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.

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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.  

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* [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]

 

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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!

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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

A’dam-eve: Humanity and Living 24-02-2019

A’dam-eve: Humanity and Living  

Genesis 2: 8-9, 16 – 22, 3: 1 – 13, 20 – 24;  Psalm 8

Is 

The Children’s Story sets our sermon theme today. The story of Adam and Eve has greatly influenced Christian thinking.   It was formed to help us understand our relationship to God the Creator. Traditionally it is taken to mean that God Created two people, a man and a woman, and placed them in a garden that met all their needs. But God gave them one command – not eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. Encourage by a serpent they disobeyed and God punished them by banning them from this garden. We go on to say that through our disobedience we have earned God’s anger and we need forgiveness, but we cannot really change our ways so Jesus came to die for our sins and save us. There are a few problems with this traditional interpretation.  Firstly, God is portrayed as a pernickety and punitive God.  I say pernickety because God sets up a rule, which inevitably will be broken.  And it follows that God is punitive because humanity broke a rule and consequently they were driven out of the garden. No forgiveness was offered, which contradicts the rest of the Bible story. Secondly, sin is reduced to an act of disobedience.  Thirdly, we need someone to take our punishment. This traditional understanding is essentially simplistic. The notion that God is pernickety and punitive flies in the face of the grace of God revealed in Jesus.  Defining sin as disobedience misses the depth of sin. Sin is much more than an act of disobedience.

Now scholars have come up with many different interpretations of the Adam and Eve story. I wish to share with you an interpretation which I understand to be close to the mark.  I understand Jerome Berryman’s interpretation, which was expressed in our children’s story time, to be most helpful. I met Jerome in 1992 at the Banff seminar on religious education and values. There I saw him introduce his Montessori method of teaching the Bible to students, which he called Godly Play. I use his materials in Children’s Time on a Sunday. Jerome presented such a story to a bunch of international grey haired professors and leading educators. I was caught up in the method and I saw all these learned men and women equally enraptured.  My relationship with Jerome was renewed in Goslar, Germany and Carmarthen, Wales.  We got on well together. He certainly gave me an invaluable gift, which I hope is passed on to our children. Today’s lesson introduced another way of understanding this story, which he calls the a’dam- eve story.

Permit me to enlarge on this interpretation of Genesis chapters 2 and 3.  Remember that when this inspired story came to the people of God they wrote in a language and a culture giving rise to a completely different understand from ours. We are Westerners. Our culture is dominated by a scientific way of knowing. We are wholly enmeshed in a view that fact is truth and truth is fact. We read things like this story with a type of literalism. We read it as if it was an historical narrative; hence some want to know where Eden was. We take Adam and Eve to be names of people, but they are not. They have become names of people. They weren’t then.  The name Adam is a literal taking of the Hebrew word a’dam, which means humankind. Wherever else the word is used in the OT it is translated humankind. Secondly, eve, means ‘mother of all living’.

Let’s be clear about some of the facts included in this story. We are told that God created humankind in God’s image, male and female [Gen 1: 27].  Then God put humankind, a’dam, in a garden.  We are given the most general description of its location, which would be in northeastern Middle East. That’s hardly a location. The location of the garden is irrelevant to the story. What is relevant is that humankind is given responsibility to care for the garden and that the garden meets all their needs. They lived in harmony and peace with all their needs met. The point of having eve come from humankind’s ribs, is to show that male and female are essentially one.

This story wants us to understand how disharmony, discord, dissension and division entered humanity. The two trees represent life that is living forever and life’s differences.  The knowing of good and evil is about coming to understand the differences in life. Good and evil are mentioned but they represent all differences such as high and low, close and far, male and female.

The first lesson concerning humankind in this story is that humankind is created and has a Creator. It is telling us that our creation was good.  Good is a better word than perfect. Remember that the Bible uses ‘good’ not perfect. Perfect suggests no flaws and no need for improvement. Something is just perfect. Good means it meets God’s approval and is entirely satisfactory. Perfect means that we don’t need to change anything. Good implies there is room for change and growth.  God created a good world and gave humankind responsibility for it. That implies the dynamic of change and growth.

