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.

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Amongst your eyes

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 1st October 2017.  Immediately after this service I drove to and then preached at Narracan Uniting Church in the (neighbouring) Yallourn Parish.

Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13

Sheesh, this is getting to be a habit.  Once again, we find Moses having to deal with the quarrelsome people of Israel; only this time they need water.  God has already got them out of Egypt, leaving dead Egyptian sons behind.  Then God got them across the sea, leaving dead Egyptian soldiers behind.  Then God fed them manna and quail every day, except the Sabbath, leaving no dead anybody behind.  Now Moses is asked to provide water, as if the tears of one and a half million sooky Israelites aren’t provision enough.  I mean, what’s a prophet gotta do to get some respect around here? Mary Pearson wrote in this week’s “With Love To The World” that the problem seems to be that Israel believes that Moses is their saviour, not God.  If Moses is a man like them, even if in several remarkable ways he is not a man like them, but still, then Moses needs reminding of his job as leader.  In today’s story, we read how the Israelites very helpfully point out to Moses that they are in a desert and there isn’t any water where they’ve made camp.  In response Moses names the place “test” (Massah) and “quarrel” (Meribah) because the people asked whether the LORD was among them or not.  In other words, this is the location, to be known for all of time, where the quarrelsome people put God to the test.

When in later times the editors of Exodus named the place “Rephidim”, which means both “refresh” and “support”, they believed that God was indeed among the people, and that the one among the people was The LORD I am encouraged by the thought that there were editors in later times because it means that the story had kept on being told.  In Psalm 78, as has been the case in Psalm 105 which was read last week and on two of the Sundays in August, the story of God’s provision and companionship with Israel in the hard days of the wilderness is reminded to the people.  God The LORD is the true leader of Israel and God always displays goodness in doing that leading.

Paul writes to the church in Philippi from gaol.  There isn’t agreement among scholars where Paul was imprisoned at the time, but all agree that he was in gaol somewhere.  He is concerned by the news of infighting in the congregation around two sources.  One is the potentially divisive message of several visiting leaders who were not proclaiming the gospel as it was understood by Paul but were instead preaching their own opinions and agenda.  Paul is also concerned by disputes within the congregation and the cliques being formed around two vocal women.  So, with that background we read today’s call to unity beneath the leadership of Christ, Christ the humblest man and Christ the LORD Godself, with added insight.  With many different opinions going around and many little groups forming, look at what Paul says about his desire for the church.

  1. Show unity through setting your mind on the same thing.
  2. Act out of humility and obedience.
  3. Hold the needs and interests of others in high regard.

And why does Paul say that’s the best way?  Because according to Philippians 2:5 that’s the Jesus way.

Jesus always had the purpose of God foremost in his mind: Jesus and the Father were united in this way.  Jesus did not have to prove himself, indeed he actually shrugged the Godness from his being so that he could preach more effectively: this is both the nature and the will of God.  There was nothing grandiose about Jesus, nothing about him was inflated because almost everything about him was hidden; he knew that people needed God to be accessible if they were going to be saved and so he made himself as friendly and approachable as possible.  Jesus could have come as the cloud of fire seen over Sinai, or as the Lord of Eternity riding across the clouds on a white stallion, but his work was better suited to the one in dusty sandals in small villages.  That’s how you’re supposed to be, says Paul.

This passage is a well-known one, and as such it has had many interpreters and scholars pay very close attention to it.  I am not interested today as to whether this scripture points to trinitarian ideas about God; I don’t think Paul was trying to make that point anyway.  I certainly don’t think the way to read this is “if you are humble like Christ then you will be exalted like Christ” because that goes against what Paul is saying.  What I read today is that the most effective way for Christians inside a local church to behave is for each person to show the humility of Christ toward one another, and the unity of Christ and the Father in all that they say and do as Christians together.  We are reminded in Philippians 2:13 that God is at work; that work is not only taking place amongst us but within us.

The Lord is amongst us, but the Lord is here quietly and patiently, feeding and guiding us in the every day.  There is no need to complain, God knows what you need and God is already there to provide it for you.  As God waited for Moses and the elders at Horeb so God waits for us to obey the command to come and see: and when we come then we do see.

Amen.

Journeying Beyond The See

This is the text of the message I preached at Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 24th September 2017, the sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost in Year A.

Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30

Last week we heard the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea and how God delivered them visibly and audibly from the Egyptians.  The waters rose into great walls as Israel crossed the gulf: the waters fell in and drowned the Egyptian army and all its horses.  We heard how God is so mighty as to be able to part the seas at a word, and of how creation withdraws in awe when the people of God walking in the presence of God pass by.  Today’s story jumps forward several weeks and we are now one calendar/lunar month after the exodus event.  We find Israel tired and hungry, and “are we there yet?” is all they can say.  Four weeks after leaving the dead eldest sons of Egypt behind in Egypt, four weeks after leaving the dead armies of Egypt behind in the sea, all The LORD and Moses hears is a multitude of sulking.  The LORD tells Moses that relief is coming in the form of meat and bread, and that it will come every day for as long as it is needed.  The actual words of God are that this chosen people can trust in the provision the LORD.

