St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga
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Fruit

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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.

Amen

Discernment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. Listen. And weigh.

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

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

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

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

Amen.

My sheep hear my voice

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

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

Words (adapted slightly) of the philosopher Frank Martella.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do we keep the ways of wisdom?

How do we know what God would have us do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is the life worth living.

Amen

Jesus prayed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if he did, how much more do we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To present, your requests to God.

Your concerns.

Your fears.

Your hopes.

Your dreams.

Your delights.

Your disappointments.

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

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

Amen

Two paths of discipleship

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John 1:29-42

(Sermon from Jan 29th)

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

John tells the story rather differently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come and see.

Amen

Jesus Baptised

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Matthew 3:13-17

(Sermon preached January 22nd)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Mary

Listen!
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.

Amen.

Return

Listen!
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.

Locusts.

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.

Amen.

The Daniel Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bit I find really amazing is Daniel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

New Covenant

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

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

But prophesying doom is only half of the Jeremiah story.

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

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

The covenant has failed. But I will remake it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

In the year that King Uzziah died

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

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

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

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

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

But this was the year that he died.

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

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

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

That was the year that Isaiah saw the Lord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

No honour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jesus takes this story and applies it to himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Kingdom?

2 Samuel 7:1-17 | Luke 1:30-33
[My apologies that due to a technical error, there is no audio recording this week]

The Bible has a very ambiguous attitude to the emergence of the kingdom of Israel. When the people first start asking for a king, the prophet Samuel warns them – if you have a king, he will lead you into wars, he will take your sons and fight for him. And why would you need a king to rule you? You have your God, you have the Torah to show you how to live. What will a king bring you except grief?

But the people wanted a king “like all the other nations”. They had looked at the nations around them, those with whom they had fought and those they feared, and seen powerful leaders bringing security and strength, and they wanted to be like that. For years God had looked after them, raised up leaders when they needed them, but it wasn’t enough. Relying on God to provide for them when there was a need was scary; it wasn’t like having a strong figure, a powerful centre, something you could rely on.
All the other nations around them had kings that they could look to; in what seemed like dangerous, frightening times, the people wanted a powerful person to rule them and keep them safe, and if that person might, for his own glory, lead them to unnecessary war, reduce their freedoms in the name of national security, crush internal dissent and criticism, build great monuments to advance their own glory, well that was all a price worth paying.

How little times – or rather, people – have changed.

They asked for a king because all the other nations had them. And Samuel’s rebuke: you were not called by God to be like everyone else. You were called to be different. You were called to bring blessing to all the nations, to stand out as a beacon of hope and an example of what might be, what could be.

And God speaks to Samuel and says “they have not rejected you, their prophet; they have rejected me, their God. But I will give them what they ask.”

And so they get Saul. Who pretty clearly illustrates the whole problem. He’s a great choice of leader, for a while; he unites the people, and leads them to military victory. But power corrupts. Jealousy, paranoia, deteriorating mental health tear him down, bit by bit, proving every word of Samuel’s warning about what it can mean to have a powerful leader. In fact, one might even wonder if God – or Samuel – chose Saul to make a point.

But of course, once power has been centralised, it has a strong tendency to stay that way; the fall of Saul sees the rise of David. David, the great king, the shepherd, the poet, the man after God’s own heart. Also the adulterer, abuser of power, and murderer, but we’ll let that go for now.

And in today’s reading, David declares his intention to build a great Temple for God.

“I live in a house of cedar,” he says; his political power is absolute, and for the time being, at least, the nation is at peace. He has built himself a palace to reflect his success, his power, a symbol of his rule.

“But the ark of God is in a tent.” For all David’s faults, he has this sense that it was wrong for God to have a less inspiring, dramatic, powerful symbolic building than he himself had. And the prophet Nathan’s first reaction is to agree. Build God a Temple.

It seems right, doesn’t it? That God should have a place, a symbol, a house, at least as glorious as that of the King.

But God, it turns out, wasn’t interested, and speaks to Nathan. “I haven’t ever lived in a house, and I’ve never asked for one. I have moved around with the people, in a tent like theirs. Have I ever given any indication that my people needed to build a house for me?”

Just like when the people saw that the nations around them had kings, and said “how come we don’t have one”, David has made the fundamental error of looking at the nations around, seeing things that they are doing, that they have achieved, and seeking to emulate them. “All the Gods of the other nations have great houses, temples, statues; isn’t our God bigger and more important than theirs?” he asks.

And God’s rebuke is the same. “That’s not how it works, not how it is supposed to work.”

Look at how God’s words to Nathan repeat the same idea, over and again: “I have been with you … I will make you great … I will appoint a place for my people … I will build a house for you”

We don’t build houses for God.

And I don’t just mean that in the trivial sense that God doesn’t need a place to live. We have a tendency, sometimes, to look down on the primitive faith of the people of David’s day, to laugh at the idea that they thought God lived in physical place. But neither David, nor Solomon, who would finally build the Temple, believed that God needed a roof over God’s head; Solomon made that quite clear in the prayer of dedication: “Lord you do not live in houses made by human hands”. They knew that a Temple was not the true home of God, but a symbol. They wanted no more than those who set out to build the great cathedrals; to create a place that reflected the glory of God. Places which we need, not places that God needs.

And just as with the demand for a king, God’s response seems more one of sadness than anything else; as if God is shaking God’s head and saying “will you never get it? It’s not about having a king and power and being like the other nations (but better). It’s not about building me big houses, temples, great symbols of how mighty I am.”

“I will build a house for you. I will establish a kingdom for you. And the house I build, and the Kingdom I establish, will last for ever.”

I’m guessing that when the Solomon prayed at the dedication of the Temple, he, and all the people, believed that God’s promise had been fulfilled: that this house, this kingdom, were the ones that God had promised.

