St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

The Daniel Moment

(sorry, due to technical failure there is no recording of this week’s sermon)
Daniel 6:6-27
So, the story of Daniel and the lion’s den. It’s a great story, a real Sunday School special. The faithful Daniel, saved from starving wild beasts by a angel of God, so that King Darius might know that Daniel’s God is the one true God.

It’s got everything: political intrigue from those who conspired against Daniel, a leader trapped between his laws and his sense of justice, wild beasts, a miraculous escape, and the conversion of the pagan king to the worship of God.

It’s a great story of reassurance: reassurance to those who faced persecution for standing for what was right – for Daniel was saved, and reassurance to those who despaired because they were ruled by pagan kings – for Darius saw the light.

But I have to admit that it also leaves me with a slight sense of disquiet. Two, distinct, senses of disquiet, to be honest.

The first arises out of Darius’ response, when he finds Daniel alive. The very first thing he does, realising that Daniel’s God is the true God, is to have his advisors executed – and with them, their wives and their children. Now I guess we aren’t expected to have much sympathy for these advisors; they had, after all, plotted for Daniel’s execution. But nonetheless, it disturbs me that the first act of a new convert to the worship of God is not just to execute the guilty, but the innocent, whose only crime was to be born in the family of the guilty. Are we supposed to rejoice in the image of children being thrown to the lions, because their father’s sin?

But I guess it’s worth noticing that the story doesn’t praise Darius for his actions; it just reports them. It’s as if Darius, newly convinced that God is God changes side, but hasn’t yet had a chance to learn what worship of the one true God might look like: he worships his new God in the way he worshiped his old gods – with violence and the slaughter of the enemy.

But I think my deeper difficulty as I wrestle with this story is this: it’s a great tale of God miraculously saving God’s faithful servant Daniel. But what, then, does it have to say to all the faithful servants of God who were not saved from their dens of lions? How does it speak to the testimony of the martyrs, allowed by God to die for their faith? How does it speak to those who are left in their sickness, their suffering, their addictions, their abusive relationships, despite their faithful prayers?

What do we say to those who ask “if God saved Daniel, why not me? why not my friend? why not my child?”

Which is why I think that when we look for a miracle in the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, we look in the wrong place. Our eyes are drawn to the showy, the spectacular, the impossible. But we already knew that God could, and sometimes would, do the impossible miracle. We already knew that in the story of Daniel – he had already walked out of Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace with his three friends.

If you start with a belief in God, then the possibility of the miraculous simply follows. The question of why sometimes, why not other times, remains, of course, but the possibility must be there.

The truly remarkable, the unexpected, the unpredictable, for me in this story is not in the actions of God.

The bit I find really amazing is Daniel.

Because the life of Daniel is genuinely remarkable. Taken as a young man into exile in Babylon, he was one of the ones who heard the words of Jeremiah that Bob spoke on a few weeks ago – “work for the good of the city in which you find yourself”. And Daniel has taken these words to heart, and yet never forgotten who he is.

He has managed to hold two sides together; he is a citizen of Babylon, a servant of the pagan King, working as an advisor, a civil servant for the empire. But at the same time, he is a Jew, a servant of the one true God. Deprived of the community of his faith, taken from the corporate worship of the Temple, he has stayed true; he has obeyed the dietary laws even in a foreign land, and he has continued in his prayer and worship to honour God.

He finds himself with a dual identity; his citizenship and his faith which do not always align. He had grown up in a nation where this was not so; where God and country aligned – or at least, were seen to align – but found himself in a situation that we can probably far more easily relate to: a man whose faith was that of a minority, treated with contempt, or, worse still, completely ignored.

And yet he has made a success of life; risen to a position of sufficient power and influence that he has made enemies who plotted against him. And so they created a trap for him. A choice; cease your worship of God, or be lion food.

How easy would it have been for Daniel to find a compromise, to find a way out of the dilemma? How easy to find a way to rationalise? The edict did not require him to prayer to Darius; just to refrain from praying to anyone else. And it was just for 30 days – could he not have just have sat the time out, and then returned to his former pattern of prayer? Surely God would understand, it was just a short time out of whole life.

Or he could have at least closed the windows and prayed in the privacy of his room. Or simply prayed in the silence of his heart; surely that would have been acceptable to God?

