Faith is Vital for Living 26-01-2020

Faith is Vital for Living. 

Epiphany 3.  

Matthew 4: 12 – 23; Luke 7: 36 – 50

Can we live without faith?

The exercise of faith is vital to our overall spiritual and physical well-being.  Without faith despair is given a deeper soil in which to germinate. Without faith in others our friendships shrink. Without faith our dreams fade.  The lack of faith negatively affects our spirit, our community and our vision for living. Faith is so important to us along with hope and love.  All three work together. 

Faith is so natural to us. Think how often we exercise faith in our daily transactions such as driving our car, receiving information, making new friendships and in so many of life’s everyday experiences. Faith is not just a religious thing. I mean we don’t simply exercise faith in relation to religious ideas and beliefs. Faith is distinct from belief in that faith is that ability to trust another whereas belief is about the content of that trust.  Neither is faith static. The more we exercise faith the stronger it becomes. 

Faith liberates us to act and experience things.  I recall the time I went with a group of yachty friends to ride motorcycles in the northern mountains of Vietnam. Some of us went ahead and had a few days in the old part of Hanoi. That first night Mike and I decided we weren’t tired so we went out for a walk and a drink. We got to the main road we needed to cross. There was a continuous stream of motorcyclists.  Then I remembered what Brian had said to us. The traffic doesn’t stop for you. Just walk looking at the motorcyclists and they will avoid you.  I could see that they were not going to stop for us. Trusting Brian I said to Mike, ‘let’s go’.  I stepped out onto the road looking left at the riders. They travel on the right side of the road.  I got to the centre of the road looked right and kept walking. My heart rate was up. I wilfully put one foot in front of the other watching as riders made their way around me.  It seemed an eternity, but finally I stepped onto the far pavement and said to Mike, ‘we’ve made it’. I turned to look at Mike and he was neither on my right nor my left. He was still on the other side. He eventually came across.

There are times in life when we have to exercise faith to free us from our fears, conventions, and old ways of thinking and embrace the new.  Faith not only liberates but also widens our horizons.

We exercise faith in the daily routine of our lives taking the faculty of faith for granted. But when we come to religion we want to see it as a spiritual gift or something some have and others don’t. The fact of the matter is that we all have the faculty of faith. The notion that faith applies to religion and reason to practical living is false. I’m also saying that we need to exercise faith to enjoy its full benefits, but not to the exclusion of our other faculties. Reason therefore remains a loyal cousin to faith. 

In the Bible we have many examples of faith shown by people such as Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Gideon, Ruth, Esther and many others. Our Matthew reading tells us about John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus’ departure to Capernaum and the call of the disciples’.  Normally a preacher will focus on the arrest of John or the call of the disciples. I want to focus on faith.  Though faith is not mentioned each situation is grounded in faith.  John is arrested because he has been faithful to his calling. Jesus’ departure is an example of faith practised with reason and the disciples’ response leads to adventurous faith widening horizons.

John the Baptist’s faithfulness reminds us that faith is not a matter to be superficially exercised. Faithfulness is dependability, constancy and devotion. He never diverted from his calling even though in prison he wondered if Jesus was really the Messiah. John is an example of sticking to one’s calling even against the odds. For so doing he paid the ultimate price – martyrdom.  The Lord would truly say to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’[Mt 25:21,23]     

Matthew tells us about Jesus’ reasoned faith.  Matthew tells us that when Jesus heard about John the Baptist’s arrest he ‘withdrew’ to Galilee. Why? Now no one would question Jesus’ faith, so why does he leave and go to Galilee? John’s arrest took place in Judah and it was most probably the Jewish authorities who arrested him.  Jesus would have left for Galilee because it was far away from Judah, and there was no point in getting arrested along with John.  Also Galilee is a densely populated area with a greater freedom of ideas than in the conservative culture of Judah and Jerusalem.  My reflection on this passage is that Jesus ‘withdrew’ to Capernaum in Galilee to avoid any conflict in Judah and to begin his ministry in an area more likely to be responsive to his message than in Judah.  Jesus’ withdrawal is not a lack of faith but reasoned thinking about the best next step. It is one thing to be faithful, but we need to use our reason – that loyal cousin of faith.

The third example of faith in this text is the first disciples’ adventurous faith in Jesus – Andrew and Peter. Their faith is exercised through the hope and belief that God would send a Messiah and that Jesus seemed to fit the bill.  Their faith was sufficient to begin the exploration that led ultimately to their wonderful ministries. Their names are written in the Church’s foundations. The more they saw of Jesus the more they trusted Jesus. Their faith led them to total commitment. Finally Andrew and Peter were crucified. We can be deeply grateful for the men and women who, down through the ages trusted Jesus and gave their all. The foundation of the Church is Christ and the blood of the martyrs.  Following Jesus leads to eternal life but along the way we may have to suffer for our Lord. When I was called to ministry in South Africa I realised that there was a possibility that I might run foul of the authorities. Fortunately the only discomfort was seeing black people suffer and feeling alone amongst the white tribe I had been born into.

Luke’s account of the Gospel records a beautiful incident of costly faith [Lk 7: 36-50]. Simon, the Pharisee, had invited Jesus to a meal. A woman, supposedly of ill repute, heard and entered the courtyard where the meal was served. Out of her faith in Jesus and her deep need she came with possibly her most precious material gift of fragrant ointment. She lavishly and ostentatiously anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Simon and other respectable persons frowned upon such extravagant and ostentatious behaviour. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke the most comforting words that anyone of us would want to hear. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” [Lk 7:50]

These pictures of faith provide us with an insight into the operation of faith. We are reminded in the first place that faith is natural to our humanity and essential to living a full life.  Faith leads to faithfulness. Where would we be without the faithfulness of those in our community? Faith is about being considerate and thoughtful. There is little value in faith that does not consider situations carefully to determine what is best.  It is adventurous faith that leads us to new horizons and opens up the future for us.  Faith always involves a cost. Our preparedness to pay the price of faith leads to a blessedness that surpasses all our experiences of happiness.

 

In closing I will apply this sermon to myself. I know I have served God faithfully and God’s Church. Though, I must add, not always 100% of the time and only a few times at 110%.  I am confident that I have been constant. However, I am not sure that I have always exercised adventurous faith, or costly faith or even that most tricky one of all – reasoned faith.  Only God can answer such questions. So, with thankfulness for God’s graciousness I step down from fulltime ministry. I will always wonder if I could have done it better.  But then again God has always taken our meagre talents and gifts and made them shine and be fruitful. So I stand content. I hope you too have a restless contentment, for with such God can do much.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  26/01/2020

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Servant,Slave, Service! 19-01-2020

Servant, Slave, Service! Epiphany 2.

Isaiah 49: 1 – 7;  John 1: 29 – 42

Are God’s children also servants? 

We commonly understand a servant to be someone employed to to carry out domestic chores. The term, servant, has become a demeaning term in our society. Our labour saving devices, fast food places and meals delivered to the home have all made the domestic servant obsolete. 

