There’s a better Question

Recently I was at a meeting where the topic of prayer came up, or rather the topic of asking God for an answer.  There were various topics of interest at this meeting but there was a common question: what is God’s will in this situation, what does God want us to do.

In the first instance the topic was new to us, and a situation was presented to us where a local church was being asked to support “toleration” of a certain group of people.  Now this church doesn’t like the concept of toleration, they believe God has called them to do more than just “agree to get along” or “put up with” others of different opinion, they want to go the steps further which will enable them to be inclusive and invitational.  Rather than “yes you can come in, but stand over there” they are a church that says “welcome to the table, long black or flat white? grab a chair next to me”.  So they decided to ask God about how they can welcome and still be the sort of people that God calls to be light in the world, when they (and we) have deep concerns about some of the ethical values of this group of new people.

In the second instance the topic had already been introduced to us, and we had each gone away to “seek God”, and then come back with what God’s Spirit had lead us to, to share this intelligence with each other.  What became apparent is that the answers that God had brought to us, through us, (which were internally consistent, they all lined up to form a complete picture even though no two responses were identical), were “a bit obvious”, and the conversation leader wondered out loud whether any prayer had been undertaken at all.  “Did you actually pray, or did you just think about the question and bring along your own thoughts?” was the leader’s question: and to be honest he was very aggressive and rude in the way he presented that opinion.

In both of these situations the question is “did you pray”.  In the first situation it might be asked of the one who brought the situation to the meeting, along the lines of what God had already said to him about it.  In the second situation the question was asked (in a rather exasperated and aggressive tone) in the exact words “did you pray”.  But I think there is a better question.

There is a better question because the question has a simple and rather abrupt answer: which was the cause of the offence in the second situation.  We are Christians, of course we prayed.  Of course we prayed, we pray all the time, we’re Christians and that’s what we do.  To ask someone “did you pray, did you actually pray about this or did you just think about it” can be misconstrued as a doubt on the veracity of someone’s faith at all, and also in their capacity to pray.  (Well if you prayed then you’re not very good at it are you.)

I wanted the conversation leader in that second situation to ask, “how did you pray, and how did you hear” rather than “did you pray”.  An answer had come from God, which should have been enough evidence that prayer had taken place: but the fact that the answer was the obvious one, one that sociology if not plain common sense might have answered in the same way, came to overshadow the conversation.  Better to ask “how did you pray, and how did God give the answer.”

Leadership, even discipleship, is not always about the answers but about the questions.  And better leadership (and discipleship) demands a better question.

Palm Sunday

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Palm Sunday 2019.

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 19:28-40

Palm Sunday is one of those days when you’d think the sermon, and the Bible readings, would be obvious.  Maybe that’s true, but then you all know me well enough now to know that the obvious sermon topic is very unlikely to appear when I am preaching, and even if it does appear it will be given a surprising slant.  So no, today we heard from Isaiah and Paul rather than Luke, but don’t worry, the donkey is on his way.

Today’s passage from the Hebrew Tradition, from Isaiah, is the third of four so called “servant songs”; in this song the servant is speaking directly to those Israelites who have strayed from God’s ways while they have been exiled.  The teacher in this case is not so much one person as he is a representation of the true Israel, the nation (and the group of people within it) who have stood their ground amidst abuse and disrespect from The Fallen because they know that The LORD is Israel’s companion and vindication.  The advice is to the straying people of Israel, but also to the Babylonians, and it is to say that God is faithful and dependable and so all hope is far from lost, even in this dire situation.  The teacher’s task, as it is in all four servant songs, is to take the word of God which God has spoken to him and to proclaim that word to the world, beginning with the fallen within Israel, the ones described as weary in Isaiah 50:4.  Conversely it is this mob of weary and disheartened who rise up and beat up the prophet with all the spitting and sneering and beard-pulling action; but even this has not disheartened the prophetic voice, since it shows to him how much his message of deliverance is required.  The servant says in Isaiah 50:8, he who vindicates me is near: who will contend with me.  In other words, God has my back, so bring it on, and let’s argue this thing out.  At the same time the teacher knows that scorners are gonna scorn, so he’s aware that even though God will vindicate him as a teacher and God will vindicate his message, he will still be beaten up and worn down in the work of teaching.

The same theme is seen in today’s Psalm, 31, which reads as a prayer for deliverance in the midst of distress.  Read, indeed hear how the psalmist complains to God how worn out with trying and with sorrowing he is.  This worshipper comes to God and tells The Father that he is mocked, shunned, abandoned, and shamed by his neighbours.  The psalmist has no friends except for God, but God is trustworthy and faithful, God is listening and compassionate, and God is his God who has eternity in sight.  No matter what other people say or do or think, the man or woman who remains faithful to God and to the calling of prophecy and teaching will be saved because God is steadfast in love.

Many of you know that I used to work as a schoolteacher.  I once might have said “I used to be a teacher”, but that’s not true: I still am a teacher, I just don’t work in schools any more.  So, as a teacher still, and one of God’s people set apart by God and the Church to bring the word from God to the people of God, I have some insights into this.

The first is that teaching can be physically dangerous.  Regardless of what we read in Isaiah, I can tell you that I have been assaulted at schools where I have taught.  I have been spat at and spat on, I have been kicked, punched, pushed, wrapped in sticky tape, had furniture thrown at me, had nuisance phone calls threatening me with arson, and I have been the subject of graffiti and emotional bullying.  (And that was just in the staffroom…)   And whilst no one has had a go at my physical person at church, yet, I have been emotionally beaten up in my teaching ministry in congregations through gossip, derision, and agendas pushed through councils of the church to have me banned from preaching because my words (which I  maintain were God’s) pricked somebody’s pimple.  I get why the Pharisees were angry at Jesus, and the exiles angry at Jeremiah and the suffering servant, I’ve been there on the receiving end and I’ve had my theology and my mental stability questioned by people who were offended by the gospel as I proclaimed it.  I know that I can also get shouty and sarcastic in my speech, and because of that I’m focussing today’s thoughts on those few times when I was not in the wrong.

The second is that teaching as an activity is useless if no one is learning.  For example, I could pause here for a moment and give you a twenty minute run down on how to add numbers across the tens barrier.  If you have enough fingers you can add three and five to make eight; but how do you add three more to eight when you run out of fingers.  I can teach you how to do that, I can teach you a number of ways how to do that, but you wouldn’t actually learn anything.  Why not?  Well because you all know, already, how to do that.  Even as I gave this example, of adding three to eight, many of you went, “yup, eleven”,  in your head, and none of you needed to remove a shoe to get enough digits.  What is the point of my teaching if you are not learning?  In fact if you are not learning then I would argue that whatever it is that I am doing up here, it isn’t actually teaching at all.  In the same way I could give you an excellent sociolinguistics lecture on Russian Formalism and the concept of ostranenie, as developed by Viktor Shklovksy.  You would all be amazed, no doubt, but would you be educated, would you actually learn anything?  Or would you be confused?  Even if I translated ostranenie into English as “defamiliarisation” would that help?  Even if I tell you that this is more of a narratological concept than a sociolinguistic one, and ask whether any of you noted the deliberate mistake three sentences ago, would that help?  Again, if you’re not learning, then I’m not teaching.

