St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Discernment

Listen!
John 16:13-15 | 1 Corinthians 14:26-31
Two weeks ago I spoke on the words from the book of Proverbs about the gaining of wisdom wisdom; about waiting, watching, listening, daily, for the voice of wisdom to be heard.

And alongside those words we reflected on Jesus’ description of himself as the Good Shepherd; the one whose voice the sheep would recognise, the one they would follow because they knew who he was.

The week before that, we explored the way that even Jesus; even the incarnate son of God, felt the need to pray, and especially at those key moments of decision at which his ministry, and indeed, his life, would take shape, take direction.

And I suggested – not, I think, very subtly – that these are words that St. John’s needs especially to hear, as this community moves into a time of change, time of uncertainty, and time of opportunity, of discernment of God’s call for the next stage of the journey.

And it is to that idea of discernment that we now move. How does a community of faith come to an understanding of what it is that God is calling them to.

And for this, as for anything in the faith, we begin with the words of Jesus. In the farewell discourse which runs for several chapters of John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks to his friends about what is going to happen when he is taken from them. Now as we’ve noted before, John’s gospel, written as it was a couple of generations after the events, is not, and doesn’t set out to be, a historical, biographical account: to think of it in those terms is simply to misunderstand the literary genre into which is fits.
John’s gospel is a commentary, a theological interpretation of the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus in the light of the experience of the Church.
The farewell discourse almost certainly therefore doesn’t represent a long speech made by Jesus to his uncomprehending friends, that they didn’t understand but yet remembered word for word for seventy years before John wrote it down. Instead, it is the distilled wisdom and understanding of a community that has lived in the post-Jesus era. Which is why John’s words on the subject of the work of the Holy Spirit are of particular interest.

For these words – the Spirit of Truth will guide you, will make known to you the things that are mine – represent the lived experience of the early Christian Church. Not a promise for the future, so much as the day to day experience of the present for the people of God.

The Spirit takes what is God’s and makes it known. That wasn’t a theological idea, it was the very life of the early believers.

And it is in that context, that understanding, that we turn Paul’s words in his letter to the Church in Corinth.

The Church in Corinth was, of course, famously dysfunctional. It was riven with dissent, internal arguments, and competing spiritual hierarchies. It was a Church with huge potential, with many believers of great faith and deep gifts, but one in which that faith and those gifts were being used in internal conflict and self-aggrandisement.
Paul, writing to the Church, takes great care working through these arguments, in what is effectively a long plea for unity amongst the people of God, a plea which culminates in the great poem of love in chapter 13, and the trinity of Christian virtues: And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

But then, in the final couple of chapters, Paul moves on to give the people of Corinth a way forwards; a way of being the spiritually dynamic people of God that was clearly their potential; indeed, their calling; a way in which the diversity of their faith and spirituality could be a gift, not a source of conflict. In doing so he laid out a set of expectations for how the Church, the gathered congregation, might operate; a set of expectations that we hear today.

A set of expectations, principles, that I would suggest ought to shape the way that we, as Christian community, seek to discern the will of God for the future.

How do we, as a community, seek to discern God’s way for us?

When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.

Even in these opening words, two thoughts emerge. “When you come together”. God’s guidance for a community is not something handed down from on high to a designated authority or leader in his or her private reflections; it is “when you come together”.

And more – when you come together “each one has” something to contribute. It is the very nature of the Christian community that every voice is important, every thought, reflection, insight, doubt, confusion, prayer, hymn; all are needed.

So let them all be done. When we gather in discernment of God’s will for us as a community, everyone has something to contribute, and all are needed.
But there will be those to whom God seems to be giving special insight or wisdom; so let them speak. But not, notice, ever just one. “Let two or three prophets speak,” Paul writes, “and the others weigh what has been said”.

There is no place here for the speaker who believes that they have all the answers; there is an absolute expectation that there will need to be more than one voice heard, and that no voice is accepted uncritically. Two or three speak, and all listen. And all weigh what they hear.

And I’m pretty sure that “weigh what they hear” is supposed to mean what we normally do: “work out how to argue against” or “dismiss because of who the speaker was”. Or, for that matter, “take automatically as gospel truth because it happens to reflect our point of view”.

No. Listen. And weigh.

And if someone else wants to speak, the first person should be silent! Now there’s a radical idea. Instead of holding onto the floor, Paul describes a style of discerning together in which a speaker can graciously allow another voice to be heard; even a voice that might be raised in disagreement, because the speaker believes that all those present are part of the same team, the same body, working together to hear the voice of God.

