For Better or For Worse

This is the message I preached at Lake Tyers Beach Uniting Church on Sunday 12th February 2017, Epiphany 6 in Year A.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

There’s been a lot of talk about other religions in the news recently, and by recently I could say that these conversations go back decades.  We hear, especially about Islam, of people who are “radical” and others who are “moderate”. In Islam and Christianity, we hear of “fundamentalists”. Indeed, if you follow the news from Open Doors or Barnabas Fund or another agency concerned with persecuted Christians you will hear of “radical” Buddhists, Hindus, Zionists, and atheists.  My concern today is not with the radical believers of any faith, nor with the moderates.  I find both of those adjectives quite unhelpful when speaking of religious believers and I may well speak on that in months to come.  (After all, how would you like to be described as a “Moderate Christian”?  If someone called me that I’d probably bite them, which would make me a “Radical” I suppose.)

No, my concern today is the fundamentalists, but I want to use that label in a positive way.  Today I want to talk about those people who have taken the time to learn and practice the fundamentals of the Christian faith, the foundational stuff upon which can be built a mature and substantially unique faith.

Each of the texts presented to us by the Lectionary this morning has as its key theme a focus on what we might think of as the basics, the fundamentals of the faith.  In the passage from Deuteronomy Moses sets two clear choices before the Hebrew people.  Having begun speaking at Deuteronomy 1:6 Moses is still going as we pick up the narrative at Deuteronomy 30:15; where he has come to the climax of his oration.  For the great leader of God’s people and a man who has walked for forty years to reach this point this really is a life or death moment for his people, even if the threat is not immediately apparent to them.  For those of us who live in the twenty-first century and have been taught to dislike the idea of a “prosperity gospel” Moses offers an alternative in the “adversity gospel”.  Obey God and go well in the land: disregard God and perish soonishly.  Do not be lead astray, all of creation is called as witnesses to the decision you make today.  It’s your choice to make, says Moses, and it’s a free choice.  But please, for your own sake, choose life so that God will be able to fill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The key decision is not one of law or obedience, but of worship.  As newcomers to the land of Canaan will the Hebrews continue to worship their ancestral god, the One who brought them out of Egypt, or will they default to the baals and the local demigods of the defeated native peoples?  By the same token will they trust the LORD while they are exiled elsewhere, or will they worship the gods of the receiving nations and conquerors?  So, what is the fundamental teaching here?  Well it is that the People of God should worship God only, and they should rely completely upon God to deliver them next time just as God delivered them last time.

Then the Psalmist joins in.  Happy are the blameless, says the Psalmist, are those who love God and who seek God and who obey God.  In other words, how blessed you are if you have learned to trust God out of a proven relationship with God.  Happy are those who know from experience that God’s way is always better, even if it seems to lead through the valley of shadows.  Those who heed God’s advice will never be forsaken by God: God has never been in the business of mocking or abusing disciples and God does not set traps for the trusting.  The psalm opens with a word of declaration, this is not a question or a desire but a statement of fact: those whose way is blameless are happy, that’s just the way it is.

This is paragraph “Aleph” or “A” in an acrostic poem, a poem which may well have been an A-Z primer for young Jewish disciples learning Torah.   It is basic teaching, spoon-feeding, and like Moses the message is trust God and worship God, first and only.

In the same simplistic way, Paul addresses our friends the Corinthians, speaking to them as if they were just starting out in life at big school, drinking their milk at play-lunch and learning their alphabet.  Look at 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 where he says “I once spoke to you as if you were infants, and I see I still have to because in many ways you are still so immature.  So long as you continue to act like squabbily kids I’ll treat you as such”.  Ooh harsh!  But he doesn’t leave it there, he addresses the nature of their childishness, specifically their self-directed name calling, by placing each of those names and the characters they represent in an ongoing process of growth.  It is God from whom you should all take your belonging, says Paul, since I, Paul, and Apollos (to name but two) are merely facilitators of the work the Holy Spirit is doing.  Paul and Apollos were both ministers (diakonoi in Greek), and they had slightly different roles in the life of the Corinthian church.  But they were colleagues none the less, and servants of God the master gardener and God the landowner.  So, what is their message?

Trust God and worship God, first and only.  Who is Paul?  Who is Apollos?  Who even are Moses, David, Solomon, Asaph and the Sons of Korah?  All great men, but the LORD is…well the LORD is the LORD, and the LORD alone is worthy of adulation, obedience, and utterly dependant love.