The second lesson of this story is that humankind was created with freedom to choose. We often misunderstand the wonder of our Creator God, who made us in ‘his’ image and set us free to be creative and relate to God. One cannot have a relationship that is meaningful with someone who is not free to be themselves. I don’t think I need to explain that truth. How frustrating it is when we encounter people so tied to someone, or a set of conventions, that they can’t do anything without seeking permission. They seem to have no freedom to be themselves.

The third lesson takes us to the cause of our disharmony and alienation.  The cause is tied to our freedom to choose.  We are placed in this world – a garden – that is all sufficient. But in living in it we see the differences. The tree of the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ [Gen 2:9] represents the differences in life.  We see that there are differences between things. The differences raise questions. The differences lead to value judgements. We begin to prize different things and then fight over them. Our different opinions and value judgements lead to separation and ultimately to alienation. By the way, the point of humankind covering their nakedness, hiding behind trees and blaming each other is all about the deep seated alienation in humanity.  There is also a positive side to these differences. Because humans can differentiate they can dissemble and assemble things creatively.

I understand the command not eat of the fruit of the tree of ‘good and evil for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’ [Gen 2:17] to be significant. If you analyse this statement the focus is on the verb ‘to eat’.  Here lies the clue to the significance of the command. If you eat something you ingest it. You take it into your body. It becomes part of you. You are familiar with that healthy diet statement, ‘you are what you eat’. That is the point here. If you eat of the fruit of the tree of differences you will be captured by differences. Difference will be your focus not unity.  The point about dying is not to be taken literally. That is, this is not simply you will die physically. What dies when you are absorbed with difference is harmony, compatibility, agreement and peace. That’s what dies – our unity and harmony. When we consume and absorb this knowledge of difference into our lives disunity, dissension and disagreement take place. There lies the issue. That is what this story of a’dam-eve is about. I would add that God didn’t prohibit difference but prohibited being absorbed by it. Western humans are absorbed by difference.

It is one thing to appreciate differences.  They are important. The knowledge of differences enables us to expand our knowledge and ability to re-structure differences into new things. The ability to understand differences contributes to our creativity. In that sense we are like God, but humans cannot make things out of nothing, only God can.  However, we humans have so focussed on difference that we have let difference corrupt our relationships and perspective on life. Our differentiation is the root cause of classicism and racism. Differentiation leads to individualism at the expense of community.  You can see how individualism unravels our harmony and community. You can see it in the Church undermining our fellowship and unity.

I hope you can see that we are wonderfully made, as the psalmist says. I hope you can see that the A’dam-eve story is a deep story that helps us understand that we belong to God, that we have become absorbed with difference and become alienated. I hope I have helped you see the people we are meant to be – a community of people reconciled to God and reconciled to each other. We’re important to each other and we’re important to God. It is in our unity and love for one another we show the world God’s wonderful possibility for God’s world.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  24/02/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Culture Clash 17-02-2019

HOMILY; 17 FEB 19 LEIGHMOOR UC

“CULTURE CLASH”

There is a fundamental culture clash between those who put their trust in God and those who pursue, fame wealth and fortune! 

What differentiates between those of us who profess a belief in Christianity and those who don’t?

We mostly all have the same sort of jobs with the same pay. We live in similar sorts of houses with the same sort of mortgages. WE all drive similar looking cars and send our kids to the same sort of schools while we go to the same sort of holidays as each other. We have similar spending habits too, buying the various consumer goods as each other.

Our Bible references speak of there being two significantly different ways of living, a way that is blessed, but at odds with the world around us and a way that goes with the majority but leads to ruin.

Down through the ages, I guess that Jesus’ words about ‘blessed are you who are poor’ and ‘woe to you who are rich’ has been causing his followers to look for loopholes ever since he spoke them.

We have Luke’s words in front of us today but the better known Matthew’s Gospel version has some softening of the blow of these words. Matthew says :’Blessed are the poor in spirit’ and ‘Blessed are you who hunger for righteousness’.

