The Happiest Ending is Not an Ending at all. (Pentecost 23C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva and Serviceton for Sunday 17th November 2019

Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 12

In Isaiah 65:1-16, so the verses prior to our reading today, we are given the context for what God is saying in our set passage. So, straight off the top, here’s a hint from your preacher: when you set out to read from the Bible read the chapter, not just the verse or two: today’s text has shown it to be true. Today, where God begins to speak to us in Isaiah 65:17 saying I am about to create we have confidence in each of those words because of the page and a half which has gone before, the first sixteen verses of Isaiah 65 and the twin stories which they tell. The I am is God The LORD; and actually I suggest that God is more fully named in the phrase I am about to since God is only knowable by revelation and activity. This I am, this God who is and the God who does, is the One who revealed Godself to the world even before the world began to look. We read that in Isaiah 65:1, and we understand some of that in the story of Christmas where Godself, in all of God’s Godfulness, entered the created world in the form of a created thing to communicate and to pitch a tent amidst humankind. God is ready, God is willing, God is excited about fellowship, and God is present and welcoming even before we’re aware there’s a party about to start. Israel is a hot mess at this point, the exiled ones are well away and the remnant of the old and the broken, whom the Babylonians left behind, have forgotten God and been forgotten by the bulk of God’s people. But God is excited by the thought that there will be a seeking and a finding in the next breath, and God just cannot wait. The God who is, who is the God who does, is about to do what God is first known for, saying I am…about to…create.

For I am about to create new… says The LORD in Isaiah 65:17, new heavens and a new earth; so basically a new everything then, and of such wonder that the old heaven and the old earth (so, this one here) shall not be remembered or come to mind. Who’s up for some of that? Yeah, me too. The best bit within this new everything is the new Jerusalem, a joy, and its people…a delight, in which God will rejoice: and not only “in which” God will rejoice but where God will rejoice, depending how you read Isaiah 65:19. Is it possible, is it true that God will not only rejoice about the new Jerusalem and the restored people, but will God actually do the rejoicing in the actual place, with the actual people? Mm-hmm, yep.

The rejoicing that God does in Jerusalem, where God is actually present in the city, looks like life. Life, doesn’t it? Babies will live to adulthood, and adults will live to 100 and more, so that’s a long life. And people will live in houses they have built, and enjoy the produce of trees they have planted and tended. Everyone will benefit from his or her own work and so these long lives, (long enough to plant and then wait for the maturation of tress from which to enjoy the harvest, long enough to still be considered young at 100), these long lives will be full lives, abundant lives, eternal lives. Big, fat, wide, full, deep, long, tall, complete lives; lives lived in the company of the Presence (big-P) of The LORD.

And not just that, because if that wasn’t enough of a promise there’s more to come. These long and fruitful lives will also be peaceful lives, shalom-ful lives, (BTW shalom-ful is a great word, even if I’m not entirely sure if it existed before now), lives without anxiety or grief, lives where wolves and lambs are safe in each other’s company, where lions don’t eat people and snakes don’t eat at all. This last point, found in Isaiah 65:25, is important when you consider the rest of the picture: this is a new Eden. Long life, full life, abundant life, non-anxious life, worshipful life, a life of companionship with God; this is what Eden was like, until the serpent spoke up and wrecked it all. But in this new Eden the serpent eats dust from the outset, there is no room for a second Fall, this Eden will last forever and will never be corrupted. The happy ending to the long story of Israel and Judah in exile; the story during which the people were taken away to Babylonia and then Persia and their identity as the Chosen people of the Promised Land was destroyed, and the cities and towns and farms and fields they left behind were destroyed, and the temple of God in Jerusalem was destroyed, the happy ending to that story is actually no ending at all. The end of the people’s story is the eternity of God, as wide and high as it is long, and full, so full, so very very full.

Can you imagine what a word of hope that was to the first hearers? Imagine if you were in exile, or you were one of those left behind amongst the ruins because you weren’t worthy even of slavery. Imagine that God said that what is coming next is everything you could never imagine of joy and restoration.

As our Christian calendar moves to its end, where today is the penultimate Sunday in the year, and our last Sunday in this long season in green stretching all the way back to Pentecost, we are closing in on Advent. Advent is more than just a month of daily chocolates and me in a purple shirt, it is the season of preparation for the Church when we think of Jesus coming to Earth as a human child, and of his return one day as the King of Glory. It is a time when we remember that at the Last Day the new Jerusalem will descend from Heaven, that a new Heaven and a new Earth will be completed, and God will again live in our midst (and we will live in the very centre of God’s presence) and that God’s Kingdom will have no end. No end, but also no edges, and no roof, God’s Kingdom is not just a future but it is a wideness in very dimension, a fullness in every conceivable thing. Even without the lived experience of a physical exile, of a life of slavery under a foreign empire, of colonisation and subjugation, even if you haven’t had any of that the promise of what God has in mind and the absolute certainty that it will occur should be thrilling for you. Is it? Do you really grasp what it is that is coming? This is why I get annoyed when Christianity is boxed so tightly around a formula of repentance to guarantee a place above the sky after death. If your Christian expectation is for “a glorious afterlife” then man (woman or child) you are selling yourself so short, and you have missed the whole point of God’s self-revelation through Jesus the Christ.

Lift up your eyes.

Today’s psalm comes to us from Isaiah 12. So yes, it is a psalm, it’s just from a different part of the Bible: same genre though, it’s a song of God. Again, the best place to begin reading is back a page or two, in this case the oracle which occupies all of Isaiah 11 and which in some Bibles carries the subheading “the peaceful kingdom” and in others “the righteous branch”. It’s important to remember that these headings are twentieth (or twenty-first) century additions in English, they’re not in the original text, and they’re there to offer help to understanding the passage. I say this because it’s true, I also say it because I don’t find either of those headings helpful in this case, so I’m going to ignore them. In fact, Isaiah 11, in the Newly Infallible Damien Version, has the title “the ideal king”. This king, upon whom God’s Spirit rests, is wise and just and fair and honourable, he is worthy to be praised. This king calls and the whole of humanity answers, all who are homeless are called home, drawn home indeed, and the home to which they come is filled with love and the generous abundance of every good thing. This home is better than Heaven, this home is the new Jerusalem upon the new Earth, this is Eden in all that it would have become if 6000 years or 6000 million years of what became of God’s good creation had not strayed from the Master’s plan. Good eh? More than.

And so we come to Isaiah 12:1 and the words [y]ou will say in that day: I will give thanks to you O LORD. What day? That day. THAT day. The day when the ideal king summons you home to the better Eden: that day. And what will you say on that day? Well the rest of Isaiah 12 is what you will say; thank you because you saved me, you comforted me, you restored me, I trust in you and I trust you to be my strength and my might. You will say that The LORD is my salvation, (Isaiah 12:2), I am not my salvation and I cannot save myself, salvation is a gift of God, drawn from the wells of God: wells I did not dig fed by aquifers I did not fill. And what else will you say on that day? You will say [g]ive thanks to The LORD, call on God’s name, make known God’s deeds among the nations, proclaim that God’s name is exalted. (Isaiah 12:4.) Good eh? More than.

