St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga


John 15:1-17 | Ephesians 3:14-20

Just over seven years ago, I got up into this pulpit for the first time, and preached the first of the three hundred or so sermons (give or take a few repeats) that I’ve prepared and delivered over my years here.

It was transfiguration Sunday, and I spoke from a text in 2 Corinthians: “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another”, about the way that we are transformed by the things that we look at, the things we pay attention to, the things that we allow to occupy our minds, our time, our hearts.

It was a time when we, as a community, were experiencing a change – the departure of Arthur, the arrival of a new family in the manse, complete with two small children.

And now, seven years on, those children are rather bigger than they were; and we’ve all seen other changes as well. We’re all older, and some of us have rather less hair; some of our dearly beloved friends have died, others have moved away; and new friends have joined us.

These are the obvious changes, the physical, observable, measurable signs of time passing.

But much more important than those are the changes that God has worked in each of us, and in us together as a community: as we have looked, week by week, into the things of God; as we have worshipped and prayed and shared together in communion; as we have read the scriptures and pondered their meaning; as we have shared in meals and art and knitting and walking and countless cups of coffee (black) and glasses of wine (red); as we have been the people of God together, seeing the glory of the Lord in each other and in our community of faith and in the world around us; we have been transformed, from one degree of glory to another.

And as we have been transformed, so too we have born fruit. For through those who are in the vine that is Jesus Christ, fruit grows. It’s not always obvious, the fruit that is being produced; until you stop and reflect, and look back.

Over these past years, how many homeless or otherwise needy people have found, at the Dish, a hot meal, and far more importantly, friends to share it with?

How many children have heard the stories of the gospel in our Kids Church – and how many more in scripture classes, or Christmas kMotion?
How many members of our community, in their time of need, have received a welcome visit, an appreciated phone call, a casserole left on the front step?

How many have found an outlet for their creativity and a chance to talk in the art group?

How many mornings have been brightened up by gathering for coffee and chat?

How many people have deepened their love of God’s creation walking and sharing the experience with one another?

How many families have joined together to explore their faith in Messy Church, or the Growing Place?

How many have found support in the early years of parenting through Playjays?

How many tins of food and packets of pasta have found their way through us to Exodus, and been used in support of the great work that they do?

How much have the children of Vanuatu, and before that, East Timor, benefited from education that we have supported?

How many of us have been carried through tough times; times of sickness, bereavement, of struggle, by others in this place?

“Those who abide in me,” Jesus said, “bear much fruit”. And all those different fruits have the same root, the same vine: that we abide in Jesus’ love, and in doing so, love one another.

For that is the origin of all these varied missions and services and gifts that we give to one another and the world; the love of God in which we live and move; the love of Jesus in which we abide; the community of love that we have for one another.

Over the past years – as over the years since people first gathered to worship God in this place – generations have learned what it means to be God’s people, to abide in and share the love of God, and in doing so, much fruit has been born.

And now once again we come to a time of change. For us, the Goringe family, a move to Roseville and a new Church community; for St. John’s a time of discernment, leading to the call of a new minister to walk the next stage of the journey. An opportunity for each of us to bear more fruit; perhaps more of the same, perhaps something new, most likely a bit of both. But most certainly bearing fruit; for as Jesus said, he chose us, and he has appointed us to that end – to go and bear fruit as we abide in his love and as we love one another.

And so as I come to the end of my time as minister and preacher here at St. John’s, I wanted to finish with my favourite prayer from the Bible; the words that Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus – one of his favourite Churches.

For all the things that he might ask for them, what he prays for is that they may be grounded in love; and that they may come to grasp just how big God’s love is, and in so grasping may be filled with the fullness of God – for to truly know God’s love is to be possessed by it. To know God’s love is to love.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.



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?



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

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.


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

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.”


Two paths of discipleship

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.


Jesus Baptised

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.


Christmas Weekend

Everyone is warmly invited to join us at 6:30pm on Christmas Eve for a family friendly, music filled service of celebration, and to our short service for Christmas Morning, at 8am.


Luke 1:26-56
Did she have any idea just what she was letting herself in for?

Mary is one of the most fascinating figures in the nativity story, at least in part because we know so little about her. As with so many women in the Bible who must have had a profound influence on events, her part is mentioned almost in passing. Matthew barely even mentions her, Mark and John don’t bother with a nativity story at all, and even Luke, the most radical of the gospel writers in his inclusion of women just gives us this: the Magnificat, and a conversation exchange with Gabriel.

Yet even those two little snippets give us insight into a remarkable woman.

