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.

 

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What Happens On The Sabbath (Pentecost 2B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered at Morwell and then at Narracan on Sunday 2nd June 2018.

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Mark 2:23-3:6

I must admit I groaned in pain when this week’s lectionary gospel reading appeared.  I won’t say I hate this story, because I don’t.  I won’t even say that it’s very difficult to preach on, because it isn’t, and in the next hour or so you’ll see I’ve done a great job of exegesis and hermeneutics on it.  Sigh, no, this passage annoys me because I have written on it so many times.  So. Many. (Many!) Times.  It is the favoured passage of a certain Professor Emeritus of the theological college I attended, and I have written at least three essays, and a complex synoptic comparison on it. Oh begone “Jesus walks through a field of grain on the Sabbath”, begone.

Having said that, I have made no reference to those essays or synopses in preparing this sermon, so we’re good.  It also means that I’ve been able to take a fresh look at Mark’s version which we read today, and I found something new.  But let’s get to that in a minute because we need to ask why the disciples of Jesus were engaging in behaviour which violates the Jewish laws around keeping Sabbath in the first place.  Sadly, for you, I don’t want to answer that question; and if you look at the text, Jesus doesn’t actually give a very good answer himself.  The situation Jesus uses as a counter-argument wherein David as a refugee fleeing for his life, and hungry for anything food, pauses before eating to discuss theology with the high priest, is quite different to the random picking and chewing of the disciples on their Saturday afternoon stroll.  The twelve are not starving, and they are not being chased; but maybe the reason Jesus didn’t give much of an answer is that he didn’t think it much of a question: aren’t the Pharisees just being pedantic here?  I mean, come on, the disciples are taking a casual stroll and grabbing a few heads as they pass through the field, even if they aren’t the army of David, it’s not as if they’re actually harvesting.  Work is forbidden on the Sabbath, but mindlessly grabbing at the corn while you meander through the paddock: that’s not really work is it?

Still, in defence of the Pharisees we must remember that Sabbath keeping is one of the Ten Commandments.  It’s not one of those pesky religious rulings made up by scholars with nothing better to do: it is an actual decree of God given to Moses in God’s own handwriting on tablets of stone.  So, it pays to look at what Jesus is doing here.  He is not questioning pettiness, although he does that in plenty of other places and that certainly is part of what he’s doing here: no, Jesus’ primary critique is for the traditions of interpretation.  The way Jesus is speaking about Sabbath is akin to a prophet today claiming a divine mandate to redefine murder, or theft, or adultery and marriage.  And what does Jesus say?  How does The Word of God –  The Word made Flesh reinterpret a central teaching of Jewish scripture?  He says that people are always more important than doctrine.  In other words, if your interpretation of The-Word-of-God-revealed-in-scripture inhibits any person’s wellbeing, (including your own), then you need to rethink your interpretation.  God is never in error, and scripture is never in error, but the way you’re reading and thinking just might be.  According to Jesus sabbath is foremost a blessing, a gift of God, an entire day set aside each week for the fullness of shalom.  It’s not just an R.D.O., or a public holiday, and it certainly isn’t a day of mandated boredom in the name of some malevolent, laser-eyed god looking to obliterate anything that blinks or breathes before the precise instant of sundown on Saturday.  Jesus says that to be legalistic about the Sabbath is to be wrong about the Sabbath.  In other words, to be legalistic about this teaching of scripture is to be in profound theological error since Sabbath is not a legalistic matter.  Legal yes since it does pertain to the Law: but its application is never punitive.  If you want to know what is lawful on the Sabbath read on to Mark 3:4 where Jesus asks a group of lawyers gathered at worship that question.  What has been legislated, and how is it interpreted, Jesus asks.  What did Parliament decree and how have the majority of local magistrates understood and applied this?  What is the legal precedent here as established by the full bench of the High Court?  Is it lawful to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath: to save life or to kill? asks Jesus.  Now as a one-time English teacher I can tell you that this is an open question: Jesus is asking a question that requires a sentence answer because he gives a number of options.  Which is it, kill or save?  Which is it, good or evil?  And what do the scholars answer?  What?  Well they don’t answer do they: but if they had been brave enough I wonder what they would have said.  Probably “save and do good” right?  Wrong.  Think of what they believe about God: I think they would have answered with a closed answer, one word, “no”.  Just “no”.  Is it lawful to do good or evil?  No.  Is it lawful to save or kill?  No.  “Jesus,” they say, “you need to understand that it’s not lawful to do anything on the Sabbath.  Even if you do good then you are guilty of doing something simply by doing: to do good is just as horrific as to do evil because to do is to sin!”

