Seen by Women (The Day of Resurrection)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Easter Day 2019.

Luke 24:1-12; Acts 10:34-43

Hmm, “they”.  I am always dubious about they.  “They”.  You know “they”, don’t you; they of “they have been saying”, or they of “they wear their shirts untucked these days”, or they of “they think that it’s dangerous to eat those foods now”. They, phsh!  So when Luke 24:1 tells us that “they” came to the tomb I immediately want to close my ears: who cares about they?  Not me, because if “they” truly mattered then “they” would have had names and faces, and “they” would have come to tell me to my face rather than sending you to tell me what “they” think.

Sadly you don’t have to be a pastor or a leader to be suspicious of “they”.  Indeed the “they” that Luke wrote about have been ignored and shunned since the day that Luke wrote about, even before Luke wrote about the day, which is probably why they are “they”, and not…well not who they actually were with their real names and faces.  So who are they, this “they”?  In the Greek text we don’t find out until Luke 24:10 who they were, although in some English translations we at least get a pronoun in Luke 24:5.  So they are “the women”, specifically Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Herod’s chief of staff, and Mary the mother of James.  Also with them were “the other women”, you know, “they”.  And what happens when “they” begin to tell the story of the empty tomb?  Well it’s pretty clear in Luke 24:11 what happens, they are accused of idle talk and the apostles do not believe them.  Fair enough because “they” are women and you know, women eh, idle talk: they are not apostles, they are not men; they are not to be trusted or believed without corroborating evidence from a man, a man who is not one of “they” but one of “us”.  And for two thousand years they have been written out of the story, except as minor characters who prompted Peter to go to the tomb where he was amazed.  And then Peter went home.

I don’t know about you, I hope you agree with me, but it really doesn’t matter if you don’t because I am going to say it anyway: praise God for they!  If it wasn’t for “they”, the women who went to the tomb then Peter (who did not go to the tomb initially) would not have known that Jesus was raised.  And if it wasn’t for “they”, the women, continuing to tell the obtuse ten after Peter went to the tomb that Jesus was raised then no one would have known because Peter, (who went to the tomb and found it abandoned), went home without telling anyone.  So it’s a blessing for us that “they” did tell!

It was “they” to whom the angels spoke, it was “they” who remembered what Jesus had told them while he was still alive, and it was “they” who first carried the news of the resurrection of Jesus to the weeping world.  So when that other “they”, they with their untucked shirts and their ingredients-free diets, and “they” in their constant state of “have been saying”; when they tell you that women have no place in Christian leadership or proclamation, you tell them that without women there would have been no Christian leadership or proclamation to begin with.

Without these women there would have been no Peter, beyond Good Friday at least.  And with no Peter beyond Good Friday there would have been no sermon in the house of Cornelius, and therefore no assurance that God does not show partiality based on race, no assurance that God accepts with gladness all that come to God with humility and openness, and no assurance of peace and rest.  It is not just the resurrection that brought shalom to the world, not just the resurrection that brought forgiveness through grace by faith, not just the resurrection that jumped the rollout of the kingdom of God into a higher gear; it was the news of the resurrection, the news proclaimed first by women, then by Galilean peasants and fishermen, which did that.  The news proclaimed to “us” by “they” is the news that in God through Christ there is no us and they, that all are “we”, and we are God’s own.

Without women, and without Peter and the apostles, there would have been no Paul.  With no Paul there would be no Church in Corinth, no Christians in Europe, and no Christians among the European people of the planet.  (So, no Christian whitefellas in Australia.)  There would have been no letters to the Church in Corinth, and no assurance that since Christ has been raised from the dead, and that his gospel was vindicated by God, that ha-satan is on the way out and that the ultimate victory of the Kingdom of God, and the God of the Kingdom, is assured.  No resurrection: no hope says Paul.  Resurrection but no news of the resurrection: also no hope says Paul.  Our job as Church is to proclaim the resurrection, and hope, to those who haven’t yet heard, and those haven’t heard properly.  But who told us the news?  And who told them, and them before them?  With no women there is no proclamation and no hope.  With no hope, there is no life.

So, who have you chosen not to listen to?  Through whom is God not allowed to speak to you?  “Yeah, I’ll listen to Joyce Meyer, but not the local bloke, because she’s anointed and he’s just appointed.”  Or “I’ll listen to Rick Warren, but not to Joyce Meyer, because women shouldn’t preach.”  Or “I’ll listen to anyone on a podcast but I’ll never read a book, because it’s 2019.”  Or “I’ll listen to Damien, but not to anyone from the Baptists, because Damien’s humour and scholarship are awesome.”  Who are you shutting out?  Well, you’re shutting out God, d’uh, but you know what I’m asking.

More important to me is, whom are you shutting off from God?  From whom are you withholding the gospel, whom are you not talking to?  I’m pretty sure that Joanna and the mob of Marys knew that the male apostles wouldn’t have a bar of what they were saying, but did it stop them saying it?  No, it did not!  Would it stop you saying it, has it stopped you saying it?  I’ll leave that with you to ponder.

We are each and all called to proclaim because first we were each and all chosen to receive: chosen by God (as all are, without partiality); and chosen by whomever told us (having first gathered herself around her bravery against our possible rejection of her as gospeller).  The message of the risen Jesus, the vindicated forth-teller of the Reign of Heaven, is that hope lives and that God is gracious and welcoming through God’s own invitation to come and be welcomed and to learn to trust.  Like the women who first told it, the gospel itself is resilient, resolute, and relentless; strong against resistant voices yet soothing for those who need to be enveloped by its embrace.  The women were not silenced by the disbelief of the eleven, but they continued to sing and dance the message of the abandoned sepulchre and the abundant celebration until at last the men were stirred to look, and were amazed.  Isn’t this the hope that stirs your heart, your guts, your grin this morning?  Is it not so that Jesus is Risen, and so can you be, and so can “they” out there be, because the One who can raise the dead can certainly restore the broken?  Is it not so?  Is our God, our King, our brother not dependable and true?  Is this not a faith worth keeping?

Keep the faith, but in the model of the Marys and Joanna do not keep it to yourself.  “They” out there need to hear it, so don’t stop telling out your soul until they do.

Amen.

