The First Easter Morning 21-04-2019

The First Easter Morning

Luke 24: 1 – 12;  Acts 10: 34 – 43; 1 Corinthians 15: 19 -29

Reflection 1. Luke 24: 1 – 12

With a few strokes of the pen Luke tells us all we need to know about that first day of the week – the women go to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body, the stone is rolled away and there is no body. On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body [24:1-3].

If you read the accounts of that first Easter morning according to Matthew, Mark and John you will find differences. One can dwell on the differences but what is consistent in all the accounts is that women go to the tomb, they find the stone rolled away, there is no body to be seen and Mary Magdalene is mentioned as one of the first women to see the empty tomb in each account of the Gospel.  Then Peter is the first male to witness the empty tomb although in John’s account of the Gospel John gets there first.  That’s the consistent picture – women first, stone rolled away, no body, with Mary Magdalene and Peter named in every account. 

What do we make of this?  Firstly, let us clarify that the women came to dress the body of Jesus with spices on the 3rd day after the Crucifixion because there was no time after the crucifixion. The body of Jesus had been hastily placed in the tomb in the late afternoon of that Friday. The next day, which began at 7 p.m. on the evening of Friday, was the Sabbath and nothing could be done. So they came to do their duty and do the right thing with Jesus’ corpse at dawn on the third day.  That is our Sunday. Mary Magdalene seems to be the leader in that activity. The second thing I noticed is that it is a very busy morning. There are lots of people involved. It seems that a number of women were involved such as Joanna, Salome, Mary mother of James and others. Then we have the disciples. Certainly the 11were there and were the first males to hear that the tomb was empty.  I suspect there were others like Mark, the writer of the Gospel according to Mark, and some others.  That suggests to me we have too many witnesses first up to develop a conspiracy about the resurrection of Jesus.

Thirdly the morning is filled with wide ranging emotions. Grief and sadness would have hung heavily in the air with the women on the way to the tomb and the men gathering together. This is followed by amazement, surprise and fear.  The stone rolled away and the empty tomb would have evoked surprise and fear.  The news that the women bring is met with doubt and denial. Their experience of angels or strange men telling them that Jesus had risen would have sounded bizarre at first. Luke possibly gets it right when he writes; but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened [24:11&12]. That first Easter morning began with grief and sadness and ended with surprise and wonderment.

Today, how do we find ourselves? Are we still at that first Easter morning stage of surprise, uncertainty, disbelief and desperately hoping it is true? Or do we live by the truth of the resurrection?

Reflection 2.   Acts 10: 34 – 43

Time passes – how many months are uncertain – and another revolutionary event takes place. The revolution is not of the same magnitude as the Resurrection, but it is another big U-turn. The disciples – men and women – had experienced a number of resurrection appearances. There were many of them. Paul says that Jesus appeared to about 500 at one time [1 Cor 15:6]. Then there was the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon them and blessed them.  The followers of Jesus had no doubt that God had raised Jesus from the dead and that God had blessed them with the power of the Holy Spirit. But they were all Jews. The movement remained essentially Jewish.  The Law of Judaism was still followed. Then Peter had a vision in Joppa about eating unclean things. He was disturbed by the vision. Then Peter received an invitation to go and preach to a gentile family: the home of a Roman military officer. He does and he preaches the Gospel.  This preaching gives us the content of Gospel. Let us hear it and notice how Peter begins. 

The reading of Acts 10: 

Peter has briefly recounted the story of Jesus beginning with the baptism by John through to the Resurrection. Peter tells the Roman Officer, Cornelius, that the resurrection was witnessed by Jesus’ followers, that they had eaten with him and that the prophets of old had pointed to Jesus. The punch line is that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name [Acts 10:43]. The revolutionary event is that here is a Jew in a Gentile’s house preaching to the Gentile’s household and while Peter is preaching the Holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his household just as the Spirit had come upon the disciples at Pentecost.  From that day on the followers of Jesus knew that God was receiving Gentiles just the same way as God was receiving the Jewish followers. The Gospel of Jesus is for the world.  

We just take it all for granted today. We gather in our comfortable place and often take God’s forgiveness and the Spirit for granted.  What would happen if we really sort the forgiveness of God and the Holy Spirit’s full blessing?

Reflection 3.  1 Corinthians 15: 19 – 29

In each reading the Resurrection comes to the fore. Paul writing to the Corinthian church makes it quite clear how important the resurrection is. The Resurrection is ‘not just for this present life’ [15:19]. Paul paints this big picture that once Christ Jesus has destroyed evil and the power of death then the correct order will be restored. This means there is an ongoing battle against evil continuing. Using the metaphor of war there is a point in time of every war when the war has been won and what follows are a series of mopping up battles. What we understand is that Jesus defeated evil once and for all, but we are involved as Christ’s agents in completing that task.

 Paul wanted the Corinthian Christians to understand that following Christ is not about this life only, but being part of God’s universal plan to bring all things under God’s loving control. Being a Christian means we are part of a big movement against evil. However in that process God equips by developing our Christian character and empowering us with gifts.  That is what the study group has been looking at. So when we talk about God blessing us – and God does – it doesn’t mean that God has blessed us just for our own sake God blesses us to be a blessing to others.  So we experience God’s help in our personal lives, but that is not where it ends. As we are blessed we also grow. As we grow our ministry becomes more effective. As we learn to love our love becomes more of a blessing to others. That is why we have these commands to love one another; to love our neighbour; and, to witness to the work of Christ Jesus.  Christianity is not about me personally but me being part of the people of God. If I am not part of the people of God then I am not part of Jesus the Christ, or at best I am an immature Christian needing to grow. 

We have a future that goes way beyond our death. Our earthly death is merely the beginning of a new relationship with God and an entering in the purposes of God more fully.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  21/04/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Politics Influence Judgement: Good Friday 19-04-2019

Politics Influence Judgement: Good Friday

John 18: 28 – 19: 20

John’s Gospel provides a lively account of the trial of Jesus. It reveals the enormity of evil and the splendour of love.  It reflects the complexity of truth telling and the dark art of compromise. 

Today’s sermon is more like a re-telling of John 18: 26 through to 19: 42, which is set in the Common Lectionary for today. I will add commentary and be political. So let’s go.