But of course it was not to be. The prophecy of Nathan, the promise of an never-failing house, an eternal kingdom, was yet to come.

But it wouldn’t be a kingdom of political and social power.

And it wouldn’t be a house of great stones, awe-inspiring and mighty.

And most people wouldn’t even recognise it for what it was.

Because people get so caught up in structures and buildings, place so much value on physical artefacts and political systems as evidence of our influence, our power, our agency, that we too often don’t know the kingdom when we see it.

The kingdom which came in the life of Jesus didn’t make sense to a people who understood kingdom in those terms. Those who judge the work of God according to the measures of humanity will never see it.

The people of God were already living as the people of God before they demanded a king.

They were already worshipping the one true God before Solomon built them a Temple.

The Kingdom of God is not made visible by buildings, but by lives.

The Kingdom of God is not advanced by the wielding of influence by the powerful, but by the sacrificial love of ordinary.

God does not need our power, God does not need our buildings. If the kingdom of God is to be advance, if the love and peace, justice and reconciliation, forgiveness and hope are to be real in the lives of all people in God’s world, then what God needs is for us to make them real in our lives.

Don’t find a king to follow – live like a citizen of God’s realm.

Don’t build a temple – build a faithful life.

For God’s dwelling place is not a house built by human hands.

God’s dwelling place is human lives.

I’d like to finish with a poem, written by Thom Shuman

me –
a dwelling place for God?
my roof
leaks
with wayward thoughts . . .
my windows
look out on a world
lusting for more
and caring for less;
if any dare peek in,
they will see the same hungers . . .
my furnace
is filled
with the ashes
of dusty dreams
and hapless hopes . . .
my foundation
cracks
under the weight of loneliness,
ravaged
by the storms of sadness.
i would build you
a house,
my God;
rebuild me
instead.
Amen

Hannah and Mary

Listen!
1 Samuel 2:1-10 | Luke 1:46-55
It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a fan of the Magnificat, Mary’s prophecy setting the scene, in the gospel of Luke, for the social and religious upheaval that would begin in the life of her son, Jesus.

But Mary is far from the only woman in the Jewish tradition to have spoken words of this nature. Today, we heard a much, much older song, one which is far less well known, but every bit as powerful as Mary’s words. Indeed, you might even imagine that Mary had Hannah’s song in her mind as she prayed.

Hannah’s song comes at a time of relative stability in the life of the people of Israel. They have entered – invaded – the land, and established themselves as a loose alliance of tribes sharing a common identity through their history (especially the shared story of captivity in Egypt and freedom through the Exodus), and their monotheistic dedication to the one true God.

There was no formal leadership; the priests of Shiloh, Eli and his sons, were the nearest thing there was to a centralised priesthood, for though there was no temple, this was where Ark of the Covenant, the box holding the stones on which were carved the ten commandments, was kept. This was where people came, once a year, to fulfil their religious calling, to offer sacrifices to God, to give thanks, to ask for favour, to seek guidance.

When the people needed leadership, or disputes needed to be resolved, then there were the judges, men and women raised up by God as military leaders or to declare God’s judgement to settle the dispute.

And, as seems a universal feature of human society, there were the rich, and the poor. Those who by the fortune of birth or geography had found themselves with rich land, large herds, wealth to hire workers and further expand their influence; and those who scraped out a living or hired themselves out for a living wage.

But there was also (as also seems almost universal) there was also corruption. And particularly, in the context of our story, corruption within the system of religious worship to which the people looked. Eli’s sons, we read later in the chapter, were taking advantage of the advanced age of their father to abuse their positions as sons of the priest; to take the sacrifices brought to God for themselves, by threat or by force; to take advantage of the women who served in the house and those who came to pray (because you can do that sort of thing when you’re a powerful man), to take advantage of the piety of the faithful to live lives of relative luxury and ease, fearing neither God nor man.
And Hannah, the beloved but barren wife, came and sought of God her greatest desire – a child. And God granted her request.

But in our reading today she has come to give Samuel up. She had made this promise to God – grant me a child and I will dedicate him to you. As her husband had children by his other wife it may have been a move of wisdom – not for her family the sibling rivalry that beset the twelve sons (by four women) of Jacob.

Samuel will be a child of the house of the Lord, and will grow as the godly and honourable son that Eli never had.

A promised child. A corrupt religious system. A faithful woman of no particular importance.

And a son who would turn the system upside down.

In Hannah’s prophesy, all the marks of power and importance are inverted

The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.

not so different from Mary’s words

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

The promise of God, given through these two women of faith, is that things can change, things can be changed. God can change things. The status quo, the corruption of religion, the abuse by the powerful of the powerless, can be changed.

And it was. For Samuel would grow up speaking God’s words, and one of very first acts would be to declare the corruption of the sons of Eli, and pronounce God’s judgement on them. To cleanse the Temple, one might even say; a house of prayer which had become a den of robbers.

God’s promise is to restore justice, to remove the one who have abused their power, to raise up those who have been oppressed. And it happened, in the life of Samuel, in the life of Jesus.

But then what happens next?

By the of Samuel’s long life the people have rejected him; they still honour him in word, but insist that there must be a king; and so they get Saul, and then David, neither of who were exactly paragons of justice and virtue – the people might have looked back the kingdom of David as a glorious time, but not so much if you were Uriah or Bathsheba. And even that was a relative high point; for in the generations after Solomon the cycle of conflict, the struggle for power and the abuse thereof, the corruption of religion to those political ends, would all start again. The voices of the faithful women and men of God would be silenced by the voices of men of power.

And, sadly, the same has all too often been true of the movement of Jesus, the Church, the kingdom of God. The voices of the faithful, of those who seek justice, reconciliation, love of enemy, peace, all that hippy stuff, become replaced by the megaphone of those who would use religion to justify actions that are the exact opposite of the gospel of Jesus: the rejection of those who are in need and seek our help; the justification of discrimination; the protection of the status quo and the privilege of those who benefit from it.