It is still hard to explain how one can be poor in spirit while focussing a lot of time and energy on trying to be at least as well off as those around us. We may not feel wealthy and there is a huge industry that keeps suggesting that we are not there yet.

The Friendship Book 2014, for January 2 has this to say of relevance to us. “If you have never been in war, imprisoned or suffered from starvation, then you are better off than five hundred million other people. If you can read, then you are better off than the two billion who are unable to do so. If you can attend a church without fear of harassment, or worse, then you are better off than three billion people in the world.

If you have food in the fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, then you are richer than three-quarters of your fellow human beings. If you have money in the bank or your wallet or purse, then you are among the top eight per cent of the world’s wealthy” When it comes to counting your blessings, there is no ‘but’ about it, we in Australia are mostly rich.

Rev Nathan Nettleton from the Baptist church, South Melbourne says that If we take the words of Jesus simply at face value then he is saying “it is spiritually good to be in the bottom half of the spectrum and spiritually disastrous to be in the top half”. What do we make of this when the likes of me and suppose many of you too are in the top half of the top half of the top half?

If we are comfortable in the top half of the top half why do so many of us often feel anxious about keeping our heads above water and act like we are struggling to make ends meet? 

My impression is that most congregations today in the long standing denominations are in situations more like Luke’s world who had wealth, were full, and laughing, and were in good social standing according to the standards of the old age. Only a few contemporary Christians and congregations are hated. A bomb or two were recently thrown in to a worshipping church service in the Philippines. It does happen.

Those pursuing wealth and comfort have put their faith in something other than what Jesus calls us to put our faith in. We are also told ‘We cannot serve two masters”.

There is just so much greed and dishonesty out in the business jungle, worldwide. When the Iraq Gulf war erupted it was a British newspaper asked: “Where to invest our money if it’s war in the Gulf?” [Which war was among the oil wells].

When the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred , the USA leaders implored New Yorkers to shop, shop, shop so to power up their economy. We in Victoria have noted the report received from the Royal Commission into banking practises. Why did the Bank shares then increase? It seems that the expected penalties will be light on.

The accumulation of possessions is an insidious addiction making it impossible for us to embrace things that are the way to salvation.

Jesus invited the rich and poor to follow him. His message is one of reconciliation of all to all but he is also being very realistic about the fact that some have the inside running and some don’t. ”Blessed are you.. Woe to you..”.

At Leighmoor we have some challenging times ahead. Our Minister and his wife are retiring at year end. At present levels of giving we will run through the cash reserves too quickly if we want a full time replacement. If we don’t adequately maintain our buildings they will end up not being usable. WE are short of sufficient volunteers to carry all the tasks of running the Parish.

There is much need of services in our community where Leighmoor may be able to host, like some floor space when the Men’s shed make their move. What as individuals are we able to offer to allow our welcoming friendly Parish have an increased outreach to our community?

I cannot answer that but let me finally give you an example:-“There was a mailman, John Hand, who drove his mail truck through some hills in California some 80 kilometres each day. The route was plain, all brown and virtually no colour. One day he began to throw out wild flower seeds out his window as he drove. Today you’ll find beautiful patches of flowers throughout blossoming in many colours.

We all travel different roads, have different skills, be it with our families, at work, wherever. Can we be a catalyst for change? Can we sow the seeds of love, joy, righteousness and all the fruits of the Holy Spirit? As we sow them throughout our daily lives, those dull, dry landscapes will begin to blossom into something beautiful and we will be remembered as the ones who sowed those seeds. 

Quite finally, this is called “Reflections”

At the close of life

The question is

Not how much you have got

But how much you have given

Not how much you have won

But how much you have done

Not how much you have saved

But how much you have sacrificed

Not how much you were honoured

But how much you have Loved and served.” 

The First and Best in our Calling 03-02-2019

The First and Best in our Calling

Malachi 3: 1 – 5;  Acts 1: 1 – 14

[This Sermon was preached on 02/02/2019 at the Gippsland Presbytery Induction Service.]