That is a strong message.  God hears the sigh of desperation and God responds immediately with grace and provision.  There is no indication in this passage that God is dismayed by the people’s attitude, only a recognition that there is a need which the people require God to meet.  In other places God gets annoyed and angry with their stubbornness, but on this occasion God simply answers the need.  There is a legitimate claim on God’s provision, and God fills that need to the very top.

Moses and Aaron on the other hand are upset by the whinging.  Perhaps they are also tired and hungry and so they are not in the mood to hear it.  “Why don’t you tell God” they say in desperation, “it’s not our job to feed you”.  Of course, this also means “are you prepared to tell God?”  And of course, the Israelites are more than ready to tell The LORD in no uncertain terms what they think about The LORD’s lordship.

Nonetheless The LORD provides; however, with that provision comes a test of obedience.  Will Israel obey God and gather only a day’s supply, or will they hoard the manna in case it is a “once off” event.  Will Israel trust God’s promise to send the quail and the manna tomorrow?  God is revealing something about Godself in this miracle: that God is faithful, generous, and dependable.  God will not allow the exodus people to die of starvation or dehydration; this is a sign that God is with them and that the God who is with them is like this.  God will also not dump a vast supply on the people and then walk away: God rations the provision because God intends to walk with the people each step of the day and each day of the way.

Listening to today’s Psalm we hear a call toward the gathered worshippers that they tell the story of God, and especially the story of what God has done in the presence and history of the Israelites.  God has always and every time been faithful to the covenant made with the ancestors: God has fulfilled the promise to make a nation and set aside a homeland for the people of Abraham via Isaac and Jacob.  The psalmist speaks in Psalm 105:37-42 of the chosen ones being lead out with joy, while the Egyptians were happy to see the back of them.  There doesn’t appear to be a great deal of joy in today’s story from Exodus 16, it’s a real festival of complaint that Moses and Aaron must deal with, but we know that joy came with the provision of food and water and with the sign that this provision came from the glorious God who is shown to be more than guide and protector, God is provider and counsellor.  Psalm 105 is a great song about the glory and goodness of God from Adam to Joshua, there isn’t a negative word in it.  We read the Israelite story in parallel in Psalm 106; and today’s reading from Exodus is spoken of in Psalm 106:13-15 and in Psalm 78:17-20.  In these verses, the psalmist leaves us in no doubt that Israel behaved with rudeness and petulance toward the Lord.

In the light of these passages and the history of experience they talk about we might listen to Exodus 16:9 and ask what it means to draw near to the Lord because God has heard your complaining.

In Biblical language, the phrase “seek the Lord” meant to pray, so to draw near probably has a similar meaning.  But how do we pray, how do we respond when God lets us down?

Perhaps in our day, in our church, we would never entertain such thoughts.  How can God let us down?  Is it sinful to even ask such a question?  If that is your view then you are welcome to it, there is no condemnation from me, but I offer you congratulations that your life as a Christian has never, ever seen trouble.  I have felt let down by God on many occasions, and whilst in hindsight I see that God was there all along, and that much of my trouble was my own doing, and the rest of my trouble was the doing of other, fallible human persons, so that God is in no way to blame, I confess that in the moment I shook my fist at the heavens and let God know exactly what I thought about the distinct lack of quality in the Fathering going on.

Last week I spoke of crossing the sea and of how my journeys by various modes of ship and aircraft had always been successful:  I was never drowned nor had I ever fallen from a great height.  I also said that life across the seas had not always been so fantastically wondrous.

In 2002, following a previous visit for a World Methodist Evangelism Conference at which I was one of the Uniting Church in Australia’s delegates, I emigrated to the United Kingdom.  Through ancestry I have the Right of Abode in the UK, so basically, I have a lifelong visa.  I don’t hold a UK passport, and I can’t claim Social Security, but otherwise I have access to an undisturbed life with all the rights of employment, property, voting, and emergency services.  God was not the one who decided that I should move to Britain to live, even as it was God’s plan and provision which got me to England in 2001 for that conference.  After six months in England I was broke, homeless, hungry, lonely, and stuck.  “How could you let this happen to me?”  I asked God.  “How could you let this happen to him?” asked my parents.  My dad tells me he had some serious words to say to God around that time, “small-f father to big-f Father, dad to God”.

Of course, God was not to blame for my plight.  It was me who had moved to the other side of the world.  God found me a roof, a bed, and a meal every night, and while I was technically homeless I was never out in the Hertfordshire cold.  Whilst I was lonely I was never away from church on a Sunday, and whilst the congregations did not help me in the way that I would have liked, and that my mum would have liked, and maybe even how God would have liked, I was never actually destitute.  Whilst I was hungry I was never starving: I lived in a B+B so there was always cereal, juice and tea in the morning, and there were pub counter meals at night for around the same price as a burger meal at McDonalds.  I didn’t like my life, but I was alive, and God did not let me die or let me want to die.