But I wonder again, did she know what she was letting herself in for? Surely not. The angel greeted her as one who has found favour with God – surely Mary did not realise that that favour would mean a long journey while pregnant, a baby born far from home, a flight to Egypt. Nor, surely, that it would mean her first born child would leave home and village to become a wandering preacher, or that he would be taken from her and killed.

No, all of that was an unknown and unrevealed future.

But what Mary did know was quite enough for anyone. For even the little that the angel told her was enough to turn her world upside down. As a young woman, promised in marriage but not yet wed, she would become pregnant. It’s hard for us in this modern world to grasp the extent of the stigma that this pregnancy would bear with it: in a society governed by the currency of honour and shame, it would be a very visible disgrace, not just to Mary, but to the whole of her family. Visible enough that Mary went, Luke’s gospel continues, with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, to the home of her (much older) cousin Elizabeth. Not for the first time in history, nor the last, a young girl would be sent to visit a relative in the countryside for a few months “for medical reasons”.

That much, at least, Mary could surely foresee. Joseph’s reaction, no doubt, she could also guess at. Not only did he have the fact that his promised bride was pregnant – and to all appearances, therefore, by another man – but he would have to face the assumption from the gossips and finger wagers of the village that it was his child. He too had been brought to shame, and his reaction was all too predictable. Not knowing that Gabriel would step in to speak on her behalf, Mary must have assumed that she had not just her lost honour, and that of her family, but that she had also lost her future husband – and any real hope of marriage, of having a family and a future.

Mary might not have known all that lay in the future, foretold by the words of the angel, but just the things that she could see were bad enough. Though she had done nothing wrong, and the angel told her she had found favour with God, her life had been turned upside down, her future snatched away and replaced with a predictable future of shame, poverty, and isolation.

And yet she replies “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be.”

What inspired such a response? Was she the obedient woman, accepting what a man (or in this case, angel) in authority told her to do? Was she the woman of great faith, confident that God would work things out for the best? Was she sacrificial one, accepting hardship and dishonour for the good of the cause? Or did she simply decide there was no point arguing with God, and resign herself to the future? The truth is, we have absolutely no idea what motivated Mary, no idea what she imagined the future would hold for her, no idea why she responded by placing herself at God’s disposal.

We just know that she did.

I find that reassuring.

For of course, this is the situation we are in most of the time in most relationships. We have little or no idea whether another believer is acting out of faith, or naivety, out of desire to help or ambition to be recognised, out of optimism or desperation. In fact, if you are anything like me, you would have to admit that much of the time you don’t even know what motivates yourself in acts of service. Much as we’d love to believe that we serve God and others out of love and gratitude and commitment to the cause of the Kingdom, don’t we also know that other motives creep in: the desire to be seen to be doing good, to be thought of as committed and faithful to the cause, to be recognised as an upstanding and outstanding contributor to the community?

Don’t we all have times when we keep on doing what we do even though we aren’t sure of the point? Times when we keep coming to worship even though our faith is wavering? Times when we continue to pray our prayers though we wonder if anyone is listening?

Aren’t there times when we fear our service is being swallowed in a black hole of need, that the future is bleak, that we are a fading light in a dark world, and we only keep going out of habit or stubbornness?

And times when we worry about whether our motivation is so mixed that perhaps our work loses value in the sight of God?

Maybe you don’t have those issues. Maybe it’s just me.

But if you do, then perhaps you too might look again at the story of Mary. Did she have her doubts, her mixed motives, her dark times? My guess, since she was human, is yes – but the point is, we don’t know, and, that as far as the Biblical narrative is concerned, it simply doesn’t matter.

Mary is not a hero of our story because she had unwavering faith, she’s not a hero because she had purity of motive, she’s not a hero because she never lost sight of God’s promise.

Mary is a hero of our story because with all her doubts, with all the future unknowns, and with all the very real costs, when she heard the call of God on her life she just said “OK, God, lets do this thing.”

I can’t manage unmixed motives, I can’t summon up a faith to move mountains.

But I can step up when I think I see what God wants done, and, with all my doubt or confusion or fear or uncertainty, say “count me in”.

So can you.

It’s all Mary really did. And look how it turned out.



Joel 2:12-13, 28-29
It was one of those driving holidays that Sureka and I took before we had kids. We’d driven out to the Western Plains Zoo, and were heading back the scenic route, via Wellington, Orange and Bathurst, when we encountered some wildlife we hadn’t expected.


Now locusts are one of those things that you really don’t grow up knowing much about, in Oxford. It’s rare for them to swarm across the British countryside. So I’d never seen locusts before. I had no idea what the dark cloud we were driving towards was – we were in the swarm before we realised that this was not smoke from some hazard reduction burn, but millions, probably hundreds of millions, of grasshoppers, hundreds of which ended up covering the front of our car, cooking on the radiator grill (which was never quite the same again). The sheer massive of life was something I’ve never forgotten – and the effect on the fields on either side of the road had to be seen to be believed.