Your instinct for tribalism is good, says Moses and Paul, but your focus must be upon being the people of God, and not on yourselves or your favourite preacher.  Don’t fix your eyes on Moses, or Paul: look to God.  In our tradition and generation, we might say don’t fix your eyes on John Knox, John Wesley, Brian Houston, or Damien Tann, great men of God that they are.  Look to God.  Moses says look to God.  Paul says look to God.  Wesley and Houston constantly say look to God.  And I certainly say look to God.

So, what does God say?  Some of this we have been told in scripture.  Moses is speaking on behalf of God when he says choose the way of life.  Choose the way of obedience to the precepts of God, which includes the commandments, but is so much more than that in encompassing your god-directed conscience.  Be faithful to God in the confidence that God has already been faithful to you.  Trust only in God because if you have nothing except God you have everything, but if you have everything except God you have nothing.  What Moses says, as the voice of God, is that if you have God you will never have nothing, because God is generous and God is kind.  God knows how the world works and that you need stuff.  God does not promise you a Ferrari if you tithe 12%, but God promises you will never be left destitute if you trust God.  The “prosperity gospel”, if there is one in truth, is not that God will guarantee you excessive wealth if you trust in Jesus Christ, but that God will guarantee the Spirit’s presence and wise-guidance with you in every instance of adversity, and that God will bring you out of adversity every single time.  The promise of eternal life is not Heaven after you stop breathing, but that your life will be worth living while you are breathing.  In other words, there is no living death for you: trust God and you will be brought through adversity.  Try going it alone in adversity and, as Moses says in Deuteronomy 30:17-18, you will not live long in the land.  As a Christian you will still go to Heaven, but your life will have been wasted and your call will have been left unfulfilled.

Let’s turn now to Matthew and to more of that great advice for living from Jesus..  In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says “you have heard it was said to those in ancient times…but today I say to you…” and what he is doing here, apart from re-interpreting the text for personal application of its meaning is that he’s directing that meaning towards personal relationships. God’s divine law is actually about helping you to be a good bloke/sheila, and a great mate.  Don’t let your anger, or your lust, or your bravado get out of control such that you cause harm to yourself or other people.  Perhaps Jesus is saying “’be a moderate Christian”, more likely he is saying, “be a person of moderate behaviour because you are a foundational Christian”.  As I indicated last week, and I’m really coming to believe this the more I study and the more I preach on this, God would prefer you to be nice to each other than that you come to church.  God certainly would prefer that you did both, and certainly church is a place of sanctuary and not a home for the upwardly pious, but given a choice between you being an easy man or woman to befriend and who spends Sundays being nice, and you being a grumpy sook who comes to church, God’s preference is the first one.  By all means if you are a grumpy sook keep coming, we hope that the lovely people here will make you feel safe and loved so that you have less to sook and grump about.  But if you are truly, passionately, devotedly following God revealed in Jesus Christ then your life should be reflecting that in your kindness, patience, honesty, transparency, and good humour.

This is no easy gospel.  There is much more to Christian discipleship than “be excellent to each other” as Bill and Ted once said.  (Twice actually because there was a sequel.)  The fact is that you can’t actually be this nice if you don’t have Christ within you and the confident hope that comes from the salvation of God earned for you by Jesus on the cross.  A “good Christian” must be more than “a nice person”, but he or she should certainly not be less.

The fundamentals of Christianity start at Calvary, I have no doubt of that and my own feet are planted firmly on that rock.  I believe in the empty manger, the empty cross, and the empty tomb, and because of what those locations represent in the distant past, human life of Jesus who is and forever will be the Christ of God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, today I have the confidence to be patient, resilient, and kind.

You have been saved.  It’s more than okay to smile, laugh, and be kind because of that.  In fact, it’s practically required of you to do so.

Amen.

Advantageous Overview

This is the text of the message I preached at Delamere Uniting Church on Sunday 11th December 2016, the third Sunday in Advent in Year A.

