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.

 

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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

God’s Inclusive Purpose 06-01-2019

God’s Inclusive Purpose 

Isaiah 60: 1 – 6; Matthew 2: 1 – 12

Did God intend to have another religion or just expand the vision? 

I went into the sailing shop this past week to buy a sailing hat. When I went up to pay there was a new person at the counter. The owner, whom I know, was possibly taking a break or on the water around Hobart. As he handed my credit card back he said; “You’re having some time off after your busy season?” I realised he had noticed my title ‘Reverend’ on the card.  I replied, ‘No, just back to normal.’  He quickly responded saying that it must be the Wisemen’s soon. I commented that he was spot on as it was Epiphany this Sunday. Then he remarked how some German visitors had expressed their amazement that the Australian churches have the wise men at Christmas time, whereas in Germany they celebrate the Wisemen’s visit two months after Christmas.  I said that the Germans are right.  The wise men were nowhere near Jesus’ birthplace at ‘Christmas’ according to the Bible.

Our celebration of the birth of Jesus tends to telescope everything in a short time frame. It is liturgically helpful but historically unhelpful. That doesn’t mean that magi or wise men didn’t come from the east. It just means that we have to be more reflective to understand the meaning of all these events.

So what does Epiphany Sunday stand for?  This story of the wise men’s visit tells us that the Gentile world recognised the importance of Jesus’ birth.  These wise men or Magi are Gentiles. They are most likely from Iran where the study of stars and planets was a developed practice.  The study of the stars combined the physical study of planets and stars – astronomy – and the interpretation of stars and planets and their affect on humans – astrology. What the wise men had observed were actual phenomena in the night sky. About 11 BC Halley’s comet came close to earth. There were three conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC causing a single bright illumination in the night sky. Jupiter was a royal planet and Saturn sometimes represented the Jews. So this makes the Nativity star credible, although the notion of resting above the stable is mere literary licence.

What most likely happened was that these men saw the phenomena in the night skies. They reflected and studied and came to the conclusion that the heavens pointed to the birth of a significant king. They concluded from their reflection that Israel was the most likely place. They then resolved to travel and search for this king to be born. They did the most obvious thing. They went to the royal house of Israel, King Herod. There they were pointed to Bethlehem. These wise men were rational and determined pursuers of truth. The heavens had shown the importance and they resolved to be part of it: a not uncommon human trait.

Epiphany is the revelation or manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. The magi / wise men are the first examples of the Gentiles coming to Christ.  The coming Christ meant the inclusion of the Gentiles as we shall see. Paul sees himself as the apostle to the Gentiles saying;

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles who have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel … . [See: Eph 3: 1-12] 

To understand the full significance of the Gentiles inclusion we need to start the story at the beginning.

Firstly, let us remind ourselves that Jesus was a Jew, as were the disciples and the first Christians. The Jews traced their history back to God’s call of Abraham and Sarah. The Creator God called them to form a new community beginning with their family. God agreed to bless Abraham and Sarah and their offspring forever if they followed God, and that Abraham and Sarah’s children and their children would be a blessing to all peoples.  In Genesis God says to Abraham and Sarah, “Go from your country …  to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, …, so that you will be a blessing …  and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” [Gen 12: 1-3] How could that happen? Abraham and Sarah began a community that pointed to God the Creator. 

Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac, who in turn had Jacob.  Jacob’s name became Israel because he wrestled with God  [Gen 32: 27-28].  Israel had 12 sons one of which was Joseph. What followed was that during a major drought the family migrated to Egypt, the breadbasket of the world. Their brother Joseph was already there and had become a high official in the Egyptian government. God’s people found it very comfortable in Egypt and over stayed their welcome. They got caught up in slavery. 400 years later under the leadership of Moses, Miriam and Aaron the children of Israel with other slaves escaped [Ex 12: 38]. That escape we call the Exodus, which is remembered each year in the Jewish Passover. These escaped slaves became part of God’s Covenanted people – the Hebrews. They entered what we generally call today Palestine and settled there. They first lived in tribal groups, which were based on the 12 sons of Israel. Their leaders were prophetic and priestly figures. In time they wanted a king and Samuel the prophet and priest finally led them into a monarchy. From then on kings ruled the Israelites, while prophets worked at keeping the people faithful to God.  King David was the stand out king. King David became the model king for the Messiah figure.  (Of course Jesus didn’t fit the model of a successful military ruler and governor.)  

Israel’s structures of temple and priests, Law and prophets and the rule of kings cemented the Israelites’ faith in the one Creator God. However the nation never fully reached its potential as God’s kingdom on earth. It needed something more to fulfil its destiny as a light to the nations.  They realised that their structures were riddled with sin and human self-interest.  They understood that when they were taken into captivity in Babylon in 587 BC and Jerusalem and temple were destroyed that God was displeased with them. It cause a major re-think about the faith

The prophets spoke of God’s future when God would come and build the temple and gather all nations together. They even spoke of a child coming and God writing the Law on their hearts [Is 9:6; Jer 31:31]. So by the time of Jesus the Hebrew people, we refer to them as Jews, had come to understand that 

  1. God would send a Messiah/ Christ;
  2. the Christ would establish God’s Kingdom;
  3. the Temple would be re-established; and,
  4. all nations would be drawn to the Temple.

The book of Isaiah tells us that God would bring all nations to the Temple [Is 60:1]. In chapter 66 we are told of a more radical action of God.  God would include some Gentiles in the priestly and Levite ministry. That’s amazing because the privileged role of priest and Levite would no longer be exclusively reserved for Jews [Is 66:21].  

Following the Resurrection Jesus’ followers understood that –

  1. Jesus was the Christ;
  2. the kingdom was present wherever Jesus was;
  3. the Temple was the people of God; and
  4. the Gentiles were included.  [See Ephesians 3:1-12]

Through Christ Jesus the Church became the temple welcoming and drawing all and sundry into the presence of God.

