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.

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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.

 

Resurrection Day

This is the text of the message I presented on 16th April 2017, Resurrection Sunday, to the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church.  It was the first time I had preached on Easter Day.

Colossians 3:1-4; Acts 10:34-43; John 20 1:18

One of my favourite songs for Resurrection Sunday is not a hymn or chorus, or even a “church song” at all.  It’s by U2, it’s called “Window in the Skies” and it begins:

The shackles are undone,

The bullets quit the gun,

The heat that’s in the sun

Will keep us when there’s none.

The rule has been disproved,

The stone – it has been moved,

The grave is now a groove,

All debts are removed.

 Oh, can’t you see what love has done?

It may seem strange to begin a reflection on the most foundational of Christian truths with a ten-year-old rock song, but I believe that this song, written by Christian men who work in “the secular realm”, expresses the same sorts of emotion that our reading from the gospel summons.

John’s gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb alone and before dawn.  She arrives to find that the stone – it has been moved, and so she runs for help, believing that the body had been stolen.  When she and a couple of the men return, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is said to have “seen and believed”, although we’re not told what he believed, and he and Peter having seen what they have seen promptly go home.  They just go home: as you do.

But not Mary, Mary stays there.  She takes another look in to what she understands is an empty tomb only to find that it is not empty at all.  The empty tomb is now occupied by angels, two of them, the same number of angels as there were men who have just gone home.  They ask her who she’s crying for and she tells them.  Did you get that, Mary tells a pair of angels, sitting in an empty tomb, that she’s upset that the dead Jesus has been removed without her knowledge.  There are angels…in an empty tomb…  Something extraordinary is going on here but Mary’s distress is too overwhelming for her to look past the first thing she’d seen; that Jesus’ corpse is missing.

The story goes on, Mary is alone in the garden once more since the men have gone home and the angels have not left the tomb, yet she is not alone and a man is there.  He calls her “woman”, and those of you who were around a few weeks ago know what happens when Jesus addresses a female conversation partner as “Woman”.  Revelation is about to happen.  Something more has happened in Mary’s vicinity, the story is reaching its climax, and Jesus calls her name.

The shackles are undone.

Some traditions put the words “don’t touch me” in Jesus’ mouth at this point, but I like what we have heard here, “do not hold on to me”.  Mary is allowed a hug, but not a long one, as Jesus has a very important appointment to keep.  I just love this moment in this story.  Consider what is happening here in what I believe to be one of the finest, and yet also one of the most under-reported events of that first day of resurrection.  Jesus is in the process of ascending to the Father, he’s heading for Heaven for the first time since he left Heaven at the annunciation of Mary his mother, this is the culmination of the resurrection when the Son of Man is to be vindicated in glory by God the Father, but that can all wait until Jesus has comforted his friend.  The risen saviour of creation pauses in the very act of ascension to embrace his weeping, confused friend to assure her that he is there and that it is truly he who is truly there.  And then, like every other man in this story so far, Jesus goes home.

To every broken heart,

for every heart that cries:

love left a window in the skies,

and to love I rhapsodize…

So sings U2.  So sing we.

The repercussions of the resurrection of Jesus are not limited to the final chapters in Matthew, Luke and John; neither are they evident only in our day and the miracle of today’s salvation in Jesus’ sacrifice.  In Acts 10:34-43 we read the immediate events of the resurrection of Jesus, of how the truth that God has no favourites was revealed to the disciples of Jesus and of how that message was quickly spread to all corners of the known world.  Peter, speaking in a Roman household in the Roman capital city of Judea, i.e. the city where Pilate and the bulk of his army actually lives, tells that pagan yet imperial household the message of Jesus: that Jesus alone is the source of forgiveness of sins, and of fellowship between those who have accepted his grace because they have received the message of his witnesses.   Cornelius the centurion had been searching for God, and God had sent one of Jesus’ moist experienced eyewitnesses to tell him that he was welcome in the family of God.  Cornelius, the gentile agent of an invasion force, is welcome to sit at the table of grace with Peter himself because of the resurrection of Jesus.