We pick up John’s account of the Gospel of Jesus just after Jesus was the arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had been betrayed by one of the twelve disciples, Judas.  The night is dark, soldiers boisterous and the atmosphere poisoned with betrayal and fear.  Jesus is taken to the Jewish court – the Sanhedrin. It was made up of priests, Pharisees and Sadducees. We know for certain Peter followed and gathered with the guards and spectators in the courtyard. There Peter denied knowing Jesus three times before the first morning cock crow. Betrayal and fear were joined by denial, but at least Peter was there. The others had run off.

The Jewish court questioned Jesus about his work. Jesus pointed out that his ministry has been an open book. There was nothing done in secret. Many could tell them what he had done. Jesus is slapped about the face and sent off to Caiaphas. Jesus provided no incriminating responses for there were none to make. Caiaphas then took Jesus to the house of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.  But Caiaphas and company would not enter the Governor’s residence. The Jewish rules stated that for a Jew to enter a Gentile residence would render them ritually unclean and unable to worship for 24 hours or so. They wanted to celebrate the Passover that evening. How contradictory? How untruthful?  The Jewish authorities want to honour God and do the religiously correct thing, but they were happy to eliminate a perceived enemy of their religion collaborating with the unclean Gentile, who incidentally was their sworn enemy.

Pilate goes out to them because Rome had made compromises with the Jews. They were the only group within the Roman Empire who had won religious independence. Some small compromises were made with them to keep the peace. The Jews had proved to be very troublesome. In fact they were the most troublesome ethnic-religious group in the whole empire.

The ensuing conversations between Pilate and the Jewish leaders and Pilate and Jesus revealed the Jewish leaders’ real intent, and the innocence of Jesus. The Jewish leadership wanted the Roman administration to execute Jesus, so that the people wouldn’t blame them or defile the religious practices. Jerusalem was a political boiling pot. The Jews had never become Roman citizens. The religious leaders had made compromising arrangements with the Roman occupiers. The population at large expected God to rescue them. Part of the population wanted to bring that about sooner. It is not surprising that some 38 years later the Jews effectively chased the Romans out of Jerusalem.  The Romans regained the city after two years of fighting and destroyed the temple in AD 70. Not surprisingly Pilate spoke to Jesus about whether he was a king. Evidently the Jewish leadership must have spoken about Jesus claiming to be a king.  Jesus’s response to Pilate made certain things clear. Firstly, he would not talk about himself as king as others do.  Secondly, his kingship comes from God; otherwise his followers would have defended him using the world’s methods of violence. Thirdly, Jesus said that he had come to ‘give evidence about the truth’. 

Two issues stand out – kingship and truth. Pilate’s response was that Jesus did not present a problem. The Jewish leaders had other ideas. They threatened Pilate by saying that if he did not execute Jesus they would tell the Emperor that Pilate had refused to punish a man who claimed to be king.  Such a claim was treasonable and punishable by death. 

The truth is twisted through these compromises and manipulations that political power held onto. To retain power each party played the game of compromise using half-truths. The religious leaders wanted to retain power. Pilate wanted to ensure his position of power as Governor. Rome and the Jewish leaders made their little compromises too.  Jesus is the supposed pawn in this dark game of holding onto political power using untruth, fear and compromise.  However Jesus was there by choice, confronting this evil with truth and love, because he not only spoke the truth but also was the truth. And he did it for love’s sake. Jesus was there because he knew that perfect love alone could destroy this evil.   Jesus is absolutely right that his kingdom is of heaven: that is, Jesus is the king of God’s Kingdom.  In this scene we see not only the darkness of human desire for power and human willingness to tell half-truths and compromise but the struggle between two fundamental ways of being: God’s way and fallen humanity’s way.  Jesus represents God’s way and Caiaphas and Pilate represent the way of the world.

Jesus did not die because of some spiritual truth contained in the notion of personal forgiveness of sins. Jesus died to destroy by love the fundamental flaw in humanity where power is held onto at all costs and where fear and love of power drive our actions.

Jesus’ death was brought about by untruth, compromise and the desire to retain power. Throughout we see compromise of standards creating political arm-twisting. This whole exercise lacks any sense of truthfulness.

Jesus was a threat to the Jewish leaders. He was popular. Some people thought he was the Messiah sent to free the Jews from Roman rule. That was troubling in itself. But there were other things even more troubling. Jesus had threatened the Temple organisation. His teaching and practice strongly implied that the people did not need the Temple. Jesus’ teaching threatened the power and control of the Jewish leadership. His teaching undermined the sacrificial system.

Let’s unpack this a little more. If Jesus took people away from the Temple system the economy of the Temple and Jerusalem would suffer. There were so many animals sacrificed and so many people involved in the Temple sacrificial system that many people would be out of jobs. Now you know how important jobs are, don’t you? Jobs are everything! Well, that is true. But do we need to retain jobs just for the sake of jobs regardless of the cost to the wider benefit of society and the nation? The Jewish leaders couldn’t see beyond their own needs and desire for power, so they didn’t even see the issue.  

Now we are reading this Scripture in the context of our own political context of an election.  Do you see some parallels?  Think of the leadership issues and the unquestionable desire for power.  Think of the political parties and their desire to rule or play an increased influential role in the political arena. Do you not see the desire for power, the use of the half-truth, promises made on projections of future incomes rather than a firm budget, and compromises made to ensure that our party would benefit and be in power?  Must we have jobs regardless of the cost of those jobs to the future and the environment?  I can see how at the local level the Adani coal mine will benefit business during the start up period with much work provided, but once established the highly automated mine will require far less workers and there is the cost to the environment and our children’s future to consider. I can see how the Jewish leaders could see that Jesus’ teaching would dramatically change the economy of the temple, but at what cost would this be? Well we know. The Jews lost city and temple. We have the benefit of hindsight. 

Politics is the art of the possible they say and compromise and half-truths are the tools.  No wonder Pilate asked to Jesus who said he had come ‘to give evidence about the truth’, “What’s truth?”  Exactly, what is truth when our political system is played using fear, half-truth and compromise? We’ve dealt with half-truths about climate change. We are currently presented with ‘we’ll make health care more affordable’, ‘more jobs’, lower taxes and the ‘economy is better than before’. The world economy is growing very slowly and the Australian economy is not too badly off, but we need stronger growth to be able to provide more jobs and pay for an improved health system and lower taxes. None of the main parties are offering us a better country if we vote for them, just we will be better off as individuals. To be honest not all will be better off and we should be mindful of the weak for they need as much care if not more than the strong.