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

“Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return…” (Clap four times).  As it was two weeks ago on the first day of Advent so today we are reminded of the Jewish people progressing up to Jerusalem in celebration.  Two weeks ago we heard Psalm 122  and learned about the songs of ascent and the pilgrims going up to a festival at the temple, but today’s reading is from the prophets, not the psalms, and this journey carries a deeper meaning.  This is the story of the returning exiles, the members of a second exodus going up to Jerusalem after their time of imprisonment in Mesopotamia.  Look at how God is apparently being selective here: in Isaiah 35:8 it reads that the redeemed shall return, but the unclean won’t even be allowed to begin the journey. This is a consecrated road of return from exile to the land of promise; the road itself is safe from both lions and losers.  We’ll hear more about that later, but for now let’s jump back a few verses and look at Isaiah 35:5-7 in the light of our gospel story.

In Matthew 11:5 Jesus addresses the doubts of John the Baptiser as a prophet and speaks of his own ministry as the fulfilment of John’s prophecy, and of Isaiah 35:5-7.  “Tell John”, says Jesus, “what is happening before your own eyes”.  We must remember that John in gaol at this stage, the involuntary guest of the local Herod, so he’s not able to see what the disciples of John, still at large, can see.  The very signs prophesied by Isaiah as the marks of the road of return are evident in the ministry of Jesus.  The blind, lame, leprous, deaf, dead, and poor are restored to fullness.  This is all the sign you need.  Note that Jesus doesn’t actually answer John’s question with a yes or a no, Jesus never says “I am he” or “I am not he”; what Jesus actually says is “look at the evidence and draw the obvious conclusion”.  There is blessing for those who recognise the obvious truth demonstrated in the real world by observable proof.  Use your senses, and be sensible.

In Matthew 11:10 it reads that Jesus proclaims John the Baptiser as the greater than the greatest prophet.  I suggest that Jesus said this because John had the sole privilege of pointing out the Messiah in person.  Where all other Jewish prophets had spoken of the one to come as an historical figure in the future, John was able to say “there is one coming, and that’s him over there, the one with the beard and the Galilean accent”.  Yet Jesus goes on to say, and Matthew records this in 11:11, that even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than John.  So, John is greater than any of the prophets and the patriarchs, not just greater than Isaiah and Elijah but greater than Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well, but he’s a nobody compared to the most insignificant Christian who has ever lived.  How is that possible?  Jesus says that each of you is greater in prophetic strength than even John the Baptiser, can you believe it?

Well it’s true, and it’s true because we each have the privilege of the lived experience of Jesus.  John pointed to a man on the riverside, and then met him in the act of baptism.  But then Jesus departed for his own ministry in Galilee and John was nicked by the old bill and taken off to Chateaux Herod.  Unlike John, but like John’s disciples who carried his questions to Jesus, we have the evidence of Jesus the healer, the preacher, and the exorcist living amongst us.  I can testify to Jesus because of things I have seen, and you can do the same.  This is the advantage we have in this Advent season, the lived experience of being where Jesus is ministering to us, to others, and to others through us.  (And to us through others of course.)  John the Baptiser didn’t get to see any of that, neither did Moses, and even the disciples of John only got to see it when Jesus was physically present with them.

We are eyewitnesses to the Reign of God, the places and the times when the lived experience of the Kingdom of God really is “on Earth as it is in Heaven”.  No-one who lived before the first century CE ever saw that, and some places on Earth still haven’t.

It seems clear that John had his doubts.  Perhaps the very fact that he was in prison made him question whether Jesus was who John thought he was.  After all if you’ve just heralded the messiah and all that that means in Jewish history you might be asking yourself, and the aforementioned messiah, why the righteous are in gaol and the Romans are in Jerusalem.  Perhaps he didn’t have doubts so much as he felt out of the loop: as we have said John hadn’t been present for any of Jesus’ ministry so news of the eyewitnesses was enough for him.  Either way John’s questions gave Jesus the opportunity to give some great answers.  “Look at the evidence in light of the prophets” says Jesus, “I’m doing the things that Isaiah said would be done”.  Seeing is believing, Jesus knows this, and Jesus suggests that it is actually okay to doubt.  Jesus doesn’t castigate John for his questions; he simply points John towards the evidence, and praises John’s faith and obedience behind John’s back.

Doubt is not unbelief; doubt it is various locations along the road to deepening belief.  In today’s epistle James points to the example of the prophets who spoke the truth of God with patience, speaking out confidently what they were very unlikely to see fulfilled.  In the time of John the Baptiser Jesus’ work was underway but it was yet to be completed, so Jesus’ message to John was to not lose heart.  As a prophet John had foreseen the end and he had foretold that which was coming, but Jesus reminded him that the end was not there yet and the coming is still coming.  It is still coming, you were right and you can have faith in God, but be patient.