The story of the wise men reminds us that Jesus has come for all people, not only the Jews, the people of the Covenant.  The story of the wise men tells us that God uses creation and human wisdom to reveal the Christ to us.  In this instance it was the use of astronomy and astrology that brought the wise men to Jesus. 

The story of the wise men reminds us that Jesus’ birth signalled a major shift in human understand about God. 

God comes to us as one of us. God comes and re-structures temple and priesthood. Humans gathered in the Christ’s name become the temple. And all who follow Christ become priests – servants of God.  We are one in Christ. We are together. Barriers are broken down between priest and lay, male and female and Jew and Gentile. This is what our texts declare on this Sunday.

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The Wise Men (by Janet Soo)

The wise men came from quite afar

By camel power and guiding star

There was no road, there was no car – but reason was theirs.

The travelled from the very east

By weary foot and lofty beast

No sat.nav. or Melway at least – but vision was theirs.

For many days and many nights

By moonlight and the sunshine bright

In valley deep and hills of height – but resolve was theirs.

They reached the house, the babe to see

And all went down on bended knee

With gifts they came, those wise men three

– for faith was theirs.

Now we have faith in God above

Who sent his own dear son, with love.

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  06/01/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The Getting of Wisdom 30-12-2018

The Getting of Wisdom

1 Samuel 2: 18 – 20, 26;   Luke 2: 41 – 52

In a world where wisdom is scarce can I learn wisdom?

The stories about Jesus’ birth and boyhood conclude with this commentary;  And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.” [Lk 2: 52] Likewise the commentator in 1 Samuel says that the boy Samuel “continued to grow in stature and in favour with the Lord and with the people.” [1 Sam 2: 26]

Both Samuel and Jesus grow in stature and wisdom respectively.  Wisdom and stature are not dissimilar things. Both Jesus and Samuel grow in favour with God and humans. It is true both did not enjoy the favour of those who protected their self-interest or exploited the marginalised.  Those who sought God and longed for justice saw in both these men the promise of God.  I am not suggesting that they were of equal stature. But both Samuel and Jesus played significant roles in promoting faith in God.  Samuel helped keep the people faithful with prophetic words and wise leadership. Jesus called people into the Kingdom of God and bridged the gap between God and all humanity. 

Yes, Jesus’ ministry was the greater, but both were significant leaders for God. What they had was wisdom. Wisdom is not the same as acquiring knowledge and being clever about things. Wisdom is the ability to successfully use knowledge to address the situations of life. Wisdom is not about oneself, but about others.  William Wordsworth said, “Wisdom is often times nearer when we stoop than when we soar.”   Humility is a major factor in the getting of Wisdom.   The wise person does not think of themselves as better, rather they see others as worthy of their respect. 

“The first key to wisdom is assiduous and frequent questioning. For by doubting we come to inquiry and by inquiry we arrive at truth.”  So said Peter Abelard, a 12th Century scholar and theologian. It is not surprising that Luke tells us Jesus was found by his parents “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding”. [Lk 2:46f] Then we read that he went back with his parents and ‘was obedient to them’.   Three important ingredients for the getting of wisdom emerge here:  Jesus’ humility and discipline, his questions and his listening.  We find some similar characteristics in Samuel. The willingness to obey, listen and learn.  Wisdom is never matter of knowing a lot of things. 

Wisdom is how we apply what we know to the life situations we face and 

to what extent our actions are for the benefit of all rather than the benefit of self.

Wisdom is also about judging rightly. Wisdom has an ethical content. We’ve already hinted at this in talking about wise judgements being for the benefit of others. To be wise is also about knowing difference between right and wrong.  I am deeply worried when I hear significant people talk about having made a mistake, when in fact they have acted unethically. And in the next breath they speak about all of us making mistakes. The implications is that we are no different to them. True we all have a list of mistakes we have made, but we all don’t have a list of unethical actions we have made. Acting unethically, immorally and criminally is not about making a mistake it is about the ethics, morality and criminality of the situation.  The wise person understands the difference between right and wrong – the truth and the lie.

There is truth in the saying that wisdom is a gift of God. But I believe the gift is something we acquire or develop as we draw closer to God. We become wise especially when we learn from the life, teachings and ministry of Jesus. Wisdom is godly in that it is god-like for there is no greater wisdom than the wisdom of God.  To be wise we must know God and ourselves. But as we seek to be wise by being humble, listening, questioning, learning we also seek the wisdom of others.   We should remember that the knife of keenest steel requires the whetstone, and the wisest person needs advice. That is why humility is so important.  How sad when people neither seek advice or listen or ask questions.

Edward Hersey Richards wrote:

The wise old owl sat on an oak,

the more he saw the less he spoke;

the less he spoke the more he heard;

why aren’t we like that wise old bird?

We enter another year with dramatic changes in our weather patterns;  huge challenges regarding millions of homeless people; countries still warring and perfecting the arms race; politicians remain hell bent on preserving their own brand;  technology undermining the community spirit;  and, our circuses of sport and entertainment numbing our mental awareness. Therefore we must pray for wise leaders to emerge and seek godly wisdom. And we need wisdom in the Church.

It follows that when one is seen to be wise others will respect and hold you in high esteem.

The story of The Richest Man in the Valley [Stories for Sharing p. 118] may help us see these truths and how they may work out in our lives. 

There was a wealthy lord who lived in the Scottish Highlands. He was more than richly endowed with this world’s goods and amongst his vast possessions was a stately mansion overlooking a beautiful valley. However there was evidence that he remained unfulfilled and was uncertain about himself. He lived alone and was possessed by his possessions, as one would be.

In the gate lodge at the entrance to his estate lived John, his herdsman and gatekeeper. John was man of simple faith and deep religious commitment. With his family he was a regular churchgoer. John’s faith was evident in his daily living and regular devotion. The lord of manor had caught glimpses of him reading the scripture and praying with his family at their dining table. 