And perhaps putting points one and two together, if you don’t want to learn from me, then I’m not teaching you.  I cannot teach you if you don’t want to learn, and since this is church and not school I can’t force you to learn and keep you in your seat until you do.  In fact the last time I tried to force someone to stay in his seat until he learned something he stood up and threw the chair at me.  But, again, this is church and you can’t do that.  I hope I’ve made my point though, even if I am not in physical danger of immanent assault, and even if I pitch my sermons and Wednesday Bible studies at your level rather than at child or postgraduate speciality level, if you don’t want to learn then you won’t.  And if you don’t want to learn then I can’t teach you.  That’s okay, maybe you don’t need me to teach you, maybe you already know everything there is to know and so nothing that I say, even with eloquence and a sound pedagogical structure, will interest you in the slightest.  Maybe you don’t need to be here at all, or I don’t.  Maybe that’s what the exiles in Babylon and the Pharisees in Jerusalem thought about the bearers of God’s word.

Jesus wasn’t like that.  From Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi we read how the mindset of Christ Jesus, an attitude of humility and self-emptying, complete trust even in death lead to his exaltation and glory.  In a congregation where many of you hold the doctrinal position of “no creed but Christ”, here in Philippians 2:5-11 is a manifesto for us to proclaim, the complete words of scripture telling the life story of Jesus from incarnation to resurrection.  What it means to be like Christ, to be a Christian, is to be humble in humanity and obedient toward God.  We know this is the right way because the man who acted most fully in this way was exalted by God to the highest possible glory.  This is the attitude and the conduct that God rewards, because this is the human life by which God is most fully blessed.  Blessed are the teachable, for they will hear God most clearly and therefore obey God most fully.  The existence of Jesus, (more than his shape or his attitude) his very being is one not of grasping but of surrender.  More than what Christ does or even who Christ is, this is what Christ is as Christ, God the Son.  Christ is open-handedness, Christ is letting go, and Christ is unambiguous and unlimited trust in The Father, even as Christ is The LORD.  When all of that was accounted for in the incarnation and death of Jesus, at the resurrection the God-ness of Christ was restored.  Both are the real Christ, God the Son was no less God for being Jesus from Nazareth, the Son of Man.  Neither are we or anyone else any less the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) for being alive as women and men today.  Godliness is not about how much of a spiritual presence you are, rather than flesh-and-bone, godliness is about how much like God you are when God was flesh-and-bone.  Are you humble, do you know who you are and who you are not?  Are you teachable, do you know what you need to learn, and are you willing to listen to whichever teacher God sends you, be that a preacher, a podcast, a book, a shared experience with a mate, or an epiphany at the end of your bed.  And if you want God to speak to you in a book or a podcast, and God speaks to you in a sermon or a song, will you listen, or not?

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Friday on which he died, Luke tells us that Jesus was riding a colt.  Previously two disciples had been sent ahead to find the colt and to inform anyone who asked that the Lord needed the colt and that they should be allowed to take it.  The fact that Jesus was actually riding the colt shows that the colt was allowed to be taken to Jesus, and for him to ride it.  Someone was listening to God at that point, even when God spoke in the accent of some random Galilean who was sprung in the middle of untying the beast.  When Jesus (and the colt) rode into Jerusalem the people cried out “blessed is the king who comes!” and “peace in heaven and glory!”  Again, they had been listening for God and were ready to hear the word of Heaven however it came.  The ordinary Judeans heard God speak, even in their own voices, and even when the highly educated and rigorously theological scholars could not.  How ambivalent do you need to be to the coming of the Word of God that you are dull to the sounds of worship, dull to the presence of the Word Incarnate (even in humble form) standing in front of you, so dull that even the singing or rocks would probably escape you?

Seriously, how dull?  Dull enough that within a week you’ll hang the King of Kings for treason, and the God of Gods for blasphemy?  Today is Palm Sunday, open your ears, open your eyes, open your hearts; let worship alone open your mouths.  And in the name of every teacher who has ever lived to help you learn, please, resist every urge to be dull.

Amen.

How it is to be (Epiphany 7C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry gathered at Kaniva Church of Christ and Serviceton Uniting Church on Sunday 24th February 2019.

Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40; Luke 6:27-38

So, the last couple of weeks have been pretty exciting for me as a preacher because I have been excited by what God is saying to us.  Often when I open my Bibles (plural) up to begin writing a sermon I have no idea what’s coming.  The readings don’t always follow the previous week’s, and since I tend to be about a month ahead in my preparations I’m never actually writing on my Monday afternoon “the thing after what I said yesterday”.  So when the last three sermons came out as they did, writing a month ago, I was really pleased that that is what God wanted to tell us.

So, what did God tell us during January and February?  Well, a few things:

  1. You’se mob are all ministers, with ministries. This includes me, but it is not exclusive to me.  If you’ve been baptised then the Holy Spirit is upon you and you have a job to do.
  2. You’se mob are all able to listen to God’s instruction for yourself. Also, God’s instruction for KSSM in February was to focus on rest so that we would enter the year of 2019 with peace and energy from God, not with frazzle and rush.  This message has not been superseded or countermanded, and even though some of us are now at the chalkface of ministry, the reminder to come back to God between-times just to sit and be with God remains.  For others of you the sitting and being is what you are doing all the time.
  3. Some of you are being called to ministries of proclamation, and to proclamation of somewhat unwelcome messages. If God has given you a message for the church and the world we want you to speak it out.
  4. Some of that proclamation takes the form of looking ahead. You will tell people to think about what is coming next, and think about what is life-giving and foundational to what we trust now.  Our message at KSSM is that we are confident because we have heard and experienced how God gives life to us, and energy to finish the work we have been assigned.

Today is something different.  It’s still exciting, and I’m looking forward to what I have to say now.  It’s about a new way of looking at proclamation and preaching, and it is useful for anyone who listens to preaching.  Okay, so it’s not pointers for the couple of lay preachers and the rest of you can tune out, it’s God’s wisdom for everyone who hears what God and the Church are saying, and pulling from that story whatever is wisdom for where you are.  But first, some Bible stories.  Yay!

In our Bible story from the Hebrew tradition we read how Joseph showed himself to his brothers.  We haven’t got the whole story here, but the gist is that Joseph’s brothers sold him to some Arabs to be used as a slave, which was not very nice of them.  Then yada-yada-yada, false accusation, time in gaol, Pharaoh overdoes the pizza one night and has crazy dream, drought everywhere, Hebrew asylum seekers (aka boat people on donkeys), Joseph’s brothers rock up in Egypt and don’t recognise Joseph who is the Prime Minister.  (Breathe!)  So, today’s story, Joseph does not exact revenge on his not very nice brothers, instead he shows stupidly generous kindness and hospitality to them.  True?  Is that what happened?  Yes.  Biblical truth?  Two things, God’s plans always work out well for those who remain faithful to their calling; and it’s always better to be generous and kind, even to people who are not very nice.  Done?  Yes?  Done!