This message is good for us too, isn’t it?  For all that we have seen in this broken world so desperate for more of the sovereignty of God to roll across it with healing and unity we have also seen where God’s sovereignty has been rolled out already.  We have seen miracles, we have heard the good news, and the signs of truth and relentless advance are there (here) before us.  We too can be patient for what we want to see, based in the confidence of what we have seen.

So what of the unclean who aren’t allowed a look in?  Remember them from page one and Isaiah 35:8A highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it.  But it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.  My goodness, that sounds a little harsh and dismissive, doesn’t it?  Elitist? In closing I offer you two responses.

First thing of two.  Isaiah is saying that the road is free of predators.  It’s not that only the religious in-crowd get to use the road but that it is safe from the deliberately evil muggers and murderers.  Remember, this is a road through the wilderness, so you need to be on guard for bushrangers and Bedouin.  Just as in Isaiah 35:9 where it reads there are no lions or ravenous beasts so it reads in Isaiah 35:8 the road is safe from ravenous men.

Second thing of two.  Isaiah is saying that this road passes through what once was desert, but is not any more.  In Isaiah 35:1 the wilderness is glad and the desert is in full bloom. In Isaiah 35:5-7 we read of the miracles accompanying the travellers on this road, miracles seen in the ministry life of Jesus.  There are no unclean upon this road because everyone who walks this road is made clean by walking it.  If the dead can be raised and the blind made to see anything ritually or morally inappropriate carried by a pilgrim cannot last long on that road.

The road we walk, the road of miracles and the road of the coming king, is the redeeming road of the Lord.  We know it is because we see the acts of healing and restoration taking place all around us, where the once-leprous are stopping to touch the blossoming of the desert itself and the once-lame and once-dead are dancing alongside us on the road.  Advent means that the promises we have heard, just like the once-deaf have heard, and the promises we have begun to see unfold, just like the once-blind have seen, fill us with hope for the more which is to come.

Our job, as ever, is to follow the example of the disciples of John at the instruction of Jesus.  “Go, and tell what you have seen”, and we can tell because we have seen.  This is why John who is the greatest of all who have been born on earth is also the least of us.  We have the privilege of telling what we have seen.

So, what’s stopping you?  Go.  Tell.

Amen.

The One who comes through

This is the sermon I preached at Yankalilla Uniting Church on the occasion of the 39th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia. Sunday 26th June 2016.

Deuteronomy 30:1-10; Psalm 100; 1 Corinthians 3:10-17; John 15:1-8

The lectionary offers two sets of readings today, one for the seasonally adjusted sixth Sunday of Pentecost and the thirteenth “Ordinary Sunday” of the year, and another set for the UCA Anniversary which fell on Wednesday this past week, the 22nd of June.  So if you’re wondering why today’s readings don’t match the ones in the newsletter, well that’s why.

So what do these alternative lectionary readings have to say to us today?  In other words, what do the paid theologians and paid liturgists of the Uniting Church want us to read today as we celebrate the thirty-ninth anniversary of our establishment as a new, uniquely Australian expression of Protestant Christianity?

Well, we are directed first to read Deuteronomy 30:1-10, and the words of Moses to the gathered Hebrew tribes on the edge of the Promised Land.  You might remember that the book of Deuteronomy is actually one big long sermon wherein Moses retells the history of the Hebrew people from the giving of the law at Horeb until this point where the second generation of Hebrews stands at the cusp of entering the Promised Land.  Everyone to whom Moses is speaking, everyone except Joshua and Caleb that is, has been born in the desert.  Not one of them has living memory of Egypt or of that first visit to the edge of the Promised Land forty years ago.  Only Moses, and as I said Joshua and Caleb, know the full story.  So here is Moses telling them what has happened since that first failed attempt to enter Canaan a generation ago and in the weeks following the Exodus.  In today’s passage we have reached the part of the sermon where Moses has reached his present day.  “So here we all are,” he says, “you now know the full story and why it is that you were born in the desert rather than in the Promised Land.”  But he goes beyond that, and if you read the chapters preceding this you’ll see where Moses says that it’s all going to happen again, and the Hebrews will whinge and rebel again and that a future generation will be exiled just as the parents and grandparents of this congregation were.  But God will be faithful to them as God has been faithful to you.  When all of these things I have set before you come upon you, says Moses as we take up the story in Deuteronomy 30:1, and you take them to heart… turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul.