You might wonder why I chose an OT reading that we usually read in Advent.  The Acts 1 reading is self-evident on this day when we induct two new Presbytery Ministers with Mission as our focus. So why Malachi?  When I was preparing for Advent 2 I was also conducting discussions regarding Presbytery Minister placements. The Malachi reading spoke to me of God’s Mission. Our Church is highly focussed on mission and it does coincide with our decline and the situation we are in. We’re heavily into writing mission statements. So what should be our motivation for mission? Declining numbers or… ?  Today I want to make three points about mission from a Biblical and Theological perspective.  And I hope they will be helpful.  

Firstly, I want to say that God has established the Church’s mission. The word mission comes from the Latin missio, which means to send. God’s sending and providing the mission is found in Judaism’s beginning story.  It is in Genesis 12 and the calling and sending of Abraham and Sarah. In verse 3 God says to them;  I will bless those who bless you, … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” We are blessed to be a blessing. It is not too hard so see that the Great Commission in Matthew 28 reflects the essence of God’s sending of Abraham and Sarah and that of Isaiah 66.

Secondly, the notion of being blessed to be a blessing provides us with the source of God’ s mission. The notion of ‘blessed to be a blessing’ saves us from skewing God’s Mission into personal salvation or social justice, which we have been doing for centuries. Personal salvation and justice are by products of the ‘blessing’ not the essence.  

If we think of our life experiences most of us would say that our greatest blessing comes from being loved.  We may not use the term blessing, but being loved is the source of feeling good about self and life. Being loved is the power that steers us through the winding up and down road of life.  Being loved helps us love ourselves and consequently love others. I can’t imagine Abraham and Sarah not having a sense of being loved. It may not be how they would have described it. But the call and sending of this mysterious God would have made them feel worthwhile, positive, hopeful and thankful. They were energised by the call and sending.

In Deuteronomy 6 we find the Shema, which instructs us to: Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. [6:4&5]  What seems a duty to love God is really a pathway to blessing. For to show love to someone usually results in love returned. That is what they experienced.  God loved them; God blessed them; God gave them a task and equipped and sustained them.  Their hearts would have pounded with gratitude.  I think we under estimate the power of gratitude – praise – thankfulness. The OT resounds with praise. And we sit here today because of love given to God resulting in loved extended to the world. That is why Paul, a Jew and scholar of the Hebrew tradition encourages us to ‘rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; …’ [1 Thess 5:16-18].  

It is interesting how the wholistic health services pick up on the importance of gratitude. I read an inspirational message on the Chiropractors wall; ‘Interrupt anxiety with gratitude’. Exactly! I say. “Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.”  We read in A.A. Milne’s, Winnie the Pooh.

Imagine the power of the Church if our words and actions expressed a deep gratitude. Praise is not only our duty, but it is life-giving, and in that it is the first missionary action. We cannot underestimate the power of deep gratitude in the face of death.

The Church’s history tells the same story. So not surprisingly the Westminster Confession states that humankind’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever. When we love God in our worship we let God’s love overwhelm us [Source 373] and we become ‘lost in wonder love and praise’ as Charles Wesley wrote in that beautiful song, “Love Divine all loves excelling’ [TiS 217].  Through God loving us we become positive, joy-filled and thankful people. Such joy-filled people make a difference. 

Thirdly, if blessing is the source of our missionary work it is also the nature of God’s Mission, as we have seen.  The teaching about worship proceeding justice is integral to the teaching found in Amos, Isaiah, the first letter of John and Jesus’ own teaching in the sermon ‘On the Mount’. Read Amos in its context and one sees that God’s disgust with the people’s worship is because it is self-serving worship.  Self-serving worship leads to self-serving living. Right worship leads to right living and vice versa.

We are sent into the world to bless it. We do this through loving our neighbour.  The command to love our neighbour is mentioned once in the OT [Lev 19:18]. However again and again we are told to care for the land and to provide for the widow, the orphan and the alien.  I love the word alien. It says so strikingly that this person doesn’t belong in the land. They’re foreigners like those ‘backdoor’ refugees of ours. But God’s people are told repeatedly – take care of the alien. Provide for their daily needs.  I’m puzzled by the lack of compassion for refugees today in some quarters of the Church. 