Even when I told God that I could do a better job of looking after myself than God had done, God never actually let me try it alone.  Even when I told God, “you are God and ‘thy will be done’, but you’re not very good at doing thy will”, God did not send a wrath-load of lightning or flood or a hoard of Amalekite armies to end my life.  Like the roughest of sea crossings, I made it safely to the other end, even though I had sweated, and puked for much of the journey.

Paul wrote to a local church in Philippians 1:21-25 that he felt hard-pressed at times in continuing his life on earth when the promise of the reward of faith was so appealing.  But the work of the gospel itself and the joy he found in serving God compelled him to keep going.  Paul was prepared to remain where God had put him because he was confident that God was with him.  In other letters Paul writes of his troubles, of mistreatment and verbal abuse, imprisonment and beatings, near drownings, and the wearing work of travelling even when the path was good and the sea was calm.  Paul did not have an easy life, but he had a strong faith in God and a rock-solid confidence that he would be provided for in the grace of God.  That confidence extended to the work of faith among the people he was preaching to: “God is faithful to me in how God is blessing you” says Paul.  Paul knew that his work was not in vain; the Church was growing in number and in depth as more people put their trust in Jesus for salvation and then went on increasing and deepening faith.  So, one of the signs of God’s faithfulness to Paul was the resilience of the Philippians themselves.  This is a blessing that Moses and Aaron did not have as leaders.

So, what about me?  I am a Supply Ministry Agent and am not your minister in the fullest sense, and I am certainly not a Paul or a Moses to you.  But you are my family in Christ, brothers and sisters, and for the next four months I have the privilege of leading you.  So, are you, the people God has given me to, a resilient people?  Are you, the people God has given me to, a whinging people?  However long my stay in Morwell and Yallourn is I know that I shall be hard at work with you and for you, but will my work be joyful like Paul’s was, or irritating and draining like Moses’?

What about yourselves?  Are you each a joy to your brothers and sisters in this congregation, or are you a drain?  Is the Morwell congregation a joy, or a burden, to the Yallourn Parish?  Are the people of Moe-Newborough, Yallourn North, and Narracan congregations a joy, or a strain, for you?

How would God describe you?  I am sure that God would describe you in gracious terms, but would there be a need for grace in that God would need to say harsh things in a nice way, or would God smile and relax when your name is mentioned?  “Ah Morwell, yes they’re an easy bunch to be with.”  What do you say of each other, and what do others say of you.

You don’t need the Bible or a minister to tell you that life is hard.   But it’s always good to be reminded that during a hard life, even a hard but obedient life, God is incredibly faithful and you will make it across the sea to the place Paul longed for.

Amen.

Dem stones, dem stones…

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Unitingt Church on 14th May 2017, the fifth Sunday after Easter in year-A.

Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10.

Several weeks ago, I described myself to you as “a preaching-nerd” when I spoke about how I enjoy discovering the ways that the lectionary has set up the weekly passages of scripture for the purposes of establishing a theme.  Today’s set of readings present us with the theme that the Bible suggests a variety of understandings of stones.  For Stephen who was executed by stoning, stones are bad things.  For the Psalmist who calls upon God as his rock, rocks are good things.  So, rock equals good, and stone equals bad?  Got that?  Well…well unfortunately, it’s not that simple since Peter speaks of Christ as the living stone; one who was rejected by mortal beings but is exalted by God.

In today’s reading from the Psalms we read of how God is a rock of refuge for the worshipper (Psalm 31:2), and “indeed” God is a rock and fortress (Psalm 31:3).  My commentary points out that the Hebrew word translated as “indeed” is used seven times in Psalm 31 to introduce a new verse.  This God, the rock, is one who can be relied upon and trusted in, this word is solid, and solid indeed!  Standing on this assurance it is no wonder to me that the psalmist is confident to say in Psalm 31:5 “into your hand I commit my spirit”. We know that this statement is not the famous last words of the psalmist, especially since even this psalm has twenty-four verses and this is only verse five.  The assurance that God is worthy of our trust, worthy to hold our spirits in safekeeping, is assured by the wisdom that God is both the rock and the proven deliverer.  “God has saved me before; more than once in fact, so here and now I take the step of faith to commend my whole life into God’s hands and safekeeping.”  What a word of confidence that it, and what an example to us all!   The psalmist asks of God in Psalm 31:15 that in God’s steadfast love that God would “save me from my persecutors”.  Not only do I trust God in my own life and its adventures says the psalmist, but I trust God where it comes to other people and their potentially harmful interactions with me.  It is no wonder then that in the very moment of his murder by his persecutors each of two men pray the words in Psalm 31:5, and with his final breath commits his spirit to God.