The great miracle, for my money, in the book of Daniel is that he did not take the easy way out. Perhaps because he understood that the demands of the empire that oppose faith always start simple, start small, that compromise begins in little steps. Or perhaps because Daniel knew that there were many victims of this law, but only he had the position of privilege from which he could challenge it.

So he refused the socially acceptable little compromise that would have made his life so much easier. And instead, he chose the path of civil disobedience. He knowingly, openly, and deliberately disobeyed the law: not because he had no choice, but because he had a choice, the choice to say “I will no obey, I will not even pretend to obey, a law that is so clearly contrary to the way of God. In this, I will not be a Babylonian, for I will always be a Jew. If I do not stand up now, when will be the right time?”

The president of the American Civil Liberties, Susan Herman, said this week that if the incoming Trump administration went ahead with its proposal to establish a register of Muslims in America, she, a proud Jew, would register as a Muslim. Because, she said, we Jews know that being asked to register your religion is not the end, it is just the beginning. Or, as another American Jew tweeted “first they came for the Muslims, and we said ‘not this time’”.

Each one of us carries the same dual citizenship as Daniel wrestled with. We are citizens – or residents – of Australia (or Vanuatu); and we are also called to be citizens of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps we are fortunate that much of the time those two identities can sit comfortably together. Or perhaps not. Perhaps that lulls us into a false sense of security, makes it too easy for us to identify our discipleship with good citizenship, our faith with our cultural identity.

What, I wonder, is our Daniel moment? What is it that will be asked of us by our culture, our government, our laws, our society, to which we have to say “No – for if I give my conscience on this, where will I stop?”

Where, I wonder, does being a Christian, send us into the lions den?

Amen

New Covenant

Listen!
Jeremiah 31:27-34 | Luke 22:19-20
Jeremiah has a reputation as a grumpy, pessimistic sort of chap.

Not entirely unwarranted, either; for he was a prophet of downfall, a prophet of disaster. When the nation was threatened by foreign powers, and the authorities, as authorities will, were trying to keep people’s spirits up, Jeremiah was telling them that the cause was lost, that they would fall and be taken into exile.

But prophesying doom is only half of the Jeremiah story.

For throughout his writings, unheard, perhaps, by those who could not see past what they perceived and treachery and treason, was a promise… “but then…”

And when the darkness that he had so often foretold came, when it became clear that his warnings had been true, that the nation would fall, when desperate hope fell into despair, then Jeremiah brought a promise of hope from God.

The covenant has failed. But I will remake it.

We’ve probably all heard this phrase “a new covenant” often enough for it to have lost much of its bite. Especially, of course, because we hear it in the words of Jesus, at the last supper – “this my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you”. For us, to us, it’s an image full of positive, full of God’s love, full of the offer of life.

But that’s because we don’t place any significant value upon what had gone before, upon what we might call “the old covenant”, but to the people of Jeremiah’s time was just “the covenant”. The covenant was a central piece of what it meant to be the people of God. God had called Abraham and made a covenant with him, had called Moses and given, through him, the law, through Joshua had given them the land, through David a Kingdom, through Solomon the Temple. These were the things that made a Jew a Jew, made Israel Israel.

But the law, the Torah, the way of life, was failing; the land was being taken away; the kingdom had fallen; the Temple was about to be torn down. All the things that the people identified as making them who they were, were lost.

And now Jeremiah comes and says, in effect, we’re going to need a new covenant as well.

Jeremiah’s words were a promise of rebirth, a promise of new life, a promise for the future. But even in the act of declaring that the new would come, he was writing the obiturary for the old.

this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Jeremiah told the people that the old covenant has failed. Even though, as he said, God took the people by the hand and led them out of Egypt, even though God had been a husband to Israel, the covenant had failed. The people had broken it.

But how would this time be different? How would the new covenant be different from to old, how would it be that this one would work?

This is the covenant, Jeremiah tells us. This is how it will be. This is what will make it different.

I will put my law within them, I will write it on their hearts.

The old covenant was a law in written form, codified, detailed, describing the right way to behave in all the events of day to day life. It was law written to form and protect a society, an objective standard by which behaviour could be judged in the interests of a stable, healthy society.
That is surely no bad thing. Surely we are glad to live in a nation governed by the rule of law, in which rules exist to protect us from one another and our own worst instincts.