We are called, each year, when we hear the words of Mary in the run up to Christmas; we are called as we hear the older words of Hannah ringing through the story; we are called as we come to this table to share together the meal at which all are equal as welcomed guests of God; we are called to reject, to speak out against, to condemn the use of our faith in the name of division, in the name of violence, in the name of oppression, in the name of discrimination, in the name of fear.

We are called to raise up the poor from the dust and sit them with princes; to fill the hungry with good things, even if it means that we, the rich, go hungry. We are called to break the bows of the mighty oppressor, and empower those who have been downtrodden.

Amen

Rethinking Passover

Listen!
Exodus 12:1-13 | Luke 22:14-20

So welcome to another episode of “what on earth are we going to do with this story”.

A story in which we are told of God committing an act of terrorism. Systematically killing the firstborn of every family in an entire nation, in order to get the political leadership to change their direction.

However great the injustice, however wrong it was that the people of Israel were being held as slaves by the Pharaoh, it seems to me unimaginable that such an action, in human hands, could be justified. We would call it a war crime – the deliberate targeting of non-combatants, in many cases children, people who had no power in Egypt, no influence with the Pharaoh, no responsibility for what was being done.

So what are we to do with it?

We could, of course, ignore it. Put in that basket with all the other bits of scripture that we could really struggle with but would rather not. There are plenty of other bits of the Old Testament (in particular) that we choose to do that with.

But this story is harder to ignore. Because this story, the story of the Exodus and of the meal prepared by the people of Israel as they get ready to flee from Egypt in the aftermath of God’s slaughter, lies at the heart of the most significant religious festival of commemoration in the Jewish calendar – the Passover is even named for the way that the angel of death passed over the homes of the people of Israel – and that Passover meal lies at the heart of our most enduring Christian sacrament, communion.

So what are we to do with this story?

Well we might start by reflecting on the story came to be told. It’s pretty widely accepted that the stories recorded in the books of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, were preserved in an oral tradition for many generations. Old Testament scholars generally hold that there were, in fact, a number of independent oral traditions of the same stories, each holding currency with different parts of the community – this is why quite a number of stories seem to be told multiple times with different details, or why sometime a single telling of a story seems to be internally inconsistent, where details from more than one tradition have been combined into a rough consensus telling.
And it’s generally recognised that the Pentateuch came into their current form during the time of exile in Babylon; generations after the collapse of the Kingdom of David and Solomon, when the people of Israel were, once again, captives in a foreign land, far from home.

Our first step in coming to terms with the violent image of God in this story is this: to remember that these were the words of the powerless.
And obviously this goes a long way to explaining the great emphasis placed on the story of the Exodus – the memory of a time long ago when the people had been forced from the land, taken into slavery, but then rescued by the miraculous works of God, set free to once again be the people that they were called by God to be.

And it explains, too, the fact that the people of God were quite willing to include rather bloodthirsty details in the way they remembered and told the story; for people oppressed by military might and by violence, the idea of a military God, setting them free by superior violence, is understandably attractive (even if, from our perspective, ethically suspect).

It’s no coincidence that the story of the Exodus was one of the most loved and preached on by African American slaves in the southern states of the USA; it’s a story with great appeal to those who are powerless, but who hold onto faith in a God who is mighty to save.

And in a similar way, the festival of Passover and the story of the Exodus was very powerful in the memory of the people of Israel in Jesus’ time; another point in history where the Jewish people were, although not in exile, under the military power of a vastly superior empire.

And here we can take our next step: because for once, in this case, we can ask the question “What would Jesus make of this story? What would he do with it?”; because we have the record of just how Jesus chose to use the story of Passover.

For Jesus knew it was a story of redemptive violence, a story in which violence – God’s violence – was the pathway to freedom. And he didn’t, as we are tempted to, pretend that the violence wasn’t there, he didn’t gloss over the violence of the story.

Instead he did something far more radical. As part of a marginal and threatened group within an oppressed and captive people, he took a narrative in which violence was the pathway to freedom, and he made himself the object of that violence.

In keeping with his consistent record of preaching peace, preaching love of enemy, Jesus refuses to take this story of violence and apply it, gleefully, as so many did, to the oppressor; instead, knowing that the violence was inescapable, he chose to make himself the victim.

This is my body, broken for you.
This is my blood, shed for you.

Broken and shed to save us.

To save us from sin, to offer us redemption.

And to save us from the story we were trapped in, the story of conflict and redemptive violence, the story of us against them, they story of freedom for my people only at the expense of the other.

And to offer us instead an alternative to that story; in which the people of God choose to stand with the victims of violence, not with those who benefit. In which we can read the story of the Exodus and identify not with Moses, but with the parents in Egypt grieving for the death of their child. In which peace comes not through superior firepower, not through the exclusion of the other, but through love, self giving, hospitality, generosity, forgiveness, just, self-sacrifice.

For at the Last Supper, Jesus does not just reinterpret the story of the Exodus, he looks forward to a time in which that new meaning finds it’s fulfilment, in the obscure we generally skip over. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’

The Passover, this powerful symbol of freedom, is to be fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. And until it is, he will not eat it. He has longed to share this symbolic meal with his friends, but this Passover meal is not the real thing. This Passover meal still recalls the sacrifice of a lamb and the gaining of freedom through the slaughter of the innocent.

The Passover Jesus longed to eat was the one in which the violence of the story has been drained by his self-giving, and love of enemy has replaced fear, love has replaced distrust, hospitality has replaced barriers.

The true and final fulfilment of the Passover is when the people of God are set free to be a blessing to all peoples, all nations, as the promise made to Abraham and Sarah.

