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

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

Psalm 116

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Born is the King

This is the text of my message for Christmas Day 2019.  KSSM (Kaniva Uniting Church) hosted the eccumenical Christmas Day service in Kaniva.

Luke 2:1-14; Titus 3:4-7

Jesus is a truly puzzling figure in history, there really is nothing straightforward about him. The stories we tell about Jesus can be pretty simple, how he was born in a manger and died on a cross, how he fed 5000 men plus their wives and kids from a single lunch-pack, how he taught the rich to look after the poor and how he taught the poor to trust God. Not everyone is convinced that the stories are true, but the way the stories are told is pretty straightforward, it’s plain storytelling. But the puzzle comes in how believable the stories are, and what their deeper meaning is. I mean, how can a baby born in a food-trough be God? How can any baby born anywhere be God? Simple tales told simply, but baffling meanings.

The story of Jesus’ birth is pretty well know, even if you aren’t religious. In fact you can be religious in another religion, but if you live in Australia you’ve probably heard about the manger and the three kings and the shepherds and the little drummer boy and the angels from the realms of glory. The story as it is actually told by the Bible is a little bit different, mainly because there are three versions of Christmas in the Bible but Australia like the rest of the world tells only one, which is a sort of mish-mash of the three to form a complete story. In our story this morning, which is only the one from Luke 2, we are told that Joseph and Mary, who we met in Luke 1, have to travel from Nazareth where they live to Bethlehem which is Joseph’s family’s home town. It’s possible that Joseph has never been to Bethlehem and that his grandfather’s grandfather emigrated to Galilee a hundred years ago; it’s also possible he grew up there and moved to Nazareth to find work, either way it doesn’t matter because he has to go there now. So, Joseph and his pregnant wife walk down to Bethlehem over the course of a few days, (the Bible says nothing about a donkey), and Luke 2:6 tells us that while they were there the time came, and Mary was delivered of her firstborn, a son. It’s highly unlikely from this wording that our common idea of Christmas is correct: Joseph and Mary certainly did not arrive in Bethlehem just in time for the birth, but too late for a motel room, and that Mary was left to deliver her baby alone and in the car-park barely hours after arriving. More likely is that the couple arrived in plenty of time and were camping outside the village, probably with Joseph’s cousins and brothers and so forth who would also have had to go back to Bethlehem. When Mary began to feel the pangs of labour Joseph might have gone in to town to find a guesthouse for the night, just to be a bit more comfortable, and unable to offer them some space in the crowded upstairs part where the people slept the landlord offered Joseph a quiet corner in the downstairs room where the animals were kept. It strikes us as a bit primitive, but we’re talking 4BC here so it’s probably nothing really out of the ordinary for Joseph and his family.

So, Jesus’ actual birth was pretty normal in and of itself. The fact that his mother was a virgin and his conception was by The Holy Spirit is unique, but the boy in the manger isn’t terribly remarkable. Having said that, the remarkable kicks in a few hours later.

Back outside the village, most likely in a camp not dissimilar to that shared by Joseph’s extended family, is a mob of shepherds. So these guys are locals, and they’re doing their job. In Luke 2:8 we read that they are lying in the fields, as you do when you’re a shepherd and there’s no barn, but then as Luke 2:9 tells us the glory of The LORD shone around them, and they were terrified. The baby in the manger is the one they’re looking for, and when they find him they will know that good news has come. That’s all well and good, but the question I want to ask this morning is “why shepherds?” Well, why anyone really? I mean, why can’t the paparazzi just let Jesus grow up anonymously and then announce himself as an adult, when he’s ready? After all, that’s pretty much what happens in Mark and John where their stories begin with John the Baptist saying “hey, look over there”.

I think it is significant that we hear about Jesus’ birth, and that Heaven drew attention to it at the time with angels and stars and visiting Magi and shepherds. There’s a message in the baby, and that message is that when God chose to enter the world’s reality as a baby God was saying that there is no rush. Sometimes we’d love it if God would just zap! or kapow! stuff into being, especially if that means the destruction of evil or the triumph of good, but God does not work that way. Christmas shows us that God is careful and slow; not ponderous and creaky slow, but not slap-dash and hasty: God’s way is the way of growth and as those of you who are farmers know growth takes time, conditions, and care if it is to occur in the best way. In Luke 2:13-14 we read about the angels singing and so we have no doubt that this event, the one with the baby in the manger, is a God-directed event and that this child really is something special, someone special, indeed the most special someone there ever will be. And this someone is a baby, only hours old, so there will be years involved in the revealing of this plan, the unwrapping of God’s story which has begun its telling but has a long way to go until its conclusion.