In a time long past servants were essential to the working of the home. In fact we could not have achieved much without servants.  And some servants became valued members of the family. I recall from my childhood in South Africa that servants were very much part of the family, especially on farms. The problem today is that the concept of servant is taken to mean someone who is inferior to others and of little worth.

In the ancient world of the Roman Empire servants and slaves were important. Some slaves and servants became so valued and respected that their masters adopted them as their heirs. The slave owner would set a slave free and then adopt him to be his heir under the rule of paterfamilias. As I have mentioned before some of the Roman Emperors were adopted.  E.g. Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of the Roman Empire [63BC- 14 AD] who established the Pax Romana, was adopted by his uncle Julius Caesar. Incidentally Julius Caesar already had a natural born son by Cleopatra.

Neither is it strange to read about the servants of God in the Bible.  Moses, Joshua, Paul, James and Peter are specifically described as servants of God.  The people of God were also referred to as servants. Mary, the mother of Jesus, declared herself a bond slave of the Lord [Lk 1: 38]. Nehemiah spoke of the people of God as servants of the Lord [Neh 1:10] and Isaiah speaks of the people as the Servants of God [Is 48:1 – 49:3].

What is a servant?  The dictionary defines a servant as ‘one who performs duties for others, especially a person employed for duties in a household’.  Most definitions add that a personal servant will be devoted and helpful.  The root meaning of ‘servant’ has the notion of waiting on and serving another with devotion.

I have selected six characteristics of a servant that I believe may help our understanding of the worthiness of servanthood. 

Integrity: Servants doesn’t only have to be honest, but should have a sense of wholeness about themselves. They need to see servanthood as an important part of what they do and who they are. Servanthood has an honourable role. 

Humility: Out of their sense of well-being the servant need to be willing to humble themselves in the service of others. Their work is not about themselves but about the one they serve.

Loyalty: The concept of loyalty captures the sense of dependability, commitment, and trustworthiness.

Listener: A servant needs to listen and empathise with the one they serve and sense their needs and understand the tasks they are to carry out.  The good listener is attentive to others.

Adaptability: A servant needs to be adaptable to the situations and demands of the one they serve.  Flexibility is important in adjusting to different situations.

Resilience: Resilience flows out of being flexible and leads to that quality of endurance and toughness required to serve dutifully during difficult times.

So we begin to see the important role a servant plays. We note that there are periods in our history and possibly in our lives where the notion of being served or serving is critical to our well-being. We note too that to see the role of servant as merely a demeaning role is not helpful. We note that the characteristics of a servant are essential to any household or organisation’s health.  That is, we cannot really progress, develop and reach our potential without the qualities that go with servanthood.

Today we don’t speak of servanthood except in leadership roles where we speak of servant-leadership. The Servant-Leader takes on the characteristics of a servant. So why am I talking about Servanthood? I imagine if I had asked you whether you saw yourself as a servant of God, or of the Church, or other Christians, you would say you don’t. I guess that would be the last concept you would use to describe your relationship with God. Most likely you would think of yourself as a child of God or a member of the Church. Yet this is what our texts are talking about – the people of God are God’s servants.

In the Corinthian reading Paul describes himself as an Apostle [1Cor 1:1], which is just another name for a leading servant. In the John reading we have the call of the disciples. We are told that two of John the Baptist’s disciples decided to follow Jesus. Jesus turns to meet them and merely invites them to ‘come and see’ [Jn 1:39]. Andrew is one of them and he goes off to get his brother, Simon Peter.  Jesus’ response is gentle and pregnant with conviction – ‘come and see’. Andrew and Peter follow and stay and become witnesses and martyrs for the Gospel of Christ Jesus. They gave their lives.  They took on the qualities of servanthood: integrity, humility, loyalty, empathy, adaptability and resilience. Legend tells us Peter chose to be crucified upside down by Nero because he felt unworthy to be crucified in a similar fashion to Jesus.

The Isaiah reading, which is another ‘Servant Song / Poem’ in the book of Isaiah, speaks of the ‘Servant of God’ as an individual and also as a member of the people of God. In Isaiah 52 the servant suffers for us, bears our sins and secures our healing with humility [Is 53: 4-9].  Christians unreservedly see the Isaiah prophetic poems as foreshadowing the ministry of Jesus. The early church in one of their hymns speaks of Jesus as not regarding equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— death on a cross. [Phil 2:6-8]  Mark records Jesus telling his disciples that he has come not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom. [Mk 10:45]  All this tells us that Jesus is seen as the perfect example of servanthood.

Why would we be reluctant to see ourselves as servants if Jesus comes to loyally serve us with integrity and endurance? Servants are both valuable and valued  and the worthy servant is always honoured. There lies the irony of life. Those that serve inherit life.  Those that serve receive honour and respect. I recall observing my Personal Assistant when I was the CEO of the Church’s organisation providing CRE and chaplaincy in State schools. She was committed to the ministry, served me faithfully with an integrity but never turned her humility into demeaning servility. She was a learner and listener and was steadfast in her work.  Though I had a 2 IC and there were other senior staff, whenever my PA spoke, people took notice. I noted she had a power and authority that far out weighed her office.  She was a true servant – so respected; so valued.

Do you see yourself as a servant of God in this Church?  Would you see yourself as a servant of God in the world?  Would you see yourself serving one another?  How might that look? What might that look like to the world outside if they were to experience communities of compassionate servanthood?

Jesus often uses the concept of a servant to illustrate our relationship to God. In one of his short parables Jesus says; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.   Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.   If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves  [Lk 12: 36-38].

What a privilege to be a personal servant to a great person. What a privilege to be the personal servant of God! How wonderful it is to be among the servants of God who when God comes and finds us alert and loyal, God will sit us down and wait on us. That’s the amazing picture Jesus puts before us in his teaching and throughout his life.

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  19/01/2020

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Theological Justice 12-01-2020

Theological Justice.

Isaiah 42: 1 – 9; Matthew 3: 13 – 17

God’s justice more than social-justice!

A man was brought before a jury of respectable educated townsfolk to be tried for a crime he had allegedly committed. As the court began the accused asked the judge how qualified the jurors were to judge him.   “Are they experienced thinkers able to determine right from wrong?” he asked.

He requested the judge to ask the jurors separately to write an answer to his question: ‘what is bread?”

These were the jurors’ answers:

The 1st juror wrote; ‘Bread is food.’

The 2nd; ‘It is a gift from the Almighty.’

The 3rd; ‘It is a mixture of flour, yeast and water.’

The 4th; ‘It is obvious, it is baked dough.’

The 5th; ‘It depends very much how you use the word bread.’

The 6th; ‘No one really knows.’

The accused man looked the judge squarely in the face and said;  “When the wise and educated decide what bread is it may be possible for them to determine what is right and wrong.”

What is justice? Definitions of justice run like this:  the quality of being fair and reasonable, the administration of the law, what is morally right and fair. As much as we might have a problem defining what bread is we might also have a problem with the concept of justice. Cicero said that the fundamentals of justice are that no one shall suffer wrong, and that the public good be served. Let it be known that the demand for justice does not come from Karl Marx, or the poor, or the rich, but from the Hebrew prophets and it is embodied in Jesus. When we ask what is justice? we may too readily think of equality of treatment and opportunity, fairness, and punishment of the unjust. The Isaiah text implies it is more and certainly suggests a distinctive administration of justice.