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Back in Green (Epiphany 2C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 20th January 2019, the second Sunday after Epiphany.  It was a communion Sunday at Kaniva Uniting Church

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10

In our reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning we hear God speaking up on behalf of God’s people, and what God says is vindication of the faith of the people in God.  Yes Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians, but the people who went into exile remained faithful to God, they “copped it sweet” to use an Australianism, and now they are to be set free and allowed home.  When they are freed God will speak up for them, removing their shame and echoing their excitement at what is to come: a newly-directed future with new glory and new reputation.  These are not victim-people; they are victor-people, winners through perseverance and trust in The LORD.  They shall be a crown of beauty according to Isaiah 62:3, neither forsaken nor desolate but delighted in by God and rejoiced over as a bride newly married to her husband who is God.  What an amazing promise for a nation considered by all other nations as weak, defeated, abandoned by its gods, and decidedly unattractive.  The spinster hag of the village is now the most beloved bride of The LORD, a princess amongst her neighbours: she has a new name befitting her new status in relationship with God.  God who was faithful is now envisaged as husband, the ultimate faithful one who will love the bride with unconditional and abounding love: Jerusalem need never fear shame or isolation again.

In some Jewish sources it is actually Isaiah who speaks out like this, not Godself.  I wonder what difference that makes.  The message that Jerusalem is the bride of God is not changed that it become the bride of Isaiah, that much is made clear in Isaiah 62:2, but if we look at the first verse and a half we see something else, something exciting, something which is possibly even more exciting than God speaking out on Jerusalem’s behalf.  We see the tenacity of the prophet who will not keep silent and who will not sit down until God has rescued the city’s reputation and therefore the glory of God’s own name.  This is a leader who loves his people and who is shameless in promoting the fame of God to a scoffing world.  “Jerusalem has not been abandoned,” says the prophet, “and God did not forget the people.  God was not defeated, God is not ambivalent, God is faithful even when the people weren’t and now God is going to restore the nation to greater glory.  I am so confident of this that I am going out on a limb to proclaim this as truth until it occurs.” How confident are we that God is going to come through for us?  Are we confident enough to speak to the scoffers and risk our own shame on the reputation of God’s promise of salvation?  Remember if this is Isaiah speaking the whole time, even as he is speaking about God, then all of these words are coming from his mouth.  There is no fresh promise of God here, Isaiah is remembering his history and saying, in effect, “even though God has not said so today, I remember what God promised in the past and God will be faithful to that word a generation ago.” That’s an even bigger call I think.  If God were to speak prophetically to you and through you with a message today which is for today then that’s one thing.  But to think that God has essentially been silent in the world for seventy plus years, then suddenly the prophet says “yeah but I have never forgotten, so I’m going to shout it out in public so you remember, and I’m going to keep shouting until it actually happens,” well that’s some bravery right there.

Are any of you up for that today?  Have any of you a specific, defiant memory of the promise of God to Australia, or to the Wimmera/Tatiara, that even though God is not speaking through you freshly today you still know the truth from way back and it still fires up your soul today?  Anybody?  If yes then speak it out, don’t be silent, because now, today, is the time when the rest of us need reminding.

I was speaking with friends recently about how God speaks freshly into old words, and particularly with how as preachers, (my friends and I all preach regularly), how as preachers sometimes we don’t have to write a new sermon each week.  Sometimes, and especially with the lectionary, the word you wrote three or six years ago on the same passages speaks truth.  Sometimes it’s the word you preached six years ago, or nine, and not the word from three years ago.  This is not an excuse to spend the first three years of your ministry writing a lectionary-based sermon every week and then just preach them in rotation for the next decades, but it is often an interesting task to read what God said, and to whom, from these scriptures “last time”.  In the course of that conversation I remembered a quote from Joyce Meyer, the famous American preacher, and I heard her say at Hillsong Conference in London in September 2007, “what you need to preach is not a new word, but a now word”.  She is right.  So often we try to be relevant or current, looking for a fresh revelation each week, and sometimes God says, “but you haven’t got it yet, say the last thing again”, or even “the timeless truth is timeless, nothing has changed, the message is the same.”  And as I was writing this sermon in the car on the way to Serviceton this morning I was reminded of a quote from the Senior Pastor of Hillsong Church London at the time of Joyce Meyer’s visit who told us one Sunday “I’m going to keep preaching this until you hear it, because I’ve been saying the same thing for weeks now and I haven’t seen you change.  If you’re sick of this message then put it into action and I’ll start talking about something else.”  Maybe harsh, maybe a “now word”: we all laughed when he said it, good naturedly of course, and got on with giving him space to say the next thing because we put the current thing into action.  The now word for Isaiah was not a new word, it was the old word which was still current.

And so I hope you’ll be happy when this morning I do the obvious.  As your lead preacher and one of your pastors I want to seek God’s “now word” for Kaniva and Serviceton.  The lectionary guides our Christian tradition readings to the wedding at Cana in John 2, and to Paul’s explanation of the gifts of God’s Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12.  Maybe those are God’s directions for us this morning; the story of how Jesus provided for that wedding in many interesting and theological ways, and/or gifts of the Spirit and the ministry we all have within the priesthood of all believers, which would follow neatly on from last week’s message about baptism as our authority to minister, not ordination.  Especially since last week’s sermon was actually written in December 2015 and this week’s at 08:55 this morning, and to be honest I’m still making it up as I go along.

And let’s be honest, why would I even want to pass up the opportunity to speak on such a rich and empowering topic as spiritual gifts for ministry?  Especially since we are in a place called “Shared Ministry”, duh!, and especially especially since I am 0.8FTE which implies that youse mob really should be picking up 1/5 of the ministerial workload as well as your usual volunteering for the congregation if we are to be an effective witness in our towns.

So, instead, let’s look at Psalm 36:5-10.  Huh?  Well, just look at it!  Your steadfast love extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.  Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgements are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike Oh LORD.  The song of David, the servant of The LORD, is a “now word” for our church as we stand here on the third Sunday of 2019, the first Sunday in green.  How precious is your steadfast love, all people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.  In all that we have been gifted for, in all that the unity of God’s people in the Body of Christ implies for our worked-out love for God’s world and the building of the Kingdom of God on Earth, we cannot start, we cannot move, we cannot even open our eyes to awaken if we are not conscious of who God is and what God thinks of us.  The message of David in song is the message of Isaiah in both oracle (he’s prophesying) and in action (he’s stating his workable agenda for the next however long it takes).  Our message to the world is the same, God is love and extends superabundance in grace, God is righteousness, and God is for us and on our side in the extremes and quietness of each day.  The message is urgent, but the means is not frantic: we do not help the world’s rush and bustle to settle if we are shouting impatiently at them.  Begin from rest is, I believe, God’s “now word” for Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry in 2019.  Maybe (hopefully) this is not all that God has to say to us, maybe it’s just the February word as we begin to enter the working year from our summer holidays.  But maybe, maybe if we aren’t starting in the love and abundance of God, maybe if we’re not remembering the promises made to us in the past, maybe if we’re too focussed on getting our ministry on and hitting February with all guns blazing and a head-up of steam to run the race we will miss God’s direction.  Yes we have to get going, yes there is much to do, and yes we’re already (almost) a month into this new year; but I don’t want to run even one step, or fire one spiritual shot, or make one pastoral phonecall or attend one church committee meeting without quieting myself to check in with God to hear God’s plan for us.  I don’t want us to forget where we came from, and whom.  I don’t want us to forget who we are, and whose.