The story which Christians tell about Jesus does not begin at Christmas and end at Easter. It doesn’t even begin at Annunciation and end at Ascension for those of you who know those events in our calendar. The story of Jesus begins before Creation and Genesis 1, and it’s still being told today: it hasn’t finished yet because Jesus is still going. And that story is not just the biography of a carpenter who grew up in the north of Israel but who was born and died in the south: the story of Christmas and the story of Christianity is the story of the angels in Luke 2:14, God is glorified in the exchanges of peace amongst and between humankind.

In Titus 3:4-7 we read Paul’s take on Jesus’ birth. This is not actually a Christmas story, but it does say that Jesus the man, who once was that baby, came as a representation of God’s goodness and mercy. Jesus was not a representative of God, Jesus was God in all that God is; however Paul especially draws attention to the characteristics of Jesus to tell us what God is like. God is good, loving, kind and merciful, and not that Paul says it but its obvious from these other characteristics, God is patient.

This Christmas morning as we rush home to presents, food, family, and the fun of the day (and don’t worry, I’m nearly finished preaching), it’s good to be reminded that God is patient and never rushed. God takes the time to love us, to protect us as we grow, and to be patient as we stumble along towards maturity. Jesus was active in ministry for between one and three years, depending how you read the Bible’s seasons, and these were the last years of his life. Jesus didn’t start preaching and healing until her turned 30, so he was 31 or 33 when he died, and then he was back to Heaven seven weeks later. God didn’t rush Jesus into action; God let Jesus grow up and learn a trade and get some life skills, and then Jesus did what he had to do as a teacher and a healer, an example to the world, and then he died as a sign of God’s love and then he rose again as a sign of God’s authority. Then Jesus went home. No rush, just a well placed, well-paced life.

Let’s remember Jesus the saviour, and God the patient one, this Christmas. Let’s take the time away from the tinsel, even if only a few minutes, and slow down and be present and notice where God has grown us up to and where God is pointing us toward. There’s no rush, there’s only breath and inertia, but let’s not miss the quiet and gentle movement forward by frantically sitting with the flashy and the noisy.

Celebrate with joy, the Lord is come: do you have space to receive him?

Amen.

The Advent of Loss: 2 (Blue Christmas)

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

John 1:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

A Better Day (Pentecost 16C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which house do you live in?

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

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

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

Amen.

Where There’s Smoke

This is the text of my ministry message for the September 2019 edition of The Vision, which is the quarterly newsletter of Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry.

How many of you are purveyors of social media I don’t know, although I am aware that some of you are attached to Facebook and Twitter because you are connected with me on those platforms. You may then be aware via The News According to Twitface that several high profile Christians are declaring a loss of faith, or perhaps the realisation that there never was faith for them in the first place. Among the several is Marty Sampson, one time lead worshipper at Hillsong Church Sydney and lead singer with the band Hillsong United. A decade and a half ago Marty wrote the words: “I want to live, I want to love you more, I want to be used, Father, in all of the world, may your word be heard, and may it stay on my lips, to live what I speak, until your kingdom come”, (“Shine For You” © Hillsong Publishing, 2003). I remember this song fondly, and particularly this bridge as it has been my own prayer for some time, probably since 2004 when I was participating in Hillsong Church London. But for Marty all the shazam of Hillsong has not been enough, and he thinks (and says) that the issues within Christianity have put his faith on shaky ground. Marty has not renounced Christ, but he is expressing the raw honesty of a young man (he’s 40) struggling with a Bible which is self-contradicting, and a church which proclaims miracles as reality yet does not see them evident in worship contexts. His central soundbite is “no-one is talking about it”, suggesting that in his church experience the issues with Christianity are being ignored, or papered over.

Whether this is a legitimate critique of Hillsong Church or of Pentecostalism in general is not for me to say, but I do think it’s a fair point for Christianity in Australia. It is appropriate for us to look into our own church and not just point fingers at the happy-clappies (and jumpy-shouties). Is Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry prepared to engage with going deeper into Christian doctrine: do we acknowledge Marty’s concerns and see what he sees? How are we addressing the struggles of believing and trusting a 2000 year old message, a message that includes talking donkeys and massacred enemies as “facts”? How do we answer Marty’s question about a God of grace and love who sends the majority of humans to a fiery, eternal Hell simply because they haven’t said a certain prayer at some point during their earthly life? Or do we just concentrate our attention on singing “All I need is you Lord”, (“All I Need Is You” ©Capitol Christian Music Group, 2005), louder and louder in an effort to shout down the screaming crescendo of doubt until such time as we find we actually do need more from Jesus than a bunch of unquestionable doctrines?