In Colossians 3:1-4 which was written before Acts but describes events that occurred following what we read there, Paul exhorts the Jesus-believers in Colossae to be confident in their pursuit of God and the Way of Jesus in life.  In other words, live as if you are already in Heaven because Christ who is in Heaven lives in you.  This is the story of the Reign of God which we have heard about so much in past months.  Live as if God is king and Jesus is lord: as if the world is already God’s own province, and that the influence and governance of God extends to where you live.  You can live like this, even though the roll-out of the rule of God is not yet complete, because Christ has ascended.  Yes, there is evil in the world, and yes there is harmful and difficult stuff which is not necessarily evil but is just not good, but since you are “hidden with Christ in God” as it says in Colossians 3:3 you can rely on the resources of the Kingdom to flourish where you are right now.

Jesus is celebrated by Peter’s testimony as one who went about doing good and healing all who were repressed by the devil (Acts 10:38).  The Way of Jesus was picked up very quickly by the apostles, disciples, and witnesses who followed him across the world.  Enter a place and tell the story of Jesus, heal any sick, expunge all demons, raise any dead, welcome each of the restored, go to the next town, repeat.  What was once a tomb, a dead-end, is now the front door to a well-worn path:  the grave is now a groove.

I have heard it said that a grave is a rut with the ends filled in.  But I’d like to flip that around and say today that a grave with the ends blown out becomes a channel.  Christian life is not about slipping into a rut, at least it is not designed to be:  Christian life is a way; and more than that it is a way where there wasn’t a way before.   Dead-ends become tunnels and channels, high walls become ramps, ridgeways and bridges like the raised track of a train.  The road of the way, just like the recently-dead Christ on Sunday morning, is unstoppable.

And so, we find ourselves where every Sunday finds us: knowing that we are loved beyond our capacity to understand, rescued and restored from terrors we could never fully appreciate (nor want to), and empowered to live a life of unparalleled freedom and joy because of the Spirit of God who lives in us, just as that spirit lived in Jesus, Peter, Paul, all the Marys, and Cornelius.

Two weeks ago, we heard from John 11:25 that whomever continues to believe into Jesus will live into eternity.  This is the story of resurrection day.  Life is assured for you, not just eternal life in the sense that you will live forever in Heaven, but complete and abundant life in that your existence will always be bountiful, extravagant, and well resourced.  Trouble may come and trouble will come, the resurrection power of Jesus did not prevent Peter and Paul each being murdered by the Roman authorities, and I’m sure Cornelius didn’t long in command of his cohort once his conversion story came out, but such trouble will always be temporary.  The grave cannot hold any of us, it is now a groove, and a groove where Jesus walked before us to open the way.

Love left a window in the skies, and to my God, (who is love), I rhapsodise.

Come and see what love has done, what it’s doing in me

Amen.

Liturgy of the Palms

This is the text of the message I preached on Palm Sunday, 9th April 2017 at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11

Palm Sunday is one of those days of which I have specific memories from childhood.  I couldn’t tell you what happened on the third Sunday in August in any given year, or even the second Sunday in April for that matter, but while actual years are uncertain I can recall Palm Sundays from years long past.  I mean there was that year, several in fact, when we(e) Sunday school kids paraded into church waving huge palm fronds and singing Carl Tuttle’s “Hosanna”.  There was the year when “Jesus” actually rode in to church on a mountain bike covered in tinsel, and the year previously when a real donkey had been sourced.  (When said, donkey left behind what donkeys sometimes do, right in front of the pulpit, the mountain bike was substituted in seemed a better option the following year.)  I remember the cool vicar we had in one church where we high-fived each other in passing the peace because it was “palm” Sunday.  (Don’t laugh, I nearly made you do it today.)  I remember the huge palms we had available to us the three years my family lived in Darwin, and how the front of the church looked like a Pacific Islander hut.  I remember processing in to the cathedral one year with a couple of hundred of us, waving the palms we’d collected in the forecourt as we walked the length of the nave, back down the sides to the great doors, and then up the nave again to find a seat.  I remember the palm crosses we had in Hobart, and how those were kept by us as bookmarks in our Bibles and then returned to church the following year on Shrove Tuesday when they were incinerated and used for the ashes of the next day’s Ash Wednesday.  I remember several years hearing the “Hosanna, Hey-sanna, -sanna, -sanna, Ho” from Jesus Christ Superstar as our call to worship.  And I remember last year when there were no palms at all but clay crosses made by a potter in our congregation: I’ve been wearing mine all Lent this year and have it on now.  (Thanks Mark from Yankalilla!)