Because – back to the words of Jesus – we believe that the Spirit of God is guiding us into truth. Us. Together.

So can you imagine a way of meeting, of planning, of discerning that looks more like this vision than like Q&A?

Can you imagine a way of discerning God’s will which assumes that everyone is actually part of the process, essential, gifted with their share of the spirit of God?
And better still, can you make it happen?

Amen.

DanceJays

New at St. John’s – DanceJays! Immediately after Playjays on Friday mornings (about 11:15am), a chance for preschool kids to dance! Come along and enjoy 🙂

From Law to Love

Sermon preached by Rob Ferguson

Now Leviticus is not one of those books that you find at the top of the best seller lists. Not one that you are likely to choose to read on the train or to curl up with in front of the fire on a cold night.

It is the third book of the Pentateuch, the five books making up the Hebrew Torah, and it was probably put into written form during the Babylonian exile about 600BC. We know that it is a book of laws but we have become so used to the idea that Jesus made the law redundant that we tend to overlook it. And it’s all too easy for us to take a somewhat supercilious attitude to the Law and say that’s all Old Testament stuff, we live in New Testament times. But we also do tend to forget that Jesus said that he had come not to abolish the law but to fulfil it. And what does that mean, how does he do that? He seems to be saying that the Law is important but he also seems to be giving freedom from the Law.

There are a lot of ways to interpret this but the other day an idea came to me that I found helpful.

I was trying to learn a new piece of music and I was finding it very difficult. It wasn’t written in ordinary 4/4 time or 3/4 waltz time. It was written in 3+3+2 over 8 time, and it required all my powers of concentration to play all the notes at their proper length exactly as written which was not the way I instinctively felt they should go. So it all seemed a bit mechanical and unmusical. I then watched a video of the composer playing the music and I was immediately impressed by the beauty and flow of the piece. He wasn’t looking at the score of course, it was all in his head, but it was more than that, from the way he was playing it was coming from the heart and that gave him a freedom of expression that I just couldn’t have while I was mechanically following the score.

You can see where this is all leading of course.

We all need the Law while we are on trainer wheels, we need to be taught “Thou shalt not steal”
or “always put aside some of your harvest for the hungry”, things that perhaps don’t come instinctively to our selfish self. But what Jesus was doing was living from the heart, from the constant flow of divine Love. And he was demonstrating that this inner love that flowed into him from the eternal source of love and out of him through his life, the dynamic of the Trinity, was the true source of the Law.

Whilst we are still mechanically reading the score, following the letter of the Law, being a slave to our own favourite code of ethics, that we like to think is “the will of God”, we will never know the freedom that Jesus revealed as he lived from the heart.

What I would like to draw our attention to this morning is the recurring refrain at the end of each verse: “I am the LORD”. In fact it is repeated 49 times in the book of Leviticus. The Law is inseparable from human relationships and by linking these words here is God saying I am intimately involved in human relationships.

The words “the LORD” are spelt out in capitals and whenever we see this in the Hebrew Scriptures we know that it stands for the four letters YHWH, the name of God, a word considered so sacred it is never spoken
although we have come to pronounce it Yahweh.

Do you remember when Moses asks God What is your name? And God answers “I AM who I AM…Say to the people I AM has sent you…YHWH has sent you.”

In many cultures one’s name is sacred because it is linked so intimately with one’s being and here we have God’s name and God himself shown to be one and the same.

One of the things I find significant about this is that I AM is a verb form, I AM is not a noun.
In the popular media-understanding of religion and indeed at the beginning of our own faith journey God isthought of as a noun but nouns imply borders and boundaries, limitations and definitions, all the things that God is not, whereas the verb I AM is dynamic, it has no beginning, no end, it is eternal being.

When we try to define God we are attempting the impossible. And those who argue against the existence of God are usually arguing at the noun level, arguing against what they think we believe, against the existence of some heavenly entity which they imagine to be like one of the old Graeco-Roman gods who could masquerade as a human being whenever it pleased them and interfere in our lives at will, or like Aztec gods that needed blood sacrifices to keep them onside. That is why debates with television atheists are often so unsatisfactory. We are arguing from two completely different concepts of God.

Every week we pray in the LORD’s Prayer “Hallowed be thy name”. In its original sense “hallowed” or holy means separate or different So in praying “hallowed be thy name” we are praying that we don’t fall into the trap of trying to bring our concept of God down to our limited human level of understanding, something that we do tend to slip into simply because we use language and God is beyond language. In the Lord’s prayer we are acknowledging that God is of a nature, of a category, entirely separate from our human understanding.