We remember today the baptism of Jesus by John.  The lectionary includes Isaiah 42 implying it has something to say about Jesus. We can note two things that connect the Isaiah reading to Jesus and his baptism. Firstly, the Baptism of Jesus has more to do with him being anointed by the Holy Spirit than water baptism. The key point in Jesus’ baptism is the anointing of the Spirit described as a ‘dove’ descending on him accompanied by the words, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” [Mt 3:17]  The Servant in Isaiah 42 is also anointed with the Spirit. Secondly, Jesus begins his ministry, according to Luke, citing a passage on justice from Isaiah. Justice, theological justice, is strongly tied to Jesus [Lk 4:18].

Isaiah chapter 42 is most significant. Scholars spend a lot of time reflecting on who the ‘servant’ is in this visionary reflection.  Scholars also spend a lot of time discussing how this vivid piece of writing connects to other passages in the book of Isaiah. I am not interested in these reflections.  I believe, as some scholars point out, that Jesus embodied the task given to ‘the servant of God’ in chapter 42.  So let us look at the task given to the servant and the manner in which the task was to be accomplished.

The passage begins with; with here is my servant, whom I have chosen [Is 42:1]. What stands out in this passage is that the servant of God is chosen and God puts God’s Spirit into the servant.  The servant of God is chosen and anointed with power. Throughout the Bible God calls people and anoints them with the Spirit. Remember in creation it is the Spirit of God that breathes life into the whole of creation. The Scriptures consistently tell that the Living God breathes life into this world. Nothing can be done without the Spirit of God empowering and breathing life into our lives.  The first lesson we learn is that God never leaves God’s servants to act alone. Every time we step out in faith and serve God in what we say and do the Spirit of God is with us. Remember in our baptism we celebrate God’s anointing of us with the Spirit.  God gives us what we need. We are never alone.  It is only in our ignorance, unfaith or arrogance that we may feel and act alone. Every time I stand at this lectern I am conscious of God’s Holy Spirit being with me and speaking through me. I see the Spirit’s anointing of our worship leaders as well. But it is much bigger than that.  Have you not noticed how ordinary people become powerful when they address the daunting task of injustice? The OT prophets and leaders all received the anointing of the Spirit. I cannot overlook the powerful prophetic people who confronted Apartheid in my birth-land; and while preparing this sermon I couldn’t help thinking of the powerful voice of Rosie Batty, the domestic violence campaigner. Whether she recognises it or not I believe the Spirit of God rested on her, for God’s Spirit breathes life into all of creation.

The task of God’s servant is to bring forth justice to the nations [Is 42:1] – yes, justice to the nations!  In verse four the scope of the justice is re-enforced where the servant’s task is to establish justice in the earth.  What we easily overlook or simply fail to understand is that God’s justice doesn’t only concern God’s people; i.e. it is not parochial justice – it is worldwide justice. Psalm 82 makes it abundantly clear that the domain of God’s justice is the whole earth with its climatic statement; Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you! [Ps 82:8]  In Psalm 82 the direction and nature of God’s justice is determined. Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute [Ps 82:3].  What is patently clear is that God’s justice is about general well-being and health for the whole of creation.

God’s method for justice. Isaiah not only describes the task of justice and its expansive scope, but the servant’s unique means of establishing justice. Let us pause a moment and reflect on how we establish justice.  We impose justice by law, edict, enforcement and worst of all by military might. But listen to what Isaiah says and think on Jesus’ life and practice. 

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; 

he will faithfully bring forth justice. [Is 42:2,3]

The manner in which servants of God will bring forth justice stands in utter contrast to the manner in which we usually pursue justice.  I cannot express this point more forcefully than Paul D Hanson does in his commentary on Isaiah.

“The style of witness of the Servant stands so starkly in contrast to the ways of the nations and their leaders that it must be regarded either as foolishness or as an intriguing alternative to a failed strategy. What sort of agent can this be, described in terms not as a conqueror but of as a victim. Is it possible that the reign of justice can be promoted by submission and the express renunciation of force, even by special attention and care to fellow victims who are on the edge of collapse and death?” [p. 45 NTBC] What Isaiah describes here is how Jesus confronted evil and injustice. Jesus appeared more as a victim than a victor. He used love and compassion rather than coercion and violence. And what Jesus began his disciples through the ages have continued doing – bringing wholeness and justice in a peaceful manner. So in Jesus we see this prophetic poem being fulfilled.

The second half of our text in Isaiah chapter 42 appears to be an expansion on the first four verses. It is in the style of other Isaiah passages where the ‘Servant’ of God includes the nation as in Isaiah chapter 41. Elsewhere the book of Isaiah is quite explicit, that the work of the servant involves the people. In fact we find a kind of democratisation of the work God in Isaiah 65 and 66.  God’s work will be done by all not merely the hierarchy or the privileged.

It is at a time like this, when we see our land burning at a level not witnessed before, when we witness so many displaced people in the world, and when political leadership appears more nakedly as personal power, that we need men and women to stand up and be anointed by God’s Spirit to bring in God’s justice in a manner that decreases the violence and injustice in the world.

God has shown us the way. God will equip and empower us. God will anoint and God has given us the blueprint in Christ Jesus.  It remains for us to begin speaking and praying for God’s justice to be done. 

Don’t say you can’t take up the call! Every time you bring joy, love and hope to someone, especially the stranger, you bring justice. Each small deed of kindness and charity is a building block in God’s 

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  12/01/2020

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The Gospel in an ever-changing World 05-01-2020

The Gospel in an ever-changing World 

Jeremiah 31: 7 – 14; Ephesians 1: 3 – 14; John 1: 1 (10) – 18

What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st Century?

What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st Century? We’re in the final year of the second decade of the 21st Century. It’s fascinating to reflect on the Church in our time. When I think of my own family – I’m thinking of my wife, my parents and our children – we span three centuries. My father was born in 1895. So much has changed in this time. We’ve witnessed remarkable changes over the last 120 years or so which have revolutionised our lives.

What has this meant for the Church universal? What has it meant for the churches in the Western World?  We might think that the biggest change is how small the local churches have become. Now that is only a problem if we think we should be like the churches we grew up in or raised our children in.  They were large and booming with children. We call the children of the post-WWII era the baby-boomers. That era was merely a blip in the Church’s life during the 20th Century. Now I do not intend to provide a brief lesson in social history. I merely want to point out a few things.

Social change has always taken place. However in our life time the pace of change has increased exponentially. We’ve witnessed the greatest number of changes in the shortest space of time; e.g. from horse and cart to space travel.