So, to recap; in two places in Isaiah we are told that God is about to begin the work of restoration. In fact God has already begun the work of restoration, what is about to happen is that God is about to invite creation to enter the workspace and be the completion of it. It is God who is doing this, the I AM, the Creator, the King who is the root of Jesse (so a Davidic sovereign, a filling of God’s promise to David himself). That’s what we’ve heard so far. What we have also heard so far is that this restoration is not Heaven, it is Eden; but better even than Heaven and Eden it is an Eden WITHOUT THE SERPENT. This is Eden and it will never be withdrawn from us, or we from it, because the King himself, a grandson of David and The LORD God will live amongst us in that Eden. Look at Isaiah 12:6 where it says great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. Where? In our midst! Who? The Holy One of Israel. Now that, that is a promise.

So, what does it all mean? What does it mean for us, Christians of The Wimmera and The Tatiara. Two things I think come to me immediately from the text.

  1. It’s Jesus we’re looking for. Jesus is the root of Jesse, the grandson of David.

  2. It’s God we’re looking for. In the Vulgate, which was an update of earlier Latin translations from koine Greek (the original language of the New Testament and the working language of the Old Testament in the form of the Septuagint) into decent Latin, Isaiah 12:2-3 read God is my saviour rather than my salvation. God was not just the one making the promise and giving the assurance, it was Godself doing the actual saving. Judaism didn’t teach that so explicitly, even in Jesus’ time, but early Christianity did. You’ll find that wording in the New King James Version for example where Isaiah 12:2 reads Behold, God is my saviour and Lord, I will trust in Him and be saved by Him. So it’s personal, not just that I am saved but that God personally did the saving.

  3. And point three is of course the Christian understanding that points one and two intersect, God who does the saving Godself does so through the work of Jesus, the root of Jesse. Isaiah wasn’t saying that, but The Vulgate did, and so am I.

I said two things, and then went to three dot points. But that was only one thing. The second thing, without dot points, is that Jesus has saved us for the new Eden, not for the old Heaven. Now I’m not redefining Christianity here, relax and don’t get upset: if you want to go to Heaven and you are fully confident that Jesus wants you there then you will be there, and you will see me there. (This I know, for the Bible tells me so.) But the point is that God intended creation to be here, where God could walk in the cool of the evening with God’s own friend Adam, and that Adam would be God’s friend and he would not be ashamed of who he was (or was not) in God’s presence. This is what Jesus brought to us through his death and resurrection, not only the golden city above the clouds, but the fullness of what the Earth was always supposed to be, and what it will be again, and more so what it will become in the form of what it should have become, the place of God’s personal dwelling among God’s beloved people. This is the Kingdom of God, not so much a place (although in the fullness of time there will be an Earth location) as the reality that God reigns today, God reigns here, and God’s presence is upon us and amongst us where we love and worship and serve God and each other.

This is the outset of Eternity, not yet as long and wide and high and full as it shall be when God’s presence comes down, but Eternity nonetheless. The reality of Eternity today is the news of Eternity tomorrow, and that is good news indeed. It is tidings of great joy, it is the meaning of Christmas. It is, in every degree, the gospel.

Amen.

Alert to our distress

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 3rd November 2019, the twenty first Sunday in Pentecost, in Year C.

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; Luke 19:1-10

Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? You know you’re probably not heading for a faerie-tale ending with that sort of beginning, don’t you? Habakkuk gets straight into it in Habakkuk 1:2 with that line, and it doesn’t get any better in Habakkuk 1:3-4. Once upon a time in a land ravaged by war and disaster a man was sad about the fact that that time is now, that land is here, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, just more tunnel. This is not the way Bible stories are supposed to go, and as far as Habakkuk is concerned it’s also not how God is supposed to act if God really is God at all.

Habakkuk is one of those books in scripture that deals with the theme of theodicy. I like the word theodicy, (you’se all know that I’m a word-nerd and a theology-nerd so that probably comes as no surprise, even as it is a bit of a random comment). Theodicy as a word means “dealing with how God can be good in a world which is so bad”. I like the word, but I’m not a fan of the experience. I lived for years, years ago in a distant land, where God the Good LORD was distant, seemed absent, and every day was a struggle. So I get Habakkuk’s attitude, and I get the many other stories of exile from Jewish history: I get the experience of the authors and editors of the Hebrew Bible who were writing in the middle of the situation and not at the end. To write about theodicy is not usually a purely academic task, it is always experiential; either you are going through a dark patch in life, or you have been through one (or many) and you’re reflecting on the whole damned journey, probably still leaking plasma and tears into your bandages. As I looked back at my journals from a decade and a half ago I found entries from both of those experiences: I didn’t need the commentaries to tell me much about Habakkuk’s experience because I had Damien’s own journals to tell me about mine. “Yeah God,” I want to say today, and pretty much what I did say in 2003 in the public library in Luton, “why do you make me…look at trouble,” which is also what Habakkuk says in Habakkuk 1:3.

The concern which Habakkuk actually has is outside himself, it’s not his turmoil which bothers him so much as the evil he sees in the world. How could a good God allow so much pain and suffering in the world, let alone that it’s the Chosen People suffering violence in the Promised Land. Is God good at all? Doesn’t God care, and if God does care then why hasn’t God done something yet? The people are not yet in exile, (we know with hindsight that that is coming for Israel and Judah but Habakkuk doesn’t know), so these verses are relevant to anyone who sees a bad world getting more badder and wonders what God is up to in allowing such a thing. This is where we get into Habakkuk 2:1 where we find the prophet, having asked the difficult questions, waiting with expectation of God’s answer. This is also a situation I have been in, and again my journals speak of it. “You don’t owe me an answer,” I wrote, “because you are God and you don’t owe anyone anything: but I trust you to tell me what’s going on because I want to remain faithful.” God spoke to me in my journaling, and God spoke to Habakkuk in his watching with expectation. God tells Habakkuk in Habakkuk 2:2 to write down what he hears, and to write it in plain sentences. He must write briefly so that the words can be carried by a courier (don’t write a book Habakkuk!), and write clearly so that the message can be read clearly and simply so that the hearers will understand. And then in Habakkuk 2:3-4 we get the first part of the message, which is to have faith and wait with patience, trust that God knows what God is doing and that God is acting for the best. Do not be arrogant, do not go ahead of God in your own wisdom, but wait and be confident that God’s answer and activity are coming in the fullness of God’s perfect timing.

The righteous live by their faith we read in Habakkuk 2:4c. This verse is quoted by Paul, and reinterpreted in much of his theology and teaching. You are saved by God, and God alone, and nothing you can do in your own strength can save you, or add to your salvation. You can’t become “more saved” by anything you do, or say, or believe; you can’t become “less saved” either. Grace saved you, and once you acknowledged your salvation God was able to make a way for you to live a blessed and abundant life through attention to God. This is what we find Jesus teaching in Luke 19:9, when he tells the crowd that salvation has come to this house because [Zacchaeus] too is a son of Abraham.