One morning the lord was looking out on the valley resplendent in the rising sun. He was enjoying his estate.  Just then the doorbell rang. John wanted to see him he was told. So John was admitted. What’s the matter, John? He asked. 

John looked embarrassed. My lord, he replied, could I have a word with you?  He was invited into the study to speak in private. Sir, John said hesitantly, last night I had a dream, and in it God told me that the richest man in the valley would die tonight at midnight. I felt I should tell you. I hope, sir that you don’t mind.

Tut, tut, said the lord.  I don’t believe in dreams. Go back to your work and forget about it. 

John still looked uneasy. The dream was very vivid, sir, and the message was that the richest man in the valley would die at midnight, tonight. I just had to come to you, sir, as I felt that you should know.

The lord dismissed him, but John’s words bothered him so much so that he finally drove himself to the local doctor, his friend, for a check up. The doctor examined him, pronounced him fit as a fiddle and said he’d give him another twenty years.

The lord relieved but a lingering doubt caused him to invite the doctor around for dinner. They enjoyed a sumptuous meal together and shortly after eleven-thirty, the doctor got up to leave. When the lord asked him to remain on for another nightcap, he agreed.

Eventually midnight came and passed. The doctor left. The lord felt relieved that he; the richest man in the valley was still alive. He chuckled to himself about this silliness and superstition. And he muttered about that stupid John worrying him like that.

No sooner than he was in bed, when the doorbell went. It was twelve-forty.  Going down he found a grief stricken girl at the door. He then recognised her. It was John’s daughter. Sir, she said, my mother sent me to tell you that my father died at midnight. The lord froze. It was suddenly clear to him who was the richest man in the valley.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  16/12/2018

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The Manger – A Signpost 25-12-2018

The Manger – A Signpost

Isaiah 9: 2 – 7; Luke 2: 1 – 20

(I acknowledge with gratitude the work of Tom Wright.)

If you try to point out something to a dog, the dog will most probably look at your finger instead of the object you’re pointing to. This is frustrating. The dog looks at the pointing finger rather than what is pointed at. 

It is not uncommon for humans to be like that too.  They look at the pointing finger and not at the object.  A good example is the story of the birth of Jesus.  What do people know about the birth of Jesus?  Well there is a baby in a manger. It is the best known animal feeding trough in the world. It is depicted on Christmas decorations, Church buildings and pageants. And of course, the manger has a stable and animals. We all know that. And of course the Shepherds brought a lamb as present for baby Jesus like the Wisemen brought presents.  It’s all part of the Christmas scene: the stable, the manger, the animals, the shepherds and Wisemen.  In the background there lurks the innkeeper. Remember the innkeeper saying, ‘there’s no room in the inn’.  Some preachers followed that line making the point that we need to make room for Jesus, but we don’t. The latter is true, but the Bible never mentions the innkeeper, the Wisemen don’t come to the stable, no animals are mentioned and there’s no certainty that Jesus was born in a stable! 

I recall a particular Bible study when, an elderly couple, whom we befriended, where so upset when I pointed out that the Wisemen did not visit Jesus in the stable on Christmas eve when he was born. It isn’t in the Gospel account.  In fact in Matthew’s account of the Gospel, where we find the story of the Wisemen, we read that the Wisemen came after the birth of Jesus to the house where he was staying [Mt 2:1, 11].  Matthew doesn’t tell us where Jesus was born and Luke only sort of. Luke tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and shepherds came to visit him.  It is in Luke’s account we have reference to Jesus lying in a manger. The manger is mentioned three times [Lk 2: 7, 11, 16].  The manger is mentioned as it is the key signpost to where you will find Jesus. The Christ-child, the angels tell the shepherds, will be found in a manger. [Luke 2:12] The manger is the clue to finding Jesus, not the clue to where he was born.

Let’s think about what Luke is doing. He wants the reader to know some things about Jesus. Firstly like Matthew we learn Jesus is born in Bethlehem – the ancestral home of Joseph’s and Mary’s clan. Bethlehem is not where they live. So we read that the place were they stayed did not have enough room.  Now the word commonly translated as ‘inn’ can also be translated as lodging place or guest room.  If this is Joseph’s and Mary’s ancestral city they most likely would have stayed with family members. Now most houses would have had a guestroom that would have doubled up as a storeroom. The Greek word Luke uses is kataluma, which is the exact word Jesus uses in Luke 22: 11 when Jesus asks his disciples to ask the master of the house if he can use the ‘guest room’ – kataluma – for the Passover. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the Samaritan takes the man to an inn and the word used there is pandocheion the normal Greek word for inn/public house. I doubt whether Jesus parents went to an inn. They most likely stayed with a family member. Matthew has them staying in a house in Bethlehem [2:11].

So what we learn from this is that Joseph and Mary possibly where sharing the guestroom in a relative’s home and having no space for the baby they placed him in a manger. Baby Jesus is not deprived of anything. Clearly Mary and Joseph are prepared. They have swaddling clothes. We presume this manger was in a stable, but it may not have been. The manger has no significance other than it was the most practical place to put the child.  

Our problem, like our canine friends, is that we are so busy looking at the finger – in this case the manger – that we forget about what the finger is pointing at. How many times have you not heard about poor Jesus lying in the manger rejected by the innkeeper?  Or, poor Jesus, having a manger for his cradle. The assumption is that this is a sign of his family’s poverty. No, it is a sign of practical parents who are well prepared with their swaddling clothes.

Jesus was born to parents who were comfortable. They could afford to travel, had a donkey, and Jesus was brought up as a well educated young man trained in his earthly father’s profession and able to read. This is what we would call today a well to do middle class family. 