Twenty nineteen is a year of opportunity for us, but to make the most of each opportunity let’s set in place a framework where we are always listening to God whenever it is “now”, so that we are with God when “now” is the time to minister.  Oh continue your steadfast love to those who know you; and your salvation to the upright of heart.  For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.

Amen.

 

 

 

The Remembrance of God

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people gathered at Kaniva and Serviceton on Sunday 11th November 2018.  It was the centenary of the Armistice and the 25th Sunday of Pentecost in Year B.

Mark 12:38-44

Good morning Church.

Today is a significant date in the history of the planet, and specifically in the history of Australia.  One hundred years ago today, at 11:00am Paris time, the guns of the Great War fell silent.  Today, in the remembrance of God, we actively recall the ultimate sacrifice of the 1st AIF on land, sea, air, and ward.

Today’s stories from Mark 12 locate Jesus in the temple in the days before his death.  Maybe that’s a good point of connection between the scriptures and the calendar.  We get to earwig on Jesus on Wednesday knowing that by Friday he’ll be dead – perhaps like an entrenched Anzac preparing to go over the top an hour before sunrise.  I think there’s more to it than that, more to Jesus’ teaching and more to who and what the Anzacs are and were, but we’ll get to that in good time.

First, the Bible stories.  So we find Jesus teaching the crowds who have gathered for the festival of Pesach and who have then wandered across the temple courts to hear him.  Since Palm Sunday, which was three days ago in Jesus’ time he has been busy and has actively cleansed the temple of its corrupting traders and enacted a parable about fruitlessness by cursing a fig tree.  Jesus has spoken at length about integrity in religious observance, teaching from the parable of the wicked tenants and by more direct explanation about taxation, about Heaven, and about obeying God in the way that God desires.  And Jesus has spoken about who he is with respect to the ideas of the day around what the messiah would be like.  Today’s readings continue the teachings on integrity, making clear that what God desires in worship and discipleship is action done for God and for no one else.  It is good to be an example to others, but it is not good to seek fame simply for doing what God expects of those who follow the Way of Jesus.  The example of the scribes is actually an example to be avoided, the example of the widow a little more complex.

The two stories give alternative views of widows.  In the scribes’ way of thinking widows were destitute and therefore to be cared for; that’s what the scriptures taught and as scribes the interpretation and implementation of the scriptures was their area of expertise.  Jesus has seen through their false piety; he saw the long robes and the desire for titles, he saw the desire for prestige the scribes held for being seen to do the godly thing rather than humbly serving the widows out of obedience to God.  Jesus also saw that the false piety is a reflection of the false charity going on as well, and that with the widows’ welfare in their hands some of the scribes were exploiting their position, making money out of the care of the poor and leaving the widows worse off than they would have been had they been left alone.  Shift the widow out of her big house into a little house, or a shared house, then sell the big house and keep back some of the money as commission, that’s their plan.  After all, who is going to argue with a scribe, who is going to contradict a pillar of society?  No one, that’s who, especially not a widow with no adult male relatives.

That’s the scribes’ view of widows, but what is Jesus’ view?  Jesus’ view is that widows are capable of more than being the passive recipients of welfare or the absurd victims of corrupt officials.  The scribes devour widows’ houses in Mark 12:40 as they hold back the profits for themselves, but one particular widow contributes all she has to live on in Mark 12:44, holding nothing back for herself and giving all she has to God.  That’s how I choose to read this anyway.  Maybe Jesus is continuing to criticise the system, arguing that this widow feels obliged to give her last two pennies and that even this woman is being exploited right before their eyes.  If you read the story that way then the widow is still a victim of exploitation, and I think you can read it like that, the words on the Biblical page allow you to understand the story that way.  Maybe both are true; the widow is being ripped off by the religious leaders but she still trusts God to look after her anyway.  This is a woman who won’t be defeated by the system, because her confidence is not in ritual obedience and begrudging handouts from the welfare division of the local religious authority, but in the God she trusts and knows she is loved by.

The scribes are what used to be called “yuppies”, they are literate in a society where most people were not but beyond literacy these men were academics and lawyers.  Many may have come to Jerusalem from regional or rural areas and have made a go of it in the city; they are both proud of and uncertain about their position as social climbers.  They are not the dumb peasants that their parents and brothers are, but they aren’t completely secure in town either since they live amongst peers whose families are city people or merchants or priests. If you’re a bushie trying to show how civilised you are then your appearance and your reputation are everything.  On the other hand the widow is secure in her identity, somewhat because she doesn’t have one.  There is no pretence to be had in being the left-over woman in a family where all the men have died, and so the widow relies only on God for her sense of self, and God thinks she’s amazing.

Perhaps that’s why when it comes to brining the tithes and gifts into the temple the widow is confident to hold nothing back.  With no reputation to uphold, no image to maintain, no bribes to pay and no need for a fancy wardrobe and enough wine for unexpected honoured guests the widow can give all she has to worship her lord and saviour.  She has given her whole life to God, everything she is worth in the eyes of the world has been laid on that tray in the temple; she made the ultimate sacrifice and she had no hesitation in doing so.

Sacrifice is a word we hear a lot of today, and this day especially since it marks the centenary of the ceasefire which brought the fighting part of the Great War to a close.  Technically the war did not end until the surrender documents were signed in Paris on 28th June 1919, and peace was ratified on 10th January 1920; but as every Australian child at school in the past hundred years has been taught, at precisely 11:00 Paris time on the morning of Monday 11th November 1918 the guns fell silent.  We know that many women were left widowed by the events of the Great War, millions of women across Europe lost husbands to enemy fire where they were soldiers, sailors, airmen, or civilians caught up in the battle.  Millions more women in Australia and New Zealand never saw their husbands return.  Add to that the women who lost sons, the girls and boys who lost fathers, and the families of mothers, sisters, and daughters killed in service or in crossfire, and the word “sacrifice” is utilised a lot.

Maybe some of the dead, the maimed, and the survivors in 1918 had once been like the scribes in our story.  Proudly strutting about in their clean and polished uniforms in 1914, declaring that they’d be home by Christmas just as soon as they’d given Tommy and Billy (or perhaps Fritz and Abdul) a jolly good seeing to.  Maybe there were second sons of the wealthy who became officers, loving being called “sir” and proudly flashing the red bits on their khaki jackets and trousers.  Maybe the Anzacs made a big deal of not being English, especially when a Sergeant from Sydney met a Private from Portsmouth.  Maybe who could blame them?

