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

Guard your Faith 01-12-2019

Guard your Faith   

Isaiah 2 1 – 5;  Romans 13: 11 – 14; Matthew 24: 36 – 44

The eyes are blind when the mind is elsewhere. [Latin Proverb]

One morning in the early 1890s, four workers were busy harvesting corn. One man cut the corn with a scythe, another followed making bands of twisted corn stalks, the third worker had a small wooden rake gathering bundles of the cut corn, and a forth worker, a young lad, was making each bundle into a sheaf.

At noon they stopped for a lunch break. They sat down and opened their lunches. The lad unwrapped his sandwiches. He looked at his food, as it lay open on his napkin. He had come to know the Lord at Chapel the night before, so he closed his eyes and thanked God for his food. When he opened his eyes his sandwiches had gone. The dog had taken them!

The farmer had seen it all. Much amused he said to the lad, “It is a good thing to pray but you must also watch”.  [P Hargreaves; “Quotes & Anecdotes” p. 145]

A spiritual truth which we ignore at our peril was uttered by the farmer,. “It’s a good thing to pray but you must also watch.” When the prophet Nehemiah led the people of God back to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon he recorded one of their actions. So we prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night. [Nehemiah 4:9]  Watchfulness and prayer go together. Why do we need to be both watchful and prayerful?  The life-giving blessing of God is a relationship?  Relationships need to be looked after. They need nurturing and they need protection. I believe that there is many a human relationship that has broken down because it was neither nurtured nor protected.  So much more our relationship with God needs nurturing and protection. The parable of the Sower tells us that the seed of God’s Word falls upon us and that sometimes the cares of the world or the pleasures of the world over come us and destroy God’s Word in us.  The parable of the Sower reminds us that the seed of God, if it is not nurtured, does not grow [Mk 4: 1 – 20].  

Our relationship with God needs protection. There are many voices in our world that pull us away from God.  These current cases of corruption in our society have not come about because people took up their career paths with the intention of being corrupt. No!  Definitely not! They went down the slippery path of corruption slowly – bit by bit. It all starts slowly and that is so with our spiritual lives.  Early enthusiasm wanes until one day we say, ‘I’m tired; it will be OK to skip my devotions today. Before long we’re skipping more devotional times. We fall into that false situation of turning to God only when we are in need. It is the same with attending Sunday worship. We skip a Sunday or two then it becomes a habit. Before long Sunday worship is just another option along with sport, family and other commitments. Now I know there are a few problems and challenges in what I am saying. And I am not saying you have to come to church every Sunday. But what I am saying is that there are many distractions that take us away from a special time with God. It may seem quite reasonable to put family first, but if family comes before time with God then that is a problem. In my many years of ministry I have noted folk who put their friends, their family and their children before God.  You should remember the foundational principle of ‘first things first’.  It is a business principle. Stephen Covey wrote a notable book, ‘First things First’.  In it he told how in business one needs to get the core business principles right and the rest will follow. He used the metaphors of compass and the cardinal points.  So he spoke of one’s true north.  The point is you can’t sail across an endless ocean without knowing your bearings – where you’ve come from and where you are going to. If you don’t have those two positions clearly in your head then you will wander the sea aimlessly and get truly lost.

The spiritual life is just like that. Get things right and everything else will follow. Jesus said, Seek first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well [Mt 6:33].  By the way Stephen Covey’s valuable management advice sounds the same.  It is interesting to note that Stephen Covey is a Christian.

My brothers and sisters in Christ do you know how many times the Bible talks about watchfulness, guarding your faith, disciplining and taking care of our walk with God?  The nouns watchfulness or vigilance capture both the sense of expectation and the danger in the Faith. Practising our faith is relatively easy in our country and we are lulled into thinking all is well. But then we lack vibrancy in our walk with God.  I want to suggest to you that this may be a result of not being watchful and nurturing our relationship with God. 

What I am focusing on today is the importance of watchfulness and vigilance to all our relationships and especially with God. Jesus was welcomed into this world by the awareness, alertness and vigilance of the women, Elizabeth, Mary and Anna. The diligence and vigilance of Zechariah, Joseph, Shepherds and Wise Men matched that of the women. Throughout the ages the great advances of the church were met and supported by faithful watchful men and women.

Watchfulness is mentioned many, many times in Scripture. Proverbs 4: 23 talks about guarding our hearts. In 1 Peter 5:8 the reader is encouraged to be disciplined and alert because our adversaries are like a roaring lion.  Peter offers this practical advice in chapter 4. The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, … . Be hospitable to one another without complaining. [1 Peter 4:7-10]   Phrases like –  ‘keep alert’, ‘stand firm; stay awake and pray’; ‘take care’;  ‘be on guard’; and, ‘keeping watch over your souls’ – abound. [Eph 6:18; Gal 6:1; Col 4:2; 1 Tim 4:7; 2 Jn 7,8; Heb 3:12 & 13:17]

Have you noticed how many times Jesus talks about or exemplifies these concepts of watchfulness and protection? E.g. The Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness; the Lord’s Prayer; the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane; and the ten girls with their lamps. The Gospel reading today reminds us that as we celebrate the coming of Jesus as a baby we also anticipate his coming again.