So, who here today would like to belong to that religion?  Not me!

I should say very quickly, in case you are confused, that that religion is not Judaism.  Jesus is the ultimate Jew and is speaking to other Jews about the God of Abraham: so, don’t get all cocky in your Christianity.  The Pharisees were acting poorly as Jews in this example, Jesus was acting perfectly as a Jew.  That broad kindness always trumps the finest point of legislation is a Jewish concept, and Jesus didn’t invent it.

Anyway, Jesus is justifiably angered by the lawyers’ response, and by the lack of it, and the man is healed regardless.  Notice that the man is healed by his own action.  Jesus doesn’t actually do anything, Jesus doesn’t actually break the commandment even according to the Pharisaic definitions because it’s the man who sticks out his hand to petition and receive God’s healing.  That is when Jesus turned to the Pharisees and Herodians and said “you wanna argue about the Sabbath some more then talk to the hand.”  Of course, Jesus didn’t actually say that, but I reckon I probably would have.

But what is Jesus actually angry about?  What’s the actual trigger that moves him from despair to disappointment and rage?  Well in Mark 3:5 we read that Jesus is angered by the leaders’ hardness of heart.  “Why does the man have to bring up his troubles on the Sabbath,” they seem to be asking.  “And in the synagogue too.  Why can’t he just stay home with gloves on and come tomorrow if he wants to be healed?”  And let’s be honest, they do have a point, don’t they?  I mean, when presbytery made the effort to build a manse next to the church what is wrong with Monday?  And why do these people who need God have to interrupt church?  I’m glad you laughed there, this would have been my last Sunday here if you hadn’t.  But I wonder how far our patience really would extend if someone we didn’t know came looking for God’s miracle during our regular Sunday event.  Or worse still, someone we do know; someone who should know better than to be noisily troubled one Sunday when, after all, we all know where Damien lives and we’re sure he won’t mind giving up his Monday off if it means we can all get out of here unruffled and before 11:00 this morning.

Oh Lord we want our church to grow, please send us an interruption!!

Rituals must be subordinated to the needs of living people: but so must work be subordinated to the needs of living people.

As we listened to 1 Samuel 3 being read this morning I was reminded that Samuel was in bed and almost asleep when God spoke to him, even if he was in the sanctuary.  Had Samuel been living a 24/7 existence I think he would not have had time or energy for the voice of God to penetrate his exhausted haste.  It is for this reason, among others, that early nineteenth century Methodists were the leading voices in advocating for sabbath keeping.  This was not because they were as pious as Pharisees but because they agitated for the sacred right of every workingman to have time for sleep, eating, relaxation, and worship.  In view of this I wonder about those Christians who do not have a healthy attitude toward the Sabbath; some believing that taking one whole day in seven is an instance of old covenant, Old Testament Law to be set aside in the name of new covenant, New Testament Grace.  Really?  God’s ordained and directed regular pause to experience the peace that passes all understanding is a demand of legalism and not a fruit of grace?  Really?  So, where does Paul tell us that we are no longer obligated to have a day off?  Imagine a religion free of the compulsion to rest, and to let your slaves have a day off.  How awesome is Christianity that we are free to work 24/7 and to expect the same of our employees, especially the Christian ones. How remarkable is this good news that we are no longer enslaved by a blood covenant that commands a day off as if not working on Sundays was as important as not committing murder, rape, or fraud.