So what I saying in this small space of time is that the Church’s mission is God’s mission. The first act of our mission is our worship and our second action is to love our neighbour, which naturally flows from our worship. I say again, imagine our lives exhibiting positivity towards life, deep-seated gratitude, and love for others. I’m also saying that God’s mission is done by all – young and old – who worship God.

Now you may be still wondering why I chose Malachi? The point of the passage is that God’s people need to be purified before their worship is acceptable. That’s the message of the first four verses we were set to read on the second Sunday in Advent. But if you add verse 5, which is integral to first 4 verses, we told that when God’s people are refined then God would bring justice. This is so because true justice follows from true worship. God want us to be refined like silver because God has chosen to use us to be the agents of change. God’s agents of compassion and justice are God’s true worshippers. That’s why this passage is also about mission.

I don’t know how many of you know the story of a group of women who wanted to know what it means that God or God’s Messenger would be like a refiner of silver. The unrefined silver is held over the fire at a very high temperature. Too much heat will destroy the silver. The refiner must watch the process all the time. The silversmith cannot take his or her eyes off the silver for a moment. The silversmith was asked how one knows when the silver is refined. The refiner of silver said, ‘That’s the easy part. When I see my image in the silver it is refined.” So it is with us. When we reflect God’s image we are ready to serve God’s world.

So finally I conclude with some bad news for you. The Joint Nominating Committee working with Synod has discerned that these four Presbytery Ministers are right for you. Two we induct today. I believe you are blessed in these four. I really do. The have been affirmed to offer you leadership. I see so much positivity in these placements. God has blessed you. But I also see our action today doomed to failure. Why, because this Presbytery remain largely where it is if the Presbytery – you members of Presbytery in Council and the members of the local churches – unless you change and work with them.   They will accomplish little in their own right. Alone they are weak. Together you will be strong.  I firmly believe that the way forward lies in a renewal of your worship of God, a revitalising of your love for God, one another and those beyond your fellowship.  Revitalised by worship, filled with the joy of the Lord, your compassion for God will be enlivened and your witness burn brightly. But it must be together.

 

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  03/02/2019

Preached at the Induction of Presbytery Ministers: Traralgon, Gippsland 02/02/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

United as One 27-01-2019

United as One.

Nehemiah 8: 1 – 10; Luke 4: 14 – 21; 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31a

 

The grand themes of community and God’s blessing are presented in our texts this Sunday. They remind us of the importance of community and how community works. They contain rich veins of golden truths. I hope you will see these truths afresh today and be blessed. In being blessed we will be a blessing to others. 

 We’ll start with Jesus in his home synagogue. Luke tells us that Jesus filled with the power of the Spirit returned home to Nazareth. Jesus must have been on a high. His ministry had started well. People had come to hear him in the synagogue, market place and hillside. Many had been healed. Demons had been cast out. People had been amazed at his authority. Naturally he attended his home synagogue where he read from the Isaiah scroll.  The Isaiah writings were as important then as now. Jesus chose to read what we know as Isaiah chapter 61.  Our chapter and verses are a modern invention established about 600 years ago. Whether Jesus chose this text specifically or whether it was set for the day we don’t know.  The point is that the book of Isaiah is filled with prophetic pictures of God’s future.  The section Jesus read describes the day of the Lord when the Christ / Messiah will bring the Goodnews that God will restore justice and peace to the earth. The people longed for God’s restoration of Israel and the establishment of justice and peace for all.  Jesus read this text and by his manner and action claimed to be the prophetic Messiah / Christ figure by saying that this word was being fulfilled in him. 

I am not going to focus on the theme that God’s time of blessing and restoration includes justice, which emerges in many places in the Bible.  I am going to focus on what is implied by Jesus attending the synagogue. Jesus’ attendance affirmed the importance of God’s people gathering together.  We often glide over these references to Jesus in the synagogue without considering the implication. Yes, it would have been practical to go to the synagogue because that is where the people went on the Sabbath, but Jesus also went to worship God. To worship God is our duty. It is our duty to worship God and our duty to be with each other. We come here not for ourselves and hopefully not out of pure habit, but we come to worship God and be here with each other, because God looks forward to our collective praise and worship.