Watchfulness and guarding our lives are part and parcel of the Christian life. Paul encourages the Church to build up your strength in union with the Lord and by means of his mighty power. He goes on to illustrate this watchfulness and guarding of our relationship with God with the image of the Armour of God in Ephesians 6:10-20. 

The discipline of Watchfulness is like a home security system. Prayer plays a key role in helping us be vigilant.  Again we must remind ourselves that prayer is not merely thanking God and then requesting God to do something. Prayer is where we wrestle with God and ourselves. Paul writes to the Corinthians saying, ‘keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love’. [1 Cor 16:13]  Jesus said to his disciples; “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” [Mt 26:41]

These exhortations to stay awake, keep alert, watch, take care, indicate that our prayer life will be a struggle and we will need discipline. The Ephesian Christians are encouraged to pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. [Eph 6:18]  Let us remember we are not on our own. I find encouragement in Paul’s reminder to the persecuted Roman Christians. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. [Rom 8: 22,23]  Jesus similarly encourages his disciples, saying that he will send the Spirit who will guide you into all the truth; she will declare to you the things that are to come .  Jesus adds; For this reason I said that she (Holy Spirit) will take what is mine and declare it to you. Further on Jesus prays for his disciples and all disciples that follow – that’s us today – Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them … I guarded them … , but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. … Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. [Jn 17: 9-19]  Can you hear the struggle anticipated in our walk with God?  And yet it seems so easy for us! What have we lost?

Jesus says to us, as recorded in Matthew 24: 44; Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. If Jesus is coming at an unexpected hour is it possible we might miss him if we are not alert?

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  17/11/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

What is the Christian Life? 24-11-2019

What is the Christian Life? Christianity in a Nutshell. 3.

Luke 10: 25 – 37

Does to love someone mean I must like them?

In this series on Christianity in a Nutshell I have said, that there are very sound reasons for believing in God. The reasons are not proofs, but they point to a longstanding intuition of humanity that says there is something greater than us and we name that something or someone God.  I have argued that to think and speak of God only as the Father, Lord and King limits our understanding of God. I urged you to expand your concept of God to include the notion that God suffers with us and for us.  This concept that God suffers with us and for us reflects more accurately the Biblical understanding and experience of God. I would say that the concepts of Lord and King are best used in our praise and worship of God, but they should not be exclusively used. In terms of our everyday understanding of God, God is the One who suffers with us and for us. 

Today I will address the third element in this attempt to capture Christianity in a Nutshell. What is the essence of the Christian life? Yes, of course, it is love. That’s all it is – love your neighbour?  But is that all we need to say?

Luke’s account of the parable of the Good Samaritan has much to teach us.  When Jesus asks the lawyer what is written in the Law – referring to the Books of Law – the lawyer replies; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” [Lk 10:27] This lawyer is clever. He has accurately summed up all the law in these two principle statements. He knows the Scriptures. He is clever but is he wise?  The Jewish lawyer reveals his lack of understanding by asking Jesus, “who is my neighbour?” If the lawyer needed to know who his neighbour was then he didn’t understand fully the concept of ‘love your neighbour’.  That’s the problem. Has the lawyer fallen into the trap of thinking that love is that feeling between people who know each other and like each other?  For us love is enmeshed with liking. But Jesus is not talking about this personal love. For God, loving is not about liking!

When I became the CEO of the Churches’ State school chaplaincy and religious education ministry I knew I had to relate to a whole lot of people as their leader. I now had a particular responsibility for them. How was I going demonstrate this seeing that I was quite friendly with a few, got on well with a number and others not so well.  That is, there were a few with whom I had a lot in common and others with whom I had very little in common. I didn’t dislike them but we weren’t close. I reflected on how I might love them as my neighbour. I took God’s command to be very relevant. All I could do was to love them by being just and fair and making sure everyone had equal access to me. I wanted the best for all in that work environment. I resolved to be fair, just, and respectful to all. 

The book of Leviticus contains many rules, commands and principles for living life. In Leviticus we find the command to love your neighbour as yourself  [Lev 19:18]. It is the only place in all of the Old Testament that this commandment is found. In Leviticus cascading down from the command to love one’s neighbour we find a number of rules about one’s relationship to others and to the land.  A few verses later God’s people are told to love the alien as yourself  [Lev 19:33]. I love this word alien. It is a small word but so strong. These people don’t belong here. They have no right to be here, BUT you will love them too.  What is clear is that God expects us to love all of creation – people, animals and all God has created.  Why?  Because God created the world! You see all the laws, rules and principles in the Bible are derived from this Great Commandment to love God and love others.

The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us what loving our neighbour entails. Here are the three characteristics I have identified.

Firstly, the Samaritan came near the man who was robbed and left for dead [Lk 10:33].  The Samaritan didn’t need to come near the man.  Everyone would understand that. Firstly, you don’t know if the man lying there is a decoy. Secondly, the naked man could not be identified. You see in those days people’s clothes indicated their status and culture. He could be anyone. He could be an enemy. But the Samaritan’s compassion leads him to this person in need.  The Samaritan shows Grace-full love.  Grace in the Bible means giving love to the undeserved. They have neither earned the love nor have merit that deserves it. The first thing we identify about loving our neighbour is that the love is freely given and unconditional. This is the Christian concept of love – the Jesus concept.  This is what grace means for the Christian. 