So, who here today would like to belong to that religion?  Not me!

The call of Samuel is one story of how a person, in this case a quite young boy, can best hear God when he or she is at rest in the world.  God speaks peace, shalom to the frazzled and anxious mind.  But once the mind is settled into shalom then God is able to reveal the wonders of grace and the message of God’s will.  Samuel had not sought the Lord’s voice, but because he was at peace in his life he was in the best place when God sought him.  Those among us today who are currently seeking God for some specific answer, or just for the sense of being closer to the One you worship and adore, would do well to take a sabbath.  Let God rest you, calm you, still you, and guide you.  Don’t let the legalists tell you what is or is not appropriate for a Christian or a Sunday – seek God and allow God to seek you.

And if Sunday is the only day that you have time and space in your week to do that, then do that.  If not this afternoon, then next Sunday.  You have my permission to not come to church next week if you need to go up to the mountains or down to the river to pray: just make sure that you do.  Maybe you’ll just have a pleasant time like the disciples, maybe you’ll be healed by God like the man with the once-withered hand, or maybe God will tell you fearful and wonderful news about the world and your place in it.

Let me know how you go.

Amen.

Together

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation gathered at Newborough on Sunday 8th April 2018, the Sunday after Easter in Year B.

Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31

On previous Sundays at this point in the service I have spoken of my time as a teacher, and this morning I want to briefly touch on that experience again.  Some of you may remember from my earlier stories that in several schools in the past was a teacher of students who wore the label “EBD”, which stood for “Emotional Behavioural Disorder”.  These were kids, and kids they were, whose disability was not physiological in that they had brain damage or a missing limb, but emotional in that they experienced mental illnesses or simply displayed anti-social or asocial behaviour.  I taught kids who had been expelled from other schools because they had taken a gun or a bong to school, or been involved in repeated fights, or were chronic non-attenders.  In other words, “EBD” quite often stood for “every bloody day” because that is how often they were naughty in class (or not in class as the case may be).  These weren’t the special children in wheelchairs you might feel sorry for, no, these were the special children who would spit at you because you wished them good morning and for whom no one ever felt sorry.

In other words, these were children with a reputation, and specifically a reputation that they were each and every one of them irredeemable.

In today’s reading from the gospels we came across a man of irredeemably poor reputation, the disciple Thomas.  Now when I name Thomas I am sure you don’t immediately think of the ambassador in chains, that apostle to the east who was the first man to live and die for the sake of the gospel in the lands of India.  I am sure you aren’t immediately put in mind of the Thomas Christians who to this day worship Christ in India because of Thomas, and who have a tradition of faith that is as old as the Petrine and Pauline Christianities of the Roman and European churches.  No, when I say Thomas you say, “ah, Doubting Thomas”.  Poor Thomas.

Well, let’s have a look at that story.  The lectionary jumps us in to John’s story of the twelve on the evening of Easter day, and the time when ten of the twelve, plus some of the women no doubt, were gathered together in shell-shock. Jesus appears in their midst and these gathered disciples were given divine authority as apostles, given the right and power to reveal Jesus and make him known to those who did not believe.  Jesus delegated this holy power personally through his breathing on them and conferring the infilling of the Holy Spirit in John 20:22-23.  There is no seven weeks wait for Pentecost according to John, this is the time, on Easter Sunday evening, when the Spirit is conferred and the ten are blessed with power from on high.  The power they are given, alongside the task of preaching for which they are empowered, but the authority as power, their right and duty of command and superiority relates to sin which they are authorised to forgive or not forgive.  “Now that you have seen me again,” says Jesus, “and you know me as the risen one and have received the Holy Spirit, go and meet unbelief in the world with grace and enthusiasm.”  That’s what they’ve been told to do: tell people that Jesus is Lord, proven by his resurrection, and help them to believe him and follow him as disciples.  If the apostles spoke of faith, then the rumour of God would be in the world and people would be able to respond; but if the apostles did not speak of faith then the word would remain hidden and the people living in darkness would not have the opportunity to respond.  The future of the Christian story, as we heard last Sunday in the story of the frightened women, was up to the witnesses of Christ.  Jesus wasn’t going to preach any more, the duty and authority to speak and to keep silent was up to them, the apostles.