The writer of 1 Peter says of Jesus that he was rejected by humanity, yet was chosen by God and is precious and that the same can be said of us if we follow Jesus.  The world outside sees our faith as wasted and our activities as irrelevant and inconsequential.  But in God’s economy the worthless rocks and scattered gravel that the world sees is revealed to be living stones which build a spiritual house.  Where the world sees a pile of broken brick God sees and experiences a house of worship whose cornerstone is Christ himself.  God sees the other stones of that house, that house with Christ as cornerstone and capstone, as you and me, him and her, and them over there making another wall in that other denomination’s house today.  God sees unity and worth in who we are and in what we do when we are connected to each other and connected through each other to Christ who is our sure foundation.  1 Peter says that if the cornerstone of your belief is in Jesus then you will be part of what God builds upon the foundation of your belief: but if you don’t believe then that same stone becomes a barrier, a stumbling block, and you’ll be tripped up in your disbelief.  It is made even more plain by 1 Peter, those who stumble do so because of disobedience; but those who believe, those who are part of what God is building upon the foundation of belief in Jesus Christ, become a royal and holy gathering tasked with the proclamation of God in speech and action.  We who were once a bunch of rubble, boulders and bluemetal are now a single unified, strong tower and palace, a temple and a house with a common identity and a unified task.  This is monumental stuff church, pun intended, because the Church is a monument to God’s glory, and it is true in metaphorical speech because the Church takes on the identity given to the Jewish nation.  We, the Christians of 2017, are a royal and holy community: we have received the same promise made to the tribes of Hebrews a thousand years before Jesus’ life.  What was spoken over them is spoken over us alongside them two thousand years after Jesus.  And more so this is true because of Jesus, and is true for us because of our belief in Jesus.

So, to summarise what we have so far:

  1. God is a rock.
  2. You are a living stone. With the rest of us, you form a monument which has its foundation upon God, the rock.

The manner in which Stephen met his death mirrors the death of Jesus in many details.  The rock of which 1 Peter speaks as being rejected by humanity is shown here in the first murder of a Christian for being a Christian.  To put it somewhat ironically the one who trusts in rock of Israel is being stoned to death by the priests and Levites of the Pharisees.

When Stephen cries out with his final breath in Acts 7:59 he says two things of Jesus; that the life of Jesus is worthy of emulation, and that Jesus is the Lord Godself.  I’ll unpack that a little bit for you, and in my unique and peculiar style I’ll give you the second one first.  So, secondly, Stephen speaks of Jesus in language that Jesus himself, and the psalmist, used of God.  Where Jesus and the psalmist commit their spirit to God in prayer Stephen commits his spirit to Jesus.  Stephen prays as if he believes that Jesus is God, or at least worthy of the same ascription to majesty as the Father.  Of course, we know this, this is why he is being executed in the first place, but there it is in black and white on page 891 of the Bible in front of you.  And firstly, Stephen’s last words are almost word for word the last words of Jesus.  What Jesus did is what Stephen does.  If asked “WWJD?” Stephen would answer “in your final breath commend your spirit to God.”  And that is what Stephen did, with the unique extrapolation at that stage, of naming the LORD in this circumstance as Jesus.

In my persona as preaching-nerd, and a man who finds the lectionary fascinating, I am delighted that our reading set for today ends at Acts 7:60.  Whenever I have seen this passage marked in a Bible, or heard it read aloud, the block of text typically continues to 8:1.  Stephen dies, but somewhat more importantly it seems, Saul approves of the murder.  But not today.  Not today, thank you lectionary.  Today the focus is not on Saul the persecuting Pharisee who will go on to cause havoc amongst the Christians before being knocked off his horse and then going on as Paul the preaching Christian to cause havoc amongst the Pharisees.  No, today the focus, by ending at Acts 7:60, is the last words of Stephen and his ascription that amidst and amongst the flying stones of his murderers it is God in Jesus who is the rock which is steadfast and sure.

I pray that none of us, you or I, face death by judicial stoning nor by any other form of avalanche.  But I do pray that each of us, you and I, would cry out to God when the time comes and commit our dying selves into the hands of the steadfast God.  May it be for us that our last words can be “into your hands, my Lord I commend my all”.

And that would have been a wonderful place to finish this sermon.  But there is more to say.  Just a paragraph, so relax.  As much as I hope that you will emulate Jesus in death, as Stephen emulated the dying Jesus in Stephen’s own death, my prayer for you is that your prayer of commitment to God’s surety as rock is uttered well before your final breath.  The time is NOW to commit your spirit into God’s hands, and then to live for years and decades with that surety at your back and on your heart and mind.  As beautiful as the picture is of Stephen dying with Jesus, and dying for Jesus, he only got there because he lived for Jesus first.