What Luke is doing with this story is pointing to something far more important. Luke puts Jesus in a political and religious context. The political context is that he is born in the reign of the first Caesar Augustus who formed the Roman Empire and instituted a full census for the first time. Secondly Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the city of great King David. Bethlehem is a special city to Jews. Luke wants us to understand, that Jesus is not just another child, but the Christ-child and Saviour of the world. Here lies the Lord of the Universe! 

Now this baby boy born in one of the far corners of Caesar Augustus’ vast empire would have been completely unknown those outside his family circle and those few ordinary people to whom it was revealed. The guestroom, the manger and the shepherds all point to Jesus beginning his earthly life amongst the ordinary people of this world.  

But within thirty years Jesus is executed by a Roman governor and to all intents and purposes is deleted from history.  If Augustus Caesar did not know Jesus and Pilate had forgotten about him, within a couple of Centuries the Roman Emperors that followed knew about him. They spent political energy trying to suppress the followers of Christ Jesus. Within three centuries an Emperor became a Christian and the Christian Church an official religion in Rome. Luke, without knowing all this, understands the divine and political significance of Jesus. That is the point of being born in the time of Caesar Augustus. Luke isn’t interested in a manger and a stable scene.

So when we see a card or sign with a manger, stable, a star and animals don’t stop there because they are just signs to what is really important.  The baby born is soon to be Christ the Lord and Saviour of the world.

Scholars don’t agree with Luke’s dating. It is imprecise, not false.  The events around the birth of Jesus would have been collected after the Crucifixion not before. Jesus’ significance was seen by a few at first. They would have followed him for the life and hope he was giving them. His personal history was not important. But what is clear is that the prophets of old pointed to God coming to rescue the people. Some prophets like Isaiah understood that God would send the Christ / Messiah to the world as a child. Others like Micah predicted that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem of the family of great king David [5:2]. God’s intentions are realised through humans. 

The formation of the Roman Empire gave the Church the peace and communication system to spread the Gospel. 

The Exile, five hundred years earlier, provided the structure of synagogues dotted around the Empire. 

Synagogues were the first centres for the Christians. 

An Emperor’s decision to take a census took Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem, and the astronomical events in the night skies pointed to a special child being born.  

All these are historical incidents.  Couple these with the personal faith of ordinary men and women, some learned and others very humble workmen in fields, and we have all the ingredients for the prophecies and revelations of God to be actualised. 

Down through history ordinary men and women have kept the faith and passed it on.  These are God’s heroes and angels.  That is why we are here. Now it is our turn to pass on the Goodnews about Christ Jesus – Lord of life and Saviour of the world. You never know one of our little children might rise to be a bright star in tomorrow’s Church. Hold the faith and pass it on.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  25/12/2018

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The Incarnation Reverses Traditional Roles 23-12-2018

The Incarnation Reverses Traditional Roles. [Advent 4 ~ Love] 

Micah 5: 2 – 5a; Luke 1: 26 – 38

A storyteller wrote about two young people who were very much in love.  Christmas Eve was coming and they wanted to give presents to one another. But they were very poor and had no money for presents. Then each one, without telling the other, decided to sell his or her most precious possession. The girl’s most precious possession was her long golden hair and she went to a hairdresser and had it cut off. She sold it to buy a lovely watch chain for her lover’s watch. He, meanwhile, had gone to a jeweller and sold his watch to buy two beautiful combs for his beloved’s hair. When they gave their gifts there were tears at first and then laughter. There was no hair for the combs and no watch for the watch chain. But there was something more precious and that was their self-sacrificing love for one another. [(Anon) Q&A pg.284]

A touching little story, no doubt fictitious, but profoundly true because those two kinds of love do occur amongst us. There is the love of deep affection for another and there is sacrificial love.  And they do come together. You may say love is always a giving of yourself. Yes, it is! But the giving of love is also an exchange for the getting of love.  But there is love that is sacrificially – given regardless of cost.

On this 4th Advent Sunday we light the ‘Love’ candle’. It signifies the love of God for this world. Now love is a over used word. We use it to describe our feelings towards others, towards things and many use it in expressions such as: love is blind, love my dog, make love, not for love or money, there’s no love lost between them and ‘love’, meaning zero in tennis.  Dictionaries define love as ‘a strong feeling of affection or sexual attraction, or a great interest or pleasure in something. For me, love is one of those slippery words. We slip it in here and there and each time it slides into a slightly different meaning. We have to rely on the grammar and context for meaning as in the expressions, ‘for love’ or ‘make love’.  

The Bible is full of love too.  There is a lot of sex in the Bible, but I wasn’t thinking of that. In fact the Bible does not provide us with a single word for the English noun ‘love’. Possibly the best way to understand ‘love’ in the Bible is to use the Greek words for love.  Greek has four words for love. There is erõs, which describes erotic love,  phileõ describes brotherly love, storgõ describes married love, and agapê describes self-sacrificing love. That is a useful set of distinctions for the meaning of love. Hebrew also uses different words, which we translate by this single word ‘love’.  The Hebrew word in the commandment to love our neighbour and the alien as ourselves in Leviticus 19:18 and 34 really means compassionate care. It’s not about liking or affection, but about caring and inclusive justice. Agapê is the more distinct Christian term for love.  Love is that act of the will to care selflessly for others and to want the best for them as we do for ourselves.

All this may help us understand that when we sing, “Love came down at Christmas”, we are singing about God’s self-giving love. God’s love is not so much about liking and affection, but all about caring and doing things that will make us better people.  

The Christmas story is a love story. A love story that begins in the beginning of time: in the Creation and the calling of Abraham and Sarah and kept alive through the prophets and the faithful. It is a love story about the persevering, persistent and faithful love of God towards humankind. 

The Christmas story is a story of wholesome love.  Sometimes we humans love badly and selfishly.  We love badly by smothering our loved ones which leaves them dependent on us, or we take love, leaving our loved ones disillusioned. God respectfully loves us treating us with dignity and building us up.