Psalm.  So today it’s 37 and bits thereof. This is a song of patient trust in God, patience grounded in the assurance that salvation is coming.  We can’t say that Joseph was familiar with this song of David because it’s something like eight hundred years after his day, but Joseph certainly kept the faith and did not keep it to himself.  Joseph understood that God is faithful and he told whomever would listen, even his brothers, who were not very nice, especially to him.  Message?  One thing, God’s plans always work out well for those who remain patiently faithful to their hope in God.  Application?  Well since the lectionary has already pointed us to Genesis 45:3-11 and the story of Joseph’s graciousness we might conclude that since we know that God is our security and not ourselves we can afford to be generous and kind, even to people who are not very nice.  Done?  Yes?  Done!

Am I moving too fast?  No?  Excellent.

Right: Jesus story.  Excellent, I love Jesus stories.  We read from Luke 6:27-38 where Jesus himself is speaking, and more than speaking he is teaching.  Jesus says love your enemies, (and in brackets love your brothers even when they are not very nice) and listen to your teacher.  Jesus is quite a challenging teacher if you think about it, and (slowing down) here is where we find the point of today’s message.  Jesus was faithful to God, faithful to his trust in God (the things he knew and believed), obedient and always seeking the Father’s direction.  As an Evangelical I’d like to say that Jesus was entirely and absolutely perfectly faithful to scripture, and I have heard that said before by other Evangelicals, some of whom (but not all) were preachers.  But was he?  Was he?  I am entirely convinced that Jesus never contradicted God, nor the written word of The Law and The Prophets, but see even here where he uses the phrase “but I say to you…”   He often said that, or perhaps often did that, changed the meaning of Jewish religious tradition and the interpretation of the scriptures in Hebrew or their Greek translation of his day.  “You’re reading that wrong”, might be another way of saying it.

Let me give you an example, perhaps in a different way.  I was recently allowed to overhear a conversation between a farmer and his pastor where the farmer was concerned, convicted of his sin really, about his farming methods.  He had been reading Genesis 3:19 where it says quite clearly by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.  Right?  Got that?  Okay, so he was concerned that even though he was actually a grain farmer, so the bread thing really did apply, that in his closed-cabin, air-conditioned header his face didn’t get all that sweaty any more.  As a Christian farmer, saved by the cross but still living as a sinner in a fallen world, hadn’t he become too worldly, wasn’t he compromising his faith and the word of scripture by not using a horse-drawn plough or a scythe in the sun?  Doesn’t the road of the air-conditioned lead to Hell?  Now in Kaniva and Serviceton we know the answer to that, of course it’s true and almost all of you are going to Hell.  You know that and that’s fine.  Or maybe Jesus would say “well you have heard it said, (or perhaps seen it written) by the sweat of your face, but I say to you…” and then what would Jesus say?  Maybe he’d say something like that anyone who works for a living to provide for his family is blessed, regardless of the physical toil involved, because each man is accountable to God for his gifts and responsibilities.  And then in the twentieth century scholars would have added “and women” to their commentaries and twenty-first century pastors would have drawn out applications for women and men who work at white-collar jobs.  Would such a thing be entirely faithful to scripture?  Depends who you’re asking I suppose; there’s always a hardliner somewhere.  My question, which I have been leading up to all day, is such a thing faithful to our concept of God.  In other words, is the God of Joseph and his brothers, the God of David the Psalmist, the God of Jesus the rabbi who taught love even for enemies, the God of Jesus the crucified messiah who prayed “father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”, is that God burning with unquenchable wrath because Christians work on tractor or in classrooms where there is air-con.  What say you?

So yes I did bolt through the set readings from Genesis, Psalms, and Luke this morning, and yes I deliberately overlooked other great nuggets of applicable truth for your and my lives as disciples, but I hope I have made my point.  And if I haven’t, here it is: read the Bible with the characteristics of Jesus of Nazareth in mind.  As you begin to reflect on any text, any text at all, ask yourself how Jesus would explain it to the woman beside the well in John 4:10, or the woman caught in adultery in John 8:11, or Simon son of Jonah beside the lake in John 21:15.  Remember how Jesus never twisted scripture but he often redefined and refuted a harsh interpretation of it to show the compassion and loving-kindness of God whenever the scribes and Pharisees try to set a trap.  Look at today’s passage and Jesus’ own words in Luke 6:36 where he says be merciful just as your Father is merciful.

There is no doubt that God dislikes sin.  Jesus wasn’t too keen on it and he still isn’t, it cost him six bloody, painful hours on a Roman cross beneath a black sky.  The message to read with mercy is not about taking a permissive stance on sin or injustice or idolatry or anything else that the scriptures condemn: no way, never.  The message is to think of the people involved; the people trapped by sin of course, but for me even more so the people trapped by false interpretations of the scriptures which make God seem petty or petulant and not very nice at all.  Don’t laugh at the farmer, help him with gentleness to understand that he is allowed to not sweat and still be a beloved son of the Father in righteousness with his Lord.  But more than that, don’t ever, ever, be the one who agrees with such a farmer and insists because of the word of God that agricultural machinery is contrary to received revelation and an act of witchcraft in the eyes of a wrathful deity.  But more than that that, that, whatever: do not ever ever be the one who snatches a farmer out of his header and demands he use a scythe or else it’s Hell for him and his family for four generations because that’s what the Bible says.

So, proclaimers of God’s truth that you are; as we go further into 2019 let us all make sure whether we are preachers, prophets, or just mates of people who don’t come to church that it is God’s truth that we are proclaiming.  If what you’re saying contradicts the written gospel, or the letters, law, prophets or poets then it’s probably not God.  But if your word contradicts the nature and character of Jesus then it certainly is not God, no matter how many Bible verses you can quote.

Amen.

A Call To Prophesy (Epiphany 5C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry on Sunday 10th February 2019.  We met at Serviceton Uniting Church for holy communion and at Kaniva Church of Christ also for holy communion.

Isaiah 6:1-8, 9-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Today is one of those good days for a preacher, because the message contained in each of the four lectionary readings is well structured and exciting to preach.  It’s all about God’s call and the story of how each of three men first heard God saying to him, “go and tell”.  It’s a great message for a church of eager disciples such as this one, so the sermon shouldn’t take very long at all.

Let’s start with the passage read to us this morning.  In the opening words of today’s reading from the Hebrew traditions we read how Isaiah dates his call to ministry to a specific time and place; he knows his origin as a prophet and teacher.  In the activity of the story Isaiah overhears The LORD calling for volunteers to take the message of God to humankind, and Isaiah steps up for the job (Isaiah 6:8).  Oftentimes when this story is read in church this is where we end our reading; we hear how great and holy God is, we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” before the sermon and “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky” after it, and we all go home.  Even today Isaiah 6:1-8 is listed to be read, with Isaiah 6:9-13 in brackets, as if you don’t have to read on if you don’t want to.  See what I’m saying, easy message, familiar concept, fast sermon is a good sermon, let’s go home.