So we shouldn’t waste time and energy trying to argue about the existence of God. God’s existence cannot be proved, or disproved, but it can be lived out in our lives.

In Leviticus we hear God telling Moses to say to his people “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” Well, as his people today, we are likewise called to be holy, to be different, – not to think of ourselves as special or privileged – but to have the courage to be different, when everyone else is travelling down a comfortable path of “she’ll be right mate”.

Well, she won’t be right mate if we don’t speak out, and act, against injustices perpetrated in our name; to be a light in political darkness. Or to come closer to home, when friends gossip unkindly about another and we get caught up in the tantalising attraction to participate in that gossip we need the courage to be different, to go against the flow, to be channels of grace, to be a little light in these petty darknesses

That is the holiness that we are called to, a holiness that requires courage. A courage that the early church father made abundantly clear by placing The Feast of St Stephen on the day immediately after Christmas Day. We so often overlook that on that very day after we have enjoyed the festivities celebrating the birth of Jesus we have Boxing Day, The Feast of St Stephen, when we should be remembering, but probably don’t,
the fatal stoning of Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr, who was killed for having the courage to speak out, just exactly as we are called to do. Those early church calendar compilers are saying loud and clear that being a Christian is not taking the easy option. It is a call to become holy, hallowed, separate, different.
And how do we do that?

Well if we look at what Paul is saying in our reading from I Corinthians we hear Paul stating that Jesus Christ is the Foundation of our faith, and that word Foundation is absolutely essential to my understanding of what it is to be a Christian. One of the earliest foundational Christian statements was “Jesus is Lord”. On one level this is displacing Caesar as Lord – and this was a threat to the Roman occupying forces – but to his fellow Jews this was shocking blasphemy. This is proclaiming that Jesus is I AM, the despised Jesus, the servant Jesus, the companion of tax cheats and asylum seekers Jesus. And Jesus himself leaves us without any doubt when he says “I and the Father are one. I am in the father and the father is in me – and here is the crunch for us – and you are in me and I am in you”

This is not supernatural magic. This is part and parcel of human possibility. This is what the incarnation is all about. Well Paul here in his letter to the Corinthians reiterates that it is not just in Jesus that God is incarnate
when he says “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you…God’s temple is holy and you are that temple”

When we as Christians become aware that we are in the Father and the Father is in us we shift our foundation from our selfish self to the lowly Risen Christ, the eternal compassionate I AM, to the place where incarnation and resurrection meet deep in the silent heart of our human being. This still sounds blasphemous to many Christians – that the incarnation can be realised in us – but it shouldn’t, because we are familiar with Paul’s words that he will labour on until Christ be formed in us. And as we sang time and again just a few weeks ago “O holy child of Bethlehem Be born in us today” As Jesus said, we must be born anew. And that is what is meant by the contemplative life that we have been talking about in our discussion on prayer.

When we become conscious of this transformation from an ego-centred foundation to a Christ-centred foundation, a one-with-all-eternity foundation, where the Christ-centre is everywhere and the boundaries are nowhere, a limitless kingdom shared by all, we see the world differently, we engage in relationships differently, we sense the environment differently, and we live out the Law, not as commandments, but from the divine depths of our heart. Amen

My sheep hear my voice

Listen!
Proverbs 8:22-36 | John 10:1-10
“The curious fact about the most fundamental question of life, is that everyone answers it, but very few people ask it.”

“‘What is a good life?’ Your life at every moment is your answer to that question; but if you haven’t answered it for yourself, then someone else is answering it for you. You are either guided by values that you chose for yourself, or by values, desires, wishes and so forth given to you by the culture and media that surrounds you.”

Words (adapted slightly) of the philosopher Frank Martella.

There is a sense in which every serious movement of human history – whether political, philosophical or religious – is an attempt to answer this most basic of questions:
What does it mean, to live life well?

For people of faith – at least, those within the great monotheistic tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – this question translates fairly immediately into another: how would God have us live?

This was the question that faced the people of Israel as they fled from Egypt in the Exodus. There’s a lovely description in the Godly Play telling of that story: “The people of God had been slaves in Egypt; they lived as they were told, where they were told. Now they were free to do as they wished. But where would they go? And how would they live?”
And of course the next key moment in that great story is Mount Sinai, the giving of the law.

But the limitations of law, of course, are all too well known. Law can rule out, forbid, much which is wrong, but it cannot inspire that which is most right. When law tries to compel the right, rather than just constrain the wrong, the path is very short to totalitarianism; and, whether it be fascist, communist, or religious totalitarianism, I think we can agree that that does not end well.