 The Christmas story is a story of restorative love. God wants to free us so as to be the people we are meant to be. 

The Christmas story is a story of rescuing love. God wants us to be saved from our destructive foolishness. 

The story of the nativity is found only in Matthew’s and Luke’s account of the Gospel.  Matthew tells the story of the birth of Jesus from a male point of view.  Luke focuses on the key women. Matthew has the men seemingly making the decisions, whereas Luke shows the women taking a leading role.  I believe that Luke, in compiling this account of the births of Jesus and John,  wanted to show what the Gospel of Christ is about.  An essential message of the Gospel is that all are welcomed and treated as equal before God. Gospel living reverses the hierarchical and male dominated structures of society; or at the very least, Gospel living reforms the structures of humanity. An example of this is the household code found in Ephesians where the men are required to selflessly love their wives, children and slaves. [5: 21- 6:9]

Let us see how Luke shows how God, through Mary and Elizabeth, demonstrates the reversal of society’s traditional male orientated structures. We will take a step-by-step account of this.

a) Firstly, the Angel approaches Mary. The angel enters Mary’s space. This is neither an uncommon experience in the Bible nor in our current human experience. I testify to a similar experience. God intruded on my prayers. A vision confronted me. It disturbed me. I thought I was suffering a bit of religious madness. It took time to resolve my call to ministry.

b) Mary is perplexed and receives a disturbing message. To fall pregnant without the help of your husband-to-be is alarming. Mary asks for clarification how this birth was to be and the angel dignified her with a response. She receives assurances that all is well. She has found favour with God. She is to bear a son and she is given his name, Jesus.  The assurance is based on this being God’s work. Gabriel tells Mary that her cousin, who was supposedly barren, is six months pregnant. This is not altogether surprising. These things have happened before. Hannah who was also seen to be barren gave birth to Samuel, the great prophet-priest.

c) Mary is given the honour of naming the child and so was Elizabeth [1:60]. Only after Elizabeth has named John does Zechariah get his voice back and he confirms the name, which is not a family name. Normally the first son would carry a family name and the father would name the child.

d) Mary gives a form of consent.  She says to the angel Gabriel; “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” [Lk 1:38] This is a significant statement. The notion of a servant woman giving assent to a superior being is unique. It would be acceptable for her to be told and for her to merely accept. But her statement is a form of consent. And here we see that the marginalised woman is treated by God as worthy of direct engagement and given the opportunity to accept this gracious responsibility God has put on her. We live in such a different time where women and men are equals – at least in law – and even children have rights. None of that applied then. Mary’s consent is a sign of God’s reversal of our unhelpful customs. In holding to some customs we conveniently avoid updating outdated customs. 

e) Mary goes to see Elizabeth. It appears she went on her own and independent of a man. This is another sign of the reversal of society’s norms.

f) Mary’s song of praise, which the Church has named ‘The Magnificat’, places her in the tradition of Moses’ sister, Miriam, who led the Exodus people in praise of God for his saving activity.

g) The Magnificat also celebrates the reversal of social norms to take place in the Kingdom of this Son, Jesus. 

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,  and sent the rich away empty.  [Lk 1: 52-53]

That is love, the powerful brought low and the lowly uplifted – the hungry filled and the rich emptied. 

h) This reversal seen in the birth narratives in Luke follows through to the 12 year-old Jesus in the Temple.  A boy entering manhood sits within the Temple not listening to the teachers, but engaging with the teachers and amazing them with his wisdom. So the boy becomes a teacher.

Luke has left us with a fresh insight into the nature and intent of the Almighty Creator God.  God will reveal himself by walking in our midst. God will come and love us by being vulnerable to our rejection.  God will love us by building a bridge between earth and heaven in this person Christ Jesus. This is how love looks.  It is not an emotion of affection; it is a demonstration of care for the well-being of humankind. It is a declaration that humanity has dignity before God and enjoys a partnership with God. 

William Blake penned these lines.

Love seeketh not itself to please,

nor for itself have any care,

but for another gives its ease,

and builds a heaven in hell’s despair.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  23/12/2018

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The Joy of Two Women 16-12-2018

The Joy of Two Women. 

[Advent 3 ~ Joy]

Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20; Luke 1: 39 – 56

There was a mediaeval king who regularly used the advice of a wise man. This sage was summoned to the king’s presence. The monarch asked him how to get rid of his anxiety and depression, and how he might be really happy, for he was sick in body and mind. The sage replied ‘There is but one cure for the king. Your majesty must sleep one night in the shirt of a happy man.’ 

Messengers were despatched throughout the kingdom to search for such a person. But everyone who was approached had some cause for misery, something that robbed them of true and complete happiness. At last they found a man – a poor beggar – who sat smiling by the roadside and, when they asked him if he was really happy and had no sorrows, he confessed that he was a truly happy man. Then they told him what they wanted. The king must sleep one night in the shirt of a happy person. They had been given a large sum of money to procure such a shirt.  Would he sell them his shirt that the king might wear it?  The beggar burst into uncontrollable laughter and replied, ‘I am sorry I cannot help the king. I haven’t a shirt on my back.’   [Quotes & Anecdotes, A Castle (1979) p. 150.]

Is it possible to have nothing and still have everything?

Happiness is the art of making a bouquet of those flowers that are within reach. (Bob Goddard; Q&A B3) There lies a great truth. Unhappiness, or rather discontent, lies in always wanting to make a bouquet with flowers you don’t have. 

We light the pink Joy candle on this third Sunday in Advent. Our texts speak of joy arising from the hope engendered by the good news of the Christ-child: hope that is based on the past actions of God’s faithfulness and God’s promise to establish peace.  God is the source of blessing. God’s blessing gives us joy. Hence Mary, Elizabeth, Zachariah, Simeon, Anne and the shepherds are joyous.