The Passover will be fulfilled when all are welcome at God’s table, in the final fullness of the Kingdom of God, when God’s will for peace, love, justice, reconciliation, is done on earth as in heaven; when all God’s children are fed and clothed, healthy and educated, secure and loved.
And when man finally places aside the blasphemous myth that by violence against our enemy God’s will is served.

Amen

Reweaving

Listen!
Genesis 37:3-8, 26-34; 50:15-21
Let’s face it, the story of Joseph is one that presents us with a couple of problems. Blatant parental favouritism, God sending visions to a man with an arrogant disregard for the feelings of his brothers or parents; brothers selling their brother into slavery, as a more profitable option than simple patricide. Really, when you look at the family of Israel – two wives, children by both of them and by two maidservants as well – what you see is a dysfunctional mess: not exactly the material out of which you might expect God to found his nation, a people through whom the whole world would be blessed.

And then, of course, there’s the role the story of Joseph plays in the bigger picture, the story of the people of God through the Old Testament. Through this story, the people leave Canaan, the land that God had promised to Abraham and Isaac, and end up in slavery in Egypt; and when they are finally set free in the Exodus, in order to retake the ‘promised land’ from those who now occupy it they will have to fight a series of bloody wars.

Honestly, it’s all a bit of a mess. Despite Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best efforts (which, let’s be honest, are probably a better known telling of the story than the account actually found in the book of Genesis – and there is, I’m afraid, no contemporary evidence that Pharaoh did Elvis impressions (or vice versa, for that matter)), it’s really not a story about the power of dream or any such hippie value. “Any dream will do”? No, really, no.

The power of the story of Joseph isn’t in his dreams, or in his God given gift of interpretation. It isn’t in his character – though that’s a miracle we will return to. It’s not even in his remarkable rise to power in Egypt.

The power of the story of Joseph lies in his theological response to his brothers when they discover who he is: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”

Which, I have to admit, on first glance, is the very last line in the whole story that I’d choose to preach on. For it reads with that sort of fatalistic version of the sovereignty of God which we hear echoed in those awful words of false comfort offered to the grieving “God has his reasons… God making something great out of this suffering, just wait and see… God intended it for good.”

Quite aside from basic pastoral flaw in such words – that any comfort that can found in the idea that God works good out of suffering is only meaningful if it is found by the one who is suffering, not when it is offered to them as well meaning comfort by an outsider – there is a deeper problem, which is this:

It’s not what it says.

Now I do not often get involved in discussions of the original languages of the Bible, partly because I have memories of some very dull sermons in my childhood and teenage years filled with references to parts of speech and Greek idiom, but mostly because I’m not actually very good at Greek, and even less so at Hebrew.

But this story turns on Joseph’s words: “you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”. So we need to dig just a little below the surface.

So bear with me for a very brief excursus into Hebrew grammar.

If there is one thing that is worth learning about the Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written, it is this: Hebrew doesn’t have tenses. There is no past, present or future in the Hebrew language.

What there is, is the aspect of a verb, perfect or imperfect, whether it is a completed action or an ongoing action. And this, along with the context, gives strong hints as to the tense implied. But the problem is that whenever the Hebrew authors wrote of God, they always used the perfect aspect, the form of the verb that implies a completed act. Even words of prophecy of future actions by God are written as completed; every action of God is ‘complete’, even if it hasn’t happened yet. It’s theology expressed in grammar: if God is going to do something, it is as good as done. It is complete, before it even happens.

Which makes it, often, hard to tell whether a description of God’s action refers to the past, the present, or the future. So though the brothers “intended harm” – clearly a reference to the past, the same word used to say “God intended it for good” can just as easily mean “God intends it for good”, or even “God will intend it for good”.

And if you’ll bear with me one step further, one bit of Hebrew vocab – the word ‘intended’ here, chashab, means more like “to purposely make”: literally, it means “to weave”. To create something deliberate, something intentional, out of the threads on the loom.

When translated into Greek, a particular theological interpretation was chosen, one which reflected the absolute emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the control of God over all of history: “you intended it for evil, but God intended it for good”.

But a perfectly natural reading of the words could sound more like this:

“You wove evil, but God is weaving it into something good.”

How different does the story of Joseph sound if that is the punchline? You wove evil, but God has taken what you made and rewoven it into the preservation of this family through time of famine. You wove evil for me, but God has rewoven it into my elevation to the position of power I saw in my dreams so many years ago.

And, perhaps most important of all, we can look again at Joseph’s life in the same way. At the start of the story he’s arrogant and self important, encouraged by his father to think that he is better than his brothers, and encouraged by his visions to think that he is inevitably bound for better still. How ugly when someone riding privilege comes to believe that they have a right to all this and more.

But by the end of the tale, Joseph, now with genuine power, has become a truly admirable man. Because he has learned, it seems to me, three crucial lessons, as God has rewoven the crass youth. He has learned that the blessings that he has, the ones that were born to him and the ones that were promised to him and have now come to be, are all from God. In refusing to judge his brothers he asks, rhetorically, “am I in the place of God?” – he has come to see himself as the recipient of God’s blessings, God’s grace, not a self-made man, not deserving or earning his position, his status, his wealth, his power.

In that one shift of mindset, he has become a different man.

But a second lesson has followed on the first; that the blessing that God has given to him are not really for him, but are for the welfare, the benefit, of others. God has done these things to preserve numerous people – both the people of Egypt and the people of Israel. He has been blessed, as perhaps he might recall his father Abraham was blessed, to be a blessing to others.

And in learning these things, he has finally also learned to forgive, even those brothers who thought to kill him and sold him into slavery. Perhaps he has had time to reflect on who he was, and realised that if God has forgiven him, if God has taken the messy weaving he had made of his life and rewoven it into something new, then he can forgive others, too.

I wonder what the lesson we each need to hear from this story is?

Perhaps we need the reassurance that God has woven, is weaving, will weave, something good, even when we or others have begun in evil?