Jesus was killed because of the desire for power and the use of untruth, fear and compromise. Jesus the Truth confronted the untruth and overcame it through the sacrifice of his life, because he knew that only the Truth expressed in love would save the world. The Cross of Christ is not about personal salvation but about the salvation of the world – this world – and the establishment of God’s Kingdom.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  19/04/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The surest way up is by stepping down 14-04-2019

The surest way up is by stepping down.

Isaiah 50:  4 – 9a;  Philippians 1: 27 – 2: 11

The surest way up is by stepping down seems contradictory.  In this day and age when ‘my rights’ and ‘me first’ dominates the social and business landscape it collides with our culture. Jesus of Nazareth taught us the value and usefulness of humility.  Humility is not highly prized in our society today and we in the church struggle with it. It’s hard to believe humility opens doors and empowers! 

 

This Palm or Passion Sunday we will focus on the Philippian’s reading. The NT scholar Ralph P Martin says that Philippians 2: 6 – 11 “is the most important section in the letter and surely the most difficult to interpret. … Nevertheless, there is at least one thing that calls forth almost universal agreement. It … constitutes a signal example of a very early ‘hymn ‘of the Christian Church.” [Phil p. 99f] That’s right it is a hymn – a song of praise – from the very early days of Christian worship.

This ‘hymn’ is significant in what it says about Jesus. It is one of the earliest pieces of writing going back to possibly 10-15 years after the death of Jesus.  This hymn precedes the writing of the four Gospel accounts. Yes, it is earlier than those precious documents.  It is a piece of writing that contains some of the earliest theological statements about Jesus.  It is written in the form of a ‘hymn’ and therefore it is an example of early worship material, possibly recited or chanted. Its content tells us that from an early stage Jesus is seen as one with God and one who is above all of creation. 

Now this ‘hymn’-  Phil 2: 6-11 –  is important for two reasons.  Firstly it tells us that from a very early stage in the life of the Church they were worshipping Jesus. There have been some who have argued that the notion of Jesus as one with God – a divine person – is  a much later understanding.  This piece of Scripture flies in the face of that view. From the earliest times Jesus was seen as unique and one with the Creator God. That understanding is revolutionary as the Jewish people firmly believed in One God only. The first Christians were Jews and saw Jesus as the Messiah – the Christ. Jesus the Christ was inextricably one with God.

The second significant thing about this text is how Paul uses it to encourage humility.  Why did Paul value humility? There are many reasons.  The teaching of Jesus captured in the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that humility is a top-tier virtue. Jesus taught; ‘Blessings on the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.’  Yes, the meek – the humble – shall inherit the world.  Jesus was seen to be humble. In fact Philippians gives us a beautiful picture of Jesus’ humility.  [Phil 2:6-8]

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.

And Isaiah’s prophetic words about the ‘suffering servant’ echoes in the background.

The Lord GOD has opened my ear,  and I was not rebellious,

I did not turn backward.  I gave my back to those who struck me,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. [Is 50: 5,6]

Neither can we avoid John’s picture of Jesus in the Upper Room sharing a pre-Passover celebration where Jesus takes off his outer robe, takes up a towel and bowel of water, and washes the disciples’ feet [John 13: 4]. That too is a beautiful picture of Jesus’ humility. Jesus never came to lord it over us but to serve us. One can neither escape or overlook the humility of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

This ‘hymn’ that Paul uses to illustrate humility to the Philippians was known, otherwise why would he have quoted it a length.  He doesn’t quote it to teach about who Jesus is, but it is quoted to encourage the Philippian Christians to practise humility.   Paul writes to encourage the Christian community, living in a Roman city with many different religions and superstitions, to practise humility. The church in Philippi was small and threatened.  Paul wanted to build up the community and his main emphasis was on Philippian Christians continuing to build upon their faith in Christ Jesus, their fellowship in the Spirit, their kindness and compassion for one another and for a unity of love and mindfulness of each other. Paul said to them, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus [Phil 2: 2-5].  Paul could see that the fellowship of the Church was stronger and more effective when the church really looked after each other with a selfless love. Unity is not so much about believing the same things as showing love for one another. I know folk who come here for the first time speak well of our acceptance and friendship. The key to a strong fellowship is people who put others first.  It is that spirit of humility that enables us to love one another selflessly.

What is the power of humility? Before we look at humility’s power let us note what it is not.

 Humility is not about letting people push you around, nor letting people ‘walk all over you’. Humility is not constantly sacrificing your own interests, nor avoiding conflict for the sake of being nice.

Humility is more about emotional growth. Humility means that one does not have to put oneself above others. Humility means that everyone is your peer. Humility means you are neither the least important nor the most important person.

If we consider how humility works we may see why it is powerful.  Humility grants the humble person complete freedom from the desire to impress, to be right, or get ahead.  A humble life results in contentment, patience, forgiveness and compassion.  

The humble person:   

  • understands individual limitations.
  • appreciates others.
  • respects others and their opinions.
  • listens more and speaks less.
  • withholds judgement over intentions as much as possible.
  • helps and promotes others.

Reflect on these characteristics of a humble person and you will see a strange power in each of those steps.  Others begin to appreciate the humble for their respect, appreciation, empathy and help. As the humble give power to others the power is reciprocated.

Now do not be fooled. Being humble is not about seeking power. There is the story of the grandfather who said that he had been given a medal for his outstanding humility. But, he added,  the medal was taken away from him when he began to wear it.

                        

The key to humility is a healthy self-esteem:  the recognition of one’s own worth. As Christians we gain our worth from being made in God’s Image [Gen 1: 26].  So to let God polish God’s image in us is the surest way of gaining a healthy self-esteem.  Our identity and worth now rests in God. As much as we wish to be appreciated by others, the most important thing is to know that God appreciates us. We are worthy because Christ Jesus has made us worthy.