Written laws are a great way to run a nation, but not so great when it comes to running a family. Of course, families often have their own clear rules – especially when there are kids around – but those rules are not the heart of things. If obeying the rules ever became the most important part of the life of a family, that would be a family in deep crisis.

At the core of a healthy family lies not a set of rules, but a deeply entwined set of loving relationships. Relationships which, most of the time, don’t need written laws; for they are shaped by the law of love, the law written on the heart.

In the new covenant, Jeremiah says, there will be no need for tablets of stone inscribed with ‘thou shalt not’. It is inscribed within us, grows with us, becomes part of who we are.

Religious observance by obedience to an externally imposed set of rules was never going to work. No moral code, no ethic, no virtue, is ever real until it is internalised, until we do what is right not because we are being told we must but because of who we are. The Good Samaritan doesn’t help the enemy he finds beaten and left for dead because his laws tell him to do so: he does it because he is a man of virtue, a man who could no more leave a fellow human being in need than he could fly to the moon. He does so because the law of love is written on his heart.

But more even than that, religion based on external rules unavoidably sets up hierarchy. Where there are laws, there are those who enforce them, those who interpret them, those who pass judgement. Where there are laws, there are some placed in power over others.

Which is why the second half of Jeremiah’s prophecy is so important – No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. Not, I think, that Jeremiah is speaking against teaching; but he is looking forward to a day when it will no longer be a select few who have the law, who have the spirit of God, who speak on God’s behalf. No longer will there be those who know and teach, and others who listen and accept. They shall all know me, from the least to the greatest. For in that day, when the law of God is written in the heart, all will know God, all will be teachers and all will be learners.

That is the radically egalitarian vision of the New Covenant. A kingdom in which all know God – young or old, female or male, educated or not – a kingdom in which the law of love is written in the heart. A kingdom in which religious status conveys no authority, in which no priest can tell you what you should believe, and no preacher can insist that his reading of the Bible is the only truth.

for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Amen.

In the year that King Uzziah died

Listen!
Isaiah 6:1-8 | Luke 5:8-10
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord

The year, in our accounting, was around 740BC. The Kingdom of Israel had divided into two separate nations some two hundred years before, on the death of Solomon, and there had little peace or prosperity ever since.

But the time of King Uzziah had been somewhat stable; he reigned for over fifty years, and thanks (at least in part) to his development of military technology, the Southern Kingdom, Judah, had known a time of relative peace.

But the last few years of his life foreshadowed the chaos that was to come; confined to his home for the last ten years of his life with a skin disease, he reigned in name, while his son Jotham ruled in practice.

Still, the respect in which Uzziah was held by the people kept the peace as long as he lived.

But this was the year that he died.

Jotham would reign for another four years, but they would be years of struggle and conflict, years in which the worship of God would be forgotten, the sanctity of the Temple defiled. The Northern Kingdom had fallen to the invading Assyrian army, and there were those within Judah who would welcome the embrace of the might of the Assyrians; happy to trade their freedom for the security of a powerful force that promised to keep them safe, give them security in an uncertain world.

And the pro-Assyrian movement within Judah finally overthrew Jotham, installing his son, Ahaz, as their puppet ruler.

It was a time of upheaval, a time of change, a time of uncertainty, of nations divided, of fear.

That was the year that Isaiah saw the Lord.

The message that Isaiah was given by God to deliver to the people was depressingly familiar. The second half of Isaiah chapter six describes a people floundering and thrashing about but never finding the answer.

Keep looking, but not understanding
Keep listening, but making no sense
Their minds are dull, their eyes blind, their ears stopped
For if they looked and listened and understood,
they would turn and be healed.
But they will not do so until the cities lie waste
and the land desolate.

It’s a pretty sad but terribly realistic description of humankind, really, isn’t it. The people would refuse to see what was right before their eyes; refuse to take notice of the evidence of their ears; refuse to think about what they were doing and where their decisions might lead them.

In fear, or uncertainty, or perhaps out of resentment towards a ruling elite who had forgotten them, they would choose to hand power to a despot, despite what they had seen and heard of his past actions.

If you’ve started to suspect by now that I’m drawing some parallels between this time in history and the affairs of the past week, you aren’t imagining it. When a very large number of fundamentally decent people can choose to elect as their leader a man who openly mocked the disabled, vilified entire nations and races, repeatedly committed adultery, and boasted of and defended sexually assault, it’s hard to read Isaiah’s prophecy and not feel at least a twinge of recognition.