Or maybe those who left these shores between 1914 and 1918 were like the widow in our story.  Maybe all they had in the world was themselves, and so the “Cooee from The Dardanelles” that gifted a stir of brotherhood and patriotism in their being was enough for them.  Maybe the uniform was about belonging to a family at last.  Maybe it was the outworking of their faith such that in obedience to Christ they “rendered unto Caesar”, and the uniform with its straps and epaulettes was just work-wear for their mission to resist evil and cause it to flee.

Regardless of the reasons why so many men and women, chose to go into uniform and catch the next boat to Egypt or France, and whether God was an active part in that decision-making or not, we continue to use the language of sacrifice to describe their attitude.

In religious terms the word sacrifice means “to make sacred”.  It is not necessarily about death, or glory, but it does involve giving something away and giving it with complete devotion.  Isaac was a sacrifice of Abraham even though he did not die, because Abraham dedicated him to God.  Samuel was a sacrifice, a gift of Hannah to God, and he lived for decades as a priest and judge.  The widow’s two pennies were a sacrifice not just because they were the last two things in her earthly possession, but because they were given to God, they were set apart and made holy by her action.  Jesus was a sacrifice because God set him apart as a gift for us, Jesus was made sacred and was both given by God and gave himself up to God for a special purpose.  This idea makes me wonder about the phrase “the ultimate sacrifice”.  If sacrifice is making sacred, of dedicating a thing to God for God’s own purposes and without restraint, then isn’t every sacrifice ultimate?  Unless a sacrifice is ultimate, unless the thing given over to be made sacred is given with no hope of return, then is it a sacrifice at all?  If this is true then everyone who went to war made sacrifice, even those who came home, even those who came home unscathed.  If this is true then the monetary offerings given by the scribes were not a sacrifice at all, regardless of their size, regardless of the pain they might have caused.  A sacrifice, if it is to be a sacrifice, is all or none.

It is almost the middle of November now, and our church year is drawing to a close.  In just three weeks from today it is Advent Sunday and from then it is four Sundays to Christmas.  I say this not as a spur to begin your shopping, but to point to the sacrifice of God that we are soon to remember – that God sent the Son to us.  Christmas is about sacrifice, again not the sacrifice of living on beans and dry bread throughout January so as to be able to afford the new X-station or Play-box, but about God choosing to present Godself in the world in the shape of a baby.  God came, God saw, and God died (briefly), and God made the world sacred to Godself by doing that.  God is not an Anzac, and as treasonous as it is to say such things in today’s Australia the Anzacs are not gods, but maybe the ultimate sacrifice if there is one is the sacrifice made by the Ultimate one.  When the Lord Godself, who came to bring peace to a confused, arrogant, incompletely lead and warring world showed greater love than any woman or man had seen or expressed, or would see or express, we were made sacred.  God’s sacrifice for you and me is more than the cross, (although it is no less than the cross), because God chose you and me to be the inheritors of personal love.  We were made sacred when God set us apart, our sacrifice is the sacrifice that we are rather than the one that we give, when it comes to the grace of God.

The question asked by the widow, and maybe by the Anzacs, is how will you respond to the news that you are God’s sacrifice?

Amen.

 

The Resilience of God

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva-Serviceton for Sunday 28th October 2018, the twenty-third Sunday in Pentecost in Year B.  This was my first sermon to the people of Kaniva Shared Ministry and the second to the people of Serviceton Shared Ministry.

Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-9

Good morning Church!

Last week at Serviceton we read together the story of God’s interruption of Job in his grumbling and also the false comfort of his three friends; today we hear Job’s response to what God said.  (Hopefully here in Kaniva you know about Job because I don’t want to preach last week’s message again and then give you this week’s as well.  Suffice to say that Job has had a rough time of it in his life and has said some pretty challenging things about God.  Recently God has pulled Job up on those things, asking Job who he thinks he is to speak about Almighty God in such a way.)  Job has had an intense experience of God in that someone he had heard about he has now met in person (Job 42:5-6).  What Job has now seen and heard from God when God spoke to Job personally has somewhat reset Job’s perspective of God and who Job is in comparison to God (Job 42:6).  Last week at Serviceton I made a comment, which a couple of people followed me up on after church, that I sometimes think that studying Theology at University has actually made me know less than more; well today I find myself in that situation.  One of the subjects I studied, and this subject was part of my studies towards my Masters degree rather than my Bachelors degree so it was pretty high level, was “Old Testament Wisdom”.  During that course I studied Job alongside a few other books, so today I’m caught between wanting to bring God’s wisdom to you for this day and place, and teaching you what I was taught about this particular passage, and I wonder how helpful that might be.  So, let’s leave Job’s conversations for a bit and come back after the other reading.

In today’s Psalm, 34:1-9, we read how David responded to God’s deliverance of him from a tricky situation.  Something that is an original part of what was written in the Bible but has not been included in the verses is a note which describes what was going on in David’s life at the time that he wrote this psalm: basically he’s been on the wrong end of a coup and he’s in hiding from a mutinous son who has seized his throne.  David had been captured by his son’s army, but through faking illness he has been able to make his escape and now he is hiding and can praise God who delivered him.  Unlike Job, who in his story is still in trouble and doesn’t know what God is going to do to or for him, David has been saved and he is up to the part of his story where he can say thank you.  And just look at what he says as we read Psalm 34:1-5.  God is magnificent, faithful and true, strong and mighty, compassionate and protective, and to be embraced with all the senses.  David is obviously having a better time of it than Job is right now, but if you look at this Psalm you will notice that it’s actually not addressed to God.  This Psalm is about God, so it’s a testimony or a declaration, rather than a prayer or an act of worship toward God.  Job is talking to God, but David is talking about God.

I wonder, are the stories of David and Job familiar to you?  I don’t mean have you read them in the Bible, but does their story relate to yours?  Can you think of a time when you have been where Job is, where the whole thing went pear-shaped for you and then it got worse?  Can you think of a time where you have been where David is, when everyone and everything turned against you but God did the impossible and got you out, and you were ready to tell everyone how amazing God is?  Can you?  I can.

During much of the first decade of this century I lived in England, specifically the first nine months of 2001 and then from October 2002 until January 2009 with two trips back to Australia in the middle.  That first nine months was great, and I don’t have much to say about it.  The first year of that second visit, so November 2002 until December 2003, was one of the worst seasons of my life.  “Character building” doesn’t come close, “terrifying” and “soul destroying” are closer to the truth, with small doses of “horrific” thrown in.  You will hear a lot about my time in England if you stay on at church in the next few years, but I promise not every story will come from this year of my living dangerously.  But today’s stories do.