Secondly, 100 or less members is now the average size of local churches throughout the Western World. When I attended in 2007 the 8th World Methodist Conference on Evangelism in Atlanta in the USA I learnt that the average USA congregation had around 100 members. I was reminded of these facts in an email I received this week. We are a normal sized church. We are a strong church in good heart, but do we still operate with the sense that we should be bigger? Are we hanging onto structures and practices that really suit a much larger church? I believe our Synods and the Assembly need to address this question too.

Thirdly, the changes in our society present and always have presented a challenge to the church to re-think how it expresses and practices the Gospel of Christ. A cursory study of the history of the Church will uncover this. The difference today is that such changes take place more rapidly than ever before.

I’m not going to provide answers to these questions. Rather the questions are a constant work-in-progress. The answers lie in prayerfully considered experiments, of which some will not work.  I have raised these questions because they are relevant to us. They are always relevant.   Our texts set for today prompted me to take up this tack. The Gospel according to St John clearly indicates in its concepts and metaphors that the Church is wrestling with this issue of relevance. In fact the writings of the New Testament all reveal that the Christians of the 1st Century wrestled with such issues.  Within the first 100 years Christians were adjusting their concepts and understanding of the Gospel of Christ to their new situations. 

The Gospel of John is a fine example of this. The Gospel begins with a reference to Jesus being the Logos, the Word of God. This concept was used in Greek philosophy to describe the ‘reason’ or ‘plan’ for the ordering of the universe. John uses it to describe the eternal being of Jesus the Christ. This suggests to us that the Church has moved into the Roman Greek world and beginning to use concepts of the Roman-Greco world to help explain who Christ Jesus is.

The Gospel according to John is usually dated late in the 1st Century or early in the 2nd. My personal view is that it is about 95 A.D. The other three accounts of the Gospel of Christ are earlier and reflect an earlier period in the Church’s life. 

John also introduces us to the understanding that Christianity is not something you are born into. That is, you are not a Christian because your parents were Christian.  He wants people to understand that the blessing of God is something each individual must affirm.  Jesus makes this point by calling people to follow him and emphasising that to do so means giving up all to become one of his disciples. John says this in his opening remarks in his Gospel account.

He (Jesus) was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  [Jn 1: 10-13]

John stresses Jesus’ own people, his family so to speak, did not accept him and that the world did not know him, but everyone who sees and accepts Jesus becomes a child of God. The logic of this is that we only become God’s children when we accept Jesus who has the power to make us God’s children. So John talks in chapter 3 about being born again, or more accurately being born from above. This concept of becoming God’s children, not by natural means but by the means of God adopting us, would not have  beend a strange concept to the Roman-Greco culture. The man of the household had the right to adopt. The Roman imperial succession was secured by adoption.  For example Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Nero were all adopted as adults and thus became emperor.

John makes perfectly good sense when he states that we are not automatically God’s children – that is heirs of the promises of God – but become God’s children by turning to God who graciously adopts us. Paul writes to the Ephesian church saying the same thing some 40 years earlier. He (God) destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ. [Eph 1: 5]

The more we reflect on this account of the Gospel we see how Christian thinkers began to adapt their expression and practice to be more intelligible to the culture of the day.  They didn’t change the content – Christ was still Christ – but they did change the way they expressed and practiced the Faith. 

One of the things I have noted in the New Testament is that their worship and faith did not depend upon Jerusalem or the Temple. Rather God had set them free from the dominance and significance of the Temple in Jerusalem. Buildings were only important insofar as they served a purpose for gathering together. In reality the first Christians ended up meeting in homes, which also meant they were only small in number.

We learn a few things from these texts today that will help us in 2020.

Change is a constant in our lives. Nothing stays the same. If it did it would mean the end of that thing. Growth requires change. Heraclitus, an Ionian philosopher of Ephesus who lived some 500 plus years before Christ Jesus, wrote: There is nothing permanent except change. We should never resist change but prayerfully and critically embrace it. The fact that people in churches and clubs can have divisions over the colour of a wall is a sign of human frailty. We struggle to apply to our daily living the truth that Clement of Alexandria understood – that God ‘has changed all our sunsets into sunrises’.   

Adaptation is required for growth and renewal.  The future is ours if we respond positively to the changes it brings and adapt to the new situations, remembering the living tradition of the past. 

Knowing our true north is important in navigating the future and what it might bring. No mariner can sail to a new destination bringing their cargo of precious goods with them without a compass. The mariner must know where North is and what his/her position is in relation to true north.  We Christians also are given a compass that tells us where true north is and what the cardinal points are. Let us remind ourselves.  For the Christian compass of life True North is God: the God who suffers with us and for us.  The Christian south is loving God with all our heart, mind, strength and soul. The Eastern point is Loving our Neighbour and the Western point is Loving ourselves.

If we take these as the cardinal points of the Christian compass we can sail into the future with confidence. Let us hold fast to the precious cargo we have, meet and adapt to the new with hope and confidence, then we will see God’s new Sunrise for us.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  05/01/2020

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

CONGREGATION TO READ POST SERMON.

Eph. 1:3   Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,  4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.  5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will,  6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,  10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.  11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will,  12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.  13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit;  14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

First Sunday after Christmas 2019

FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS 2019

What did 2019 meaningfully bring for you? This is not what Father Christmas brought you but what was something significant which you were involved with during 2019? I invite you to share this at the end of my homily, after covering the set Bible readings for today. We could have a mini Q and A between us or else if that is too public, then just in a huddle between two or three or you.

We had as a Call to Worship, the first five verses of Psalm 148. This is full of praise for our creator, God. I quote: “Praise him, all his angels”! The psalm celebrates God’s nature and purposes, revealed in creation of our world, our universe and every living creature, including human life. Humankind can best fulfill God’s command by living as God created us to live. This psalm calls creation to join in praise of God. We are tasked with stewardship of creation, rather than having dominion.

The reading from Isaiah 63 reminds me of the old gospel song: “count your blessings, name them one by one.” Recounting God’s gifts of creation and redemption makes us happy, healthy and thankful.  Isaiah looked back at the gracious deeds of God in the life of his people where God had been with them in all their pain and difficulties and carried them when they had no strength.

Looking now at our Gospel reading from Matthew 2, the Christmas we have just celebrated marks the beginning of the earthly life of Jesus. Because Jesus was who he is, the messiah, our Saviour, it is also a new beginning for us, the human race. His flesh is our flesh, born of Mary a representative of ordinary humanity which he takes into the Holy of holies, the most holy place, with God. Through our flesh he was able to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Jesus coming into our world is bracketed with Herod who fakes worship on one end while instituting infanticide on the other. Matthew shows the baby Jesus as the culmination of what was promised. He was the foretold Saviour of the world who had to navigate Egypt, evil and egos. Matthew also recounts that dreams also save Joseph and his family. It appears that guardian angels are working overtime in the first part of our Lord’s life.

Three times a messenger from God, an angel, converses with a sleeping Joseph. The first dialogue proclaims the birth of Jesus. The second provides a way of escape, the third dream gives the all clear signal. Joseph is to leave Egypt because the security and refuge that it offers is no longer needed. The fourth dream alerts Joseph to danger lurking in Judea where Herod’s son Archelaus is the new ruler, a very bad apple from a rotten tree. So, Joseph sensed foul play and heads for Nazareth, the subject of previous prophecy.  