But what I don’t remember, really, is any of the sermons from Palm Sunday.  Perhaps, like me, you know the story so well that you don’t remember ever being told it, or any specific occasion upon which it is told.  What the other lectionary readings are never really mattered since you know the minister would preach from Matthew 21:1-9, Mark 11:1-10, or Luke 19:28-40 depending upon which year of the cycle we were in.  (And in case you have forgotten we are in the Year of Matthew in 2017.)

My lectionary tells me that for this Sunday, this year, there is no Old Testament or New Testament reading set.  None.  They are blank spaces in my chart for today.  Just a Psalm, and a Gospel.  Looking further into the lectionary I see that the same Psalm is offered each year, actually a choice of two, and one is not a song of celebration at all.  Amidst all the branch waving, coat flinging, song and dance and donkey poo of Jesus’ heralding by the crowd there is a note of distress and depression.  Some are sad when everyone else is celebrating.  Well spotted, I say to the choosers of the lectionary: always someone will be sad whenever a party is passing through, and oftentimes, indeed always I would suggest, there are sad feelings within the party itself.

I’m not convinced that Palm Sunday was a completely joyful day for Jesus.

One interpretation of the events of Palm Sunday, offered by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan among others, is that Jesus on his donkey is deliberately making a fool of Pilate.  The whole event is parody. Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is a mirror of and a direct challenge to Pilate’s own entry into the city on the same day as an act of protest at the Roman imperial procession.  Jesus is possibly simmering with anger, perhaps frustrated by the noisy crowds who haven’t got as clue of what he is up to as he calculatingly affirms the alternative way of the Reign of God.  The contrast between the two processions is plain: one, a procession of peasants lead by Jesus on a donkey coming from the East and Bethany via the Mount of Olives, and the other a procession of soldiers lead by Pilate coming from the West and the provincial capital at Caesarea Maritima on the coast.  More than competing parades the two processions indicated competing theologies.  Beginning with Augustus and now in the person of Tiberius the Roman emperor was hailed as “the Son of God”, “lord”, “saviour”, and bringer of “peace on Earth”, terms unwarranted according to Jewish theology and terms later taken by the Christians to refer to the man entering the capital from the mountains.  With Jesus being hailed with “Hosanna” as blessed and Davidic there is a distinct and deliberate political feel to this event: Jesus’ parade is anti-military, anti-war, and decidedly anti-imperial.  It is not a party, not at all.

I don’t remember hearing that message in my childhood, not at all.

But that’s okay, Borg and Crossan might not be “right” in their interpretation, and even if they are not “wrong” there are other ways of looking at what is going on

Jesus acts deliberately on this day, the Bible assures us of that.  In Matthew’s account, which we heard today, Jesus appears to rides two animals, a donkey and a colt and we are told that the disciples put their cloaks on “them” and Jesus sat on “them”, which is to say both animals.  Matthew, and so does John, quotes Zechariah 9:9 as the reason why the donkeys must be present, but in Matthew Jesus explains it to the disciples before the ride and in John Jesus speaks to the crowds after he arrives.  In John Jesus responds to the worship by riding a donkey, in Matthew Jesus orchestrates the worship by arriving unannounced on two donkeys.  Either way, he’s up to something.