Of course, we didn’t depend upon those fields for our food, our livelihood. I could drive away, worrying about the paintwork on the car (remarkably undamaged, in fact). I wasn’t watching the food my family needed to live being consumed before my eyes.

But that was the experience of Joel’s people:

What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.

And so, in the opening chapters of Joel, he calls the people to repentance.

But there is something unusual in the prophecies of Joel. Not the call to repentance, to prayer, to “return to the Lord with all your heart” – you’d struggle to find an Old Testament prophet for whom that isn’t a theme. No, the strange thing about Joel is that he doesn’t point the figure, he doesn’t describe the wrongs of the people. In Joel there is no accusation, no list of sins, no litany of the many ways in which the people of God had mistreated the poor, or worshipped other Gods, forgotten the law or behaved immorally.

Joel doesn’t seem to be pointing to a people who have become deeply and obviously sinful. But he sees a message in the locust swarm, none the less – for in the theology of Israel, this disaster could not have befallen them if it were not God’s judgement upon them.

Joel’s call is not to repentance of obvious wrong. Instead his call is this: wake up, and return to me with all your heart.

We might well question Joel’s logic; more likely to see in the swarms of locusts an incredible facet of the natural world than the judgement of God, but it would be hard to fault where he goes with it.

For he calls the people of God to wake up, to return to their first love, their prime priority, their defining centre.

To return wholeheartedly to God.

It’s as if Joel – unusually, again, for the prophets – isn’t looking at the sins of the people as a whole; he’s not pointing to structural injustice, to the systems which oppress, to the tendency of power to protect itself at the expense of others. These are all seen and condemned over and again in the Old Testament. No, Joel is calling on the individual to return to God; and not in some sort of visual, symbolic way (which is often important when a community recognises its failings at chooses to return to the ways of God) “do not rend your clothes,” he says “but your hearts.”

Look inside. See those ways in your life which, if you are anything like me, you, and only you know of, but which stand between you and a richer knowledge of, and walk with, God. Rend your hearts, weep, and return to God. Take the experience of the locusts – whether it be God’s judgement or not – as a reminder of your fragility, your need, your deepest calling – and return to God with the whole of your heart.

For God is gracious and merciful.
God is slow to anger.
God abounds in steadfast love.

Last Friday at Playjays I was sitting on the steps to the upper hall when one of the children, a boy just about to turn four, came very hesitantly over to me. I could see his mum watching from the other side of the courtyard.

“Chris,” he said, “I threw one of the cars into the bushes.”

“Oh dear. Was that a good thing to do?”

“No, it was naughty.” A pause. “Sorry”

I’ve probably never felt more like God than in that moment, when I could say to him “well done, coming and saying sorry was a good thing to do. Shall we go and find the car?”, and see his face light up because no-one was cross with him anymore.

Chatting with his mum a bit later, she told me this was something they were working on; that when he was busted doing something wrong his instinct was to go loud and distract attention, but she wanted him to know he could just say sorry, and move on.

And I was thinking “That’s a good thing to teach a four year old boy. For that matter, it’s a good thing to teach a fourty-seven year old boy.”
Return, repent, for you will be restored.

And then… and then, God promises, you will be filled by the Spirit of God, you will know what God wants of you, you will be sent with the knowledge of the things of God, the ways of God, the mission of God.

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit

I’ve seen much debate about the difference between prophesy, dreams and visions in this text, but surely that’s not the point. Joel’s words speak of a radical change in the way that God will deal with God’s people; a time when the Spirit of God, the knowledge of God, the visions of God, will not be the property of a select few, but will be for all. Old and young, slave and free, sons and daughters (yes, even daughters). An unimaginable gift to all people.

Which is why we read these words as we prepare for Christmas, for the arrival of Christ; of whom the apostle would write, echoing the words of Joel,
Now there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. For all are one in Christ Jesus.

Of course, Paul forgot “young or old”, but that’s ok, Jesus didn’t.

I don’t believe God sends the locusts into our lives, whatever your locusts may be; but I do believe this word: return to God with all your heart, and you will be restored, and you will be empowered to live as one of God’s people, knowing God, speaking God’s story.


Blue Christmas

Christmas is a time of celebration, but it can also be a time of painful memories, especially for those who have lost loved ones. You are invited to share in a more reflective service of worship for Christmas, on December 18th, at 6:30pm.

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?


New Covenant

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.


In the year that King Uzziah died

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.


Reluctant Prophet

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.



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.