So, live for Jesus.  God is your rock, and is your rock right now.  Commit your spirit today.

Amen.

 

That Shy Hope (Easter 2A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 23rd April 2017.  This was the first Sunday after Easter.

Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Last week in course of my bringing you God’s word for Holy Friday I used a phrase which has garnered a great deal of feedback.  In speaking of what the day of our Lord’s death might mean for us I quoted C. Manning Clark and his description of the spirituality of Australians as “a shy hope in the heart”.  As Australians, we are not known to blow our trumpet in the world too much; unless it involves the Ashes or the Bledisloe Cup, but since neither of those trophies belong to us at present there’s little to say on the world stage.  Mostly we are a people who like to go unnoticed in the world; we don’t like tall poppies and we don’t like being told what to do.  Australia is not a shy nation, we never have been, but as a nation in the world we are far less brash than our nasal accents and the boisterous singing of our countrymen in European pubs might suggest.  We live in a lucky country, (a phrase which was originally an insult, as if such people of us don’t deserve what we have been given), and we like to think of ourselves as a nation of battlers, pioneers, diggers, and vanquishers only so far as we have made a go of it.  We are hard-fought survivors not empire builders; we are not flashy and we dislike those who are.  It is in view of this that Clark addressed the spirituality of Australia.  We are not a nation of flashy preachers, we are not Americans.  We are not a nation of lofty cathedrals and bells and smells, we are not Europeans.  Even as we have both of those things, Australia’s largest single congregation is Hillsong Church and we do of course have our cathedrals of the Roman, Anglican, and Orthodox varieties, for the most part the churchgoing of Aussies is local and hidden.  We are quietly confident that we are on the side of right: like Crocodile Dundee we believe in a Jesus who has fishermen mates and we reckon he’d like us because of that.  How much of this view of Australia is true, how much of it is stereotype, and how much of it was once true but is no longer so in an Australia which now resembles the culture northern hemisphere than it does the culture of the Northern Territory is not mine to say.  I’ll leave that to the sociologists, I’m a theologian and a narratologist.  But I think it’s an image worth looking at, and after the feedback I have had in this past week it seems like more than a few of you agree with me.

So, what is this shy hope in our hearts?  Is it permissible that Christianity be “a shy hope” at all?  After all isn’t Christianity all about witnessing and boldness?  Isn’t our call to extroversion, extravagance, and exaltation?  Aren’t Christians supposed to be the Strayan tourists in the world, loud, brash, bold, and publicly celebrating in season and out of season?

Maybe not.

I believe the story of the Christian scriptures is that the people of Jesus are to be confident but not showy.  The writer of Psalm 16, whom Peter quotes in his sermon on the day of Pentecost and names as David, has penned a song of trust and security in God.  Those who trust in the Lord in reliant assurance will live lives of delight, confidence and joy.  This is how we are to be: this confident reliance upon God is the Australia of the shy hope.

In John 20, following from last Sunday’s reading and speaking initially of the evening of Easter Day, Jesus appears to the ten, greets them with shalom and breathes the Holy Spirit onto them, imparting to the Church the power to forgive.  The purpose of the gospel is later summarised as being that those who hear it (without seeing) will believe that Jesus is Messiah, and that having heard and believed the message the life of trust in Christ brings an abundance of life.  In view of this Thomas, who meets Jesus a week after Easter, (which is to say today), does not deserve his title of “doubter”.  Thomas is no different to the others; recall that the men had not believed the testimony of Mary, indeed they had locked themselves away in terror until they saw Jesus personally (and somewhat miraculously) enter their locked room.  Jesus demonstrated grace in showing himself 1:1 to Thomas, as he had done on Easter day to the other ten.  In the same way that the revelation was given to eyewitnesses who then went and spoke of what they had seen to others who were never given the opportunity to see so now we have the gospel according to John to tell us that even though Jesus has ascended (which John does not record at all) all who hear can still believe in the written and spoken words of the evangelists.

Seven weeks after that first appearance of Jesus to the ten Peter stands up on the day of Pentecost, the Jewish festival celebrating the giving of the ten commandments at Sinai, and addresses the people he calls Israelites.  In Peter’s day, and indeed in our own day, the Israelites were native Jews who were not priests or Levites.  So, Peter is literally addressing the crowd, the common people when he tells them the story of Jesus and how his ministry amongst them had carried the evidence of God’s favour in deeds of power (dynameis).  God was obviously blessing and in favour of the work of Jesus, says Peter, but you Israelites, you mob of common man, you handed him over to Rome and Rome killed him.  Peter is pulling no punches here.  Perhaps he is bold in the Holy Spirit’s anointing, perhaps he’s an unschooled fisherman and doesn’t know how to be polite in public address so he’s calling a “manually operated, blunt-edged, single user excavating apparatus” a “bloody spade”.  It’s probably a bit of both, but at least he’s speaking plainly.  He goes on to say in his straightforward manner that the same power that worked through Jesus in his life, God’s power, the power which then raised him from death, (and thereby continued to attest to his identity), that same power now courses through Peter and the 120.  By that power, God’s direct empowering, the Jesus group proclaims Jesus as Messiah even as David in his day proclaimed the messiah as the message of the Lord God.  The power of God in Jesus the Christ, makes his disciples bold, confident, joyous in the face of continued life on earth.  We have seen Jesus raised, says Peter, therefore, we are confident (and no longer hiding in locked rooms afraid of what the Priests, Levites, and you Israelites might do to us).