Turning to the Corinthian reading we read one of Paul’s famous passages on the gifts of the Spirit and also about the importance of the Church as a community. Corinthians chapters 12 – 14 are crucial to understanding the nature of the Church – God’s community.  Incidentally I did my masters on these chapters.  They’re very special to me.  They are special to all of us 

Last Sunday you focused on the first few verses of chapter 12 with its emphasis on diversity and the gifts of the Spirit. The diversity we have in the Church then and now is part of God’s creative order. But diversity to be a blessing requires unity. The gifts of the Spirit are given to individuals, but not for the individual’s benefit. The gifts and talents we have are not what we have earned or created – they are gifts. Our gifts and talents are given for the benefit of others. We aren’t given all the gifts. We each have a few gifts, which are different. For us to truly benefit we need access to all the gifts.  The only way we can benefit from all gifts God provides is through the fellowship of the Church.  To put it simply my gifts bless you and yours bless me. Inherent in our humanity is the need for others. We are the person we become because of the contributions of others to us and vice versa. 

Our reading of Corinthians ends with an enticement of a more excellent way [1 Cor 12:31]. Paul goes to explain that love is the most excellent way and all we do should be done in love. We find that in chapter 13. That’s the chapter that every bride and groom thinks was written for them. We call it the ‘hymn of love’.  Sorry to disillusion you, but it wasn’t written for your wedding; it was written for the Church universal. Our gifts are to be used lovingly for the whole of Christ’s body.  Paul moves from talking about the community’s diversity, unity and God’s gifts to exercising the gifts in love. This flow of theological thought indicates that Paul didn’t write in chapters and verses. He just wrote a letter.

Corinthian chapter 12 uses the metaphor of a human body to describe the nature of the Church and its unity. We are one body – the body of Christ. We are one body and each individual is a part of the one body.  Paul used a Greek word, which we translate as member, which really means ‘a part of’. We should not confuse this meaning with our common use of member to describe our belonging to a club or organisation. Membership of a club or organisation is something we choose to exercise at our whim and fancy. Membership in the church is about being a part of one Christ’s body. The parts of my body form the whole of me. Each part plays and important part of who I am. When one part malfunctions it affects the whole body. So when one part of the Church is in pain we all suffer – just like our physical bodies. I don’t know about you but when I stub my little toe it makes an awfully big noise for its insignificant size. Do you pay much attention to your little toe? However that little toe is important to you. Medical science tells us – even though the pinkie toe itself has no functional value, removing the metatarsal (linked to the little toe) would make running, walking and skipping nearly impossible. Therefore, just as all parts of my body are important to my well-being, so too are all parts / members of the Church are important to our well-being. So when one member is in pain the whole body feels it. When one member is joyful the whole membership shares in the joy. That’s the reason for sharing our ‘joys and concerns’. Paul reminds us of two important truths here. Firstly, we are one body. Secondly we have many parts to the Church. There lies a deep spiritual lesson for us. 

It is our duty to worship God and it is duty to do so together, because we are one and God looks to the one body not the individual part or members of the body of Christ. God wants us to be united as a community. That’s our blessing and strength.

Finally we turn to our Old Testament story, which is part of the Jewish Scriptures too.  The people have returned from Babylon where they have been in exile. The returning refugees have recently been given permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and Temple. The great majority of the first returnees to Jerusalem under Nehemiah and Ezra had been born in Babylon.  Returning to Jerusalem was completely new experience. Their new found freedom in their homeland was not easy. As we would expect the returning exiles didn’t always see eye to eye and they were not all focussed on the same things.  Their leaders, Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest, knew that they needed to hold the people together. They realised the community could so easily disintegrate with everything in a state of flux. There’s nothing new in that truth. Uncertainty, differences, change all contribute to anxiety and fear.  Anxiety and fear strain our relationships. Something needed to be done.