So, the question we can ask now is, when is Zacchaeus saved? We know he is saved because Jesus has just told us that. Perhaps the better question is how was Zacchaeus saved, because that also answers the when question.  Well here are a few options:

  1. Maybe Zacchaeus is saved when he decides to seek Jesus. So there’s a good Christian answer: salvation comes at the point when he decides to follow and try to see Jesus, which he puts into action by running ahead and climbing the tree. That happens in Luke 19:4.

  2. Maybe Zacchaeus is saved when he responds to Jesus’ invitation. So there’s another good Christian answer: salvation comes at the point when he obeys the call of Jesus, which the first fishermen did when they dropped their nets, or when Matthew Levi did when he walked away from his money-table, and which Zacchaeus does when he climbs down from the tree and takes Jesus home. That happens in Luke 19:6.

  3. Maybe Zacchaeus is saved when he decides to repent. So there’s a third excellent Christian answer, probably the best of them all: salvation comes at the point when having fellowshipped with The Saviour Zacchaeus decides to be generous with his overflow, and tho restore what he stole and defrauded from his neighbours. That happens in Luke 19:8.

So, let’s vote:

  1. who’s for Luke 19:4 and the seeking?

  2. who’s for Luke 19:6 and the responding?

  3. who’s for Luke 19:8 and the repenting?

Okay. Well if you voted at all then you’re wrong: Zacchaeus is saved in Luke 19:9, which refers to a time way before this whole story began. Zacchaeus was already saved because he is a son of Abraham; he was saved by grace and therefore was one of the righteous, but he was not living by faith because he had been excluded from the rest of the community. Maybe Zacchaeus had removed himself from the community, preferring to stay away from all the RWNJs, Leftards, and the goodie-goodies of all flavours because he wanted to make money and influence. Or maybe he wanted to belong but he had been excommunicated and further shunned by the self-righteous, (RWNJs, Leftards, and the goodie-goodies of all flavours), who couldn’t accept the presence of someone “ew, like that” in their fellowship. Jesus reminds everyone, including Zacchaeus, including the raised-eyebrow grumbly mob from Luke 19:7, including us who read Luke’s story this morning, that salvation is by grace alone. Salvation is the free gift of God for everyone whom God loves: no-one has the right to banish anyone from the fellowship of the beloved ones, least of all should you exclude yourself. Now that Zacchaeus knows that he is saved, and now that the people of Jericho know that Zacchaeus is saved, (and that he always was), look at what happens; Zacchaeus begins to live freshly by faith. His trust is in God, not in his possessions, and his identity is in who he is (a son of Abraham), and not in what he is (a tax collector, a shyster, a pawn of the Empire, a small man with the full syndrome) or what anyone other than his LORD thinks he is.

So if Zacchaeus was saved all along, simply because he was born into a Jewish woman’s family (he’s a son of Abraham) what does it mean in Luke 19:10 that Jesus came to seek and save the lost? I mean, was Zacchaeus lost? If no, because he’d been saved all along, (and saved is the opposite of lost), then why would Jesus make this point here? It seems a bit out of context. And if Zacchaeus was lost, even though he’d been saved all along, then what does “lost” really mean?

Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? says Habakkuk. How long must I live as a faithful man, a once-hopeful man, in this world of violent sin? How long will the Babylonians get away with murdering the sons of Abraham, spilling Israelite blood on Israelite soil? Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? says Jeff from Jericho. How long will these blasphemous Romans live in the land promised to the sons of Abraham, and how long will those born to Jewish mothers participate in the extortion of taxation, robbing their own starving people? Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? says Zacchaeus. How long must I be excluded from the synagogue in Jericho and the Temple in Jerusalem just because I’m an accountant by trade? Aren’t I one of the sons of Abraham too? “When will you come and save the lost”, we all cry aloud to God, bringing to The LORD our endless and wearying struggles with life, and finance, and isolation, and illness, and injustice, and malpractice, and helpless hopelessness.

I wonder, maybe we are the lost: “The Lost”, with a big-T and a big-L and talky marks to make the point. Maybe the answer to every question of theodicy and why does God allow blah-de-bloody-bad-stuff is that Jesus came to save us, and the world, from it: therefore Luke 19:10. But that still doesn’t fully answer why there’s bad in the world, but doesn’t it more than fully answer what God has/is/will be doing about it? Or maybe it does, maybe it does fully answer the questions of theodicy: God’s response remains as yet incomplete. There is still work to be done, God is not finished with us or the world and we are not finished.

I am not afraid of the questions theodicy asks. I am not afraid, (perhaps I should clarify and say “I am no longer afraid” because I did used to be), I am no longer afraid when I catch my soul asking God “why”. I am not afraid as a pastor, nor am I afraid as a Christian, when anyone else or their soul asks God “why”. I am not afraid because to ask God these questions is to acknowledge that God is indeed the one to ask. And, I am not afraid because God (who is indeed the one to ask) has an answer: and that answer is “I am already working on it, look at Jesus, look at the Church”. (Okay so maybe that last bit scares me a bit, that God’s answer to hatred and violence in the world is The Church, because The Church…well…hmm.)

Look at Psalm 119:143-144 where the Psalmist exults trouble and anguish have come upon me, but your commandments are my delight. Your decrees are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live. Awesome, that in the midst of trouble and anguish (so bad stuff occurring and the effect it has on me) I can take delight in the commands of God. What God commands, God orders – puts in order. God commands the sun to shine and the moon as well, and even though the sun actually burns and the moon actually reflects, the fact that there is light is enough for me: Scientists are allowed to be correct about the universe and God can still reign. God ordains (commands it to be so and causes it to happen) that blessing flows where there is oneness in mind, we are told in Psalm 133:3. Psalm 119 is actually about Torah, so the “commandments” are literally the big ten, and the 613, in this poem; but they’re not only that. What I read is that when trouble comes we can be confident that God does have it “under command”, and that God’s “decrees” have substance forever, so what we need in such a time is understanding (help me to grasp this LORD) and faith. The righteous live by their faith we read in Habakkuk 2:4c, in other words those in close relationship with God go about their day to day (and your day today) with trust and confidence that God’s got it. Our prayer, as “The Lost”, is that God will continue to be God even when we don’t understand the what and why and where and who and how and when of what is going on, and that by the grace by which we were/are/shall be saved that God would trust us with the message of hope which was entrusted to the prophets years ago.

I know that I am saved. I know that God has “them” safer than they know. I know that “they” don’t know that. So today, may we all join with Jesus to seek and to assure of their gracious salvation, the others who are also lost.

Amen.

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

Rise in Power (Pentecost 5C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 14th July 2019, the fifth Sunday in Pentecost in Year C.

Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14

The Word for this week has been a delight to peruse.  That sounds happy doesn’t it?  It’s a bit odd really though, because as you know I tend to write my services about three weeks or so ahead, and so even though I’d standing here in front of you today happy and hearty, if not a little dusty after a week at Family Camp with the Servi Church mob, when I actually wrote this I’d just spent a week feel less happy and hearty, and a lot more dusty fighting off my second bout of Man Flu for 2019.  I had missed an important church meeting in Ararat because I’d been a) too sick to want to get up at stupid o’clock and minus stupid degrees Celsius to drive there, b) too sick to be out in public where I might contagion all over other people and make them sick, and c) too sick to pay much attention to what was being said anyway.  I was even too sick to get a Flu jab.  So when I finally sat down on my first day out of bed before ten o’clock, “delighting in the text” wasn’t on the agenda so much as “get something down because you’re going to be at Camp and you’ll not have time to write then”.  It was also KSSM council that evening so not only did I have to get something written that day, I didn’t have all day to do it.  Praise God for great Bible passages and inspiring messages from the Word in all God’s forms.

In our reading from the Hebrew traditions we come across the prophet Amos.  Now when I say prophet that’s more about hindsight than highlight, because Amos was nobody special in his day, and even in the action of what we read this morning he’s still a bit of a nobody.  Anyway, in the course of his being a nobody Amos sees and hears God in the act of testing Israel: God is doing a prophetic thing wherein Israel is being compared to a well-built wall and God is checking the angles and edges with a plumb-line. Bad news for Israel, and for Amos who oversees the examination, God finds that the wall (and hence the nation) is askew and God declares that it shall all be knocked down.  The nation of Israel shall be utterly destroyed, its king shall be slain, and its people shall be exiled.  Israel is broken beyond repair, it cannot be repaired, it never will be repaired, and so God is going to knock it all over and start again.  Cheers for listening Amos, says God, now go and tell the Israelites.  Bad news for Amos eh?  Well yes it is, especially since the religious elites and the professional clergy don’t like all this defeatist language and they tell Amos to take his words of judgement and go pronounce them against some other nation; Judah for example.  He is to clear out of Bethel because Beit-El, literally the House of God is the royal worship space and the religious elites and the professional clergy don’t want the king to be upset.  Amos’ response is that even as a religious nobody God has called him to speak truth, mainly because the religious elites and the professional clergy don‘t listen for God, they refuse to hear and therefore they cannot speak God’s message, and that because of this the whole nation will fall.  So to put all of that into one dot point, God will speak to God’s own people, but if the professional listeners won’t listen then God will tell someone humble enough to listen yet bold enough to speak.  For me as a leader, even a leader with clogged ears and a blogged doze, I need to notice when I am no longer hearing God speak because it might mean God has stopped trying to get though my facade of priestliness and is speaking to one of you, or even one of them, instead.  Good to remember.

Inspiring eh?  Well it was for me in my week of weakness because it reminded me that God has not stopped speaking to the Church, even if God needs to speak through someone lower down the pyramid.

The Psalm we read this morning is a demand for justice, but it needs to be read carefully.  The first time I read it I missed it, I missed who it was who is actually doing the talking, I didn’t see the 66’s and 99’s where they are and I thought this was another one of those “how long must we wait O Lord” prayers.  You know the ones, c’mon Lord the wicked are getting richer, the faithful are getting poorer, and it’s your job to intervene.  Good stuff, worth praying, is usually relevant.  But not always, and not this time, no this time it’s Godself doing the “how long must I wait O people”, declaring that it’s about time the people of God started to punish sin and wickedness and to vindicate and liberate the innocent and the good of all classes and nations.  This passage is a covenant lawsuit, it’s a contractual claim by God as one party upon the elders and rulers of the Abrahamic tribes as the other party to hold up Israel’s side of the covenant.  “You know better, so why are you allowing this gut-rotting oppression and suppression by the wicked of the faithful to set in?” asks God.  Israel is supposed to be God’s example of a true nation, they’re meant to be just and peaceable and to display the nature and character of God in the world, but God has found them to be corrupt and violent, exploitative and cruel, and certainly no better than the other nations even if they aren’t actually worse.  God has set us apart to set an example for the world, the plumb-line was set against the Church at its inception so as to be a straight and true representation of God in the world and each of us agents of the Kingdom.  What has God seen of Christians in recent times?  Is the Church light and salt?  If not, why not, and what are we going to do about it?  And what would happen if we didn’t?  The connection between Amos 7 and Psalm 82 is the plumbline, not the outcome; I know that many within the wider Uniting Church in particular disagree with me on this, but I don’t think God is about to destroy us and exile us.  However I do think we have got wonky and shifty, and I believe we need God to call us back to order, to attention, to straightness and steadfastness, and we need to listen to those down in the ranks who are declaring the words of God because those at the top echelon are not listening.

Inspiring eh?  Well again yes, God is still speaking to the Church and God is calling us to account for our discipleship.  Our issue is not that we are failing to meet together or that we are not doing enough Bible Study, singing, tithing, or even evangelism, but that we are living in a dark and cold and cruel world and at the very least we are doing little to remedy it and at the very worst we look dark and cruel and cold ourselves.  God’s word to us is simple: love and be more loving in the way you go about it.  That’s a command I’m busting to follow.

Our story from the Christian tradition is the culmination of this push toward faithfulness as evidenced in the brightness of the light we shine.  In the opening thoughts of his letter Paul is thankful to God for the people of Colossae and especially the loving-kindness of the Colossian church (Colossians 1:4).  He speaks to them about their reputation particularly because he has never met them: Paul never went to Colossae, so he’s using his reputation as an apostle to presume to write to them, and he comments in opening on their reputation as a bit of an ice-breaker.  “Okay mob”, he says, “so we’ve never met each other, but we each know about the other and here’s what I know about you, your reputation is a good one and especially so in the areas of hospitality and hope.  I don’t know your actual names and I’ve never been to your town, let alone your church, but I do know this one fact about you, I know that not only have you heard the gospel you are now living it out.  Onya!  The gospel that is flowering all across Asia and Macedonia is flowering also in you: praise be to God and thanks be to Epaphras who told you about Jesus.  You listened, you learned, and now you are living and leading in life.  Onya!  And may the odds be ever in your favour, because trouble will come.”

The key characteristic of the Colossians seems to be their hope, that’s what Paul knuckles down on in his praise of them.  Not only do they love each other and not only are they diligent in the discipleship tasks of prayer and fellowship, they are keenly so as people with everlasting, abundant hope.  The Colossians seem to be to be John 10:10 people, people who are living abundantly because they know that they are loved by God, a God who will never abandon them and who is directing their present toward a glorious future.  This seems especially so, says Paul in Colossians 1:13-14, in the case of sins which might otherwise hold us back in life.  The Colossians alongside all Christians are forgiven people, freed to pursue God and the fullness of life in God because of Christ and their trust in Christ’s word and work.