But please don’t hear these words as words of contempt for, or condemnation of, those who so voted. For if you read the prophecies in the early chapters of Isaiah you do not find in God’s words a contemptuous condemnation of the people of God; even those who have turned their back on God. For their leaders, for those who lead them astray, who manipulate them to secure their own privilege, wealth and power, yes. But for the nation, for the people, the words of God spoken through the prophet are words of judgement, yes, and foretellings of tragedy (tragedy that they will bring upon themselves by the disastrous choices they are making), but tinged throughout with sadness, not with anger.

And when Isaiah sees the Lord? Well, that’s telling. He doesn’t say “At last! Now you will vindicate me! Now everyone will know that I was right!”. No, Isaiah’s first reaction was to identify himself with his people, and with their sinfulness. “I am a man of unclean lips,” he says, first; and only then “and I live amongst a people of unclean lips.”. Isaiah recognises the failings of the nation; but he does not claim himself to be any better. Instead, his first reaction when he has a vision of God is to know his own failures.

Just as Simon would, hundreds of years later, when he first realised who Jesus was: “Go from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”.

It almost seems to be a prerequisite for those who God will choose to call; that they start off by being first and foremost aware of their own shortcomings, not confident in their own power and righteousness.

So Isaiah, and Simon, begin in a recognition that they were part of the problem; that they, like everyone around them, had not lived according to the way of God; had not loved, listened, worshipped, given, forgiven, loved again.

But God called them, and sent them to be messengers.

Because while God’s words through Isaiah in the opening chapters seem so dark and depressing and all but without hope, remember this is the same book that gives us the promise of a messiah, the great words of “comfort, comfort”, the expectation that beyond the darkness of the present and the even greater darkness that is to come, there is light; there is hope; there will be new growth, spring after winter, life after death.

Isaiah chapters 6, 7 and 8 are full of woe; full of the collapse of nation and society, full of war and hardship; but then, those words we hear often in advent, in our carol services, by candlelight if we possibly can:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace

Anne Frank, as a young girl facing the increasing power of Hitler throughout Europe wrote in her diaries

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”

I believe the prophet would encourage in us the same spirit; for though we all seem so often to fit Isaiah’s description of not listening, not seeing, not understanding, we are all also made in the image of God. And perhaps the greatest thing we can do is to keep those ideals to which Christ calls us: to love even when all is hate; to forgive when the world demands revenge; to be reconciled when the voices of despots on all sides call us to arms; and to have faith in God, even when everything seems so dark.

Amen

Reluctant Prophet

Listen!
Jonah 1:1-17, 3:1-10
So, Jonah. My favourite prophet.

Not, let me stress, because of the giant fish. Honestly, I so wish that bit of the story wasn’t there. Because, of course, it immediately captures the attention. Ask anyone who’s grown up in Sunday School about Jonah, and I will bet anything that the first thing they remember is that he was swallowed by a whale.

The whole Jonah/whale thing is so deeply ingrained that even on a Facebook group for ministers following the narrative lectionary (a great group, because unlike most online forums, it’s very theologically diverse; united only by the text that we are preaching on) I saw people asking “why would we spend a whole week preaching on a Jewish fairytale about whale”.

And I just want to take people by the shoulders and shake them and say “that’s not the point of Jonah! It’s not about the fish!”. The story of Jonah is really not about a strange form of aquatic transportation.

The story of Jonah is about international conflict. It’s about the attitude of the people of the one true God to foreigners who worship other gods. It’s about hope and faith and repentance and forgiveness.

But most of all, it’s about Jonah.

And that might seem obvious, I mean, it’s the book of Jonah, right? But most of the books of the prophets aren’t really about the prophet. They’re about the prophecy, about the world events, about the judgement of God, the call for justice, the rebuke to the wicked. In most of the books of prophecy the actual character of the prophet is really not very important. We don’t even know much about them. Jeremiah, maybe, we get a bit of a sense of the man behind the words, but most of them are portrayed as simply conduits for the word of God.

Not Jonah.

The book of Jonah is really about Jonah.

Because Jonah was a bit different from the other prophets of God.