This is supposed to be true of us today.  As an Australian (Strayan) Christian living in Gippsland in 2017 I live without the terror of Jewish authorities.  I live without terror of any authorities.  In part that is because of how Australia operates as a nation in my generation, but it is also because I am filled with the spirit of God and I am living a life of freedom and confidence because of “Christ who liveth in me”. As I said a few weeks ago about the Tanakh, the scriptures used by Jews, having the overarching message of the fulfilment of a promise for home so God has showed to Peter’s Israelite audience (who knew that tradition) an instance of this in God’s faithfulness to Jesus.  Jesus has been redeemed from the exile of death, into everlasting life in the land of promise.

In the letter attributed to him Peter extends the promise of God revealed in the resurrection (rebirth) of Jesus to all who trust in Jesus.  We, like Christ risen, are reborn into a living hope, and into the promise of abundance in Heaven and protection on Earth.  Life will be hard in days to come, there is no hiding from that fact, but God has your back and you can trust with full confidence in the promise given to you.  Let the fires of the world burn away the rubbish, let that happen because you know that there is something precious within you just waiting to get out.  Although you have not seen him you love him says the writer in 1 Peter 1:8, fulfilling what Jesus said in John 20:29.  As early therefore as the middle of the first century the discipleship thing is seen to be working: there really are second generation believers who have heard about Jesus from the eyewitnesses and believed in their testimony.  Peter and the eleven, plus the other members of that first 120 on the day of Pentecost, plus Paul and others who saw the risen Christ, went on to tell the story to others who never saw Jesus and those others believed what they were told.  And they told others, and they, and they, until in our day we have none who saw the risen Jesus, or even met the apostles in person, but have believed the message of Jesus in our billions.

This is the shy hope in our hearts.  We have been told that God loves the world, our world, our 2017 world, and that the evidence of that love was seen in a Bethlehem barn, a Roman cross, a garden tomb, and the eyes of the woman or man who told you that story and you believed it.  It is a shy hope, almost unbelievable, but it is a sure hope too.

Amen.

Resurrection Day

This is the text of the message I presented on 16th April 2017, Resurrection Sunday, to the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church.  It was the first time I had preached on Easter Day.

Colossians 3:1-4; Acts 10:34-43; John 20 1:18

One of my favourite songs for Resurrection Sunday is not a hymn or chorus, or even a “church song” at all.  It’s by U2, it’s called “Window in the Skies” and it begins:

The shackles are undone,

The bullets quit the gun,

The heat that’s in the sun

Will keep us when there’s none.

The rule has been disproved,

The stone – it has been moved,

The grave is now a groove,

All debts are removed.

 Oh, can’t you see what love has done?

It may seem strange to begin a reflection on the most foundational of Christian truths with a ten-year-old rock song, but I believe that this song, written by Christian men who work in “the secular realm”, expresses the same sorts of emotion that our reading from the gospel summons.

John’s gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb alone and before dawn.  She arrives to find that the stone – it has been moved, and so she runs for help, believing that the body had been stolen.  When she and a couple of the men return, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is said to have “seen and believed”, although we’re not told what he believed, and he and Peter having seen what they have seen promptly go home.  They just go home: as you do.

But not Mary, Mary stays there.  She takes another look in to what she understands is an empty tomb only to find that it is not empty at all.  The empty tomb is now occupied by angels, two of them, the same number of angels as there were men who have just gone home.  They ask her who she’s crying for and she tells them.  Did you get that, Mary tells a pair of angels, sitting in an empty tomb, that she’s upset that the dead Jesus has been removed without her knowledge.  There are angels…in an empty tomb…  Something extraordinary is going on here but Mary’s distress is too overwhelming for her to look past the first thing she’d seen; that Jesus’ corpse is missing.

The story goes on, Mary is alone in the garden once more since the men have gone home and the angels have not left the tomb, yet she is not alone and a man is there.  He calls her “woman”, and those of you who were around a few weeks ago know what happens when Jesus addresses a female conversation partner as “Woman”.  Revelation is about to happen.  Something more has happened in Mary’s vicinity, the story is reaching its climax, and Jesus calls her name.

The shackles are undone.