Secondly, we see that the Samaritan not only took a risk in stopping, but also ended up giving his time, resources and money. Costly love is the character of loving our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus showed us how costly love can be.  Now the Christian is not asked to simply love her/his friends and associates but to love all, even those we perceive to be undeserving. Our love will cost us in one way or another, because loving is about giving not taking. 

Thirdly, Christian love is Courageous love.  Christian love is not about being nice to people. Christian love is not about conventional civility. Christian love is about justice and justice requires toughness.  Christian love will challenge our friends’ and foes’ unjust and harmful behaviour. It is the strength that says; ‘I will seek justice even if it hurts me’.  It is the toughness that leads to saying NO when YES or silence would be so much easier. To stand up for someone who is in need or is marginalised requires courage.

Did you notice that Jesus never answered the lawyer’s question, ‘who is my neighbour’ [Lk 10:29]. The lawyer was really trying to regulate love by that request. That is, if he knew whom to love he could work at loving them.  For Jesus loving one’s neighbour is not about who is the neighbour, but who is neighbourly to others.   Jesus’ parable makes it clear that we cannot identify the man because all identifying marks have been taken – he is stripped bare. The robbed man lying could not be identified. The Samaritan couldn’t say; “Oh, he looks like a teacher, or a merchant or doctor’ The Samaritan couldn’t tell whether the man was a homeless tramp, a petty thief or respectable citizen.  No, he had no means of knowing what he was like let alone of knowing if he was a likeable fellow.  The Samaritan had compassion, stepped forward in good faith and gave this man what he needed. The Samaritan gave this man what he would have wanted for himself.  That is why the commandment to love our neighbour is followed ‘as you love yourself’. 

How can we love others in this way? We know how we fail to love. Our love often stops short when our self-interest is threatened. We feel more comfortable loving in an environment we know than in a strange environment. We love better in the island of our certitude than in the ocean of uncertainty and mystery.  We live in a world desperately needing to be loved – people, creatures and the environment all need to be loved.  Yet our very need for love demonstrates that we struggle to love. Our concept of love is limited to personal experiences and needs. We are clearly given the scope of neighbourly love. Christian neighbourly love is compassion shown to anyone who is hurting.  And what we should do is described by ‘love another as you love yourself’.  Therein lies a problem. If I am to love others as I love myself, what do I do if I actually don’t love myself?  That’s a problem. But the commandment to love our neighbour has been preceded by another commandment to love God. Herein lies a profound clue as to how we may learn to love more. That is, by loving God we learn that we are loved and that in loving God we become more loving. 

We can love God in many ways. Our prayers and songs of praise are acts of love. When we spend time thanking God we begin to fill our minds with positive thoughts and remind ourselves of all the blessings we have received.  The result is that we become thankful people. We thank God for our life and freedom in Christ Jesus.  When we praise God we learn that our acts of giving praise to God become a blessing to us. Our spirits are raised.  We experience God’s love for us.  And physically we produce more endorphins.  That’s good for us.  SO through our praise and worship we experience God’s love for us and we are empowered to love others.  These commandments cannot be separated. Neither can we say that because am praising God I don’t need to do anything else. Or, because I am working for justice and the well-being of others ds I don’t need to worship.  The reality is that those who give most to others are those who realise their need to spend more time with God in prayer, meditation and worship of God.  Worship and Christian action are not separate acts but a simultaneous process taking place in different arenas of life.

  

A prayer:    

Come Holy Spirit fill the lives of your faithful

and kindle in them the fire of your love.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  24/11/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

God’s Creatures Our Companions 17-11-2019

God’s Creatures Our Companions

Genesis 2: 15 – 24

Do we supplant our God given companions with the companions we can control?

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, there are two creation stories. The second story tells us that God created a human to look after the earth.  When God saw that the human was alone and needed assistance to take care of the land God created animals to be the human’s companion and help.  But the human was still lonely so God created another human to be a companion to the first human. There is wisdom here in this quaint and ancient mythological story, which is too easily dismissed by our prejudices or shallow reading. The wisdom and truth I emphasise today is this. Humankind was given the task of caring for the land and given animals as helpful companions. The land, animals and humans are bound together in a purposeful sociability. Land, animals (all creatures) and humans are to work and live together in a purposeful community.

Today we come to give thanks for and honour the wonderful companionship of the canine species. But what we will say about them is not exclusive to our canine pets. People have had special relationships with different land, water or air based species. 