Law can only take us so far. Law can protect the powerless; work justice for the dispossessed, prevent the abuse of power by those who hold it. At least in theory. That’s what it’s for. But it cannot guide us far in living well. Paul says as much when writing of the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace and the rest – “for such things there is no law”. This is not a criticism of law; it is a recognition that it is just the beginning of the answer to that fundamental question: “how should I live”.

The Hebrew concept of right living, the Torah, was much more than law. In particular, the Torah relied upon wisdom to go beyond the constraints of law.

Wisdom was so important to the Hebrew people, it had its own section in the scriptures – beside the law and prophets stood ‘the writings’, the books we call Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. And within these works, and most especially within the book of Proverbs, wisdom was personified as ‘Sofia’; sometimes perceived as the feminine side of the divine, but more often, as in our reading today, portrayed as the very first act of creation.

The point of this description of Sofia, present when God established the heavens, when God marked the foundations of the earth, is this: Sofia, wisdom, understands how the world is. Knows how it works. The wisdom of God speaks from a place of knowledge.

In our gospel reading, we hear Jesus speaking, indirectly, to the same question. His sheep, he says, his people, hear his voice when he calls to them. They recognise his voice, and they follow him, because they trust in him.

And all of this is all very well, but it just leaves the question: how?

How do we hear and recognise the voice of the shepherd?

How do we keep the ways of wisdom?

How do we know what God would have us do?

And if you think that I’ve got a final answer to those questions, then either you’re new around here, or really haven’t been paying attention.

But there are some pretty useful hints in the passages we’ve heard today.

Sofia, wisdom, in the prophets, offers this advice:

Happy is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
The one who listens, watching, daily, waiting.

Hard advice for us to hear, especially those of a younger generation, used to instant answers to any question. Whenever I’m writing a sermon, I have a web browser open on my screen, so I can instantly hunt out the details I need, the quotes, the texts I want to use. Not for me, the discipline of daily waiting and watching, listening. The answers are supposed to be there, at my fingertips, on the screen of my phone, on demand.

Sofia says instead: “listen, watching daily, waiting”. And once again, it may just be me, but that’s a challenge I find it hard live up to. To take time every day to listen and wait and watch; to still ourselves long enough to give the voice of wisdom a chance to speak into our very selves.

It’s something I just don’t seem able to do.

Except – when Maya was in Kindergarten, in her very first days of school, there was a big colourful sign on the wall which read “I don’t say ‘I can’t’ – I say ‘I will try’”.
Is it really so unimaginably hard to make space each day to listen and wait; to, as a good put it, think at – and with – God about the affairs of the day, the things ahead of you, the challenges you face, the relationships you value, the decisions you must make.

I’m not going to promise you that you will hear God speak.

But I think I can, in good faith, promise, that you will make wiser decisions if you take time each day to simply think your day with God.
And our gospel reading really seems to echo that promise; and to add to it.

Jesus’ sheep will hear his voice, and will follow.

Again, it’s one of those really encouraging lines – not “if you hear my voice and follow then you will be my sheep”, but the other way around – “you will hear, you will know, you will follow”.

And you know the thing about sheep in the Bible? The word is almost never used in the singular. Sheep, as a rule, don’t act in the singular. According to the Illinois livestock trail website (you remember what I was saying before about always having a web browser open when I was writing a sermon?), sheep are gregarious; they move together, not because they like each other, but because it is safer that way. They follow the call of a shepherd, or move away from the sheep dog, as a group.

I strongly believe that when Jesus said that his sheep hear his voice, he wasn’t advancing some sort of radical theological individualism – “each one of you will hear me and follow” but actually to the combined wisdom of the gregarious flock. The sheep, together, will hear me. The flock, by its communal wisdom and discernment, will follow.

How does the individual sheep learn to hear and follow? From the flock. And how does the flock recognise the voice of the shepherd? From the combined wisdom of the individuals.
I don’t want to push the analogy too far (I got in trouble with a few of you who know far more about sheep than me in the past, when I suggested – wrongly, it turns out – that they were fairly stupid animals). But it seems to me to complement the wisdom of Sofia beautifully: that we each, individually, learn the wisdom of God as we listen and wait and watch daily: and then together, as a flock, we hear the direction, the call, the leadership, of God.

Now I’m occasionally accused of being too subtle in my preaching, so let me bring this in, as it were, to land. Quite apart from the universal need for the people of God to seek wisdom in their individual lives and guidance in their life together; St. John’s is moving into a time in which that need is especially acute. Over the next few months, this community will need to discern the call of God for the future: what God is calling St. John’s to be, to do, to live. How the kingdom of God is going to be made more real in Wahroonga by the people of God gathered here.