I dream of many powerful little churches because they are humble little churches.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  14/04/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Putting the Brakes On 07-04-2019

Putting the Brakes On.  Lent 5

Isaiah 43: 16 – 21; Philippians 3: 4b – 14

Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old, writes Isaiah [Is 43:18]. That’s a strange thing to write for a prophet steeped in the history and traditions of the Faith. Isaiah is quoting God.  Even so the question arises as to why God would say this. Surely that is what the people of God do; remember the things God has done in the past. Each Sunday we remember the tradition of the Faith and once a month celebrate Holy Communion, which recalls Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples before he was crucified. Jesus told us to remember the meal and repeat it. What might these words mean – Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old ? This statement is immediately followed with these words. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? [Is 43:19]

I think that if we exchanged the word ‘remember’ with ‘rely on’ it might make more sense to us. What I understand God is saying is that we should not think the future will be like the past.  The future will be new.  Don’t get so locked into the past that all you are prepared to accept is the old way of seeing and doing.  God is doing a new thing. That was the message to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon.  All was not lost. What had happened to those Jerusalem exiles was the loss of their Temple. In those days people thought their ‘god’ resided in the temple. If the temple was destroyed where was their ‘god’?  What God gave these Judean exiles was not a new temple but the Synagogue system that allowed them to worship wherever there were ten men gathered. We take that for granted, but for them it was revolutionary. It was a completely new concept of worshipping. We have no other examples of this in other societies of that time.

This notion of not letting the past restrict our vision of the future underpins Paul’s argument in his letter to the Church in Philippi.  Philippi was a purpose built city for retiring Roman officials and soldiers. It was very much a Roman city. Paul visits Philippi. He is gaoled there and miraculously is set free from his chains [Acts 16:16ff].   The Philippian gaoler becomes a convert to Christ. The other significant convert is a woman.  Paul on arriving in Philippi goes to the Kenides river because he has heard about a prayer meeting held there. There he meets Lydia, a seller of purple. She sounds rather ordinary: a woman merchant with a small material shop. Well, no!  Purple was the cloth for the rich. The process of dying the material purple was expensive.  Lydia being named as a seller of purple suggests two things to us. She was wealthy and she was significant. Indeed the Philippian church met in her home. Scholars generally take it that she was a leader in the Philippian church.

Having said all that about the Philippian church, let us go back to Paul. Paul’s ministry was attacked and especially in Philippi. It seems most likely that Paul was being accused of misleading people because he was not applying the full Jewish Law to new converts. One of the issues was that male Gentiles should be circumcised according to Jewish tradition. Paul’s response is illuminating. Paul claims to be fully Jewish. Let’s hear him again.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection …  [Phil 3: 4b-10a].

Paul’s statement hardly needs commentary. He is saying that the new thing God has done in Christ Jesus surpasses everything else. Now Paul does not reject the Jewish tradition. On the contrary he acknowledges and follows it, but he does not slavishly follow it. He recognises that the way to God is through Christ Jesus and not through the Law. His experience of Christ Jesus determines how he understands the past. 

These two passages are relevant to us. They tell us that from time to time we inevitably uncover new ways of worship and new ways of following Christ Jesus. Sometimes the new ways are significant at other times the new way is merely seeing the Faith differently. These passages are very relevant to us because of the different situation the Church is in today. These passages remind us to be open to God’s new way so we might perceive and embrace God’s future. We need to ask what is the new thing God is doing? I’m not sure, but I am prepared to face it.

Firstly let us reflect on how we hang on to the past. Constantly we are longing for God’s future in the ways of the past. Listen to our conversations. We are so pleased that we have children in our worship service. Part of the pleasure is that they represent the future of the church to many. Well I am delighted to minister to these children and their parents, just because they are children.  But they are not the future of the church, not in the sense that the Church’s survival depends on them. On the contrary, in the 50s and 60s we had children everywhere in the church, but they were not the future of the church. The future of the church lay in the hands of just a few – those people who placed their lives in the hands of Christ Jesus – YOU!  They were both the young and old at the time.  To be even more correct, the future of the Church lies in God’s hands, and God looks to work with the faithful.  God will work with those who repent – those who turn to God.  From a human point of view the Church’s future doesn’t lie with the children in our midst, but with us, our faithfulness and our openness to God’s future.

It follows that if God is doing a new thing tomorrow’s church will not necessarily look like today’s church. Yet the church’s conversation continues to hanker for the re-visitation of the old.  I haven’t been as long in the Church as some of you have been, but I have been in full-time ministry for 51 years. What I envisaged my future would be as a minister is only partly like it actually is. The past only partly determines the future of the Church. The Church’s future lies in God’s hands.  If you have noticed I have gently pushed us to be a little more flexible with our furniture, our music and more adventurous with our technology. I want to change things around so we can experience some small changes. But responses are slow at times, or show passive resistance. I am not claiming what I am doing is the future. But it is an attempt to help us be more open to change, for change is one thing I do guarantee will happen. And it doesn’t help when we see the future solely through the lens of the past. In fact seeing the future through the lens of the past may be the very reason why the future may pass us by.

It is also important to note what Isaiah and Paul are saying. It is clearer in Paul.  Paul had a change of heart. His faith was no longer about a heritage of faith, but based on an experience of Jesus. There is a danger in letting our faith be solely defined by religious practices, traditions, habits and connections. Our conversations focus on family connections to ministers, high profile Christians, and length of service, on choirs or Sunday School.  Note that Paul in spite of his knowledge and experience, he only talks about Christ Jesus. N.T. Wright’s translation of the Philippian letters expresses it well. “I calculate everything as a loss, because knowing King Jesus as my Lord is worth far more than everything else put together (e.g. choirs, council membership, service clubs etc.)! In fact, because of the Messiah I’ve suffered the loss of everything, and I now calculate it as trash, so that my profit may be the Messiah, and that I may be discovered in him, … . This means knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. [Phil 4:6-10]

Our faith begins with our relationship with God in Christ Jesus. And because it is a relationship and not a code of behaviour we are following, there will be changes. Relationships are dynamic and they grow. With growth change is inevitable.  If we are serious with God then we will change individually and together.  To view the future through the lens of the past will only lead to our demise.

I believe God wants us to be open to the new things God is doing. God wants to introduce us to the new! Let go and let God begin God’s future with us now.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  07/04/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Saying Sorry: Breaking the Chain of Hate 31-03-2019

Saying Sorry: Breaking the Chain of Hate  [Lent 4]

2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21; Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11b – 32

73 years ago Avis Gale was born under a Quandong tree near Ceduna, on the edge of the Nullarbor. When her mother fell pregnant while working with a white family she was sent home. A white man had fathered her child, Avis.

As a 7-day old baby she was taken from her mother to the United Aborigines’ Mission at Colebrook Home, some 500 miles away in Adelaide. There she was reared under stringent conditions. If the children didn’t read the Bible they were deprived of food. She was raped and beaten. The Bible made no sense to her. On one Guy Fawkes Night she burned the pages from 30 Bibles. She was beaten with a hose and branded on her leg and told she was going to hell. That didn’t matter to her as she was already in hell.