I was reading about the special relationship between some the British monarchs and their dogs. I wondered how much these British monarchs had formed our culture’s views on dogs. The monarchs that spring to mind are Queen Elizabeth II and her corgis and King Charles II and his preference for a small breed of spaniel which now bears his name. But have you heard of Caesar of Notts? That’s his full name – Caesar of Notts. Caesar was a small wired-haired terrier given to Edward VII when he lost his beloved dog, Jack, in 1898. Caesar won the heart of his master and ended up travelling everywhere with the king.  Caesar was assigned his own footman and would sleep at night on an armchair in the King’s bedroom.  When Edward VII died in 1910 Caesar wandered the palace looking for him and refused to eat. The queen engaged a vet who managed to persuade Caesar to eat.  As the King’s cortège passed through the crowded streets of London following the coffin was the King’s charger, Kildare, fully saddled for riding with his master’s riding boots reversed, then came Caesar accompanied by a Highland soldier followed by the aristocracy and the rest of procession. When Caesar died a tombstone was erected over his grave with the inscription written by Queen Alexandra; Our beloved Caesar who was the King’s Faithful and Constant companion until Death, and My Greatest Comforter in my loneliness and Sorrow for Four Years after. Died 18th April 1914.

Dogs are special to us. I love it when our greyhound ‘grandchild’ is dropped off for us to look after. I enjoy her company and love our early morning romps on the beach. 

Dogs exemplify for us the God intended sociability that is understood in the Bible’s Creation stories.  Let’s remind ourselves of five important characteristics of a dog that point us to God’s intention for the well-being of community.

Faithfulness is a quintessential quality of dogs. They weld themselves to their owners with an unswerving dependability. The story of King Edward VII’s Caesar is a case in point and that would be replicated in countless stories around the world. A dog’s faithfulness reflects for us the faithfulness of God to humanity. Faithfulness is a critical element for the health of any community.

Acceptance is another redeeming quality in our dogs. Dogs can teach us a lot about acceptance. They do not care what we look like and accept us in all forms of dress and mood. They wear their hearts on their sleeves with the simplicity of enduring love. They will not let you cry alone. They sense our sadness or quietness and will sit with us and will either lie against us or nuzzle us.  It seems that they inherently understand that ‘making love not war’ is the best thing. In this sense they reflect our Maker’s intent and shame our human foolishness.

Playfulness … endless playfulness to which we humans give far too little attention … is another mark of a dog. I think we overlook the value of playfulness.  Having fun releases the tension within us.  I believe God made us to be playful. Why else do we have music and dance? My cousins recently returned from visiting Israel. They remarked that in the otherwise tense city of Jerusalem how often they saw Jews dancing and singing in the streets.  It might be worth our while to ponder why God made an animal that happily retrieves the same ball time after time with a wagging tail and excited eyes?

Joy is a consequence of the playfulness, the acceptance and faithfulness of our pets. Our dogs meet us with such happiness. It always fills me with a little joy when visiting my daughter’s home to have the dog greet me.  They appear to be so happy to see us. Did you know that one of the chief characteristics of the first Christians was their joy?  They were noted for that. Sadly that has not always been the case for the Church.  However the songs of praise and thanksgiving give opportunity for joy to come to the surface.  And these moments of joy enable us to go and spread the joy around.

Courage is another quality of the canine species. Hear the story of Nemo A534 who was an Alsatian stationed in Vietnam with the armed services. When the Vietcong snuck into a military base one night, which Nemo and his handler were guarding, Nemo confronted them head on.  His handler, Airman Thoneburg was wounded during the confrontation and Nemo took a bullet, which passed through one eye and snout. Despite this, Nemo lay across this master’s body and defended him against any more threats. He would not even let the medical team attend to his master. A vet was called to remove Nemo. Airman Thoneburg survived due to Nemo’s courageous actions.

Today we celebrate our dogs and we give thanks to God for them. They’re a blessing to us with their faithfulness, acceptance, playfulness, joy and courage. But in our celebration let us remember a few important truths.

  1. Remember that our dogs were created to be our companions and assistants in the service we render to God as good caretakers of this world.
  2. Remember dogs reflect the qualities that go towards building up a healthy social environment and these qualities remind us of our duty to each other.
  3. Remember that when our appreciation of our pets becomes excessive we run the risk of idolising them, which leads to exclusion of others. 
  4. Remember that dogs are faithful and are happy to be with us all the time. It is we                     who walk away from them.
    Is there a parable here for us?
    Is this what we do with God? 

May God bless you and your pets.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  17/11/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

What is God like? 10-11-2019

What is God like? Christianity in a Nutshell. 2.

Exodus 3: 5 – 10, 13 – 15;   John 14: 5 – 11

Some ‘names’ for God are more helpful than others! 

Today our focus is on who God is?  Last Sunday’s sermon on – why I believe – possibly was a little too theological and may not have been seen to be practical. I hope this sermon will restore the balance. However I do think it is important to reflect on why one believes or does not believes.   

Clarifying who God is helps us in two ways: it frees us from the prisons of negativity and confusion about God; and, it frees us to utilize the power of God.

I could give you endless stories of people’s confusion and negativity.  I recall reaching the bedside of a parishioner in hospital. He was very sick. I asked him if he felt at peace with God. The parishioner replied that he felt he was not good enough for God.  I was surprised. This parishioner ran the church’s library and had critiqued my worship leading from time to time and read theology. This parishioner was a stalwart in the faith, yet on his sick bed he felt uncertain about his relationship with God.  He wondered if he was ‘good enough’ for God.  The parishioner seemed to have missed the point about God’s gracious love. Somehow the notion that God’s love comes freely to us through Christ Jesus had been overlaid by the notion of ‘working for our salvation’. Surely this is an indication of some confusion about who God is and what God does.