The Bible never states that each child of God has a guardian angel. These spirits cannot or will not save us from all suffering. Maybe their function is not to shield us from danger but to cool our feet when we walk through the flames of adversity. I wonder though who of us have had a flesh and blood messenger whom God sends just at the right time, with just the right word: a word of comfort, hope or wisdom. On the other hand, who have we been sent to as guardian angels with a message form the Lord?

Eventually, the Holy family established their home in Nazareth but of course it was just a temporary home, as the Lord ended his life without having a permanent address.

At Christmas we turn our thoughts toward home. When we were children it was our parent’s home with escapes to our grandparent’s homes if we were lucky. Jan has two sisters so every year we meet at one or another’s home with as many of the extended family to celebrate another year of ups and downs but richly greeting each one present.

Christmas time can be very difficult for believers. What grief do we as individuals or as a congregation bear currently or through the past year? How do we cope with trauma, suffering or disappointments? As we praise God, how do we hold our experiences in tension with God’s promises? What traditions have been meaningful for you? Do we recognize the presence and power of God? Is he close or distant?

Do you want to now  share a magic moment which happened to you during this year or maybe changed your life for better or for worse?  We can have an open time now for a few minutes or would you prefer to confide with someone next you?

Conclusion: God’s power and love are ready to be experienced, lived in, and celebrated.

Prayer:  Dear God, I praise you, Lord of creation. You spoke the word, and all things came to be. Lord of life, you speak the word, and all creation lives, echoes and shouts with life. Your life.

And yet Lord, pressed by my own busyness and self-created doubts, I lose my grip on you. The clouds draw in and shadow me. The mist wet blankets me in the billows of uncertainty. My doubt shouts out for reassurance and comes echoing back, empty handed. Yet still you are there.

Your presence is patient and dependable, and in its magnet field I turn again to find you. True north, by which I orientate my life. And praise returns.

The Man who ‘fathered’ Jesus. 25-12-2019

The Man who ‘fathered’ Jesus.  

Matthew 1: 18 – 25; Luke 2: 1 – 7;

A distinction can be made between the one who fathered a child and the one who did the ‘fathering’. In the first instance the man is the originator of the child and has paternity. In the second the man has provided for, protected and raised the child.  So we can speak of the Church Fathers or a scout leader having a fathering role. (This distinction is simplistic but makes the point.)

Now I don’t know if you are like me, but I have tended to skip over Joseph the Carpenter, the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus.  It’s easy to do this as Christmas is about Jesus and of course Mary.  Mary and Jesus are centre stage and Joseph stands in the background. And Mary pops up every now and again in the ministry of Jesus and she is there at the Crucifixion of Jesus. Joseph isn’t mentioned and we assume he had died. Most probably that is the case.

I was listening to a pod-cast on the readings for Advent given by my daughter Robyn, lecturer in NT at the UCA theological college, and her colleague Fran.  In their conversation they spoke affirmatively about Joseph. This Christmas day I want to share with you some interesting insights into Joseph. 

We start with the cultural context of Jesus’ times and recognise how important it was for a mother and child to have a father. Single parenting was not something accepted in those days. A woman without the protection of a family, a father or a husband was extremely vulnerable.  Joseph was important to the well-being of Jesus.  But there is more. Well not much more.  Joseph is mentioned in passing in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus [Lk 1:27; 2: 1-7]. He is simply there doing his duty as the father.  Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is clearly through the lens of Mary, the mother of Jesus.   In Matthew’s account  [Mt 1: 18-25] we are presented with a view of Jesus’ birth through the eyes of Joseph. We are told that Joseph was betrothed to Mary, had not had sexual relations with her, was a righteous man and sensitive; he planned to divorce Mary but changed his mind and married her.

Joseph and Mary were betrothed.  Our English translations simply tell us they were engaged by which we understand they had made a commitment to each other.  However under the Jewish Law male and female could be engaged to be married simply by the decision of the parents making that arrangement in early childhood. The women coming of age had the freedom to accept that or not. Then they became betrothed. Betrothal lasted one year. This was a legal state and they were regarded as man and wife but they did not to live together. Once betrothed a couple were to marry unless death or divorce stopped the marriage. The divorce procedure largely lay in the hands of the male.  So Joseph under the law could divorce his betrothed. If Mary was pregnant and the child was not his he had every right to divorce her publicly and she could have been stoned to death on the grounds of adultery.

Joseph was a righteous man. He new the Law, but righteousness in Scripture is not simply about following rules. Righteousness is also about relationships:  the relationship we have with God and the relationship we have with each other and the people in need. People who merely follow the Law may be correct in doing so, but their actions can be both hurtful and harmful to others.

Joseph is a sensitive man.  By sensitive I mean that Joseph was a person who was considerate, kind-hearted, understanding and sympathetic.  He did not want to publically divorce Mary. That would have put her in a very dangerous position so he determined to divorce her quietly. Again our English translations do not do justice to Matthew’s Greek word, lathra, which means secretly. Secretly is stronger than ‘quietly’ or ‘privately’.  Joseph loved Mary and did not wish her harm. He was going to follow the Law but follow the Law with mercy, observing the essence of the Law.  That is the intent of the Law, which is founded on the two great commandments to love God and love our neighbour.

Yes, Joseph planned to follow the Law. Yes, the right thing to do was to divorce her.  He was legally bound to Mary and the proper way out of this relationship was divorce, but he would divorce her with mercy.

Here is a sensitive man. Here is a big man. He hasn’t retreated in pettiness, legalism and self-righteous vindictiveness, like small people do.  This man saw the bigger picture. Yes, he saw what was right for himself, but he saw that his betrothed also needed protection and care. His planned method of divorce showed the bigness of the man and the sensitive wisdom of the man.

Let’s pause here for a moment. God had chosen Joseph and Mary to nurture Jesus and raise him up in the Law of God.  Anyone raised and nurtured by a father like Joseph would be fortunate. S/he would have a father who understood the legality of law and the essence of the law.  Here was a wise parent and surely his children would benefit from such a parent?

Joseph is a righteous man and righteousness is not simply about doing things justly but doing justice with mercy. The prophet Micah said,  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? “ [Micah 6:8]  Joseph understood that the essence of the Law of God is about goodness for all. He understood that God was a merciful God and a just God, but mercy was at the very heart of God. Joseph interpreted the letter of the Law with mercy.

Jospeh was open to change. So Joseph having determined with consideration what to do goes to bed that night and he has a dream. Matthew tells us that Joseph had a dream in which an angel said to him; 

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” [Mt 1:20,21]  We can only imagine the wrestling that Joseph had gone through to reach this point. We can only imagine Joseph wrestling with his heart and head about what to do.  He is a prayerful person. Everything about him speaks of a person close to God and with some understanding of the essence of God’s being.  He had an understanding of God’s Law and an understanding of God’s heart.