So what are we to do?  How much of this are we to take to heart here, today, in Kaniva and Serviceton?  I think the answer is all of it, we are to take all of it to heart and we are to overlook none of it.  As I say I don’t think Amos’ prophecy to Israel applies to us directly, God is not about to exile us and slay our kings, but the prophetic symbol of the plumbline and the prophetic declaration of the wall being skewed is noteworthy.  We are not as tall or as square as we should be; the Church is off kilter and it has been for generations.  For all of the vitriol we see in the media, secular and religious, for all that generates vast amounts of heat and chafing but very little light, there are truths in the rumours.  The Church has let down families, let down children, let down Christians, let down the world, let down itself, let down God.  Not every priest in all of Christendom is a paedophile, much as it seems that Twitface seems to suggest it at times, but the gut-ripping truth is that many priests were and some still are.  Sinners are damned without Christ, no matter the nature of their sin, but all are received with grace and such an indescribable bounty of love if all they do is lift their eyes in longing to the one who saves through the cross; but Twitface only reads the first three words (sinners are damned) and the cross is pilloried.  Is this Twitface’s fault?  In the sense of its users, yes, there is a lot of intolerance in the world and the secularists are just as militant as the inquisitors and the crusaders were back in Christian past: but with the stories of the Inquisition and the Crusades, and without the story of the cross and the empty tomb, what do we expect?  Honestly and really, I’m not the black armband type and I don’t believe that the Church has brought upon itself everything it is reaping right now, but when even God holds a plumbline against us and we are found divergent, crooked, bent, and…you get the point…what hope does our light have?

Our only hope is that our light, like the light of Amos and the Colossians, is the light of God.  Shine brightly people of God, do not allow yourself to be extinguished because God demands our luminescence: but God is also our own love and hope, and so long as we shine with Christ then Christ will shine for us.

Amen.

Paul in Thessalonica

This is the text of the message I prepared for Servi Church (KSSM) for Sunday 7th July 2019.  It was the day before our church “Family Camp” during which the Bible Study sessions would be on 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

Acts 17:1-15

This week coming is a bit of a first for me; in fact it’s a lot of a first.  I have not been on a family camp with the local church for close to forty years, and so that means that I have never been as an adult.  When I was a child my family worshipped with the Wheelers Hill Uniting Church as part of the Mulgrave Parish, we’d been the local Presbyterians since the 1880s and they (Mulgrave) had been the local Methodists.  In 1977, with Church Union, we joined up formally having been informal friends and ecumenical neighbours before that.  Our annual family camp took place over Cup Weekend, back when Monday was not a public holiday but no one went to work in Melbourne anyway, and we’d be away from Friday night until Tuesday lunchtime.  I remember a time of fun and I remember that there was always water: we usually (but not always) went to Wilson’s Promontory and stayed in on-site vans, back when they really were vans and not purpose-built cabins.  I remember a lot of colour too, and I distinctly remember one year when we were not at “The Prom” when we were visited by Rosellas.  Many of the memories and some of the photos I have of that time involve body paint, I made a very cute little pirate with my primary colours eye-patch and moustache.  But, as I say, that’s back in the seventies, or maybe the early eighties, but certainly no later than 1984.

This week to come, and Family Camp at Halls Gap, will I hope bring back happy memories for me.  I also hope it will create new happy moments which will become happy memories for me in the fullness of time.  I hope and indeed pray the same for all of you, especially the littlest people.  But what will mean the most for me in my memories is that this will be the first time I am the pastor, and the first time that I’ll be leading an intensive Bible Study.  Not that the Bible Study will be intense, there’s no high pressure stakes here, but there will be a series of sessions rather than it being a one-off chapel event on the Sunday (which is today) and then it’s kayaks and badge-making after quiet time.  I’m excited by what God has drawn my attention to, and by what we’ll be learning about God-in-Christ and Christ-in-Church as we spend some time in and with The Word.

Our main texts will be Paul’s two letters to the Church in Thessalonica.  This is interesting because 1 Thessalonians is almost certainly Paul’s first letter, (or at the very least the earliest extant letter of his).  Historically we can date it to 51 CE when Paul was living in Corinth, a year or so after his visit to Thessalonica.  If we follow the tradition (and many scholars these days do not), 2 Thessalonians was written within six months of the first letter, and so is Paul’s second (or maybe third, depending when he wrote to Galatia) letter.  Two things can be said straight away about this history:

  1. Paul is doing something new: he’s writing a letter where he has never written to a Church before. Paul is beginning a new form of ministry; with hindsight we know that this will become a major aspect of his legacy.
  2. Paul engages in correspondence: not only does he write to Thessalonica he writes back. We can assume that there was a letter, or a least an oral message, between the two letters of Paul because we see how the second letter expands on some of the points of the first.  It seems as though the Thessalonians had a few specific questions, and Paul addresses them.

The Thessalonian letters are personal letters of encouragement, written during a period where Paul is seeking to establish a communal work of God amidst cultural opposition.  There’s no finer point to be made here: Paul is inventing the first form of congregational Christianity outside the Jewish homeland, and he’s doing it on the hop.  Paul uses a lot of family language wherein he addresses the Thessalonians as siblings; the Christians are his brothers and sisters, the adult children of God the Father, who are becoming a new kind of family that engages in mutual support including responsibility for material care.  There was sharing but not like in Acts 2:44 with complete equality of possessions administered by a central body of apostles: in Thessalonica there was to be shared care from each person’s conscience and capacity such that in 2 Thessalonians there is teaching about what to do with bludgers and spongers.  It seems that Acts 2:44 didn’t work everywhere, and even 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 had been misconstrued and some correction was needed: the Christian Church is inventing itself and making notes about what works or doesn’t as it goes along the way.

So, in these first letters we see Paul trying out some new ideas as he puts them into writing; he plays around with words and phrases that he will develop as his preaching and correspondence ministries continue.  Paul is not writing systematic theology here, these are letters and not a text book, so the ideas do jump around a bit.  But isn’t that just more exciting?  Well I think it is, but then I’m a preaching nerd so I like this sort of thing anyway.  I mean, look at how we get to earwig in on Paul as he follows his trains of thoughts to their various stations, even jumping between trains every now and then.  He’s writing with passion, with fervour for the truth and a love for his friends at Thessalonica, and that’s a good thing.

There are a few key themes in the letters to the Thessalonians, and we’ll meet some of those at camp, but one that I want to highlight now is how Paul directs these new Christians to seek God-esteem rather than self-esteem as they struggle against opposition, persecution, and inexperience.  As we read in Acts 17:1-9 Paul had had a difficult time in Thessalonica and he may have been there for less than a month.  Paul had had to leave in a hurry, (and he never returned), so Paul is concerned for those new believers he left behind and for the work that he began but was not able to support long enough to see safely into self-replicating growth.  His prayer and desperation is that God will make up for the absence of the apostles, that the new believers will look to Godself for wisdom and insight rather than struggling to make philosophical ends meet from their own wisdom, small as it is.

Along this line, of this whole thing being new and a bit slapdash, notice in Acts 17:4 where not only were some of the Jews in the synagogue convinced by the gospel as Paul proclaimed it, but so too were many of the Gentiles (probably local Greek believers in Judaism rather than random pagans) and some of the leading women.  This new church is diverse from the outset, and perhaps as was the case in Philippi where Paul and Silas had met Lydia of Thyatira there was a distinctly European (Macedonian) model of church forming, distinct from the Judean and Asian models.  This is all new as even the models of Antioch and Jerusalem wouldn’t have fitted.