Only the other day we met a couple in Perth. We were talking about life. In the conversation they mentioned that their son had tragically died in a motorcar accident. I asked the woman if she went to church. (Now that question was set in a much longer conversation and was more sensitively asked.) Her response was spontaneous and angry, “Don’t go there!” That was the end of it. She just didn’t want to talk about it. While her husband still worshipped God she refused to go to worship. She was angry  – angry with God.

Now there are good reasons to be confused about God and angry with God.  You see, if God is the all powerful Lord and King and in control of this world, then why does God not do something about the awful suffering and injustice in the world? It is confusing to sing about the almighty power of God and then witness what seems to be God’s powerlessness or disinterest. If one firmly believes that God is in control then why does God let awful things happen? Does God intend this to happen? If so, then I too am angry with such an indifferent and capricious god.

In the 90s I was a chaplain and team leader to the Scripture Union Family Mission at Tidal River, Wilson’s Prom. The young leaders used predominantly three terms to describe God – Father, Lord and King. Of course, our Christian songs predominantly use such concepts to describe God. Let us ask ourselves what do these terms raise in our minds?  The first thing is that all three are male images.  So it is easy to assume that God is a male. Oh, of course, we’re going to add, but God is a spirit and we mean this spiritually.  Well, having said that, the overall impact, the subtle message is the maleness of God. This is the reason why I use the language I do and refer to the Spirit as she.  Think of the pronouns and the words that you use in your devotional life. Ponder the songs and the concepts of God we use.  These three terms not only conceptualise God as male, but also conceptualise God as powerful one. The term lord describes a person of noble rank who has authority over us. We hardly need to unpack the meaning of king.  The problem is not that we use these terms but that we tend to use them exclusively.  The result is that we have hardwired our brains to think of God being in control of everything. If that is so then God is responsible for everything. However the Bible does not use these terms exclusively. On the contrary the Bible has many names for God and not least that God is merciful, compassionate and suffers with and for us. The most powerful image for us is the Cross and we often take it for granted. 

Nothing challenged Western Christianity’s faith more than the Holocaust. The Holocaust – Germany’s Nazi genocidal programme that exterminated 6 million Jews – raised enormous questions about the existence of God. Why did God let this happen? Such tragedy on such a scale does beg the question about God – who made this world.

Where is God when we suffer? What is God doing?  What is God like?  These questions are important to address because we need a level of clarity in our times of great need, otherwise we slip into the prisons of confusion and anger.

Three German theologians, Jürgen Moltmann, Dorothee Soelle and Johan B Metz, addressed this issue. They had to, the church had to, and we have to as well. They came up with an insight that I use often. I talk about the God who suffers with us and for us. What theologians recognise today is that God the Creator comes to us not as the dominant ruler demanding obedience, but the loving Guide calling us to walk and work with God.  Jesus reflects this truth. Jesus never lorded it over his disciples or the people. He walked beside.  He walked a few paces ahead. He gave his life for us. Jesus emptied himself of all kingly power [Phil 2:7] so that we could see the true nature of God – the God who hears our cry, gives us life and suffers with and for us.  That latter phrase I have often used. 

Jesus comes, walks amongst us, experiences our life, and loves us to the ultimate point of giving himself so that we might freely experience the love of God. The sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is not a sacrifice to an angry God, but the expression of God’s very self and his love for us. Recall again what Jesus said to Thomas and the other disciples.  

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. [Jn 14:10,11]

We need to expand our concept of God to balance any notion of a powerful God who lords it over us with the picture of God working with us and for us. This means that God suffers with us and for us. The story of Hosea the prophet, the prophetic vision in Isaiah’s suffering Servant poems, the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus and the first Christians’ understanding of Jesus all point to this truth. God also works with us and for us in leaders such as Moses.

Now we come to the second practical advantage of clarifying our concept of God.  When we understand that God is a god who suffers with us and for us, then we not only are set free from the prisons of our negativity and confusion, but also set free to embrace God’s power. God doesn’t want to do things for us. If that were the case we would remain small children, if not God’s puppets. God wants us to look past the distractions of life and our small pictures of reality to see that we are surrounded by the presence of God.  God the Holy Spirit infuses all of life. God the Holy Spirit breathes life into this world. Where there is life there is God.  God wants us to harness this power and become mature in the faith.  This is why Paul talks so often about spiritual gifts and becoming mature in Christ.

God is all-powerful as the Creator but does not use this awesome power to control but set us free. God sets us free to serve.  Instead of being caught up in our confusion or anger, we are free to see God working in us, about us and through us. I have come to see that God does not have a plan for us. I have always felt uncomfortable with this notion that God has a plan. S/he who has a plan for someone inevitably tries to influence, manipulate and drive the plan.  I have come across a better expression for this idea of God having a plan.  It is this.  God doesn’t have a plan for us; God has a vision for us.  God’s vision is in the teaching of Christ about the Kingdom of God.  The Vision of God is that the lion will lie down with the lamb and that we will beat our swords into ploughshares as Isaiah prophesied [Is 2: 3-4]  

What is God like?  My answer is this.  God is the Living God of the Bible, who hears our cry, walks with us and suffers with and for us.  Rider 1. God has many names and we should not presume that any one is exclusive. Rider 2 is that the phrase, the Living God, is used 21 times in the Bible at critical points meaning, the God of life.