What is joy?  Firstly let us acknowledge that happiness and joy are closely related. Discussions on Christian spirituality over the past 100 years have led to a false distinction attributing joy to a Christian experience and happiness to any event. Such a distinction makes joy superior to the relative shallowness of happiness. I’m not convinced by this distinction.  I do see that we may use happiness to describe the feelings aroused by events and such happiness will fade with the fading of the memory of that event. I do understand that there is a way of making sense of life that leads to joy even when our lives don’t seem so great. But happiness and joy slide together. What is important is to recognise that both joy and happiness depend on the foundations of our life and how we see life.

I personally came to experience joy through faith in God. I think it works like this. The other evening I went up to my study area. It is on the first floor landing at the top of the staircase. High windows surround my study space. I have lots of light but I don’t see any houses. I only can see the sky.  That evening it had a mottled golden glow.  It was beautiful. I wanted to see more. I went outside into the driveway and from there I see the expanse of the mottled, golden hue sprawling across the evening sky. I felt joy arising within me. The beauty I saw reminded me of the Creator. I have often been struck with a quiet gentle joy when the rays of the sun gently kiss the clouds causing them to break into a bright smile.   The simple beauty of God’s creation in its many moods often fills me with joy.  We have a year-old Bougainvillea in our year old new home. It is filled with bright red flowers, which have dainty white centres. Each time I look at it the joy wells up. Kindnesses shared, a smile, a welcome, a good story brings joy to the fore.  Sometimes I laugh or smile or tears appear with the joy.  I see God everywhere even in the most ordinary of things. Indeed it is good to be alive in God’s world.  Yes, I have my sadnesses. Yes, the Church, the world and the rising ‘tribalism’ in our society fed by fear and prejudice each deeply sadden me, but in it all I know that this is God’s world.  That is why my joy remains. 

Frans Josef Haydn, the father of the symphony and the string quartet, said; When I think upon my God, my heart is so full of joy that the notes dance and leap from my pen; and since God has given me a cheerful heart, it will be pardoned me that I serve Him with a cheerful spirit. [Q&A B3, p.149] It appears that some of Haydn’s teachers found his happiness too much to take.

When I hear how God has blessed another I have a special joy.   Their growth in the faith and the fruits of that growth fill me with joy. No wonder our Bible readings are full of joy. 

Zephaniah writes [3:14]:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!

Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

Isaiah writes [12: 2-4]: 

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid,

for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 

 And you will say in that day:  Give thanks to the LORD,  call on his name;

make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.

I tend to use happiness to describe a feeling of pleasure as a result of an event, and joy as something that comes from within me, because deep down I believe in God and God has saved me, rescued me, given my life meaning, saved me from my wretched selfishness and given my life direction. Joy, for me, comes from the peace I have in the foundation of my being – God in Christ Jesus.

I therefore can understand Mary and Elizabeth’s meeting being a moment of great joy. Two women meet. Both are pregnant. Both have miraculous pregnancies.  Elizabeth, a barren woman we are told, is now pregnant with a special child.  Mary, a young unmarried woman, is mysteriously pregnant with God’s anointed.  Of course our text has been crafted. A lengthy encounter reduced to a few poetic pithy sentences, which carry so much meaning, does not detract from the truth of the text. Mary goes to see Elizabeth because she has heard of her pregnancy and imagines that Elizabeth would understand hers. Both women know that God’s blessing rests upon them in a special way.  They each see the blessing in the other. They recognise God’s handiwork. As a result they are together full of joy.  They recognise in the other God’s blessing. They are full of joy. There is great joy when you encounter another human who shares their God moment with you. You are one with them. You sense God is with you both.  This is the basis of true joy.  I firmly understand that the Magnificat – Mary’s song of praise to God – represents a great truth.

In Mary and Elizabeth’s time men dominated the scene, controlled the lives of their women, children and servants.  In the nativity stories this is changed.  The men are in the background.  We just know Joseph is there and supportive, but we are told anything more about him. Zechariah is struck dumb. Only after the birth of John when Elizabeth names the boy, John, does Zechariah speak. This female leadership is unexpected. In the nativity stories the women take centre stage. Yes they are pregnant, but it is more than this.  For instance, it is usually the male who names the child, but in each case Elizabeth and Mary name their child. Normally the angels of God approach the males. In this instance the women have been approached. The birth of the Lord of this world places women centre stage. Normally they would have played a secondary role. Is this the dawning of God’s liberating reversal of society?  Do these events around the birth of these two children herald the dawn of the new order in God’s kingdom?  I think so!

So much depends upon the lens through which you look at life. Our values and beliefs are essential to our perception of reality. Sadly if you see the glass half empty rather than half full then that will negatively colour our perception. 

For me the knowledge that this is God’s world, that this world is good to live in, that the persons I encounter are God’s creation, helps me to see ‘the glass half full’ so to speak.  My outlook on life is completely coloured by the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Even in my sadness I am joyful, because God has accepted me through Christ Jesus and he is in me.  So let us sing W C Dix’s song of joy, “As with gladness men of old did the guiding star behold, as with joy they hailed its light”, and let their joy be ours.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  16/12/2018

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Peace: Humanity’s Impossibility 09-12-2018

Peace: Humanity’s Impossibility. [Advent 1 ~ Hope]

Malachi 3: 1 – 4; Philippians 1: 3 – 11; Luke 1: 67 – 78

When we consider the amazing things humankind has achieved – successful heart and brain surgery; landing people on the moon; communicating instantly with anyone anywhere; a closer step to driverless cars; it is a wonder that we cannot make peace.  Peace-making is the one thing humankind seems totally unable to achieve. Or … is it that we are unwilling to achieve it? Is it because the price of peace requires a healthy dose of humility? I don’t know why, but we can’t do it!