I think the clue is found in the Zechariah passage itself where the king of Zion triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on…the foal of a donkey has a few things going on.   He is obviously a victor, both in the tradition of the Jewish Scriptural tradition and the Roman Imperial tradition, but he is also humble.  He’s riding a foal, not a stallion.  Perhaps the parody of Pilate is not so nasty in its intent, perhaps Jesus is humble and is showing a better way.  Yes, he is king, yes, he is returning to his capital, but he doesn’t need to make a big show of it, he knows who is he and his people flock to him because he is their king, not because he is loud and covered in brass and flags.  Real kings, like real men, don’t need to show off; real kings are confident and calm.  Let Pilate have his monkeys, the unruffled Jesus does what he wants to do, and he is so attractive because of it.

This also is missing from my memory of child and youthhood pageant, the chillaxed Jesus cruising in to town.  But I like it.

Open the gate for the righteous to enter so that he might to give thanks to God, demands the Psalmist in Psalm 118:19-20. We read of one man’s public, celebratory thanksgiving for salvation in Psalm 118:21 found in God’s seeing the hidden potential in him and for giving him a second chance to shine in Psalm 118:22.  This leads into delight in recognising God’s handiwork at work in Psalm 118:23, which leads into the day of rejoicing in Psalm 118:24.

The first words spoken by Elizabeth Tudor after she was told that she’d inherited the queenship of England are said to have been Psalm 118:23. For a Protestant, bastard, girl under house-arrest and the ever-present threat of execution for treason (or a simple, quiet murder) to inherit a kingdom from her Roman Catholic, and rather bitter half-sister, the new Queen Elizabeth knew that divine forces were at play.  The same is true of us: let us rejoice and be glad in this day is a fitting response.  Look at how the psalmist goes on, crying out “Hosanna” which means “God save me and look here my salvation comes” all at once.  The hosanna in Psalm 118:25 is the beseeching cry of a woman who knows she has already been chosen for salvation and is waiting with bated breath for God to complete the marvellous work in her.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD says Psalm 118:26, “baruch habar b’shem Adonai” as Jews still yell to each other in worship, and “baruch b’shem” when they’re passing the peace.  The crowds called this to Jesus as he rode past them, indicating that their hosannas were directed towards him.  The one who comes in the name of the LORD is the same one who brings salvation and success, and the one who calls forth the light. These words are loaded with meaning for Jewish worshippers.  In the story of Jesus these are not the cries of an overexcited mob who have lost their minds, the people know what they are saying and that is why the Sanhedrin are so disturbed by it.  Tell this uneducated rabble to stop using worship language, they tell Jesus later.  Jesus responds that they may be uneducated but they know worship when they see it, and it is so obvious that even if they (like you) missed it the geology of Zion itself would cry out.  As Hillsong pastor Darlene Zschech has said “no way!  If Jesus is here I refuse to be out-shouted by a rock!”

The Psalm, when placed beside the gospel, gives us two versions of the events of this day in the life of Jesus:

Version one is that Jesus himself is demanding that the gates be opened to him, so that he may enter and worship the God who has been so amazingly faithful to him.  Let’s not forget how amazing the Father was to the Son; Jesus had a lot to say thank you for.  Even as he set a model for us in receiving baptism, Jesus also shows us that no-one is above the duty to worship God in thanksgiving and wonder.  So, gates, open wide and let Jesus himself cry Hosanna! to the God who will save and is right now saving him.  This might be a less well known version, but when you consider that in Matthew Jesus gets off the donkeys and walks straight into the temple I believe he had worship on his mind.  (That he then throws the noisy farmers’ market stallholders out is even more evidence, he’s here to pray and not to eat jam donuts at 30c each or three for $1, or buy perfumed candles and bric-a-brac.)

Version two is the better known one, that the crowds recognise in Jesus the one who brings the salvation of God.  We bless you, the one who comes to us in person with the authority of God, (coming in the Name, Ha’Shem), to do the work of God amongst us.  Open wide those gates so that when the saviour comes he will not be held up for one second.

So, whether you believe Jesus rode one animal or two, that he came as parody of Pilate or as humble yet confidently beloved worshipper of God, that he was enjoying the moment of the joy of the crowd or silently meditating on the full ontological meaning of the prophetic sign he was enacting, the public entry of Jesus to Jerusalem is significant.  This year amidst our palm branches and our memories of the pageants of decades past, of donkeys, mountain bikes, sword-grass and pottery crosses, High-Church, Low-Church, and perhaps even no-church Palm Sundays of remembrance, that our key duty is to worship God in thanksgiving and awe at what the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem really meant for him and for the world.  One man came to give all that he had in worship of God, and all that he had was taken from him before a week had passed.