So I am inviting you – everyone here – to rise to that challenge. To spend time, in the coming weeks (Lent, perhaps, provides a great opportunity) waiting and listening, as individuals; praying; thinking your day with God. We’re going to do that, again, as we did last week, in a moment.

And then, as a community; as you talk together both formally and informally, take time to listen for God’s voice.

Because God’s flock do hear God’s voice, and follow.

And that is the life worth living.

Amen

Shrove Friday

Everyone is warmly invited to join us at the Manse on Friday 3rd March for dessert, coffee and wine; a chance to mark the beginning of Lent, and for Chris and Sureka to say “thank you” to the St. John’s community for a wonderful seven years…

Jesus prayed

Listen!
Mark 1:29-39 | Philippians 4:4-9

So we’re here in a new year at the start of Jesus’s ministry. In the past couple of weeks we’ve read of his baptism by John, and of the first disciples called to follow him. Last week we reflected on the very different pathways of faith that the gospels describe and the followers of Jesus experience; those who know from the start that Jesus is truly the Son of God, and who spend their life of discipleship working out what that implies; and those who discover the man Jesus and slowly, in his life and teaching, discover that he is more than just Rabbi.

In a conversation at morning tea last Sunday we talked about how there is this sort of – not a divide, so much as just a different path to the same end – between those who first encounter Jesus Christ as Christ – as the anointed one of God, the word made flesh, part of Godhead, second person of the trinity – and those who first encounter his Jesus Christ as Jesus, the man, son of Mary, teacher, carpenter, friend.

And of course the Christian faith throughout the ages has striven to hold these two revelations of God in Jesus Christ together – the very doctrine of the dual nature of Christ – fully God, fully human – is on one level at least, just an attempt to recognise, to affirm, the truth of God experienced in each of these pathways.

Today, we move to a story – or a set of stories – right at the beginning of Jesus ministry, and we see both these sides of Jesus walking hand in hand.

He heals, he casts out demons and will not permit them to speak – he demonstrates the power of God in his life, his ministry, his teaching – and then he shows just how human he also is.

And I believe it is an aspect of his humanity that we need to lean upon, where we are in the world right now. Having done all these things – teaching, healing, casting out of evil – the next morning, Jesus gets up, finds a place of peace, and prays.

Have you ever stopped to think about the fact that Jesus prayed?

I mean, on one level, it’s kind of obvious. He was a Jewish man. He attended the synagogue. He grew in a family who knew the prayers of there people. As part of his community, he would inevitably have been part of the prayer life of his community.

Which, in a sense, is like what we do here each Sunday, and perhaps in the rituals of our family lives. We pray together as our liturgy, as part of those rituals that define who we are, that keep us part of the great tradition of the faith. We pray at baptisms, at communions, at weddings and funerals, and each week, in adoration, in confession, in our prayers for others.

We just assume that Jesus did the equivalent, in a first century Jewish context – because the Gospel writers don’t tell us, they just take it for granted.

But what the Gospel writers do tell us – and therefore, surely, expect us to take notice of, take guidance from – something else about Jesus’ life of prayer. There are a number of moments in the gospels, turning points, as it were, in the life of Jesus, where the writers makes a point of telling us that Jesus turned to prayer. Perhaps the most famous is the garden of gethsemane; but it’s here at the start, and elsewhere at key moments in his ministry.

So I ask again – have you stopped to think about the fact that Jesus prayed?

The one who only ever did what he saw his Father doing? Who knew more closely and intimately the character, the nature, the will of God than anyone ever born? Who so often is shown as just instinctively knowing what God would say of a situation?

That man Jesus, when faced with dramatic times in his life, needed to make space to pray.

And if he did, how much more do we?

As I’ve already said, of course, we do pray. It is a fundamental part of who we are; we pray every week in Church, every meeting opens and closes in prayer, and no doubt each of us also has our own rituals, family or personal, of prayer.

But again, as I’ve already indicated, this is something more. This isn’t the day to day prayer that infuses our lives and defines us as God’s people: this is the active, expectant prayer of a man who needs to know what God would have him do next.

And that is something that we in the Uniting Church aren’t so good at.

We’re good at praying as part of our liturgies, our rituals of life – and don’t hear me as saying anything against that, it’s incredibly, unbelievably important that we embed prayer into lives as individuals and as a community like that.