So, I had a bit of a Job year.  Funny thing about the pronunciation of his name, and Carla brought this to our attention last week; my year of being Job involved me not having a job.  Also, somewhat unlike Job, my turmoil was kind of deserved, or at least it was my own fault because of reasons I’d rather not go into right now.  It’s not that I’m embarrassed, it’s just that I’m actually still working through what the actual sort of hell was going on and I’m not sure what to say.  But I do admit to being foolish, and I acknowledge that my foolishness lead me to a situation where my life was a mess.  My family was far away, I was in England but my parents were in Darwin and then Pt Lincoln and my siblings were in Hobart.  God was very close, but very, very inactive, at least in the ways I wanted God to act, and I let God know all about it on several occasions.

Let’s look at Job 42:1-3.  Open your Bible if you have one.  (And if you don’t then please be sure to bring one next week; I like to preach from the Bible most weeks, so it’s good if you can read along.)  In the Bible that I use when writing sermons this passage has an added heading, not part of the Bible but part of the editing of the modern book, and this heading says “Job is humbled and satisfied”.  Let’s see shall we as we read Job 42:1-6.

In this passage Job declares straight off the bat that God is sovereign and that nothing any human does or is capable of doing can thwart what God wants to do.  Then Job acknowledges that God’s questions cannot be answered with anything other than humility: Job does not know what God knows and therefore Job is better off not speaking.  When God is speaking, (indeed when anyone who actually knows what he or she is talking about is speaking), it’s a good idea to listen to what is being said so that you can learn.  When Job decides to listen to God rather than yell at God, Job learns about God.  We can see in hindsight that Job learns that he was actually correct about God’s character, that God is just and fair and does not punish the undeserving, but we also see that the way God does this is beyond human understanding and things are neither as simple nor as straightforward as we would like them to be or as Job thought them to be.  But in learning that God is so much bigger, so much more complex, so much far beyond his understanding than he ever imagined, Job actually gets to understand God more.  One way of reading Job 42:6 is for Job to say “I never knew how much about you LORD that I didn’t know, but now that I know how much I didn’t know I actually know you more”.  Does that make sense?  In a way Job is heading toward where David is in Psalm 34, he now has a better idea of just how majestic and awe-inspiring God is.  Job now has a better idea of how God cannot be fit into a box, or plugged into an equation where faith plus obedience equals blessing.  Job’s recent experience was that faith plus obedience equals disaster, but what Job has learned is not that God is false or unreliable, but that the equation was too simple.  It’s the maths that’s broken, not God.  It’s the theology that’s faulty, the way we talk about God and the way that Bildad and Zophar and Eliphaz talked about God that is at fault, not God.  Job doesn’t know what the new equation is, but he does know that the old formula is broken.  So in Job 42:6 he’s decided to stop talking rot and to pull his head in around God.  So, is Job “humbled and satisfied”? Is he?

Meh-yeah, I’m not sure.  One thing I have learned from reading Job, and not just at university, is that with God you are allowed to be not sure: indeed much of my life experience as a Christian, and my devotional and academic work, has pointed me toward understanding that we are allowed to be not sure far more often and about far more stuff than we think.  So I don’t think Job actually is satisfied at all, I think he’s just agreed to disagree, and I think this because of two things.

So, thing one is that God never actually answers Job’s complaint: Job actually doesn’t get from God what Job wants from God.  You see, Job never actually asked God “what did I do to deserve this?” because he knew all along and with absolute certainty that he didn’t deserve the calamity of his life.  Self-righteous Zophar, Eliphaz and Bildad were happy to ask Job what he did to deserve this, and they pressed him to find an answer, but Job kept telling them the same story.  And Job didn’t tell them “I don’t know, I can’t remember how I sinned”, no, Job said “there is nothing, this is all completely undeserved”.  Job’s question is not “what did I do to deserve this,” which God does answer, telling the friends that Job did nothing to deserve this, Job’s question is…anyone??…Job’s question is “why did this happen at all?” and God never answers that question.  God doesn’t even acknowledge that question: what God says is “who are you to question me?”  So Job is humbled, God has got right into Job’s face and shown how awe-inspiring God is, but Job is not actually satisfied.

Thing two is that Job never actually apologises.  Read closely; throughout the big story of Job and not just in the last two weeks of readings Job says “why all this?” right?  Last week God said “who are you to ask me questions?” and this week Job said “God you are too big to argue with, so please let me learn from you instead.”  What Job never says anywhere in the big story is “sorry Adonai, forgive me for my presumption”, and what God never says anywhere in the big story is “I forgive Job”.  God does call the three friends to repentance, and to ask Job to intercede for them, but Job is never pronounced guilty and Job never repents.

Which makes Job 42:6 interesting, doesn’t it?  We are Christians reading a Jewish text, but even so we can assume, I believe, that God would not leave Job unforgiven if he’d asked for forgiveness, right?  So since we never read of God forgiving Job, this verse cannot mean an apology.  But we don’t want to know what this verse doesn’t mean; we want to know what it does mean, don’t we.  Don’t we?  (Yes Damien, tell us.)  Well you already know what I’m going to say: I don’t know.  Well I don’t know enough to build a doctrine out of it at least, but here’s what life in Hertfordshire in 2003 and some book-learnin’ in Adelaide in 2016 learned me.  I’m not sure what the original Hebrew, or the Greek of Jesus’ day would have said, and my Church-History-specific Latin lets me down here so I’m gonna have to tell you in English, what Job 42:6 means is “there’s no point sooking about it.” Job acknowledges that God is not going to answer his question, God is not going to give an explanation, and that even if God would explain Godself to me (which God won’t) I’d probably not understand it anyway.  So it’s time to get up off the dirt, have a bath, put on some fresh clothes and the kettle, and get on with what comes next.  In other words perhaps a bit more in line with how the Bible puts it, “after taking a good long look at myself I see that I’m a bit of a dill, so I’ll go forward in humility but without further humiliation.”

And that’s where I got to in December 2003.  I’m not sure that my theology was that well developed then, but my Christian faith got to the stage of saying, literally, “thank God that’s over with now, now let’s move on with the new thing now that I’m safe”.  So, basically where David was in the cave where he wrote Psalm 34.

So, what does this mean for you?  Well what this means for you is up to you, I can’t tell you how you are supposed to respond.  What I hope you’ve heard is that God is bigger and wiser than you could ever imagine, and that all of that is good.  I’m not going to give you the gooey message that all that God is, in all of that exceeding abundance, is focussed entirely upon you or even upon creation, because I think that God is not limited in attention to just us.  But I do think that God is attending to us, in all of our life’s turmoils and celebrations, and that God is good.