From the perspective of my history the Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry is very unique.  As a student of ministry and theology with the Uniting Church I had not been trained for work in a shared or combined cross-denominational ministry setting, despite at least one of my lecturers having served as minister at Keith One Church.  (And even Keith One Church is one church, not two in partnership.)  Of course this arrangement is not new for you, and this is especially true in Serviceton, but what might have been missed is that external models do not work well here: Servi Church is more unique than other churches.  (By the way “more unique” and “very unique” are totally fine as usages, neither is grammatical but both are linguistically significant.)  Why do I say this?  Well because you (and Kaniva) are doing something that no one else has done, at least not in the same way: and that is what Paul was doing alongside-yet-away-from the Thessalonians.  This is why I chose Thessalonians as our Biblical text for Camp.

So, the theme of the Bible studies at Family Camp is “building a church in changing times”.  The question is how or even if times are changing at Serviceton, and how or if our circumstances are difficult.  Where is there upheaval in our town; what are we doing about it now, and what are we prepared to do differently to proclaim the Kingship of Christ in the Wimmera and the Tatiara?  (Do we need to do anything differently?)  One of Paul’s key answers to this question, and there are several answers, is primarily found in 2 Thessalonians 2 and it is to “get on with today”.  The narrative of Acts 16-18 reports that Paul was thrown out of three major Macedonian cities: and he’d even been beaten and gaoled in Philippi.  Paul arrived in Thessalonica having been forced out of Philippi (Acts 16:39 and 1 Thessalonians 2:2) and he had had to flee from Thessalonica.  Paul’s confidence to continue preaching came from God and the assurance that he was doing God’s work (Acts 16:10 and 1 Thessalonians 2:4), but that must have been hard.  Imagine that you have seen “a man of Macedonia” in a vision like Paul had done, and imagine if Holy Spirit had three times closed the door on Asia and Bithynia so that you would go straight to Macedonia, don’t pass go, don’t collect two hundred denarii.  And then you get beaten up and gaoled, and then threatened with more of the same if you don’t sling your hook from the town you went for refuge, and the town after that.  I’d be asking God some serious questions about the whole endeavour, and I’m sure that Paul did, but Paul heard God and he took God at God’s word, and so Paul went on into Achaia and Athens and Corinth.  This is the same assurance Paul wants to give and to hear back from Thessalonica as they face trials of their own: Paul is like a father who wants to see his adult children doing well in their own maturity just as God the Father had desired the same from Paul.

I want to end with the words Paul began with, so look with me at 1 Thessalonians 1:1b and 2 Thessalonians 1:1b where Paul writes to the assembly of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Shalom! I like that, because it speaks of people gathering together rather than of an institution.  It is the people who matter, perhaps that’s why Paul used the phrase “brothers and sisters” so often in these letters.  And so as we gather in the coming week, in more relaxed circumstances and with plenty of free time to share, let’s be mindful that we are “ecclesia”: not just “church” but gathering, “assembly”, “mob”, and also in Christ, “family”.  Together we are about to do something new and exciting, something which might just change the world.

Amen.

Wait (Easter 6C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 26th May 2019.

Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67:2; John 14:23-29

In our story from the Christian Traditions this morning we read how Paul heard God speak in the visionary voice of a man of Macedonia, leading Paul to change his direction and go there instead of elsewhere to proclaim the gospel.  Paul headed straight for the capital city, Philippi, by as direct a route as he could find:  Samothrace is a mountainous island and so a bit of a navigational landmark, and Neapolis is the coastal part and maybe the port town for Philippi.  So it looks like he’s in a hurry (and wouldn’t you be if God had called you with such a demonstration) and he has no interest in side-tracks or delays.  And once Paul and his crew get to Philippi they do nothing until Shabbat when they leave town and find a quiet place to pray, probably to ask something like “righto God, we’re, now what?”

So, Paul is not necessarily shunning the synagogue, there probably isn’t one in Philippi so he goes where the Jews go, which is beside the river, and it is there that the crew meets Lydia of Thyatira.  So, who is Lydia?  Well, she is Greek, (her name tells us that), and she’s from Thyatira in the district of Lydia which is later named as host town for one of the seven churches of Revelation.  We know therefore that Lydia is neither Jewish nor Judean, but we are told that she honours God as revealed within Judaism, and one of the Greek words used to describe her is used elsewhere in Acts to describe people who are “devout”, so we can join the dots there, maybe.  Anyway, Lydia receives the missionary’s baptism and she invites Paul’s group into her home.

This is a sort of Paul-version of the conversion of Cornelius under Peter’s  tutelage from Acts 10 which we foreshadowed a few weeks ago when we heard about Tabitha of Joppa.  Where Cornelius was on active duty at Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea and where Pilate and his mates lived most of the time: Philippi is also a military town but is a veterans’ colony, so a soldier settler place.  Lydia is a trader who sells upmarket clothing, probably just the thing for Mrs Centurion in her husband’s retirement, so she’s a great social contact for Paul in Philippi.  But, but, even more important than her entre to “farshion” and society, the fact that Paul does take up her offer of hospitality demonstrates that he accepts her as a sister-in-Christ.  She’s a Christian, and many would say she’s the first European convert.

So that’s all pretty good then.  Lydia accepts Christ, Paul accepts Lydia, and the gospel and its missionaries have an opened door to European soil via a respectable city of good, middle class retirees with disposable income.  But none of that would have been the situation if Paul had hushed the Spirit and pushed into Roman Asia or Bithynia.  So I wonder, has God ever closed a door on you like that?  Has God closed several in a row like that?   Twice the Spirit resisted Paul’s attempts to change state, until God spoke to Paul in this vision and gave him the direction God wanted Paul to go.  Sometimes we hear no (and need to hear no) before we hear yes/go.  So, do you know how to “Praise God in the Hallway” as some would have it; can you walk forward until God opens an eventual door?  How far, or for how long, can you walk that dark corridor of locked doors until you tell God you’ve had enough and you decide to kick one in just to reach the sunlight?

The compositor suggests in Psalm 67:2 that one of the observable signs of God’s blessing is when God’s way is made known; in other words you know God loves you when God actively directs you.  This is good to remember, especially when all God seems to be saying to you is “no, not there,” or “no, not yet,” and it’s never “yes” or “here”.  Sometimes, from experience, I wonder what is worse; is it when God is always saying “no”, or is it when God isn’t saying anything at all?  Experience, again, prefers silence, because at least when God is silent you can sit down in good conscience and wait for instruction.  When God is saying “no” and you’re not even allowed to sit down, so you’re bobbing up and down like a child anticipating the paused soundtrack in a game musical chairs you look and feel like an idiot.  As a preacher I’m supposed to tell you that the clear voice of God is always preferable to the complete silence of God, as a Christian of some life experience I will tell you that that is not true.  But yes, the psalmist is right, if God is talking to you and showing an interest in your way then you know that God is interested in you for you, and that is good: it worked out well for Paul, and for Lydia because Paul was faithful.  It has and always did work out well for me too, but theological hindsight can be a bit arrogant too; waiting is hard, but it’s worth it.