Lots of God’s prophets were reluctant to do the things that God sent them to do. Hardly surprising, since for the most part their job was to tell people that they were in the wrong, that they had offended God, that they needed to change. It wasn’t a safe or comfortable job, to be God’s prophet, to speak the truth to the powerful. They were often ostracised, frequently killed, almost never recognised.

And Jonah, called to preach repentance to the people of Ninevah – the enemies of God and of Israel – might have had good reason to fear that this was not a safe assignment. To head off in the opposite direction, as Jonah did, might be considered an entirely reasonable thing to do.

But one thing Jonah wasn’t, was a coward. When the storm arose and he was faced with the consequences of his choice to flee from God, he offered himself up to be thrown overboard. He didn’t flee from the comand of God because he was afraid of what the Ninevites would do to him. His reluctance, it seems, stemmed from an entirely different concern.

For when, finally, (post-whale), Jonah preached to the Ninevites, they accept his message, they repented, and God had mercy on them.
And that was Jonah really feared.

Jonah, was the reluctant prophet, not because he feared what might happen to him, but because he knew that God would forgive, and didn’t want him to. Didn’t want this foreign city to be given another chance. Didn’t want God’s grace to extend to the enemy.

Didn’t want the sort of God that he had.

Jonah wanted to serve a God who was powerful, but tribal. He wanted to serve a God who would be for us, and against them. He wanted to serve a God whose response to atrocities committed against the people was one of anger and judgement. The sort of God who would go to war to punish anyone who threatened us, threatened our way of life. The sort of God that the stories of his history spoke of; the God of Moses, drowning the Egyptian army when they were in retreat, the God of Joshua, committing genocide against the people of Jericho.

But that wasn’t the sort of God he had. And he knew it. And he didn’t like it.

He got the God he didn’t want.

Jonah wanted a God who would play by the rules of the story he lived in: the story of tribes and nations at war with one another, in which the role of our God is to deliver us victory over our enemies. The story in which our role is to keep ourselves, our culture, our nation, from being infiltrated; to keep out those who would be different, who would worship other Gods, or worship Gods by other names; to fight against those whose way of living didn’t mesh with what we know as Godly.

But he knew – and this is really the incredible part of the story of Jonah – he knew that God was bigger than he wanted God to be.

He knew that the God he served was not just a God like all the other nations worshiped writ large; that his God was somehow bigger; not just stronger, but qualitatively more. That others worshipped tribal or national gods, but he served the one true God, the God of all nations, all tribes, all peoples.

And somehow Jonah had understood that this God he served did not look on the Ninevites as enemies – though they were – or as wicked evildoers – though they were – but as people who could be good. People who were able to hear God’s word, and to change.

And that was the last thing that Jonah wanted. He wanted a God who would make sure his people won; not one who would muddy the waters by inviting the enemy into the fold.
Which is why I so like Jonah. Because he is so much like one of us. He’s not one of those prophets who just seems to be completely in line with what God wants, totally committed to the things that God values. Jonah has this deep understanding of God, and he actually doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like that God is forgiving. He doesn’t like that his enemies; the people who have hurt him, hurt his family, hurt his nation; the people who have struck terror into his heart and into his culture, his context; he doesn’t like the fact that God cares for those people, those infidels, those pagans, those terrorists, those enemy combatants.

Jonah doesn’t want God to love Jonah’s enemies. But at the same time, he knows that God does.

Which is why I believe that Jonah is really a prophet for our times. Because we live in such a divided time. Whether it be pro or anti same sex marriage; whether it be brexit or remain; whether it be Trump or Clinton; we live in an age that seems defined by our polarities. And each one of us; at least, each of us who is a person of faith, would seek to find God on our side, fighting in our corner, agreeing with our concerns.

Abraham Lincoln is said to have said (it’s probably apocryphal, the best quotes always are) when asked if God was the side of the Union “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side”.

And that’s a pretty good attitude. But it’s not enough.

The challenge that Jonah faced; the challenge, I believe, that we face in the modern world; was that even though God was clearly on Jonah’s side, God was also for the Ninevites. Not for them, in the sense of siding with them, hoping that they would win; but for them, recognising them as people; loving them as God’s creation; caring about what would happen to them; longing for them to repent, to change, to be reconciled to God.

And Jonah had the honesty to admit that he didn’t want that to happen. He wanted some good smiting, some destruction of the enemy.

He wanted a God who was on his side. But he served a God who cared for both sides.