And we pray in a crisis. We pray for one another when people are sick, or struggling, or in pain. And again, that’s a huge part of being God’s people – that when we face the hard times of life we don’t avoid them, but we stand alongside one another even when all we can offer is prayer.

But I don’t know that we’re good – as a whole – at the sort of prayer that the gospel writers described in Jesus’ life. The prayer which seems to actually expect God to give us direction.

And when I say “I don’t if we’re good at”, what I mean is “I know I’m not”.

But I am challenged by this story, especially now; as I, and the Goringe family, face a new beginning, leaving this place where we have been so blessed; and as St. John’s faces the transition and uncertainty of what will come next.

I’m challenged by the fact that, when he knew something new was happening, even Jesus felt the need to retreat and pray.

And if he needed that, how much more do we?

We face a time of change. Here at St. John’s, but also in the wider world. Even the most casual follower of international affairs will have noticed that the Trump presidency has brought with it almost unprecedented uncertainty.

And the Christian response? Well, it must surely begin in prayer. I’m not going to say it ends there – I don’t believe it does – but if our response does not begin in prayer, then we have no more to offer than anyone else.

And so, the Apostle calls us “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”

In everything. In everything we face, in every uncertainty, in every fear, in every challenge. Let your requests be made known to God.

And what then? God will do whatever we ask? That’s not our experience, is it, and it’s not the promise, either. “Let your requests be known to God…”, it says “and the peace of God will guard your hearts and your minds”.

I don’t know about you, but peace guarding my heart, guarding my mind; that sounds like a good deal to me.

So we’re going to finish with something a bit different today. Instead of moving straight into our next hymn, I’m going to ask you to take the next couple of minutes, in silence, to pray.

To present, your requests to God.

Your concerns.

Your fears.

Your hopes.

Your dreams.

Your delights.

Your disappointments.

In a few minutes of silence, present them to God.

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Amen

Two paths of discipleship

Listen!
John 1:29-42

(Sermon from Jan 29th)

John’s telling of the start of Jesus’ ministry is really quite strikingly different to that of the other three accounts of Jesus’ life in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Each of the other three gospels follows the baptism of Jesus with the story of his temptation in the wilderness, and then describe him starting to teach – leaving both wilderness and river Jordon behind and returning to Galilee, the region where he had grown up, and speaking in the countryside and in the synagogues, proclaiming the news of the Kingdom of God. And as he teaches, people start to follow him.

John tells the story rather differently.

To put this into context, it’s worth noting that it’s generally agreed that John’s gospel was written significantly after the other three – probably a couple of generations later, around a hundred years after the events. By the time he was writing, the Christian Church was no longer predominantly Jewish – there were believers from all sorts of backgrounds, all over the Roman Empire – you can see this in the way that John feels the need to provide translations of ‘Messiah’ and even ‘Rabbi’.

When Mark’s gospel was written, most of those who were part of the Jesus movement were Jews, many of them Galileans, some eyewitnesses or at most second-hand recipients of the story. They knew where things had taken place, and more to the point, they cared. Jesus was ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, ‘Jesus bar Joseph’.

For John’s audience the particular geographical details – and the social connotations that went with them – are less important. And for the sake of telling his story, he shifts the details, the sequence, the location, around.

It’s not “alternative facts” Sean Spicer style – John didn’t, for instance, insist that Jesus had one and a half million followers – John’s gospel rather sort of resembles the way that a small child draws a picture of a person. You know how you get a big head and tiny body and limbs – because the size reflects importance – the face, especially the eyes, the things you look at, that matter most, get drawn big, the rest drops into the background. In the same way, John’s gospel emphasises things that the author considers to be of theological importance, and allows what he considered unimportant details to be lost.

So just in this short passage, we see a couple of central theological ideas in the gospel brought to the front; things that happened later, in the telling of the other gospels, promoted to prominence, and other ideas recede.

In particular, my attention was caught by the interaction between Jesus and Simon.

You probably remember the story of Jesus giving the name ‘Cephas’ or ‘Peter’ to Simon as it’s told by Matthew – it’s near the end of the gospel. Jesus asks the disciples who they believe him to be, and Simon, reflecting on all he has seen and heard, and inspired, Jesus says, by the Spirit of God, answers “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God” – at which point Jesus declare “you will be Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church”.

But here, in John’s gospel, all of those ideas come right at the start. John the Baptism has already declared Jesus to be the Son of God, the anointed one, the Lamb of God; and Jesus names Simon as Peter, the rock, at their very first meeting – before Jesus has done any teaching or healing or anything, before Simon has even had a chance to say a word. Jesus just looks at him and says “you are Simon – but you will be Peter”.