At 13 she was allowed to move to another hostel run by two women missionaries who had started the first Colebrook Home. They were held in high regard and a couple of stable years followed and she did well at school.  But the pain and anger of the estrangement from her family and the physical and psychological abuse had led to a well of deep anger and distrust in Avis. Taken from her family and receiving a few sporadic visits from a black woman, whom she was told was her mother did not establish any sense of belonging. The severe discipline of Colebrook Home cemented her alienation. Sexual and physical abuse only reinforced the alienation that ran deep within her. She was angry, bitter and rebellious. 

Her understandable rebellious behaviour against the authorities who had stolen so much from her resulted in spells in prison.  In telling her story she says, ‘Once I had a taste of prison it became my home.’ Prison was a sanctuary providing three meals a day and a dry place to sleep. Prison was a place where she felt safe. It was in prison where she was introduced to drugs.

Finally after a complete breakdown she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It was there, with the help of a doctor and a childhood friend that she decided not to let the system destroy her. In time she became a manager of a hostel for Aboriginal children who came to Adelaide from the centre of Australia for education.  When the Royal Commission was established in 1995 on the effects of the assimilation policies, which demanded the removal of children of mixed blood  from their Aboriginal mothers, she came forward and told her story for the first time.

Telling her story was highly painful as all the hurts were brought to the surface. Speaking out began to heal her. In time someone gave her a bible. It took weeks before she could touch it. When she read ‘love your enemies’ [Mt 5: 44] it confirmed what she was slowly recognising, that to be fully healed she needed to forgive those who had hurt her so much. She said that when the UCA in South Australia apologised unconditionally for their part in the removal policies it freaked her out. She said she recognised that she too had apologies to make. She also had come to realise that one day she would need to stand before her Maker. So she did make those apologies.

Avis became an active worker in the reconciliation movement working to establish a memorial to grieving mothers whose children had been taken away. She also organised reconciliation days. 

Reconciliation is our theme today. Jesus gives us that wonderful story of the Prodigal Son. That’s its traditional name.  I prefer to call it the Parable of the Waiting Father. * It tells the story of a father and two sons. The younger comes to the father and says he wants his inheritance. This request is deeply insulting. The son is asking for his portion of the property before his father dies. He is treating his father as if he was dead or wishing he were dead. He also wants to leave the family. The wise father knows that his son will never be his if he forces him to stay. So he gives this selfish boy his portion who promptly goes off and lives selfishly and foolishly, ending up in depravity and poverty. This brings him to his senses. He realises that he would be better off as a servant in his father’s home. He goes back home. He has rehearsed his lines as to what he will say.  They are set aside by his father’s unseemly behaviour. He sees his son coming down the road. The father runs to meet his son. That is unseemly. Not what a good father of that day would do. The father breaks social conventions. He offers mercy before repentance. He provides acceptance before recompense.  The son is also restored to his former position as a son, and a party is thrown in his honour, despite his previoius insultingly behaviour to father and family.

The older brother returns from the fields and discovers what has happened. We would all agree that this is unfair. But the father goes out to his older son and speaks reconciling words.  We don’t know the sequel. But the point of the parable is this: there cannot be a family without the reconciliation, which involves the restoring of all relationships. If we don’t get this then we don’t get Christianity. Christianity is about relationships being restored through reconciliation. That is what Jesus was about. Jesus said in his teaching and actions that God wants us to be restored to our relationship with God the Creator and that he Jesus, would be the pathway to that restoration. Reconciliation is about repentance, apology and forgiveness.  Jesus lives and breathes this reconciliation. He identifies with us in his baptism, he practices forgiveness in his ministry, he humbly submits himself in obedience to the will of God the Father and confronts evil with all conquering love.

It is not surprising that Paul says to the Corinthians that the essence of all Christian service is reconciliation. There is nothing more important than binding up broken relationships and breaking down alienating systems and behaviour.  Community is essential to living life well. Isolation and alienation is the death of community. Community to exist needs fellowship and that is the hallmark of the Church.  The Church is a fellowship of Christ-followers reaching out and welcoming others into that fellowship.

We need to practise repentance, apology and forgiveness if we want fellowship and community.  Repentance, apology and forgiveness are each important doing words.  Repentance means looking the right way. From time to time we need to repent, because our focus is on the wrong things.  We need to turn around and face the right way: face God because God is the beginning and end of life. 

Apology is fundamental to our relationships with each other and God.  We never do the right thing all the time. It’s impossible. Therefore it is important to be humble enough to realise that and be prepared to say sorry. Sorry is always the beginning of restoring a relationship. 

Forgiveness is at the centre and that is why Jesus taught us to pray: ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. In my experience forgiveness is one of the most misunderstood spiritual actions of life. Forgiveness has a number of steps.  The first step is a willingness to forgive. That willingness to forgive needs to be nurtured. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is part of the nurturing of a forgiving spirit. Recognising our own failures develops our humility.  So when we are hurt the first step is to ask God to help us to forgive.   The second step involves acknowledging the wrong. We don’t just say, ‘Oh that doesn’t matter, I forgive’.   No, if you are really hurt you acknowledge the hurt.  If someone came to you to say sorry, you likewise tell them you are hurt and that you forgive them and thank them for their apology. Forgiveness is not dismissing the wrong and its accompanying hurt. Forgiveness is not overlooking the wrong.  The third step is the act of forgiving having received the apology. Sincere sorrow and genuine forgiveness results in a closer relationship not just an absence of conflict.  If all you have is an absence of conflict you don’t have reconciliation. Fourthly, there are times when we can’t talk to the person and we need to forgive and place our anger and hurt at the foot of the Cross.  That is what God wants of us – to forgive others as God forgives us. There is nothing worse than carrying a hurt in our hearts and minds and letting it fester.

God has reconciled us through the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  God has given us a ministry of reconciliation where we live a life that is forgiven by God and a life forgiving of others.  

*******

* [I have preached a series of five sermons on this parable in 2011. If you want to you can search our website to read them. If I may say so they are worthwhile as they were based on the reflection of Henri Nouwen.]

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  31/03/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Massacres and Disasters 24-03-2019

Massacres & Disasters

Isaiah 55: 1 – 9;  Luke 13: 1 – 9 

 What we value shapes our life and death.