Do you see it?  There is a future for the Hebrew people.  The message is plain and simple: listen for God and listen to God.  Hear God and obey God; and if you do that then you will do well because God is faithful and God rewards the faithfulness of God’s own people.

Jewish and Christian scholarship in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries suggested that Deuteronomy was not written for the people of Moses’ time; rather it was written about them for people reading hundreds of years later.  Moses didn’t hand out copies of Deuteronomy on the day, and there probably weren’t too many scribes around taking notes to publish in the Jerusalem Chronicle a week later.  The story is actually written and told for the exiles in Babylon and Persia in the 540s BCE.  The story of Deuteronomy, indeed the story of the entire Old Testament, is that God is faithful to those who are faithful to God.  But this is more than reciprocity, as if God is into everyone else doing half the work.  God is faithful, full stop.  God’s faithfulness cannot be denied, full stop.   If, and indeed when, you find yourself in a place of exile remember the promise of God and that God is entirely faithful to deliver on it, full stop.  What God promised to Abraham God also promised through Moses and all the prophets.  God said I AM with you and I AM will deliver you if you turn to I AM and obey what I AM has commanded.

In other words:

Don’t care what is written in your history as long as you’re here with me.
I don’t care who you are,
Where you’re from,
What you did,
As long as you love me.

For the gospel of the Lord according to “St Backstreet Boys”, thanks be to God.

Our prescribed Psalm today is 100, the “Old Hundredth”, wherein we praised God from whom all blessings flow and the story of how we must offer praise to the faithful God whose we are.  This is a song of those who know that they have been rescued by the faithful and loving God who pursues them beyond the end of the world to redeem them.  I don’t need to read that to you or explain it to you further because we’ve already sung it, and heard a version of it as our prayer of adoration, but I am sure you can see how it fits the story of what God has been doing all along.

So what is God saying to us through the Uniting Church’s choice of readings this morning?  I hope it’s becoming clear that the message is one of God’s eternal, extravagant, and infinite faithfulness, but let’s see what Jesus and Paul have to say on the subject.

The epistle read for us today is from 1 Corinthians 3:10-17.  The first thing we notice from what Paul has written is that Jesus Christ is our sure foundation.  So it’s lucky we had that as one of our hymns this morning isn’t it?  Paul claims to have laid the foundation of Christ upon which others have built.  By this he means that he preached the gospel first, he provided the basics and the fundamentals in the truest sense of the word upon which other preachers and teachers have come and built the case for God.  Those who build on Christ as the foundation build wisely and build for strength that much is evident, even if what they build upon that foundation is flimsy.  Unlike the man described by Jesus who built upon the sand, some of the labourers in this story of Paul’s are building with hay upon the rock.

It’s like someone has let in the Three Little Pigs to run amok through the parable of Jesus.

But what does Paul say happens?  Well plainly there is no big bad wolf a’huffing and a’puffing here because what Paul describes is a purifying fire.  The gold, silver, precious stones, wood, straw and hay which represent what each man or woman has built as a life upon that foundation of Christ all face the fire.  Some things are refined down, some things are burned down.  Some things are purified to their perfect element; gold, silver, iron without impurities or slag.  Some things are changed to another element entirely; Carbon.  Soot and ashes remain for them

So, where is the faithful God then?  Where is the God of the faithful woman or man?  What happens after the fires for those who have built a life on the foundation of Christ?  Well those whose lives stood fast are rewarded by God, and those whose lives were razed and decimated are rescued by God.  Do you see that?  Even if your life-house burns down you are not punished by God, or rejected by God as not-good-enough.  It is true that there is no reward for you: God is not a multinational corporation where you get your million dollar bonus even if you drive the company into the hands of the receivers, but there is no punishment for you.  The worst thing that can happen to you if your life has been built on the foundation of Christ and disastrous circumstances arise is that God will come and…and…rescue you.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you, asks Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:16.  Indeed Paul goes on to say in verse 17 that if anyone destroys what is God’s, i.e. you, then God will destroy that person.