Or perhaps we need to learn that what we have, the blessings of our life, are not earned, not deserved, but given by God’s grace.

Or maybe to be reminded that we have been blessed, not for our own sake alone, but so that we can be a blessing to others.

Or perhaps simply that as forgiven people, it is possible for us to forgive.

Amen

Faded Promise

Genesis 15:1-6
Listen!
After all of these things, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.

The nature of reading the great stories of the scriptures, especially the big, epic tales of the Old Testament, in public worship is that we inevitably telescope them; we omit big chunks, and focus in on some of the vignettes.

But these famous words, in Genesis 15, come at the end of a long story.

Abram has been called by God – at the start of Genesis 12

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

A call, to follow, to go, not knowing where it would lead, and two promised – one, that he would be the father of a great nation, and two, that through him all of the families of the earth would be blessed.

So he has set out; he’s accumulated great wealth, many servants, many animals. He’s fled from famine into Egypt, where he tricked the Pharaoh and became even more wealthy; he’s been victorious in a great battle to reclaim his nephew Lot from his captors.

He has been, in every imaginable respect, a spectacular success; a dominate figure of his age, wealthy, respected, victorious.

And after all of these things, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.

As far as we can tell, this was just the third time in his life that Abram had heard God speak. A call, long ago, that he had obeyed and followed; a promise, when he first looked out over the land of Canaan that his descendants would possess the land, and now, near the end of his life, one more conversation.

Which, if I might digress just for a moment, is one of the dangers of the way that we just read selected snippets of the story. A question that is often asked – I often get it from the kids in scripture class, and I’m sure all of us have asked it at some point – is how come God seemed to speak to people so much in the past, but we, mostly, don’t have the same experience?

But the truth is that God being represented as clearly speaking to an individual is very much the exception in the Old testament scripture. A few individuals; Moses, Abraham, and the Prophets; and even for them, far from all the time. And while the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was that we, the community of faith, will hear the guidance of God, still the gift of prophecy, of speaking the words of God, is singled out as the exception. Most people’s experience of hearing God is far more nuanced, far more ambiguous than that.

Even a great saint (and I can use the word in its Catholic sense now as well) like Mother Theresa, described her experience of God’s call in terms of a single command to go and serve, followed by forty years of silence.

We are consistently encouraged in the scriptures to pray and to seek God’s guidance and wisdom; but nowhere are we encouraged to wait for or expect a vision or voice from heaven. They happen, there is no doubt; but they are the exception in contrast to the life lived in faithfulness to what we have seen and heard.

But to come back to Abram: he hears God here in a vision, saying something really very odd:

“Don’t be afraid, Abram… your reward will be very great”

“Don’t be afraid….” That’s an odd way to start, because Abram has just won a great victory, and is praised by all around him; really not a man in a situation to be afraid. And as for a great reward, why, Abram already has everything that the world can offer him, wealth far beyond his needs.

He has everything except for the one thing that is now impossible; a child to leave it all to. And so his reply to God is bitter.

“What can you give me? You have failed to give me a child; a slave, the son of my wife’s maidservant, will be my heir.” Abram and Sarai are too old to have children; they know it; the one thing they really want is now beyond them. A career of success, wealth, victory, is meaningless; in Abram’s eyes his whole life is a tragedy, not a triumph.

I’m guessing that most of us recognise that emotion, that sense of existential crisis, that nagging feeling that for all we have, all the material, all the relationships, all the influence, there is some deep question about what it all means and whether it is all worth anything in the end. And I’m sure that sometimes all of us have found in that angst a bitterness towards God, as if we want to cry out – or perhaps do cry out – “all this is all very well, but it’s not the point”

I believe that it is for all of us who have ever felt that way, that God replies to Abram, to say “No. You see only what you see, you know only what you know. You look at all you have gained in your life and see nothing, no meaning, no future: but I remember my promise to you. I see, I know, more.”

Notice that there is no anger in God’s reply, no criticism of Abram’s bitterness, Abram’s sadness; God does not berate him for lack of faith, for all that Abram says, and all that Abram sees, is true. No, God does not blame Abram for having lost his sense of the promise that God had made so long ago – after all, Abram has actually gone out of his way to make it possible for the letter of God’s promise to be kept, through Ishmael, son of Abraham by Hagar. Abraham has made sense of God’s promise, the only possible sense he could make, even though it is a sense that brings him no joy.

God does not blame Abram – God repeats the promise. “Count the stars, if you can. So will your descendants be.”

And in an act of faith as great as that of leaving Ur so many years before, Abram believes God. And it was reckoned to him as righteousness. The choice of belief – the decision to trust in the promise of God, a promise given in the midst of angst, was counted as an act of righteousness.

God’s first call and promise had been given many years before; perhaps it had faded, perhaps Abram had come to wonder what it all meant. He’d been through a lot in his life, good and bad, but wondered, in the end, what it meant, what his memory of God’s promise really added up to. So like us.

But in his moment of questioning, his existential crisis, he makes a choice. He will believe the God he remembers, the God who he feels draw close to him in a vision, the God who made promises that seem impossible.

He makes the choice to believe. And not only is that reckoned as faith, counted as righteousness, but he will also be fortunate enough to see it become truth.
We are here because of that act of faith. Let’s learn from it.

Amen

The Promise of Creation

Listen!
Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8
Today we begin a new series of readings, a series that will take us up to the end of the Church year and the beginning of Advent. The way the Narrative Lectionary works, our Spring sees the focus on a sort of narrative arc through the Old Testament; and for this year, that arc is tied together through the theme, the idea, of promise.

And we begin here in the story of creation and fall; the story of God’s great promise in creation and the way that promise was broken by human distrust and disobedience.

each of you should have received, as you came in, a small laminated card, with two symbols on it, one on each side. Two symbols that are closely associated with this story. On one side, you have a snake, a serpent, the figure representing temptation personified, the enemy, the one who would break God’s good creation.