Some traditions put the words “don’t touch me” in Jesus’ mouth at this point, but I like what we have heard here, “do not hold on to me”.  Mary is allowed a hug, but not a long one, as Jesus has a very important appointment to keep.  I just love this moment in this story.  Consider what is happening here in what I believe to be one of the finest, and yet also one of the most under-reported events of that first day of resurrection.  Jesus is in the process of ascending to the Father, he’s heading for Heaven for the first time since he left Heaven at the annunciation of Mary his mother, this is the culmination of the resurrection when the Son of Man is to be vindicated in glory by God the Father, but that can all wait until Jesus has comforted his friend.  The risen saviour of creation pauses in the very act of ascension to embrace his weeping, confused friend to assure her that he is there and that it is truly he who is truly there.  And then, like every other man in this story so far, Jesus goes home.

To every broken heart,

for every heart that cries:

love left a window in the skies,

and to love I rhapsodize…

So sings U2.  So sing we.

The repercussions of the resurrection of Jesus are not limited to the final chapters in Matthew, Luke and John; neither are they evident only in our day and the miracle of today’s salvation in Jesus’ sacrifice.  In Acts 10:34-43 we read the immediate events of the resurrection of Jesus, of how the truth that God has no favourites was revealed to the disciples of Jesus and of how that message was quickly spread to all corners of the known world.  Peter, speaking in a Roman household in the Roman capital city of Judea, i.e. the city where Pilate and the bulk of his army actually lives, tells that pagan yet imperial household the message of Jesus: that Jesus alone is the source of forgiveness of sins, and of fellowship between those who have accepted his grace because they have received the message of his witnesses.   Cornelius the centurion had been searching for God, and God had sent one of Jesus’ moist experienced eyewitnesses to tell him that he was welcome in the family of God.  Cornelius, the gentile agent of an invasion force, is welcome to sit at the table of grace with Peter himself because of the resurrection of Jesus.

In Colossians 3:1-4 which was written before Acts but describes events that occurred following what we read there, Paul exhorts the Jesus-believers in Colossae to be confident in their pursuit of God and the Way of Jesus in life.  In other words, live as if you are already in Heaven because Christ who is in Heaven lives in you.  This is the story of the Reign of God which we have heard about so much in past months.  Live as if God is king and Jesus is lord: as if the world is already God’s own province, and that the influence and governance of God extends to where you live.  You can live like this, even though the roll-out of the rule of God is not yet complete, because Christ has ascended.  Yes, there is evil in the world, and yes there is harmful and difficult stuff which is not necessarily evil but is just not good, but since you are “hidden with Christ in God” as it says in Colossians 3:3 you can rely on the resources of the Kingdom to flourish where you are right now.

Jesus is celebrated by Peter’s testimony as one who went about doing good and healing all who were repressed by the devil (Acts 10:38).  The Way of Jesus was picked up very quickly by the apostles, disciples, and witnesses who followed him across the world.  Enter a place and tell the story of Jesus, heal any sick, expunge all demons, raise any dead, welcome each of the restored, go to the next town, repeat.  What was once a tomb, a dead-end, is now the front door to a well-worn path:  the grave is now a groove.

I have heard it said that a grave is a rut with the ends filled in.  But I’d like to flip that around and say today that a grave with the ends blown out becomes a channel.  Christian life is not about slipping into a rut, at least it is not designed to be:  Christian life is a way; and more than that it is a way where there wasn’t a way before.   Dead-ends become tunnels and channels, high walls become ramps, ridgeways and bridges like the raised track of a train.  The road of the way, just like the recently-dead Christ on Sunday morning, is unstoppable.

And so, we find ourselves where every Sunday finds us: knowing that we are loved beyond our capacity to understand, rescued and restored from terrors we could never fully appreciate (nor want to), and empowered to live a life of unparalleled freedom and joy because of the Spirit of God who lives in us, just as that spirit lived in Jesus, Peter, Paul, all the Marys, and Cornelius.

Two weeks ago, we heard from John 11:25 that whomever continues to believe into Jesus will live into eternity.  This is the story of resurrection day.  Life is assured for you, not just eternal life in the sense that you will live forever in Heaven, but complete and abundant life in that your existence will always be bountiful, extravagant, and well resourced.  Trouble may come and trouble will come, the resurrection power of Jesus did not prevent Peter and Paul each being murdered by the Roman authorities, and I’m sure Cornelius didn’t long in command of his cohort once his conversion story came out, but such trouble will always be temporary.  The grave cannot hold any of us, it is now a groove, and a groove where Jesus walked before us to open the way.

Love left a window in the skies, and to my God, (who is love), I rhapsodise.

Come and see what love has done, what it’s doing in me

Amen.

Today is not a Funeral

This is the text of the message I prepared for Good Friday, 14th April 2017, for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church.

Psalm 22; John 18:1-19:42

Today is not a funeral, but is power for the Church.

Today is a day of sorrow, but is not a day of mourning.

Today is a day for the way in which the historian Manning Clark described the spirituality of the Australian People: today is a day for “a shy hope in the heart.”

