Wail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Sunday 6th October 2019

Serviceton Church of Christ

A Better Day (Pentecost 16C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Nhill Uniting Church for Sunday 29th September 2019, the sixteenth Sunday in Pentecost

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; Luke 16:19-31

I’m sure that like me you have heard many of the apocryphal stories of Christianity and that the one I am about to tell you’ve already heard. But since these stories often take the place of what is actually Biblical in our understanding of what Christianity is all about I’m going to tell it anyway. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard it before, because I don’t care and I’m the one preaching. And don’t come up to me later to tell me you have a different version, because I have the correct version.

So anyway: a teenage girl who has been diagnosed with some inoperable and untreatable disease knows that she has less than a handful of months to live. So, being a headstrong girl (as all teenage girls are), she makes her parents take her to the funeral director to arrange her funeral in advance of her death. She tells the funeral director, it may well have been Rodney Kennedy, (it probably wasn’t), that she wants an open coffin and she wants yellow flowers, and she wants to be wearing her debutante dress and her footy boots. And, here’s the bit you’ve heard before, she wants to be holding a dinner fork. “What’s with the dinner fork?” asks the funeral director, (because apparently he’s fine with the deb dress and footy boot combo), and she says “well”. “Well,” she says, “when I was little and we used to go to church with Nana they would have potluck lunch after church. First would come the savoury stuff, party pies, sandwiches, mini quiches, salads, the cold roast chicken (because it’s not church potluck unless there’s cold roast chicken) and a few casseroles, and you’d grab a fork and a plate and you’d help yourself. And when that was all cleared up and cleaned off my nana would remind me to keep my fork because the sweet stuff was on its way. That’s why I want the fork, and the open coffin, because when people see me in the coffin and ask ‘what’s with the fork’ then you can say ‘she knows the sweet stuff is coming, the best is on its way’.”

And so it is with us and faith: Christians know that earthy life is utterly meaningless, but we also know that we’re all going to die some day (yippee!!) and go to Heaven and that will be better. In fact I’m pretty sure it was actually Jesus who told this story originally, and it was about Jairus’ daughter. Pity he raised her from the dead then isn’t it, and the fork was wasted. Oh well, I guess she got some more wear out of those footy boots at least.

It’s a fun story, and it can make a good point. I’m not convinced that it’s the best story in all of Christianity, but the story of the fork in the open coffin is one of those stories that carries truth, truth about the future in God.

A better story is the one we find in Jeremiah 32. Jeremiah is in dire straits at this point: he’s imprisoned, in the dungeon, of the royal palace, of the capital city; which city is being besieged, by an army which has already overrun the rest of the country. This isn’t the girl in the coffin; this is Hitler in his bunker in the last week of April 1945. Except that it isn’t even Hitler, it’s some random Wehrmacht intelligence officer under court marshall in a back room two floors below Hitler. And he’s doing the paperwork and handing over actual coinage to buy his oldest cousin’s farmhouse in the countryside so as to keep it in the family; a house already overrun and currently occupied by drunkenly carousing Red Army soldiers. Why, I mean, why? (What the fork?) “Well,” he says, “well God has told me that houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land (Jeremiah 32:15). There will come a time when these invaders will be defeated, and our land will not be occupied by strangers, and grandpa’s farm will be mine and ours again. Our displaced family, maybe two generations of refugees, will need a home to return to. That’s why.Now we know that Jeremiah’s hope was on good ground: he was released from his dungeon even as the whole nation of Judah went into exile. In my story our Wehrmacht officer might have been taken as a PoW to Russia, and maybe he never saw the farm again, and maybe the farm was confiscated and collectivised by the East German government. But in 1990 after the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited, maybe this man’s grandchildren were handed back the deed of title in East Berlin, and now thirty years later they’re living life on their own land once more.

What is your hope for the future, Nhill? It’s certainly true that the Babylonians and the Red Army are not here, in fact they’re not anywhere these days; but are you feeling besieged? Are you hard-pressed by doubts and concerns about the future, do you wonder whether there is a future at all? Maybe it’s not soldiers at your walls, but maybe its banks, or the shire or state legislators, or our evermore increasingly secularist and immoral society. Maybe its the Church itself; the Uniting Church in this part of Victoria, or just the permissiveness of Christians across the globe? I’m certainly not here to speak against the Uniting Church, and I won’t do so, but that doesn’t mean that you mightn’t have doubts or wondering. Maybe you’ve had enough and you’re aching for that coffin and a fork; but the Word of The LORD is not found there. The Word of The LORD as it is revealed in scripture is that we are not to lose heart.