Joseph is not only a righteous man, wise and compassionate, he is also a mature person.  He has come to that place in his life where he loves God, loves others and loves himself. He is comfortable with who he is. Our loving God includes others and ourselves. We love ourselves when we let God’s love form us. The practical side of accepting God’s love is when we accept the fact that God deems us to be worth loving.  My self-worth has more to do with the fact that God loves me than anything else.  The acceptance of God’s love for us makes us strong and secure.  Joseph was strong and secure because he loved and was loved by God. Joseph did need to defend his dignity.  All he had to do was the right thing by God.  Now God told him to marry Mary and that he did.  All we know is that Joseph and Mary had two fine sons – very fine sons.  One was Jesus whose life revealed God and the other; we know of, is James an early leader of the Jerusalem Church. 

 I wonder what it was like to have a husband like Joseph who understood something of the mystery of Mary’s pregnancy?  I wonder what Mary felt when Joseph decided to marry her?

I wonder what it was like to have Joseph as a father?

I wonder how much Jesus might have learnt from his earthly father?

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  25/12/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Freed by Vulnerable Love 22-12-2019

Freed by Vulnerable Love.   Advent 4  

Isaiah 7: 10 – 16; Romans 1: 1 – 7; Matthew 1: 18 – 25

God rescues by making us stronger: that’s love.

Our readings are about a miraculous birth and a baby boy who is a sign of God’s presence. The big problem here is not the miraculous birth; it is the notion that the sign of God’s presence is a baby.  Yes, a baby!  A baby is dependent and vulnerable. Babies consume time and resources. Yes, a baby gives us joy.  Yes, a baby may speak to us of hope and promise, but it is a baby.  But do we get it that a baby is a sign of God’s presence? I mean, couldn’t God come into our midst and do something spectacular? When we’re down, feeling helpless and hopeless don’t we want God to do something amazing?  We would like to be rescued.  We want God to change things. But what the prophet says is that this child is a sign of God’s presence. Don’t be ensnared by the ‘virgin birth’ thing. It’s not the problem.  The problem for us is recognising how God works in the world.  And in the first instance I am going to suggest to you that God doesn’t come and snatch us out of trouble, but comes along side us in a way that we become strong.

Let’s look at our texts. The Isaiah reading contains that well-known prophecy, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel [Is 7: 14].  The Hebrew word, almah, does not mean a virgin, but a young woman who could be a virgin. The prophet Joel uses the term almah to describe a young widow who is childless [Joel 1: 8]. Matthew misquotes Isaiah 7: 14 assuming Isaiah meant a virgin.  Isaiah’s prophecy is saying to a besieged King Ahaz that the threat to the Judean kingdom will be over before the child is weaned. That is, the threat of the two kings hanging over Ahaz and the Judean kingdom will have dissipated within 4 years or so. A child in those days was usually weaned by the age of four. 

The prophecy has these key components. Firstly, do not fear because these enemies of Judea will be defeated.  Secondly, God is with you.  Thirdly the sign of God’s gracious presence is a baby.  Isaiah says; the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  The sign is a baby boy.  Here lies the puzzle.  Notice that God will not be present in some awesome overwhelming presence and action that will render us dependent upon God. Rather it suggests that things will work out and God will work with us in bringing about God’s vision for us. The rider to this is that God works with us gently and through human action.   Because of God’s approach there is vulnerability, and this vulnerability reveals God’s love for us. 

The Christmas story is pregnant with this meaning. God’s self-disclosure in our history is clothed in humility and vulnerability.  There is nothing more vulnerable than a human baby. Both Luke and Matthew in their presentation of Jesus’ birth portray the vulnerability and humility of Jesus. The baby is vulnerable and needs the protection and nurture of father and mother. The baby’s surroundings are humble rather than palatial. Therefore ‘God-being-with-us,’ means that God is with the people, not merely the powerful. The scenes of shepherds and wise men tell us that this baby Jesus attracts the full spectrum of society. 

Reflecting on this image of the Christ-child in a manger we are confronted with the question of what we do with God who comes not as the dominant ruler of the world, not as One whose very words leave us speechless, not as the mighty Creator who controls, but as the One who meets us with humility and vulnerability. The humility is self-evident as is the vulnerability. God allows God’s self to be rejected.  The wonderful thing in God meeting us like this is that this is the best way to set us free.  This is the best way to make us strong. 

It is no surprise that we find in Scripture Jesus speaking of coming to give himself for our freedom [Mk 10:28]; taking up a towel and basin and washing his disciples feet [Jn 13: 1f]; showing compassion for the hungry crowds [Mt 14:13-21; Mk 6:31-44; Lk 9:12-17; Jn 6:1-14] and facing his betrayers and executioners with compassionate integrity [Mt 26:63f].   It is no wonder then that the followers of Jesus could compose such beautiful word pictures of Jesus of Nazareth. John writes; And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. [Jn 1: 14]

Paul includes the following creedal hymn in his letter to the Philippian church [2:5-8]. 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.  

I have witnessed many things God has done in my life both personally and in the lives I serve. Just two incidents help me see God working in those quiet ways with us making us stronger. May I share two personal experiences? I hope they may encourage you.

Last Sunday many things were running through my head when I entered our worship space. I stood at the lectern and welcomed you. I looked down at the Order of Service to see what was next. My mind was still settling down. So much had gone before. I saw it was time for the first prayer and my mind was blank. I occasionally write out my prayers but always come having prepared some thoughts. But last Sunday my mind was just blank. You know when one speaks to others it is usual to have some thoughts in your mind even if those thoughts come milli-seconds before speaking. I had nothing. I just opened my mouth and the words came out. The first half of that prayer was given to me. The words were not mine. In the second half God let me do some work and I worked together with God the Holy Spirit. By that I mean I was thinking and acting. Somewhere in that first half of the prayer I thought, ‘this is a jolly good prayer’.   I checked with Gillian and she thought so too. It was good, but it wasn’t mine. I thank God for helping me and hopefully blessing you at the same time. God is with us.

Last Saturday my yacht club and the club next door at Albert Park Lake had a combined Christmassy dinner.  Some of us are working hard at amalgamating the two clubs. During the evening we had a raffle. We had bought a few tickets. One of ours was pulled out to the delight of Gillian. Off she went to choose from the table of prizes. As she walked up one of my yachting mates who was organising the draw of the tickets commented something about ‘here comes the minister’s wife’.  Now Gillian had spied someone in the crowd she said she had met. She had pointed out Steve, a sailor from the other club whom I knew well.  She kept saying to me, ‘where have I met him?’  She had added that he had a beautiful tenor voice. But I had no idea how she had met him. 

Well, as she was moving back with our basket of goods Steve intercepted her.  It turned out that Steven came to the Parkinson’s group Gillian served. I had forgotten that Steven has the early onset of Parkinson’s. Later Steve came over to our table and sat down and chatted to Gillian. I happened to be in the middle. I sat in silence as the two of them remarked on the lovely coincidence of their meeting at Parkinson’s where Gillian plays and leads a small group of musos, one of which is our Geoff.  I sensed the beauty of this meeting, the joy of singing and Steve’s honesty and humility in acknowledging his condition and his thankfulness for the singing. I felt it was God’s gift to me watching these two lovely people sharing in the gift of music and the joy it brings to us.  God is with us, even in surprising and unexpected places.