A murderous massacre and a natural disaster feature in our readings this week. The massacre is all about politics. The second is about a faulty building. In each many meaningless deaths take place.

I read these readings before dawn last Monday, which is my usual custom. But my own context was so strange by comparison. I had spent Friday to Sunday enjoying the sport I fell in love with at the age of 14. The Grand Prix is a bit of a circus and for the motoring enthusiast there is plenty to see including classic racing and sports cars that brought back memories of my first car race and grand prix. For your information I wonder how many of you realise that today F1 racing cars are hybrids combining electric and petrol engines with the ability to harvest extra electricity from the energy generated when breaking. Anyway the point I want to make is this: there I was enjoying the luxury of the GP circus and at that time 50 people had been massacred in Christ Church, NZ.  Then on Monday night we sat and watched Q&A, which was all about the natural disaster of the recent Queensland flood in which 650,000 head of cattle died. The stories of devastation in the natural disaster and the massacre were over whelming. How can one be enjoying some indulgence when such things have happened? 

When such sad occasions occur it is not surprising to hear the question, ‘What is God doing?’  Of course we don’t hear that question so much in our society today because we are such atheists or agnostics and our secularism excludes such questioning. Hearing the words of Luke’s account of the Gospel we can sense that question was alive.  It must have been posed. Jesus’ response to the questions about the deaths of those Galilean zealots suggests some were using that wonky theological framework that bad things happen to bad people. Jesus makes it quite clear that the tragic deaths of those massacred and those killed by a falling building had nothing to do with how sinful they were. God does not punish us in this way. 

Jesus is saying something far more serious. When we read this text in its political context we see that Jesus is warning his hearers about their response to their political reality. The Galileans were known for their fierce military resistance to the Roman Empire.  So Jesus’ warns his hearers that unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did [Lk 13:3]. Jesus is saying that unless they turn away from violence they too will die violently. ‘Repent’ means turn around and face another way. Likewise the comment about the tower of Siloam falling and crushing people is a reference to Jerusalem’s inability to hear the Gospel of Jesus. And Jesus is saying to Jerusalemites that their hardness of heart towards the Gospel will mean that they will be crushed by the destruction of this city. In fact some 37 years or so later that is exactly what happened. Jerusalem took up arms against the Empire and the city and temple were raised to the ground. The message is that violence is not God’s way. Take up violence and you will die by it. The message is also that what we treasure will shape our life and death.

This teaching is relevant for us today. It contains a deep truth. It goes like this. If your focus is away from God and on other things then you will live and die by those things. For example, if our focus is on material things it is by those things you will live and die. The material will take up all your energy and time. The material will become the measure of your worth or un-worth. In other words life and death are defined and judged by the material. Great acquisitions will be a blessing to you. Shopping will be your therapy. The sadness of material acquisitions is that they never satisfy and so you must strive for more. Our increased acquisitions also come at the expense of others. However when your acquisitions fall away so does the meaning of your life. The end of your life will be measured by what you have or have not. Furthermore when you die you leave your acquisitions behind and you are nothing. You are nothing because your life has been about acquiring things and they, as Jesus has said, will rust and perish.  They have no eternal value and meaning. They have little relevance to others. 

This truth applies to everything other than God. If I was talking to people who are not believers in God I would be saying that this truth means your spiritual life is shallow and of little meaning. I would argue that a shallow spiritual life does not prepare us for the hard times that life brings.  It is not surprising that those who shun God turn to therapies like mindfulness and meditation for strength to deal with life’s offerings. Whether we live solely for our children or for education or independence this truth applies. These things fall away and we are left with the ‘me’ that is largely empty. The true irony of life is that when we give ourselves to God we see this world differently. We find a lasting meaning. We gain a new purpose in life that rescues us from the self.  We discover a new appreciation of life. And our happiness turns to a deeper sense of well-being – what the Bible refers to as joy. 

It is a good thing to audit our lives if for no other reason than that we may come to the sunset years of our lives full of regrets. We may enter our sunset years realising that we have put too much energy here and there and that these things took us away from what is really important and valuable. Sadly one encounters people who have put so much into their professional life that their family may have suffered, or at least they perceive that to be the case. They end their professional life with regrets. God in Christ Jesus helps us discern what is truly valuable.  In repenting – turning around and facing God – we come to see and experience a reality that is truly blessed. To find our centre of gravity in the Creator God connects us to the fundamental source of all gravity – love. I speak here of the spiritual centre of all life, which ultimately is love.  That is what the Bible says that God is love [1 Jn 4:8]. When we are drawn to that centre our life finds stability, purpose and meaning.

Jesus was warning the people then and his words warn us today. If we neglect this spiritual centre, which is God, and withdraw from the gravitational pull of God’s love we will die alone with nothing. If you think I am talking nonsense then think of the people who have achieved great success yet feel worthless and alone. This is most evident in lives of some very successful artists, singers, sportspeople and the like.

Now you may be saying that it is too late for me. It is never too late for us. Jesus’ final illustration about the barren fig tree, the owner and the gardener reminds us of the ever forgiving nature of God. The fig tree is given another chance to bear fruit. But it remains true that if the tree does not bear fruit it is worthless and another tree must take its place. The test of where we centre our lives lies in the type of fruit we bear. What are we producing? What is our contribution to life?  We need to be careful how we answer these questions. The person lacking self-confidence may to easily damn themselves and the confident person may too easily affirm their life.  It is best that we invite an independent and reflective person to help us examine ourselves.  

Let us return to this story Jesus tells about the owner, the tree and the gardener. The essence of its truth is that God is always ready to receive someone who repents: someone who turns to God.  We have Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal son. It tells us that there is always the ‘heavenly parent’, waiting to receive us home. The parable of the Prodigal Son is really the parable of the ‘Waiting Father’.  Isaiah leaves us in no doubt as to the nature of God when he says: 

Seek the LORD while he may be found,

call upon him while he is near;

let the wicked forsake their way,

and the unrighteous their thoughts;

let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,

and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.

[Isaiah 55: 6-9]

 

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  24/03/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Foxes and Fowls 17-03-2019

Foxes & Fowls

(Psalm 27) Luke 13: 31 – 35

Foxes and fowls don’t go together as the one preys and the other lays. The fox is seen guileful and the fowl is guileless. Two very contrasting animals and Jesus speaks of Herod as a fox and he likens himself to a mother hen. 