I wonder if we can find what it means to serve such a God.

Amen

Brettwina

A number of people have asked if I would post the reflection from Brett and Edwina’s wedding…

We have gathered here to celebrate love; to celebrate the love in which Edwina and Brett have chosen to gives their lives to one another; the love in which, in just a few moments, they will make momentous, life changing, life shaping promises to one another.

And in doing so, they will commit themselves to walking the road that lies ahead of them together. Partners, willingly bound by the promises that they make to one another.
And so we hear once more the ancient words of the apostle: “Let love be genuine.”

The book of Romans, that our first reading was taken from, is perhaps the most complete and systematic descriptions of what it means to be a person of God. And as it draws to it’s conclusion, as it summarises the message of God, this is what it has to say:

Let love be genuine. Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Words that any couple, whether on their wedding day or celebrating their golden wedding anniversary, might hear.

Contribute to the needs of the saints, it goes on; look out for those who are your people, your family, your friends; be the ones who step up to help when a friend is sick or struggling; don’t wait to be asked when you know someone needs a hand; be a friend, not just a Facebook friend.

And extend hospitality to strangers. Don’t limit your concern to those who are close to you. Open your eyes, your hands, your hearts, your lives, to those who are not your people, your tribe.

For this is the nature of love. It begins with those who are close; It begins with parent and child; but it grows to include those close to us, family, friends, and, most of all, the life partner we freely choose to give ourselves to. But it doesn’t end there. For the more we know love, the more we are able to love; the stronger and more secure the relationships we have with those who are closest to us, the more we are free to give, to share love, to practice hospitality, to live, as the reading goes on, in harmony; to live in peace.

For there is a sad truth we see far too often in our world today; that hate breeds hate; fear breeds fear; distrust breeds distrust; violence breeds violence. That is the way the world is.

But today we celebrate something counter cultural. In a world that values what you can get for yourself, today we celebrate what one can give to another. In a world that celebrates dominance, today we celebrate partnership. In a world that celebrates what you have, today we celebrate who you are.

For today we celebrate the love that we have because God first loved us; the love that empowers us to live not just for ourselves, but for another.

Today we celebrate love.

Amen.

Christmas Special

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On Sunday December 11th we will be holding our Christmas Special Messy Church! This will be at 10am, starting in the Hall for all sorts of Messy Church experience, moving on to our traditional unrehearsed pageant service, and finishing with a celebration lunch for the whole family.

Young or old, this is an event not to be missed! And if you feel you can help out – please let Chris, Sureka or Dayan know! We can certainly find a job for you…

No honour

Listen!
1 Kings 17:1-16 | Luke 4:24-26
It’s always interesting to notice which Old Testament stories Jesus chooses to allude to, and even more interesting to notice what he does with them.

Because if you think about it, there is an awful lot in the Old Testament, the Jewish scriptures, and while it might be reasonable to think that the scholars; the scribes, the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, would know most of the stories in their holy book, your average ordinary fisherman or shepherd or even tax collector had probably only ever heard a small fraction of them, and remembered fewer still.

So when Jesus just mentions a story, as he did in our gospel reading, and seems to assume that those who are listening to him know what he is talking about, we can be pretty confident to say that this was one of those stories that people of the day knew. One of the stories that was told and remembered, even amongst the ordinary people.

Which is interesting; because the story of Elijah is the story of a time when the established order of the people of Gad had gone bad; King Ahab ruled; he had taken a foreign wife, Jezebel, and with her, he had taken on the worship of her gods – in particular, the worship of Baal, a fertility God in the Canaanite religion, whose main claim to fame, as it were, was that the way to appease Baal and guarantee your harvest was human sacrifice.

Just in passing, there’s something rather poetic in the fact that Elijah’s rebuke of Ahab takes the form a drought; that is, the loss of fertility of the land. As if to say, “you worship a fertility God, but if Yahweh commands that the land dry up and crack and yield no crops, there is nothing your Baal can do”.

But that fact that the story was about a time of apostasy amongst the royalty and the priesthood of Israel pretty strongly suggests that the story was told by those who were critical of the compromises that the leaders of the day had made with Rome; that is to say, this was a story kept alive, made relevant, by the Pharisees, those who held influence in the towns and villages outside of Jerusalem, in the synagogues, not the Temple, those who saw the Herodians and the Sadducees as betrayers of the true faith of the people. They told the story of Elijah as the story of the faithful prophet, the one who kept alive the true worship of God even when the leaders of Israel did not, he was the one God listened to, the one God provided for.