And on the other side, an apple. Now I wonder what meaning you give to the apple in the context of the story of the fall? I’m guessing that most of us, if you say “Apple” and “Garden of Eden”, the immediate connection we make is the forbidden fruit, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

But I’d like you to look again at the picture of that apple, and focus instead on God’s words: “you may freely eat of every tree of the garden”. Look at that apple and remind yourself of all the other trees, all the good things that God had provided.

Because it seems to me that in going straight from “fruit” to “forbidden” what we are doing is accepting the great lie that is as the heart of the serpent’s temptation, the lie found in the serpent’s opening question: “did God say ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden’”?

The image of God that is immediately created; the image many outside the Church have of God, and that on some level many of us carry around inside us: that the fundamental description of God’s nature is the word “no”. That God’s relationship with us is defined by “thou shalt not”, by forbidding.

But when we read back in the story, to the command God gave, it is given in the affirmative – a gift, a promise of good things, the gift of permission, of freedom: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden”. God’s command is not “do exactly what I say, when I say it, the way I say it” – it is “here’s a whole garden of option, good choices. Take your pick”. Obedience to God is not finding the one right option out of many, many wrong ones; it is enjoying a wide range of good choices.

The lie, then, with which the serpent starts is to suggest that God’s commands are far more restrictive than they really are. To paint God as the great big “no”. And though Eve, in the story, doesn’t fall for it, the question, and her response draws attention away from all the other trees, all the other good things, and onto the one thing that has been forbidden. From this point on in the story the question has been crucially changed – from “which of the many different good fruits shall we eat?” to “shall we eat this one?”.

No longer is Eve considering all the good options available to her; now the question is whether or not this, forbidden, thing, is desirable. And this reflects a second lie: that the forbidden thing is somehow uniquely more desirable than the many which are permitted.

The lie which we accept, which tells us that God’s will for us is very specific, very restrictive, a single path that we must follow, morphs into this second lie; that the things God would deny us are much more interesting, desirable, and exciting, than the things God freely gives for our enjoyment.

I think I’ve mentioned before an article I read by a Catholic Priest, asked what it was like to hear people‘s confessions. And he said that, while it was a powerful and profound experience to have people open up and share the hidden parts of their lives, it was also much less exciting than most people seemed to think. Almost all sin, he said, is boring.

Boring because, as G. K. Chesterton wisely observed, sin is not a thing in itself; it is just a broke and distorted version of virtue. The life well lived is the real thing. Loving relationships are the real thing. Art and music, poetry and science, truth in all its forms; friendship, compassion; those are the real thing; all the other trees in the garden, all the good fruit that is the promise of creation.

But the serpent manages to make the one forbidden thing, the one restriction that God placed upon humanity, seem like it was the thing most to be desired.
And what was it? The fruit of the forbidden tree?

The knowledge of good and evil. By which I think the author intends us to understand, the ability to decide for ourselves what is good, and what is evil, the power to form our own ethical systems, divorced from the wisdom and revelation of God.

But isn’t that desirable; to be able to make your own mind up, figure out for yourself what is right and wrong, good and evil? Isn’t that what we put so much emphasis on in our education – teaching kids how to make good decisions for themselves, not just to go along with the crowd or the loudest voice? Isn’t that growing up?

And of course, the answer is yes. Because, once again, the question has been changed. The question is not “should we grow up, learn how to make good decisions, learn how to tell right from wrong ourselves?”. That’s a simple yes. The question is, when we are doing that growing up, that learning, who will we trust to guide our growth? What authority will we accept reliable? What voice will we listen to as we struggle to work out what a life well lived really looks like.

Will we hear the voice of our culture, telling us that those things we know, those things we recognise, are good and right, and those things that are different, alien, unknown, are dangerous, wrong?

Or will we hear the voice of the advertisers, telling us that the good life can be bought; that the iPhone 7 will bring us closer to one another; that the right diet, the right clothes, the right gadgets make the right life?

For the reality is, of course, that we cannot possibly explore every conceivable option first hand. Working it all out for ourselves, trying all the alternatives, taking no-one’s word for it, isn’t possible, logical, mature, or even sane. We choose authorities, we choose the voices that we listen to.

And it seems to me that the ultimate root of the sin in the fall is not so much disobedience, but Adam and Eve’s decision not to trust God’s word, God’s wisdom, but to insist that they, and they alone, will be the masters of their fate, the captains of their soul. That they will not trust the promise of God that was manifest in all the good things that surrounded them.

And when they eat the fruit, their eyes are opened, and they hide themselves from God. They seem to know instinctively that having chosen not to trust in the promises of God, they have broken something deep within creation, damaged the relationship between God and humanity which lay at the heart of the goodness of the garden. I think it’s striking that before God declares judgement upon Adam and Eve, they have declared judgement on themselves; they have removed themselves from God’s presence. The promise of creation has been broken, and they know it.

And so we come back to the card – the apple and the serpent, the two sides of the story that we read in Genesis. On the one side, the promise of God, the goodness of creation, the fruit of all the trees; and on the other, the challenge of the serpent: “take no-one’s word for it, trust no-one but yourself”

Trust the promise and generosity of God, or trust nothing but your own wisdom, insight, power.

The fundamental decision for all humanity.

Amen

(Un)conditional forgiveness

Listen!
Isaiah 1:15-18 | Luke 11:2-4
When I was a teenager, in the early days of my Christian faith, I remember hearing the final few words of the Isaiah reading repeated over and again; I’d certainly memorised them, highlighted them in my Bible, written them out on bookmarks – all the things you do to remind yourself of a great theological truth:

“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be like wool.”

I remember hanging onto those words through the struggles of adolescence and young adulthood; in all those times when I was all too aware of my personal failings I would remind myself: though my sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.