Jesus made it quite clear: whether people live in the sin of unbelief or in the sun of understanding is up to us because we have the job of telling them the story which leads to hope and belief.

Now, Thomas wasn’t there John 20:24 tells us, so he missed out on the empowering sight of the risen Christ and the impartation of the Holy Spirit so it’s no wonder that he’s doubt filled.  Thomas was where the other ten had been seven days earlier, they’d not believed the women so how can they judge him for not believing them?  They’d seen Jesus, so how can they begrudge him the same evidentiary experience?  And, most importantly, how ineffective must their preaching have been that Thomas was not convinced?  Here are the apostles charged with all of the authority and resource of Heaven to declare new life to the world, and they can’t even sell it to one of their own?

Psh, “doubting Thomas”, more like “dubious apostolic preaching”.

When the resurrected one appears a week later and speaks to Thomas, Jesus does NOT breathe on him; rather in John 20:27 Jesus addresses the area of Thomas’ unbelief, which was Thomas’ desire to have touchable proof in John 20:25.  Thomas, having been offered the chance to put a finger in Jesus’ wounds, but without actually doing so, worships Jesus in John 20:28.  Jesus words in John 20:29 are probably not what he actually said to Thomas, after all Thomas has done more than the ten with the evidence he was given; more likely John later put these words in Jesus’ mouth as encouragement to those who read the gospel.  Thomas is no more doubting than the ten, and a week later he worships Jesus as Lord which indicates to me that he was far more convinced, and therefore far less doubting of Jesus than the other ten.

No wonder it was Thomas who Jesus and the Holy Spirit sent to India, and less effective Peter and James who Jesus left in Judea.  As with my EBD-labelled kids in England, reputations can be undeserved, but they stick once stuck, and they mislead.

In both of our Old Testament portions for today, one of which comes from Acts 4 in that strange way the lectionary provides for our history lesson in the time between our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the theme is unity.  Better said the theme is the opportunities that congregations of believers provide God with to bless the world through our single-minded devotion to each other in God’s name.  Unity is not enough, even ten-against-one the apostles could not convince Thomas of the resurrection, it is unity with devotion that God requires.  How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity we heard as our call to worship from Psalm 133:1Now, the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul we read in Acts 4:32, such that with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them we read in Acts 4:33.  The spoken out witness of the apostles as individuals was supported by the lived out witness of the loving fellowship in which all lived, including the support of all from the common wealth of resources.  Everyone had a bed under a roof, everyone had food and clothes enough, everyone had love and comfort as part of the family, everyone had encouragement and good cheer from the testimony of the others.  No wonder they saw three thousand added to their number in one day, and others added daily because of the apostles’ testimony: who wouldn’t want to be part of such a loving community with a profound and delighted sense of hope in the world.

Thomas was part of that Acts 4 action, and then he went alone to India where he spoke of Christ and established a community of faith that lives to this day.

So, what does this mean for us?

  1. We must hear the message and take it to heart. Like Thomas we must believe and know that Jesus once dead has been raised by God in vindication of his message of the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance of salvation.
  2. We must proclaim the message and take God’s appointment to heart. Like Thomas we must go where God draws us and filled with the Spirit and the authority of God to do so we must proclaim the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance of salvation.

Our evidence that the gospel is truth is that we have met the risen Christ.  Like those who came after Thomas we have not seen Jesus in the flesh, but like Thomas we don’t have to touch the resurrected one to believe, we believe without seeing yet we believe by having known Christ. The world’s evidence that the gospel is truth is that we who have met the risen Christ live in harmony, unity, peace, and mutual enjoyment.