God is with us.  God was with us in the miraculous birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah.  God was with us when baby Moses was placed in the shallows of the Nile River where a princess was bathing. God was with us in that miraculous birth of Samuel, the great prophet-leader, to the supposedly barren Hannah.  God was with us in the child in the manger in Bethlehem.  God was with us in the grown child at the first Easter. Let us not forget that God is with us and for us in surprising places.   I have shared with you before that a useful concept for God, is that God suffers with us and for us.  God is with us in ways that will surprise us. Those ways point to the powerful love of God that is vulnerable to our rejection. God’s vulnerable love also empowers us. I hope that you will continue to capture glimpses of God-with-us in your daily life and over this Christmas time.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  22/12/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

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The Surest Mark of the Christian is Joy 15-12-2019

The Surest Mark of the Christian is Joy.   Advent 3

Isaiah 35: 1 – 10;  Luke 1: 46b – 55; Matthew 11: 2 – 11

Joy is the serious business of heaven. (C.S.Lewis)

The announcement of a pregnancy usually brings great excitement and happiness. That’s goodnews. The goodnews of a birth morphs into joy.  The joy lasts longer than the happiness. Any announcement of good news engenders a measure of joy whether a planned holiday, a long dreamed of destination, or the announcement of new medical treatment that will help.  Our spirits are lifted, we gain new energy and our hopefulness is restored.  Arising from within us there is joy that lasts longer than a happy feeling.

Let us see how this common experience helps us understand today’s readings.

Our first reading is the prophetic-poem of Isaiah 35.  The prophet sets forth the promise of God in poetry. An expansive view is expressed of a desert flowering, danger removed, well-being restored and a return to the temple of God. The latter means that their relationship with God is restored.  Isaiah’s prophetic-poem spoke to the people’s deep longing for the security of their nation, justice and God’s blessing.  The prophet is conscious of his people’s long history of God’s guidance, protection and blessing. Their history with God goes back to the time of Abraham’s and Sarah’s call to leave home and become a family and a people for God.  God had brought them through many trials and tribulations and now they were a nation. God had rescued that nation from slavery in Egypt using Moses and Miriam. We call that me momentous historical event ‘The Exodus’.  Isaiah speaks to his people through this prophetic-poem encouraging them to trust God for their future, because the people were dispirited and lived in a time of much injustice and political uncertainty. 

Here lies the first and enduring message of our readings.  It is a message that fills us with a hope that the God who has brought us to this point in our lives will be with us in the future. That hope nurtures our hope and the seeds of joy are sown.  I believe this is true for us today at Leighmoor when three key people move on:  Gillian, Joy and myself. Already I am seeing signs amongst both current and new members in the church of folk who are willing to take up the reins so to speak.  God is acting amongst us.

In the second reading from Luke Mary speaks with joy and wonder of her unnerving task as the mother of the Lord’s anointed – a saviour who will bring in God’s Kingdom.  Can we begin to imagine what she felt?  A young woman engaged to be married is pregnant in a war torn land oppressed by an arrogant conqueror. She has a spiritual visitation announcing she is pregnant with God’s child.  This story is told to us in a few short sentences.  We cannot really imagine her initial fear and bewilderment. Neither can we imagine the mechanics of her pregnancy. They are irrelevant really. We cannot imagine her courage in carrying out God’s commission. We cannot imagine her thankfulness that her fiancé will stand by her. We cannot imagine her growing joy and the awesome privilege of being entrusted with mothering God’s anointed. The mothers hearing this can imagine some of her feelings. Luke gives to us a poetic account of her joy, wonderment and prodigious responsibility.

Again we see that God is acting, but in a way that only a few can see. That’s right only few knew what was going on – Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Anna, those humble shepherds and those learned men from the East: a small group of disparate people. Yes in all this God was acting and only a few could see!

We also see that their hope and joy was related to the political situation, which they believed God would address with a new order. Today we have twisted the Faith so that it only relates to our personal lives and not our political.  I think we make a grave mistake in so doing. Right now God might be more active in the actions of those involved in addressing our world’s most pressing needs of climate change and homeless millions than our personal lives. I suggest when you think of God’s future be aware that God’s future and blessing for us includes our political life. That is, how we organise our society and practice justice in the community.  

Our Matthew reading jumps some 30 years to Jesus with John the Baptist in prison. John the Baptist’s ministry led to a number of his disciples becoming Jesus’ disciples. But what was happening to John? His ministry had been successful. At least many people came to him for baptism. The expectation of a Messiah soon to come would have excited the people with hopeful expectation. Yet we can sense the doubt rising in John when he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the Messiah, the Christ. That would not be surprising.  John’s despair and sense of failure is understandable. Uncertain, alone and imprisoned it seems that all was lost.  Jesus sends an enigmatic reply:

Go and tell John what you hear and see:  5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”[Mt 11: 4-6] 

Jesus was going about healing and teaching – yes impressive stuff but it was not bringing down the Roman rule. In fact, Jesus didn’t seem overly concerned about the Romans.

John found it hard to see that Jesus was the one that he, John, had imagined. There lies the issue. We often imagine God’s future using our preconceived notions of what God’s future might look like.  But God’s future is beyond our complete grasp. We can only imagine, in part. If John had lived on beyond the Crucifixion and to the Resurrection of Jesus, he would have gone through greater doubts and possibly utter despair, before recognising God’s emerging world-wide plan of salvation. 

God is at work in surprising places, changing lives, building hope and addressing the needy.

So we need to look and discern: watch and wait expectantly. That crazy Greta Thunberg and the school children who have protested about the lack of response to climate change by our government may be part of God’s work to rescue this planet from our insane greed. Their concern for this world – God’s creation – gives me hope and nurtures my joy. Likewise the present state of the Church in the Western world may be just a long hard spiritual winter before a renewing spring flourishes.  It maybe that God is preparing us for a new and exciting life. 

There are three lessons for us in these texts: 1) the future belongs to God and the vision of God’s future will be woven into our lives.  2) God is acting through the lives of a few faithful people to bless this world as God did with Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph, the Shepherds and Wise Men.  3) God is acting in surprising ways often in direct contrast to what we imagine. This is possible true of John who could have been expecting a revolution but instead it was a small movement that took centuries to gather momentum.

In all this there is joy. Samuel Gordon said, “Joy is distinctly a Christian word and a Christian thing.  It is the reverse of happiness. Happiness is the result of what happens of an agreeable sort. Joy has its springs deep down inside, and that spring never runs dry, no matter what happens. Only Jesus gives that joy. He had joy, singing its music within, even under the shadow of the cross. It is an unknown word and thing except as He has sway within.” 

Joy is a by-product of a loving relationship. It always is, and deep joy arises out of that profound relationship we have with God through Christ Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  It’s because the relationship with God reminds us that our lives begin and end in God. What happens in between is of no greater consequence than our resting in the love of God.