Meh-yeah-nah.  Sadly for you if you were hoping for an early minute, this is a red rag to a brown bull for me; I mean what are those lectionary writers trying to hide?  Why don’t they want us to read on?  Well maybe it’s because in these optional verses what we get is God’s actual word to the world, the text of what is to become Isaiah’s message, and it’s not very nice; in fact it’s very not nice.  In essence Isaiah’s job is to make the people stubborn and hard-headed because God has decided in advance of Isaiah’s mission to punish the people.  This is not like Jonah where God sent the prophet to seek repentance so that God could relent; this is where God is baiting the people to further resistance to the gospel so that when divine wrath falls it is more fully deserved.  That’s harsh.

A strong comparison with Isaiah 6:2-3 is offered in Psalm 138:1 where the spiritual beings gathered around God’s throne hear a man, let’s call him David, singing his praise and thanksgiving to God.  Instead of God the holy, holy, holy One asking in the hearing of the cherubim and seraphim for a volunteer to carry a message of wrath and devastation, here we see a man in the same company thanking God for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.  (That’s in Psalm 138:2.)  God tells Isaiah to make the people resistant to God’s voice; but David tells the seraphim that the moment he began praying with distress God came close and answered him (Psalm 138:3).  It’s as if we’re speaking about two different gods here, or at least about the one God dealing with the Chosen People on one hand and the pagan and heathen nations on the other.  But no, and you know it’s no, this is Adonai on both occasions, and Israel on both occasions.  What is going on?

At this point let me interrupt myself and say that this is my favourite type of Bible study.  So often our evenings of fellowship and study revolve around opening a letter of Paul or a gospel and reading around the circle from a familiar story, looking for the obvious answers to the reading comprehension questions posed by IVP or Scripture Union.  This sort of Bible study, the one we’re doing today, looks at unfamiliar texts and searches out the hard questions.  Awesome fun, I hope you’re enjoying this as much as me.  Let’s get back to it.

In today’s set reading from the Jesus traditions we read Luke’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples.  And it is one of those intensely familiar stories: Jesus teaches a pressing-in crowd from a boat, then he asks the boat-owner (who is a stranger at this point) to put out and go fishing.  Twenty-seven trillion fish are caught in just under four minutes, causing that fisherman to recognise that a miracle worker has turned up in his boat and that he utterly unworthy to be in such a lord’s presence; kinda like Isaiah in Isaiah 6:5 and his “woe is me, man of uncleanness” lamenting.  And our familiar story continues, Jesus says to Simon “get up,” and he says “don’t be afraid,” and he says “you will no longer fish for men, but for people,” and without a second thought Simon, and James, and John from the next boat walk away with Jesus and into the sunset.  So there’s nothing heard-headed or confusing about that; okay the “fishers of men” reference is a little opaque, but we trust Jesus, he seems nice, and so we leave everything behind and just walk away and follow him.  As Christians we get that; no biggie, Jesus is worth dropping everything else for, there’s no stubbornness amongst us to the voice of God calling us to discipleship.

In today’s set reading from the Christian traditions we find ourselves at the other end of Jesus’ mission to earth, and Paul’s explanation to the churches of Corinth how the resurrection works as a theological and soteriological truth.  In other, less-greeky words, how the facts and understandings we have around the resurrection make us think about God, and how they make us think about what it means to be “saved”.  Very recently, on Vision Radio in fact (which is broadcast on 88.0 FM into Kaniva from a small box and a big aerial in my back yard), I heard someone describe 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 as a perfect distillation of the whole gospel.  It was a passing comment, with no further discussion, but I remembered it as I wrote this sermon down at 03:38 am this morning.  We have just heard the passage read, do we agree?  Is this all you need to know about Christian doctrine in one handy-to-open box, no easy payments, no postage and handling?  Indeed could we sum the whole Christian story up in one line, 1 Corinthians 15:3b-5a which plainly says that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to... well a lot of people actually.  That’s all you need to know isn’t it?  I’d argue no, that there is more to the whole gospel than that, but I acknowledge that any telling of the whole gospel must include that.  The thing is that in some ways this passage, what I’ve just read, is not actually the point of the paragraph you find it in.  The real point of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is found in 1 Corinthians 5:8-11, where Paul uses the brief nub of the gospel to explain how he too is an apostle, just like Cephas in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and the twelve also in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and the many living witnesses in 1 Corinthians 5:6, and James and all the “apostles” in 1 Corinthians 5:7.  So “yeah-yeah, yada-yada, died, buried, rose again, Jesus awesome” is there, but the point is that Paul is allowed to say that because he’s just as much a follower of God, and a bearer of divine ordination as Simon (aka Cephas), and by extension David and Isaiah.  Paul has been called; Paul is an apostle, an individually dispatched messenger of God’s light about Godself to a world in darkness.

So, that might have been a good place to move to a paragraph on how we apply Paul’s and Peter’s stewardship of the apostolate to our own lives, and how we too are called to carry light into the world.  I could say that even though God has not spoken to any of us like God spoke to Isaiah (in a vision in a temple), or Simon-Peter (literally as a flesh and blood man asking us for a favour after a long night at work), or Saul-Paul (blinded and yelled at in the middle of a highway on a multi-day road-trip), God still calls some of us to be witnesses and prophets today.  Paul may have been the last on his list to see Jesus in person and to be commissioned by a lordly figure in a vision, but he is not the last in all history: you need to watch and be ready for Jesus to appear in your dreams-slash-windscreen.  And all of that would be true, and neat, and good, and we could move on to the benediction and beverage service.  But we can’t do that: there’s a loose end.

So, yay! let’s get back to the awesome fun of finding hard questions.  Well, we’ve already found the hard question, and now we’ve put some shape around it to make the question even harder.  With all that Isaiah, David, Jesus, and Paul have said about God and the call of God to tell the good news of salvation, (case in point the cross and empty tomb), why did God send Isaiah to make the ninth century BC Israelites and Judahites resistant to that story?  If Christ died for all, and if Christ died for sin, why would God a) deliberately exclude Jews, and b) deliberately make them sin more badly so they would deserve the punishment already lined up?  God effectively says to Isaiah, “ look, I really want to smack them, but they don’t deserve it yet, so stir them up to rebellion and I’ll wait until I can really smack them so they stay smacked”.  I mean, where’s the grace?  Where’s the honour for the covenants with Abraham and with David?  And if the situation really is that dire for the people of God why does God make them wait another 800 years for the Messiah?  Don’t send Isaiah to harden their hearts LORD, send Jesus to redeem them!  I mean, you’d think God had never even opened a Bible the way this is going.

So, what’s the answer?  Anyone?  Do you need the question again?  The question is, with all that we know of God in Christ, and all that we know of David, Jesus, Peter and the twelve, and Paul, why did God send Isaiah to make the Israelites more naughty rather than more repentant, just so that God could snap them with a backhand as well?  So, what’s the answer?  Anyone?

Well what I’m going to do right now is keep you in suspense, but let you off the hook.  And I am also going to wrap up, so here’s the final paragraph.  As great and profound a question as that is, and would be on a Tuesday night, it’s not a question for Sunday morning.  A good teacher, a good pastor, a good preacher knows that.  And you don’t only have a good teacher, pastor and preacher, you have a great one.  You’re blessed.  No the question for a Sunday is, given all that, given David and Jesus and Paul and yada-yada-yada, how do you respond in Isaiah’s place when God calls you to prophetic witness and sends you to the Church with such a message of desolation.  Again, anyone?  You proclaim it.  For me the question is not why God wants to do this to my people, but how do I go about telling the leaders who need to know what God intends for us.