Where our reputation is one of love and peace the world will believe that we have the life-giving words of faith.

Every.  Blesséd.  Day.

Amen.

Groaning Trust

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 2nd July 2017

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13

The story of the sacrifice of Isaac has been a troubling one for scholars since the day it was presented as a text.  In oral and written traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and social scientific study this story has caused problems for thousands of years.  I mean, what is this story trying to say?  What is the take-home message from such an horrific account?

Some have said that the point is God’s definitive rejection of human sacrifice.  That in a time and place where children were sacrificed to gods in the Ancient Near East, the instruction of Elohim as God is called here, to first bind Isaac on the altar and then to so gloriously redeem him with a last-minute shriek from an angel and the placement of a nearby ram, is clear.  “No more boys, just rams please,” thus saith the Lord.  But if that is the point, that Elohim does not need or want children killed in worship, why make such a big show of it?  Poor Abraham and Isaac to be pawns in such a role-play.  The God of Abraham and Isaac, and later of Jacob, comes out as a new type of deity, but this God is still a monster who thinks nothing of terrifying the most faithful of worshippers to make a point about God’s own generous nature.

So, no, I don’t think it’s that at all.  God could have just said “thou shalt not kill thy children for my sake” and been done with it.  This week-long sermon illustration which culminates at the point of a father’s dagger over his son, his dear son, the son whom he loves who is tied up and terrified is unnecessary and is therefore extremely cruel.

So, it must be something else: so why this story, and why so early in the Hebrew tradition?  Remember that we are in Genesis 22 here, that’s page 15 of the Bible in front of you.

I think that the question is actually for the worshippers of God, and that it is framed by the thought “can we be trusted with God’s future”? Abraham was prepared to trust God even with the death of his dearly loved son.  But more than the death of his boy, Abraham’s sacrifice put into jeopardy the promise of God that Abraham would be the father of many descendants, indeed of many nations.  With Ismael sent off with Hagar years ago, and Isaac soon to be a charred corpse, how was God going to provide this nation?  Now I am sure that Abraham had faith for another son, after all he’d had sons at 75 and 100 years of age, but the promise had been through Isaac and now Isaac was to be slain and cremated.

So, in asking whether we can be trusted with God’s future I wonder whether the real question is whether we trust God with God’s promise.  Not that any of us would dare to sacrifice our child, or to even set off on the journey without first checking back with God in prayer: but what if God asked us to do something which would put in jeopardy the unique and divine promise made to you?  Would you, do it?  Would you ask God for clarification first?  Or would you assume that this voice was a temptation or an instance of spiritual warfare and just ignore the call to a different sort of obedience?

I wonder whether you would think a call to you in the way that God called to Abraham was a step to far.  Is this one of those “do not lead me into temptation” or “save me in the time of trial” situation we pray about in the Lord’s prayer, asking not for an easy life but for a life where God’s testing does not push us over the edge?  In other words, is this a test you would definitely fail?  Is this moment a step beyond Gethsemane where even the Christ who lives in you would hand the cup back to God and say, “no Father, just no, you’ve asked too much this time, even of me.”  I believe that such an act is outside the love of God, and therefore inconsistent with the one who is utterly dependable.  Yet Abraham saw light where there was just blackness and chose to trust God even when God seemed self-contradicting.  This is extraordinary faith.

So, what do we do when God is saying yes and no to the same thing?  I know that if a voice in his prayers had told my father, at any time in the last 45 years, to “take Damien into the hills, slit his throat and burn his corpse”, that my dad would have had a very hard time believing that that voice was God.  And even if he did believe, I’m pretty sure that would have been an instruction too far: again “no Lord, not even you can ask me to do that, I won’t do it.”  That instruction is inconsistent with the God we know, and who has been revealed to us in Jesus, scripture, Creation, and the history of the world and theology.  So, it’s a pretty safe bet that if you hear an instruction to kill somebody it’s not God who is telling you that.  But Abraham didn’t know that, Abraham did not have the Bible, or Jesus, or even Judaism to tell him the way of God.  I don’t know if child sacrifice was part of Abraham’s earlier life in Sumer, and that the revelation that the new god he had followed into Canaan was that sort of a god was a shock to him.  I mean if the gods of Sumer wanted child sacrifice why shouldn’t this new god demand it too?  If you didn’t know any better, and Abraham may not have known any better, why not?