Amen.

Beyond the Last Straw

This is the sermon I preached at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church on Sunday 2nd April 2017.  This was our first service back ” home” after two months retreat at the chapel at Lake Tyers Beach.

Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:17-27, 38-44

 I have heard it said that the key difference between the Old Testament and the Jewish Scriptures is their end point.  Last week Lyn read to us from Isaiah and she introduced that reading as “from the Hebrew Scriptures”, which was not incorrect, even as she was actually reading from what is the Christian “Old Testament”.  What’s the difference you ask?  The end point I answer.

So, here, in celebration of our return to this house, I offer another quiz with a pen as prize.  (And let’s hope this time the pen which is won stays in Gippsland.)  Here’s the question: what is the last book in the Jewish Scriptures?  And before you answer I’ll give you a big hint, it’s not the same book at the end of the Christian religion’s Old Testament.

[Anyone?  It’s 2 Chronicles.]

In today’s first reading we hear the story of the prophet Ezekiel and his vision of a valley of dry bones.  Ezekiel is asked whether the bones can live again, in other words could any good come of the situation.  I love the answer Ezekiel gives, he says “you know Lord”.  The obvious answer is of course “no”.  Here we have a valley of thousands of dry bones, very dry according to Ezekiel 37:2, and God asks “mortal”, (so there’s a hint), “mortal, can these bones live?”  Of course they cannot, they are dismembered and dried out.  There is no flesh.  Bones cannot live without a blood supply, and a dried-out dead bone cannot live again even if blood is returned to it.  The valley of dry bones is a valley of dead bones.  But listen to Ezekiel, “oh Lord GOD, you know.”  Even as a mortal faced with the firmest evidence of mortality Ezekiel has enough faith to look beyond the obvious “no” to acknowledge God’s sovereignty in that God alone determines what does and does not happen.  And then, through Ezekiel’s prophesying and God’s responding to the word as it is being proclaimed, the Lord’s spirit moves upon the bones to create new life in dead Israel.

There’s three things I want you to hear before we move on to the story of Jesus and Lazarus:

  1. Ezekiel “only” prophesies to the bones, just as Jesus “only” calls to Lazarus. There is no mechanical manipulation in either story; no laying on of hands, no making mud from spit, no forensic anthropological jigsaw puzzle while singing “’dem bones, ‘dem bones”.  There are only human preaching and God’s re-breathing spirit at work here.
  2. Ezekiel’s story is set in the wider context of his life of prophecy and the book which carries his name. As is true of the story of Jesus within his life and within the story told by John these stories are not about individual corpses but about whether dead people can live again.  In Ezekiel’s time the question is whether there is hope for a defeated, decimated nation.  These bones not only lacked sinew and muscle, but breath and spirit.  In the same way that God makes Adam by forming a body from the elements at hand, and then breathing life into that husk of a man, so the bones are re-ligamented (which is where we get the word “religion” from) and then re-animated with the spirit of God.  This is a story of national, indeed global significance; it’s not just about the dead soldiers.  Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is also a story about more than just the once-dead brother of Mary and Martha.
  3. The promise in Ezekiel’s story is not just life and spirit, but these “on your own soil”. Yes, the nation will be restored, but more than that the people will have a home.  This is the big story of Torah, Tanakh, the Jewish religious scriptures.  Where the Christian Old Testament is fulfilled in the coming of the messiah, and its last paragraphs (Malachi 4:1-5) are about “The great day of the LORD”, the Jewish story is fulfilled in the Jewish people coming home from exile and dispersion to Jerusalem.  Its last paragraph (2 Chronicles 36:22-23) is about King Cyrus of Persia restoring the razed temple so that the Judahites may “go up” to worship once more.