As your pastor let me say this: I know God is calling some of you to ministries of proclamation, and God is calling all of us to witness and fishing-for-men.  So, whatever God tells you to tell me, and to tell us, please just tell us.  Be brave, for The LORD your God is with you.

Amen.

The Resilience of God

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

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

Good morning Church!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

Standing in Wisdom’s Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Tongue Tired

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered at Narracan as the Yallourn Parish and Morwell Parish Uniting Churches, clustered for the purposes of ministry on Sunday 16th September 2018.

Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12

Hopefully you aren’t sick of the stories from my time living in England just yet.  If you are that’s fine, I don’t care and I’m going to tell you another story this morning anyway, but as far as you are concerned there’s only today and two weeks to go before I leave Gippsland, so you just hang in there.  Today’s story takes place at the Education Support Centre where I worked as a specialist teacher, and an episode where something seemed to change.

For those of you new to my stories, or who have heard about my time in gaol but not my time in school, let me give you some background.  Between December 2003 and October 2004, and again between February 2005 and February 2006 I taught at an Education Support Centre north of London.  In very much an oversimplification this a school for high school kids who had been expelled from their “normal school”, or who were in danger of being so.  Onsite I taught one class of year seven to nine students and another class of year ten and eleven.   I taught a broadly defined subject called Humanities, which was made up of bits of the Geography, History, Civics, and Religion curricula as stipulated in the National Curriculum for England.  Offsite or on “outreach” I went into local high schools and worked 1:1 with boys (because I’m a boy) from those same age groups who were on their “last chance”.  At outreach I was liked, and the boys looked forward to my sessions.  Onsite I was disliked, and I was regularly sworn at, spat at, threatened with violence and arson, and I was assaulted in class on four occasions.  The onsite cohort called me “Squeak” because my large front teeth and my then goatee beard made me look like a mouse, apparently.  There was a loose confederation of students charged with the responsibility of “getting Squeak out”, trying to bully me into resigning.  Eventually they gave up, I wasn’t going anywhere, and they had run out of ideas.  They still didn’t like me, they found my resilience unnerving, but the conspiracy and the all-out attacks died out.  So, there’s your background.

And here’s the story.  One Friday afternoon, when classes for the week had ended and the students were about to go home, as was our regular practice, the whole school gathered in the big classroom to count up the week’s merits.  Merits earned you points, and points bought you food.  So anyway, we’ve added up the merits and points, and determined who has earned and who will be rewarded.  And then there’s a race for the kitchen were the food it kept and one of the girls is in there and into the cupboard and into the potato chips and grabbing her allocation of packets.  I was the first teacher into the room, and seeing her there I called out, “Sarah (not her real name), please don’t take all those chips, we need to share the flavours.”  Sarah (not her real name) rolled her eyes, gave a big huff in the way that only a sixteen-year-old girl can do, and said “Oh my god Sir, this is England not Australia, they’re called crisps!!”

I was shocked: are you shocked?  Did you catch it?  Sarah (not her real name) had called me…sir.  Not “Squeak”, not “effin’ Stuart Little”, (which I once copped in class, with “effin’” given its less polite pronunciation).  Sarah had called me “sir”.

“Umm, Sarah, did you just call me ‘sir’?”

“Umm, ummm…”

By this time the kitchen’s other inhabitants were laughing at the joke.  “Oh, my effin’ word Sarah, you showed respect to Mister Tann innit?  You has brought shame upon your entire family now.”

I can’t say that the ice entirely thawed that day, or that Sarah (not her real name, she was actually called Melissa) and I became best mates after that, but it did mark a positive change.  Even so, when I read James 3:1 where Jacob writes not many of you should aspire to become teachers I do not think only of the added responsibility that God places upon the shoulders of pastors and preachers.  Teaching is a rewarding job in church as well as school; but it is also, almost, insurmountably treacherous at times, in church as well as school.

In the first twelve verses of James 3 set for us today we read where Jacob turned his attention to leadership in the community of faith.  Now, remember that Jacob is the brother of Jesus, the second son of Joseph and Mary and possibly Jesus’ first ever best friend.  We read in the gospels how Jacob along with his younger siblings thought that Jesus had lost the plot: now we find him with a fresh revelation of the Messiah and undertaking pastoral responsibility for the nascent Church in Jerusalem.  Jacob is probably a solid man to write about leadership and teaching, so let’s take a look and what he wrote.

So, Jacob unpacks what it means to be a leader by returning to the themes we have encountered in the last two weeks, especially around the ways in Christians should speak.  True wisdom, true discipleship is shown by speaking well – not just as a discipline in itself but also as an indication that what else is going on in the Christian’s life is under the blessing of God.  One of the things that really messed with Sarah and her cohort at the ESC was that I was generally kindly spoken.  Anyone can say nice things, many people can be nice even in the face of meanness, but something about the way that I seemed genuinely unfazed by the ways in which the students plotted my downfall, and over about six months of their best efforts, unnerved them.  These teens knew that I was a Christian, in fact of the five classroom teachers onsite three of us were strong in our faith, but there was something else about me, something they couldn’t break, something they needed to destroy because it was a threat to them.  That they didn’t destroy me or the thing inside me has everything to do with the grace of God, which of course was the thing inside me.  I am not claiming anything other than a vast supply of grace from my Lord in this one; but when unbreakable kindness, even in sadness, confronted them even violent, vicious bullying was left undone.  As a teacher, as a leader, as an adult, I was a grace-bearer; carrying grace inside me and sharing it with my students.

The scriptures teach that a fool cannot speak wisdom and a sinner cannot teach righteousness.  Again, almost anyone can fake pretty much anything for a short time; but longevity and perseverance cannot be built upon weakness and falsehood.  The wise and good can make mistakes, but that is seen as an aberration: the stupid and evil cannot speak true wisdom by accident.  As a pastor-teacher living alongside temporarily you I invite you to look for the signs of grace in yourself and in your leaders: and if you want to be a leader then be ready for examination.  Maybe the examination will come (as it did for me) with violence and hatred, maybe it will come in seduction and flattery, maybe it will come as damned hard work and lots of it.  If you’re not ready for the test amongst the people then you’re not ready to be their teacher or a leader.  If no one is ready for the test then the whole community will be leaderless, teacherless, and heading for calamity.  Pray for your leaders and teachers, and if you don’t know who they are then pray that God will send you some.

In the last portion of  James 3:6 Jacob sets out a frame for understanding how the ways in which members of a local church (body) speak about each other can destroy the church for generations.  Maybe this is a mixing of theologies; Paul writes more about the body as a metaphor for the Church, it’s perhaps not Jacob’s first thought, but it rings true for the big-C Church, the whole collection of Christians from Jacob to now, and it rings especially true for the local church.  I have been in congregations where there is implicit and explicit enmity – these congregations do not grow, they die.  Gossip, whispers, half-truths, complete lies, all are destructive to friendship communities, how much more so the people of God?  If Paul’s metaphor is good, and we are the body where Jesus is the head, and some of us are hands and some of us are feet, if you are a tongue then Jacob warns you to be very careful.