So if you are in the mood to celebrate God, celebrate God with all that you have for all that God is.  If your mood for celebration comes out of a recent story of deliverance then all the better – go hard!  And if your mood is lament and confusion, then chase God with all that you have for all that God is.  If you are still in the midst of trial, if your future is pregnant with possibilities but it’s only the second trimester, drill in to God and be held.  Ask God whatever you want to ask, and trust whatever answer God gives you.  Even if what God gives you is silence.

Amen.

 

The Honour of God

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 21st October 2018, the twenty-second Sunday in Pentecost, Year B.  It was my first sermon in my new placement.

Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Good morning Church!  It’s good to be with you at last.  Today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (to give it its full title), a series which I see KSSM follows because it is published on the newssheet, come from Job, Hebrews, and Mark.  Two of those books are anonymously attributed in that Bible scholars are undecided about who wrote them, and some traditions say that the other one was written by a secretary.  Regardless of who wrote what, and whether the writers wrote on behalf of some specific patron or another, the points made by these writers intersect beautifully.  You will hear as we get to know each other better that I am a fan of the lectionary; not just because it encourages me as your primary preacher to make use of the Bible each week, but because the women and men who chose which readings go with which week, and which readings go with each other, set us up with some interesting ideas.  So it is today when we read about God speaking to Job and Job’s friends, about Jesus speaking with his disciples, and about who Jesus is with regard to the Jewish God in the mind of a Jewish person who has come to see Jesus as a unique revelation of God.

I have not been here in the past weeks; you know this, so I don’t know how much of Job’s story you have been told since the beginning of October.  So I hope you know who Job is, and the basic gist of his story, because I don’t want to go into it now.  Suffice to say that Job has had a hard life of late, and his God-fearing friends have not been entirely helpful in their well intentioned support, wisdom and counsel.  In today’s reading, from assorted bits of Job 38, we get to hear God’s response to all that has been said by Job and by Elihu, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar: and God is immediately on the offensive.  “Who are you?” asks The LORD over and over again; “who are you to question the Creator, the Almighty One”, and “what do you know about anything”.  Job 38:1 makes it clear that what God says is addressed to Job, but I wonder whether God speaks to Job while Job’s friends are still there, and God means for them to also hear what God says.  God somewhat takes the role of barrister for the defence and cross examines the prosecution witnesses, looking for humility in their responses.  Not only is Job brought to account for his constant whining, but God’s “who are you” questions are pointed at the friends.  “Who are you to presume to speak on my behalf,” asks God, “do you really know more about divine will and justice than Job?”  God makes it clear who The LORD is, and who isn’t The LORD.  God alone is God, God is the only god in the room, and not one of the five men in the room is correct in his own theology.

Last week at the induction service I said in my brief remarks that I’d been to the Salvation Army corps that morning.  A song that we sang was “I am a friend of God”, a song I’d not sung in Australia but which was familiar to me from my time at Hillsong Church London a decade ago.  Today I am reminded that even though the song is written about you and me and our relationship with God through Jesus, and that the song uses the language God used of Abraham, that Job was also friend of God.  All that God says to Job is true, correct and trustworthy as every word from God is, and so too are the words overheard by the friends.  God is not who you religious types think God is; suffering is not a sign of divine displeasure and grief is not a deserved condition for sin elsewhere.  The word of The LORD to Job is the same as the word to the four, and that word is “pull your head in, mortal one”, but the application is different.  Job was questioning God’s character, but the four friends were presuming to speak on God’s behalf to rebut Job’s complaint.  Job says that God is unjust, the friends say God is just and Job is a sinner, but God says that God is just and Job is not a sinner, but that God is God sometimes what God does is incomprehensible to human rationale.  If you don’t know how to make it rain, the how do you presume to comment upon the way that God does it, when only God knows how to do it?  You don’t know what you’re talking about, so stop talking about it, all of you…yes him, but especially youse mob.  That’s rather humbling to hear as a leader of faith: as it should be.

The Psalm set for us today, 104, declares that God is all that God claims to be.  The LORD who spoke to Job is indeed divine creator and the one who sustains all that was made, and The LORD is wise beyond human understanding.  Furthermore, Creation is for its own sake, not primarily for the purposes of humankind, and is an act of wisdom and an activity of the Spirit.  God’s care for creation is ongoing; humanity has stewardship of the world, but God retains ownership and abiding love.  God also retains control; the creation continues to exist because God continues to uphold it.  The messages of the Psalmist are clear when we think of Job, firstly that God is God and no one else is, but also that God remains interested and involved, there is no divine watchmaker here who set the world going by clockwork and then walked off.  God is just, God does care, and all that God does is done with wisdom and love.  This is the bit that the other four seem to have forgotten.

So when we get to Mark 10, where we read of James and John asking for places of honour beside the throne of Jesus, we have been brilliantly set up by the compositors of the lectionary.  I mean, who chooses this story as a match for the interruption of God into Job’s lament?  I am a preaching nerd, proudly so, and this kind of thing makes me excited about God’s message to the Church.  God is awesome and above any responsibility to answer to human complaint, and God is creator and sustainers of the Universe for God’s own pleasure and the Universe’s own purpose, and here two random Galileans ask to be Deputy Messiah in the caucus of the Kingdom of God.  The temerity of it!  The utter arrogance!  Or did they really not know what they were asking?  I hope they were confused about God rather than thinking that they were actually worthy of such an honour.

It can be a comfort that this story tells us that the other ten disciples were enraged and indignant at the request of James and John.  At least they know who Jesus is and what an insult to his majesty the brothers’ request was; unless of course they were actually angered by Jesus’ response.  I wonder, did they assume thrones in the Kingdom by virtue of their being the first disciples, first as earliest and first as superior, and now Jesus has dashed that assumption.  If you understand that the time when Jesus came into his glory was when he was lifted upon the cross, it is interesting that in Mark’s account that at the right and left of Jesus were two criminals who mocked his glory from their own crosses.  In today’s reading from Mark 10:42-44 Jesus speaks of what lay ahead of him and of those who followed him: discipleship of the Messiah is not a life of thrones and lording it over heathens but of service and suffering.