This passage is most helpful to us as it goes behind the scenes. We are used to stories about Jesus calling disciples, teaching, healing and exorcising demons. But here we encounter some off stage remarks and hear of Jesus’ personal feelings. 

This passage corrects our one sided picture of the Pharisees. Reading through the Gospel accounts we can easily conclude that all the Pharisees were against Jesus.  However Luke tells us that some Pharisees warned Jesus about Herod’s desire to kill him.  These little statements remind us that Jesus’ world cannot be described in a few black and white statements such as ‘the Pharisees were against Jesus’.  They were not all against him. Some like Nicodemus came and listened [Jn 3] and some of those who listened respected Jesus and a few like Joseph of Arimathea possibly followed Jesus.  Joseph we are told was a respected member of the Council who had not consented to Jesus’ death [Jn 19:38; Mark 15:43; Lk 23: 50f].  The Pharisees themselves like all groups had their own sub-groups. We might think of some Pharisees as conservative others more liberal; some strictly traditional others more flexible; others would be protective while others would be adventurous. Some were respectful and supportive of Jesus. They warned him.

This passage tells us what Jesus thought of Herod – he was seen as a fox by Jesus. That was no compliment. William Barclay says that the Jews of Jesus’ time regarded the fox as the sliest of animals, the most destructive of animals and finally as worthless. So to call a person a fox was a grave insult. It was a brave thing to insult a king. There is the story of Hugh Latimer, a leader of the reformation in England, preaching in Westminster Abbey and King Henry VIII was present. Latimer was an outspoken critic of King Henry’s marriages. It is said that Latimer on this occasion soliloquized in the pulpit saying; “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say.  The King of England is here!”  Then he went on, “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The King of Kings is here.”  The courage of such people mimics the courage of Jesus who took his orders solely from God, not from the wisdom and fears of this world. So too are we to do. 

Did Herod deserve Jesus’ insult? Well Herod’s father, known as Herod the Great was a ruthless vassal king for the Romans maintaining peace and his position ruthlessly executing people who threatened or stood in his way. He had 10 wives and 15 children. His son Herod Antipas is the Herod in Jesus’ time who had John the Baptist beheaded and questioned Jesus before the crucifixion. This Herod was educated in Rome and Caesar Augustus appointed him Tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea after his father’s death. He claimed to be Jewish and celebrated the Jewish festivals but he was seen not to be genuine. His conduct possibly justly earned him the insult ‘a fox’ who pretended to be Jewish but supported Rome enjoying the Emperor’s favour. Herod reportedly had built the new capital over a Jewish cemetery naming it Tiberius after the Emperor.

This tells us so much about Jesus.  It tells us what he feels and thinks, not what he does and teaches. In the first place he thinks that Herod Antipas is a fox. Herod is the cunning political manipulator obtaining his purposes at all costs even when it means the head of a preacher and the death of another.

This passage tells us what Jesus thinks of his work. He has come to cast out demons and heal the sick.  Casting out demons is about liberating people from the evil spirits that bind them. I have mentioned before evil is not about little demons running around trying to enter our lives. Evil arises when we sanction a little wrong-doing then allowing it accumulate. The accumulative power gained then demonizes us. It controls us. Evil about a force far greater than us that drives and ensnares us in practices that under different circumstances we would not accept.  The national socialism of Germany in the late thirties led good people to sanction the holocaust. The fear enshrined in the philosophy of Apartheid drove people to mindlessly ignore the injustice of the system. The fear of being swamped by hundreds of thousands of refugees has led this nation to sanction the incarceration of families and children causing great despair. Jesus died for our sins not because we were unkind or told a little lie, but because the awesome nature of sin became an evil that only complete and utter love could confront and destroy. Only Jesus could conquer the power of evil. And it is only through union with Christ Jesus that we become truly free to love.

This passage tells us that Jesus came to heal us. The healing is not merely a release from pain but a restoration to a life of love, peace, joy and goodness. 

Jesus’ mysterious answer about working ‘today and tomorrow, and the third day I must finish my work’ tells us that he understood the full significance of his work. The third day alludes to two instances in the life of Jesus. When he was lost his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, found him on the third day in the temple discussing God with the religious leaders. And the other obvious occasion is the day of the Resurrection – the third day after the crucifixion when he rose from the dead having conquered evil and set us free to be what God wants us to be. Jesus reveals more in his statement ‘today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem’. Jesus knows he will be killed, but he will make sure that it is not some backstreet murder in some unknown place. Jesus will ensure that he will be in the right place – God’s place with God’s timing – for his death. So he will move on quickly, not because he fears to die but because this is not the moment for his death.

This passage tells us of Jesus’ compassion for his people. Luke tells us in chapter 19: 41 that when Jesus came near Jerusalem he wept.  Luke 19: 41 is the shortest verse in the whole Bible. Jesus had a deep passion and compassion for Jerusalem. We also learn that he knew Jerusalem. Though Gospel writers, Matthew Mark and Luke, would have us believe that he only went to Jerusalem once and that was when he was crucified, it seems he went there more often. John’s account of the Gospel mentions three times. Jesus’ familiarity suggests an intimate knowledge regardless of how many times.

Finally we have a glimpse of the nature of Jesus’ death and of his deep desire. Jesus likens himself to a ‘mother hen’ and says of Jerusalem. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! [Lk 13: 34] This maternal image of a hen contrasts with the fox. Herod is the fox and Jesus the hen. The fox is a preyer.  That is, P.R.E.Y. er.   The hen is the layer. The fox is a taker and the hen is a maker.  It is an interesting image that Christ Jesus uses here to describe himself and his feelings.

My mother kept fowls. Fortunately there were no foxes around. They were Black Australorps.

I remember them fondly. My mother loved her Australorps. We always had roast chicken on the table. They were nice birds. They were easy to catch, accepted you holding them and of course provided plenty of eggs. I saw the birds slaughtered. I saw the headless chook run around for a few seconds. That was part of life. 

But Jesus uses a particular image of the hen gathering the chickens under her wings and protecting them.  There are stories of barnyard fires where a mother hen has been found dead burnt by the fire yet when the fire had passed her chicks were found to have survived. The hen had completed covered and protected them at her own expense. This gentle yet strong image of love and protection accompanied by selfless giving contrasts starkly with the cunning and exploitative behaviour of Herod the fox.