In Psalm 91:1 we are reminded that those who live sheltered by God Most High will rightly praise The LORD as my refuge, my fortress, my God in whom I trust. This is not a hope for the future, neither is it a plea for deliverance from the pit: this is a statement of fact and is as true as if there were straightforward and present evidence of its truth. If God is your deliverance; in other words if you have been saved and believed that you have been saved and this is evident in that you have stopped trying to save yourself; then God is, already is, has/is/shall, God is your fortress. And this is true no matter where you are. If God is your fortress then there is no gaol, no dungeon, no Fuhrerbunker that can hold you down; neither is there any overdraft, any drought, or any diagnosis. If you trust in God, and do not trust in yourself other than to trust that your trust in God is sufficient, then you are figuratively (and maybe literally) help beneath God’s wings. You are within hugging distance, and drawing close distance: you are within reach of God’s embrace and God’s snatch and clutch. And if that is where you are, then it doesn’t matter what the walls and floors look like, the skies are open and God is looking right at you. But how can it be true, how do we know it’s really so? Well, because Jeremiah was released from his dungeon for one thing – that happened, (even if Wehrmacht guy and fork girl are actually fiction).

The promise of God’s overriding protection is repeated at the end of the Psalm where in Psalm 91:14 we are told that God’s deliverance and protection are assured for those who love God. Well who loves God and is afforded this promise: Psalm 91:15 tell us that it’s those who call to God expecting an answer.

Do you love God? I’m not asking whether you’re a Christian because you’ve made some sort of conversion prayer or activity, that’s actually quite a different question. Do you love God is a question answered not by, “yes, since 3:10 pm at the Billy Graham event on 15th March 1959”, but by “yes, because whenever I call, God answers”. You may see that as a statement of God’s love for you, that God answers your prayers: but if you didn’t love God you wouldn’t call expecting an answer. You can be Christian and not love God, not trust God, and never rely on God if you think that being a Christian is about having been saved a long time ago, so that you will go to Heaven in a long time from now. You may even have a fork in you hand, or perhaps you’ve had a tiny fork made into a lapel pin or charm for your jewellery. I’m sure God honours your prayer and your intent to do the right thing, I’m not going to tell you that you’re not saved or unsaved or whatever. But again, I ask you, do you love God? Do you trust God?

Imagine this scene, and pay attention because there will be a quiz.

It’s the night of Passover, the first one, the real and actual one in Egypt, okay? Okay. Two Hebrew couples, each with a son, live as neighbours, and following Moses’ instruction the families agree to share one goat between the two small households. Each husband paints his own doorpost with blood while both wives join in roasting the meat and making flat bread and stuff, and when the cooking and the painting are done each family goes into its own house. Are you with me? Right. In one house the family huddles under the covers, cuddling close, and they barely eat. They make little roast goat sandwiches and eat them quickly, hushed together in fear. In the other house the three sit around on their mats and share the meal, dipping their flatbread into the sauce, and eating their goat as they sing their songs of praise to God.

Question time: which boy does the Angel of Death kill?

Correct answer: neither. The blood on the door is enough to save them each.

But which house honoured God? Which house trusted God more? Which house loves God more?

Which house do you live in?

As great as the story of the girl with her fork is, there’s a big point missing from that story. You aren’t supposed to simply keep your fork in preparation for the dessert course, you’re supposed to be eating the main meal with it now. Now, the parable of Lazarus and the wealthy man reminds us that we must never party at another man’s expense: to be prodigious in celebration while your neighbours starve or scrimp is no more the gospel either. Jesus in Luke 16:24 reminds us that all Jews are sons of Abraham, and today we remember that all men and women are sons and daughters of The Father and brothers and sisters of The Son. Their welfare is our concern; you may keep your own fork but if you are a follower of Jesus then you must be certain that everyone else in the room also has a fork, and that there is no one outside the room because everyone is in.

Do you love God? Then love those whom God loves, especially yourself.

Do you trust God? Then live as if God’s promises are true: celebrate the festivals, buy back the family farm, call out to God for salvation at the first sign of turmoil.

Amen.

Trust and Relax (Pentecost 9C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday August 11th 2019, the ninth Sunday in Pentecost.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Luke 12:32-40

In the opening words of the Psalm we read how God, The Great and Powerful One, summons all of the earth and calls every one and every thing to listen to the word of God. God speaks and God sets out what God wants from the world, and especially from humankind, and especially especially from the chosen people among the nations. God wants thanksgiving: acknowledgement in gratitude of what God has brought to humanity. This call is echoed in the prophetic writing of Isaiah who makes clear to the Kingdom of Judah that the people are destined for destruction because of their unfaithfulness.

Well that’s a fairly hefty first paragraph! I mean, what sort if preacher just jumps in at the very beginning with such a word of judgement right at the get-go? Where’s the anecdote to warm up the crowd, where’s the “a funny thing happened to me on the way to the pulpit this morning”? Well it’s deliberate, of course it is, because this is the way that both of our Hebrew Tradition passages start this morning. Chapter one, verse one, “hello, my name is God and you and your lot are toast.” Wow!