 

When we understand God as the God of Life this sets us free to work with God and allow God to empower us.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  10/11/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Why I believe? 03-11-2019

Why I believe?

Psalm 27; Luke 19: 1 – 10

It is easier not to believe than to believe in God today?

110 years ago we were a big Church in a small world. Today we are a small Church in a very big world. Before WW1 the Church was right at the centre of a small world. Britain, Europe and North America were predominantly Christian and dominant in the world. For all concerned the world was Christian. Other countries were seen as mission fields. Before the Church became a small Church in a big world it was the conventional thing to be a Christian. The Church was where everything happened: births recognised, marriages performed and burials undertaken, along with all social activity. It was easier then to be Christian, or at least go along with the notion of faith in God than it is today. 

Today it is entirely different. Two world wars ensured that by the second half of the 20th Century the Church was a small institution in a big world.  The 20th Century saw three major currents that changed the way we saw life.  Science gave us pragmatism and we demanded things to be proved according to scientific methodology. Democracy superseded fascism and communism and we now prize our independence and rights. Intellectualism came to the conclusion that god-is-dead. 

What has this meant for us? What has it meant for me?  I will speak personally. Since my 18th year I have struggled with the Christian faith not because I don’t believe in God or found Christianity not to be meaningful, but because when I entered the wider world I encountered a society that didn’t believe in God and deliberately denigrated faith. Even within the Church doubts and questions about God and the Bible were bandied around. I have ministerial colleagues who reject core beliefs of the faith.  I live – we live – in a world that is secular, atheistic, pluralistic and materialistic. And yet much of the Church carries on as before. To be a Christian today requires commitment. Being a member of the Church is no longer a matter of convention. It is not easy to be a Christian and that is why we need to know what and why we believe. 

Over the next few Sundays I want to share with you my understanding of Christianity in as fewest words possible – Christianity in a Nutshell. By the way, Shakespeare coined the phrase ‘in a nutshell’ in his play ‘Hamlet’. The overall theme is Christianity in a Nutshell. There will be four sermons – Why I believe in God? What is God like? What is the Christian life? Why is the king a servant?

Why I believe in God is easy to answer in one sense. I believe because I have encountered God. This is my experience, which may be similar to yours. Are we simply foolish people looking for some spiritual crutch to help us with life?  What I have to say now I hope you will find encouraging and help your walk with God.

Firstly, we must say we cannot prove that God exists according to scientific methods because those methods apply largely to material objects, not spiritual and personal beings. More importantly we cannot prove God’s existence because God is incomprehensible. God is so great, so complete, and so awesome that our minds cannot hold that knowledge.   Proof always assumes two things: firstly that we know the subject thoroughly; and secondly that proofs might be demonstrated.

So what can we say?

There is convincing evidence that humankind is innately orientated to something 

beyond themselves (transcendence) which they strive to know.

Here is the evidence for stating that humankind is naturally orientated to transcendence. By transcendence I mean we naturally look for something greater than ourselves. Transcendence refers to an existence or experience that is beyond the normal or physical level.

Firstly, from the dawn of humankind’s discovery of fire and light we notice that humans believed in something bigger than themselves. The most telling evidence comes from burial sites. Archaeologists have uncovered signs that most burials demonstrate a belief in the afterlife. The stiff dead bodies have been forced into a foetal position before burial suggesting that the dead were now going into a new life. Another birth was taking place.  Supporting this interpretation is the placement of implements and money they might need in the next life, and food for the journey, so the very least we can say is that they did not see death as the end. The reverence and planning that took place indicates a reverence for something that transcends this life.  We may simplistically conclude that they believed in gods and spirits.

The second piece of evidence for believing in transcendence you might find surprising. It is our questioning.  We tend to treat the questions of children as signs of an inquiring mind. However further reflection on our questions reveals something significant. All questions presume that the ‘asker’ already knows something and wants to know more.  A little child who asks, ‘why is the sky blue?’ has already noted the colour blue and distinguished blue from other colours.  Our questioning demonstrates a desire to know more. When we consider what questions do and how often we use questions we realise that questions form an essential part of the human spirit to know and expand the horizon of knowledge. 

We ask questions about everything. We always want more information. In asking we presume there is a reality to be found. When an answer emerges we don’t stop there for long. Even a perfectly good answer doesn’t allow us to rest for long, because the answer received nestles in a background of related things that trigger our curiosity anew. The answer has become the basis for a new question. The human tasks of weighing, judging and defining continue to push us further out into the unknown.  I boldly declare that with out our natural enquiring minds we would be less than human.

Immanuel Kant pioneered transcendental philosophy, which believes that our thought processes help us understand the principles of reality. Such research leads to the conclusion that the human spirit is characterised by an unrestricted drive for truth, freedom and love – that we cannot deny.  There are no bounds to our search for these things. This seeking for truth, freedom, love and such like things characterises our humanity and our desire to transcend life, as we know it. In other words we intuitively know there is transcendence in life. I hope you can begin to see that what makes us human points beyond a merely materialistic view of life, and that beyond-ness begs questions about the reality of transcendence.