They got me through a lot, those words. But with hindsight, I wonder if I might have done better if I’d read them a little bit more in context. Because I heard in them the profound theological truth of God’s forgiveness, but perhaps missed the equally profound call to justice that precedes them:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Which raises a pretty deep question within our faith:

Is God’s forgiveness conditional?

Or perhaps this is one of those cases where the Old Testament prophets had only a partial vision of the ways of God, a vision left to be completed in the person of Jesus?

But the problem there is that we find some very similar words in the teaching of Jesus – not least, here in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”.

Or, as Jesus puts it elsewhere: “As we forgive, so we are forgiven”.

Actually, when you look at the words of Jesus, or at the teachings of the Old Testament law and prophets, the answer to our question seems pretty clear.
Is God’s forgiveness of us conditional?

Yes, it is.

And it turns out that that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it turns out to be a very good thing.

I think our problem with recognising the conditionality of forgiveness is that we’ve mixed up the idea of forgiveness with the idea salvation. And that arises out of the way that we often talk about sin and forgiveness, heaven and salvation. The sort of language, logic, that starts “you need to be forgiven by God in order to get into heaven (for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God)” and then goes “and that forgiveness is the free gift of God in the death of Jesus.”

Then forgiveness (unconditionally offered by grace through faith) is the key to salvation, to our eternal destiny. And if forgiveness is conditional; well then, where is our assurance? Where is our confidence in the sure and certain home of resurrection to eternal life?

But that link between forgiveness and salvation is far from obvious in the scriptures. Yes “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – but the verse does not continue “and are forgiven freely by his grace” – it continues “and are justified freely by his grace”. The apostle does not write “it is by grace you have been forgiven, through faith”, but “it is by grace you have been saved through faith”. Jesus did not tell Nicodemus “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believe in him might be forgiven”, but “whoever believes in him might be saved”.

Now I’m not arguing that you can completely separate the idea of forgiveness and salvation; of course not. But they are not the same thing. And to suggest that forgiveness (at least, forgiveness here and now in the day to day reality of our lives) might be conditional does not require us to doubt for a moment the absolute certainty of the salvation that is our by God’s grace, received through faith.

And that sets us free to think much more healthily about forgiveness.

Because then the idea that the standard by which we will be forgiven is the standard by which we forgive ceases to be a sword of Damocles hanging over our head, threatening us with eternal damnation should we fail to immediately forgive those who have hurt us. No longer do we have to entertain the notion that the abused child who cannot yet forgive their abuser is somehow denied the saving grace of God (“if you don’t forgive him, you cannot be forgiven – Jesus said so”), or that the battered wife must over and again return to their violent husband (“seventy seven times, Jesus said”).

The truth is, automatic, universal, unconditional forgiveness is not healthy. To see that, we need look no further than our relationship with our children. To forgive immediately and unconditionally sends the message that the wrong done doesn’t matter. And when that wrong has hurt others, it sends the even more damaging message that pain inflicted on another person can be lightly set aside and forgotten.

We do not forgive unconditionally. We hold out the offer of forgiveness, yes, but we ask something in return. An apology, perhaps. Restitution, maybe. At very least, a recognition of the wrong done.

Forgiveness, when offered in love, is (often, at least) conditional.

But again, let’s be sure we aren’t blurring two ideas that need to be held apart. Because what we do hold for that child, and God holds for us, unconditionally and automatically, is love.

Love without preconditions, without demands, without requirements – yes to that.

And forgiveness which is always available – yes to that.

But forgiveness which doesn’t ask for repentance, for recognition of wrongdoing and at least the hope or desire to change? Not so much.

Instead we have the deep wisdom of conditional forgiveness. That says “yes, I love you; I am prepared to see a way forwards into forgiveness, but there is a road that you need to walk to get there. Not for my good (though perhaps for my protection) but for your good.”

For once we have separated forgiveness from salvation, it can take on a new role; forgiveness is not a simple destination, it is a journey that we take together – open to new life and new possibilities, seeing the possibility of restored relationship and healthy futures, but not rushed, not simply declared or demanded.
And yes, our ability to forgive is part of our healing, and our ability to receive forgiveness; but again, once we recognise that forgiveness is not the same as salvation, we can be kinder to ourselves; we can live with the fact that we have not yet reached a place where we can forgive those who have hurt us; recognising that it would be a good and healthy place to be, a place to travel towards, but not demanding of ourselves or others a rushed forgiveness and artificial restoration of relationship.

Held in the absolute and unconditional love of God, maybe it’s ok if we are only forgiven according to the standards by which we are able to forgive.
Seeing the promise of the prophet “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow” for what it is: not an immediate reality, but a promise of a future that we are called to walk towards.

Amen

Our Daily Bread

Listen!
Exodus 16:13-21 | Luke 11:2-4
In the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, that we explored last week, we found a sort of statement of identity; of Jesus identifying with the traditions of intimacy with God, of holiness, and of justice that ran through the Jewish faith of his day – and indeed, the Jewish faith throughout history.

But it was more than just identifying Jesus, than locating him, as it were, in the broader streams of faith and spirituality, as it might have been if we had simply been overhearing a prayer that Jesus prayed. This was not just a prayer that Jesus prayed, it was his answer to the question “teach us to pray”. In other words, it was not simply locating himself in this intimate relationship with the Holy God whose Kingdom was being proclaimed in the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry – it was an invitation to us to see ourselves in that same place. Jesus does not just pray “father” – he invites us to do the same.

And now the prayer turns from locating us in our relationship with God, to seeking God’s involvement, God’s activity, in our lives and in the lives of those around us. We turn to making requests of God.

And the first request is “your kingdom come”.