In John 11 Jesus is similarly on his way “up” to Jerusalem to celebrate Pesach, the Passover, the celebration of the work of God in liberating the Hebrew nation and giving them a land of their own.  We remember that John has built his gospel around seven (or eight) key “signs” that Jesus is indeed Immanuel and in this chapter we see the penultimate one, the last one John presents in Jesus’ lifetime.  In John 11:44 by his spoken word alone Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  This episode is the hinge point of Jesus’ life according to John, a major major plot device by the author.  Indeed, this event is the last straw which solidifies Jewish opposition to Jesus, and from this point it is only a matter of days until Jesus is murdered.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the Jews decide to kill Jesus when he knocks apart the temple traders on Monday in Holy Week, but in John it is this event which gets Jesus killed: this is blatant in John 11:53.  Jesus is gloriously dangerous at this point because when Lazarus walks from the tomb Jesus’ earlier words “I Am…the resurrection” (which he said in John 11:21-22) are confirmed.  The authority of the messiah has been displayed and for the Sanhedrin, this is a situation which cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.  The only way to respond to a prophet who proclaims himself to be “the resurrection” is to kill him dead, and to do it publicly.

But let’s look at the other team, the ones who believe in Jesus.  Martha in saying “even now” in John 11:21-22 shows that she has confidence in God in the way that Ezekiel did.  Lazarus, her brother, is dead; but Jesus is now present and anything might happen.  Mary in John 11:32 gets part way there, suggesting that Jesus might have prevented the death, and Jesus is moved by her challenge.   One of the commentators I referred to this week suggests that Jesus’ weeping is compassion for the mourning sisters, who appear to be deep friends of his, but also his indignation that death has come to this house.  In his God-with-us persona Jesus is livid that a human life has been taken, something so precious to God snatched away by the insidious evil of illness in the world.  There’s more going on here than an empathetic man welling up in the presence of his tearful favourite girls, he’s had enough of the world wherein humans suffer and he wants it finished.  The fact that Lazarus and his sisters love and are loved by Jesus did not preclude Lazarus from terminal illness and death; God does not play favourites in that way.  But the fact that this family is dear to Jesus touches the heart of God profoundly on behalf of all human grief and the pains which cause it.  So, in the presence of the sisters’ faith in him and in the hearing and seeing of their tears for their beloved brother Jesus does the God-thing.  Jesus, like Ezekiel, does not dwell on Lazarus’ condition (that he’s dead) but shifts his focus to what could be done through it (that God would be glorified).  Not even death is the final word when God is involved.  God is not in favour of death and destruction, God never has been.  The God of the Jewish scriptures and therefore of Jesus’ theology is the God of homecoming and the end of exile.

There is no option for Jesus here, Lazarus must come back.

Martha’s confession in John 11:27 is the best example of what John believes about Jesus, and it sets the scene for what Jesus does by explaining why and how only he can do it.   What Martha says is far more profound than anything that Peter says about Jesus in John’s gospel: Martha knows who Jesus is, and she knows that death is never the end of the story for Jews.  However, in John 11:39 she still worries about the stench if the tomb is opened.  Maybe she is so used to Jesus speaking metaphorically that she struggles with his speaking literally.  She believes wholeheartedly that Jesus can restore Lazarus to her and Mary, and I think she even believes that Jesus wants to do this, but like Mary the virgin last week the wonder of its actually happening in the real events of the day is beyond her.  Even the deepest, most profound faith cannot overcome all trouble.  This is a great reminder for us when we doubt our faith, as strong as it is.  If we are not in a place where we can be baffled by God and amazed by the activities of Jesus, then we’re not really paying attention.

I am reliably informed that a direct Greek translation of the words spoken by Jesus in John 11:25 reads the one who continues believing into me that one will definitiely live into eternity.  Our hope, like that of the ever homecoming Jews, is about far more than believing certain concepts and doctrines; it is trusting in someone and being entrusted to him as a relational thing.  Only God can breathe life into what is as long dead as a valley of desiccated bones or a four-day’s stinking corpse in a desert cave, but we are assured that God will do entirely that in God’s perfect time, however late that seems to us.

Amen.