It seems that God has a good reason to be upset, so I think it’s good that God doesn’t actually beat about the bush when it comes to naming the elephant in the room. The voice I hear in this pair of passages is one of frustration rather than anger, God is not raging like fire here, more that God is puffing with exasperation: God is fed up and run down with this people’s behaviour. “I will not honour your worship,” says God, “I won’t even look at it.” Well that’s a bit harsh. “You have the wrong motive,” says God. Okay, well now we’re getting somewhere: “what I want is that you don’t sin at all rather than that you repent later in spectacular festivals. I want you to do what is right, and that means to show mercy.” We read that in Isaiah 1:17. “Come with humility, ready to talk, and I will save you,” says God; “come with arrogance and presumption and I will squash you.” And as we read from Psalm 50:23, the best sacrifice is thanksgiving.

What’s going on here is another one of those contractual arguments, or “a covenantal lawsuit” as I put it a few weeks ago. God and the chosen people, in this case the Kingdom of Judah, have an agreement. God will be their God, and they will be God’s chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a light to the world, a foretaste of the Kingship of The LORD in the whole of creation, blah de blah de blah. And that’s kind of the point, the blah de blah de blah bit, because the Judahites are taking it a bit for granted and in many ways they are not honouring their side of the covenant made with Abraham on their behalf. God remains faithful to the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and in the case of Judah God is also faithful to the promise made to David: but Judah is not acting like God’s distinct people, Judah is acting like every other nation, particularly in the area of social injustice. God is being fair here, more than fair actually because God takes the time to warning the people that they won’t get the benefits of obedience unless they obey, rather than just leaving them to crash and burn. God says to them that they will only get paid for the work that they do, and they will only get the reward when they do the thing which brings it. Don’t do the thing, don’t get rewarded: don’t plant the seed and you won’t reap the crop, not because God is punishing you but because you are delinquent in your duties. It is a sign of God’s faithfulness in God’s work as The God of Israel (and Judah in this case), that God does intervene in the life of the Judahites to speak this warning through the prophet. A good father never stands by silently while his daughter does something dangerous, he steps in and warns her “stop doing that, you’ll get hurt”, not because a slap is coming next but because the daughter’s action is dangerous in itself. God is the same, and God’s faithfulness to the work of God means that God will name the danger and the better path.

In Isaiah 1:10 we can see God’s specific charge against Jerusalem: I saved you from Sennacherib, if not for me you would have been like Sodom and Gomorrah are (that is to say utterly destroyed). I’m doing the God thing and saving you from your enemies, so why aren’t you doing the People thing and showing justice and hospitality in the world? Why justice and hospitality? Well because that was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah: those cities failed to show hospitality to strangers (Lot’s family) and instead attempted to assault them. Now God is saying to Jerusalem, you are just the same, but instead of sending destruction I sent deliverance because you are Jerusalem, so how about you reciprocate and show me some respect by doing as you’re obligated to do according to our shared ministry agreement. I don’t need your incense and ritual, in fact I’m bored and annoyed by having to attend the times when you do that stuff (Isaiah 1:14), I need you to display my character in the world, that’s what we agreed on. And if you get back to the work of blessing the world then you’ll have such abundance from me that you won’t miss what you share and give away (Isaiah 1:19), but if you don’t then the tap gets turned off entirely and you’ll have to make your own way, a small kingdom with huge and hungry neighbours (Isaiah 1:20).

The double-edged promise in Isaiah 1:19-20 is restated by Jesus in today’s reading from The Gospel Traditions. You can trust God, says Jesus, The Father loves you and wants to show you parental care in providing every good thing in abundance. Give it all away and you’ll not lose a thing, hoard it and it will rust, rot, and get pinched: have a look at Luke 12:32-34. So, looking particularly at the themes of hospitality and sharing with others which we pick up from Isaiah and Jesus, let’s go on to Luke 12:35-40 which in the New Revised Standard Version has the subheading “Watchful Slaves”. It might be easy to see this passage as disconnected from what Jesus was just saying about faithfulness to the work of discipleship and practical love in the world and see Luke 12:40 referring more to the second coming, and especially to the rapture. You know, “be good so that when the Rapture comes Jesus will zap you up from somewhere charitable rather than somewhere selfish or naughty.” That’s possible, but I think it’s somewhat out of context here because that’s not what the verses around it are saying: well at least not the verses we have read this morning. So whether Jesus comes back in the next ten minutes and finds us all in church, or not, let’s look at what we should be doing when he does return.