Thirdly, we humans are seekers of truth. It is interesting to note the Bible’s many references to seeking truth and God. One might expect to find in the Bible some certainty and clarity about God, but right through the Bible there is a strong encouragement to seek God. That is, God is not simply known or ever completely known. Faith in God is an ongoing journey where we continue to seek God and through this seeking find freedom and joy in God, but it remains a journey. It is always a search. The Biblical writers knew the importance of seeking God.

Moses knew that when the people had settled in the new country they would go astray if they did not continually seek God and so he reminds them saying; From there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. [Deut 4:29].  Moses astutely knew that when people settle into a relatively routine and prosperous lifestyle they tend to take for granted their beliefs and values. 

After the disaster of the Exile when the people of God’s faith was sorely tried, Jeremiah reminded them of God promises; when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me [Jer 29: 12-14].  God’s promises fed their faith and hope as they still do. God’s Word remains true for us today.

The Psalmists encourage the people to seek God despite God’s promises: 

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; [63:1] and,  

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”  Your face, LORD, do I seek [27:8]. 

All that has been said in this sermon is reflected in the Bible including such stories as that of Zacchaeus who wanted to see Jesus. Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus. Something in Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus’ deepest need for freedom and peace with God. 

I believe that this yearning in me for truth and freedom is God given.

I believe and trust that the Living God meets us in Christ Jesus. I certainly don’t fully understand and certainly don’t know completely, but I experience enough love and my hope is set ablaze by that love.

I believe because in my search for truth and meaning nothing is more convincing than that this universe is not an accident of random events. I believe there is transcendence in this universe – a dynamic spirit of energy that I happily name the Living God.  I believe we humans are born for this search and will only find our true peace and vitality in seeking God. So like Zacchaeus, I want to see Jesus.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  03/11/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Coming Out the Other Side 27-10-2019

COMING OUT THE OTHER SIDE

Sometimes life just seems like a dark tunnel we will never get out of.   Perhaps it is a natural disaster like the bushfires raging across New South Wales at present – bushfires that could hit Victoria again this summer.   Sometimes it is more personal – the death of a loved one or a serious health scare and we feel we are never going to come out of the dark hole.   Often it is no one’s fault but our own, but it is still just as dark and there is no one else to blame.

Our reading today is from the Book of Joel which is all about a severe plague of locusts which destroys the country’s food for the next year.   Joel also takes this as an image of the disastrous things happening in other ways to the nation.   People are asking where God can be in all this, and Joel is reassuring them that God has not forgotten them, that this time will not last forever.   Sometimes all we can do is hang on and know that this time will not last forever.

Joel goes further, and tells the People that not only will God give them food and wine in plenty in the future, but God actually want to bring something better out of this bad thing that has happened.  God will send his Spirit on all people, not just prophets and priests, and these are the words that came to Peter hundreds of years later to explain what was happening on the Day of Pentecost.   That is worth holding onto.   God does not cause bad things to happen to good people, but is with us throughout the bad times and wants to bring something even better to pass if we will be open to the Spirit of God.

The Pharisee did not think he needed any help – he was sure he was a righteous person whom God would delight in.   But it was the tax collector who went home justified by God, because he acknowledged his life was a mess, all created by him and he threw himself on the mercy of God.   Whatever our disaster, whether we caused it ourselves or it just happened, if we open ourselves to God’s mercy and love, we will not only come out the other side of the dark tunnel, the Spirit of God can make something new for us and for our world.

Robert Johnson

27 October 2019 

Yearning for Justice 20-10-2019

YEARNING FOR JUSTICE

Luke 18: 1-8 Leighmoor UC

Jeremiah 31: 27-34 20 Oct 2019 

There is a deep yearning within each one of us.

Not just the yearning to love and be loved,

But I think it is connected to it.

It is the yearning deep within us for our home and our family.

Some of us have begun to doubt whether we actually have a home,

  a family, a Father who loves us.

The People of Israel were stuck in a foreign land, in Babylon,

servants of the people there.

Their home, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and their identity as the People of God smashed even as the Temple had been smashed.

But through the prophet, they were reminded again and again,

Don’t let go of that yearning 

– you do have a home, you are part of my family, says God.

Even though they were there for generations, for 70 years,

the yearning kept reminding them of who they were 

and whose they were.

Even more, God says through the prophet,

I am doing a new thing, making a new covenant.

There won’t just be stone tablets of the Law in the Temple,

for you to obey;

I will write this new covenant on your hearts

You will understand what is right and wrong

More than that, I will be in a close relationship with you,

So wherever you are, I will be there with you.

The Temple might have been destroyed, but they learned God was with them in their gatherings to worship wherever they were;

in their homes as they kept Shabat;

in their hearts as they lived what was right .

The widow in Jesus’ parable yearned for justice.

She had been wronged, and she knew it was wrong.

She had no man to stand up for her publicly, so she did it herself.

Jesus said, if that unjust judge eventually heard her pleading 

and her yearning, how much more will God listen to our yearning.

It is a yearning for home, for a place where people are loved 

and treated with fairness and more.

We talked a few weeks ago about children and justice.   