Today we are “an Easter People”, yes even today.

Today is not a funeral, but is power for the Church.

This morning we heard the telling of a short story; a poem of thirty-one verses, a narrative which began with the words My God, my God why have you forsaken me?, went on to say I am thirsty and ended with it is finished.  It is a familiar story, but not just because it is a story repeated over six hours one dark Friday hundreds of years after it was first written down.  The Son of God is not alone among the daughters and sons of men in going through a time of seeming isolation from his God, his mates, and his senses. Abandonment, confusion, embarrassment and doubts assault each of us at times.  But…

Today is not a funeral, but is power for the Church.

This is a very private psalm, in scholarship terms it is referred to as a personal lament, more plainly it is one person’s whinge against the world.  But we have all been there, even Jesus: this is a sulk with good reason.

The biggest question this psalm asks is in Psalm 22:8, which in the Good News Bible reads if the Lord likes you, why doesn’t He help you?  (Aren’t you the Messiah?  Come down off the cross then! as the mocking scoffers of the Sanhedrin say.)  A good question: one I have asked on my own behalf many times.  Just because God was silent when Jesus was on the cross doesn’t mean I should like it when I am feeling tired and emotional.  Indeed, I remember asking this question in the company of my minister at a time when I was feeling like this, and he told me that it was a season of the Spirit which is sometimes called “the dark night of the soul”.  How many of you have heard that term before?  In fact, this dark night is not about being abandoned in blackness; as we have seen in the second part of this psalm God is, and always was, there.  The darkness is not about spiritualised depression; rather it is the steeping beyond the known and through the darkness of what is unknown to come to a new knowing.  Teachers know about that, that space is called “the Zone of Proximal Development” and describes where you can go next with a little bit of help.  This is the journey we guide our students along all the time; but it’s a lot scarier when God is doing it to adults.  Yet in the Contemporary English Version Psalm 22:21 reads don’t let lions eat me.  There’s no point saying that unless you think someone stronger than you is with you where the wild things are.

Today is not a funeral, but is power for the Church.

It is easy to feel confused and overwhelmed when God has forsaken you: I am sure that Jesus felt just those things, confused and overwhelmed.  But what we go through in these times of darkness is like driving at night along an unknown road, (or even a known road in a rainstorm), rather than choosing to sit stationary all night and wait the darkness out.  We can act in faith to move forward, and with conviction sourced from the deep roots of God’s record in our history step onward in squinty-eyed, squeezy fisted trust.  Darkness is mysterious, but that is the reality of our mysterious God.  Faith is hope without sight: blessed are those who have believed without seeing, as Jesus told Thomas.

Today is not a funeral, but is power for the Church.

We come to understand when the tenor flips in Psalm 22: 22 that the night of darkness in which a person may appear lost is the way which leads her to an even brighter light where she learns more about herself and the miraculous love of God more deeply.  The darkness is a way of progress, the tunnel at the end of the light that leads to even greater light.

Today is not a funeral, but is power for the Church.

On this Friday when our saviour allowed himself to be murdered we see dimly and with a mass of contradictory confusions: in time we shall see clearly.

Today is not a funeral, but is power for the Church.

When we go home in fifteen minutes’ time, and then on through Saturday, we will literally live in the time between times; the time between the commemoration of the death of Jesus and the celebration of his resurrection.  This can be a reminder to each of us that life’s dark patches come in bouts, and the more we grow and the keener we are to learn the more often these bouts will come.   It is scary, but like the wildest of rollercoasters it can also be fun when we remember that in God’s hands we may be spinning and ducking, but we are not crashing and burning.  When we are out of control, God is fully in control: and that is a good thing.  That is the confidence that lead Jesus to turn in Gethsemane to greet Judas rather than scramble away to hide at Mary and Martha’s place until the soldiers had gone.

Today is not a funeral, but is power for the Church.

The light of God is the only true light.  Sometimes God uses the darkness we have taken ourselves into rather than directing us into a dark place and we learn that where God is there is light; false lights will lead us astray.  I have heard it said it is better to be in God’s silence, than in the world’s violence; even if the world at least has neon and noise.

Life with God is thrilling: Easter shows that, and as Christians we know it ourselves.  The God of the gentle whisper that Elijah heard is also the God of the cloud of fire and smoke that Moses saw; so why can’t God also be the God of absence that Jesus experienced on the cross?  On Resurrection Sunday, we shall be reminded that God always comes through when all hope seems lost: that’s the testimony of my life.  Regardless of the tuneful talents of fat ladies, I have learned that nothing is over until God says it is.  “It is finished” when God has accomplished all that was intended; and that goes as much for God’s plans for my life, your life, and this Church, as much as it does for God’s plan to deliver and restore the universe through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Today is not a funeral, but is power for the Church.

What was achieved in darkness has been proclaimed in the light forever.

Amen.