Nehemiah and Ezra knew the basics. In the seventh month of their arrival they gathered the people. Is that symbolic of the Seventh Day being a day of rest and worship?  Whatever, they do the following.  

  1. They gather all the returning Jews together.
  2. They teach and interpret the Law of God.
  3. They do so with the help of 26 named persons and some Levites – a sharing of gifts.
  4. They tell them to celebrate – have good food and drink.
  5. They tell them to share their food and drink with those who don’t have enough. (I suspect those still living in the land – a few had been left behind – were very poor.)
  6. The tell them that the joy of the Lord is their strength 

Nehemiah and Ezra knew that the people needed to be grounded in the Scriptures, celebrate their community and worship God with praise and thanksgiving. In being a united community of God’s they worshipped.  There lay their true joy.

The Scriptures today remind us of the simple steps of our faith in Christ Jesus.  We are a community that belongs together, to serve each other, to share God’s blessing with those outside our fellowship, and worship in the joy of God. In each of our texts set for today these elements are present. What we have here is a focus on the essence of our Faith, the community, our fellowship, and the joy of our celebrations of God’s blessings.   In these simple things – our Faith, our Community and God – are the essence of our well-being.  In that well-being we serve our families, one another and all we encounter.

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  27/01/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Jesus Closest Companion 13-01-2019

Jesus’ Closest Companion.

Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22.

Reading the Bible is like doing a large puzzle. Each bit of the Bible you read is a piece of the big picture. Each piece fits into another to make up the whole. It is a big task to do this jigsaw puzzle. It is bigger that a 1000 piece puzzle. 

I think the Bible is a little like that. Last Epiphany Sunday I decided to put the ‘piece’ about the Gentile wise men coming to see the Christ child into the larger picture. So I built up an overview of the story of Scripture beginning with Abraham and Sarah through to Jesus and the Gentiles being welcomed into the company of Jesus and his followers. I think it helped a few of us.

We have the same problem this Sunday.  We have a Biblical jigsaw piece – Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  We looked at the birth of Jesus and that is manageable. He has got to be born before he dies and is resurrected. But now we’ve jumped, it seems, to his baptism. We’ve got this piece in our hand, so to speak. Where do we put it? We’ve got Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist – Jesus’ cousin. John believed Jesus didn’t need baptism. John was popular. The people thought John was the Christ. John distinguishes between his ministry and Christ Jesus’ ministry saying that Jesus would baptise us with the Holy Spirit. Jesus comes to John for baptism. John baptises him in the Jordan and afterwards the Holy Spirit falls on Jesus. The piece we’re holding right now is about the Holy Spirit. How / where does ‘she’ fit in?

Today I want to respond to the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Baptism of Jesus,  by connecting this ‘piece’ about the Holy Spirit with all the other ‘pieces’ about the Holy Spirit. 

All four Gospel accounts provide us with the same basic details about the Baptism of Jesus [Mt 3: 13-17; Mark: 1-9; Lk 3: 15-22; Jn 1: 28-34].  

  1. John was reluctant to baptise Jesus. 
  2. John baptised with water but the Christ would baptise with the Holy Spirit.  
  3. When Jesus was baptised the Spirit came upon Jesus.  
  4. Jesus confirmed as the Son of God.  

We should note that Jesus’ baptism is an historical fact equivalent to the historical fact of the crucifixion. There is no debate that it happened. Where the discussion lies is in the reason for Jesus to be baptised by John. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, forgiveness and being made spiritually right with God.  We find it hard to work out why Jesus needed to repent, be forgiven and made right with God.  

I am conscious that we can never understand perfectly the wonder of Jesus’ baptism, because we do not have every single detail before us.  However we can come to an understanding that will help us grow as Christians and fulfil God’s mission to be a blessing to others. So let’s have a go.

Firstly it seems that Jesus wanted to be baptised by John because Jesus wanted to identify with humanity. In being baptised Jesus is saying I am human I need to identify with sin and experience forgiveness, because I will take on the sin of the world and confront it and break its power. That is one of the significant results of Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus the Christ. That seems to be the best conclusion we can reach. We can certainly be sure that the Incarnation – the coming of God in the Christ child – is statement of God’s commitment to us and ownership of us. The presence of Christ Jesus confirms that God is for us.