Inside KSSM right now doubt is welcome. (I wanted to say “under my ministry” but I’m not the “above” type of minister; however if you need your senior pastor to say that then he just did, even in brackets.) I do not want anyone drifting away from Christ because of unanswered questions, unaddressed fears, or squashed doubts. Curly questions are welcome in our family: trite answers are not. I think it sad, and more than sad, that Marty heard no-one addressing these concerns in his Christian home, (especially since I lived in that same home for six years and I did hear such conversation), but it would be for me an absolute tragedy if someone looking back at KSSM in 2019 from years in our future were to say the same.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith: doubt is a necessary part of faith, and doubt addressed is what creates trust. Without doubt there is only certainty, and certainty is the condition where learning stops happening and smugness and self-reliance set in. I have no interest in participating in a congregation which is smug and self-reliant, and I will resist with every part of my being the development of such a congregation where I am in leadership. In view of that the invitation stands: talk to me, ask me, bring The Spanish Inquisition if you must (so long as they bring coffee with them…), but do not be afraid or ashamed of your doubt or your questions. As your pastor I am primarily the one who is responsible for your spiritual care and your spiritual health, I am here to teach you and to love you: I hope you feel safe enough in my care to talk to me first before you walk out the door and leave church and/or faith behind.

My front door is always open so that the church’s back door is kept closed. Please stay.

The best is yet to come (WWHS)

This is the text I prepared for WWHS Day Centre for Tuesday 2nd April 2019.  I had also worshipped with them the previous week.

Joshua 5:9-12

 Last week when I was here I spoke to you about trusting and obeying God even when you think you don’t need to.  That sounds a bit strange, I know, but the point is that we must never think ourselves too capable for God to care for us, as if we’re content to pray, “you know what God, we’re fine as we are, how about you go over there and help those poor people and leave us be because we’re fine on our own.” Never, ever do I want to be in a place where I don’t need God, and more than that I never want to be in a place where I can tell God to leave me be because I’m fine as I am.

The reading I brought to you today, which is the lectionary reading from the Hebrew Bible for last Sunday, says something like this too.  The Hebrews under Joshua have entered Canaan, their promised land, and they have rededicated themselves to God as God’s own people by circumcising all the men who were born in the Wilderness.  You might remember that God made the Hebrews wait forty years after the Exodus before they were allowed to enter Canaan because they had been rebellious in their early wanderings: no man who was of military age when the people left Egypt (except Joshua and Caleb) was allowed to enter the land and so the whole nation waited until the last of those men died.  Hence the need for circumcision, none of the boys born in the desert had been through that ritual and some of those boys were now forty years old.  So anyway, here they are, in Canaan, with lots of men feeling rather sore and God says to Joshua words to the effect of “okay, now that Egypt is out of your system, and you are Abrahamites once again, let’s get you settled in his country”.  The first thing they do is celebrate Passover, which of course is a reminder of their exit from Egypt a generation past.  The word “exodus” which we use in English to describe the activity, and the book of the Bible which tells the story, literally translates out of Greek as “the road out”, ex-hodos.  In effect the Hebrews have reached the end of that road out, now they are ready to embark upon the road in.  God calls them to remember where they have come from, (Egypt), and with their men still sore the whole nation celebrates their deliverance.

In Joshua 5:11 we are told that the next day, the day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land, and in Joshua 5:12 we are told that the manna stopped the day they ate this food from the land.  In one sense God’s deliverance was complete, the people who had followed the cloud and the pillar of fire, (or had at least followed Moses who followed the cloud and the pillar of fire) and who had been fed with manna and quail and water from the rocks of the desert were now establishing themselves in Canaan, Abraham’s land of milk and honey.  They didn’t need hand-outs any more, they were freed and were free.

As Christians reading this story we are allowed to be excited, and we should think about what this story means for us.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve never eaten actual manna.  I have had God provide food for me, I told you a bit about that last week, but I don’t quite have the same story as Joshua.  When we consider the link to Passover, which is when Easter is for Christians, and for what Jesus went through and what he accomplished on the day of Passover or the day before Passover (depending which gospel story you read), it’s interesting I think to remember this event of another Passover meal.  The meal described by Joshua was eaten as a celebration of what God had already done in leading the Hebrews along that long road out (the ex-hodos) and it was also as a sign of faith in God for what God was about to do in guiding the Hebrews as they walked the many roads in to Canaan to take up the land of promise.  In Jesus, in communion, we celebrate what God has done for us through the cross and the resurrection, but we also get to look ahead with faith and confidence, with expectation and trust, at what God is about to do now and how God will still be active as many as three thousand years and more into our future as we are in the future from Joshua’s day.