So, hear again the news.  Build your life on the promises of the faithful God.  If you stuff it up, and sometimes you will, God will rescue you.  If you don’t stuff it up, and sometimes you won’t, God will reward you.  And if anyone else tries to stuff you up, and they might, then God will destroy them.  It’s the same story that Moses told the Hebrews at the edge of the Promised Land, and the same story that the scriptures and the prophets told the Israelites in Exile.  Now hear Paul telling the story to Greek-speaking Christians in Europe in the Name of Jesus.  The story is the same one, God is the same one who is faithful and true, and even after Jesus came that story did not change.

So, what did Jesus himself have to say about this?  Well, our gospel text today comes to us from John 15:1-8 and the well known story of Jesus the vine.  Like the stories told by Moses, and later told about Moses, the story of Jesus is another one of those “on the cusp” stories.  This is Jesus speaking on the night that he was arrested; within eighteen hours he’ll be dead.  So it is a cusp story but it’s one unlike that of Moses and the Exiles because the disciples of Jesus are about to enter the time of abandonment.  The promised land will seem farther away than ever because the religious leaders are about to execute the Messiah for blasphemy, and the government is about to execute the King of Kings for treason.  That is severely messed up.

So, again, what does Jesus say?  He says “stay faithful to God, because God is faithful to you”.  Abide in me as I abide in you is the direct quote from 15:4; in other words stay connected and resist the temptation to let go and fall away.  It’s about to get messy lads, the betrayer is already talking to the guards, and the exile of God-Incarnate from both God and Humanity is about to take place, but God is faithful and God does come through for the exiled people every time if only they call out to God in faith-filled trust for rescue.  So, stay attuned to God, call out to God tomorrow when it all goes black and bloody, and you will be saved.

Of course we know that that is exactly what happened.  We know that Jesus died, and died horrifically, but we also know that the twelve and the hangers-on did pull through.  We know that the Hebrews under Joshua made it into Canaan.  We know that the Israelites under David conquered Jerusalem, and we know that the Judahites under Ezra and Nehemiah reclaimed the city after the Persians set them free.  We know that Paul heard the gospel from people who had met with Jesus face to face, and that Paul met Jesus in a vision.  We know that God comes through, every time, because that is what God has promised.

So what about you?  And what about the Uniting Church?  The Uniting Church believes this to be true of God: that God has promised to deliver the people who call upon God as Saviour and Lord, at the very least to rescue them from calamity and at the very best to richly reward them for their wise obedience and perseverance.  Sometimes we live in the richest blessing of God, and sometimes in the proudest rescue.  This has been and shall continue to be true of the Uniting Church because, primarily, it is true of the people of our denomination.

I know it’s true of me.

I have been in places where God could not possibly be more generous and more amazing, and then God steps it up a notch and throws me even further upwards and all I can hear is angels worshipping flat out because there’s nothing else to say but Glory!  I have also been in places so deep and so black, so far below rock bottom where all there was was suffocating peril and all I could hear was God roaring at the demons to “back off, he’s mine!” when my house of straw-on-the-rock went up in flames.

So today’s sermon in celebration of the Uniting Church is actually not about the Uniting Church at all, but about the God who is faithful to our Church, God’s Church, and to us.  Today we celebrate our anniversary by declaring our wonder-filled praise, adoration, and gratitude to the One who preserves us as witnesses to God’s faithfulness through all generations.

Happy anniversary: God has come through for us one more time.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Love in a time of Darkness

This is the message I preached to the people of Kingscote Uniting Church on Sunday 3rd May 2015.  It treats the readings from the Lectionary for Easter 5B.

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Last Saturday, eight days ago and not yesterday, I had the privilege of leading at Anzac Day for the first time. In opening my address to the gathered people at Penneshaw I reminded them that the best known Bible verse to be associated with Anzac Day comes from John 15:13 where Jesus says greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends. I told the people that the central story of Christianity is that the purest form of love was personified in Jesus Christ who, in turn, represents God whose fullest nature is to give love, and that above claims made by us religious types about God’s saving grace, forgiveness, strength and power, what the Bible says is that love is the most central meaning of the Christian story. Today’s message is also about love, and it begins like all good stories do beside a road out the back of nowhere.