In today’s story from the Jesus Traditions, drawn from John 14:23-29 and Jesus’ last meal with his mates we get to earwig in on Jesus saying much the same thing.  If you love me, he says, then you’ll do what I ask: not because I’m a diva but because I’m speaking the words The Father has given me, and God’s words are good stuff.  This is how Jesus reveals God to the Church and not to the world at large, so to this degree the message is hidden.  Jesus is speaking in this situation to his mates, the twelve around the table, and through the gospel as a book to the Church, the ones who love Jesus and only to them.  The world will not do as Jesus commands, they don’t love him and they don’t know him; so why should we expect them to obey someone they don’t know or love?  Who is God to tell them what to do, God is a stranger to them.  But God is not a stranger to us, just as God was not a stranger to Paul, or Lydia for that matter, and just as Jesus was not a stranger to any of the twelve.  Jesus is lord to us and friend, and how does Jesus know this, well just as the psalmist said, because we listen to the One who speaks to us and we do what God tell us.  And when we do that, and don’t do what God tells us not to do (or do what God has not told us to do), when we do what God tells us to do then God acts through our doing and great stuff, God stuff, gets done.

Well that sounds good doesn’t it?  Do what God tells you to do, because if you know you’re being directed by someone whose love for you is wider than the cross, then you are confident that won’t be told to do something dangerous or stupid.  And God will work in your doing, and great things happen like the coming of the gospel to the continent of Europe: glory to God, kudos to Paul.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be part of what God is doing in the world; does anyone here not want to be involved when God starts doing stuff in Kaniva and Serviceton?  When I’m calling for volunteers on God’s behalf is there anyone who’d rather keep his or her hand down?  Yeah, didn’t think so, so we’re all agreed: God, come and tell us what to do.

And what if God did, and God said…“wait, just sit.”

And what if God did, and God said…“not now.”

And what if God did, and God said…“not there.”

And what if God did, and God said…“no, not there either…or there.”

Last week we spoke a bit about places where it can be hard to be a Christian, but where the hardest of Christians live as a response.  Not the sooky flabby Christians of Australia, people like you and me who need to HTFU, harden the faith up; but proper Christians who deal with persecution and violence and may face a choice between Christ and murder, or denial and release.  Inspiring stuff, and I pray that you are continuing and contending in prayer.  It’s still Ramadan until sundown on 2nd June, and it will still be the twenty-first century in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East well after that.  That kind of horror does hold some fantasy about it, that God might call you not to Macedonia but to The Maldives, or Medina, or…someplace in North Korea that starts with “M”.  Martyrdom and heroism, what a calling!  But to be honest, all of us in this room will probably be called to stay if not in this room then at least in this district, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are absent.  And God will call you “not there, not yet, not now,” blah de blah.  What do we do with that?

Well, we do what Jesus commands via John 14:26, we wait for the Advocate and we lean on God.  Just because the instruction to go is not coming yet does not mean that Godself is absent: Holy Spirit is here, now just as much as Holy Spirit will be with us there, later.  You don’t have to wait for God without God, wait for God with God.  An interesting piece of Christian language is that we “wait on God”.  “On.” Think about that for a sec.  Do we wait on God as if God is a chair or a mat, or a playful Daddy lying on the floor with his toddler sitting on his chest?  Do we wait “on” God?  Meh, why not, that can work, can’t it?  Or do we wait on God as if God is a patron and we are wait staff, waitresses and waiters, maybe Baristas if we’re hip enough.  While God is sitting and waiting, and causing us to not go there and not go now, maybe we can serve God where we are.  Okay God is not in a cafe, but have some imagination in your prayer and worship, what would it look like in real life to “waiter on God”.

In two weeks’ time we will have reached the end of the Christian season of Easter, and the Feast of Pentecost will be upon us.  I’ll be in red, you’re welcomed to join in, and we’ll talk about fire and wind and power and spirit and language and it will be awesome.  But do we have to wait another fortnight for awesome?  Do we have to wait only another fortnight for awesome?  What if we wait a fortnight and the only awesome thing is my red shirt, and it’s an otherwise “Sunday in West Wimmera”.  These are not rhetorical questions, I do want you to answer them, but not now and not here.

Two weeks after Pentecost we enter the Christian season of Creationtide, and I’ll be in green until the Sunday before Lent.  That period in Christian thinking is about growth and newness, so yes there is some waiting involved but as all of you who are farmers know, or know someone who is a farmer know, if you just wait for growth and do nothing then nothing will grow.  I have asked the Shared Ministry council, so the Uniting Church elders and councillors and the Church of Christ deacons together, to ask God what God is saying to Kaniva and Serviceton, and what God is saying to the Shared Ministry church.  I invite you to join them, join us really because I’m on that council too.  Ask God, what do you want from us, and what do you want for us?  What do you want for our towns, Lord?

Maybe there’s another Paul somewhere who tonight will see a vision of a “Man of Wimmera” begging him to come.  Maybe there’s a man or woman in Wimmera who tonight will see a vision of a “Man from ‘someplace in North Korea starting with M’”, or “Melbourne”, or “Merretts South Road”.

Let’s be ready, whether we are Paul or Lydia in the coming story, let’s be ready.

Amen.

Mighty to Save 2 (Easter 4C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for proclamation on Sunday 12th May 2019.

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; John 10:22-30

In today’s story from the Jesus traditions the writer makes the point that these events take place in winter.  But it’s not about it being cold, it’s about the setting of the event during the Festival of Dedication.  Hanukkah goes for eight days, usually in December (depending how the Jewish and Roman calendars line up), and it recalls the rededication of the temple by the Maccabeans after their revolt against Syria in 167-160 BCE.  The centre of the celebration, other than the routing of the invaders and the rededication of God’s temple to God, is that it was followed by a century of Jewish independence which flowered between 160 BCE and 63 BCE.  In 63 BCE the Romans had arrived, and by the time we take up the story of Jesus in Solomon’s Portico they had been present in Judea for nearly one hundred years. That’s why it’s important to know that it is winter.  “Winter is coming” we might say; there is a “game of thrones” afoot.  So, is Jesus about to do a Judas Maccabeus and throw off the foreign oppressors; is he the Messiah or not?  That’s the actual question the Judeans are asking him in John 10:24; “Jesus if you are ‘Messiah’ then where is the army coming from and when is the uprising?”  And what does Jesus respond?  He says (and you can read it for yourself in John 10:25) I have told you and you do not believe.  So what does that mean in the context of this story?  Well it means two things actually: a) yes I am ‘Messiah’, and b) I keep saying that the Messianic plan is not about an army but you’re not listening.  Let’s keep reading from John 10:25, the works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.  Jesus ends his response with the claim that he and The Father are “one”.  If we were to read on we would find that the Judeans are ready to stone Jesus, right there in the temple according to John 10:31, because of this claim.