Are you still excited for what God is going to do?  I have said before that there is a lot of living memory in this room, being what it is, but I have also said and you have agreed that the stories of the people in this room are not yet at an end.  The best is yet to come, not just because that’s a great phrase of faith and hope, but because when we think about Jesus on Thursday as he ate, and Friday as he died, the best really was yet to come.

Amen.

Still Trusting (WWHS)

This is the devotion I prepared for sharing at West Wimmera Health Service (WWHS) at Kaniva.  The event is a Day Centre devotional/chapel time which is hosted once a week: I have the provilege of leading on the first Tuesday of every month.  This was an extra service filling in for someone who was away.

Isaiah 55:1-9

Isaiah speaks on God’s behalf in issuing an invitation to the thirsty, an invitation extended to anyone who thirsts for what God can provide.  There is no need for money; rich and poor alike are welcome so long as they come with openness and expression of their need for God and their needs from God.

I wonder, what do you need from God?  When I said just now that rich and poor alike are welcome at God’s invitation you may have thought that I was just being poetic.  Yes the poor are welcome, there is no need for money so it doesn’t matter if you can’t afford it, just come.  But the rich?  Why would the rich need an invitation?  Surely they would have just come anyway, after all they can afford to purchase whatever is for sale, and if it’s free then all the better and what a lovely surprise once we’re here.  But the rich would not have stayed away in shame or poverty, so why invite the rich when the rich were already coming?

Any ideas?

Well maybe the rich weren’t coming, because the rich thought they didn’t need to come.  Maybe the rich, because they are rich, have money, milk and wine enough.  After all, you don’t need to go to the shops, even for free stuff, when your pantry is full.  If you’re not thirsty then an invitation to the thirsty doesn’t interest you.  Maybe you’ll hold back out of a sense of charity and let the poor go first, or maybe you’ll just ignore the invitation entirely.  Either way, God’s invitation might go unmet by you and you just won’t come, and that’s sad.  Where it says in Isaiah 55:1, without money and without cost perhaps the fact that you have money enough means that if you do come to God there will be a cost, a cost to your pride, and that’s too much cost to bear, especially if you are rich in money, milk and wine.

So I think even though Isaiah is just issuing God’s invitation, and without judgement or interpretation, he’s just an amplifier of the quiet voice in his heart which speaks God’s truth, he knows that the message will go unheard by some.  Why spend money on what does not feed, he asks (or rather God asks through him in Isaiah 55:2), advising to feed on what is good so that your soul will delight.  In other words, I don’t care how well stocked your cellars are, and how awesome is your dairy operation, feed from God’s provision and you will be blessed.

When I lived in England I had a strange encounter with God.  I was shopping in the local Tesco with my housemate, and with our boss-slash-landlord, since it was a ministry organisation I was attached to.  I felt in my chest and heard a voice in my head say that I was not to be shopping: that whatever I needed I was to allow my boss-slash-landlord to pay for.  He found me in one of the aisles, crying, with my basket on the floor.  He asked what the matter was and I said, “I’m not allowed to shop, I mustn’t actually pay for anything.” He said to me, “well okay, give me your basket and I’ll pay; if that’s what God has told you then that is what we need to do.” That situation lasted for five months, indeed the whole time I stayed at that house.  Food was donated to the ministry, and money came in too, “to support Damien”, but I never bought any food or groceries in the time I was there.  Even my housemate would come home from his own shopping and say “this is for you” and give me a packet of frozen fish fingers or something.  That was an incredibly humbling experience for me: not embarrassing as I knew I was obeying God and the men around me knew it too, but it was kinda hard.  Now I know that God has me in mind at all times, and that I am safe and provided for.  Now I am confident to direct my labour only to what satisfies, as Isaiah 55:2 says, which is not to say that I rely on others to pick up the tab, or that I am happy to be a burden to others, but to say that if God wants to pay my way while I minister and serve the Kingdom then that is what God can do.

I am not too rich to have God care for me, and because of that I have never been too poor for God to find me and feed me.  But that does not mean it isn’t hard.

Isaiah, and perhaps God in Isaiah’s mouth, counsels us to seek God while God may be found and to call upon God while God is near.  This is another wonderful invitation, but it is another one with a hidden threat.  Is there really a time and space limit?  Will there be a time when God cannot be found, or God is not near and therefore cannot hear us if we call?  I don’t want to get into the theology of the near-and-farness of God, so let’s just cut to the chase and say that if you hear God’s invitation then it’s best to respond straight away, and with complete trust that you will be welcomed and provided for.  Sometimes what God asks us to do is baffling, God’s ways are not our ways as Isaiah 55:8 reminds us; but hey, if God is the one asking then who am I to say no?  Trust and obey – there is no other way.

 

Amen.