On the second Sunday in Advent we light the peace candle. This is a world wide liturgical practice. Christmas and peace are synonymous in a way. Christmas carries a spirit of goodwill. It is a ‘good feel’ time. To Christians it is not surprising because the Christ-child, Jesus of Nazareth, is the Prince of Peace [Is 9:6].  Remember that amazing Christmas of 1914 in the trenches when soldiers from both sides spontaneously ceased fire, came out of the trenches and exchanged greetings. Not surprisingly commanding generals forbade such action in the future.

The theological hymn attributed to Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and the father of John the Baptist, beautifully proclaims a great truth about the very secret of peacemaking.  But let me pause here to say that I am not talking about the peace that comes from either the absence of conflict, or escapism that blocks out the conflict.  I am talking about the peace where people having been reconciled to each other; having learnt to live with differences and to build just communities. True peace means justice has taken place for all and people are reconciled.

Zechariah speaks for the first time at the naming service for his son, John.  Zechariah blesses God for his son’s birth and the promised birth of Mary’s child. He sees in these children God’s blessing on the nation. He speaks of ‘a mighty saviour’ about whom the prophets spoke who will rescue the people from their enemies.  He recalls God’s mercy to his people of old and God’s promise to care for them.  He sees in the birth of these two boys the action of God rescuing and forgiving the people. He sees that John the Baptist and Jesus, will ‘guide our feet into the way of peace’. [Lk 1: 68-79]

Zechariah was a man of deep faith and reflection. He had no access to world wide instant digital information. He only had his ordinary day-to-day experiences of home, temple and market place to inform him. He was close to his people. Jeremiah’s poem of praise expresses his knowledge and reflection on the history of his people: their longing for freedom from their enemies and the forgiveness of God. They longed to return to the time when they would rule themselves. They longed for God to act again.  They longed for peace.  

Zechariah says of his son John [Lk 1: 76-78];

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. …  the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who

sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” 

This passage of Scripture informs us that peace comes from God, of God’s forgiveness and that Christ will lead us into the pathway of peace. The prophet Isaiah also speaks of ‘the way of peace’ [59:8]. Peace is what we make with God’s help.  It’s not given; it’s something we work for with God. Humankind needs to walk down a certain pathway to establish peace. 

Nelson Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, 

you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

Pope Paul VI said more. “If we wish to have true peace, we must give it a soul. 

The soul of peace is love. It is love that gives life to peace, more than victory or defeat, more than self-interest or fear or weariness or need.  The soul of peace is love, 

which for us believers comes from the love of God and expresses itself in love for humankind.”

These texts reveal three important actions that establish peace.

Firstly, peace is a pathway we take.  Peace is a result of our willingness to work at it.  The only way to work at peace successfully is to work with God and others.  Many thinkers acknowledge that peace is the very thing that eludes humankind. Why? Well our default character of self-interest and independence always creates flaws in our human efforts.  Human nature seems to default to egotism and autonomy.  Altruism and community struggle to rise against the currents of self-interest and pride.

This is where we come to the second important action – Reconciliation. We need to be reconciled at every level: the personal, inter-personal and the spiritual.   We need to be reconciled to who we are, others about us and to God. Loving God and our neighbours only comes about when we are reconciled to God, self and others. Here is where forgiveness received and given is so important. Forgiveness received and given results in humble people. The humble will inherit the earth Jesus said [Mt 5: 5]. 

The third essential action is holiness. That is not a concept we often talk about. Holiness is right living and right behaviour that builds others up and honours God. The audit we need to do is ask whether our actions, words and thoughts honour God and others? All three of our texts pick up this same point of right living and right behaviour when they speak about justice and compassion.  These texts point to our responsibility to the poor and disenfranchised such as the widow, orphan, the homeless and refugee.  [See Luke 1: 75 & 77; Malachi 3: 5; Phil 3: 10,11] They point to honest practices and the need for us to be refined – purified – made righteous.

The book of Malachi might help us. It provides a lovely image of how God is refining us. 

The prophet Malachi speaks of God’s messenger who will come and prepare the people for the coming of the Lord to his temple. Then we are told the Lord will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver and purify the people [Mal 3:3]. We can’t offer God the service we need unless we have been prepared for that service.  The image of fire is used as the metaphor for this preparation and purification. Fire is a frightening image but when we understand the image we will see how gracious it is.

There is a story of a group of women who had been studying Malachi. They were puzzled when they read – 

“He (God’s anointed) will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” They wondered what it said about the character and nature of God who holds us over a fire to refine us.  It is a most threatening picture. One of the women offered to find out about the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible study. That week the woman called up a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn’t mention anything about the reason for her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver. As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that, in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest so as to burn away all the impurities. 

The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot – then she thought again about the verse, that He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver. She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left even for a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.

The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?”  He smiled at her and answered, “Oh, that’s the easy part — when I see my image reflected in it.” 

When God is refining us, God does not take his eyes off us until the image of God is reflected. Then we are ready for service. So when we are feeling the heat of life’s trials it may well be the moment when God’s image is most likely to be seen in us. 

Peace comes when love comes out of our soul, which has been lovingly refined and restored by our Maker. 

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  09/12/2018

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Mind full or Mindful 02-12-2018

Mind Full or Mindful. [Advent 1 ~ Hope]  

Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16; Luke 21: 25 – 36; 1 Thessalonians 3: 9 – 13

I sat in the chiropractic surgery the other day pondering the texts for this Sunday. The wall in front of me was filled with ‘inspirational’ quotes. Some amused me, some were banal, but this one caught my imagination, “Mind full or Mindful”. In a way Jesus was saying something about this when he said, ‘Be on guard! Don’t let yourselves become occupied with too much feasting and drinking and with the worries of this life, that Day may suddenly catch you like a trap.’ He was speaking about his Second Coming. Jesus was reminding his disciples to be watchful.

