me, Christ’s activity on the cross saved me, but the belief that I am God’s very own and that I was made by God in God’s own image for God’s own glory and delight directs how I live my life. As imago Dei I try to live as Christ would, if not entirely WWJD then at least following the character of the man revealed in the gospel accounts. And, perhaps more so, if I’m created imago Dei then so are you, and that belief which does not save me might save you because I’ll honour you as a child of God and a divine presence because of that. I’ll treat you as sacred, set apart by God to bear God’s image in the world; and I’ll treat you as precious and important, and I’ll tell you how special you are as imago Dei, the image of God, in case you’ve never been told that, or you once were told but now you’ve forgotten and you life looks more like Babylon than Jerusalem.

In Hebrews 12:1-2, which I remember was a memory verse for the Year Ten class at my Christian school in 1987 (but which I have forgotten enough that I can no longer recite it from memory), we are presented with a great image. The great cloud of witnesses has been compared to the end of the Olympic marathon where the final part of the race is a lap of the stadium. As you enter the stadium, having run forty one and a half kilometres to that point, you have five hundred and ninety five metres to go. That distance is one full lap of the stadium from the point where you entered, plus a home strait to the tape…or clock…whatever. Anyway the stadium is packed, and it is packed not with ticketed-spectators and corporate types in corporate boxes, no it is packed with those who have already finished the race. And they are going absolutely American on your behalf. Man, they are hollerin’, they are shootin’ in the air, they are whoopin’ and singin’ and chantin’ and dancin’, and U-S-A! they chant U-S-A! Now, of course, you’ve been trained by a sociolinguist so you hear what they are supposed to be chanting and not the confused babble that they are chanting…they’re saying U-S-A but what they mean is A-U-S. Regardless, it’s all for you…Oi oi oi!

Why this? Because it’s true. Those who trusted God finished the race, and the race did not finish them. They have run and they have won (because everyone who runs God’s race wins it when they finish) and they are so excited to be home that their joy bubbled out, spills all over the floor we heard last week, and they welcome you home with such abandon. This is our faith: our trust in God who alone is mighty to save, our hope in this God who is willing and capable to save, and our creeds and beliefs written down by those who went before us to cheer us on as they were cheered on so that everyone will finish.

You were saved by grace and you are constantly being saved by grace. You walk as the road goes through the wilderness, through pagan lands, through green fields and beside still waters, maybe you run through the valley of the shadow of death, (or maybe you tip-toe, just keep going forward), and on to the outskirts of the distant homeland (Hebrews 11:14), and through the shires and suburbs until you reach the place of completion where The Glorious One waits to crown you. Do you trust the One who runs with you? Run by grace, with trust.

Amen.