This story is the only place in John’s gospel where Jesus is directly asked to name himself as “Messiah”, in other places he’s asked if he’s “one whom we might expect” or words to that effect.  And Jesus does not say “I am the Messiah” in language as plain as that, but rather than what Jesus does not say let’s look again at what he does say.  He says I have told you, so the question has already been answered, and he says the works I do in my Father’s name testify to me…The Father and I are one, which he offers as interpretation and evidence of that answer.  Jesus is not saying that he is God, but as I’ve said just now that is what the Judeans hear him say and they are ready to kill him: no, what Jesus is saying is that his work, the things he has been doing, are indistinguishable from the work of The Father.  Jesus is not The Father, they are not the same person, but these two individual identities have one agenda and one mindset; they are completely united.  For me, when Jesus speaks like this at Hanukkah and a Hanukkah when there are centurions in Jerusalem, he’s probably baiting the Judeans even more with what he really is saying.  Claiming to be God is blasphemy, fair point: but claiming to be the 100% embodiment of the agenda of God in the world, and then living that out by non-violent anonymous activities of prayerfully casting out illness, death, and demonic spirits, and specifically not casting out the Romans…well that needs shutting right down right now!

I wonder, what has Jesus told us about God’s agenda?  How has Jesus demonstrated God’s agenda, God’s heart to us in West Wimmera and Tatiara?  What do we want to shut Jesus up about before the message gets too far: what is he telling us to do instead of engaging in the fight we’ve been brewing for a hundred years?  Who, or what are we not supposed to overthrow?  Who are we supposed to not kill and kick out but deliberately welcome and serve because we are Church?

When Peter is invited to Joppa, and to the death-bed of Tabitha, we are given an insight into Jesus’ preferred options of discipleship.  In Acts 9:36 Tabitha is specifically called a disciple, (the Greek word specifies that she is a disciple and that she’s female), and her discipleship is proven by her reputation for good works and acts of charity.  Later, in Acts 9:39 personal testimony is added to reputation as all the widows wept and showed clothes that Tabitha had made.  Tabitha had served the poor and the marginalised, with practical help, and not one had been overlooked: all the widows had been made tunics.  It is likely that Tabitha was herself a widow, perhaps living in a communal house of widows, so she’s not just some charitable socialite giving her Cup Day hats to the Op Shop, Tabitha is herself poor and marginalised but that doesn’t stop her from showing love for others.  This is a woman in Christ’s image, truly a disciple as much as Peter himself.

But let’s not overlook Peter himself, look at his discipleship here.  He goes with the two men, who come to him at Lydda and bring him to Joppa, and he enters the house of weeping women.  That the widows are showing him their tunics and other stuff suggests to me that Peter took the time to be with them in their grief, he didn’t rush through the sook-fest of sobbing biddies and he didn’t think to see the room as that at all.  No, Peter deliberately stopped, and he comforted these distraught sisters, and he understood their loss.  Then he sends them all out of the room, and he goes across to Tabitha, and he greets her by her name. This is important because she’s been referred to as “Dorcas” in the story, which is not her name but a Greek language nickname.  So, calling her by her name he says “Tabitha, get up”, so a bit like when Jesus said talitha arise in Mark 5:41, and then he helps her up and he showed her to be alive to the widows whom he has invited back into the room.  See how much he has the heart of Jesus: not only the agenda of The Father outworked in healing the sick and raising the dead, but Peter basically follows Jesus’ dot points from Jairus’ house.  And having done as Jesus did Peter then stays in Joppa, he doesn’t return to Lydda, and more that that he stays at the house of Simon the Tanner we are told in Acts 9:43.  Simon works with leather and with chemicals to turn flesh into leather: so he’s handling dead animals, and he’s using ammonia drawn from urine to tan the leathers.  I wonder, how fragrant was Simon’s house?  How popular was it as a social hub do you think, a place of flesh, piss and vinegar?  Not only was Simon considered unclean by his profession, his house would have stunk: so why did Peter stay there?  We aren’t told, but I can guess.  Why, why do you think Peter stayed with Simon Tanner? Because he was invited?  Maybe having done the Jesus-and-Jairus episode Peter goes on to the Jesus-and-Zacchaeus thing.  No Pharisaic or Puritanic piety for old mate Pete, (who grew up stinking of fish anyway, let’s be fair), no Peter takes Jesus at his word and example to stay where he is invited and to leave only when the work is done.  Peter had more to do in Joppa, have a look at Acts 10 and see what God did next.  This is a man in Christ’s image, truly a disciple as much as Tabitha herself.

And so we get to my favourite thing about writing and preaching a sermon; no, not the end (bad luck, sucks to be you, I’ve still got a page and a half to go), no, we are at the bit where we look at a very familiar reading in a new way because of the other readings attached to it by the Lectionary.  So, with Jesus at Hanukkah in mind; and Tabitha and Peter and Simon Tanner in mind; what is God saying to us from “The Twenty Third Psalm”.

Discipleship of Jesus living out the agenda of God in quietly miraculous ways of healing, blessing, kindness, restorative action, justice, and with an example lived out through Peter and Tabitha; discipleship that is not about overthrowing the Romans, looks like Psalm 23.  How?  How?  How about confidence that there is no need to struggle for liberty when God meets all your wants with rest and lush pasture, still water, right guidance and restorative rest as we read in Psalm 23:1-3.  There’s nothing militaristic about that; but it’s not weak.  Psalm 23:4-5 speaks of confidence in the dark places, maybe even battle where into the valley of death rode the six hundred; confidence that there will be an “after battle” when there will be a meal and a good soak and a glass of red.  Good things will pursue you, God will come at you with mercy and healing and the offer of hospitality and a place to live forever in God’s house, we are encouraged to believe in Psalm 23:6, if only we live with trust.  This is not about Heaven for disciples, although there is that, it is about a life of calm trust that God is your provision and that if you are a disciple, a student, a follower, a pilgrim in the master’s mob, then you’ll be right.

Look, it won’t always be nice.  Just today we have been told how Jesus was very close to getting himself pelted to death with rocks, Peter slept in a house that smelled like the public toilet at an abattoir, Tabitha died from illness, and the widows were bereft and bereaved by her loss.  These are not nice adventures, and they were not one-off events either.  Jesus was threatened with death more than once, and he was brutally murdered in a way where stoning would have been a mercy.  Peter grew up stinking of fish, he too died by crucifixion, and he was left bereft and bereaved by Jesus’ death.  Tabitha was raised to life, but the fact that she was a widow suggests that she was married to a man who died at some point and then stayed dead.  And the would-be Maccabeans did kick up in 70CE, and Joppa would not have been any more fun a place to live as a houseful of widows than Jerusalem when the Romans out of Caesarea fought back.  For anyone living in such times, stuck and feeling abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death, the table set before enemies would have seemed like an impossible dream.  But the hope of the gospel says that it is not so, and that there is a resurrection, and there is a pursuing Christ with healing and happiness in his hands.

There is no need to fight.  Trust, acknowledge, rest.

Amen.