So what does this mean for us?  What should it mean?  I like the way that the writer in Hebrews 5:1-10 has reminded us that everybody who serves God serves at God’s invitation.  As someone God has chosen, and who the Church has confirmed, and someone for whom there was a very recent reminder of these two callings within the past week, it’s good to remember that.  In all of the congratulatory emails and phone calls from family and friends I am reminded that, yes, congratulations are in order and I have been given the great privilege of ministering in my first placement as a pastor.  A good thing has happened to me, and congratulations are in order, but where some people have kindly offered that this placement is “much deserved” I’m taking that with more than a grain of grace.  I acknowledge and agree with what they are saying, yes I have worked hard and yes I have completed my university courses and practical ministry experiences with diligence and long hours.  Yes I have stuck with the Church and particularly with the system when it seemed that I was facing roadblocks and detours, and the occasional dead-end.  But do I deserve this role?  Do I deserve you?  (Do you deserve me?) No matter how hard I have worked, no matter how much I have stayed the course and run the race thus far, I am here because it is God’s pleasure that I am here, and when God moves me then I will move.  I am here because I offered myself to God, and God gave me to you, because God loves you.  So my first thought is not that I am “God’s gift” in the arrogant sense of that phrase, but that if I am an offering of God’s grace to you then I’d better make sure I stay under God’s lordship and instruction while I am here.  The author of Hebrews reminds us all that God chooses the fallible to mediate between humankind and God lest the priestly overestimate their worth and abilities.  I am here as your pastor because I possess certain gifts, gifts appropriate for the exercise of ministry within the Uniting Church as we heard last week from Marjorie.  Yes I have worth and abilities, and yes I have worked hard to increase those; but I am here because God chose me and not because I have earned this place.  I wouldn’t be here if I’d not worked so hard, but that’s not why I’m here.  I’m here because God is gracious and generous and God chose me for you and you for me for the next three years or so.

So while I am here I want to act and think like Jesus.  Jesus did not presume the commissioning of God, as if his selection for ministry was a foregone conclusion and God would be stupid not to choose him, so why should any of us?  In the same way that God questioned the arrogance in the philosophising of Job’s friends, and their distance from understanding his suffering, the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus does understand human suffering.  Our high priest would never spout platitudes or half-baked theologies of prosperity for righteous.  Jesus whose greatest glory was seen in his greatest suffering, his greatest identification with all who have been rejected, abused, insulted, and murdered by systems and corrupted powers, is the great model for Christian life and Christian leadership.  I sincerely hope that in 3 or 5 or 10 years time I get to drive away from Kaniva & Serviceton to move to my next placement within the Church, wherever that may be, and that my time here will not end with me crucified somewhere public, painful and embarrassing.  But if I’m not willing to die for Christ here, then I’m not worthy of the calling God and the Presbytery and you have trusted me with.

But then, as the Church in this place, neither are you.

So as the Church in this place let us each and all listen for God, obey God, and speak for God only when the Spirit is speaking through us, and not from our memories of Christian clichés.  Let us ask Jesus how we can bring him honour rather how he can honour us, and let us live in and enjoy the world created by God for God, but a world in which we have a place as the apple of God’s eye.

Amen.

Standing in Wisdom’s Way

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 23rd September 2018.  It was a service at which Holy Communion was shared and my last service as minister of that congregation.

Proverbs 31:10-31; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Today is a day of mixed emotion for me because it is my last Sunday in Morwell.  While I hope as many of you as can come to Newborough will do so next week, today is my final service in this building and the last time I will preside at Holy Communion in Gippsland.  I shall leave any profound words of parting until next week’s service, but I am pleased to say that today’s readings offer me some excellent words of wise departure.  So, yes there is mixed emotion: I am looking forward to the future (mine and yours), and I do get to teach from one of my favourite preaching passages Proverbs 31:10-31; but it is also time to say goodbye.

But before goodbye, and before Proverbs 31, let’s have a look at James as we have been doing all month.  Last week we read how Jacob commends the work of a teacher to only the bravest and surest of Christians, and how everybody who walks the Way of God must guard his or her speech, and in today’s reading from James 3:13-4:5 we read more about what the wise actually do with their wisdom.  When a wise person is found and is set aside as a teacher let that person model gentle wisdom; let him or her avoid and denounce arrogance and corrupted ambition, and let the congregation follow that example.  Jacob reminds us of what was written in James 1:6 that any one of us can and should ask God for whatever we need, confident in God’s grace to provide and confident because of God’s wisdom previously given that whatever we are asking after is good.  The evidence that a supposed answer to prayer really has come from the grace of God is that it displays the character of God – pure, peaceable, gentle and considerate, submitted and willing to yield, full of mercy, impartial, sincere and not hypocritical. Does that sound like the answers to your prayers?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no, more yes than no I hope.  But if not I urge you to keep pressing in because God is faithful and it’s okay that we are still learning that.

One of the signs of the Kingdom of God, a sign that it has come and a sign that it is on its way, it peace.  God is not a deity of war, God is peace and God is love.  That is not to say that God cannot or does not fight, or that God did not strengthen the Hebrew, Israelite and Judahite armies back in the day, but the end of God’s engagement in battle is not empire or territory but peace and rest.  So, when Jacob writes in James 4:1-3 that war is caused by human ambition, the temptations of power and the accrual of stuff, then we know he is speaking with God’s wisdom.  When peace is brought about righteousness shall flourish amongst all people and especially amongst the peacemakers: where conflicts arise or remain these come from competitiveness and from self-seeking desires for something other than God.  Choose God or choose the world as your source of identity, says Jacob, because you cannot have both.  Jacob makes it very plain that to try to have the best of the world (stuff, power, honour) and the fullness of God is to engage in idolatry and adultery.  Indeed, the New American Standard Bible specifies adulteresses in James 4:4 and the Complete Jewish Bible says unfaithful wives in reference to Hebrew traditions that God is husband to Israel.

So, follow God.  Seek God, learn the wisdom of God, walk in the way of God, and live in a world where righteousness is rising, and peace is flooding.  To live otherwise is not only disobedient it is disrespectful, in fact it’s kind of slutty – male or female.

Speaking of male and female, but not of slutty, have a look at Proverbs 31:10-31.  The first thing I want to tell you about this passage is that it is directed at married women.  That should be obvious.  Why should it be obvious?  Well it’s obvious in a more than obvious way, and also in a less than obvious way.  This passage is directed at married women because…it speaks about a wife, and a great wife at that.  But, that’s the less than obvious way.  The more than obvious way that this passage is directed at married women is because it’s scripture and all scripture is useful for teaching and exhortation through the inspiration of the Spirit of Holiness.  It’s Bible, it’s directed at everyone, wives included.  So yes, it’s a passage for wives but it’s a passage not just for wives.  It’s a passage for women who have never married, and it’s for all men, married or otherwise.  In James 4:4 we read Jacob calling to church away from love of the world, hatred of God, to the faithfulness God as husband deserves.  In Proverbs 31:10-31 we read perhaps the words of the mother of Lemuel to her son the king, perhaps the words of Abraham to his beloved wife Sarah, perhaps someone else writing as God’s instrument, what faithfulness to God as husband looks like.

The address in Proverbs 31:10 is often rendered in English as “capable wife” or “such a wife”, but that really waters down the Hebrew sense.  The New King James Version says it best with a courageous wife, but even that falls short.  The best translation is “woman of valour”.  She is heroic, mighty and strong – she’s a Deborah, maybe she’s even a Boudicca.  And in that phrase at least she’s a “woman”, not necessarily someone’s spouse.