So, here’s two things we can do to be ready when our trust of God takes us beyond the edge or Reason, and then beyond the edge of Faith itself.

  1. Know God.
  2. Burrow deep into God and really listen.

How long must I wait for an answer says David in Psalm 13.  This is the prayer of a desperate man, a man who is in dire straits, a man who feels abandoned and alone.  This is the prayer of a man who needs the assurance and encouragement of the God he knows to exist and love him, but who is strangely and painfully absent in this moment.  I know this feeling.  Oh boy, do I know this feeling.  “Where are you God?  Where the hell are you?  I know you’re not in hell, because I am, and you aren’t here!!  So, where God?!!”  Have any of you been there?  Yep, me too: me two hundred.  My commentaries suggest that Psalm 13 is a textbook prayer of complaint and confident praise.  In other words, if you want to have a justified whinge at God, or even about God in God’s hearing, do it this way.  Four times in Psalm 13:1-2 David asks how long.  How dare God, my God in 13:3, forget and hide from me when God should consider and answer me?  Is this sounding familiar to you?  Have you been there?  I have been there: this is an advantage to you because if you ever find yourself in Hell you can give me a call; I have been there and I know the way back.  But you don’t need to call me (although you are always welcome to), the map for home is found in 13:5-6.  Trust in God’s steadfast love, indeed sing of it because God is worthy of our trust and God will deliver you.  In all my trips to hell God has never failed to bring me back.  David has this testimony, and so have I.  And so, I believe, has Abraham.

This is why it is important to know God.  You cannot trust someone you do not know, and you cannot trust someone deeply if you don’t know him or her intimately.  I do not have the most steadfast faith in God, but I have the most steadfast faith I have ever had in God.  And God’s faith in me has never wavered, even if my faith in God’s faith in me has.  I sometimes wonder how God could trust me with such an awesome task as I have been given, and I begin to doubt myself.  I know God can do it, but I doubt that God can do it through me because I am so fragile.  That is where God must do the trusting on my behalf too.

But here is where the struggle is.  If we know God like David did, and like Abraham did, then it can be very hard to trust God when God goes missing or when God commands something utterly ungodly.  And that is why, when the world turns against us, despite our best efforts in discipleship, we must go deeper.  “I know you are faithful Lord”, we might pray, “but right now I am frightened and confused.  I am going to trust you more, Amen.” Psalm 13 for modern readers.  But what happens when there’s just more tunnel ahead, and when you find yourself a month further along life and you’re praying, “still alone and afraid Lord, but still trusting,” and then another month and another after that?

I have faced circumstances when I was confident that I was going ahead with God’s favour and in the path God had set for me.  This is not a story of me being assured and wrong, arrogant and errant, not at all.  I look back on these particular circumstances and say, “you know what, I was doing God’s bidding there”, but still it went pear-shaped.  Now I have had the arrogant and misinformed times before, and the solution to those is simple.  Get up, apologise to God, shake off the dirt from when you fell over, and walk with God for a while, perhaps hand-in-hand.  But what if you were doing that, walking with God hand-in-hand, on God’s road, talking with God, tracking toward the opened door which was bedecked with welcome signs and flashing arrows, and as you reach it the door is slammed in your face from the inside.  Slammed so hard it breaks your nose, and breaks your grip on God’s hand even though God is standing right there wanting to lead you through that door.

Then what do you do?

Then who do you trust.  Or a more betterer question, then how do you trust?