Not for John’s gospel the gradual discovery of who Jesus is, or the gradual discovery of who Simon will be. In each of the other gospels the disciples slowly come to better understand who Jesus is, and what it means (an understanding that really doesn’t kick in until after his resurrection). And there’s a sense, too, of Jesus coming to know who the disciples are; realising the Judas is going to be the one to betray him, that Simon, the impulsive but passionate fisherman will be the solid foundation of his movement.

In John’s gospel Jesus just knows. He knows Simon, and knows that he will be Peter. In the very next passage he will meet Nathaniel, and declare, before Nathaniel even speaks “here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit”.

For the author, Jesus’ divinity is up there, at the front, as a given. It’s declared in the poetry of the prologue, it’s clear to John the Baptist, it’s evident in Jesus’ “just knowing”.

And I think it’s quite striking that the closer that the gospel writers were to the events, the more human Jesus seems in their accounts, the more the true nature of Jesus is portrayed as something to be discovered, something that emerges through his life, his teaching, his compassion, his wisdom, his miracles, and, ultimately, his death and resurrection.
For John, it’s a given. His people know who Jesus was; he was telling them what it meant.

And once again, I’m left thinking how fortunate it is that have more than one account.

For it seems to me that both of these accounts, both of these trajectories of faith, as it were, are true to our experience of faith.

Sometimes our faith seems to start from the end. We just know that God is there, God is real, and that in Jesus, God has become present, become, for want of a better word, accessible to us. We start where John starts – with a sense that Jesus is the answer, and the desire to work out what that might mean. We see this trajectory in Saul; dramatically converted on the Damascus road, suddenly aware of just who Jesus really was, and then spending his next years understanding the implications of that moment of revelation.

But other times, our faith is more of a journey of discovery. Fascinated by the man Jesus, we hear his teaching, read of his life, resonate with the wisdom of the Kingdom of God that he proclaims, and gradually, as for the first disciples, a sense grows in us that he is more than just a man, until somehow we come face to face with the mystery of God incarnate. This is the path of the first disciples, slowly recognising in the face of their friend something more than just a Rabbi.

Whichever is you – or, perhaps you’re a combination of both – as we enter into a New Year, in which who knows what we will face as a community, as families, as individuals, hear the words with which Jesus replied to the tentative enquiry of Andrew, who didn’t even know what he wanted to ask Jesus, so just blurted out the first thing that came to his mind – “where are you staying?”

And Jesus answered him, as he also did, and still does:

Come and see.

Amen

Jesus Baptised

Listen!
Matthew 3:13-17

(Sermon preached January 22nd)

When you look at sermons preached on the baptism of Jesus – and I certainly include my own in this – the pressing question seems to be “why did Jesus get baptised?”.
And I don’t want to understate the importance of that question, especially in the light of John’s words, that his baptism was for repentance. For it has always been the confession and claim of the Christian faith that one thing Jesus did not need to do was to repent, that he, uniquely, had no sins to confess; something John seems to recognise – ‘I need to be baptised by you, not the other way around!’.

And to my mind the most satisfying answers to the question of Jesus’ baptism lie around the idea of identification; that though Jesus had no need of baptism for repentance, his mission, his calling, the very nature of the incarnation was that he would so closely identify with us, with humanity, that what we needed, he chose. Our baptismal liturgy includes the words “In his own baptism in the Jordan by John, Jesus identified with humanity in all its brokenness and sin”. And so, surely, he did.

Yet there is another story of identity happening at Jesus’ baptism as well – the voice from heaven (or perhaps the dove, pick your gospel for details) declaring “this is my Son, the Beloved”. At the same time as Jesus identifies with us, God identified him as God’s child, God’s beloved. Not, I’d suggest, as a contrast to him being one of us – on the contrary, I rather think that it is as one of us that God names Jesus God’s beloved child. It is as Jesus is baptised – like one of us – that God names him God’s son, beloved.

But today I’d like to go somewhere a little different with this baptism story, and ponder, for a while, what John was expecting, as the one who came to prepare the way, what he was thinking when Jesus came to be baptised.

For which we need to rewind a little before the start of today’s story, and read what John said about the one who was to come.

John – the last and the greatest of the prophets, as Jesus himself will later name him – the one who came to prepare for the messiah – had this to say to the religious elite who came to him for baptism:

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

John’s baptism, in his own words, his own understanding of his calling, was a baptism of repentance. Which is to say – of change. Of change of life, of change of attitude, of change of actions. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” he demands.