Elijah was a hero of those who were passionate about the purity of the people, the purity of the worship of God, the rejection of the influence of foreigners and foreign religion.
And Jesus takes the story of Elijah, a story the people knew, and comes at it from a completely different direction.

Elijah, he reminds the people, was sent by God to a foreign land; though there were many widows in Israel, it was not by them that the prophet’s words would be heard, but to a widow in Sidon.

The widow was not one of the people of God. It’s there in her words to Elijah – “as the Lord your God lives”; not the Lord God, not the Lord our God, the Lord your God. She does not identify herself with Elijah’s God, for she is one of the other. She is part of the infiltration, the pollution of the religion of the people of God. She worships another God – or perhaps, she worships God by another name.

In every imaginable way, in the value system of the day and in the value system of the Pharisees who had kept the story alive, she was an outsider. She was a widow. She was poor. She was female. She was a foreigner. She was a pagan.

But to her, the prophet went. To her, the word of God went. And on her, and on her faith, Elijah depended.

And Jesus takes this story and applies it to himself.

The people of God, he tells his friends, are often the last to receive the message of God. The people of God get tied up in their systems, their hierarchies, their internal petty political arguments, and when the prophet of God comes to speak, they don’t hear.

Because the prophet does not come from within the system. The prophet is not the voice speaking from where people expect to hear it. Almost by definition, the prophet comes from outside, perhaps because it is only an outsider who can truly see the way things are, who isn’t blinded by familiarity or self interest.

Those who know the prophet, those who are part of the same group, the same tribe, that the prophet came from, are the last to hear their words.

For as Elijah found, and as Jesus found with the Samaritan leper or the syro-phonecian woman, it is often those who are on the outside who respond with the sort of faith shown by the widow of Zarephath (another women who plays an important role in the story but whose name doesn’t even rate a mention). For she, a pagan foreign woman recognises Elijah as a prophet of his God, and places her trust in his words.

The story of Elijah had been kept alive because it spoke of faithfulness to the one true God when those in positions of power and influence had surrendered to the easy real-politic of collaboration with the great empire of the day.

But Jesus uses it to speak of the faith of those on the outside, and the inability of those too close to the lie to hear the truth.

So what are we to hear in these words of Jesus, in his take on the story of Elijah? It’s common, when preaching on this gospel text to hear it said that Jesus’ message is a warning that we do not let familiarity breed dismissal, that we hear the words of the prophet in our midst, not rejecting them because we know them.

But Jesus didn’t say “make sure you listen to the prophet from within your midst”. He said “no prophet is accepted in their home town”.

Which seems to me instead to say: since you will not hear a prophet from your own, from your tribe, your people, you need to listen to other voices. The prophet who speaks to you will not be from your home town. You need to hear what is said about you by people who do not share your views, your politics, your assumptions, your faith.

We need to hear our faith and our institutions and our ways described by those who are outside of our bubble.

When we hear voices in society speaking against things we value, we need to listen and not simply dismiss.

Listen to the arguments of those who would abolish scripture in schools, or the Lord’s Prayer in parliament, or tax concessions for Churches.

And listen to those in the more evangelical Churches who accuse us in the Uniting Church of being ‘Christianity-lite’.

Listen to those whose politics are not your own, whether it be Pauline Hanson or Richard Di Natale, Bill Shorten or Malcolm Turnbull.

Listen to the voices of indigenous Australia, and to the voices of migrants from cultures that are not our own, as they critique our (mostly) anglo cultural assumptions.

Listen to those who seek our help as refugees; and to those who fear for the effect new arrivals might have on our culture, our society.

I’m not saying automatically agree – but listen. For we so easily dismiss those who carry a label which is not our own, without hearing what they have to say to us.

Look at the story from the point of view of the widow.

A foreign man, a holy man of another faith comes to her, and asks her for her help, her shelter, her protection from conflict – civil war, even – within his own nation. He comes to her in the name of a foreign God; but she hears him, and in hearing him, she hears the words of God.

Will we hear the prophet, if they come from the outside? Because according to Jesus, we certainly won’t hear them if they come from within.

Amen