In keeping with all of Jesus’ teaching, most explicitly, of course, the sermon on the mount, the followers of Jesus are taught again that the first thing, the priority, the centre of their life as people of Jesus, is the Kingdom of God. “Seek first the kingdom”, Jesus taught; “pray first for the kingdom” he tells us here.

Perhaps the most important neglected truth of the faith of Jesus Christ is this: it isn’t about us.

The first thing in the Lord’s Prayer isn’t about us, and about our needs, it is about the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of which are citizens, heralds, ambassadors, and servants.

The first thing in the Lord’s Prayer isn’t about us and our needs. But the second is.

Give us, each day, our daily bread.

Pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom; but then also pray for those things you need. In the next chapter of the gospel we will Luke’s telling of the sermon on the mount, and these words “strive for God’s Kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well”.

There is no denial of physical needs here, no call for self-abnegation; those things we strive for – sustenance, shelter, security – they are things we need, things God knows we need. The faith of Jesus Christ is not so self denying or hyper-spiritual as to deny our physical needs; it is simply reorientating: God’s kingdom first, and the rest will follow.

I’ve chosen to pair the gospel reading today with the story of the manna, because I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is the story that would have been called to the minds of those who first heard this prayer.

For the manna in the wilderness was one of those stories that every Jewish child heard as they grew up: if the story of the Exodus was the defining story of God setting the people free, then the story of the quail and manna was the defining story of God’s provision for God’s people.

So we hear God’s command: “gather as much as you need, all providing for all those in their own tents”. God’s provision, the giving of the manna, wasn’t a free for all; nor was each person responsible solely for what they needed. The responsibility was given to groups within the community to gather enough for their group – their family, perhaps, but more likely a rather more extended relationship group who travelled together. Don’t just gather for yourself what you need; gather, as a group, what you, as a group require.

But the command also specified that amount that would be needed; an omer to a person.

The gift that God was sending was to be enjoyed equitably; the God who, as Jesus would say “sends the rain on the just and the unjust” would here offer the same gift to all. Gather an omer for each person, God commanded.

Of course human nature being what it was, and the simple unpredictability of a large group of people setting out to gather a fixed total quantity, some gathered more and some gathered less. But when they came to measure it, the second, less prominent miracle occurred; they all found that they had the same, correct, amount – an omer each.

I remember reading this passage many years ago, perhaps when I was still in high school, and thinking “I understand those who gathered too much finding they only had the right amount. Those who were greedy, who took more than they were told, were not able to hold onto the excess. That makes sense. But those who gathered too little? Aren’t they just being rewarded for being lazy, when God makes up the difference?”

And only this week, as I came read the passage again did I realise the sort of subcultural assumption in my puzzlement. I had assumed that the only reason that someone might gather less than they were supposed to was laziness. Because I had grown up with that message all around me – that if you worked hard, you would be able to get what you needed; and that if you didn’t, you wouldn’t.

But there is no hint in the story of criticism of those who did not gather enough, no suggestion that they simply didn’t bother. And, for that matter, it’s hardly credible that hungry people in the wilderness, finding food on the ground around them, simply wouldn’t bother.

Indeed, the story tells us that when God commanded them to gather the manna, they did so – but some collected more, and some less.

And there are so many reasons why that might be, constraints of capacity, not willingness: tents in which the travellers were old, or young, sick, nursing, or pregnant, or simply incapable for one reason or another of gathering enough; where the load fell upon a few able bodied to provide for many who could not take part.

But the gift of God did not discriminate against those who were less able to gather; God sent the manna to old and young, healthy or sick, alike. Each gathered as they had ability, and found provision as they had need. The early Church, of course, would repeat this pattern – in Acts 4 we read that “there was none among them that lacked… for distribution was made to each as they had need”.

In fact, perhaps even more than they had need. For although it’s hard to be precise with ancient measurements, an omer was a generous serving; probably around a kg of bread. Certainly some chose to leave some of the manna for the next day. Perhaps they had learned well the lesson of scarcity.

Their decision to store food over was directly disobeying to Moses’ instructions to them. Which is one of those times when the command of God seems to go contrary to – well, not just common sense, but wisdom, and, in this case, the desire to provide for yourself and for those who depend upon you.

But God’s command was for a reason; placed into the broader context of the story, the people of God had been learning to trust God. Or rather, they had been fairly consistently failing to learn to trust God. The exodus itself, the column of smoke and fire, the provision of water from the stone; each miracle had been welcomed and then rapidly forgotten. The idea that God could be trusted for the future because of what God had done in the past had not taken root.

And when God is not trusted for the future, then we have to worry about it for ourselves… again, taking our minds, our focus, our attention, off the main game: first, the Kingdom of God.

“Do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus will remind his friends, “tomorrow will worry about itself.”

And this does fight against all we learn; and challenges us, too, to question the balance we strike between living today, and looking out for tomorrow. For – and this runs terribly counter to our culture, especially to educated middle class culture – you will struggle to find any encouragement in the Bible to set aside for the future, and a great deal of encouragement to focusing on living the best, most generous life you can today.

We do, of course, have encouragement to provide for ourselves and those we are responsible for – and in our cultural context that can reasonably be thought to include planning for university fees, or costs of retirement and old age. But we ought, perhaps, to hear the words as a challenge – that the obsession with tomorrow can destroy our today.

That we live in a society that places great pressure on us to emphasise “productive time” over “relationship time”; and yet, as Rabbi Kushner wisely reflected, “Nobody on their deathbed has ever said ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’”.

An obsession with the needs of the future cuts into our relationships today, and it cuts into our generosity today; will I be generous with the surplus I find I hold, or store it against a rainy day?

The Lord’s Prayer, the sermon on the mount, the manna in the desert; all call us back towards that trust in God’s provision that sets us free to seek first the Kingdom of God, sets us free to invest in one another more than in our savings, sets us free to live generously with our time and money.

For we shall not live by bread alone.

Amen.