John speaks into a world in which he can see wrong. He can see the neglect of the poor by the rich, the abuse of the weak by the powerful, and worst of all, the use of religion to justify these things. He calls on all to repent; but those in religious power, both of synagogue and temple (for those were two quite distinct religious powers in the day of Jesus), the Pharisees and Sadducees, are singled out for criticism.

And his language is full of judgement. “I baptise with water, for repentance … he will baptise with fire … his winnowing-fork (a tool used to separate grain, for use, from chaff, to be burned) is in his hand”.

This is what John preached that he was preparing the way for. His call to repentance had a definite edge of “or else” about it. “The Messiah is coming. He will judge. Turn or burn.”
And then Jesus comes to him, and John’s immediate reaction is “you should be baptising me”. As if to say “now you are here, it’s your turn. I’ve prepared the way, with a baptism offering repentance – now it’s your turn. Now it’s time for the judgement. I baptised with water, now it’s time for the fire.”

And how could he not think like that, brought up as he surely was on the Old Testament prophets? If, as seems likely, John was heavily influenced by, or even part of, the Essene sect (communities of Jews who separated themselves from the masses, in the wilderness, in search of holiness – we know them best as the keeper, in Qumran, of the dead sea scrolls), then it makes more sense still; for the Essene strongly emphasised those aspects of the Old Testament that spoke of the judgement of God on a people who have turned away from the purity of true worship of the God of Israel.

And it’s an expectation we see coming back, over and again, through the gospels – James and John asking Jesus “shall we call down fire and burn them up” – or the disciples after the resurrection asking “is it now that you will restore the kingdom” – or all the times when people expect the Messiah to bring political freedom, with the overthrow – judgement – of the Romans.

But Jesus refuses John’s expectations; he refuses to baptise John. Indeed, it is one of the oddities of the gospels that we never seem to hear discussed that Jesus never baptised anyone. He refuses the play the part in the story that John has written for him – and instead, asks John to baptise him.

Even here, right at the start of his public ministry, Jesus has already begun to subvert the stories that have been told of the Messiah in the centuries of waiting. He has already begun to change what it means to be the anointed one.

To identify himself, not with the righteous – even though he is – but with those who have come for baptism, those who came with confession, for repentance.
And claiming that identity – as one baptised, not one baptising, as one who stands amongst the repentant, not one who stands as judge, as one amongst us, not one looking down from above – and as he claims that identity, Jesus hears God’s voice: “This is my child, my beloved”.

There can surely be no doubt that if Jesus had chosen instead to bring judgement, he would have been just – he would have be right, beyond reproach. But in the first act of his public ministry he makes it clear that judging others, even judging rightly, is not his priority. Standing with them is.

I hear these words as a challenge – a rebuke – for I love to be right. I love to make good, sound, judgements about the decisions other people make – even if I normally keep my thoughts to myself. There is a great feeling in being able to see where someone else has gone wrong, and knowing that you would not have made that same mistake.

Against this attitude, Jesus’ baptism stands as a declaration: instead of standing over you to judge you, I came to be with you.

It’s almost as if the words of the angels at the birth – Emmanuel, God with us – meant just what they said.

And I wonder what it means for us. That the very first act of Jesus’ public ministry wasn’t teaching, wasn’t telling people about God, wasn’t helping or healing, certainly wasn’t setting others straight, or pointing out their sins.

But the very first act of Jesus’ mission – declared at his birth and enacted in his baptism – was to stand with those outside.

We’re very good, in the modern Church, at gathering together, caring for each other, learning, loving. And those are good things.

And we’re also very good, it seems, at public condemnation; at pointing the finger at those who fail to meet what we see as God’s standards. Which probably isn’t such a good thing.
But are we good at simply being with others? Identifying with those outside our doors – not as a helper, not as the solution, but simply as another human sharing the same needs, hopes, dreams and disappointments? Even when they aren’t like us?

As we move into a new year, and, in many ways, a new political era, I wonder if we – all of us – might make things a whole better if we could be a little faster to identify with others, as Jesus did, and a little slower to judge, and John wanted.

Amen.

First walk for the year – 18th February

As we did last year, the Cartophiles will kick off the new year exploring some of the interesting bush and sights on the western side of the Pacific Highway.  For more information see 2017 Walk 1 (Turramurra-Pymble) flyer

After the walk attendees are invited to the Craigs’ house for a BBQ and, if you want, a swim.  BYOG.

To register for the walk, or to get more information, contact Kit Craig at cartophiles@stjohnswahroonga.org
or on 0411 507 422.