We heard from Acts 8 this morning of how an angel sent Philip to the wilderness road where he met an Ethiopian god-worshipper. Philip was encouraged to help the man interpret what he was reading and we can identify this text as the servant song of Isaiah 53:7-8. The original hearers of this passage would have understood it to refer to the leaders of Israel in their day, and possibly to the unjust treatment meted out to prophets like Isaiah who had to bring such harsh words to the nation. No one likes the man who stands up in church, or in parliament, and who says that God is angry enough to smash you; even in 700 BCE the first response was to shoot the messenger. So in the time of Isaiah this passage did not refer to the future Messiah, but it did make very clear what happens to prophets who challenge the royal and religious leaders in the way that Jesus later did. Note that Luke who wrote Acts does not say that Philip says the passage is speaking about Jesus, but that beginning with the passage Philip speaks about Jesus. The story is not that Isaiah prophesied the coming of the Messiah but that a man of God speaking to the people of God through the word of God challenges those people by accusing them of preferring to kill the prophet and shut him down than hearing the word of correction against their injustices. This is exactly what happened to Jesus, as Peter made clear in Acts 3-4 which we have read together over the past two weeks.

So why does Philip start to witness to Christ with this passage? Why not John 3:16? Why not walk the unbeliever along the “Romans Road” of Evangelicalism?   Well of course there are two reasons, a practical one and a historical one. I’ll give you the historical one first: John 3:16 and Paul’s letter to the Romans had not been written at that stage. Even though John 3:16 appears on page 1912 of my Study Bible and today’s passage is on pages 1972 and 1973 the gospels hadn’t actually been written in Philip’s time. And allowing that Saul is still a fanatical anti-Christian Pharisee at this point in history, and that his conversion story doesn’t actually appear until Acts 9, we can rule out the Romans Road too. There can be no Romans Road without the Damascus Road. So there was no John 3:16 to quote, and no Romans, and that’s the historical reason why Philip didn’t start there.

But the practical reason is the better one anyway, and would apply to us even today when we do have the entire Bible to use in our faith-sharing. Philip started in Isaiah 53 because that is where the Ethiopian eunuch was reading from. In all of our personal evangelism we must always start where the person is and then point them to where Jesus is. If the person is in Isaiah 53 then that’s where we start. If the person is in Deuteronomy 5-6 then that’s where we start, and if the person is in Genesis 1-2 then that’s where we start, and if the person is in Revelation 17-18 then that’s where we start. So Philip tells the story of Jesus beginning where the Ethiopian man is at, and when he has explained the gospel Philip agrees to baptise the Ethiopian in response to the Ethiopian’s new understanding of who Jesus is. This is the story of an individual gentile who chooses to trust in Jesus, and this is one of several such stories that some before we get to the full-blown conversion of the Gentiles and the missionary work of Paul. This is an exciting story not only because Philip is miraculously teleported in and out of the location, but because it is a story about God’s preparation of the Church prior to God’s pouring out the Spirit across all Gentile nations and the whole planet.

That, for me, is a cause of celebration. God knows who the marginal are and God makes plans to include them.

So now we turn to the Psalm for today: and just look at the cascade of imagery!

In Psalm 22:25 we read “from you comes my praise”. God is the source of our worship and in 22:26 we glorify God because of the work of justice which is acts of love on behalf of the afflicted. Those who seek God will praise God; those who live life under the reign of God will give glory to God and tell true things about God. In 22:27 we read of how the whole world shall be reminded of God because of the faithfulness of the disciples who work for justice, and how people from every nation will worship God in this way because the evidence of God’s loving-kindness will not be hidden from anyone. In 22:28 we acknowledge that God is the true and rightful ruler of every realm and because of this God alone reigns in the places where God alone is worshipped and obeyed: indeed in 22:29 the worshippers of God are not restricted to the living but also to the dead. The dead worship God and the living live out their worship of God. “And I shall live for him” declares the psalmist, or an alternative reading says “and he who cannot keep himself alive” suggesting that the person who is alive to worship God is alive only because God has sustained him or her. In 22:30 the generations to come are brought in to the communal act of worship, the universal act of worship when those not yet born will be told by their ancestors about what God has done. And what has God done? God has delivered the afflicted and forsaken. God has heard the cry and God has answered with salvation and restoration.

When Jesus cried out from the cross “My God why have you abandoned me”, quoting Psalm 22:1 all who heard him were immediately reminded of Psalm 22 in its entirety. Today, in this time between Easter and Pentecost we are reminded of the same thing. The story of Easter began with a man hanging crying on a cross, but it will end with the proclamation to every future generation and every ethnicity on the planet the magnificent deeds of salvation performed by God. And what is this salvation? What salve does the Psalmist offer on behalf of the faithfulness of God? Salvation from poverty, salvation from affliction, and salvation from abandonment. More than the forgiveness of the sins of disobedience and mutiny against God, God offers restoration of relationship and the deep knowing and feeling of being held close, safe, and dear to God. You are loved, loved beyond your ability to comprehend.