Secondly, we cannot avoid the obvious conclusion that the Holy Spirit is important in Jesus’ life. Here I want to return to the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle.  Let us put some of the pieces together.  Pastor Sinclair Ferguson helps us when he says; “The best way to think about the Holy Spirit is to think of ‘her’ as the closest companion of the Lord Jesus.” Not only has the Spirit been the Son’s eternal partner in the uncreated fellowship of the Trinity, but also the Spirit was there with the Father and Son at creation [Gen 1:2]. The Spirit was instrumental Jesus’s conception [Lk 1:35], there at both his baptism [Lk 3: 22] and temptation [Lk 4: 1-2]. 

Luke mentions the Holy Spirit many times. We can be very grateful to Luke for that. For instances Luke tells us that, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone [Lk 4: 14-19]. But Luke is not the only one to make this point that Jesus ministered in power of the Holy Spirit. Mark makes the same statement in a different way. Mark tells us that after Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit came and affirmed him as the Son of God, the Spirit took Jesus into the wilderness [Mk 1:12].  Mark leaves out a lot of details about the temptation and other things and shows us very quickly the power of Jesus’ preaching [1:15], his call of the disciples [1:16], the authority of his teaching [1:22], his power over the demons [1:24] and his power to heal [1:31]. In the space 16 verses we are given all this information. In other words Jesus’ authority and power resided in the fact that the Holy Spirit was with him.

We are left with no doubt from the four Gospel accounts that the Holy Spirit is one with Jesus.  We can easily say that the Holy Spirit is Jesus’ closest companion.  Jesus had companions. They were good companions, but they wavered in their commitment, didn’t quite understand him, let their interests come between them and Jesus, and betrayed him and ran away.  However they did come back. They did prove to be wise and brave followers of Jesus, but that was only after the Resurrection and the blessing of the Holy Spirit coming upon them at Pentecost. Just putting that all together tells us that our companionship with Jesus at times falls short.  It seems we are at our best when we let the Holy Spirit dwell in us.

I think it is useful to look at the Spirit as Jesus’ closest companion and naturally ours.  We can recall Jesus’ teaching in John chapters 14-17 about the importance of the Spirit as the One who will lead us into truth, empower us, convict us of what is right and wrong and keep us close to Jesus.

We know we need companions along life’s journey.  They come in many ways to us.  We have occasional companions who have supported and guided us.  I can think of the companions I had at school, both teachers and students, the companions I have at the yacht club, the companions I have in the church, my friends, my wife and family. How impoverished my life – our lives – would be without these companions. Some travel with us for just a short while, others for the long haul. I also know that all the wonderful companions I have had in life have had their own needs and responsibilities to address.  But imagine having a companion who is always there.  Always there to bring out the best in us.   A companion that is honest and loving.  Honest enough to tell us we’ve got it wrong. Loving enough to forgive and nurture us. That kind of companion is hard to get, if not impossible, amongst humans. We need a companion who is solid, secure, sensitive and safe.  Jesus talks about having such a companion in his farewell messages to his disciples in John chapters 14 through to 16, which is the Holy Spirit. 

When Jesus’s closest earthly companions betrayed him, denied him and scattered, the Spirit walked with him all the way into the jaws of death, empowering him to offer himself freely. That is how the writer of Hebrews understood Jesus’ sacrificial death saying that Jesus through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God  [Heb 9:14].  Paul tells us that Jesus

was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead [Romans 1:4].  The early Christian writers clearly understood that the Holy Spirit was Christ Jesus’ constant companion. 

Let us be wary.  If our Christianity is made up of worship services and doing kindnesses to others, we run the risk of limiting the Holy Spirit’s influence on our lives. In so doing we deny ourselves and the Church of God’s full blessing. 

A.W. Tozer said, “The Spirit filled life is not a special delux edition of Christianity.  It is part and parcel of God’s total plan for Christians.”

Paul writes in Romans 5:5, God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  Let us welcome the Spirit into our lives.

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  13/01/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org