How often have you heard a child saying It’s not fair!   

It is often a very simple understanding, like whether someone else has more lollies than me, 

but the idea of fairness and justice is deep within us all.   

But what do you do when the world clearly is not fair, not just?   

Hitting and screaming may not be the best solution, but we often see adults or even countries trying this.   

Others just give up, but Jeremiah and Jesus are encouraging us never to give up, 

to keep yearning for justice, 

to always persist in prayer. 

There is a reason why we should never give up yearning for justice.   It is because God is yearning for a just world, 

a world where people treat each other with justice and compassion,

  a world where God’s love rules.   

Our God is a God who never gives up 

– never gives up on his world; never gives up on us.   

The reason we need to keep yearning for justice, 

to persist in prayer, 

is that it gives God a chance to change us, 

so that we can become part of the answer to our own prayers.

Never give up yearning for justice, that yearning comes from God.  

Especially when the vulnerable are being picked on, we join God 

in calling for them to be treated as valuable children of God.

Sometimes we wonder if God is even hearing our prayers

Remembering praying for the end of Apartheid

 – would it ever come?

East Timor …

Refugees

Later this month I will have been ordained for 50 years.

Back in 1969 I was yearning for people 

to find a living and vibrant faith in Australia.

Since then church attendances have dropped markedly

Christian faith is not the assumed position of this nation,

It is clearly secularism now.

Should I give up?   It hasn’t really worked…

I can’t get away from that yearning …

I could be at home in bed, or at a friend’s Pink Ribbon breakfast;

But I choose to come here;

because I yearn for you to find a close and stronger 

relationship with the living God.

I yearn for this congregation to discover its mission and to thrive.

Don’t give up on that yearning God gives you.

Never give up praying, 

for praying brings us into a deeper relationship with God, 

and through that we are changed, 

so that we become channels of his peace.

Blessed to be a Blessing 13-10-2019

BLESSED TO BE A BLESSING

A recent scientific study of 150,000 people over 25 years has found that our level of happiness has little to do with our genetic make-up, personality traits or childhood, and that factors such as partner’s temperament, faith, social participation, healthy habits and long-term goals are much more important.   On the other hand, the pursuit of wealth and material goods, as well as a neurotic partner, are key elements of unhappiness. They could have read the Bible and found that out for free!

The story of Jesus and the ten lepers who are healed teaches us that not only does God bless us, but that we need to bless God.  Jesus told the Samaritan who returned that his faith had made him well.  The others were blessed with physical healing, but in the act of thanking God he was made whole.   That is why we come to church – to give thanks to God for all our blessings, and when we come to church in that frame of mind, we go home blessed.   Singing praises to God is more than having a “good sing” – it links us to the source of life and joy.

When we know we are blessed and we thank God, we discover that we are called to be a blessing to others.    It gives us a purpose in life that brings a deep sense of satisfaction and joy.   In fact the Bible does not promise us happiness, but something better and deeper – joy.   God does not promise that life will be all smooth sailing – in fact the opposite; but God does promise that He will be always with us and will give us that deep joy even in the midst of adversity.

The study is right when it says that we actually have a choice about how happy we will be.   Choosing whether to be a blesser is an important start, having faith, sharing in a faith community and responding to Jesus’ call to be a blessing to others will bring life and joy.

It is the same with congregations.  If our congregation thanks and praises God and is a blessing to our community, it will be blessed and made whole.   We are blessed to be a blessing!

Robert Johnson 

13 October, 2019 – Pentecost 18 

From Little Things Big Things Grow 06-10-2019

FROM LITTLE THINGS, BIG THINGS GROW

Increase our faith, said the apostles, and so do most of us.  We all struggle with our faith, and would love to have a deeper and stronger faith.   But Jesus says it is not the amount of the faith that makes a difference; in fact only a tiny amount of faith in the living God is enough.   From that tiny faith in God, great things can happen.   It is actually not the faith that makes the difference so much as who we put our faith or our trust in.

The story Jesus goes on to tell shows that the key thing God is looking for is faithfulness, actually doing what God asks of us or calls us to do.   That is much more important than the depth of our feelings or the words we use to profess the strength of our faith.  Faith is having the trust in God to take that first step without knowing the outcome.  Faithfulness kicks in as we keep following Jesus, even when the going gets tough.

Paul writes in 2 Timothy telling Timothy that his faith first lived in his grandmother, Eunice, then his mother, Lois, and has been handed on to him. Eunice would not have dreamed when she first decided to start following Jesus that her grandson would become a leader of the church, still celebrated 2000 years later. It was the same in Russia.During the long period of Communism when churches were closed, it was the grandmothers who passed on their faith to their grandchildren in secret – now churches are being reopened and are full.

From little things big things grow.

The marvellous song From Little Things, Big Things Grow tells the story of the Gurindji aboriginal people, who in 1966 walked off the cattle station owned by Lord Vestey, who had taken over their land.  

A small protest by people who were not even citizens in their own land, against rich and powerful interests.  But they remained faithful to their vision of running their own cattle station on their own land, and eventually were granted the title to a portion of it in 1975.

What small step in faith are you being challenged to take?

From little things, big things grow.

Robert Johnson 

6 October 2019

October 2019