Now isn’t that a God worth worshipping and a truth worth proclaiming with great joy?

(If you were Pentecostals you’d yell “Amen!” at this point.)

But if there is any doubt that God offers such love then the apostle John won’t have a bar of it. Not only does John tell us in 1 John 4 that God is loving and steadfast John goes further and says that God is love. Let there be no doubt of this, love is not something that God does and love is not something that God offers. Love is what God is: God is love.

And what is this love that is what God is, that is the nature and character of love? The love that God is is salvific. The love of God is atoning in that it is reconciling and restorative. The love that God is repairs what was broken and especially broken relationships. The love of God is soothing and healing. John makes clear in 1 John 4:12 that whilst no one has ever seen God God is known by the love that is in us and the love that is shared among us as that love is being perfected. The more love we share amongst each other the better we get at doing it, and the more God is made known in our midst and amongst those who come to the places we are, or are in the places to which we go. God does not make Godself known through wrath or teaching or morality, God is made known through the fullness of love and the love than which no love is greater. And what is the greatest form of love? Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay aside his own life for the ones he loves. That’s the words of Jesus and our many war memorials (or “peace monuments” as one veteran told me last Saturday).

Those who love like God loves are the ones who do the will of God. The ones who love like God loves have God’s presence within them. As 1 John 4:9 says God’s love was revealed amongst us and 4:20-21 says that those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters too. It is not enough to say that you love God; it isn’t even enough that that statement be true and that you do dearly and truly love God. Unless you also love your brothers and sisters in faith, the people around you this morning and other believers who you encounter in your every day life, then you cannot truly be loving God. In other words the evidence that you love the One who is unseen is that you are demonstrating your love for the ones you do see.

So what does this love look like? Well we’ve already seen that in the Psalm and in the passages from Acts and Isaiah. Love is not affection, love is justice. Love is not kindliness, love is compassion. Love is not gooey, love is sacrificial. Love is not giving you heart to someone, love is the continuous preparedness to give your life for someone.

Well if that is all true then love is hard. No wonder John speaks about love as being perfected, it certainly needs to be an ongoing process and it does appear that even John thinks the process will not be completed on earth. We can never love as completely as God loves, our physicality gets in our way. But this is where more good news comes in, and that good news comes from John in his gospel.

In the first few verses of John 15 Jesus speaks about himself being like a vine and he says that he is the source of every good thing. This is a metaphor of course, we cannot take it literally. The literal word of God here is that Jesus literally spoke about himself using a metaphor, Jesus is not literally a plant and no one would suggest that that is the case. But with Jesus imagined as a vine and God the Father imagined as a vine-grower we can talk about Christ being the stem and the roots where we are the branches. In the story of love we can say that God revealed in Christ is the source of the love we express even as the grapes on a vine are fed by the water and nutrients sourced from the soil by the roots and stem. Like a branch cut off from the soil’s nutrition a Christian cut off from Christ will not flourish. In the same way a branch cut away from the other branches will not flourish, we need each other too.

A Christian away from Christ cannot love as God intends. We have said that even as Christians we can never love to the depths and extents that God loves, but if we remain fruitful in the work of God, that is to say if we continue to work at loving others, then Christ will continue to send love to and through us for the glory of God and for the expansion of the vine. The practical reality is that if we are cut off from people we cannot love as God intends, because as John said we cannot demonstrate that we love God unless we are busy loving other people. So if you are planning on going off and sitting in a cave alone with God for a while so that you can focus on loving God without interruption, don’t stay away too long. God does call us into times of solitude to teach us, and love on us 1:1, but if you try to live out there you’ll soon be lonely. God will allow you to feel lonely because having been disciple by the Father you are supposed to come back here and get on with the work of loving us in the midst of us in the same way that the rest of us love you.

So do it. Love one another. Be excellent to each other if you must. Are you the one God could choose to send to the wilderness road? Are you the one God could choose to sing praise to God for the gifts of love including the gifts that empower us to love? Are you the one God could choose to be the Jesus-with-skin on wherever a hug is required today in Kingscote?

Be that one. That is God’s supreme plan for you today