One of my commentators suggested, and I agree, that Jacob’s key learning outcome in this short passage is consistency.  Consistency in purity for sure, no one wants a consistent evil, although at least that would be easier to manage – there’s no deception there.  No, speak with the voice coming up from your depths, from your heart and guts, be consistent with yourself.  If you like what you hear, then honour God and stay on course, and consider offering yourself to the church as a teacher or leader.  If you don’t like what you hear, then honour God and seek healing.  “I don’t like the way I speak,” or, “I don’t like how I get so angry so quickly”, or “I don’t like that I use so many swear words without thinking.”  All are good, if they are honest.  So, seek God and look for the teachers and leaders who can help you – that’s why God has raised them up amongst you.  As was read to us this morning from Proverbs 1:20-33 heed wisdom’s warning, in other words let yourself be taught by the best teachers.

Lest you think me worthy of a double portion of Frequent Martyr Points following my story about Sarah and her classmates, let me tell you about one of the times I stuffed up.  Sarah was in the room on this, an earlier occasion, back when the scheme was still underway.  So, there were five students, all in that older group so 15 or 16 years old, and two of them were heaping the insults on me.  “Oh, my days Squeak why is you even here?  No one likes you, no one respects you, no one is listening to you, your whole life is a mess man.”  Maybe it was late in the day, or late in the week.  You know, Thursday afternoon when it’s not yet Friday and it’s been one of those days for the last nineteen days in a row.  Anyway, I snapped.  Not angry and shouty snapped, just let my guard down.  “You have got to be joking,” I said, in my normal classroom voice, “I am the most sorted person here.”  That was all I said, and I said it and didn’t yell it, and I said it and I didn’t sneer it.  In hindsight I probably said it more for my own benefit that theirs, a reminder to myself that whilst the first three points were undoubtedly true amongst the kids themselves, and some of the staff – that I was not liked, respected, or listened to – my whole life was not, in fact, a mess at all.  All I did in fact was annoy the other, silently hateful, students.  Suddenly all five of them were shouting, “Oh my days man, I was just sittin’ here and now you says I’m a mess?  You’re an effin’ mess you effin’ rat look-alike.  An’ why can’t you even speak English and why don’t you jus’ go back to effin’ Australia,” and so forth.  I didn’t lose any friends, I didn’t have any; not in that room anyway, but I lost my teacherly and leaderly for a moment.  One slip in my internal dialogue and I was set back a few weeks’ worth of slow progress toward shalom.

So, I urge you, heed Wisdom’s advice and the wisdom of Jacob.  Look for leaders amongst you and pray earnestly for them, especially if your search for a leader points to you.  Do not lose heart, stay close to God and follow God’s way as Jesus did and as Jacob and Paul and the Proverbalist taught.

And above all else remember this: in England they are called crisps.

Amen.

We stand together

This is the text I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn Uniting Church at Newborough on Sunday 9th September 2018.  It is the second in a series of five sermons on James and as such much of the text is repeated from the first week since this is a different congregation.  I have added below only what was new, so if you want the first part then look at last week’s text.

James 2:1-10, 14-17

The third thing humanity needs in a messy world is love.  God’s first gift to each of us was life and with life came the gifts of an abundant life.  Live abundantly, which is to say generously, with love.  Listen before you speak says Jacob, and don’t be fast about anger.  (Fast anger is the response to being offended, so work on not being so easily offended – really listen to what is being said and then respond from the love of God.  If you are in any doubt about the place of “righteous anger” in the godly life then hear how The New Jerusalem Bible reads James 1:20 that God’s saving justice is never served by human anger, and The Passion Translation renders the same verse as human anger is never a legitimate tool to promote God’s righteous purpose.  There is a place for righteous anger, and injustice is that place, but shouting at other fallen, human people to make God’s point is not the way to do it.  Hear Jacob, human anger does not bring about the righteousness which God desires all to have; humble submission to God and humility in conversation with others does.  Love is active, and Jacob encourages those of us who are religious to practise faith as well as talking about it.  By all means do talk about your faith, talk theology, talk ministry, talk devotion and worship, but remember that activity breeds memory and creates a habit of goodness.  Those who actively carry out what God has instructed will be blessed in the doing.

Today we read where Jacob in James 2:1-9 wrote about justice in interpersonal relationships, writing that God does not favour anyone by human standards of wealth or health so neither should the Church.  We should not exclude anyone from full participation when we meet as Church, and as Christians in our individual dealings with people in the world we should show respect.  Human justice is not trustworthy: many among the rich are exploitative and are therefore unfit to be favoured over the poor anyway, and in Jacob’s experience it is the self-satisfied who speak against the glorious name into which we were baptised.  Think about the wealthy people mocking equitable healthcare on those TV ads, the Church is not to act like that with regard to social justice.  Rather the  Church is to display the love of neighbour as for self as the scriptures used by Jacob clearly state in Leviticus 19:18.  If it’s good enough for Moses it’s good enough for me, and that Jesus said exactly the same thing leaves me in no doubt.

What we read in James 2:10-13 connects these ideas with the greater truth of keeping God’s law.  To act unjustly is to go against everything God says and is about; to follow the world in this is just as sinful as to murder or fornicate.  You can’t pick and choose which parts of the Way of God to focus on and be righteous in, it’s all-or-none, and because of this Jacob wrote in James 2:14-26 that the way Christians live is as important as the way Christians think.  A follower of Jesus cannot have one without the other.

Be in no doubt that practical help is a necessity when injustice is seen, not just well-wishes.  Your theology is important, but it must not get in the way of your work for the Kingdom in the world and the mission of extending the influence of God’s will in the world.  Jewish heroes, male and female, showed their belief in God by obeying God in action and not only in #thoughtandprayers.  A faith without action is no faith at all, and religious action without understanding is no faith at all.  As plainly as Jacob can make it he goes right to the heart of Judaism and says that even the core creedal activity, the one thing above all things that makes you a Jew, to recite Shema, is not enough.  Read the words of James 2:14 in The Passion Translation, faith without works is useless for saving anyone.

So, get on with it.  Amen.

Three (Trinity B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell for Sunday 27th May 2018, Trinity Sunday in Year B.

Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

I don’t know about you, but for me the Doctrine of the Trinity seems like a mixed blessing.  It’s one of the big-ticket items that really sets Christianity apart from Judaism and Islam, let alone the religions that don’t worship the God of Abraham and Moses.  That’s not really a bother for me, that Christianity is unique in this way, it’s good to be unique.  It doesn’t bother me that the Doctrine is somewhat baffling; I want God to be a little bit mysterious because God is apparently all that is and was and ever shall be, and it’s kind of disappointing if I can grasp all of that, even at 46 years old and holding a Masters degree.  So, a God who is beyond my imagining and rationalising is a solid point for me: a God who is beyond is a God who is what a God is supposed to be.  No, the mixed part in the blessing is the question of the point of it all.  So, God is infinite, and God is Three-fold in Unity: but why does that matter?  Why do we actually need a Doctrine of the Trinity, can’t we just let God be God, awesome and eternal?  Why can’t the Church just get on with saving the lost, raising the dead, and healing the sick, and leave what is above the clouds above the clouds?