If you know God, then this is another instance of “burrow deep and listen”.  God’s plans for you can be ruined by other people, that can happen.  God is never defeated by this, and you needn’t be either, if you stay close to God, but I have no doubt that God is frustrated by this.  In the times when this has happened to me God’s answer to my broken-hearted, tear-flooding cry of “what the actual?” has been deep, deep assurance and comfort.  The last time this happened God’s actual words to me were “that is not what I wanted to happen, you were right in pursuing the course you did.  But you and I together are going to honour the decision made, and you are going to fulfil your call and do the work set for you through another channel.”  Never let it be said that God does not have a plan-B.  In a world where women and men have the freedom to make mistakes, especially mistakes which frustrate God’s plans for strangers, there is always another way for God.

If you have stuffed up, God will rescue you and set you on the right path.

If other people have stuffed you up, God will rescue you and set you on another path, which becomes the right path because God walks it with you.

God had no need of a plan-B for Abraham in this situation.  Plan-A was the test of his faith and the fulfilment of the promise through Isaac and that was allowed to happen because of Abraham’s faithfulness.  God also had no need of a plan-B for Isaac in this situation, Abraham did not kill him.  But I have no doubt that there were plan-B moments in these men’s lives, and I am certain that David’s life as soldier and then king had many B-Road detours.

So, if God asks you to do something stupid, go with what you know of God.  You know more about God than either Abraham or David did.  But more importantly, if life puts you in a situation which just so obviously wrong in the company of the God you know and whom you know loves you, stay close.  God is unstoppable, but only because God is also agile enough to get around human stupidity, stubbornness, and selfishness.

There’s still no better way than to trust and obey.

But please, don’t actually kill your sons.  That’s just wrong.

Amen.

Just If I’d…By Faith (Romans 5:1-8)

A Prayer of Confession

 O Lord, how we love a good boast!

As Christians, we love how our boasting brings you glory!!

We suffer with patience,

and are patient in our endurance.

Our hope is that our character

will prove this intolerable suffering

was worthwhile.

 

We are proud of our scars Lord,

the evidence of trials unseen,

(but oh, let me testify to how brave

I was…umm…of course for Jesus’ sake.  Of course.)

 

Thank you for your endurance, Lord.

For the ways in which you were patient

as we noisily endured,

racking up our Frequent Martyr Points.

 

Thank you for peace with God,

made obvious to us by the work of Jesus Christ

in revealing God’s truest nature as love beyond dimension.

 

Thank you that while we were sinners,

that God died for us,

thinking only of us,

and that the words of Christ from the cross

were of pity for us and not for himself.

 

Thank you for the assurance,

that you’d do it again if it were necessary,

which it isn’t,

but you’d never know from all the

pious whining.

Amen.

Extraordinary Day (Psalm 116:1-2, 12-15)

I love you God: I love that you hear me when I try to speak with you.

Especially when I try to speak with you but my words fail me because I have been ill.

Because you listen to me and delight to hear me,

I will continue to speak to you and speak with you.

 

And I will listen, in case you want to speak to me.

 

What else can I give you?  What do I have that you don’t have?

What do I have that you could possibly need?

All that I can truly offer you is my desire to receive more from you.

All that I can truly offer you is my desire to love you more,

and for others to love you because they have seen you and known you

as I have seen and known you.

I want my worship to be overheard, not that I become famous as a worshipper

or wordsmith:

but that the content of my worship, the story of my salvation,

the litany of my thanksgiving should be heard;

and that the evidence of that which has not yet been seen by others

should be made audible to them.

 

Your care of me is so apparent to me.

Your love of me has never been more real.

It is truly shocking how intimately you know me and

the degree to which you love me.

 

I have been known by God in the Biblical sense,

and this is what you have desired for each of your daughters and sons.

 

This is an extraordinary day.

But, then every day is when you are near, Lord.

 

Amen.

Dem stones, dem stones…

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

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

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

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

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

So, to summarise what we have so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.