Clearly Jesus understood that we get our minds so full of things: the things we hope for, the things we want to do, the things that disturb us, the things we should be doing, the things that worry us and the things that distract us. It is a fact that our minds are full of stuff – distractions, dreams, diversions and disturbances.  Reflect a little on our lives and how full they are. That is not wrong in itself. There is blessing in having things to do. There is blessing in being able to contribute. But the workload can be a curse. We all need time to stop and reflect. Why on earth do we have on the very first page of Holy Scripture the notion that the Seventh Day is a Day of Rest?  That Day of Rest is not simply about worshipping God, it is being mindful of who and whose we are. It is the opportunity to set aside the mind fullness of life – the life full of things – and be mindful of God, self and others.  Is it not a model to apply to our lives? For every six things we do we should pause and reflect on the seventh.  Have you ever found yourself to be so busy that you have either missed something or made a bad decision? 

We talk about the wisdom of hindsight. It is so much easier to see what should have happened after the event.  But surely the point is that if we want to act wisely we need to stop and reflect. To put it another way, if you want wisdom you need to listen. Wisdom is not about filling one’s life with knowledge, it is about pausing to listen to life, what others say, and what the Spirit says to you. 

Mindfulness is almost a cottage industry now. People write books and run seminars on the subject.  They are good and useful. But friends, the Scripture is full of examples of mindfulness: of men and women who heard the call to greater things. The actors in the drama of the birth of Christ are examples of mindfulness. Scripture tells us that the Sabbath Rest is important. We have a rule about it. Sadly we think the rule is about controlling us and robbing us of independence. What fools we are! We think that psychology has something to offer us when so much truth lies in the Scriptures that we ignore. The Sabbath Rest is the time to pause and to look back to God and look forward to the future – mindful of the deeper things of life. 

Now I have used some of these ‘mindful’ programmes and read and practised ‘mindfulness’, but I am mindful in the first instance of what Scripture teaches us about prayer, meditation and worship. Our texts today are about being mindful of what is going on and how it all fits into God’s grand scheme. Mindfulness results in increased peacefulness, health and alertness.

Let’s start with Jeremiah.  This prophet lived in a period some 600 years before the birth of Jesus. He lived in a time where there was reason for despair. Their enemies surrounded the people of God and the city was under siege.   There was every reason to believe that God was either too weak to protect them or so angry with them that he was punishing them. All seemed lost. And to cap it all Jeremiah was imprisoned by the leaders of his city for prophesying that the city and temple would fall. He was right and the city did fall. But Jeremiah could also see the day when God would forgive and restore the people to their land, city and temple. He completes this section with the words; the Lord is our righteousness [33: 16]. What power lies in these words for they contain a great truth. When we become mindful of God we start to enjoy the strength, beauty and love of God. God is our righteousness.

Jesus said something similar. His words are apt for today. When we see strange weather patterns, people confused and frightened by the power of the seas and winds then the Son of Man will appear. I quote the Luke 21: 25.  There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” I am not going to pretend to know when Christ Jesus will return. And I am certainly not implying that the extreme weather conditions in Queensland and NSW this week, the dramatic melting of the north and south poles in the past few decades and the disastrous destabilization in nations around the world, resulting in millions of displaced and homeless people, are signs that the end is coming.  But I am saying that such times as these, are times for reflection, not simply action.  We need to empty our minds of prejudices, fears and the desire to keep things as they are and become mindful of what is happening and could happen.  Jesus’ charge to his disciples remains true for us today. ‘Be on guard!  Heed Jesus’ advice to ‘look, listen and reflect on what you see and hear’.  In short be mindful.  Avoid filling your minds with so much that there’s not time to be mindful.  Beware of being entrapped by the suddenness of disasters, for there are early warning signs [Lk 21: 35].

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church also helps us.  Paul, and his associates, like Timothy and the Thessalonians, were certainly mindful of each other. When in prison they prayed that the Thessalonians would keep the faith and grow in it. The Thessalonian church remembered to pray for Paul’s ministry and expressed a yearning to see him again [1 Thess 3:6ff].  In all the stress of persecution and imprisonment two things remain constant. All are mindful of each other and practised love. They were charged to keep practising the faith and to grow in holiness while they waited for the coming of Christ Jesus. 

The Christian life is a life of anticipation. It anticipates God’s future. It is a life of love and preparation. It is a life of devotion and goodness.  It is not a life of repetitive ritual and merely turning in circles.  It is a life of growth in love and holiness.

Hope is so important for us. There is a story of a leper colony in days gone by when medicine and our knowledge of leprosy was limited. The lepers were herded into a high walled compound and separated from family and society. They were lonely and abandoned men who could only prowl around their yard. Yet one of these men kept a gleam in his eye. He could smile, and if you offered him something, he could still say, thank you. The Sister in charge was keen to know the reason for this miracle. What kept him alive? She observed him. She noticed that each day he would go to a spot along the high wall and a face would appear. The face of small woman, full of smiles. Then the face would disappear. The man was always there to receive his smile. He would smile back. This was the food of his spirit. Then when the face would disappear he would turn to wait another twenty-four hours to begin afresh.

One day the Sister took them by surprise. He simply said, She is my wife. And after a pause he went on. Before I came here, she hid me and looked after me. A native doctor gave her an ointment for my face. She would cover my face but always left one spot for her lips. But it couldn’t last. They picked me up. She followed me here and when she comes to see me every day, I know that it is because of her that I can still go on living. [C Arcodia, Stories for Sharing 1991, p.75]

The Gospel reminds us of the people who were mindful of the times and of their hope in the coming of the Lord. Mary and Elizabeth, Zechariah and Simeon, Joseph, the Shepherds, and the Wisemen all longed for God to act. God’s past prophecies and the actions gave them hope for the future.  Hope fueled their faith and prepared them to see the Christ-child. ‘What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope for the meaning of life.’ [Emil Brunner] 

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  02/12/2018

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org