The hen speaks to us gently, yet profoundly of God’s love for us – vulnerable self-giving love that liberates and saves.  Oh, if only we would come to Jesus and let him liberate and save us from ourselves!

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  17/03/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The Life Giving Screen 03-03-2019

The Life Giving Screen.

Exodus 34: 29 – 35;  2 Corinthians 3: 12 – 4: 2; Luke 9: 28-36

Our readings present Moses and Jesus in the presence of God. Both of them radiate with the light of God. When Moses came down from the mountain his face shone with the presence of God. The people couldn’t cope with Moses’ radiant face. Jesus’ disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration struggled with the change in Jesus’ appearance when his face and clothes became dazzling white [Lk 9:29].  A cloud came and covered Jesus, Peter, James and John. Let us also remember that the cloud is a metaphor for God’s presence. In the Exodus Moses and the people follow the cloud by day because this is the way God leads them through the wilderness to freedom [Exodus 13:21,22; 40: 36-38]. When they stopped the cloud hangs over the Tent of worship symbolising that God is present [Numbers 9: 15 -17; Lev 16:2]. The cloud symbolises the presence of God and simultaneously provides protection from the radiance of God. There is a sense that we cannot see God because the full presence of God is overwhelming. So the presence of Christ can be like a blinding light as it was for Paul on the road to Damascus. There is something unnerving about being in the presence of God. Glory and light are descriptors of God’s presence. It is said that one cannot endure the fullness of God for it overwhelms us. We might gain some understanding through our physical experience of gazing into a very bright light. The abundance of light rays strike the retina, which holds the rods and cons that are filled with light sensitive pigment. Normally when particles of light strike the retina the light sensitive pigment changes into a different form sending electrical impulses to the brain. When the retina is bombarded by a strong light or by looking directly into the sun, the retina becomes overly stimulated resulting in our eyes developing temporary black spots or blindness.  

Today I want to focus on the use of a veil and the cloud as a screen.  A screen hides and protects. E.g. we use sunscreen to protect us from the harmful rays of the sun and simultaneously it helps us enjoy the warmth of the sun. I’m suggesting that Moses’ veil and the cloud both act as protectant and means of participation in the Presence of God. 

We read that when Moses came back with the Ten Commandments after communing with God on the mountain his face was radiant. The Hebrew suggests ‘horns of light’ came from his face.  So bright was Moses’ appearance that the people were afraid to come near. They had to be encouraged to draw near to hear what Moses had to say. Moses chose to wear a veil to shield the people from this radiance.

The Cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration acts in a similar way to the veil. The disciples go up the mountain to pray. During their prayers Peter, James and John see Jesus Transfigured before them.  A radiance emerges that can only be described as dazzling white. Peter says something that misses the point and the others are speechless.  At this point a cloud overshadows them. The cloud screens them from the radiance of Jesus and allows them to hear the voice of God.  The cloud in the Transfiguration of Jesus both conceals and reveals Jesus as God’s beloved. 

We cannot escape the fact that this experience on the mountain is exceptional and confronting. Neither can we escape the conclusion that the disciples needed some screening from the dazzling revelation. God never exposes us to the full force of God’s presence, unless we are prepared for it. If we were simply to be exposed to the full measure of God we either would be overwhelmed or so mixed up that we might reject what we have experienced. The screens that God provide – the veil and cloud – speak of the graciousness of God who deals with us thoughtfully.

Now screens are there to help us, but they can be used in a way that is harmful.  We can either end up with over or under exposure. Too much screening may prevent us from seeing or enjoying the benefits of the object. Too little may lead to over exposure. Both are unhelpful and unproductive.   

Let us consider some of the over-screening or negative screening that happens in our lives. Our busy lives unintentionally prevent us from giving the necessary time to the important things in our lives – family, friends, self and of course God.  Our church attendance can often slide into one business meeting after another. We arrive at worship only to end up talking about business matters rather than matters of faith and mission. 

There is the psychological factor of losing control. We don’t want to lose control over our lives; otherwise we might become vulnerable to God. We think that if we come too close to God we will lose our independence.  So we hold back. Ironically the further we stay away from God the more dependent we become on this world’s agenda; and vice versa the closer we come to God the more independence we have. 

Intellectualism is a way of staying in control and avoiding the personal. By intellectualism I mean we keep the faith conversation to matters about God rather than matters of God. We avoid speaking of God in a personal way. That is one way we can keep God at bay. I listen to the conversations in the corridors of the Church’s buildings and most often they’re about God and the Church, not about our relationship with God. I sometimes think the emphasis of our ‘Joys-n-Concerns’ – our sharing time – is an example of that. We share things that are easy to share, not the matters of the heart and matters of the faith. Very seldom do we hear of how God has helped or blessed us in our daily lives. To wittingly or unwittingly create screens between God and us will deprive us of what God wants us to become.

Let us remember what the presence of God does for us.

Remember the presence of God gave Moses the Law that led to truth and a new future for the people of the Exodus. Remember the Mount of Transfiguration was a place where the fullness of God was present that gave those three disciples an experience that helped them understand and explain the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Remember Paul’s Damascus Road experience not only left him blind but also transformed him from being a persecutor of Jesus’ followers to being a leading Apostle to the Gentiles.  Remember your own experiences of God that have encouraged your faith and your service for God.  Treasure those experiences and reflect upon them. They are major milestones along our faith journey that have helped make us who we are. 

Remember God’s presence is ultimately God’s empowering love for us. Remember God’s presence is always a moment of grace. Seek God’s presence. There is a wonderful picture of God’s gracious presence in Exodus 33. God tells Moses that he has found favour with God. Moses then asks what we all desire: he asks to see God. And God replies: “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” [Ex 33: 19-23]  That is a beautiful picture of how God deals with us. God give us God’s all but in a way that God’s glory does not blind or overwhelm us – just enough for us to grow near and serve God.

The early Christians understood that in Jesus God comes close to us. John’s account of the Gospel tells us that when Jesus died on the Cross the veil or curtain that separated the holy place in the Temple, which only the High Priest could enter once a year, was rent into two. This story symbolises that the distance between God and us is now greatly diminished in Jesus the Christ. That is why Paul says to the Corinthian church in what we call the second letter; when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And 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; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit [2 Cor 3: 16-18].

*******

This sermon was presented at Leighmoor on 07/02/2016

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  03/03/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org