In this morning’s reading from the scriptures of Israel the vision of God given to the Judahite prophet Isaiah is of God is The LORD high and lofty, the subject of seraph worship and adoration.  Isaiah doesn’t have a vision of God in Heaven; no God is enthroned on earth inside the room which is the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  The seraphim are also present on the earth and they cry out in awe of God, the majestic one.  The whole temple shakes to its foundations with the sound of seraph worship as the seraphim heed the injunction of Psalm 29:1-2.  Now, let’s remember that the foundation of Solomon’s Temple is actually the summit of Mount Zion; so, it seems that the whole mountain and with it the whole city of Jerusalem is rocking at the experience of divine anthems of adoration.  It is not that the seraphim are singing loudly, no, what is occurring is that the response of God to worship is so resounding, and the response of all creation to the display of God’s glory as it fills the whole earth is so violent.  This is God in all of God’s God-ness, this is undeniably God the earthquake and not God the gentle whisper: indeed, we read in Isaiah 6:3-5 that God’s glory is volcanic in its sound, sight and stench, and that it is utterly terrifying for the self-consciously human Isaiah who stands before it.  In the first five chapters of his book Isaiah has been denouncing the sins of Judah, especially of the city, and now here he stands in the first verses of chapter six at centre of Jerusalem in the holiest place on Earth with the memory of his prophecies; he knows that not only is he unworthy to be in the presence of The LORD enthroned he is in a dire predicament as a sinner in the presence of so imposing a display of holiness.  However, he is not in imperilled at all, and with a seraph’s touch Isaiah’s sin departs and is blotted out: Isaiah is justified just as if he’d never sinned, and he is considered worthy not only to stand in the presence of The LORD but to step closer to the throne and volunteer for a mission of proclamation.

Now on Trinity Sunday we can see some obvious links.  The cry of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 is “holy, holy, holy”, so that’s three holies.  Three, eh?  Eh!  And look at Isaiah 6:8a where The LORD asks Whom shall I send, who will go for us?  “Us”, eh?  Eh!

But have you missed what has just happened with Isaiah?  Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God The LORD is personally present in Jerusalem.  And God The LORD forgives and forgets a man’s sin, and God The LORD commissions this renewed man to proclaim the Word of God to Judah.  I mean, wow, that’s a lot more pervasive an idea than a three-fold refrain in the liturgy.  God does what Jesus is supposed to do, but God does this before Jesus gets a chance to do it.  Maybe The LORD God and the messiah are not only on the same team, maybe they are following the same game-plan because today we have seen God act like Jesus.

In today’s prescribed part of the letter to Rome, Romans 8:12-17 Paul is admonishing the Church to be active in the outworking of their faith.  Grace introduces not just a new mood (forgiven), but a new way of being in the world.  Now life is by the Spirit of God and those who heed the Spirit’s wisdom are saved from the desires of the flesh.  It is this Spirit, capital-S, who empowers those who take up godliness to act in this way.  In other words, God is active in the life of the believer, and because of God’s action through the Spirit so the believer is supposed to be active in the work of God, calling upon God as Abba and living as children who serve, worship, and obey.  “God’s spirit in you is God’s voice testifying that you belong to God” is what Paul is saying.  And when the Spirit, big-S, is acting in you and on you when you suffer for Christ then God is in effect suffering with you.

So, another of today’s readings offers obvious connections to the idea that God exists in the plural as a unity rather than in solitude.  The Spirit in you points to God who is your Father, the two are working as one to guarantee your identity as son or daughter of the one you call Abba.  When you, son or daughter of Abba suffer for the sake of Christ who is the true Son, the Spirit who is in you also suffers alongside you.  So, the Spirit within you as you live for Jesus who is called Emmanuel (God-Brings-Salvation and God-With-Us), draws you close enough to God The Father that you can speak of God as Abba, or my own dearest daddy.

In John 3:1-17 the gospel author tells us that Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, recognises in Jesus’ activities the action of God.  Jesus confirms this, and says that all who trust God in the way that he trusts God will do the work of God as they empowered by the Spirit, capital-S.  However, as he makes clear in John 3:13 Jesus is not ordinary disciple, he is The Son of Man who alone has descended from The Father, and he is the vehicle of trust.  To trust in the work and word of Jesus is to trust in the work and word of God, because as John 1:1 reads Jesus himself is The Word of God.  Those who exalt the LORD when Jesus the man is crucified are those whom God is saving through the blessing of a full life: Jesus is making a wordplay in John 3:14-15.  See Jesus lifted up and lift high the name of The LORD as you look at Jesus.  Those who lift high the name of The LORD will live a life of eternity: not just a life that goes to infinity but a life that is literally a “life of the eons”, the biggest, brightest, boldest, most abundant life possible, a life full of God because it is filled with and by the Spirit.

So, what is the point of all of this?  And even if we have somehow proved by this skip across the top of the Bible that God’s essence is expressed as a unity of three co-eternal persons, existing of the same substance distinct from all created things, why does that even matter?  In some ways that’s a deeper question than we can address in the forty minutes remaining in my sermon: some of the greatest minds in Christianity spent their lives examining this question and never got to the end.  The triune nature of God is literally an eternal question: infinite and beyond all proportion of space and time to tell.  So, I won’t even begin, except to say that if you’re keen to follow the theological pathways start in the Bible and go next to the Cappadocian Fathers.

In the meantime, let’s remind ourselves of what we have heard this morning.  In Isaiah 6 we heard God act like Jesus, forgiving sin and commissioning a missionary with the gospel.  In John 3 we heard Jesus speak with patient correction to an expert in scripture, a community leader whose love for law and ritual had misdirected his heart away from those for whom Jesus’ compassion was greatest, the spiritually orphaned.  In Romans 8 we heard Paul instruct a local church to be more like Jesus, especially to live in the world with the fullness of the presence of God, and to love like a brother-sister everyone in the Church and every woman or man who entered the local congregation’s space.

So, in a grossly unfair oversimplification, (but on the other hand why complicate things), the Doctrines of The Trinity tell us that whatever God is made of God is internally and eternally consistent.  God is always the same.  Three points, because of course there must be three.

  1. God is love and God loves. The Father in all God’s glory has the same character of Jesus in all Jesus’ simplicity; Jesus lived and proclaimed love for neighbour, love for friend, and that greater love has no one than Calvary.  That’s God, not just Jesus, that’s all of God who loves with greater love.
  2. Christians who claim to trust Christ for salvation, and who proclaim Jesus as the Way, not only as “the way to Heaven” where the Nicene Creed is the password to unlock the gate that St Peter holds shut, but the Way as in a way of life, should live like Jesus lived. God is abundant and sacrificial love: we should do the same.  We cannot be the love that God is, but we can express the love that God expressed in Jesus.
  3. Christian love, the love that God is and the love that the Church expresses as people who walk in the footsteps of Jesus, is hard. Love cost Jesus his life, and it may well cost us our lives too: or it may cost us something even worse than death, it may cost us embarrassment.  Martyrs sometimes have it easy, they only have to be brave for a few minutes and then they die gloriously even if somewhat messily: we have to stand fast for decades in faithfulness.  It can be a lot lot harder to live for Jesus than to die for him, I am in no doubt of this, but that is where the Spirit comes in.  The paraclete of Pentecost, the helper, counsellor, and advocate, is also God Godself and the Spirit is the one who helps us to call The Father “Abba”, to call Jesus “lord”, and to call others “brother-sister”.  The same one who is God lives in you; equipping, encouraging, and comforting you in the life-long ministries of worship and hospitality.