Hospitality is a big theme in the scriptures, and it is a vital, (so that means it is important and life-giving), a vital part of many Middle Eastern cultures. Care for strangers is considered normal, it’s just what you’re supposed to do when your environment is a desert and your traditions are nomadic. Everyone shares the shade, the water, and the bread; and if you’re the one giving hospitality this time you can be sure you’ll be the one needing it soon enough. But beyond that, the loose community of “we’re all in this harsh place together, even when we’re otherwise enemies” is the model of the Kingdom of God. God’s desire for Israel was that it’s people would be generous and welcoming. If you occupy the land of milk and honey and you got there via the wilderness then you know what hardship is and your common humanity should lead you to two assumptions. The first is that we should thank God for where we are, and for what God has provided; the second is that we should share the bounty of this place because we know that God is for all people and not just us. We have been chosen as agents of God’s love, we are the ones with the task of sharing, and as such we are the ones who occupy the storehouse of blessing. But just because we live with all the stuff doesn’t mean that the stuff is all for us, no it means that we have the obvious job of distribution and welcome. This is why God gets upset with Israel and Judah in history, because they are hoarding the blessings of God which were supposed to have been shared with the whole creation. And more so, as we saw from Amos last month (Amos was a Judahite in Israel) and from Isaiah today, the nations of God had not only kept the blessing to themselves they had kept the blessings to the elite within the nations. Not only were the Assyrians and the Egyptians going without, there were Israelites and Judahites living in hungry destitution: all while there were festivals and celebrations and sacrifices at the temples in Jerusalem and Samaria.

So what is God’s word to us in this? Well there’s probably a few, but here’s two. Well, actually here’s one with parts a, and b.

Okay, first: don’t hoard the blessing of God, share it. As Australians were pretty good at looking after each other, especially in times of crisis. When I look back at the various concerts and telethons and benefits for drought and fire and so forth I am proud to be Australian and that God chose this nation for me. I am aware that there is poverty in many forms in this nation, let alone the other nations of the world, and that more could be done to make sure that everyone has enough. I’m not convinced that everyone has to have equal, but I am certain that if there are two people where one person has three things and the other person has no thing that the one with three giving one to the one with none so that the share is now two and one is good. Work should be rewarded, and if you work more you should get more, but there is also a basic level of support that God requires of disciples for the benefit of the world. While some have none, and others have more than two, there is not only imbalance there is injustice.

Second: remember that this is not only economic. It certainly is economic, and must include economic aspects in the First World space which Australia occupies, but the blessings of God extend far beyond milk and honey. The Church across the planet is incredibly wealthy, stupidly so, but that’s not true of the local congregations I have belonged with. Even when I was participating in Hillsong Church London we weren’t mega wealthy. But think of the riches we do have because of Christ, freedom from sin yes but more than that is what it means in today’s world: freedom from guilt. This has also been abused by the Church across the world, where paedophiles and other scum have been allowed to continue in their jobs “by divine grace”; which is sickening and not God’s plan at all. But think of what you know about God which the world does not know.

It may be a silly picture, but go with me in this: as a Christian who has been Christian for all of my life I have a lot of Jesus. I was raised by Christian parents and have attended a local church for the vast majority of Sundays since I was born. I have not earned salvation but I have been assured of God’s grace so many times in so many ways that I am utterly convinced of it: in fact I have so much of Jesus and his assurance in my life that it bubbles out of me sometimes and I just spill Christ all over the floor. Sometimes I spill him in worship, and I get my praise on in song and movement; sometimes I spill him in prayer and I just love all over God in words and smiles to Heaven. For salvation’s sake at least I have more than enough of Jesus, I possess far in excess of the minimum level of Jesus for eternal security even as I can never get enough of him in other ways. Yet even in Kaniva there are people who don’t know Jesus. Some are saved and don’t know it, others don’t know anything at all. I am not wealthy in money, but I am stupidly wealthy in hope, so why wouldn’t I share that? I have more hope than the Vatican Bank has dollars, so before I start criticising the Pope for the Roman Catholics’ lack of poverty-alleviation in the world (and I’d always leave that up to Jesus anyway, he’s Francis’ boss and not me) I ask myself what am I doing for hopelessness-alleviation in Kaniva. Perhaps I need to start spilling Jesus in public: and much more than the loose change I might throw at the homeless, but great wads and wallets-full of hope and assurance.

The truth is that whatever we have a lot of, we will never feel safe in being generous enough to share it unless we feel secure in what we have; and we will never feel secure in what we have unless we are thankful for it. Generosity requires gratitude: and if Psalm 50:23 is accurate and to be trusted, and the best worship is thanksgiving, then I am going to thank God until God is worn out by my praise; and I am going to give and give hope into the world until everyone has enough, and many people have abundance.

Who’s with me?

Great, because if you’re not with me in this then God says you’re toast.

Amen.

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.

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.