What can we do? Live faithful lives, look for the surprising and embrace it with discernment and love one another.  Here is a delightful tale that I hope will encourage you for it contains the germ of God’s vision for us.

There is a story about two young people who were very much in love. Christmas Eve was coming and they wanted to give presents to each other. But they were very poor and had no money for presents; so each one, without telling the other, decided to sell his or her most precious possession. The girl’s most precious possession was her long blond hair and she went to a hairdresser and had it cut off. She sold it and bought a lovely watch chain for her lover’s watch. He, meanwhile, had gone to the jeweller and sold his watch to buy two beautiful combs for his beloved’s hair. They exchanged their gifts. There were tears at first and then laughter. There was no hair for the combs and no watch for the watch chain. But there was something more precious and that was their self-sacrificing love for each other. [Quotes & Anecdotes p. 284]

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  15/12/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The Absurdity of Peace 08-12-2019

The Absurdity of Peace   Advent 2

Isaiah 11: 1 – 5;  Romans 13: 11 – 14; Matthew 24: 36 – 44

Peace is a by-product of love and love is a by-product of God.

We lit the Peace Candle today. Peace is the theme for this 2nd Sunday in Advent. There is something absurd about the notion of true and lasting peace in this world so torn apart by violence. Our world faces many uncertainties: family violence, white collar corruption, politicians involved in ethical compromises, entrenched conservatism, fear of refugees, the share market not performing very well, wages stagnating while the top end of town continues to rake in large salaries, there’s fires, the potential dangers of global warming with increased heat and bushfires and our Pacific Island communities facing rising seas. Then we have our personal issues.  Peace, what a laugh! Where’s there peace?  Do our texts have anything to say to us?  I believe they have much to say.

The prophet Isaiah provides us with a beautiful poetic view of his understanding of God’s vision of peace.  The images of the wolf lying down with the lamb, the cow and bear grazing together and the lion eating straw with the ox portray an absurd picture of peace. In painting such a word picture the prophet Isaiah points us upwards above the mayhem of the injustice and violence. Those ancients faced an uncertain world just as we so do today! 

The context of Isaiah’s prophetic vision is the political manoeuvrings of Judah’s king, King Ahaz. King Ahaz had made an alliance with the Assyrian king which led to heavy taxation of the Jewish people, corruption of temple worship and widespread injustice. 

Isaiah responds to the political uncertainty and social injustice with this ‘poem’: – 

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,

and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

… of counsel and might, …  of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. [Is 11:1,2]

The prophetic word states that God will not raise just a new king, but a king that comes from the original source, the stump of Jesse.  Jesse was the father of the great king David.  However the new king will not come through the natural Davidic family lineage. Rather the king will come from the very source of Jesse – the stump:  a new shoot and a new branch.   This will be something entirely new.  It is not strange to read that the Gospel writers and Paul understood this new shoot to be Christ as we see in Mt 1:5; Luke 3:32; Acts 13: 22 and Romans 15: 12.  The significance of this prophetic poem on peace is that Isaiah sees God going back to the beginning – the source Jesse. Here lies our first absurdity. Instead of the Davidic line following natural birth through natural parentage we go back to the very source of the Davidic line, which in human terms is impossible.  

The next absurdity is the scene of peace – the wolf lying with the lamb, ox and lion eating together, bear and cow grazing and the child playing with a poisonous snake. In this poem a child will lead and the weaned child will place his hand on the adder’s head. Let me point out some absurdities. The notion of a lion eating straw and a bear grazing in the paddock is absurd because those animals have a different anatomical system of processing food.  The absurdity is deliberate and not meant to be taken literally. It is not a scene of a futuristic ecology that will save the earth.  The point of this prophetic poem is that peace will only come as a result of returning to the very source of kingly rule.  The subliminal message is that we will only find peace when we submit to the rule of the ultimate source of life and kingship – God’s anointed.  We Christians take that to be Christ Jesus. We see Jesus as the true Messiah, the Christ, who comes from the source of all things – from the very stump of the living tree – God.  Jesus is God with us.

Isaiah tells us that the Spirit of the Lord rests on the one who comes from the stump of Jesse. This anointed king will rule not by his natural senses but with righteousness.  This anointed one of God wears a belt of righteousness.  As much as a belt holds our clothing together so a belt of righteousness holds our character together.  What is righteousness?  We might automatically think of righteousness as moral and ethical correctness, but in the Bible it refers to a right relationship with God.  That is why John the Baptist called people to a baptism of repentance. That is, a turning away from the things of this world and turning to face God. That is why Paul in Romans 1:16-18 says that all who believe and trust in God will be saved and enter God’s righteousness. Righteousness has more to do with a state of being than moral correctness. This notion that peace begins with a relationship is implicit in our Romans 15 reading.

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul adds some very practical things for us to attend to.

  • Be welcoming of each other for the sake of Christ 
  • Include those who are very different. For the Jews it was the Gentiles. 
  • Live with hope because hope will fill you with joy and peace.

This is how I see the Christian life. Our readings today confirm that view. The Christian is one who turns to God trusting in Christ Jesus. A Christian maintains the relationship with God through faith.  The Holy Spirit nurtures the Christian in the love of God. The Christian shows her/his love for God through worship, thankfulness, faithfulness and love of others. 

Christ Jesus gave us two commands. The first was to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. He went on to say to his disciples that they must love one another as he loved them.  We have three commands to love.  Love God:  we do this through our praise and worship. Love our neighbour as we love ourselves and we do this by wanting fairness and equity for all remembering that our neighbour is anyone in need even the stranger and enemy.  Finally Jesus asked us to love each other – our fellow Christians – with a self-giving, self-sacrificing love just as he loved us.

That is the Christian life. When we start living the Christian life something profound takes place – we have peace.  It is the peace that arises out of our loving relationship with God. God’s love for us in Christ Jesus changes our lives and leads us to a radically different world. The world imagined by Isaiah in the poetic imagery of the wolf lying down with the lamb and the beating of swords into plough shares.  

Nothing will change unless we become lovers of God. Nothing will change our fear and prejudice unless we radically love God, and self, and are set free to love others.  Nothing will change the injustice unless we radically love our neighbours beyond our neighbourhood and national borders.  It is the radical love born of a righteous relationship with God that will bring peace to all beginning with us. Remember that Biblical peace is shalom  – wholeness. Peace is not the absence of war but the fullness of a just and fair life for all.

But another equally profound thing takes place as our Christian faith grows.  We become signposts to Christ Jesus. The life lived in faithful, loving and humble obedience to Christ cannot but point beyond itself to Christ Jesus and what God intends for this world.

I will end this sermon with a quote from one of John Wallace’s – a member in our church – published poems in ‘John’s Rhymes & Reasons’.

You can take it from me.

There are no desert islands, you see

And you can take this word from me

This whole world is made up of people

But you can’t see that from your steeple.

It ends 

The Bible tells of a time when us fools

Turn our weapons into gardening tools

I’m truly looking forward to this time

And I think it will be really sublime.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  08/12/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org