Much as I’d love to unpack this reading for you we don’t have time for two sermons, or perhaps three.  I really like Proverbs 31:10-31, so I have needed to contain myself and keep the focus on James 4 and how the proverbs of Hebrew Wisdom connect with the Hebrew wisdom Jacob wrote almost 1000 years later.  So, I’m going to focus on one of many different interpretations of this passage, because that’s the one that best matches with what Jacob wrote.  That’s not to say other readings of “The Proverbs 31 Woman” are not correct, or less correct, or less good, it’s just that today’s version matches today’s context.

So, today let me say that the woman in Proverbs 31:10-31 is not an actual woman.  This is not, as far as today’s message is concerned, a book of instructions for Christian wives nor is it a checklist for Christian bachelors in search of a wife.  If you are a “Proverbs 31 Woman” then I commend you, and let me express my sincere hope that your husband is one as well: here’s why, because this is a poem about wisdom.  The woman in Proverbs 31 is a metaphor for wisdom: Sophia in Greek, Hochma in Hebrew, Sapienta in Latin and regardless of your gender or your marital status this is how you are supposed to act as a member of the people of God, (and a disciple of Christ).  Be resilient, be trustworthy, be industrious, be wise, be righteous, be generous, be prudent, be loving, be compassionate, be brave, be virtuous, be humble, be bold, be kind, be vigilant, be honest, be honourable, be an example.  These are the attributes of wisdom personified, these are the attributes of Jesus, these are the attributes we should aspire to and the characteristics we should display.

And so, when we read in James 4:6-10 that God not only desires our loyalty, but our submission, we read with the eyes of a wise woman or man.  We understand that God does not need minions or sycophants, that we are to be submissive, but that we are to live submitted to God, honouring God as LORD and pursuing God’s desires for us to have wisdom aware that wisdom is best found in God.  Loyalty to God brings loyalty from God.  Imagine that the wife of noble character, “The Proverbs 31 Woman” is a real-life wife and mother and think of how her husband, the father of her children would treat her.  Can you imagine God looking at you like that?  Wisdom says it’s true, that God does look at you like that when you pursue wisdom.  We are told, if we choose to believe it, in Proverbs 3:34 that God comes close in all faithfulness and love.  Jacob further encourages us in James 4:8a that the healing grace of God will transform for the better the one who comes to God in desperate hope and openness.  Come with confidence, come without doubt or double-mindedness, come to the one who welcomes you as the best beloved of all beloved ones.

Come and receive all that the faithful One has prepared for you.

Amen.

Authorised

This is the text of the message I prepared for Narracan Uniting Church for Sunday 1st October 2017.

Matthew 21:23-27

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this episode where the question of Jesus’ authority to teach was raised with him in the temple.  The Pharisees ask who has authorised the message of Jesus.  After all they are the recognised religious and legal leaders and scholars, so in part it is a question of patronage and in part it is a question of academic integrity.  “Whose model of teaching are you following”, they ask, “we don’t know of any substantial scholarship which supports your interpretation of the scriptures and the religious laws/lore”.  In more straightforward language they ask Jesus “who told you that you could preach, and who told you to preach what you are preaching”.

Jesus answered their question with another question.  Since Jesus seemed to do this a lot you’d think they’d have seen it coming.  “You tell me first,” Jesus says, “who told John the Baptiser that he may preach, and who instructed him to preach the message which he preached?”  It is the same question – but it is a loaded question since John was held in high regard by the crowds.  The Pharisees see the trap and deftly step out of it: “um, dunno” they say.  It probably sounds better in Hebrew, but basically they shrug their shoulders at Jesus.  Jesus shrugs back and says, “well if you ‘dunno’, then I’m not the one to tell you.”

The question of authority is an important one when something new is taking place.  This is in part the case for me as the new Ministry Supply Agent in Yallourn Parish, but the answer to the question of my authority is straightforward.  I have been asked to speak by the Parish in conjunction with the Presbytery, and the content of my sermons is the good news of Jesus Christ as the Uniting Church in Australia understands it.  I have no authority to go it alone, or to make stuff up.

A few years ago, I worked in a prison.  Ordinarily I tell people in a new town that “I spent two years in an English prison”, but I’ll make it quite clear to you from the start, since you are the first people I have told in Morwell-Yallourn Cluster and I don’t want any misheard news going out.  I was in prison, and it was in England, but I was there as an employee of HM Prison Service and I went home every night.  (That was unless I was on night duty, in which case I went home in the morning.)  I carried authority in the prison, even though I was on the bottom rung of the ranks of uniformed women and men, and my authority was indicated by two things.  Can you guess what they were?

  1. I wore the Queen’s uniform, which was plain black and white and it had a “crown” logo on it in various places.
  2. I carried keys.

Most people in England’s prisons are not allowed to carry keys inside the prison.  Some people in prisons in England are not allowed to wear plain black and white clothes.  So, the fact that I was allowed, indeed instructed, to do both was a sign of my authority.

Like my authority in this pulpit, my authority in prison was delegated to me.  Ultimately, I was a representative of HM The Queen, via the Governor of the Prison, the Duty Governor (V-2), the Duty Principal Officer (O-1) and the Duty Officer in the Gatehouse.  If I asked a prisoner, any visitor, or indeed any civilian employee of the prison to do something and they wished to question who I was to say what I said the answer was obvious: I am wearing the Queen’s uniform and I am carrying keys.  You go (or don’t go) where I tell you, and you go (or don’t go) when I tell you.  I remember one episode where a builder brought his truck in to do some maintenance work in the prison and I was his escort.  Once he had parked he gave me the keys from the ignition, which was protocol.  When we went to leave we discovered that his truck had become bogged.  After a short period of failed extraction, he said to me, “I have another appointment so I’ll need you to give me back my keys and let me out of the yard to walk back.”  I told him, politely yet firmly, that he was going nowhere an escort, and that I was going nowhere without that truck.  (You don’t just leave motor vehicles abandoned inside a prison, mate.)  In the end, he had to wait until a tractor was brought in to tow him out of the bog, and then for me to accompany the truck back to the gate.

Jesus spoke the Father’s message with the Father’s authority.  I think Jesus was pointing to John the Baptiser having done the same.  Like the driver of that truck in the prison the Pharisees might have wanted to question Jesus’ right to express authority, and the form of the authority he expressed, but ultimately Jesus was a servant of God even as I was an officer of the Queen.  With that in mind, that Jesus was authorised by God to speak and to speak what he spoke, let us always pay attention to the one whom John (1:1) calls the Word of God.

Amen.