And that’s why all this Trinity business matters: because not only does God want you to act like Jesus, remembering that God acts like Jesus, but the Spirit who is God is given to you to make it happen.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow: praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Amen.

Resurrexit B

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell and Yallourn Cluster of the Uniting Church for Easter Day 2018, Sunday 1st April.  On this day they gathered at Yallourn North.

Isaiah 25:6-9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Mark 16:1-8

The disciples who gathered (and scattered) on Holy Saturday did not know it was a day of vigil.  They did not know Sunday was coming: they thought it was all over.  When the women approached the tomb just after sunrise, whispering amongst themselves about how they were going to move that huge stone, they were doing so because they hade no expectation that the stone had been moved.  They were carrying spices to anoint Jesus’ corpse because that is what they expected to find, if they were actually able to move that huge stone in the first place.  No-one was expecting the stone to be moved and the body to be gone, and even when they arrived and found it thus their first thoughts would not have been resurrection but desecration and grave robbery.  Do not be mistaken, the women’s first impressions of the empty tomb were not joy and worship, but heartbroken desolation.  “First, they crucify him, and then this.  They open his grave and steal his battered body to do God-knows-only what horrific things to him.”  It was with this mindset, this anguish and agony, this anxiety tinged with outrage, that the women meet the young man dressed in white.

Unique among the four gospel writers Mark relates only an empty tomb story and not a resurrection.  Jesus is not in the tomb, the tomb is open and empty, but unlike Matthew, Luke and John Jesus is never seen alive.  In one way we should not expect to see Jesus there, since in Mark 14:28 we read how he instructed the disciples to meet him in Galilee; so that’s where he will be.  To see the risen Jesus the disciples must go to Galilee, to the home of Jesus the Nazarene as Mark and the young man in white tell us in Mark 16:6.  Strangely, uniquely, Mark doesn’t tell us about that event and he finishes his story here.

Jesus’ final instruction to his followers in Mark’s gospel is to go home: to his and their home, which Mark 1:16-20 tells us is Galilee and the place where it all began.  Jesus will appear again, but he will do so away from Jerusalem, in private, and among the “True Believers”.  The message is reiterated at the empty tomb to the women; and these women are also Galilean.  The next big thing in God’s plan of coming into the world in creaturely form is given to three women; Galilean females far from home, standing in front of a tomb which has been ransacked, and if they are seen there, women who are liable to prosecution and execution on suspicion of being the grave-robbers themselves.

I bet you weren’t expecting that from the first page of your Easter Sunday sermon, were you?  So baffling, so threatening, so many unanswered questions, so abrupt a conclusion to the story of Immanuel that it hardly constitutes a conclusion at all.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 says what Mark 16:1-8 does not, which is what happened on and after that first Easter Sunday morning.  Jesus does appear in person to Peter and then the twelve, and to a crowd of 500, and to his brother James, and to the apostles, and then to Paul himself.  So, not to the women then: and since Paul doesn’t actually say where all of this took place then perhaps it did all happen in the Galilee somewhere.  Maybe the women did eventually tell Peter what they saw, and maybe he lead the group back to the lake where he and they found Jesus waiting for them.  Perhaps this is where the 500 were, and James as well.  Maybe James as the next brother in the family has assumed the duties of the eldest with the death of Jesus and he has taken the grieving Mary home to Nazareth.  Thanks to Paul, we get a sort of seventeenth chapter of Mark in 1 Corinthians, and all is good with the world.  All is good for the moment at least.

You don’t need me to tell you that for Christians the resurrection of Jesus is a central idea in our religion. It’s arguably the central idea, and the fact that you have each come to congregate in this building on this morning suggests that you get that.  The idea that Jesus returned to Earth in human likeness yet newly different; not as a disembodied and enlightened soul but as a real-yet-not-like-us person, is what 1 Corinthians 15 is all about.  The facts and faith of the resurrection of Jesus is the future of the Church; and that God is the one who does it is central to our understanding.  By God I am not saying that Jesus had inherent power to raise himself, but that The Father displays Jesus to whomever The Father chooses to reveal him, and hides Jesus from whomever The Father chooses to hide him.  God’s promise to the Church and to all who believe in Jesus is new life, a fuller life which is still recognisable as human life.  When Jesus appeared to each of the groups described by Paul, and those described by Matthew, Luke, and John in their gospels, and Peter in his testimony, he is not a ghost.  The resurrected one is not a phantom, neither is he an angel; he is a man transformed by the power of God.  When we leave this life and enter the next, fuller life in the perfection of the Kingdom of God neither will we be ghosts or angels: like Jesus we will be men and women transformed, transfigured even, by the power of God.  The resurrected Jesus is for Christians the definitive sign and the visible evidence of the promise of the Reign of God.  We shall become what Jesus became when Christ returns as king.

This is what it means when Paul writes that we are being saved through the good news we have heard (1 Corinthians 15:1-2).  This is the good news, this is the message to which we hold firm, this is the promise where if we don’t get it then all else of our faith is in vain.  Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures and was raised to life in accordance with the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  Christ Jesus was vindicated by the resurrection: the prophets had said centuries before that the victory of justice over violence was coming, it came, and now we hold to it as true and valuable.  Jesus really did live, really did die, and really was revealed by God as a resurrected and transformed man.  The Christian gospel in its entirety is proved right by this, and it is shown to have power to transform the world, starting with our self-identification as sinners and traitors (1 Corinthians 15:3).

So, what does this mean for us?  Our Old Testament reading offers that with the resurrection of Christ the promises made to Israel to bless all nations through them came into effect.  Isaiah 25:6-9 speaks to how what was first promised to Judahites is released into the world for all to take benefit.  In the Kingdom of God celebration will replace mourning, comfort shall replace disgrace, and restoration will replace destruction and all who choose to attend will be welcomed at the place of God’s revelation.  Just as Jesus was restored and vindicated in the resurrection so the hope of deliverance for all who gripped on to faith with tenacity and desperation as all else faded shall be vindicated when they are brought home to God and to freedom.

So that’s what today is all about, because that is what Christianity is all about.  The central message of Jesus was the inconceivably generous and gargantuan love of God for creation, particularly for women and men, and the eternal plan for reconciliation and the restoration of God’s rule on Earth as it is in Heaven.  That is what “repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand” means, the first words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel.  Change your mind about God, because overwhelming love is coming, and when it comes you will still be you, but you will never be the same again.

Amen.